A maritime archaeologist rarely gets to spend time with a wooden sailing ship that has not yet sunk. The following is an accounting of my time onboard the Chesapeake Pilot Schooner Virginia and our voyage from Jacksonville to Miami.

Day I – Meeting and Greeting
My good friend Rob Mitchell had delivered me, seabag in hand, to the banks of the St. Johns River, deep in the concrete canyon of downtown Jacksonville. With the pallor of a winter afternoon, sunlight danced off the water to backlight the deep blue hull of the schooner Virginia. She was to be my home for the next four days and this peaceful moment was to be the last bit of quietude I would experience for the duration of the trip.
I had been invited to help crew the schooner down to Miami and boy was my excitement palpable. Rob had been promised a tour of the boat in exchange for him schlepping me up there (plus an oyster lunch greased the skids for the drive to Jacksonville.) So, we both hopped onboard and met Isaiah Young, deckhand aboard Virginia. Isaiah was the only soul onboard at the time, standing duty over the boat while everyone else was off taking care of last minute business ashore. He graciously welcomed us to the boat and gave Rob a tour while I settled my belongings into the bunk assigned to me. The main salon where I would be berthed is a spacious compartment amidships where the schooner’s hull affords the greatest breadth and depth. No stooping is required here or anywhere else in the boat as her overheads are comfortable but the salon is where life is best aboard the schooner. A long picnic-like table adorns the center of the room, running fore and aft, its aft-most portion embracing the mainmast stump that presides over the room like a wooden totem. The table, as well as most of Virginia’s brightwork, is made from mahogany and has been varnished to a deep luster one can almost shave by. In the center is a long tray containing condiments for meals as well as snacks for the crew while underway.
At the forward end of the table is the main companionway shooting up to the deck so while you are eating in the salon crew may be climbing the ladder right above you (fortunately a cloth was fashioned to keep debris from falling on your plate from the companionway!) The table also has a lip on it to keep your spaghetti tamed and out of your lap. Speaking of keeping things tamed and ordered, a cupboard aft of the table keeps the ship’s mugs and is also host to a coffee station. Coffee onboard, as with any serious vessel, is a staple that can be found in good quantity and great quality at almost any hour of the day. Going up the companionway for a cold midnight watch just wouldn’t be the same without that fortifying cup. And so, I know began to understand where the essentials were kept. To either side of the main salon table are the berths for guests. Six bunks are arranged on each side in three columns of two. Mine was the lower berth on the port side, a particularly good vantage point to observe the goings-on of the boat, even when pretending to sleep in rough conditions. For berthing aboard a tallship Virginia’s accommodations offer a fair amount of space. However, my forehead never quite managed to embrace the concept of confined quarters as I repeatedly managed to ding up the overhead woodwork by banging my head into it. Inside the bunk a small shelf was rigged to store my necessities although I found that stuffing them next to the mattress was much safer for me and my gear since it wouldn’t fly out in an overly-ambitious roll and would simultaneously act as a wedge to keep me from being ejected. As a small aside, the berth felt very homely since the Pendleton blankets provided were the same as I sleep under in my bedroom so this personal touch was definitely noticed. However, we are here to learn about the boat, not blankets. In the berth was a lifejacket assigned to me as well as an immersion suit. As a last ditch piece of safety equipment, an immersion suit completely covers the body except for the face and offers superior insulation qualities as well as buoyancy. While aboard I never got the chance to try it on, I do hear its fun to try and race into your suit that makes the wearer look like a nautical Gumby.
I should really depart from the salon here and follow in Rob and my footsteps, leading us back on deck and to the forward-most part of the main deck. A large cast aluminum hatch is opened to reveal the forepeak. Looking inside we could see that aside from several tons of heavy anchor chain, the bosun’s locker adorned side pockets consisting of dozens of cans of paint, varnish, cleaners, tar, and polish. A tonnage bulkhead separates the chain locker from the storage area but can be crawled through to access both compartments. While underway the deck hatch is kept closed and the forepeak is the #1 watertight compartment aboard the schooner. Next aft is the #2 compartment, consisting of the foc’sle, cook’s quarters, two heads, and the galley. A small vee-shaped room containing a companionway, the foremast stump, and eight bunks, the foc’sle is where Virginia’s professional crew live. As with A. H. Dana aboard the brig Pilgrim, these folks live ‘before the mast’ and in heavy seas the foc’sle can be quite the bucking bronco to live in.
