When I signed up for a sail on the Statsraad Lehmkuhl I wasn't sure if I would have the courage to go aloft. So there I was high above the deck, the rain was horizontal, the wind was blowing force 9 on the Beaufort scale, and I was perched on a wire while hanging over the yard arm.
To be honest, once out on the yard, it is quite pleasant. Your feet are somewhat securely planted on a wire, and there is another wire behind your back to which you are hooked. It is good that it is a secure spot for you have five or ten minutes to contemplate the scent. There is always a wait because the inexperienced crew takes a while to climb aloft.
The squall hit while we were climbing and continuously grew in strength. I started on the forre stumperaa (lower fore topsail yard) where I had a view of the bow. It was a grey scene, softened by the gusts of rain. The sea was bluish grey and churning. We were turned a bit into the wind to ease the strain on the sails so we were slowed to the point that from above we seemed to be hardly moving. All sense of forward motion was dominated by the wind and rain coming from the port side. One simply had a sense of swirling wind and rough seas with a bowsprit and foredeck splitting the scene.
When the yard was sufficiently manned we proceeded to bring in the sail. You first grabbed for the bottom edge of the sail which we had previously raised from below using lines. The sail edge was tucked between your stomach and the yard securing the edge and freeing both hands. Together we gathered the sail until the top edge was reached tucking the folds of the sail between you and the yard. The folds were then tucked into the top of the sail. At that point we waited until all were ready and then, on command, the whole package was swung up onto the yard.
The packed sail has a lot of momentum so it presents a major balance problem. Before this maneuvre, the sail was the primary handhold, and its destination was where you were pressed against the spar for balance. After heaving hard, pulling the sail upwards and toward you, you immediately lose all your balance points. All force vectors are backwards away from the spar---a bit disconcerting when balanced high above the deck.
Once the sail was secured, we moved to the fokkeraa (foresail yard), the lowest spar. Only three sails had been set on each mast, and the mersseil (upper topsail) above had been secured on the previous watch. The two uppermost sails are not rigged in the spring since there are not enough experienced hands to bring in the extra sails, if a squall should hit.
While I had found being on the yard to be a very pleasant, almost calm experience, the transition to the yard from the shrouds you climb was positively terrifying. You always climb the shrouds from the windward side so the wind will hold you against the rigging. Unfortunately, the yard will always be bent away from those shrouds you are climbing, giving you a big gap between them. On the windward side the gap is more than two arms length so you cannot hold onto the yard and the shrouds at the same time. One foot line is provided, but no hand holds. There are plenty of lines that one is tempted to grab, but they are all running rigging and cannot be guaranteed to be secured. All allowable hand and foot holds are painted white or black. When crossing to the merser\aa, the only hand purchase I found was a thick eyebolt that I could fit one finger in. For the fokk, I used the chain that secured the spar. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a good grip on a link of chain which is eight inches long and is made of metal over an inch in diameter. In the storm, it was also wet.
Did I mention hands? Gloves are not allowed. Experience has shown that cold bare hands work better than warm gloved ones. I found that my hands were working so hard that they didn't feel cold, or, at least, I didn't notice the cold.
The maneuvre to go from the shrouds to the spar goes something like this. You first extend your left foot onto the foot wire. You then reach as far as you can to the chain or eye bolt mentioned above. You are pretty secure in that position, but not for long. The next move requires a careful survey of available purchases on the spar. There is a foot line on the yard, but it terminates near you so it isn't much use from here. There is a hand line nearby, and that is helpful, but you cannot reach it without letting go of the shrouds. Now you pause and pray. The right foot joins the left on the transition foot wire, the right hand replaces the left, the left grabs for the hand wire or some other purchase on the spar, and across you go. An astute reader will notice one problem which is the eye bolt. The finger of the left hand must come completely out before the right can be inserted. Yes, it was "look ma, no hands" for an instant. The wind was actually your friend here because it was at your back and held you against the mast. With a force 9 gale at your back, a flat hand against the mast was a reasonable transitory hand hold.
