At the Helm

At the helm of schooner Suva on a sunny day

I had a fabulous time on the schooner Suva last year. It was the first time I had the chance to sail on a ship that size. Even though the schooner was only 65 feet long, it can sleep nine to ten adults for overnight sails. The Suva is similar to ships Captain William A. Richardson sailed on San Francisco Bay during the 1800s, although it was constructed during the Roaring Twenties era and shipped in 1925 from Hong Kong to Puget Sound. It is now a flagship of the Coupeville Maritime Heritage Foundation.

While on board, passengers can explore below deck to see the wheel house, galley, main salon, and the front cabin. You can also have a turn at the helm—with the captain standing close by. A volunteer crew of men and women, people who love the sea and sailing, cruise along with each sailing, to raise sails and educate visitors about the ship and sailing her. Under clear skies and a good wind, I had a wonderful afternoon out on the water.

Could sailing ships replace fuel-powered container ships?

Sailing ships are back! Sure, many people have boats with sail, but now larger sailing ships are carrying cargo. Small cargo sailing ships can carry only about nine shipping containers whereas the largest container ships carry up to 20,000. A sailing ship is also slower than a fossil-fuel powered ship. However, the advantage of sail is it’s environmentally friendly. Modern shipping produces almost 3% of the world’s carbon-dioxide pollution. 

Besides the wind power, sailing ships use the natural ocean currents to propel them across the oceans. The Tres Freres is one small cargo ship with canvas sails already moving goods around the world by wind and sea power. Sailcargo is a Costa Rican company now building a fossil fuel-free sailing ship which will carry coffee, cacao, organic cotton, and turmeric to Canada, and will transport electric bicycles, barley, and hops on its return journey. Larger ships are in the planning stages with unusual sails. Columns of rotor sails pivot to catch the wind and propel the ship forward. Because wind and sea currents can be fickle, these ships might also have engines. Some sailing ships will use solar power too. About 40 companies in countries around the world are developing wind-powered or wind-assisted ships. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see more sustainable sailing ships on the ocean someday soon?

What is a “sea shanty”?

I recently heard the late night TV host Stephen Colbert say that 2021 is the year of the sea shanty. These jaunty work songs are suddenly popular on TikTok and other social media. During the age of the sailing ship, sailors sang a shanty such as “The Drunken Sailor” in unison while they were aloft reefing (rolling up) sails or hauling up the anchor:

“Way, hay, and up she rises,

Way, hay, and up she rises,

Way, hay, and up she rises,

Early in the morning.”

Naturally I included sea shanties to Captain William Richardson’s story. From his life in the British merchant marine and on whalers, he’d collected a repertoire of songs. He possessed a marvelous voice and loved to entertain dinner guests with spirited sea shanties. His audience joined him on the chorus, stamping their feet and clapping in time to the lively tune. In one dinner scene, I describe him with a glass of aguardiente in one hand and his arm around his wife, as he sang this folk song:

“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year,

And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer,

But now I’m returning with gold in great store,

And I never will play the wild rover no more.

And it’s No, Nay, Never

No, Never no more

Will I play the wild rover, 

No, Never, No more….”

Why sea shanties are suddenly popular again is a mystery. Perhaps because we are all in this Covid-19 crisis together and the cheery tunes help to alleviate the monotony of quarantine just like the monotony sailors dealt with, toiling at sea and confined to a small ship.

What are your reflections on the year 2020?

Now that I’m entering my second year with my blog, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the good and the bad from 2020. Most people will condemn the Plague Year as the worst ever. But I remembered the introductory sentence in Charles Dickens’ story The Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I certainly harbor negative memories about much of the past year and sympathize with medical staff, first responders, and those who contracted Covid-19. Many people also suffered through wildfires, hurricanes, and protests that turned violent. Because of where I live, I was not as confined as those in tiny apartments or living alone and feel fortunate that we dealt only with smoke and not the fires. As many others did, I agonized over not being with family and friends and missed traveling. But I can also look back at my achievements this year.

One of the best things was achieving my goal of starting this blog. In tandem with that writing, I finished the first draft of my novel because I had nowhere to go. I read that William Shakespeare might have been confined to quarters when the bubonic plague swept through London in 1606, and so he wrote a play, his tragedy King Lear. Obviously, confinement can lead to achievements. I followed author Anne Lamott’s advice also—in order to write you must sit in a chair in front of your open computer or blank yellow pad. After finishing my first draft, several good friends agreed to be the first readers of my novel, which I count as an accomplishment, and I’m truly thankful for their feedback and encouragement.

On the tech side, learning to use Zoom kept my brain from turning to mush. And my new skill in setting up Zoom meetings helped my book club by maintaining our collective sanity in kind of group therapy sessions as well as getting us together to discuss several wonderful books.

Besides writing, I finally managed to read many of the good books I collected over the past few years and stacked in piles around the house. These were my favorites:

  • Bill Bryson’s The Body: a Guide for Occupants–amazing details about the body told in his breezy style with funny, quirky quips. I learned so much about the human body as well as more about the history of medicine.
  • The Dutch House by Anne Patchett–a wonderful writer with deep insights into people, their motivations, and their failings
  • The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy — this book told me much I did not know about sailing in the 1800s and helped me really understand the camaraderie and fears of sailors confined on a small ship on the sea
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama —what a great read! This book told me so much more about her and her life in the White House.
  • Educated by Tara Westover—I was frightened, amazed, and thrilled for her as she took me through her memories of her life growing up.

I hope you can look back at your year to recall wonderful things that happened. Cheers to you and 2021 — make it a fabulous year for you. As for me, I plan to continue my work on my novel about Captain William A. Richardson and look forward to publishing it.