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San Diego's popeyed sailors

Kids are eager to swab decks and eat 'rat stew' aboard the Star of India. Behind the adventure guise, it's a floating history lesson.

June 05, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

San Diego — Many Angelenos consider San Diego, with its conservative voting tendencies and picture-perfect downtown scene, another world entirely. But watching my children happily swabbing the deck, moving cargo, raising sails and dutifully falling in line with a respectful "Aye, captain, sir," well, now we're talking about another planet, possibly another and more perfectly formed universe.

Certainly we were in another time period. At the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the 30 or so landlubbers preparing to board the Star of India for a Family Overnight one recent Saturday were informed, during a brief but pointed orientation, that the year was officially 1874 and would be for the next 18 hours. So off with the watches and stow the cellphones. Any questions or comments about people, places and things from any year after 1874 would be met with derision by the ship's officers.

The four veteran sailors who would oversee the experience -- Capt. Sorkin, First Mate Mr. Dalton, Mr. Cuatt and Cookie Young, all in period attire, made a few other things clear: There is no such thing as a female sailor, only "long-haired sailors" (girls) and "short-haired sailors" (boys).

Likewise, age made no nevermind aboard the Star of India; the "tall ones" (adults) were expected to pull as much weight as the "small ones," though neither the captain nor Mr. Dalton was too hopeful because the "tall ones" tended to be the laziest and most mentally deficient sailors on board. (During orientation, children and adults were separated so the adults could be prepared for the gruff way they would be treated and the children reassured that it was only pretend.)

The Star of India is one of the oldest active sailing ships in the world. It is an iron-hulled cargo ship, built on the Isle of Man in 1863 and originally called the Euterpe, after the Greek muse of music. In 1871, it began transporting Europeans emigrating to New Zealand and Australia, making 21 circumnavigations until it was sold again and began sailing from Oakland to the Bering Sea, carrying fishermen and fish.

In 1906, it was renamed the Star of India and in 1923, when steamships became the norm, it ended its commercial career. It languished for years before being fully restored in 1976.

The museum has been providing overnight onboard experiences for students for a dozen years, re-creating a sailor's life complete with deck-swabbing, night watch and meals of "rat stew." Three years ago, the experience was opened to families who can participate on one of four summer weekends.

But as Mr. Dalton surveyed the group standing on the dock beside the gangplank at 3 p.m., he was not impressed. "You don't look much like sailors," he said, "but I'll guess you'll have to do. Are you ready to work hard?" Adults and children alike nodded uncertainly. "The answer is 'Aye, Mr. Dalton.' "

"Aye, Mr. Dalton," came a feeble chorus.

"Oh you can't be as weak as that," he said. "Try again."

"Aye, Mr. Dalton," we shouted, with an adult or two throwing in a "Mr. Dalton, sir" for good measure.

The young man's head swiveled. " 'Sir' is for the captain," he snapped. "Calling me 'sir' is mutiny," he said with a wink for the younger sailors, "and mutiny is punishable by hanging."

And so our adventure began.

Getting on board

Divided into crew lines of 10 or 11, ordered about by some of the older children dubbed "masters," we filed up the gangplank to stow our gear, which consisted of garbage bags full of sleeping bags and pads; small pillows; two changes of clothing and shoes; a plastic bowl, cup and spoon; and a toothbrush.

We were among six families whose children ranged from 5 to 13 or so. Our daughter, Fiona, is 5, and I was concerned; the museum recommends that participants be at least 6.

I needn't have worried. From the start, Fiona and her 7-year-old brother, Danny, neither of them known for their patience or docility, were entranced. They stood in line with no dawdling or horseplay; they answered commands with fervor and respect. They heaved, they ho'ed, they sang sea chanteys and listened raptly to stories of the bounding main.

They asked permission to use the head and kept an eye on the beguiling Mr. Cuatt, who tended to sneak into Cookie's galley for illicit snacking.

Not that there was much time for the boredom that often provokes bad behavior. With a mixture of banter and directives, Capt. Al Sorkin was able to impose order. Through a course of activities, we learned about the ship and its various incarnations, marveled at the cramped conditions the emigrants endured and the comparative luxury of the cabins for the captain and wealthy passengers.

We also learned about the sailor's life. Dashing uniforms aside, it was not easy, and children and adults were impressed by the length of the voyages and the discipline required to maintain order. When Mr. Dalton took the cat-o'-nine-tails out of the bag and demonstrated it, eyes grew wide.

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