The Next Page: Aboard the US Brig Niagara, armchair sailor no more
My childhood dreams of sailing in tall ships were pretty much unknown to my parents and friends. After all, tall ships were something from a time long, long ago and sailing on them seemed only a boy's fantasy. But above my bed were several small prints of sailing ships, and I once built a huge model of the clipper ship Cutty Sark. I did tell people from time to time that had I been born in the last century (which at that time meant the 19th century), I probably would have gone to sea.
Instead, I became a history teacher and spent most of my 35-year career in the eighth grade, where my curriculum included the golden age of exploration and sail. My students heard about ships and navigation and great voyages of discovery -- all from a teacher who had never set foot on a sailing ship. I was the quintessential armchair sailor.
When the movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" came out in 2003, I was mesmerized by the sailing scenes and portrayal of the mariner's life. When I learned that the movie was based on a series by Patrick O'Brian, I plunged in and read the set three times. (That included his unfinished 21st novel. He died while writing it, and his devotees demanded it be published anyway.)
I was well aware that our state had adopted the US Brig Niagara as its flagship. Based in Erie, the ship is only a two-hour drive from my Castle Shannon home. But I hadn't seen it. Twice over the years, I had visited her home at the Erie Maritime Museum, and each time, the ship was away sailing the Great Lakes. On my second visit, in 2009, I mentioned to a docent that it would be an incredible experience to sail on the Niagara. When he told me that all I had to do was sign up for a day-sail when the ship was at home, my heart skipped a beat.
Really? I had to sign up.
Unfortunately, every slot for that summer was filled, and I would have to wait an entire year to sail. The moment the summer 2010 schedule was posted online, I called to make reservations. (My sweet wife, Nancy, who for decades has been dragged from museums to battlefields to forts, was about to get a taste of 19th-century life on a tall ship.)
In Perry's footsteps
The Niagara is a reproduction of the original brig, built in 1813 to fight the British for control of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. A brig is a two-masted, square-rigged vessel. Today's brig is as authentic as could be built. Incorporated into the design were some timbers and other components of the original.
In September 1813, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry sailed a fleet of nine warships from Presque Isle to the western end of Lake Erie to challenge a British fleet being readied at Amherstburg, Ontario, near Detroit.
On Sept. 10, the two fleets met within site of Put-in-Bay, Ohio. The battle raged for three hours with Perry's flagship, the US Brig Lawrence, severely damaged by HMS Detroit and HMS Queen Charlotte. When the Lawrence could fight no more, Perry transferred his flag to the Niagara. For reasons still debated by historians, the Niagara's captain, Lt. Jesse Elliot, had hung back from the fight, leaving the vessel nearly unscathed.
Perry took the Niagara into the battle with a daring maneuver that split the British fleet's line of battle. Firing broadsides in two directions at once, he defeated the enemy in 15 minutes. "We have met the enemy, and they are ours -- two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop," Perry said in a famous letter to Gen. William Henry Harrison. This pivotal battle enabled Harrison to proceed with a land campaign in Ontario and gave America control of the upper four Great Lakes for the remainder of the war.
Much is known about the first brig because it was raised partially intact in 1913 to mark the battle's centennial. The reproduction was built in the 1980s to demonstrate life aboard a square-rigged vessel and keep alive this part of our history. While all necessary safety equipment can be found on board, the ship still is sailed as she would have been when Perry commanded her.
In battle, Perry had 155 men. Today, the crew is made up of about 16 professional sailors and about 20 volunteers and/or student trainees. Originally, the Niagara carried 20 guns -- a dozen and a half 32-pound carronades and a pair of 12-pound long guns (the weight refers to the size of the cannon ball, not the guns). Today, to save space and weight, only four carronades are carried. They are fired on every day-sail to help demonstrate the complex nature of fighting in Perry's age.
To the 'fighting top'
The night before we were to sail, I was so excited that I could hardly sleep. When the phone rang early that morning, the last thing I expected was the museum calling to say that the sail was canceled due to an illness that had decimated the professional crew.
The sail was rescheduled for a September day that dawned cool and wet with a bit of gusty wind. After we completed the necessary paperwork, the captain came to speak with us. Capt. Wesley Heerssen is every inch the sea captain you would hope to have commanding your ship. Ponytailed and bearded, wearing the rain gear that is standard for professional sailors, he exuded charm and command at the same time. As we boarded the ship and stood under an awning stretched fore and aft at mid ship, Capt. Heerssen gave us a safety talk and explained other essentials, such as how to flush the heads.
Nancy and I had toured the ship the previous day. This turned out to be a good idea; there isn't time during the day-sail for the crew to take tourists below and explain everything. Our docent the day before had been very knowledgeable and took his time showing us through the brig. The berth deck -- where the crew eats, sleeps and, when time permits, relaxes -- is only about 5 feet high in places. This is not a comfortable place for tall people. The day-sailors see the berth deck only when they use the heads or, if the weather is foul, when the meal is served below. Otherwise, they spend five hours on deck watching and/or participating in the sailing of this beautiful vessel.
With the sails set and the Niagara headed into Lake Erie from Presque Isle Bay, the crew took time to answer questions. That's when I discovered the next step in my journey. I asked one of the crew about his position on board, and he told me he was not a professional sailor but a volunteer.
