Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.

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The Yellow Jack

[I apologize that this is out of order for the travelogue, as last reported I was headed to France on July 25th. I'll try to post about those three exciting days in France soon!]

Thursday evening, July 31st - I stand at the bow of the 120 foot sailing ship Pilgrim, the wind is cool but refreshing, and I don't need my coat. The night is dark but clear, the moon a slim crescent. Lights twinkle on the headlands off to our right, waves crash on the breakwater that is slipping away behind us. I feel sick and achey, and anxiously await the moment I'll be stood down to go to sleep, but I'm very grateful to be here.

   The brig Pilgrim sails but once a year, typically for about two weeks. In 2010 I was at sea on the Hawaiian Chieftain at the time, in 2012 I had to depart for Australia just days before the sail, in 2013 I was in Turkey at the time. So in all my years of volunteering on the ship every week, I'd only been able to go once, in 2011. Even then my dear friend and then-girlfriend Kori and I had to veritably hitch a ride out to Prisoner Harbor, several hours from the mainland, on Santa Cruz Island to catch the Pilgrim when they came by ... which they forgot to do for three hours, giving us an authentic marooned-on-a-deserted-island experience.

   This season hadn't been without its challenges either, Kori was being solicited to be the cook, but the organization which runs the Pilgrim (which, in the spirit of disinformation, we'll call Io, a name "vastly different" from its real name.) was being extremely evasive about making out a contract, and Kori had been burned by other boats without firm contracts so was reluctant to pull up stakes on her settled job for a month of employment on unfirm ground, as it were. I had my own job to work around ("in the bee mines"), as well as the project in Guinea and related travels to plan around.
   This season was falling into place though. The ship was due to sail for a full month (all of August), Kori got a "contract-like" document from the office, quit her land-job, and sailed off on the brig Lady Washington to fill in as a relief cook for a few weeks before the Pilgrim sail, and I was able to work it out exactly so my travels would immediately precede the sailing trip, and as long as my boss kept to his usual habit of only asking vague general questions about my travels and whereabouts, he would just assume I was still off being useful.

   Then I returned from ten days of complete lack of communication in the Guinean hinterlands to the dripping, crumbling, beplagued urban jungle of Conakry to messages and rumors -- "the Coast Guard report on the sinking of the Bounty came out, and now they're so paranoid about tallships they won't let us sail!" "this is the end of tallships as we know it!" "they're going to have to completely replace the hull to meet the new Coast Guard standards!" One thing was clear though, from Kori "'Barbara' told me the sail is definitely cancelled." After months of fighting for a contract she was to be cast adrift. Fortunately for her, the crew of the Lady were clamoring for her and her wonderful culinary skills to stay on longer, and they do do contracts, so she signed on for several more months on the Lady.

   A week later, amid the smell of pine-tar and the creak of rigging aboard the Swedish ship Götheborg I would learn that Pilgrim could sail after all, though instead of sailing the whole month it would sail the first ten days and the last ten days, for some reason. I can't sit around doing nothing for the ten days in the middle so I decided I'd sail for the first ten days. Kori, unfortunately, had already committed to the Lady, and had this thing called a "contract."

   I arrived in the United States via Salt Lake City, and as I exited the aircraft and crossed the boarding gate-bridge I tapped out an email to "Barbara," re-affirming my intentions to be aboard in three days. I was already looking forward to this next adventure.
   Noon-ish, three days later, I'd find myself lying flat on my back in my bed, with a headache and a strong feeling of fatigue, staring at the ceiling thinking I was dying of ebola. At that point, as I noted in the previous entry, we called Norway and talked to our friend the tropical disease expert, who assured me I was more likely dying of malaria than ebola, but that as long as I didn't have a fever, which I didn't I should be fine. So I sallied and started packing.
   "So umm, I kind of let it slip that you're back" my coworker Judas I mean Rusty texted me. I'm still not sure how that "accidentally" happened.
   Muster was at 18:00, and while the "blue peter" signal flag fluttered from the flag hoist to indicate imminent departure, we stowed our gear in the gathering darkness, and scrambled about to get the lines ready for departure. While creeping about in the darkness belowdecks I heard the first of that vile rumor, uttered by some spineless aplysiomorph -- "Kori's not our cook anymore because she broke contract..." what! How could they say that??!"

