And we flew the pretty colours of the crossbones and the skull. (John Masefield).
Well, not quite. She was schooner rigged and rakish, but she was a fishing schooner, not a Tarry Buccaneer. The Bill of Rights is a replica of an 1850’s Gran Banks schooner that was built in 1971.
The Grand Banks schooners were built in the era of iron men and wooden ships. These sturdy vessels sailed from ports like Glouster, Massachusetts to the Grand Banks, off of Canada’s Nova Scotia. They were built to withstand the worst that the North Atlantic could throw at them, but they still needed a turn of speed.
They sailed to their fishing grounds with a deck load of dories, then put the dories into the water with a crew of two men each. The men rowed off and fished with baited lines for the cod that swarmed the Banks. When the dories were full, the men rowed back to the mother ship, unloaded and went out again until the schooner could hold no more.
Then came the need for speed. Each captain put the pedal to the metal to be the first back with his catch. The first one in got the best price.
There were epic schooner races in the Nineteenth Century between these stalwart fishermen. The return of the fleet was cause for major celebration in their home ports.
This is the legacy of the Bill of Rights. She is one hundred and thirty-seven feet long and her masts soar one hundred and ten feet into the blue Pacific sky. She was built in Maine as a private yacht, an exact replica of her 1850 predecessor. She was so accurate that she was built without an engine. A two hundred and ten Caterpillar diesel was added years later.
Unfortunately, her owners sold her during a bitter divorce. Her yacht interior was ripped out and she was refitted as a sail training vessel. The forward cabin was turned into a dormitory with sixteen berths. Her main saloon was repurposed as a class room.
She sailed the coast of Maine and New England for years as a sail training vessel, taking youngsters to sea to teach them the virtues of seamanship and marine biology. In 1998 she was sold to the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI) and sailed through the Panama Canal to the West Coast. She served for many years in LA as a sail training vessel, floating classroom and good will ambassador.
LAMI built two new barkentines (big sailing ships) and the Bill was considered surplus and leased to another organization, who shall remain nameless. This organization didn’t do well by her and she fell into disrepair. Finally, in 2013, she was put into the yard for repairs and the owners couldn’t pay the bill. They defaulted on their lease and LAMI came back into possession of the deteriorating ship.
A group of tall ship lovers in Chula Vista came to the rescue. They formed the South Bay Sailing Association, a non-profit organization, and purchased the ship from LAMI for the yard bill and took over the mortgage. After almost a year of volunteers working on her, she is back in sailing shape and once again fulfilling her mission out of the port of Chula Vista.
Dawn delivered me to the Bill of Rights on Monday night. She was such a cute mother hen. I had my bed roll, sea bag and, of course, my computer bag. I thought she was going to pin a note on my chest that read “My name is Penn. If lost please call (425) 877-3081.”
It was about 11 pm when I came aboard and the rest of the crew already had the lights out. We had been to the boat earlier in the day to make up my bunk, so I knew where I was sleeping.
I pulled out my trusty pocket flash light and made my way to my bunk. In a moment, I was undressed and snuggled down, surrounded by a cacaphone of snoring.
Muster was at five am. I rolled out of bed in the dark and turned on a light. The rest of the crew was stirring. In all, there were twelve hearty souls making the passage.
By six am, we had the boarding ladder hoisted aboard, the engine fired up and were ready to cast off. A couple of other volunteers came to help us depart. We dropped our moorings, backed out of the marina slip, and headed up the bay as the sun broke the horizon.
It is along, torturous trip up a narrow channel to get to the deep water of the North Bay. After we crossed under the Coronado Bridge, the water deepens and I felt more at ease. It took two and a half hours for us to make it to the mid-channel marker off of Point Loma and the open ocean.
I had never sailed on this ship before. I barely knew the captain. Yet, when the watch list was posted, I was listed as second mate. That meant I was in charge of the second watch. As Swannie, the bos’un, said, “The captain’s in charge of the ship, you’re in charge of the watch.” That meant I had to assign jobs, follow up to see that they were done and be the liaison between the captain and the crew.
I watched the first watch and learned fast. Remembering how Papa would do it, I took charge and assigned duties. Since I seemed to be in charge, the crew acceded to my wishes and everything went well. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing, but it all seemed to work out.
Once in the open ocean, we hoisted the sails. This was much different than raising the sails on the Victory or any other modern boat. It was all done by hand.
First we raised the stays’l, which the crew called “the jumbo.” No one knew why it was called that, it just was. Maybe it’s just because it’s a big sail. The jumbo, which is on a boom of its own, is the sail immediately in front of the foremast. The stays’l runs up the fore stay, or the heavy wire, that holds up the mast.
Now, I was taught that you raised the furthest aft sail first, then worked your way forward. We were raising a sail forward of the main mast first. Oh well, watch and learn . . .
“Heave,” the first mate called. The men on the halyard pulled on their line and the sail crawled up the stay. Then it got stuck.
“We need a cowboy,” Don (the first mate) bellowed. (Actually, he didn’t really bellow. He is very soft spoken, it just sounds better when I say “bellowed.”) Don looks the part of a first mate. He is tall and thin, with gray mutton chop side burns. He’d be perfectly at home on a Nineteenth Century windjammer. (Oops! I guess he is.)
Matt, one of the younger crew members (we were a geriatric boat, the average age being 63) donned his safety gear, hooked his lifeline to the whisker stays and climbed out on the boom to free the jammed sail. Standing with one foot on each stay (two inch thick wire ropes), astraddle the boom ten feet above the water and about twenty feet in front of the boat, Matt wrangled the sail free and it flew up the stay.
The crew on the sheets sheeted it in and I rigged the preventer. Not a fast operation, but it went well.
