I have a buddy obsessed with sailing around the world, an obsession I could very easily catch if I thought about it too long. To feed his obsession, I shared one of my few sailing stories with him. For 2-days I got to play pirate on a tall ship, the Picton Castle, in the Great Lakes.
I wanted to repost it because I feel like it highlights the lengths I will go to get a story. In this case, 90-feet off the deck! (I think there are much more talented writers than I am, but I often go places other writers won’t go, and I think that has played a large part in my success.) And more than that this story shows how my degree in anthropology influenced my writing. In anthropology one of the techniques used to gather qualitative data (stories) is participant observation. This means the researcher just doesn’t sit on the sidelines and scribble in a notebook, but they get in with the folks they are studying and get their hands dirty:
“Participant Observation” defined on Wikipedia:
Its aim is to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, sub cultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their cultural environment, usually over an extended period of time. The method originated in the field research of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowskiin Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the United States, and in the later urban research of the Chicago School of sociology.
I think the piece below reflects my commitment to this approach. Hope you enjoy it.
(for Glucose Magazine 8/06)
The journalist, ten stories off the deck of the ship, is standing on the yardarm of the uppermost sail, the royal sail. A layer of grease covers his hands disguising white knuckles. His right leg has gone into full Elvis mode – all shook-up. He turns to Shackle for guidance.“Squat down…put your right foot here…grab there.” Shackle calls out the foot and handholds like the spinner in some high-stakes game of Twister. The journalist is lost in concentration. Shackle’s job is clear: he’s got a mast to grease and a journalist to keep alive.
In May of 2005 Kjetil Dimmen, aka Shackle, was driving a cab in Norway, his homeland. He had been working as a cabbie for the previous ten years until a television show altered his course. The Travel Channel’s Tall Ship Chronicles followed the barque Picton Castle, a classic square-rigged deep-sea sailing ship, on an around-the-world voyage. Within two weeks, Shackle was in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the home port of the Picton Castle, loading it for its next around the world adventure.
Now, a year later with a world voyage under his belt, Shackle is one of the more experienced crew members. He is participating in the ASTA Great Lakes Tall Ships Challenge®, a traveling parade of sailing ships visiting ports such as Cleveland, Green Bay, Toronto, and Chicago.
Lost amid the ship’s sail rigging, the journalist and Shackle slap grease on the wood mast and spread out a thin layer with their hands. Far below, the noon-to-four watch is hard at work painting, steering the teak wheel at the helm, and standing lookout on her elevated bow.
Andrea Deyling, an assistant engineer from Cleveland, sweats away in the belly of the ship monitoring the 690-horse power diesel slogging through Lake Huron. She steps back to the galley for a drink of water and a cool breeze. “It’s like 103 degrees in there.” She’s sweaty. She’s greasy. Her feet are ink black.
She assumed the Great Lakes would be a bit of let-down after the exotic excitement of the circumnavigation, but she was wrong. “I’m totally surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the trip on the Great Lakes.” Last night with the rest of the crew she marveled at the anchorage in Put-in-Bay — sunset, islands, backflips and belly-smackers off the bowsprit, warm clear water, and warm clear laughter. “I keep having to remind myself that I’m in the Great Lakes.”
Shackle and the journalist have worked their way down the main mast and are now sitting on the yardarm of the next highest sail, the topgallant. They stare off into the cool blue waters of Lake Huron. Empty horizon occupies two-thirds of their 360-degree view. Michigan accounts for the rest. They’re not the only ones taking a break. Charlie Janowski, 63, of Cleveland sits on the cargo hold amidships in his painting bibs preparing for his shift. Charlie saw the Picton Castle at the Cleveland festival and was instantly smitten. “I always wanted to be on ship like this. This is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Trainees pay about $100/day to live, work, and learn on the Picton Castle. Charlie built a deck for his 88-year-old widowed neighbor, and when she learned of his desire to sail on the ship she, along with another friend of Charlie’s in his debt, paid his passage.
Admittedly, Charlie isn’t as young as he once was or as in good shape, but that didn’t stop him from going aloft on the foremast to help unfurl the sails. Forty feet off the deck, Charlie balanced on a shaky thin foot rope. Those who watched Charlie go aloft were inspired. Charlie got the job done. You can bet that Charlie always gets the job done.
“I was hoping I didn’t fail and look like a fool to the young guys. This is a lot of work and a lot of fun.”
When Charlie doesn’t smile his face looks tired. He hasn’t stopped smiling since stepping aboard the Picton Castle.
The Picton Castle, originally a fishing trawler, was built in 1928 and operated off the coast of Wales. In World War II she was a mine sweeper. In 1996 Captain Daniel Moreland refitted her with a clipper bow and three masts and began operating her as an around-the-world sail training ship. “We’re not trying to be old fashioned. We’re interested in the tradition of sailing ships.”
Many of the other Tall Ships participating in the traveling festival are merely floating museums and tour boats. The Picton Castle is much more. Today she is the only square-rigged ship circling the world trading goods and training sailors. The Picton Castle preserves more than the memory of the age of sail. She preserves the lifestyle itself. The exploration. The adventure. The freedom.
Hundreds of people, young and old, from all across the globe count themselves in the growing fraternity of her crew. They’ve hauled on sheets, tightened braces, taken their turn at the helm, done the dishes, and washed her decks. Under the guidance of Captain Moreland, the crew of the Picton Castle has circled the globe four times and helped her get where she is today.
One of the hardest tasks that falls upon the tanned shoulders of crew members is saying goodbye.
Andrea will be leaving the ship in Chicago to work for a few months saving up money so she can rejoin the ship for its upcoming eight-month sail in the Caribbean. After 13 months of living on the ship, she hasn’t had enough.
Charlie is leaving the ship in Bay City, Michigan, but hopes to return. “I wanna bring my son with me.”
Shackle left the ship for a short time once already, “When I got back onto the ship in Panama, it felt like coming home. It still does.” He’ll be leaving the ship at the end of the summer to return to Norway. He’s not sure how, but he wants to return to the ship. Minus all the pilfering and pillaging, he’s a pirate 200 years too late.
He got his story. Days after his departure from the ship in Bay City his hands still have splinters from the ship’s main mast. He can’t stop thinking about the starry night in Lake Huron. How he seemed to float before the ship as he looked back at her from the bowsprit. How the sails, lit by the stars, stretched up into distant galaxies. How the wind buzzed through the rigging, hummed across the 12,450 square-feet of sails and listed the ship to her starboard side. Is there anything more magical than a 500-ton object moving along in the silence of night in the open water? It’s almost enough to make a journalist put away his compound sentences and learn his knots.
Memories last longer than splinters. The Picton Castle haunts the dreams of those who know her. But even if they never see her again, they will find comfort and joy in the knowledge that somewhere out there, on Earth’s great waterways, she is afloat. That someone is on watch from her decks. Someone is aloft, greasing her masts.
The Picton Castle is still sailing around the world. Right now she is in port in Fiji (and you aren’t!). If you’ve wanted to sail upon Mother Ocean’s water since you were four-feet tall, you can see it all by joining the Picton Castle as a crew member. (And Matt, if you are reading, I don’t think they take entire families. Sorry!)