   "I'm not on the watch schedule" I reported to our fearless captain, Gary, as he looked over some charts on the chart table on the quarterdeck. "Oh, see the bosun about that, it's his job." The bosun was not far off, securing the 6 pound signal cannon.
   "I'm not on the watch schedule" I reported to him
   "Well go down and look at the list at the base of the ladder"
   "I did, and I'm not on it"
   "Well why didn't you say so" he responded peevishly "go add yourself to whichever watch has the fewest people on it."
   So I went down and added myself to "port" watch, who would be standing watch from 20:00-24:00 and then get to sleep till 08:00, feeling very lucky that the short-handed watch happened to be the one that gets normal sleep this night.
   The Pilgrim insists on using an incomprehensible watch schedule called the "Swedish watch system" (that I have confirmed the Swedes do not use), in which you stand a different watch every day and thus never get used to it, and generally can never keep track of when you are on without consulting the chart again. I remember when I'd first come on the 2011 sail and chanced to remark to the (same) bosun about how odd I thought the watch schedule was he had snapped at me "it's how every ship does it!" ... well I don't know what ships he's been on but by now I've been on a lot and can attest that all other ships I've been on you work something like 4-8 in the am and 4-8 in the pm every day, and whatever it is, you get accustomed to it and its simple and fine and not mind-bizorgling like the Pilgrim's schedule.

   Sometime around 21:30, as we plowed through the waves around the Dana Point Headlands, someone came up to relieve me from bow watch:
"we're standing down to watches now, you can go below" (from the "all hands" condition we'd been in for departure).
   "I'm on till midnight anyway"
   "Check the schedule, they've changed it again."
   So I scurred down the ladder to see that they had indeed replaced the chart again, and I'd been moved to "starboard" watch, which this night would be standing from midnight till 4am. Just the thing to improve my health. I immediately climbed into my bunk to try to catch what sleep I could before midnight.

2014-08-01 00:00- was awoken and though I still felt unwell, dragged myself out of bed and got ready to go up on deck in the dim red light belowdecks. Red light doesn't ruin your night vision, and is less disturbing to people tryign to sleep, so any light used belowdecks at night is always red, which gives the interesting feeling you're in the war room on a submarine or something.
   On watch, one rotates through four positions: the helm, "midships," bow watch runner, and bow watch. The bow watch runner's job is to stand at the bow with bow watch until something is to be reported, and then run down to quarterdeck to tell the officer of the watch. "Midships" is kind of a rest position, though they theoretically are keeping watch off the sides, though the odds of something coming out of nowhere and t-boning us without anyone else noticing are pretty slim.
   While I was on bow-watch another crewmember, whom we'll call "Aiden" in a rare act of actually changing a name, came up to try to talk to me but then had to retreat because his sea-sickness was highly exacerbated on the bounding foredeck (the forecastle, below the foredeck, is sometimes referred to humorously as the zero gravity chamber). Another crewmember, a youngish woman whose eyes bugged out a little like a sea hare, was later telling me laughingly how Aiden had said he doesn't get seasick and refused to take seasickness pills "you should always take seasickness pills!" she concluded, "no one never gets seasickness." At the helm steering the galloping ship through the night, I smiled politely and didn't mention that I never take seasickness pills. Though she's right, anyone can get seasick. I don't agree that everyone should take the pills though.
   Back on the ole Chiefie on a five day transit down from Washington to the San Francisco bay our two most experienced sailors were green the whole time and when not on duty could be found curled up and miserable in the aft cabin. But when you're on watch, a sailor must always "do their duty." Its not shame to get sea sick, but if you don't let it prevent you from doing your duty. The Chieftain was notoriously "washing-machine-like," having a very flat bottom, and we used to do our hourly "boat checks" belowdecks either with a barf bag in hand or at least ready to run for the nearest trashcan at any moment (seasickness gets much worse when belowdecks).
   One of the members on my watch had some kind of mental disability. He was a well meaning kid though and we all applauded him for even being here with us. When for awhile we had a deaf volunteer he actually saved the day for us because it turns out he alone knew sign language.
   But unfortunately he couldn't steer the ship on a straight course for the life of him. I'd hand the wheel off to him and within moments the ship would be 40 degrees off course and the captain would be spinning around to us in alarm asking where the heck we were going. Fortunately the next station was, as I mentioned, the relative non-position of "midships" so after I rotated off the helm I stayed there to help "Melvin" (also totally not his name). This apparently involved me concentrating harder on the compass in front of us than when I had had the helm by myself because seasickness began to overtake me. As the countdown to inevitable barfing ticked off in my head I tried to wrestle the ship on the correct course one last time -- three degrees too far starboard ... swinging back ... two degrees too far to port .... there we go "Melvin, hold it right there. Hold the wheel just so. I need to go over there for a minute, you got this? You got this??" and with that, I made a quick look around for the direction the wind was comign from, and dove for the lee rail (never NEVER puke upwind). As I dry-heaved the last of my guts out I heard the captain once again bark "hey hey stay on course!" and saw him look around and then dash to the wheel... and was filled with regret that I'd been away from the wheel for too long. I quickly returned to the wheel.

