Confessions from a love-struck editor

by Karen Larson

I admit it. I have been having a love affair with tall ships. Despite what its name may imply, Good Old Boat is not about tall ships . . . but I flip over many-masted traditional ships just the same. I have always sighed over the beautiful photos of these classics: their lines and rigging, their romantic ratlines and belaying pins, their figureheads and the cut of their bows, their stern galleries with majestic windows and their gilded nameboards, their square sails and accompanying yards.

The Niagara flies a great BIG American flag. Lovely!

But if we run photos or articles about these wonderful classics in Good Old Boat, we confuse people who think (with some justification) that these forerunners to today’s sailboats are what should be meant by the term “good old boat.” We don’t want to confuse potential readers, so we’ve stopped running photos of historic tall ships and their fiberglass replicas in our magazine.

That doesn’t mean I can’t continue to dream. I’ve read all the books in the Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian series . . . some more than once. And I am as awed as the next guy by the descriptions of ships’ equipment and use of shipboard terms that are absolutely meaningless to sailors today.

I had an opportunity to spend an afternoon aboard the HMCS Oriole in Victoria, British Columbia in 2003. This tall ship serves as a Navy training vessel and a public relations ship. On that day, I had dual interests in participating in any deck work allowed by the crew and in photographing what was going on around me. I had a great time, although I was hampered from doing much deck work by the cameras hanging around my neck.

HMCS Oriole
Rig: Marconi-rigged ketch
Built: 1921
LOA (sparred length): 102 feet
Operated by: the Canadian Navy’s Pacific Maritime Forces

Canadian sailors raise sail

I was able to keep my personal feelings in check, however, until the spring of 2011 when I had a chance to explore the Texas Tall Ship, Elissa, in Galveston. More than explore . . . the ship’s volunteers furled and unfurled a few sails for us, they took us on a tour in the depths of the boat, and they encouraged me to climb the rigging. That last bit, that’s what did it.

This more recent involvement with tall ships used for training and as museum exhibits began in the spring of 2010 when Jerry and I, along with a crowd of tourists, had a chance to visit the brig Niagara on Lake Erie. We had gone to Lake Erie for other reasons but were surprised and delighted by a chance to visit the Niagara while sailing with friends in Ohio’s Put-in-Bay.

Rig: 2-masted brig
Built: 1988
Replica of the brig used by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812
LOA (sparred length): 198 feet
Operated by: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Niagara in Put-In-Bay, Ohio, on Lake Erie.

At that point, I was impressed, but not yet smitten. I should have had a lasting memory of that ship . . . when I stood up quickly belowdecks, I nearly knocked myself out on the low overhead! The knot on my head reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be a sailor in days of yore. Perhaps we’ve over romanticized the life they led.

That summer was the year of a tall ships event on the Great Lakes. It was also the summer that Jerry and I spent three months on our C&C 30 cruising Lake Superior. We chose a counterclockwise circumnavigation that coincidentally made it possible for our small boat to cross the paths of two tall ships heading toward Duluth for the big gathering. These were the Bounty and the Europa.

Rig: Traditional 3-masted barque
Built: 1911
LOA (sparred length) 185 feet
Operated by Rederij Bark Europa B.V.

Europa on Lake Superior.

Rig: Traditional 3-masted square-rigged ship
Built: 1960
Replica built for the movie Mutiny on the Bounty
LOA (sparred length) 180 feet
Operated by HMS Bounty Organization

HMS Bounty on Lake Superior.

The chance encounter with the Europa was one of the highlights of that summer. It was a once in a lifetime event. Both our sailboat and the Europa were under sail at the time. As the Europa approached in the distance, her mast tops came into view first. This strange object on the horizon didn’t look like anything we’d ever seen before on Lake Superior. We checked the charts for large structures that might be on or near the shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where we were. Nothing. We checked again.

Look closely. The Europa appears on the horizon . . .

But the distances narrowed quickly, since she was approaching from the opposite direction. We knew a tall ship festival was going to be held in Duluth and soon grasped the truth. This was no mirage; we were about to have a close encounter of the sailing kind with a ship from another era. There were no other boats around for miles. This was to be a personal and deeply meaningful encounter.

