Tall Ship Tales

imagesIt is difficult to write a novel about 17th century merchant ships when you have never seen a 17th century merchant ship up close. It’s not like you can run down to the local marina and have a gander. That would be nice – I thought often while researching ancient ship building techniques and trying to imagine the layout of decks and rigging.

I am writing a novel set in 1656 in which the main character travels aboard a Dutch merchant vessel. I have found it extremely challenging.

Wandering through the internet for information, I stumbled upon a contest. The grand prize was a VIP pass to see the tall ships visiting Steveston harbour the following week. Coincidence? No, way. I knew I was going to win this, because I had to. I needed to be able to walk on board a vessel that would portray – as closely as possible – the look and feel of a tall ship from 1656.

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Do I really need to say it? Of course, I won! Grand Prize Winner! Four VIP passes to tour the ships and be on board during a gun battle at sea! Yes, I need to use exclamation points!

Now the pressure to finish my book is going to be impressive. Scary. Perhaps even scarier than tossing around on the ocean waiting to see if a cannon backfires. Is that even the correct word? Do cannons backfire? Or, do they simply explode, taking with them half the ship? Important information to know.

What is wrong with me? I am going to be in a gun battle at sea! Exciting as hell. My real worry is how I can talk my sister out of dressing as a pirate for the occasion. Why couldn’t the prize be for one person? I am taking my kids, Amy (13) and Henry 254318_10150335388789968_948512_n(11) and my aforementioned, slightly eccentric sister, Helen (she would kill me if I told you she is almost 40, so I won’t). She even has her pirate name ready…Helen Highwater. And her husband is working on building an animatronic parrot to adorn her shoulder.

At first I thought her enthusiasm and support was cute. Then my daughter began digging through scarves and asking if we happened to have any eye patches lying around. I was thankful that my son kept his sanity and takes after his mother. He kept asking if anyone in past gun battle re-enactments had ever been hit by a cannonball. I reassured him that they fire blanks, but secretly hoped a certain parrot wearer might get taken out by a stray shot.      

The day dawned for the great battle at sea.  Off to Steveston harbour for our Ships to Shore adventure. First, we had to swing by and pick up my very excited sister who had reluctantly agreed not to dress up. I felt the day would be full of spectacle enough. No need to draw attention to ourselves. I had pointed out to Helen that dressing as a pirate may be gauche. We were to board a merchant square-rigger and I was sure the crew would be dressed in period costume but would not look kindly on a ‘Jack Sparrow’ imitation.

Boarding the Lady Washington
Boarding the Lady Washington

We arrived early in the picturesque, historical town of Steveston. The sun shone promisingly on the Ships to Shore event. It took quite a while to walk down to the dock but as we drew nearer, we spied the masts with sails secured. A thrill ran through me and I couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear. The Ships to Shore was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was with heart aflutter that I boarded the Lady Washington, amazed by the amount of rope that I saw. One imagines a lot of ropes to hoist the sails and such, but it is mind-boggling to see the intricacies of lines and pulleys. Stepping onto the deck was like stepping back in time.

Ships to Shore: Preparing to fire

Most of our time on board the Lady Washington was spent staying the hell out of the way of the hard-working crew, most of who were volunteers. Captain Cook (his real name) was a leather-faced veteran who you could picture swapping tales with other ship’s masters with a tankard of ale in hand. The gunner was the one we had to be very wary of. He ran around the deck of the Lady Washington with black powder in his pockets and a smoldering stick in hand ready to light the cannons when in range of the opposing ship, the Hawaiian Chieftain. A call of “Prepare for gun-fire!” required the passengers to repeat the order and plug their ears.

It was thrilling to see the Chieftain circling us and maneuvering for a better shot at the more vulnerable areas of the Lady. If they succeeded in getting a clear shot at her masts, rudder, or even crew, they would be awarded a certain amount of points. My sister behaved herself, but kept gesturing to a small boy in pirate attire. When she was close enough to me, she hissed, “I told you so!” and glared at me for the rest of the trip. “He’s five!” I tried to reason.

The Hawaiian Chieftain
The Hawaiian Chieftain

The Lady Washington was used in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. It was the Interceptor, the ship stolen by Jack Sparrow.

It also had a small cameo in one of the Star Trek movies. Very exciting to stand on deck, hand on railing, imagining Johnny Depp in the same position, calling to his crew, “Now, bring me that horizon!”

This was an enjoyable family adventure, and one I would highly recommend. Just leave any crazy siblings at home!

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The notorious pirate, Helen Highwater

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