Unfortunately, the fun wasn't over yet because now that you are clutching the spar and have securely planted at least one toe, you need to move out along the spar. Fortunately, you have a safety belt which you can now secure, if you can reach the safety line. Often, you have to move a few feet before you can reach the safety line. Of course, the carabinier is securely tucked away to be out of the way during climbing and must now be fished out. There is also quite a tangle of running rigging and other gear to maneuvre around. One time I got clipped onto the safety wire, but had to duck under it and twist around to get both of my feet on the foot wire while switching my safety wire from one side to the other. Since the safety wire is at waist height, it was an interesting move. The region of the spar near the mast also presents a problem when moving from one side of the mast to the other. The mast is pressed against part of the rigging, and you must unclip your safety line to cross. Usually, that involves climbing up on the spar.
As you can see, necessity was the mother of invention. You had to get there and somehow you figured out a way. It isn't possible for the experienced hands to pass on all their tricks because ones moves depend on ones reach, strength and courage. To further complicate things, you cannot take too long because only one person can pass at a time through that transition point and you need a lot of hands on the yardarm.
Going the other way from the spar to the shrouds is much easier because you are moving from cramped clutter with few hand and foot holds on the yard to the welcome regularity and abundance of hand and footholds provided by the shrouds and rat lines.
It was interesting how wrong I was about which parts of going aloft would be the most difficult and scariest. Working out on the yard on a rolling sea seamed like an frightening and nearly impossible task, but it turned out to be pleasant. The shrouds were a bit scary because you were on the "outside" of the ship and felt like you were over the water. I hadn't even considered the transition which I mentioned above. However, the biggest surprise was the maintop (and foretop), a platform halfway up the mast. Consider the diagram below,
| | \ | | \ Shrouds | | \ | | \ MAINTOP | | \ ========================================= | | \ / | | \ / | | \ / | M | \ / Futtock Shrouds | A | \ / | S | \ / | T | \ / | | \/ | | \ | | \ | | \ | | \ Shrouds | | \
The bottommost shrouds were connected to the mast where the maintop joined the mast. In order to get over or onto the maintop, lines were provided (futtock shrouds) that angled away from the mast up and out to the edge of the maintop. You must hang under your feet and hands, and work your way up under the maintop. You then need to reach up around the edge of the maintop to the next set of shrouds. You work your hands up (and inward) on the upper stays while your feet are still working upward and outward below. Reversing the process on the way down is no easier.
Why did I do it? It is hard to say. One factor was the confidence in the seamen I was working under. In my short time on the ship, the captain, boatswain, and my watch leaders had earned a lot of my respect. In addition, the seamen went first, leading the way.
The first time up was relatively easy. We were motoring in a calm fjord shortly after leaving the dock. Our watch officers explained the rules about what you can hold onto and then calmly said, lets go up. About half the watch went up, and I simply went with the crowd. Later they took some of us up over that tricky climb to the maintop. The tops further up the mast are easier since they are smaller.
The ship was originally designed as a training ship for the German Navy at the turn of the century, and it is still run in that mode. In fact, paying customers are called "trainees" and life on the ship is a very low key form of training. The trainees are divided into three watches: Blue is 8 - 12, Red is 12 - 4, and Green is 4 - 8. You have 4 hours on duty, and 8 hours off duty. I arrived early and got the Blue watch. During your watch you are to remain on deck the whole time, but some of the less enthusiastic passengers disappeared.
