The Tall Ships

The Tall Ships

"Cover your ears!" shouts the gunner. A few seconds later, a loud explosion thunders and the crowd cheers.

Clouds of black-powder smoke momentarily envelop the passengers aboard a replica of the 18th century tall ship Lady Washington, as it "fires" upon the Hawaiian Chieftain, an interpretation of a typical early 19th century coastal trading vessel.

"Take that, you yellow-livered scalawags," yells 73-year-old Medford resident Gertrude Plath, as the Lady Washington's gunner lobs off another shot from the cannon.

Many such bawdy but G-rated insults fly between the two tall ships a few miles offshore Crescent City on this Saturday afternoon, the winner of the mock battle declared solely by the enthusiasm displayed by the passengers.

Scenes like this have played out across the high seas, from San Diego up the coast to Canada, every weekend from spring to fall for the past 23 years. The two vessels are in Crescent City for one more weekend before sailing off to their next rendezvous in Coos Bay.

The tall ships offer the public sailing adventures from the past that last from a few hours to a week or more. The ambiance is enhanced by crew members clad in authentic 18th century clothing. Sharing an obvious camaraderie born of teamwork and proximity, they are prone to breaking into old-time sea ballads in free moments.

But sailors don't have much spare time aboard a tall ship as they climb the rigging — up to 60 feet above-deck — to loose the sails or haul on the myriad ropes below that control the whole operation.

"The Lady Washington was the only real tall ship utilized in the making of the first 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie," says Jim Rich, a Takilma-based blacksmith and longtime tall ship sailor. "The other ships were basically sets built on barges."

Rich, who is about to receive his captain's license, forged the knives for the pirates and sailors in the film and also supplied the tools for the blacksmith shop scene.

The tall ships, more than 100 feet long, also are training vessels. After an on-board two-week training course, some crew members work on the ships for months. Many remain involved for years.

"The tall ships changed the trajectory of my life," says 26-year-old Portland resident Caitlin Porter. She has a degree in English literature and film, but is now working toward her captain's license.

"This work has affected my view of the world," she said. "I can't look to others for everything, and I'm far more capable than I'd realized."

The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, the nonprofit organization out of Aberdeen, Wash., that owns, maintains and operates the tall ships, also sponsors educational trips for school groups during the week at each port the ships dock in. Every year more than 12,000 fourth- and fifth-graders come aboard for the day.

Aboard the Lady Washington last Saturday were members of Boy Scout Troop 112, one of Ashland's oldest chapters, dating back to 1915.

"The boys are learning knot tying, so we felt this would be a great demonstration of that skill, but more, we wanted to show them a vivid example of teamwork and a tall ship adventure seemed novel and exotic," says Scoutmaster John Engelhardt.

When the Lady Washington cleared the harbor and her sails were set, the captain gave the order to cut the ship's engines. The only sound then was the wind in the sails, the waves breaking on the bow, and the rigging clanging against the tall wooden masts.

"This time on the Lady Washington reminds me that Earth's natural forces remain in charge," says Tristan Stocker of Cave Junction. Watching the sails, he adds, "Better to trim the sail when it flops in the wind, or drop anchor in port when it's too stormy. Life's seasons are like that, after all."

Annette McGee Rasch is a freelance writer living in Cave Junction.

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