Getting Underway

My first week on board the U.S. Brig Niagara was a rough one. There is no way to sugar coat it.

As I have said before, running off to sail on an 1812 era warship is not something I had ever done before. I had never even been sailing before, so suddenly I was the idiot who didn’t know anything. I was a trainee.

Harbor furling the main topmast stay sail with Division 3's able seaman Andrew. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016
Harbor furling the main topmast stay sail with Division 3’s able seaman Andrew. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

The first week was a lot of shore work. We readied the ship for the season, we helped to mount the T’Gallant yards, launch the cutters, and load the ship. We worked from right after breakfast to lunch and then to dinner. My back hurt from bending over to coil lines and from crouching on the berth deck where no one can stand up perfectly straight.

There were other things too. Feeling stupid all the time is not fun. Sleep was almost non-existent and getting a hammock to hang straight so you don’t fall out is not always easy. I didn’t know anyone on board either which made me feel like I was alone. I thought I had made a big mistake, and all I could think about was that there was 3 weeks of this.

At the start of the second week, we got ready to get underway on our ten day voyage, stopping in Cleveland, Put in Bay and Toledo. From the second we left Erie, the trip got so much better.

Members of division three work to bring the spanker into the wind. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016
Members of division three work to bring the spanker into the wind. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

The crew and other trainees were more comfortable with each other and I started to make some friends on board. I had people to talk to again. We settled into the routine of the ship and I finally figured out why my hammock would not hang straight.

I also knew more of what I was doing now. I knew where lines were, I knew, in some situations, when to pull on what. My back had adjusted to crouching all the time and I was learning how cool it was to be on a sailing vessel underway. No engines, just the sound of the wind and slosh of the water.

Eating on the berth deck while underway.
Eating on the berth deck while underway.

I began the trip counting the days until I would be going home, but when the day actually came, I felt I was leaving something I should be hanging on to. I packed up my car, emptied my sea bag and folded my hammock for the last time and started to say my goodbyes.

What do you say to someone who you have literally slept and lived inches from for three weeks? Someone who you relied on to wake you up for your watch, and make sure the ship didn’t hit something in the middle of the night? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know so I compromised with “it was good sailing with you.” Talk about an understatement.

Evening jam session while underway. We also had a flute, violin, accordion, and a banjo on board.
Evening jam session while underway. We also had a flute, violin, accordion, and a banjo on board.

I finished my goodbyes and stood at the gangway or “brow” of the ship for a moment, watching as the crew continued to work, getting the ship in order after our final sail. The boatswain called for free hands to coil and hang lines and I ran my eyes over the pin rails looking for any coils that had not been hung yet.

Slowly, I made my way up the brow. When I reached the gate, I stopped and looked back. I could see my shipmates moving around, I could hear their voices, an occasional laugh and with sadness I realized I wasn’t a part of that any more.

I got in the car and drove away slowly. I only sped up when the masts of the brig were totally hidden by the buildings. Needless to say, I am going to miss it.