Moving aft to the galley, this is Carey’s country. Having never sailed aboard a tallship before I was naïve to typical shipboard fare and quality. From my very first visit to Virginia I had, apparently, been spoiled along with the rest of the crew. Performing duties as cook aboard a vessel filled with a constantly changing compliment of visitors and students, constantly moving sideways and up and down, and executing your job in a space the size of a large walk-in closet is no small task. But this is where Virginia’s chef shines. Carey cooks three meals a day for three watches, provides fresh hot coffee almost round the clock, keeps snacks available to the crew, and lays out mid-rats (midnight rations for the first and mid watches.) The center of this floating kitchen is a large cast iron stove powered by diesel from Virginia’s fuel tanks. One would immediately think a diesel powered stove would be a source of evil aboard a boat, giving off noxious fumes, soot, and other undesirables. But, this one is quite the opposite. Given the cool temperatures in Jacksonville prior to our departure and relatively cool weather for the first day, the stove cut the edge off the air in the boat and provided a nice place to warm up during the night. The galley surfaces are all butcher-block constructed and house recessed refrigeration and freezer units which Carey keeps stocked with her delectable items. While aboard, I enjoyed meatloaf with stir-fried broccoli, real mashed potatoes, gingerbread cake, fresh fruits, blueberry pancakes, excellent chicken soup, and spaghetti.
Before we start to gain weight lets move to the heads. I know the bathroom is probably not the most exciting place to visit on a boat but throw in some heavy seas, rocking and rolling, and you’ve got the most exciting room aboard. Each of the two forward heads includes a modest shower stall that half of the entertainment comes from while sailing. Learning to use the Blake heads can also be a degree-awarding experience. Unlike our lubberly toilets on land which only require the press of a handle, the marine heads have a foot pedal and hand lever. The hand lever, kind-of a throttle for the whole affair, pumps in seawater and the foot pedal releases the contents of the bowl into Davey Jones’ Locker. Learning to not pump the bowl too full while underway is important. The infinitely sensitive blackwater plumbing aboard the boat can inspirie the wrath of the engineer, whose job it is to ferret-out clogs and free them (usually entailing a crawl into the dank recesses through some tonnage bulkhead with a flashlight and a tool bag laden with expletives.)
Leaving the #2 watertight compartment we pass through a heavy iron door. A series of levers and switches control this door that can be shut to separate the compartments and maintain their sealed integrity. Its heavy cast iron frame also provides a wonderful place for the uninitiated to bang their heads against while passing through. When at sea the door is kept half-closed so crew can pass through but allowing it to be closed in half the time it would take were it kept fully open. We now have entered the salon, the #3 watertight compartment. I’ve dawdled here plenty and so we walk right on through to the next watertight bulkhead and pass into a small passageway. On our left is a small space with two berths, usually used to house a guest captain should Virginia be carrying one, or in the case of a school group, a chaperone or two. To our right is a mahogany door and as we pass though it we enter the machinery space aboard the boat. On our left, amidships, is the engine room with the two Caterpillar diesels, fuel monitoring system, and workshop. Passing this by is a power generation room and electrical systems room. A large generator is kept here to power the house bank of 24V batteries. On the wall is a Christmas tree-like affair of digital displays, meters, and gauges, all telling us how much juice is available or currently being used. Underway, this is the second most popular spot to come to warm up in if its chilly steaming weather.
From the engineering spaces we now move up a small companionway to the most elegant room aboard the boat, the chartroom. I’ll use chartroom and charthouse interchangeably since this area protrudes slightly above deck so a view of the helm and deck spaces can be seen while performing chart work. This is the navigational hub of the boat. While underway the captain and officer of the watch constantly refer to the chart table to check the vessel’s position, record her progress, monitor the radar display, listen to the weather, or gather any other data one might need to ensure a safe passage. At night the chartroom becomes a bit more active since the radar may be turned on to scan for targets in low visibility as well as to discuss the intent of Virginia with other vessels and discover theirs. Among the instruments here are: radar, single-sideband radio, VHF marine radio, chart plotter, anemometer display, vessel speed indicator, wind direction indicator, depth gauge, barometer, recording barometer, striking bell ship’s clock, and ship’s chronometer. At night, under the soft red glow of the night lights the chartroom is quite an impressive place and fun to hang around in should you have the time.
