Monday, February 18, 2013

That Old Hawsepipe is Getting Smaller Every Day...

 Hawse-pipe: A ship’s hawsepipe is the pipe passing through the bow section of a ship that the anchor chain passes through.

In this modern age in which we reside, we're very accustomed to technology and innovation that make improvements in the way that we all work and live. Advances in the way materials are manufactured and increased knowledge in how things work have created new jobs, made our lives safer and given rise to specialized occupations.


Today, there remain very few trades where the traditional skills are still passed on from a master to an apprentice. In fact, with modernization, many jobs have been made irrelevant or at best, greatly lessened in their perceived value.

Trust me, I am no Luddite.  I have a sensible appreciation for all the new-fangled stuff that comes along. I just wonder occasionally, if we have not perhaps lost sight of what the word "progress" really means. 

This affinity for the traditional approach may have a great deal to do with my upbringing. I was raised in a theater family; my father was a scene designer who trained under the old masters. His graduate work entailed drafting the illustrations for Arnold Gillette’s “Stage Scenery” and researching details for an updated edition of Oscar Brockett’s “History of the Theater” --classics amongst theater students anywhere. My father pressed me into service at age eleven or twelve; teaching me to paint drops and flats with dried pigment and animal glue… three and four-color wet blends that left little room for error, (or bathroom breaks)!

These old-school techniques were taught by the master painter over the course of years to his pupils; who in turn, passed it on to their students. At the time I figured it must have been for the sake of free child labor on my dad’s part. I now realize that my father wanted me to experience the gift of these old masters. As the years went on, while I worked in professional theater and film, this realization hit home harshly. Nobody knew what these methods were, nor did they have any use for them. Only a few of the senior Charge Painters remembered the traditional practices. They’d patronizingly call them “old-school” and shrug off any suggestions that referred to the use of a supposedly out-dated option. Soon, very soon, these traditional scenic art styles will have disappeared.

My recent career as a medical assistant and childbirth professional brought this paradox into crystal clear focus. Modern technology and advances have raised our standard of living to outstanding heights, however, just because we can do something—does that mean we actually should do it? I participated in many new procedures which aided in deliveries and eased the patient’s discomfort… and yet I witnessed far too many unnecessary cesarean-sections and interventions in childbirth than I’d care to recall. There is an unquestionable need for balance and good sense in this particular field as progress duals with conventional wisdom.

I can see the same story playing out in my current occupation--in the maritime world. As a relative 'nautical neophyte', I make no claim to pass judgement here. Rather, I witness with a fresh perspective, the battle between innovation and traditions.


Last year, Jeffery spent several months helping to re-caulk the entire hull of a 114' 1943, ex-patrol boat from Canada. This turned out to be one of the largest regional caulking projects of the last decade. Jeff was hired on to compliment a rather prestigious roster of old masters. The scaffolding was full of sort of a  'who's-who' in the shipwright world. Including a relative 'young pup' among the seasoned old veterans-our Captain Tim. 

Jeffery lucked into what amounted to sort of an intern corker position--he had caulked seams with Todd on our boat and possessed his own corking mallet and tool kit. He also had a fair working knowledge of caulking from his background as a ship's carpenter... They hired him on because they respected his workmanship and for his reputation as a good carpenter on Zodiac and Kwaietek; but for all comparative purposes, this was his "apprenticeship." 

Jeff would return from ten-hour days, sore and aching; his wrist  soon bandaged up from carpal tunnel symptoms...yet he would extol on the days activities. He was learning again, just like in school. His aptitude and enthusiasm impressed the old guys so much so that they were passing on little tips, spending extra time showing him some trick or another that they'd developed over their years of working on these old wooden boats. 

Eventually I became involved with this massive project as an oakum spinner, (the pine tar-soaked hemp substance that was used to pound in between the wooden frames). The demand for spun oakum supply was so great that the corkers couldn't keep enough on hand.

Juliet and I showed up to the shipyard one afternoon, to receive our tutelage on how to spin oakum. The staccato tap-tap-tap of mallets on frames could be heard from blocks away. I watched for a while, transfixed by the synchronized formula of the corkers routine. They worked as one and yet individually; stretching out the strands of oakum and twisting it together between their finger tips as they fit it into the grooves...always just slightly ahead of the caulking iron and rapping mallet.  I could finally understand why my husband had been coming home with cuts and bruises on his finger tips. (He eventually wrapped his threading fingers in electrician's tape to relieve the pain of a mis-fire with the mallet).