The barque Europa up close and personal.

With permission of the captain, we approached and sailed around the Europa several times. I shot photos with two cameras from every angle as we circled her. Meanwhile, because we were a small but very sincere audience, they added to the sails they were carrying, and the Europa carries an impressive array of sails (a total of 30 is possible)!

They even put more sails up for us!

We were simultaneously flattered, honored, impressed, thrilled . . . and deeply in love. Who wouldn’t be?

Pretty from bow to stern.

The following spring we headed south to Texas. While we were there, Good Old Boat readers Tim and Kim Burns insisted that we visit the Elissa, their favorite tall ship. A team of dedicated volunteers, including Tim and Kim, donate their time to keep the Elissa maintained, to sail her when she goes out, to train new volunteers, to teach school children and tourists, and much more.

Rig: Traditional 3-masted barque
Built: 1877
LOA (sparred length) 205 feet
Operated by the Texas Seaport Museum

The barque Elissa in Galveston Bay.

Kim felt our trip to Texas would be incomplete without seeing the Elissa. That invitation grew to two very enjoyable visits over two days. Kim and Tim showed us the sailing gear, the bunks and galley, the engine, and every stowage locker aboard as we toured belowdecks. On deck, I was mesmerized by the towering masts and rigging. Sometimes I was lost somewhere inside myself as I shot way too many photos while trying to frame pelicans that flew by in the silhouetted rigging of this beautiful ship.

Pelicans and rigging . . .

The next day we had a chance to visit with Texas Seaport Museum Director Jamie White, who offered to demonstrate sail handling, with the help of enthusiastic volunteers. We were honored by the VIP treatment and awed by the volunteers who climbed up the ratlines and crawled out on the yards to raise and lower sails.

Miles and miles of rigging . . .

Then, with their help and some training, I was encouraged to make my first climb to the first level 50 feet above the deck: the mainmast cap. That climb, called an “up and over,” sealed it: I’m hopelessly in love with tall ships. There will be more about the excitement of climbing the ratlines in another blog.

You want me to go WHERE?


3 Responses

  1. Karen, you’re not alone! Any time I see a tall ship (and by the way “Bounty” got her re-fit right down the road from me in Boothbay Harbor, Maine!) I tend to drop things and go all starry-eyed myself!
    K.Davie, 1978 Tanzer 7.5 #143 ‘Honfleur’, Rockland, Maine

  2. Your encounter with Europa and climbing the mainmast of Elissa evotes some comment. In 2000, at age 65, I signed up as apprentice crew member of Europa in the final centennial race leg from Halifax to Isle of Wight ( wrote up the story for Sail magazine). It ook two days to overcome my fear? to get over the futtock. It’s a little scary to attempt it for the first time in the middle of the Atlanic when the ship is under sail. No clips-ons at the futtock. You sort of arch your body at a 45 degree angle out into space hoping to get you hands on the rim of the platform above and pull yourself up. The third attempt I made it and gradually went higher and higher–the mainmast was 158′. But I never did top it. The last 25′ the rat line hugged the mast with barely 2″ of toehold. As for that old adage “one hand for the ship; one for yourself,” don’t you believe it. It takes two hands to work a sail this size. The only thing that keeps you in place is you are on the windward side, and you are cliped on here.

    Your shot of Europa’s bowsprit brought back memories. The safety net was the favorite spot for off-duty crew to sprawl out in. One day we rigged up lines to lower the professional photographer aboard to be suspended a few feet up from the water to catch some stunning shots of the ship’s bow wave.

    Now, if you and Jerry want a real challenge sailing on this ship sign up for their around Cape Horn Antartic trip in Dec. Try climbing ratlines coated in ice.

    William C. Winslow

    • William,

      Let’s see . . . 2 inches of toehold and the ratlines are frozen to boot, you say? Humm, I think I’ll see if I can find a Caribbean vacation package instead!

      Karen Larson

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