Aft of the Chartroom is the next watertight compartment, one I dubbed the ‘goat locker’. Knowing full well that this term is usually reserved for senior enlisted quarters, aboard Virginia it consists of two cabins and one head for the captain and 1st mate. Respecting the duties and responsibilities of the senior officers I stayed out of this area unless invited, a practice followed by the rest of the crew. However, I had an opportunity before we left to see it and the captain and 1st have nicely appointed berthing compleat with a captain’s library, ship’s safe, and a bit more room to move about than the rest of the crew. Moving to the 5th and final watertight compartment, we now enter the lazarette. More quaintly known as the ‘laz’ by the crew, this is an aft storage compartment for heavy coils of line, deflated fenders while underway, an air compressor, and other sundry bosun’s supplies. Down in the lazarette one can appreciate the structure of the ship more than in any other place for here you get a good view of the sternpost and other associated timbers framing the beautiful stern of the vessel. During boat checks it may also be where you get to spend some time manually cranking out water from the bilge, making the view a bit less romantic. However, this compartment, like the forepeak, is kept shut while underway except for bilge checks or gear stowage. Completing our voyage through the ship, we are ready to head back on deck. At this point Rob departs with a twinge of longing in his eye as a fellow schoonerman but with the knowledge that I’ll fill him in on all the details once back in St. Augustine. Boy, would it be nice to bring a whole bunch of friends with me on this! No matter now because I’m here and ready to begin. The remainder of the evening I spend familiarizing myself with the crew manual and exploring the deck to tug on lines and explore their meanings. A little while later I joined the crew for a movie and pizza dinner. Slowly but surely we all coalesce onboard to build our full compliment. I turn in for the evening, dreaming of what will come.
Day II – Learning the Ropes
No ship is worth a tinkers dam without a quality crew. As Cpt. Edick told us when we first mustered as a crew at 0800 Sunday morning, saying “In a tight situation, everybody reverts to their basic level of training.” This means that whatever amount of training you have had is what you will be prepared with should an emergency arise. A normally intelligent person without safety training can be useless or even a hindrance in a tight spot where a well-trained Labrador retriever could save the day. So, safety training was next on our docket. First off, let me explain the three most important types of situations a ship’s crew must be prepared for: man overboard, fire, and preparing to abandon ship. We went specifically through each situation and every person aboard was assigned a specific task. You had to know this task, no matter how inconsequential it seemed, and know how and where to perform it at any time.
We were utterly reliable on each other, as any crew is aboard, to save us if we fell overboard, to save us from being burnt to a crisp, and to make sure we all abandoned ship together and in a prepared manner should the need arise. It may have seemed silly to dither on safety so much for a two day sail down the coast to Miami but any serious crew knows that fires, sinkings, and manoverboards happen at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. Vigilance is key and, frankly, it felt good to be part of such a competent group of folks who know how to have fun and not lose their heads at the same time.
Launching and retrieving the ship’s boat, Walrus, was next on the agenda and using the gantlines we sweated her aboard for some last minute TLC and preparations for the trip. To do this greenhorns like myself needed to know and understand the calls of the officers so we can work in concert. Lots of ‘avasts’ and ‘haul away fo’ard gantline’s were called out to us and we worked together pretty well for having been idled for seven weeks making repairs and including flatlanders like me.
After all of the drills and instruction ended it was time for dinner. This was a whole-crew mandatory dinner and finally a time to see everyone in one place and able to catch up, something that would no longer happen after we slipped our lines. Our final night in Jacksonville was spent at a local pub grabbing a few last laughs and beers before we hit the water in the morning. Cpt. Edick had informed us that we would be departing at 1100 sharp to sail out with the ebb tide. The St. Johns River is bottlenecked at Jacksonville and a vast amount of water tries to pack its way through during each tide’s ebb and flood. What results is a wicked tidal rip through the channel that can make going against it a slow and fuel-devouring experience. So, there was no reason to battle the tide and we would use it to our advantage for the four-hour cruise down to the sea.
Day III – Standing Out to Sea
The next morning we all awoke at 0700 for breakfast at 0730 and then crew muster at 0800. Having a fair amount to get finished prior to departure we busied ourselves making the boat seaworthy and ensuring we had everything necessary to complete the voyage. At 1050 I had quite a knot in my stomach, aching to slip lines and shove off for the adventure! At precisely 1106 we did just that and the captain called for the #1 dockline to be eased, the staysail to be raised, and then for each following dockline to be cast off. This allowed the northerly breeze to pay off the bow from the dock and begin our turn into the river’s channel and sail downstream. After we headed into the center of the channel the foresail was also raised to add a little bit of canvas to our meager spread. At this point I was asked to perform my first duty as bow watch. On the St. Johns River carrying out this job meant lots of walking from stem to stern to report the sightings. Every navigational aid I saw was to be reported to the officer of the deck including its approximate bearing off the bow, color, number, and distance. On a river that handles well over eight million tons of cargo each year aids to navigation are essential. So, there are bunches of them in the form of buoys, range markers, etc. However, it was a great cruise down the river. When one typically thinks of Jacksonville, they imagine a coastal community, a port town. I certainly didn’t imagine that the cruise to the ocean from Jacksonville would take four hours! But, to navigate all of the rivers twists and bends at the pace of a sailing craft takes time. I learned a lot during this, getting to see the cargo terminals, Navy drydocks, and other facets of northeast Florida’s marine industrial setting.