We met the elderly shipwright who was to instruct us in the art of spinning oakum. He patiently demonstrated how to stretch and spin the fibers without tearing the strands. I quickly found that what looked like an easy, monotonous task was in fact, a rather tricky technique. I also learned that old corkers are very particular about how they like their oakum to arrive. "spun like cotton candy" seemed to be the best description. I won't say that the old masters are divas exactly, but I will allow that they do exhibit some very diva-like characteristics when it comes to their trade!

oakum arrives compactly rolled in these bales.
the oakum is pulled apart in the way wool is carded.

The separated strands are carefully stretched.
the elongated strand of oakum is spun against the knee.

It was a humbling experience to work under the supervision and parameters of these old masters. They did not suffer second-rate products happily. The senior corker was a rather fussy gentleman who had pretty strict requirements of his oakum. I balked at what I perceived as micro-management, but gradually began to appreciate his criticism. He was after all, making the effort to help me improve my skills.  Eventually, I got the hang of it, and received some perverse satisfaction upon hearing that the old guys out on the scaffolding were specifically requesting my bundles of spun oakum.

These shipyard elders did not graduate from some prestigious wooden boat school, they did not have business cards printed up that said "Master Shipwright" on them... they built their resume year after year on boats so old and varied that many now do not even exist. They don't advertise in the yellow pages, never send out brochures and wouldn't know how to set up a website to save their lives. They work constantly--from word of mouth referrals. They practice their arts quietly and without apparent concern that they are a dying breed.

I wonder what will happen to the "old-school" techniques when these old guys retire?

Don't get me wrong. I am not promoting rote tradition over new advances. I am extremely grateful for the invention of roller-furlers and GPS units. I think it important to remember that there are many conventional skills which we should not lose in our race for the "next best thing". Celestial navigation and marlinspike seamanship being among the forefront.

Those who have worked their way up the hawsepipe are becoming fewer and farther between as the maritime industry favors  academy grads. The experience that is obtained inside a simulator program is vastly different than one can obtain in the actual environment. Maritime academies are crucially important to our profession, yet I wonder if sometimes, hard-won experience and that old-timey wisdom are being overlooked in favor of "progress"
Again, it is a nuanced balance that we need to seek in this quickly changing maritime world. Both are very important.

I'm very grateful for my exposure to the traditional maritime skills that still thrive on tall ships. Our involvement on the schooner Zodiac has given us a vast skill-set and appreciation of many of those time-honored ways of doing things. I learned how to navigate on paper charts before a chart to interpret weather patterns, how to feel a ship begin to respond by sensing it in my feet....I've been taught how to parcel and serve, splice a line and tie a zeppelin knot.--all from old salts who have lived this life. I've even found a new home for my scenic art skills as a varnisher. Believe me--the amount of bright-work onboard the Zodiac gives me ample opportunities to keep my old skills alive!

I appreciated a recent article by Mario Vittone, "The Illusion of Experience" 
The author quite eloquently addresses the issue of neophytes assuming the old school trades. This is one of the unique hazards of training up replacements for these old masters: The penchant for assuming oneself an expert too quickly.
One cannot really consider oneself a professional after just a few lessons. One should really not put the word "Master Shipwright" on their shingle immediately upon graduation from wooden boat school. It is critical to keep some perspective and no small amount of humility on hand when assuming the role and responsibilities of a traditional craftsman. Lives depend on it.
I get a great deal of satisfaction when we're able to pass these techniques onto the youth that come aboard every year. Perhaps one or two of these young people will be inspired to continue on the maritime traditions. 
Young sailors learn to parcel and serve the shrouds

In turn, as these young sailors begin to appreciate the skills that they're obtaining, it is incredibly rewarding to watch them confidently sharing them with our passengers. The cycle of learning continues and the traditions of our past become part of our everyday methodology.

This is by far, one of my favorite things about being a tall ship sailor.

So, here's to keeping the old ways alive and part of our modern way of living- with care, humility and respect.

“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, 
but memory and tradition frame our response.”

~ Chris

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's All Fun and Games...Until Your C.O.I.

Like so many of my fellow mariners worldwide, I've been following the USCG investigation into Bounty's untimely demise. Last week's testimony from shipwright Todd Kosakowski to USCG Commander Kevin Carroll regarding the questionable condition of Bounty's free-board framing that he discovered prior to their COI inspection has really got me thinking. Read  portions of the transcript  here:

As First Mate on the schooner Zodiac, my busiest time of the year is the period leading up to our haul-out and subsequent COI. This is when the Coasties come down to our ship when she's in dry-dock and perform an out-of-water inspection. Because we are an international "SOLAS"  vessel, this inspection occurs annually as opposed to other small passenger vessels which can vary from every 3 to 5 years. This is a routine that all inspected vessels and vessel owner/operators are extremely familiar with. The CFRs have a multitude of descriptions and specifications regarding what is and is not to be found during these inspections. 

