Swashbuckling volunteers keep the wind in tall ships’ sails

When the tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain sailed into Commencement Bay in August, the billowing sails and tall masts that supported them captured the attention and imagination of those who visited the ships as they were tied up at the Foss Waterway Seaport.

While the ships own their history, the stories belong to those who have sailed them.

On deck, young women and men, and a few older ones, too, guided visitors on a tour of their temporary home at sea. Outfitted in baggy pants of tan cotton and wide-brimmed straw hats, crew members put in long hours while in port or at sea. As they point out, there’s always something that needs to be done on a ship like this.

However, this crew of salty sea dogs were not forced aboard at the point of a cutlass, but rather as professional paid sailors and unpaid volunteers – some even spent their own money for the chance to scrub the decks and climb the rigging to unfurl the sails for a couple of weeks.

The Hawaiian Chieftain's youngest crewman, Simone Holmes, 17, of Portland, greets visitors to the square-rigged ship on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, on the Foss Waterway in Tacoma. Credit: David Guest / TDI

The Hawaiian Chieftain’s youngest crewman, Simone Holmes, 17, of Portland, greets visitors to the square-rigged ship on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, on the Foss Waterway in Tacoma. Credit: David Guest / TDI

Bob Fleischmann, 69, a retired power utility worker from Woodland, Wash., set aside two weeks to serve as a deck hand on the Lady Washington (skippered by master Michael Kellick), joining the crew in Port Townsend before setting sail to Tacoma. For Fleischmann, this was his second time aboard – the first time was as a fee-paying trainee a year ago – and now as an unpaid volunteer.

“People would ask me before the first trip – ‘why would you do this?’” Fleischmann said.
“I said, ‘well, every 10 year-old-boy loves dinosaurs and pirates.’ This last summer, I said that to my niece’s youngest (child). And he said, ‘well I’m 10!’ And I said, ‘yeah, so am I!’”

“It keeps you young,” he said.

Fleischmann, who grew up in Tacoma, discovered the tall ships two years ago when he toured them while they were on the Columbia River. He served on a submarine while in the Navy and jumped at the chance to serve on a crew again.

A full-scale replica of the American Revolution-era tall ship, the Lady Washington was built in Aberdeen by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, and launched in 1989. With a deck length of 67 feet, and a beam (width) of 22 feet, the Lady Washington isn’t as big as she appears in photos or on the screen, but most on her crew of 12 don’t complain about cramped space below deck. The view of the sea and sky through a spiderweb of rigging lines when up on deck is enough to cure whatever claustrophobia that may arise.

She’s been as far north as Juneau, Alaska and south to the Panama Canal, where she transited to the Caribbean to guest-star in the 2003 Johnny Depp film, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” But for the most part, the Lady Washington spends her time at various ports in Washington, British Columbia, Oregon and California.

In 2005, the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority purchased the Hawaiian Chieftain, a slightly smaller steel-hulled ship, to provide the Lady Washington a sailing partner. The Hawaiian Chieftain, which was built in 1988 on Maui, Hawaii, provides the same opportunity as the Lady Chieftain for new sailors or veteran swabbies.

The two weeks “before the mast” program costs participants $650 (a better deal than most summer camps, and way cheaper than your average vacation). Meals, a cozy bunk and a uniform that will remind you more of Tom Sawyer than Captain Hook are included. As a bonus, you’ll accumulate 14 days out of the 360 days of sea time needed to gain your Coast Guard Captain’s license. After serving as a trainee, those who wish to may board the ships again as unpaid volunteers. No pay (and no fee), but the bunk, food, funny clothes and more time learning at sea with a diverse group of crew mates is way better than a few pieces of eight. A few eventually find their way to one of the paid professional crew positions.

For Willow Rose Karow-Digangi, a 21-year-old from Grass Valley, Calif., the thrill of doing something different led her to the Lady Washington. A two-week trainee, Karow-Digangi had only been on the ship for three days, beginning her tour of duty while the ship was tied up in Tacoma.

Willow Rose Karow-Digangi traveled by train from Gross Valley, Calif. to Tacoma to board the Lady Washington as a fee-paid trainee. Her two weeks on the tall ship would be her first time on a boat of any kind since before she could walk.  Credit: David Guest / TDI

Willow Rose Karow-Digangi traveled by train from Gross Valley, Calif. to Tacoma to board the Lady Washington as a fee-paid trainee. Her two weeks on the tall ship would be her first time on a boat of any kind since before she could walk. Credit: David Guest / TDI

“I needed an adventure. I needed to go do something. I needed to travel,” Karow-Digangi said while manning her post at the top of the gangway. “I was looking on the internet (while still in high school), surfing around, looking at the world. I came across the Lady Washington and the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority. It was super cool,” she said. “I was like, ‘wait, how do you get on the boat?’”

Karow-Digangi was so enamored with the idea of sailing on the tall ship that she put aside the fact that she had never really even been on a boat before. “I was on a boat – I think it was a boat – once. But I was one. One year old,” she recalled, no doubt relying on a story told to her rather than her own memory.

Crew members must be 16 years old and must complete the $650 two week program before being able to volunteer for subsequent trips. Once the sail trainees get a taste of the salty sea air, and a view from aloft, the draw of the ship pulls them back. An estimated 1,000 would-be sailors have participated in
“before the mast” and the subsequent volunteer program since 1989. The high rate of returnees to the ships is a testament to the romance and allure of the sea.

Three days on the boat and Karow-Digangi didn’t hesitate to offer an opinion about whether she’d want to do it again. “Oh, I’ve already decided. I want to,” she said through a smile that paralleled the horizon.

Chief mate Koriander Pepper has been taking volunteer and paid positions with the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport for six and a half years. Second in command to the captain on this sailing, Pepper, from Gig Harbor, assumed the role of ship’s cook when the Lady Washington’s cook had to take leave due to injury (“the chief mate has to do whatever job has to be done”).

“I used to be in retail banking,” Pepper said, finishing up work in the galley. “Power suits, high heels, other people’s money – I left and never went back.”

On the Hawaiian Chieftain (with master of the boat Jas Malidore), Simone Holmes of Portland recited historical facts about the ship to visitors as they climbed aboard. The youngest crew member on this voyage at age 17, Holmes took advantage of the last weeks of summer before high school started up again to learn to sail in a big way. For her, time aborad the Chieftain was a more unique version of summer camp.

“It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding,” Holmes said. “There’s definitely a lot to learn, but the fun comes with the learning. The fun part is learning how everything works and doing all the work and getting your hands on the lines.”

And they are “lines,” not “ropes,” as even the newly christened crewmen are quick to clarify.

When the sails are set and the motors are turned off, the quiet and the serenity gained as the wind pushes the ship through the water is said to be the second-best part of the experience.

But almost to a sailor, what is the very best part of being on the ship?

“Definitely going aloft,” Holmes beamed, pointing through the array of lines running up the mast to the crows nest high above. “It’s my favorite part.”

On the web:

www.historicalseaport.org

www.fosswaterwayseaport.org

Bob Fleischmann takes part in his second sailing on the Lady Washington, this time as an unpaid volunteer. Credit: David Guest / TDI

Bob Fleischmann takes part in his second sailing on the Lady Washington, this time as an unpaid volunteer. Credit: David Guest / TDI