   It was a nice night. A bit chilly, but I have a fine fine bridgecoat, one of my proudest possessions. Mostly high cloud cover but some stars twinkled in gaps above. I was actually feeling a little better by the time our watch ended at 04:00.

Here's some cheerful deck-swabbing from the 2011 sail.

2014-08-01 (Friday)- I had intended to sleep through till I was on again at noon, but all hands were called around 5 bells in the forenoon watch for a general all hands muster (meeting) on deck for various announcements, and general cleaning of the ship. I felt very terrible as I dragged myself sluggishly out of my rack. I generally try to avoid taking any painkillers or other medicines if I can all help it, but I felt like I'd been stabbed in the face, the pain was excruciating, so I asked furzicle for some dayquil. As this took effect the pain went away but I apparently became dayquil-high and talked Cheryl's ears off about bees.
   Was on watch from 12:00-16:00, and then, due to the devilry of Pilgrim's watch schedule, I'd be on duty again from 20:00-24:00. The day was pleasant, there weren't the swells there had been last night and steering was easy. As soon as I was off watch I once again bolted down below to go lie down, as the dayquil was wearing off.
   An hour or two later I heard them calling for all hands again to handle sail -- we had heretofore been motoring, but they wanted to come in to Santa Barbara under sail, since there was a festival on and crowds awaited us expectantly. I sluggishly, reluctantly, pulled myself from my bunk and got ready to aloft, and took some more dayquil. Up on deck I leaned heavily against the galleyhouse and listed to the preliminary discussions listlessly. The foremast captain told me I didn't have to go aloft if I didn't want to. Speaking of mast captains, I nominally held the illustrious rank of "main-mast captain," though for some reason we had five "mast captains" listed for our two masted vessel. I let one of the other main-mast captains call the shots and sort of retreated to the quarterdeck where (with yet another mast captain, incidentally) I could work the sheets and vangs and the few other lines that come to deck back there without being part of the more chaotic action around the mast itself.
   By the time people were going aloft to drop the sails the dayquil had brought me back to live somewhat, so that even though they clearly already had enough people aloft, I scurried up there and was able to make myself useful. After cominn down I felt going aloft had quite rejuvinated me, though it was more likely the dayquil I suppose.