What? How does one become a volunteer? His response nearly knocked me down on deck: Just show up for the winter training and help get the ship ready for the next year's sailing season. I couldn't believe my ears. I could actually learn to be a "Jack Tar" and be a part of this incredible experience?
I looked at Nancy and said, "I have to do this." She smiled and said, "Give it a try."
That November, I began traveling to Erie about one day every other week to volunteer and learn about the brig. The friendliness of the crew and other volunteers made my first day -- mistakes and all -- enjoyable. I completed numerous small jobs, such as scraping and painting, under the watchful eye of another volunteer. The number of things on the ship that must be scraped and painted defies calculation. With so many components exposed to the elements day and night, continual care is a must. Each winter, much of the ship's rigging, spars and deck equipment is brought indoors for maintenance.
Starting in January, sail training is held every other Saturday. It consists of learning knots, sail-handling, the history of the ship and, as the weather allows, climbing the rigging. The training is free and open to anyone. I waited impatiently for the "up and over" drill -- climbing the rigging to the "fighting top" and down the other side. The fighting top -- a platform at the top of the main and fore masts that can be used as a station for sharpshooters -- is about 60 feet off the deck. To get there requires climbing onto the bulwark of the ship and then going up the ratline, a kind of rope ladder that's part of the rigging.
200 YEARS AGO ...
To mark the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, numerous commemorations will be held along Lake Erie's shore this summer. On Labor Day weekend, as many as 10 tall ships will gather in Erie before sailing to Put-in-Bay for the Sept. 10 anniversary of the battle.
On the way up, crew members are not tied into the ship but must hold on carefully. At the top, we can clip harnesses to various parts of the ship to prevent a fall. Getting to that point the first time can be quite harrowing. The day of my first climb was sunny but bitterly cold and windy. Climbing with gloves is not safe, so I grabbed the freezing ropes barehanded. The first few feet were simple and not at all scary. Then, as my hands grew chilled from the wind and damp rigging, my grip felt less secure, and I began to lose confidence in my ability to climb all of the way. No one is required to climb and, in fact, Capt. Heerssen makes it abundantly clear that one should never climb unless totally confident. No one is judged for not going aloft. I did make it to the fighting top and felt a rush of exhilaration standing there and surveying the ship and dock from that lofty position. Descending was less difficult but still a challenge. That day, all 40 or so trainees were successful and cheered by the crew.
I was beginning to believe that I could really do this, that is, sail with the ship on summer voyages. Ports of call include cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Montreal. With those journeys and the day-sails that are offered whenever the Niagara is in Erie, the summer and fall mean nearly nonstop sailing for the professional crew. This is when the volunteers help out. Two concerns nagged me -- could I sleep in a hammock, and would I be seasick?
Surviving a Lake Erie crossing
To test the first of my two concerns, I signed up for about 12 day-sails in summer 2011. Because these were in groups of two or three each, I was given permission to sleep on board each time. My first night in the hammock was comfortable but chilly. Ship's hammocks are not slung like their backyard cousins. They are pulled taut and have very little sag. In fact, I was quite comfortable sleeping on my side. I noticed one shipmate, a young lady (accommodations are coed), sleeping on her stomach with her feet against the beam above. Once I got the knack for slinging my hammock, I was able to sleep quite soundly -- with earplugs. As many as 25 people sleep on the berth deck at one time, and many, including me, snore.
The next test came on a two-week sail in September. I hoped for the best. I came aboard early for muster and stowed my gear. My new friends and crewmates were coming aboard, too. We were all excited and more than a bit apprehensive. Had we gotten ourselves into more than we could handle? Most of the volunteers were retirees like me.
The weather was beautiful, but the forecast called for wind that might make the Lake Erie crossing a bit rocky. It was, but I survived with some queasiness. From that time on, all was fine. The ship passed through the Welland Canal, crossed Lake Ontario and entered the St. Lawrence Seaway, finally arriving in Montreal together with five other tall ships in a parade of sails. My two weeks flew by with too many first-time experiences to list or describe here. Suffice it to say that my journal is loaded with entries beginning with, "Today, for the first time, I ... ."
The summer of 2012 gave me my next chance for another terrific cruise. We sailed first to Detroit for a five-day Navy Week festival that included Navy and Coast Guard vessels. Next, we sailed to the site of the Battle of Lake Erie (marked by a permanent buoy) for the 199th anniversary and stayed there until the moment the battle ended.
We had on board about 15 Marines, who had volunteered to sail with us for a couple of days. To commemorate the victory, they climbed to the fighting top, which would have been their battle station as sharpshooters. It was moving to see those young men positioned there, as their predecessors had been 199 years before. Our final port of call was Buffalo, where we remained another four days before heading back to Erie. It was 15 days of nearly perfect weather and glorious sailing. The combined sailing experiences over the past two summers of day-sails and voyages were beginning to change me from a landlubber to a budding sailor with hopes and plans to sail even more in the future.
Some friends have wondered why, in retirement, I have taken on such an unusual adventure. I really can't explain it. It's difficult to describe the exhilaration of being a working member of this ship, of living aboard as the sailors did 200 years ago, of climbing the rigging and surveying the lakes from high above the deck, of being at the helm and steering the ordered course, of firing the guns or, of just standing on the deck and fulfilling a childhood dream.
First Published February 24, 2013 12:00 am