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Living out a fantasy on an old-fashioned vessel, whether it's a short haul or a journey that takes would-be sailors halfway around the world

September 01, 2002|ROSS ANDERSON

OFF THE COAST OF WASHINGTON — My hands gripped the varnished helm as I steered by the stars, halfway through a midnight watch. My heading was north by northwest, keeping the Big Dipper fixed in the rigging of the tall ship Lady Washington.

The Pacific was calm except for the long ocean swells that tugged at the rudder. A full moon illuminated the southern sky, glittering off our wake. Above me, a loose line flapped against the mainmast--not the tinny clank of steel on aluminum, but the hearty thunk-thunk of hemp on wood.

For people like me, who have voyaged through the pages of Joseph Conrad and Patrick O'Brian, this is the stuff of dreams. Many a salty fantasy will be fired up from Friday until Sept. 10 when a fleet of 14 tall ships parades into Los Angeles Harbor for a celebration of sail. Visitors are welcome, and armchair sailors can line up for a chance to explore one or more of these classic sailing ships. Some will cough up $50 for a 2 1/2-hour cruise. And some of them will sign up for a chance to live their fantasies on a longer voyage.

This visit represents the largest Southern California assembly of traditional tall ships in years, dramatizing a remarkable maritime comeback. A generation ago, only a few vessels from the Age of Sail could be found, the rest having rotted on their mooring lines as steam-and diesel-engine ships replaced them.

But a worldwide fleet is growing steadily. Some ships were restored, and many more have been built new, reviving centuries-old shipwrights' skills. Why the renaissance? Many of the larger vessels, such as the 262-foot Ecuadorean-flag Guayas, which visited San Pedro in August, are used as naval training vessels on which young sailors learn teamwork and seamanship.

Others are used to teach the same lessons to at-risk kids or other youths. Witness the Los Angeles Maritime Institute in San Pedro, which has two handsome ships that sail almost exclusively with groups of inner-city kids.

Still others are replicas of historical vessels; the Lady Washington was built in Grays Harbor, Wash., to commemorate the voyage of Robert Gray, a Boston fur trader who sailed the Pacific Northwest in 1792, lending his name to various regional landmarks.

This growing fleet also provides opportunities for people like me, who simply yearn to help sail these spectacular ships and who are willing to spend some combination of travel dollars and sweat equity for that opportunity.

I found my ship in June, moored at the old fishing port of St. Helens, about 25 miles down the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. Sea bag slung over my shoulder, I stood on the dock and admired the vessel that would be home for four days.

By today's standards, the Lady Washington is small--only 87 feet. But what it lacks in scale it makes up in sheer elegance--an 18th century brigantine with a raised stern, wood scrollwork painted in primary colors and offset by varnished mahogany, two stout masts and a 20-foot bowsprit supporting impossibly intricate rigging that includes 150 lines strung from the sails to the rails.

I climbed the gangplank and introduced myself to the skipper, Kevin McKee, who assigned me to Prairie, a 19-year-old salt with long blond hair tied in a nautical knot. Prairie fitted me with a climber's harness, showed me how to clip onto a line and escorted me up the forward mast.

"As a trainee," she instructed me, "you should keep yourself clipped in. And always maintain three points of contact with the rigging." With enthusiasm, I agreed and up we went, 35 feet, then out onto a yardarm. I enjoyed the view for about 30 seconds and then, with a queasy feeling in my stomach, decided to climb back down.

An hour later we were welcoming aboard the local Chamber of Commerce, which had chartered the ship for an evening cruise. We tossed off our lines, motored out into the Lower Columbia River, turned into the wind and raised sails. I watched alongside the local merchants as my young shipmates, in pirate-like period dress and Teva sandals, with gold rings dangling from various body parts, scrambled up the rigging and onto the yardarms like the Flying Wallendas. A few minutes later we were angling off the wind, sporting a dozen grand, white, trapezoidal sails, each bulging in the evening breeze.

"I've lived 70 years," one of our passengers declared, mostly to himself. "And I never dreamed I'd see anything like this."

After delivering our passengers back to St. Helens, the skipper mustered his motley crew of 16 men and women. There was Ryan Meyer, the 22-year-old first mate, whose gold earring and long black ponytail are a perfect fit with the ship's ambience. Meyer spotted the Lady Washington sailing into Ventura in 1998, stepped aboard and volunteered. Today he has a Coast Guard license and sometimes skippers the vessel.

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