Little about conventional sailing prepares one to sail a 300-ton replica of a 17th century armed merchant vessel. For starters, rather than having one or two masts and a handful of sheets and halyards, such a ship has four masts, eight sails, and 184 belay points. She also requires a minimum crew of 12, and double that for watches on transits. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to learn the ancient art of sailing a square rigger.
Last month, I spent three weeks training and crewing aboard KALMAR NYCKEL, sleeping in a bunk barely longer than my height, and sweating next to other trainees, experienced crew, and officers. The Crew Training course was intense, demanding, and exhilarating. It was a rigorous schedule of class time, practical lessons, muster, cleaning, maintenance, public sails, charter sails, deck tours, studying, “de-modernizing” the ship, filming, drills, downrigging, uprigging, standing night watch, costume maintenance, a transit to Wilmington, and a transit back to Lewes with 3 AM departure. All of this was without benefit of air conditioning and scant privacy.
The course curriculum was intense, covering knots, sails, points of sail, tacking and wareing, belay points, commands and responses, safety, emergency response, boat check procedures, steering, docking procedures, heaving line protocol and practice, belaying and safe line handling, history, handling passengers, staffing tour stations, safety aloft, and going aloft, where I found myself leaning over the main yard, clipped in, belly on the spar, with hands free to tie gasket coils.
On the second day of training, my 13 classmates and I participated in our first public sail. This entails efficiently and warmly welcoming up to 49 passengers of varying ages and ability, handling sails and rotating through the positions for bow watch, helm, and the half-hourly boat checks. We also began to learn about giving the passengers a great experience–something we do whether or not we have wind.
The replica KALMAR NYCKEL was built in 1997, with design based on original documents, as well as knowledge of other ships of the period–but also with modern features like marine heads (toilets), a shower, a full galley, bunks for the crew, and a full compliment of safety equipment. Daily life aboard this replica is patterned by the ship’s needs, including plenty of chores like dishwashing, sweeping and swabbing, deck washes, and cleaning the heads. “Field days” are blocks of time working heavier maintenance, like deep cleaning, repairs, systems maintenance, and scraping and refinishing wood.
Despite the fabulous sailing, tall ship life is not all glory and fun. Living aboard a ship with 25 or so other people has its challenges. Imagine that your personal space is just about as long as you are, just about as wide as from one cocked elbow to the other, and not tall enough for you to sit up. All of your personal belongings must be stowed here, including your foul weather gear and shoes. This is not in a cabin, but along the sides of either the saloon (mess deck) or the galley (kitchen). Privacy? There is virtually none.
Also, aboard a tall ship, you share the heads (bathrooms) with everyone else. Sometimes you have to wait, and you must also be quick, to keep from making others have to wait. Showers? You get one every other day–though you can also wash down with seawater on deck in your bathing suit, or drive into town to use the shower at the marina. Some may think these are harsh conditions, but our officers and volunteer crew understand the reality of life aboard, and are actually thankful, because we have it many times better than those who sailed the original KALMAR NYCKEL, which was built in 1625.
The ship was in service of the Swedish navy, but also made four transatlantic journeys, bringing settlers and trade goods to New Sweden, which we now call Wilmington, Delaware. The first voyage ended in 1638 at a place called “the rocks,” which is near the headquarters and shipyard of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, an educational nonprofit that owns and funds the replica ship.
The foundation has a lovely new Maritime Center, which includes a museum, a ¾ model of the ship with working rigging, a perhaps unparalleled collection of handmade ships from around the world, and a custom designed workshop area with sail loft, and bays for sanding and finishing spars, blocks, and other parts of the vessel.
Sailing a square rigger is quite different than the fore-and-aft rigs I have previously sailed, and I had to learn- and will still need to learn a great deal. Sailing KALMAR NYCKEL is also a special kind of magic, this blend of old and new, and each time the sails are set, the world becomes more glorious. The ship’s culture, set by the officers, is positive, encouraging, and cooperative, with the operative word being “alacritous,” meaning “cheerful readiness,” an infectious demeanor shared by all.