Ones time on watch is somewhat like a fireman's life. Ninety percent boredom and ten percent panic. Duties are assigned for each of the four one-hour periods in a watch. One duty is the buoy duty whose station is the stern. You watch for someone overboard and toss a ring and buoy---a token gesture in April on the North Sea. Bridge duty is pleasant on a rainy day because you get to be in the chart house with the officer in charge. You are a "gofor" for the officer, but otherwise have no duties. You do get to ring the bells keeping time for the watch. The helm is outside, and you will steer the ship under the supervision of a crewman. The helm has a hydraulic connection with little feedback so I found it difficult to control. The fire watch walks the whole ship, above and below deck, to sniff for smoldering fires. The real danger is young smokers who might hide and smoke carelessly. All smoking is to be on deck, but that can be unpleasant in inclement weather. The final watch is the foredeck. There is a bell on the bow to signal the helmsman: one ring for a boat to starboard, two for port, and three for head on. Such a watch shouldn't be necessary since the ship has radar, but an extra set of eyes is a useful redundant safety. In addition, fishing or geologic survey buoys are not visible on radar. The foredeck watch can be cold and wet.
The chart house is fully equipped. There is a regular radar, and a weather radar. There is both Loran and GPS. The GPS is interesting because it provides both position and your actual speed. The charts are out and we could check them when the officer wasn't marking our position. I regularly kept track of both the speed and position of the ship.
We boarded at a commercial dock at the end of a little fjord in the middle of nowhere south of Trondheim. A school group had just completed a week long trip to Shetland and Feroe Islands. The weather was cloudy and cool (low forties), which was how it was to be through the whole trip. The mountains along the fjord were still covered with snow, but waterfalls were running at capacity due to the melting snow. We motored out through a series of narrow fjords past the city of Kristiansund before reaching the sea. The fjords were spectacular beyond description. As the sun set, it dropped below the clouds lighting up the mountains deep in the fjord.
The air was nearly calm so we motored all night to make sufficient progress so we could do some sailing the next day even in a light breeze. After a substantial dinner, our watch went on deck for its 8 to 12 shift. It was a fine evening on deck. We toured the boat, and had the various duties explained. I put on every stitch of clothing I had (long underwear, snow pants, wool hat, etc.) so I was comfortable. At midnight we mustered and waited for the next watch to gather before we went below.
Once off our watch we had eight hours with no duties. Our locker for gear was a box under a bench below deck. There were two compartments for trainees below deck where we ate and slept. In the evening, we had to hang our hammock which was canvas with a thin mattress in it. Hooks for adjacent hammocks were at most two feet apart. The hammocks hung at chest height and to get in you grabbed two adjacent hooks in your fingers and swung your body in. It is not a maneuvre for someone who is overweight or short. Some found it easiest to put a mummy bag on before swinging into the hammock.
In the morning we had to clear out our gear and hammocks, eat breakfast, and be on deck for muster by ten minutes before eight. That gave us about seven and a half hours to hang hammocks, sleep, stow everything, eat breakfast, and be back on deck.
Our first morning watch was pleasant and partially sunny. We climbed the rigging and set the sails. Setting the sails is relatively easy. You simply get in position, undo the lines holding the sails, and on command push the sail off the top of the spar. In the light breeze it unfolded gently. The sails were set on the foremast first, and then the main mast. I had been snagged for KP duty so I missed the foremast, but managed to get in on the main mast. Once those were set, we set three staysails in the bow, and one staysail between each pair of masts. A later watch raised the mizzen.
The most fun was setting the mersseil. Once the sail was freed the spar had to be raised into position. That was done by forming a line of hands along the deck on each side of the deck. On command you grabbed the halliard, and started running forward. When you got as far as you could go, you released the line, ran back to the beginning, grabbed the line again, and ran pulling the line. The result was a continuous circle of people running and providing a continuous pull on the halliard. The spar with the sail underneath was raised quickly.
Trimming the yards was interesting. The three yards on each mast were offset to form sort of a corkscrew. The wind is moving slower closer to the deck so the upper sails are turned into the wind more. There are two advantages. One is a different angle to account for the different wind speed. The other advantage is that the smaller topsail will luff first since it is pointed the most into the wind. The helmsman can then watch the topsails and fall off a bit when on luffs. If all sails were trimmed the same, they might all begin to luff at the same time which makes the boat very difficult to control.
