Sheets to the Wind
The schooner barely bobbed from side to side as it stood quietly next to the dock in Boston Harbor. Even its creaks and groans were quiet. The rope that had blocked our way was dropped and we stepped aboard the Liberty Clipper Tall Ship. We were met with a warm smile and were guided to a set of stairs on the other side of the ship. An orange glow could be seen from the opening, where the stairs beckoned us further. The stairs were steep and the opening into the belly of the vessel was too thin for the backpacks on our backs. I had to take my backpack off, hand it to Chris, who had already made his way below, and then step down into the room.
The galley was warm and welcoming after the chill Boston air. Coffee and tea steamed on a table directly across from a long wooden table bolted to the floor. The Captain came over and shook our hands. His name was Chris and he said he would be at that table later with a game of Qwirkle, if we were interested. We didn’t know what that meant but before we could ask, we were whisked away by a crew member to our bunk.
Climbing out from the galley, we took three steps to the left and followed our guide down a ladder back into the vessel. There were three small bunks to our right and our room was sandwiched in the middle. It had its own sink and mirror and electrical outlets, two beds stacked on top of each other and about a foot of walking space between the beds and the wall. There was also a large, open vent above our sink that protruded through the upper deck. If we climbed up to the top, we could peek out and see what was happening on deck.
Working her hair back into a ponytail on top of her head, our guide made sure we were comfortable and then handed us a few towels before rushing off to greet the next guest. Extra blankets and wash cloths were already sitting on the bottom bunk and there was room for our bags under the bed. We changed into warmer clothes and opened the vent above the sink to free the air in the room that had grown stuffy. A toilet room and separate shower room were only a step or two from our door but one or the other always seemed to be occupied.
Most of the Clipper was open for exploration. The 125 foot ship held six guest cabins. The rest of the crew slept in rooms attached to the galley or other hidden places on the ship. The Clipper had been designed after the Baltimore Clippers, famous ships in the mid 1800s that were known for their speed and safety while carrying gold rush enthusiasts around Cape Horn to California. The steel ship we would be staying on was completed in 1983 and had been sailing ever since.
After getting to know our new quarters, we walked around the deck until the chill seeped through our clothes. Then, we headed for the dining room where we found the Captain, two other crew members and two guests playing with blocks stamped with different colored shapes. This must be the Qwirkle game the Captain had mentioned earlier. Never having played Qwirkle, we were excited to join in.
The object of Qwirkle was to be the Qwirkle Master by adding matching blocks to other blocks that had been placed earlier. The more rows and columns that you can add to, the more points you can earn. There were 108 blocks and seven of us. We started with hands of six blocks sporting various colors and shapes, and soon the table was covered in a dizzying road of yellow circles, green stars, orange squares and purple diamonds. None of the visitors had played the game before, but that didn’t stop the couple across the table from outscoring everyone. The captain and his first mate took turns popping popcorn and passing it around the table. Laughter, the clacking of wooden blocks on the table and a few sporadic curse words echoed around the room.
Three games later, we were full of popcorn and ready for a good night’s sleep. We all said goodnight and departed for our bunks. The ship rocked slowly from side to side, lulling us to sleep like a giant hammock swinging in a breeze. The only sound heard was the distant snoring of fellow guests and the waves sloshing on the side of the ship. Even though the mattresses didn’t offer much support, the day had been so full, we hardly noticed. The wool blankets were warm and welcome as the air grew colder through the night.