A reporter from the Florida Times-Union had joined us for the departure and would be let off at the old Jacksonville Marina. When we reached their destination the ship was hove-to and the small boat was launched for Bosun Janet to deliver them to shore. Liz Van Hooserm, food columnist for the Times-Union, was onboard to interview our cook and Carey had given her quite a story to tell. Now, it was time for Liz and her companion to don foul weather gear, lower themselves into the Walrus, and head back to land. For the complete story and a very nice interview video please visit:
Our journey really began now as we reached the historic fishing village of Mayport and the Navy basin. Rollers from the Atlantic were filtering into the inlet and Virginia took on the movement of the sea for the first time in a few weeks. Excitement from everyone onboard was palpable as the Walrus returned, was hoised aboard, and the work of raising the mainsail and jib was at hand. My weekend work aboard the 60’ pilot schooner Momentum involves raising a mainsail, foresail, and a jib but those sails are like handkerchiefs compared to the big canvas on Virginia’s masts. It took the whole complement to heave away at the peak and throat halliards to get the gaff hoisted and properly sweated into place. Afterwards, the excess line must be tended away to keep it shipshape and out of danger. When any line is coiled and hung on the pinrail or from the ratlines it is hung high and tight, ensuring they never touch the deck to keep them dry and out of the way of hazard. The last thing the crew wants in the middle of the night is to have a snake’s honeymoon of wet line washing all over the deck. A situation like this could even be lethal should someone get caught in it or should sail need to be shortened in a hurry during a squall.
As a throwback to Virginia’s past, a St. Johns River pilot boat was heading in just after having dropped of a pilot aboard a seagoing tug towing a cargo barge into the inlet and up the river. While going past, we doffed our hats in respect from one pilot boat to another. The swells were now building up over the Mayport bar and the knockabout bow began to throw spray. It felt as though a greyhound had been released from long confinement and was stretching her legs to begin a long run. The hull and innerworks began the rhythmic song of a wooden ship at sea, raising hair on the back of my neck and my fellow crewmembers. Upon reaching the ocean and seeing the endless horizon the crew’s mood was almost giddy. The real work of the sea had begun. To heighten the experience Sara, 1st mate, yelled out “Man Overboard! This is a drill!” Our first chance to use our skills was at hand and my specific duty was to point at the spot in the water where our wayward companion would be cheerfully awaiting our return. The drill went well and we were back to scanning the horizon for the emptiness so longed for.
Ponte Vedra’s high dunes hove into view as we continued on our course to the southwest. Virginia was now making eight and a half knots in a steady fifteen knot NNE breeze and we were all eager to get some sea room between the rudder and the coast. Watchstanding also began in earnest now that we were at sea and for the next 48 hours would be manning the helm ‘round the clock. I had been assigned to ‘A’ watch along with 1st mate Sara, deckhand Aaron, and the new intern Ginny. After the rest of the crew had gotten their fill of the vista they retired below to settle in for the watchkeeping schedule. I quickly learned that when not on watch it is best to prioritize getting sleep. As a lubber with a 9-5 circadian rhythm (the typical body clock of a non-sailor) I had to quickly adapt to be able to reliably perform what was asked of me. We were also informed that even if not on watch if you ventured out on deck to skylark, read, or just enjoy the setting you were a prime candidate to help out with any deck tasks such as sail handling. Virginia’s watch keeping schedule runs a standard seven watches for every 24 hour period. The first watch of the day is the mid watch, running from midnight to 0400, the morning watch runs from 0400-0800, the forenoon watch from 0800-1200, the afternoon watch from 1200-1600, the first dog watch from 1600-1800, the second dog watch from 1800-2000, and finally and most confusingly the first watch from 2000-2400. Our first watch was the first dog watch, a nice two hour stint by which to enjoy the boat, get to know it under sail, and spend some time working on our sea legs. To the observer I must have looked like I had recently discovered what was at the bottom of a bottle of rum staggering all over the deck and cursing the foot magnets constantly grabbing my feet and causing another stumble. One true test of the able seaman is his or her ability to stand on deck with their feet as close together as possible. My efforts to pass muster with the rest of the seadogs more often ended with a quick spraddling of the legs and an arm lunge for something more substantial to grasp than ego. However, Virginia trained me well and in short order I was strutting about the deck in an Ahab-like manner. Well, something like that!