Raising the fores’l and main were no easy tasks either.
The Bill is a gaff rigged schooner. That means that there is a boom both above and below the sail. The gaff boom is a tree that has been cut to the proper dimension. We had to haul this tree to the top of the mast with a huge, heavy sail hanging below it. All without the benefit of winches.
The halyard is a heavy line that runs through a block on the deck. The “primary,” or lead man on the halyard, pulls the line down and the three or four men on the other side of the block take up the slack. As the gaff works its way up the mast, it becomes harder to haul in the halyard. More and more sail weight and, finally, the weight of the boom, is added to the equation.
The primary must grab the line and lean back with all of his body weight (that’s why they eventually made me primary, I have plenty of body weight.) yelling “Heave.” The line gives a foot or two and, as the primary bounces back up to a standing position, the rest of the halyardmen heave in the slack. In this manner, the gaff inches its way up the mast.
The mate stands behind the sail and watches the progress. Sometimes the peak (or outside end) of the gaff gets ahead of the throat or visa versa. At these times he yells “belay hauling the peak” and we stop heaving. When the throat has caught up, he yells for us to haul again.
It took about forty-five minutes to get the sails on her. Then we motor sailed northwest up the coast. Beating into the wind and current we only made about four or five knots. We were in no hurry. It’s about a twenty hour run up the coast. We didn’t want to arrive in LA’s harbor, San Pedro, in the dark.
My watch came on deck at 11am. I assigned jobs and made my way aft to the quarter deck to watch the boat sail. Each hour we changed bow watches so that they deck hands didn’t get too tired.
I have written before about how I hate night watches. It was better on the Bill because you had six other watch keepers up with you, but it still sucks. The boredom of the night was broken by conversation with my fellow sailors and rotating lookouts, etc, but it was still a long night.
We were called to the deck at 3 am for our second night watch. When I came on deck, we were off of Long Beach. Several oil rigs were lit up like Christmas trees. The shore was ablaze with lights.
We had to work our way into the channel in the dark. The channel is marked by buoys with red and green lights. The red is on our starboard, or right, side as we approach the harbor from the sea. The problem was, that it was all but impossible to make out the buoy lights against the bright city lights behind them.
We were also way ahead of schedule. We had struck the sails before dark, but motored along on slow speed. When my watch came on deck, the captain decided to slow the engine down to idle. We slugged along with just enough speed to maintain steerage way.
The hours passed slowly and there was an air of tension on deck. Other vessels appeared and disappeared in the dark. This is the busiest port on the West Coast, traffic was constant, even in the dark of night.
The night was warm. I put on jeans and a sweat shirt and wore my heavy coat, but I never zipped it up. This was a far cry from the cold night watches we had coming down the coast from Seattle in the Victory.
Finally, the sun crept over the horizon and we were free to enter the harbor.
In the light of day, we could see the buoys and light towers that eluded us in the dark. We motored into the harbor and followed the channel to the cruise ship terminal, where we would be docking.
At this point, I’m going to put in a disclaimer. The Tall Ship Festival was not well organized. I’m not going to complain or blame anyone, it just didn’t come off as promised.
That being said, when we got to the dock, the promised berth was not ready for us. There were supposed to be people on the dock waiting to receive our lines. There weren’t.
We put two men ashore with the dinghy and tied to a barge that was attached to the dock. A “small” schooner (she was eighty-five feet long) rafted up to us and we invited their crew to breakfast.
After breakfast, I headed to the forward cabin for another nap only to be awakened a couple of hours later with the call “All idle hands to unmoor ship.”
It was time for the Tall Ships parade. What a gas!
We dropped our mooring lines and headed back out to sea. Outside the break water, we waited around as fourteen other tall ships gathered and sorted themselves into parade order. We were ship number five.
What a sight to see. A flotilla of tall ships dodging and weaving in and out, sails raised, putting themselves in line. Then we proceeded into the harbor and sailed through the port to a big bridge that marked the end of the parade route.
In the turning basin under the bridge, we doused the sails and prepared to moor the ship. The only problem was that the schooner American Pride got to our berth before us. After a couple of cell phone conversations, it was decided that we would raft up with the slightly larger schooner.
The festivals disorganization impacted us. We were supposed to take two loads of passengers a day sailing. We never left the dock. We were supposed to allow the public to board the ship and do tours but the festival couldn’t arrange gang planks that met Coast Guard approval.
We got to LA on Tuesday. On Friday they finally got a berth for us where we could put our boarding steps on a barge to allow passengers to board.
Since we weren’t taking the boat out all week they didn’t need me to help handle the ship. I had a sale on my house pending and we couldn’t get an Internet connection on the dock, I decided to go home.
I called Dawn and asked her to drive to LA to pick me up. She dropped everything and drove the two hour drive in four hours. Traffic was horrible and we didn’t know how to get her from the freeway to the docks. Finally she persevered and made it to the harbor.
Bob and Glen bummed a ride home with us. Dawn picked us all up on Harbor Boulevard. It was a long walk from the docks to the street carrying my heavy sea bag and computer bag. I was wiped out.
I hadn’t had a shower since I left Chula Vista. The showers were a two mile walk down the road and I can’t walk with my bum knee. There was supposed to be a trolley, but when I went out and waited at the stop, it never came.
After a shower on board the Victory, we drove up to Point Loma to pick Odin up from our friend Tina’s house. We stopped at an Outback Steak House along the way for dinner, then headed home for a blissful night’s sleep in my own cozy bunk.
Would I do it again? You betch! As a matter of fact, I’m helping take the boat up to San Diego this week for San Diego’s Festival of Sail. Then they have another gig in Dana Point in September. I may sign on for that too.