With all our sails set we were barely making 3.5 knots through the water with about 2.5 knots real progress. The Gulf Stream runs at about 1 knot here.
Unfortunately, we neither tacked the ship nor sailed in a fjord. With an inexperienced crew they will not sail the boat in a fjord since sails cannot be quickly handled. For this trip the wind was offshore so we simply sailed down the coast on one tack, and then motored into Bergen.
Tacking is interesting and I understand why they hesitate to do it with a completely inexperienced crew. There are over a dozen lines to be carefully laid out and then handled correctly in unison at the critical moment. Also, the jibs need to be pulled across the bow. According to the bosn who has years of experience on a variety of square riggers, the Statsraad Lehmkuhl tacks better than most. Apparently, squared rigged ship's are very easy to get in irons. In fact, the easiest maneuvre on a square rigger is to jibe. You simply work the sails around as you turn.
We went off duty at lunch time and after a healthy lunch I went on deck and took a nap. The breeze was still light, but the sun was mostly gone so I needed all my warm clothes on since I wasn't active. I spent a very pleasant afternoon napping and reading my book. The lazy motion of a slow moving sailing vessel is a wonderful, peaceful feeling.
Our watch after dinner was pleasant. The breeze had picked up a bit so we were making almost 5 knots through the water. The only events were the trimming of the sails and the lowering of the mizzen. The mizzen was giving us too much of a weather helm---I thought he said 18 degrees. For some reason I had three watches: buoy watch, fire watch, and foredeck watch. I was free for an hour between the first two, and a few of us enjoyed a splicing session with the bosn.
The bosn is an interesting fellow. He had the look of an old salt, and celebrated his fiftyith birthday on our cruise. There was a sparkle in his eye and usually a slight grin on his face. He had been bosn on the Danmark, the Danish Navy's training ship---also a square rigger. On that ship, the crew began by making the sails, and then they set out on a six-month cruise of the Altantic. After that, he worked supply ships for oil rigs in the North Sea. They would set sail in any weather, but would wait at sea near the rigs until the weather was sufficiently calm to dock at a rig. Of course, sufficiently calm on the North Sea is pretty rough. He had been on the Statsraad Lehmkuhl for a number of years and was very impressed with how it sailed. He said it was easy to control and easy to tack. It also handled seas well. He said that he had never seen "green sea" on deck. The bosn had an air of calm efficiency and an easy manner which was comforting when the squall hit.
The bosn's son was one of our Blue Watch leaders. He was a seaman who had volunteered many times on the ship, but this was his first paid position. He was clearly his father's son and had that easy confidence of his father. He also had his dad's eyes and smile. He was long and lean, he looked like his dad after too long in the dryer. He was very helpful and encouraging aloft. I also had some pleasant talks with him. He did his mandatory military service near Tromso where he was a Recon man. From what I know of that duty it is a tough one. I never got the spelling of his name, but it sounded like Aleyoe.
There were two other watch leaders for the Blue Watch, but one, the German, was seldom seen. "Useless" was the way Leif described him. Leif was a Connecticut Yankee and didn't mince words, at least when talking with me. His Norwegian was wonderful to listen to. Many words are the same in Norwegian and English, and he always selected such words whenever possible. Furthermore, he often tossed in English words as asides. Leif was a little guy with a reddish-blonde beard. He had little patience for those who didn't want to work, but was very helpful with those who wanted to try. He broke things down to a few simple concepts. As for the dangers of going aloft, there really weren't any, "you hang on" he said. What do you hang onto? "Whatever you can find that is painted white or black."