After our first watch we moved below to get a bite to eat. Carey, as usual, had a hot meal waiting for us and after we ate it was our duty to clean up the dishes. So far, I had been feeling very fine and the motion of the sea was only a pleasant addition. However, my brain had failed to tell me not to stand next to a hot stove and stare at a slop bucket full of plate scrapings. Suddenly my inner ear went off-duty and my stomach didn’t know whether to stand or deliver. Fresh air was in order and so I excused myself from the galley (which was well received by my messmates) and went up on deck to ‘take the air’. Boy did this help and soon enough I was back in order and down below cleaning the salon’s table and sole. I should have mentioned earlier that floors belowdecks are known as ‘soles’. After mess duty it was time to take in the sunset and then retire to my bunk to grab some rest for the next watch, the mid watch from 0000-0400. About a half hour before we were to come on watch we all received wake-ups from the on watch crew. Goldwyn, my fellow guest-crewman, delivered the best wakeup I’ve ever had. In a soft and sage voice he welcomed me back to the world of the conscious and let me know the sea state, temperature, wind conditions, sail configuration, any current vessels on the horizon, and his suggestions for dress. The night had turned cold and was excessively dark from the complete lack of a moon. In the salon the only lighting was from the red lamps lit for nighttime operation and I roused from my berth to put on heavy watchkeeping clothes, including a foul weather top to keep me dry from spray. The coffee station became my new best friend and a hot mug joined me as I emerged on deck. Aside from the creaking of the rig and whistle of the wind through the shrouds it was fairly quiet and the two watches exchanged greetings in sotto voce. Taking the deck at exactly eight bells, 0000 hours, we were informed of any radar targets of interest as well as the course to steer by. Sara sent me to the bow to peer into the inky darkness for lights or anything else report-worthy that might appear across the bows.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness the stars became more and more apparent. When I lived in Wyoming and Utah the sky at night was diamond studded but nothing approaching the total visibility of being at sea on a moonless night. Looking up through the riggings was a dizzying experience not because of the motion of the ship or the height of the rig but due to the dazzling radiance of constellations framed by the gentle lines of the rigging, sails, and masts. Looking down at the cutwater stars were forming in our bow wake as bioluminescence flickered and danced in the gurgling foam. Only occasionally would the distant glow of a passing freighter or fishing boat mar the deepest blue of the skyline and remind us of other mariners sharing the ocean. I clipped my safety harness line into the shrouds and leaned back against it to sway with the ship, feeling the motion of every wave. Riding like this, instead of artificially stabilizing myself on two legs, was more natural and a powerful way to experience the ocean at night.
Relieved of bow watch, I took a turn at the helm. The process of relieving the helm was more drawn out than I had imagined. When instructed to do so, I would report to the helmsman on duty and tell him or her that I was there to relieve them. They would acknowledge with the course heading, which I would promptly repeat and then report back to the watch officer. The watch officer would repeat it back to me which I would again relay to the helmsman, indicating that all three people currently involved in steering the ship were well aware of the ordered course. Only after this ceremony would I actually take the wheel and keep course. Aboard Virginia courses are not given in degrees of the compass. Rather, they are kept by cardinal directions and points. A compass rose, when divided properly, is broken into 32 points. From north, moving clockwise, you reach north-by-east, the next point. Then comes north-northeast, northeast-by-north, northeast, and so on. Not being used to this system takes a little thinking, especially since Virginia’s compass is not labeled with these specific designation but has a system of triangles and diamonds indicating the 32 points. But, with help from the crew and constantly staring at the compass during watch it was easily handled. I had taken the helm before on the 1st dog watch but saving the description of being at the helm for the first time at night is well worth it.
