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Adventure: Sailing : Three Days Before the Mast : The tall ship Kaisei is a place to learn the ropes--and the sails and the helm

November 12, 1995|BARBARA RAY | Ray is a free-lance writer who recently moved back to Chicago from Guam

AGANA, Guam — I awoke to the creak of wood and the slap of water. The easy roll that had lulled me to sleep was now a jarring bounce. I could feel the bow rise high out of the water, pause, then smack the swelling waves. I clipped on my safety harness and headed for the deck.

It was our second night at sea. Ghostly whitecaps flashed through the blackness. The clouds raced over head. Water crashed onto the deck. My lips tasted salty from the spray. I hung onto a rail near the main mast and rode the deck like it was the Chicago El. Keep the knees bent, don't fight the lurches, move with it.

It had sounded intriguing: Spend three days learning to crew a tall-masted, square-rigged brigantine--the kind of ship that carried 19th-Century explorers. Join an international crew in an environment with no political or social boundaries; share the pleasures, hardships and camaraderie of life at sea.

Sail training, as it's called, began in Europe and America 20 years ago and has since spread the world over. Its goal is to teach sailing with none of today's push-button ease, calling instead on self-reliance. Late last year, when the tall-masted Kaisei, owned by the Sail Training Assn. of Japan, sailed into Guam, my home of the last few years, I got on board.

I was 33 and had never sailed a day in my life.

The Kaisei is no pleasure yacht. The 180-ton ship spans 151 feet, has two 100-foot masts, 15 sails and more than 100 lines. Only its navigation equipment and engine (for motoring into ports) is modern. The accommodations are Spartan but comfortable. There are six- and eight-berth quarters with hot showers, some cursory air-conditioning and bunk beds with just enough padding. Meals are plentiful and shared in a mess hall of benches bolted to the floor. Crew members must be 15 or older and willing to work hard. They must also get used to hunching over, knocking elbows and squeezing past.

To date, more than 3,000 trainees have enjoyed a glimpse of life at sea aboard the Kaisei. The ship's maiden voyage was in 1990 from Gdansk, Poland, where it was built. During a 16-month voyage to Japan, the Kaisei joined an international fleet of 300 vessels in New York for the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus' voyage. It arrived in Tokyo Bay in January, 1993.

Last year was the first time the Kaisei sailed Micronesia. After three days off the island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the Mariana Islands, the crew embarked on an eight-day trip to Palau, about 830 nautical miles to the southwest. A group of about 100 islands and islets in the West Pacific, the Republic of Palau is known for its deserted beaches and beautiful Rock Islands, popular with divers. From Palau, the Kaisei sailed to Okinawa--the scene of fierce American-Japanese fighting near the end of World War II--then returned to Japan. The Kaisei's home port in winter is Okinawa; the rest of the year, it's based in Fukuoka, Japan, near Nagasaki.

Each leg was considered a separate trip. Sailors could board from Japan or any points en route. For the voyage out of Guam, we had a crew of 10 experienced, salaried sailors plus 17 trainees (the Kaisei can host 32 trainees.) Four trainees had sailed from Japan and were already tanned, barefoot and exuberant. The newcomers were a mixed bunch, mostly Americans, split evenly between men and women. Some had come seeking adventure; some came to improve sailing skills. Some of us came for the challenge.

The crew quickly put us at ease. Though mainly Japanese, it included two Australians for English-speaking trainees. Aussie instructor Carol Jackson would become a lifeline for many of us. Through sickness and storms, mistakes and fears, she coaxed, cajoled and commiserated.

We were divided into three teams, which split the three eight-hour, round-the-clock shifts. The first part of our training was easy: Remember your team number and fall in line. While still docked, we got a quick rundown on the sails and their ropes. We learned the basic knots and the "heave-ho" needed to hoist the sails. There are no winches, and the sails are heavy. When they had to be trimmed or hoisted, it took all of us, grunting and groaning.

No sooner had we digested the ins and outs of ropes and sails than we were donning harnesses. I think the crew kept us pondering the difference between a topsail and a staysail so we wouldn't notice that we were about to climb a 100-foot mast.

*

But up we went. Jokingly, I asked Carol which would be better should we fall, a cannonball or dive. "Neither, unless you're planning to commit suicide," she said, with only a hint of a smile. This just before I came to the first balcony at around 40 feet. Since the balcony is a platform without any hole to squeeze through, I had to bend backward, grab blindly for the ladder rung above me and, defying gravity, hoist myself onto the small platform. I'd taken physics; this worried me.

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