My recent 200-ton inland master upgrade necessitated a thorough review of the  CFR's to prepare for the test. The Federal CFRs are sort of like our state's RCW's ("revised code of Washington")-- rules and addendums to regulations that are added into the law books. It is decidedly NO fun to wade through these tomes of governmental mumbo-jumbo, however the more you do it the more you begin to understand it.  (I find that in itself, a rather scary thought).  

At the beginning of the sections on small passenger vessel inspections is a paragraph about dealing with the Coast Guard inspectors. It advises, rightly so, to be professional and respectful. It also suggests that the vessel operators or officers be prepared ahead of time, have items ready to produce and easy to locate. 

The Z gets her CG inspection in dry-dock.

Zodiac's scheduled dry-dock inspection is fast approaching. The captain, our ship's carpenter and rigger and myself have begun to hold regular preparatory meetings. The end result of the Zodiac being held to the more stringent criterion of an annual inspection, is that the captain and core crew are intimately aware of the up-to-date condition of her structural integrity and vital systems of our ship. This helps us work out strategic refit schedules. That being said, I'd like to think our standards would dictate this comprehension regardless of the USCG benchmarks . Based on the theory that prudence should sway mariners to ensure their ships will bring them safely back to port.

Once the Z has made it into the cavernous bay of Northlake Shipyard's massive barge, the water is pumped out and she is blocked and braced. She remains stable; water dripping from her hull as crew members and volunteers scramble around her, shoring up timbers and erecting the scaffolds. We scour the ship; stem to stern and look for anything that might cause problems. Before the Coast Guard inspectors arrive, Captain Tim has already compiled a legal pad page full of projects and items to double-check. I follow along behind, in the role of a Bosun--rapidly scratching down work-lists and shopping run errands. 

There isn't much of the old girl that we haven't poked or prodded into. It's a good thing she isn't terribly modest.

Zodiac's hull gets a close inspection before repaint begins.

Perhaps the greatest asset that I've brought to my position as a first mate, has been my training from the medical field. The conditioning I received to document the hell out of everything and to anticipate worst-case scenarios has proved pretty invaluable--that and learning to never say the word "oops" during a surgical procedure. For several years, I worked with a family practice physician who was a stickler for covering one's ass. His mantra was "always, always, always write it down." Indeed, with the litigious nature of practicing medicine today, his words of wisdom were in actuality, just common sense. I dogmatically logged every conversation with patients, specialists, insurance reps and co-workers. It served me well on every occasion.  As I read though the trial transcripts of Bounty, I comprehended the absolute necessity to log every single item. The sub-standard condition of the Bounty's frames, the communications the captain had with the shipwright... all of it. Not merely to cover one's ass, but to hold those in power to their decisions. If they are accountable for the choices that they make, then more consideration will be given to all of the options. That is a universal characteristic of human nature.

After losing our mast in 2010, we came up with a standardized rig-check log. Our lead rigger, Jeff and Captain Tim and I worked extensively to try and cover every single issue or scenario that could go wrong and then made certain that the rig check could account for it. This was not required of us by the Coasties, we did it because we did not want to go through another situation like the dismasting again. We wanted to safeguard our ship and our crew. Simple as that.

The decision made to take Bounty out into the storm was made by the higher-ups; Captain Walbridge and apparently, the owners. We've all been reading about this for months now. I've become rather perturbed by some comments made from so called 'professional mariners' about the lack of training and professional practices in the tall ship world. Hog wash I say to that. I know of many accounts where commercial towing vessels have been forced to disregard safety protocols when the big oil companies that contract them wish to cut some corners--money being the operative motive. In one instance, a ship that was not rated for ice-breaking was told to head north and work beyond it's safety boundaries. The captain of course, had the option to say, "No, I refuse to put my vessel and crew at risk." However, he would no longer have a job with that company once he did. The crew members said that they trusted their captain and therefore went along with it... (I am sure that the crew members of Bounty trusted their captain as well).

Yes, there are a fair number of Yarr-bee-darrs in the tall ship community that would prefer to swing from gantlines and sing chanteys than learn the nuts and bolts of navigation or memorize the 72 Col-Regs. But the tall ship world is chalk full of professional, competent mariners who treat their occupations as a serious responsibility.
I tire of these blogging blow-hards who are so quick to pass judgement on all traditionally trained sailors.

The truth of the matter is yes, we operate tall ship charter vessels. Most of our year is spent in pursuit of good wind and orcas. Yes, our type of cargo talks....
We have fun--no doubt about it. Ours is an occupation that many would kill for. Yet, behind the scenes, it's a lot of hard work--a lot of worry and concern for safety. We chase rot, we scrub rust and we continuously search out the loose cotter pins aloft. The USCG sets a very high bar for small passenger vessels to meet (a bar that is at times, impractical for classic wooden vessels to achieve), and yet we do so.  We are professional mariners and we understand the need for constant vigilance.