As a kid I, like many other young boys and girls, always enjoyed twisting on steering wheels and imagining they were the wheel of the USS Ironsides, HMS Victory, or even one of the great battleships of WWII steaming in to deliver a thundering broadside. Little did I think that the greatest wheel experience is, I suspect, taking the helm of a sailing ship in the quiet of night with the peacefulness of a blank horizon. Virginia’s big brass wheel is connected directly to her rudder through a heavy gearing system. No hydraulics or computers second guess or dampen the sensation (watch it now, I don’t want to hear any crap from you tillermen!) Remembering to steer the ship and not the compass I found it thrilling to feel the forward motion of the boat as it slid like greased lightening through the waves. Each trim of the sails would result in different handling. This night the wheel was very responsive and took little coaxing to keep the bow on course. Aside from checking the compass regularly to ensure a proper course, I enjoyed watching the bow heave and roll with each wave, compensating as necessary to keep her from swinging wildly. This watch it was very well balanced and at times I wouldn’t have to make adjustments constantly. By 0400 we were all ready to depart the deck and hit the hay once more. I settled into my berth and, before going to sleep, filled in my journal for the day to the tune of regularly creaking rigging.
Day IV – At Sea
The next morning arrived for me at 1000 after a very sound six hours of sleep. After washing my face, brushing teeth, and embracing the first coffee of the day I ventured on deck to see what the morning had to offer. The forenoon watch had set a fishing line off the stern. A simple hand line, it was tied to a stanchion and had a length of rubber shock cord attached to help set the hook should any fish bite. Cpt. Edick had chosen a nice chartreuse skirt lure to tow and it was bubbling about forty yards behind the transom. I made my way over to the helm to chat with the watch officer, Dylan, and see what the morning had brought them. Not long into our discussion I glanced back and saw that a fish had taken the lure and was now waterskiing behind our racing schooner. It was quickly brought in and turned out to be a small tuna. Not big enough to keep, it was returned with the hopes that we would catch a few of his bigger brothers. Only one cup of coffee later another fish hit and this one was again too small to keep. Nonetheless, it was fun catching them!
I was scheduled to be back on duty for the afternoon watch and the weather had turned warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. Not having brought any shorts, it was time to roll up the pant legs and enjoy the sun. Having traveled several degrees of latitude south the water color was now the cerulean hue so familiar to the tropics. In its clear depths we would see turtles as we passed by them and more than once enjoyed the company of dolphins and porpoises. The dolphins would come alongside and, after swimming right next to the hull for a while, would dart underneath to reappear on the other side. Once they had sufficiently checked us out they would disappear but their fleeting presence was welcomed as an omen of good luck.
At noon ‘A’ watch took the deck once more and I was back on the helm. With the main and foresail sheeted out we were still making a respective 8.5-9kts and as we tore along the wind felt good, moderating the sun’s rays. The warmth of the brass in hand and sway of the vessel as I kept her on our south-half-east course again inspired pride to be sailing with such a lovely vessel and competent crew. Time for contemplation was cut short by the cry of ‘Fish on!’ from a fellow crew member. Sara took the helm from me as I hauled in a keeper tuna, one bound for the galley. Throughout the course of the watch we caught four more fish, plenty to feed the entire crew. As the last fish was hauled aboard Carey delivered some Ch’amch’i Hoe to the helm, sliced raw tuna spread. We enjoyed it with goat cheese on herb crackers and what an appetizer that was right before a fresh fish dinner!
Not long after the last of the fish was cleaned and sent below Carey called out for dinner. The tuna filets were great and served with a coconut milk rice, stir fried vegetables, and fresh baked gingerbread cake with whipped cream. After the meal I took a little nap before having watch duty again at 2000. After dinner I enjoyed our second sunset at sea, this time punctuated with a few clouds. We had hove in to the coast a bit and were cruising only 6-8 miles off the beach. The lights of Stuart, Ft. Pierce, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach were our constant companions to the west. Right after sunset the wind freshened a bit and clocked more to the east. Just before our watch the main and foresail were trimmed to spill a bit more wind so we wouldn’t arrive in Miami too early. This only knocked a knot or so off our speed and were still making 7.5-9 knots. With the change in wind and increase in velocity the sail trimming later had little effect and we were back up at 9kts with occasional spikes to 10. Back on watch I took the bow watch first, clipping in to the rig and swaying with the boat. There was a bit more traffic down south and more boats to report. It was a good opportunity for me to practice distinguishing light patterns on boats and identifying them using the standard patterns of nighttime recognition. We only contacted one vessel via radio, a gambling boat out of Palm Beach lit like a Christmas tree on fire. With all of these lights it was hard to ascertain her steaming lights and so we hailed her to request their course heading and speed. It may seem odd to contact a vessel that is several miles away. As lubbers, cars on the road a mile away pose no threat of collision. However, at sea, especially at night, collision avoidance is taken very seriously and ships will often set their radars to alert the deck officer to any vessel within eight miles and will track their course to ensure collision avoidance. Standardized procedures are recognized internationally but collisions at night are all too common an occurrence. One of the most dangerous vessels to meet at sea is a tug engaged in towing a barge. The tug may be readily visible with the naked eye but the 500’ barge behind it is not, nor is the tow cable stretched out between. More than one vessel has run into a wall of steel or been garroted in the darkness after believing they were making safe passage to stern of a ship.