The only other crew member of note was the Captain. He was born a Canadian, became a US citizen for a while, and has just become a Norwegian. I asked him how he gained the experience to command a tall ship and he replied that he had sailed on nothing else. He was a young man, younger than me, and was unbelievably calm. He was motionless most of the time that I saw him, even when docking the ship. However, he was not afraid to take things in his own hands. On one watch, I watched him take a tour of the deck. At one point, he stopped and adjusted one of the sails himself. Adjusting the sheet of most of these sails is no mean feat by oneself. The most surprising moment was when I found him trolling off the stern. I later heard that he caught a big fish which I presume he had the cook prepare for his dinner.
Most of the crew were quite willing to talk and answer questions. The bosn taught us splicing, Aleyoe explained tacking and jibing, Leif showed us "the ropes," and the Chief Machinist explained the engines to me. Apparanently the original diesel was one of the earliest diesels and had an exposed crankshaft. He said that it should have gone into a museum when it was removed, but instead went to the scrap yard. The current engine was the ships third, a 1000 HP engine replacing an underpowered 400 HP motor. The current top speed was about 11 knots.
It was interesting to see who the other trainees would be on this trip. There were three watches of about 35 people each which means there were about 100 of us, capacity is about 150 people. There were two school groups, one high school group and another a college group. The college group was an alternative arts and music school. I never figured out the high school group. People in a group have different motivations for being there, and some clearly didn't really want to be there. The rest of the trainees were people like me who wanted an adventure. One that I talked with had been on the ship when he was a kid in 1965. In any case, when the rough weather hit, it was mostly those latter people aloft.
The group on board before us was from an alternative high school, and their principal stayed on board to help with the trainees. After talking with him, it sounded like an interesting school which developed character in the students. However, Leif said the principal was "useless" which, upon observation, was correct. In addition, Leif pointed out that the teachers with the previous group didn't really participate or set an example which didn't help. Also, the boys didn't want to go aloft. It was the girls who did the work. In Leif's words, the boys were "useless," strutting around the deck being cool.
There were three other Americans on board, a father and his two sons. both junior high age: Dave, Winston, and Marshall. Dave went to St. Olaf and was there when I was at Carleton. He studied Norwegian there and later lived in Bergen for 10 months so he could speak it quite well. He and the oldest boy, Winston, went aloft for every call on our watch. Winston didn't make it up for the squall which wasn't on our watch. He really didn't have storm gear so he was down below drying out. I was impressed with what he did do. A smaller person is at a disadvantage aloft because there are fewer handholds within reach. Marshall had a bit of sea sickness when our watch first learned to climb the rigging. Later, in the higher winds, it was not a good time to learn.
Our final day had the squall I mentioned earlier. The morning watch had a nice breeze, and we were making 9 knots in the water. That isn't bad with only six square sails set. The best any of the crew had seen was 14 knots which would have been quite a sail. We took in the mersseil to prepare for motoring to Bergen, leaving the lower sails for after lunch. The squall began during lunch and grew in intensity through the first part of the watch. Halfway through bringing in the sails one of the fore staysails tore near its peak. We had left two of the fore staysails up to keep way on while we took down the other sails, and it was one of those that blew out. That added a little extra excitement.
We didn't need to bring in the sails because of the wind. During a conversation with the captain the previous day he told me that the sails we had set could handle a full gale. Apparently, the ship could handle a lot of wind. The bosn told me that in a big blow, they would "set a couple of staysails and the stumps, and then tie the wheel down and go to sleep." If the wind was really strong, they might haul up one leech of the stump tight to the yard to form a triangle out of the square sail. In any case, we needed to bring the sails in so we could motor into Bergen. As it was, we arrived a few hours late.
Overall, it was an exciting adventure. If I wasn't going to have warm sunny weather, at least I was going to get some excitement. The only problem was that I was just getting comfortable with the routine when I had to go ashore. I had my sea legs so I stumbled around on shore for a few days.
Most of the pictures came from here
For a brief history of the ship check out this link.
Copyright 1994, Richard J. Enbody