As one wise instructor once told us, "You can never expect to beat the sea. You can only expect to not lose."

~ Chris   


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Latest Aquisition

Posted by Jeffery C.

How does one tell when you have a real problem with boats?  When someone says "Hey, do you want a free boat?", and you reply "Of course!".  Enter Zeta, a nineteen foot Lightning Class One Design.

First look at the "new" boat!

One Designs are sailboats that all follow the same (or very similar) specifications.  This allows them to race against each other with the only theoretical difference being the skill of the skipper and crew.  There are many different one design classes in the world that are raced actively.  Zeta is a Lightning Class, designed by Olin Stephens in 1935.  The first boat was built in 1938 and the design has gone on to have over 15,000 hulls built worldwide.  Originally the boats were built of mahogany frames and cedar planks, then of plywood and now in fiberglass.   

I stopped on the dock the other day to talk to a good friend of mine who was working on one of the seiners.  Todd is an excellent shipwright, and like most people I know, buried in various projects that are "just a weekend away from being finished".  He mentioned that an old friend of his was giving him a dory and he needed to pass on a Lightning that his father in law had given him.  The Lightning wasn't really a boat he had much interest in finishing and sailing.  He'd started to prep the boat for new paint and deck covering, and said it really didn't need much work.  Since I've jumped at boats in far worse condition,of course I told him that I wanted it.

Then of course I had to figure out how to let my long suffering wife know that I'd just acquired yet another project. Much to my surprise, when I mentioned that Todd had the boat and was looking to get rid of it, she was very interested.  We've been talking about finding a good daysailer that Juliet could use and gain confidence in small boat sailing.  The next thing I knew, Chris was telling me to call Todd and go get the boat.  I sure do love that woman!!

The next morning I met Todd at his house to bring the boat to the shop.  It was already on a trailer, but we had to check for all the gear, fetch the sails, pump up the tires, clear the pine needles off and get it ready to move.  Todd's wife told me some of the history that she knew, and asked that we keep the name "Zeta".  With an understanding to keep the name and invitation to Todd and Holly to use the boat, we loaded up and pulled out.

View of Zeta from our VW bus as we pulled out.

The drive was uneventful, Todd pulled the boat with his truck and I followed behind in our bus to keep an eye on things.  A half hour later we pulled into the shop and unhitched the trailer.  Todd helped clear out the few things he needed and headed on his way.  I then proceeded to fire up the shop vac to remove the water and pine needles that hadn't blown out on the drive.  I then turned my attention to the pile of parts and hardware, to sort through and determine what I was going to have to replace and rebuild.  The more I looked, the more amazed I became.  So far it appears that everything is still with the boat and very little actually needs to be done to return it to the water.

Cleared away for inspection in the shop.

Zeta looks rough at first glance, but that's because Todd had already removed the rotten canvas covering the deck and sanded the topsides to prep for paint.  The current plan is for Chris to start sanding and varnishing the coaming and rub-rail pieces while I'm out on the next tug runs.  When I return I'm going after the deck and hull.  The mast needs to be re-glued and re-varnished as well, but the rig is intact and serviceable, so no work there.  The boat came with two complete suits of sails, both in good shape.  This boat is going to be a fast project, the goal being to get it in the water this spring, keeping it with Zodiac for the crew and interns to use while in port.  No restoration needed or wanted, just a good working, sail-able boat.

If the sails are accurate, this is hull no. 1543, built sometime in the 1940's.  I've already started looking through the online information from the Lightning Class website and will be documenting ownership history for our records.  Once Zeta is back in the water, we'll contact the organization and update their records.  According to Todd's wife, the boat and it's skipper won the Lightning Nationals sometime in the 1950's.  I'm hoping to track down the information to verify this if it's true.  Unfortunately, there is no Lightning Fleet in Bellingham that I'm aware of and even if there was, Zeta wouldn't be competitive.  The new boats are fiberglass with aluminum spars and just that much faster.  That's okay as we just want a good, fast daysailer.

So there it is, the story of the latest addition to our Flota Navium.  Juliet totals us at 169 combined feet of boat in one form or another.  Maybe someday I'll get rid of a boat or maybe even say "NO" when someone says "It's free".

Waiting for work to commence this spring.

I'll close with a photo of Zeta organized and tucked away in the shop.  Project minor hiding in the shade of project major.  And don't ask about project major, Aldonza will be a post sometime this summer.