A notable difference on this watch was the handling of the ship. After being relieved of the bow watch and taking the helm I noticed an immediate change in her handling. With the change in wind as well as the rig, the boat’s balance had changed and she was much more finicky to stay on a constant heading. As the wind increased and decreased in speed the bow would fall off quickly or head up to weather and quick wheelwork was in order to make sure we didn’t box the compass. At one point during watch the captain had come up on deck and was standing before me talking with the first mate. A sudden change in the wind made the bow veer off towards the beach and our course changed by three or four points. We were temporarily on a run before the wind and the rigging quieted as the lights from shore were now more in front of us than beside. I was already hauling on the wheel when the captain asked our course, to which I responded it was hastily being restored and I would try and alert him the next time I let the ship make an unannounced course change!
At the end of the watch the captain called an ‘All hands on deck’ so we could take in sail. It was like riding a wild mare bareback through the night while hauling back on useless reins. So, we were going to take in the jib and mainsail to reduce the canvas carried aloft. Taking sail in under strain is an exciting job, especially at midnight with heavy spray occasionally dousing you. We were all fully clothed in foul weather gear and I was instructed to go forward to help get the jib to deck and tied down. As the downhaul brought the canvas in my job was to wrestle it from the wind’s command and try and reduce it to a somewhat orderly pile. After all struck to deck, Goldwyn, Isaiah, and I put a daisy chain on it with the downhaul and lashed it for proper storage. It was now time to handle the mainsail. The biggest sheet on the boat attached to the biggest wood, managing this was no easy task. To the skipper’s and crew’s credit it was all done with order and in as safe a manner that could be asked for given the conditions. Sara first showed me how to take down the throat halyard and Ballentine the line on deck, making three small stacks within one larger circle. It looked pretty cool once done and would let the line pay out as needed to drop the gaff. I then helped unhook the preventer, a line used to keep the boom from unexpectedly gibing should we change course unexpectedly. Sheeting the main boom in a touch, it was easier to reach the preventer, normally hanging out over the water. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was preparing the remaining lines to be handled. Lowering away with care, the gaff came down to rest on top of its flakes of canvas and we quickly put gaskets around the whole bundle to keep it from blowing amess. The main boom was now sheeted home amidships and the running backstays could be moved forward to their storage eyes. With all of this done we quickly mustered and exchanged watches.
As the night wore on and we came closer to the Gulf Stream the seas rose in height slightly and became a bit more confused. The rush of the Gulf Stream’s ribbon of warm water literally collides with the water bedsides and below it and can mound up into a sloshy patch of sea. We sailed into this and after I had returned to my berth it was a bit more troublesome to move about belowdecks. Every stitch of extra clothing I had was jammed under the lower side of my mattress to try and jack it back into a somewhat level plane. The added wind heeled Virginia over enough that my berth was now on the ‘uphill’ side of the boat and when you add the pitching and yaw of the boat I found myself in a changing pattern of being weightless and then suddenly having gained an extra fifty pounds. As I would rise from my berth in a semi-weightless state the ship would move from under me slightly, almost as if it was trying to buck me from my perch. We were shipping a bit of water, in the form of heavy spray, and some of this decided to find its way down a bit of piping, the onto the deck beam right over my head. Our rolling motion would let it accumulate there upside-down and then drip onto my head. I first tried to sleep with some foul weather gear over my head but after a while the soaked mattress introduced the water from below as well as above.
Realizing that sleep was futile in this I resolved to move to the lower side of the ship into an empty bunk. Right then the boat met with a particularly roguish set of waves that pounded her bow and sent a shiver through the hull. I swore I could hear each frame shudder in protest but knew the boat’s sound nature and strong construction. Silverware came pouring out of its holder on the salon table and condiments were now clattering across the cabin sole. Not wanting to greet the morning to a broken-glass-and-knife carpet I decided that this was my time to strike. Rising from my bunk slightly to prepare to clean up the mess and then change my flag to the other side I was caught unaware by a furious roll and was ejected like a bar of soap from a prison shower. The flight was brief and fortunately the salon table caught me, some seven or eight feet away. Crabbing my way about the salon floor I caught up with the sliding escapees and stowed them into a cupboard with a hasp on its door. Having had my share of fun for the evening I crawled into a berth on the starboard side of the salon and lay there listening to the protest of the mainmast against its deck wedges. For the next few hours I lay in a semi state of awareness, listening to the boat inspections and watch changes.