Our 6:30 alarm wasn’t the first thing to wake us up the next morning. Sounds from the crew and guests reminded us of where we had stayed for the night. Showers were running, toilets were flushing, luggage clanged against the walls and spoons knocked against bowls in the galley. We splashed water on our faces, brushed our teeth in the tiny ceramic sink and headed to the galley for breakfast. The room was packed with guests. Men, women and children grabbed bagels, toast, cereal and fruit and found a place to sit or stand. Some just grabbed an orange and went back to their bunk. Where were all these people last night? I swooped a cup of tea, a bagel slathered with cream cheese and a slice of watermelon and looked for a place to sit. The Captain, sitting at the wooden table, waved me over and told me to sit. As soon as I sat, he stood up and walked off, apologizing that he had Captain-things to do. I sat with several other guests and listened to their plans for the day. Chris joined me a few minutes later and we set about making sure our schedule was set. We would have to bring our bags across the harbor to the Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships office, leave them in their care and then hurry back before the Liberty Star, the Clipper’s sister ship, set sail. We finished our breakfast, packed our things, took one last look at our cozy bunk and set off.
As it turned out, we were the only passengers for our cruise around the harbor. One of the ladies who worked at the office accompanied us, since it would be one of the last sails the ship would have for the season before heading back down the coast to the Caribbean. With a small crew of three, we pushed off from the dock and headed out into Boston Harbor.
Sailing on the Liberty Star wasn’t all ocean breeze and billowing sails; we were encouraged to help haul the sails up to their proper place and assist the crew in easier sailing tasks. Pulling hard on the thick white rope attached to the main sail, I started to understand why sailors were thick skinned, both physically and emotionally. I had never been on such a large sail boat and to reach up and pull on the ropes with all my might was both strange, exciting and a little embarrassing. I felt as though my muscles were inadequate, my hands too soft, my knowledge too little to be of any real use. I wasn’t actually helping the crew, I was cutting new lines of experience into my palms and getting a tiny taste of what it would be like to be a modern day sailor.
One of our crew members, Cassie, was just one example of a modern day sailor. The first thing I noticed about her was her curly red hair floating around her head like a scorched halo. Tattoos decorated her strong arms and calves and her attitude seemed to match her colorful appearance. Meeting her for the first time, one wouldn’t think that she belonged on a tiny schooner and for the most part, she took her time moving around the deck; however, when the winds changed or quick action was needed, she streaked across the boat in a second, pulling on ropes, guiding the sails where they were needed most. She stepped lightly through piles of rope scattered around the deck and her feet seemed to know the ship as well as the inside of a shoe. Cassie was a seasonal crew member who lived in Boston. Other crew members stayed with the ships throughout the year, traveling to the Caribbean in the winter and back up along the east coast in the summer. Every crew member was experienced and seemed to enjoy the work.
The Liberty Star sailed past museums, distilleries, fish markets, cargo stations and more. The breeze turned into a strong wind that picked up the pillow cushions tethered to the benches. They pulled and tugged against their tethers until we wondered if they would break free. The air was crisp, setting off goosebumps on my skin, but I was too excited to let it distract me. With the help of the wind, we flew past monstrous cargo tankers. The crew struck up a silly conversation about naming one’s child after a cargo ship, “Would Alderamin or Azimech be a better name for a son?” Neither, I thought.
We sailed out to the end of the harbor and then slowly turned around and headed back in. Sea spray exploded around the ship and mist landed softly on our faces. The mist stung my palms, still sore from the single minute of rope pulling I completed at the beginning of the journey. I rubbed the sore spots, thinking about how good it felt to use my hands for something other than pressing keys on a laptop.
By the time the Star glided toward the dock, the sails had been folded up and the engine was doing most of the work. Surrounded by the masts and ropes of the Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships and the approaching buildings of Boston, it was hard not to think about how Boston used to be filled with tall ships. From whaling ships to navy ships to exploration vessels to massive cargo tankers, Boston has seen ships of all shapes and sizes and with all manners of propulsion. Now, most of the boats relied on engines instead of wind to push them forward.
We stepped off the Liberty Star and said goodbye to Cassie and the other crew members. With several tasks left for the day, we didn’t waste any time moving on. The next morning, we found ourselves back at the harbor and noticed an empty space on the dock where the Liberty Clipper and Star had been. The two ships had already set sail for a longer voyage down the East Coast and on to the Caribbean for a winter in paradise.