Thursday, January 20, 2005

Chris: Final days

At about 4:00 a.m., Friday, somewhere north of Naples, we were struck with a rain squall as a cold front passed through. For a short while torrents of rain flew sideways, obscuring the bow and flooded the decks. Water leaked through, frying our laptop computer as it awaited bloggers on the galley table. At the other end of the ship the rain found our video camera, roasting its screen. Even my K-Mart wrist watch, under my foul weather gear, died in the flood. Those in the ‘tween deck compartments had puddles in their bunks.

Nicole had the pre-dawn watch when the squall hit, and had to both furl the t’gallant and change course to keep us from going aback. But the wind backed into the north, ending our sailing and reminded us, yet again, that this was no Caribbean cruise. Around three in the afternoon we doused the sails, fired up the Caterpillars, and motored into the wind. Twenty-four hours later we anchored off Egmont Key, at the mouth of Tampa Bay. We had hoped for one last swim, but with the temperature approaching the 30s, everyone was content to huddle below.

I spent much of that day in my bunk, and not out of choice. For almost 24 hours, seasickness, congestion, or lack of sleep deprived me of the capacity to stand without staggering. As I lay there, unable to rise or sleep, I listened to the ship creak. All ships creak. Big sailing ships creak a lot, because their masts function as giant levers, causing huge beams to grind against each other. As the wind rose, the Bounty’s creaking was cacophonous, if not arthritic. But ships, like people, need to be loose at the joints in order to survive. The Bounty, despite her chronic lack of cash, is a survivor, driven by an ingenious crew, Home Depot parts, and an irrepressible sense of humor.

On Sunday morning the captain again ordered us to haul the anchor by hand. Intimations of mutiny could be heard from my crew. “We’ve done this already. We know how to do it. Why do we have to do it again, professor? Won’t you speak to the captain?”

But a ship is not a democracy, and I did not intervene. At 9:00 a.m. the students stripped to their shirts and started the haul, three inches of chain per turn around the capstan. At first they trudged, but as they warmed to the task they began to sing, and soon were dancing round and round over the winding cable beneath their feet. An hour later we passed under the Sunshine Bridge, which we saluted with a reverberating blast from our starboard cannon. Fortunately, the Homeland Security folks were not around.

Docking proved our final challenge. A ship the Bounty’s size requires four heavy lines numbered, sensibly enough, one through four from bow to stern. In each case a light heaving line with a lead ball on the end has to be thrown across to people on the dock, who then haul the big lines over. We approached the pier from the east, intending to send our number one line across first, but the strong north wind blew us sideways, and the heaving line with its Monkey’s Fist fell a few feet short. So we had to back our ship’s stern around the end of the dock and into the wind, until we were able to pass numbers 4,3, and 2 across. Then, by straining again these cables, we gradually warped the ship into its berth. Our self-effacing captain gave his orders from the mizzen shrouds, like Russell Crowe in Master and Commander. Needless-to-say, he was not happy with the glitch, but you don’t park a tall ship like a car.

Once the dock lines were secure and the garden hose passed over, everyone headed for the showers. There is nothing quite so satisfying as a hot shower when you haven’t had one for five days. Later that evening, a delegation marched off to the hot tubs of St. Pete, where I am sure they left a greasy ring. I stayed on board; such hedonistic pleasures are not customary in my New England.

Before fleeing to the hot tubs the students and crew joined 20 alumnae and family for a ‘tween decks reception. Then, in the setting sun, the students strapped on their harnesses and scrambled aloft, laying out along the main yard, for their class picture.
As each left the swaying foot ropes for the last time and stretched the scary distance to the relative security of the shrouds beneath the fighting top, she announced “laying off port” or “laying off starboard.” Announcing one’s departure is important, because whenever a sailor steps off a foot rope, the section further out drops several inches, which could kill another sailor, particularly if she has short legs, doesn’t have her belly on the yard, or at least one hand firmly on the jackstay. But the students had learned how to look out for each other, and each came safely home.
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posted by Chris

Chris: Escapism

I do not normally eavesdrop on student conversations, but sitting around the galley table late at night I learned something about what it is like to be young again. Not one of the Americans at that table was proud of her country. Indeed, each was deeply ashamed – so ashamed that several questioned the Canadians in the crew about the prospects of emigrating. I had not heard such conversations since I was in uniform, some 37 years ago.

Back then, disaffected liberals had enough faith in the promise of America to try to reclaim it, before dropping out. These students expressed no such faith. To them, American politic is little more than a kleptocracy – a feeding frenzy of special interests with no concern for the common good. Some had worked in Kerry’s campaign, but more out of fear of the alternative than any faith that the Democratic Party retains its moral compass. Hence the inclination to emigrate, drop out, or go to sea. One quoted her mother: “If Bush institutes the draft, we’re moving to Canada.” On the two occasions when I offered the students a New York Times a general revulsion arose from the table. They were trying to escape all that.

I spend much of my professional life criticizing the United States. I try to do so as a loving critic who wants it to live up to its heritage and its potential. But these students, at least in that fragment of a conversation, did not acknowledge America’s heritage or the promise of its institutions. They simply thought that life might be better somewhere else, and that they were entitled to an easier life than the one they already enjoy.

It is easy, I suppose, to become disaffected with the United States if one rarely studies its history, law, or politics, if one associates only with critics of the Left or super-Patriots of the Right, or if one thinks of history as just one damned thing after another. It is easy to be repelled by American politics or culture if one focuses only on the moment, or on the incoherence of our more transient locales. It is also possible for privileged students to feel politically impotent if they sense a lack of commitment for liberty, equality, or justice among their peers or their families, which seems to be the case among too many of my students today.

As I eavesdropped on that conversation, I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake taking this group to sea. What I should have done is create a course that would bring them into contact with the people who are trying hardest to redeem the promise of America. They are not the politicians, who largely reflect the interests of their donors and constituents. They are not political parties, which are amoral vote-getting machines. They are community activists, who often do extraordinary things with almost no resources at all. They don’t have the option of emigrating to Canada or running away to sea. Some ran away to America precisely to get to a country where some degree of justice still seems possible.

But this course was meant to accomplish other ends. As Elettra put it, sailing a tall ship requires a measure of courage, a quality not valued much in the ultra-protective colleges of the moment. Conquering a fear of heights, living outside the reach of emergency services, or surviving at sea, can do something for one’s sense of efficacy and prudence, and what the captain likes to call “common sense.” Deep sea sailing can also build character and commitment to one’s community, as Carly observed. I certainly hope so, and I think we observed those qualities in the ship’s crew, most of whom are mature and competent beyond their years.
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posted by Chris