There are some things – that simply escape me to put into words. It’s as if the idea is so close to the heart, so primal, so deep, that any attempt to describe it will surely fail. Yet, like so many things across time, the more powerful something speaks to us, the more we fumble to put into words that which moves us.
For me, this powerful emotion lies in the beauty of a tall ship. Docked here on the east bank of the Sacramento River is the Hawaiian Chieftain, a topsail ketch and 19th century replica of a traditional trading vessel. She sailed to our port on Oct 15th and will depart on Dec. 14th to make her way down the coast to San Diego. I could rattle off stats here – her sail area, her length on deck, her draft – information you can find on a website, but that isn’t necessarily what makes her beautiful though that is part of it. I am reminded of a line from that infamous Hollywood pirate, Capt. Jack Sparrow, “it’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails – that’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is, what the Black Pearl really is – is freedom.” And so it is. A ship is freedom. There is a magic that surrounds these tall ships like a shroud descended from the heavens. But i think that magic – in reality – comes from love. Love of the shipwrights as they dream into being the body of a ship; love of the carpenter as he planes the wood for her hull and decks; love of the sailmaker weaving miles of canvas into billowing sails; love of the crew who bath and feed her and keep her a happy ship; love of the Captain who knows her every mood, strength, and weakness, and calls her, “My Love, My Love…” Love of the Ocean. Love of the unknown that some call adventure. Love is the magic that fills the sails and floats the beautiful tall ships from one port to another.
I was very fortunate, though i think luck had little to do with it. Maybe destiny. Fate. Several years ago i sailed upon the Hawaiian Chieftain in the San Juan Islands that lie between Washington and Canada. A three day passage from Townsend to Anacortes, winding our way through some of the most beautiful islands whose giant ferns, trees, and misty mornings made me think of a time before humans. The Hawaiian Chieftain sailed with the Lady Washington, what a sight! To walk the decks of one ship while gazing across the water to see another tall ship gliding silently through the mists. Dreamlike. There were times when we saw no other boats, no other ships. Just these two great ladies, the water, and the mist covered islands. The crew taught me to haul on the braces, to read a leadline, and to stand a watch at night. I treasured every second. After three days of sailing, the crew saw me off with a farewell song – “don’t forget your old shipmates…” I slept on shore that night in sight of the docks. I still rocked to the motion of the ship and heard her ship bells ringing as i fell asleep…
If you visit the Hawaiian Chieftain, and i strongly suggest you do, as you walk the decks take a moment, close your eyes, let the noise of our modern world drift away, and imagine the spray of salty sea air, the wind in your hair, the roll of the Ocean. Imagine hauling on the lines, going aloft, and shimmying out the bowsprit to furl the sails. It’s hard work sailing a ship but the payoff cannot be measured – not with money, words, or pictures.
So if you find yourself in a nostalgic mood, or you want to get out and do something different, take a wander down to Old Sac and visit the docks near Joe’s Crab Shack. The Hawaiian Chieftain lays docked just below the restaurant. She’s open for tours and the ship’s crew will be happy to answer your questions. But if you feel that special magic, hear the call of the sea, ask the crew about an adventure sail or maybe even a passage sail. Who knows, you might find yourself volunteering for a two week crash course in sailing a tall ship at sea!
…Fair Winds and Following Sea, Hawaiian Chieftain!
Special Note: The Hawaiian Chieftain is working in conjunction with the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services to collect food and clothing donations for the holidays. So when you’re making your plans to visit the ship, bring along some non-perishable foods, infant formula, or winter clothing for children and adults and donate for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Photo taken in San Francisco, Feb. 2010