Becoming Useful

“Running off to sea is probably something you haven’t done before, so I’m the guy to come to with questions.”

That was what the director of marine operations told the assembled Allegheny students at a meeting shortly before our three week long Experiential Learning aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara, a replica of the ship that fought at the battle of Lake Erie in 1813. Here I am, three weeks later, and I can say he was right. It was nothing like anything we had done before.

Standing lookout. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016
Standing lookout. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

My first day on the Niagara I woke up early. Around 6 a.m. Sleeping in a hammock takes some getting used to, so sleep was not easy to get for the first few days. I got dressed quietly, not easy on the berth deck where you must walk hunched over to avoid the low overhead.

When breakfast time came around, I followed the rest of the crew into the museum basement where the kitchen was. We spent our first week in Erie, so we ate all our meals at the Erie Maritime Museum where the ship has its home port.

Harbor furling the main topmast stay sail with members of starboard watch, 3rd division. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016
Harbor furling the main topmast stay sail with members of starboard watch, 3rd division. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

After breakfast we “mustered” on deck. I had my first role call. The chief mate of the boat stopped when he got to my name and introduced me to the ships company. I could feel everybody sizing me up. Could they tell I didn’t know a jib from a hole in the ground?

The first order of business was cleaning the ship. Every morning we scrubbed and disinfected every inch of the ship. I was assigned to starboard watch, third division with one other trainee, one able seaman, two Ordinary Seaman and three apprentices. We were given the job of scrubbing the deck.

Gasket coiling the line of a fender shortly after casting off for my final sail aboard the Niagara. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016
Gasket coiling the line of a fender shortly after casting off for my final sail aboard the Niagara. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

The day was a blur of hard work. We moved the two cutters from the basement of the museum and got them in the water and the crew began teaching us all the lines on the ship and the sails they interacted with. Later that day, I remember being turned over to the boatswain who took me to the rig shop where the ships rigging and sails are repaired and readied before being put on the ship. He handed me off to an ordinary seaman and told him “this is Joe, make him less useless.”

That was a bit of a gut check for me. At Allegheny I am the news editor, I’m the one teaching people how to do things. Suddenly, I had to accept that I was the one who didn’t know anything. It was not easy, but in the end, it made me to want to learn more so I would not be the useless one.

By the end of the three weeks, I had learned. I woke up only when the on duty crew woke me for my watch, I knew what lines were which and even when to pull on them. As I was leaving, I realized that I was not useless anymore. It felt good.

As I was leaving the ship the boatswain shook my hand and gave me the best compliment I could have ever hoped for.

“You worked your butt off.”