   Once we were on the dock in Santa Barbara dinner was served (though I didn't bother to mention it, there had also been a lunch and breakfast earlier, though I didn't get up for breakfast), some more people came aboard, notably Io bigwigs "Barbara" and the Maritime Director, "Bob," with his walrus mustache. Because there was a bunkage shortage, he was taking over the bunk I'd been sleeping in so I had to vacate it. I'd be moving from there (in steerage, my preferred place between the forecastle and the "main hold dwellers" -- the deck above the main hold leaked just enough to keep everyone in the main hold damp) to one of the two bunks in the engineer's cabin. I'd never been in one of the cabins before but this seemed like a relatively esteemed location (though the fact that the maritime director himself wasn't going there maybe tells us something), but I couldn't make that move until one of the engineers left in the morning. So in the mean time I set up a cot in a corner of the hold (while thinking missingly of the hammocks aboard the Gotheborg, which enable them to house their crew of 80), and while around me crewmembers were breaking out the alcohol and discussing their bar-going plans for the evening I set up my cot intending to promptly go to sleep (we wouldn't be standing night watch while at the dock). As I tried to ignore the chatter around me I heard someone saying "Ryon (another former Pilgrim crewmember) got fired from the Lady Washington" to which I had to interrupt to interject "no I just talked to Kori and Ryon is doing just fine there!!" and the offending crewmember scuttled sheepishly off like a chastised hermit crab... probably to repeat his rumor to more receptive ears.
   Then furzicle came along, ducking under the low ceiling beams, and informed me "have you talked to the captain? he wants to talk to you." How peculiar. I went and found him.
   "How are you feeling?" he asked me with concern.
   "Oh I'm alright" I said, smiling a bit wanly.
   He smiled but then put on a serious face and continued "I really value your seamanship, you are a very great asset to the crew ... but there's some concern that you .. may have been exposed to ebola ... and I think it would be best if you went home in the morning to see a doctor..." He seemed genuinely regretful. He expressed hope I could make the second leg at the end of the month but I said I had to work. He then said he would gladly sign me on as crew on any week-long or so trip to the channel islands one of the other tallships he captains makes, which was a nice gesture, and maybe I'll take him up on it, though if I take any more time off work I think I might just join Kori and Ryon as Pilgrim jetsam on the Lady.
   I was supremely disappointed to hear this news though. I couldn't fault the captain for it, the health and safety of the whole crew rests on his shoulders and thats a heavy burden. Later I would hear on good authority that it wasn't actually the captain's decision at all but it came down to him from walrus-mustached Bob, who, having just arrived, learned I was sick and had just come from Africa and knowing no more about my condition, and no doubt having only a vague idea of the details of ebola, had ordered me jettisoned. I do respect the captain for not passing the buck though and pretending it was on his own authority even though he didn't seem to agree with it.
   So I unhappily went to sleep on my cot in the corner while around me the crew gamboled happily about in anticipation of the first of many fun evenings.

2014-08-02 (Saturday)- I woke up feeling somewhat better, though I knew there'd be no convincing the relevant parties to let me stay. I didn't feel like running my mouth about the situation so it took most of the crew by surprise when suddenly I was leaving with all my gear. We took the train back home. I'm told that after I left the story was suppressed and when friends joining later asked where furzicle and I were, the persons of authority would give no reason.

   Days later, out off the islands they had a skit night, which I count missing as a win because I don't terribly enjoy doing dumb skits. The captain, as more proof of his awesomeness, apparently asked for a shanty-singing night in lieu of skits but there was still some skitting, and I guess Cheryl did an impression of me, wearing a peacoat and and Greek fisherman's hat and going on and on about bees and Africa (no doubt inspired by my dayquil-fueled chatter). I'm not sure how I feel about this. More recently Barbara posted a roster of those who will be going on the second leg, and I'm on it, though I never gave any indication I'd go -- though I notice she fixed the five mast-captain problem, and I've been demoted to "deckhand," the lowest rank (I've been too busy sailing to jump through their official rank-earning hoops).

   Historically, vessels used signal flags to communicate various messages between ships. One of the more famous flags is the "yellow jack," which, with black squares indicates the vessel is under quarantine and if just plain yellow indicates the vessel is "My vessel is 'healthy' and I request free pratique." I'm thinking, for purposes of snark (always a worthy cause) of sewing a patch resembling the latter flag onto my jacket before I return to the Pilgrim ... but for now I don't really feel a terrible hurry to see them all again.

And here's some pictures from the 2011 sail, which I never did ever get around to blogging about


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