I failed to mention the boat checks. Once every hour a boat check is performed. A crew member is assigned to do this by their watch officer and first, the deck is inspected to make sure the fire stations are correctly arranges, all lines and rigging are in their places and not in need of attention. The lifeboats are checked, fire extinguishers made secure if not, and a general sweeping of the deck for runaway items. Belowdecks every bilge is checked and, if needed, pumped dry. Virginia is routinely a dry boat but on this last night she was taking on a little water coming in the companionways and through the deck fittings. The stove is checked to make sure the flame hasn’t been extinguished, the engineering space is checked to make sure everything is in its place, and all logs are filled out. A general log records position, speed, heading, etc. while an engine log records the generator’s readings and battery bank readings such as battery temperature, amps being used, and percentage of bank left, etc. A boat check takes about fifteen minutes to complete and can be a less than thrilling thing to have to do for someone suffering from seasickness. Fortunately I wasn’t bothered by it and didn’t mind doing boat checks, I saw it as a way to get more familiar with the vessel and her systems.
Day V – Arrival in Miami
At about 0730 I went up on deck and what a view I was presented with. Miami was now in full view and, having never visited there before, it was quite a spectacle to behold. Scanning the endless wall of high-rise condominiums from north to south the cliché “My God, what hath man wrought?” honestly passed over my tongue. After the solitude of Virginia and her small crew it seemed as though we had gone from a quaint country lane to a busy four-lane freeway in a millisecond. Large container ships and other heavy traffic jostled for place in the steady stream of commerce entering and leaving the port of Miami. Except for small fishing boats, we were small fry, yet distinct given our sailing rig. After a quick breakfast, all hands were mustered on deck for a pre-arrival briefing and to take in the last of the canvas. Virginia’s diesels were warmed up for their shove into the busy roadstead. With the narrow channel, tidal flow behind us, and busy roadstead traffic sails had no place here and the 21st century rose before us like a hurried sunrise. Cpt. Edick informed us that the entrance to the boat basin and final approach to our slip would be tight and hot. Very little room was afforded us fore and aft at the assigned dockage. Goldwyn and I were assigned to the smallboat to be motored ahead, clear the dock of any obstructions, report dock conditions back to the boat, and receive dock lines. As we swayed the Walrus into the water I felt it an honor to get to be assigned this task. Perhaps Cpt. Edick wished to retain his trained crew aboard for the docking maneuver but catching Virginia’s dock lines at the right moment was not without gravity.
When Goldwyn and I arrived at the dock Bosun Janet left us to return to Virginia as escort. If needed, the smallboat could be used as a tug to move Virginia’s bow into position so Cpt. Edick could better manager her in the confined conditions. Meanwhile, Goldwyn and I had found a dinghy tied up to a floating platform tied to the dock right where Virginia was to be tied. After a brief conversation with the dockmaster a boat arrived and a guy hopped off with a pair of bolt cutters, snipped off the lock holding the affair to the pilings, and towed it off. Problem solved, Miami style!
Virginia now hove into view around the bend and prepared for her final approach. With gentle nudging from Walrus, she sidled into place and Goldwyn and I caught her lines and made fast. As with any well-run boat, arrival at the dock does not mean the work is done. Rather, the work begins. Dock lines needed adjusting and chafe gear was lashed on. All lines were stowed properly and over the next few hours everything was restored to museum-grade presentation. The fore and mainsails were given a harbor roll, making them appear without the slightest wrinkle and the headsails were properly daisy-chained and hung in order like big flexible rolls of white sausage. Despite us all being weary from the last night of tossing not a soul hesitated to get Virginia back into shape and when done, we had a proud looking vessel that stopped many people in their tracks while strolling past to admire her lines, orderliness, and beauty. As is said at sea ‘Ship, Crew, Self’, that is the hierarchy of importance and duty. It was now time for ‘self. We took showers, changed into less salt-encrusted clothes, and headed off to find a good beer, good music, and a Cuban sandwich. Thus ended our trip, all too brief. The ship’s intern, Ginny, though delighted to be released from the talons of seasickness, even missed being at sea in the natural setting of the schooner.
In retrospect, my experience aboard schooner Virginia was thrilling, adventurous, and profound. I cannot say enough positive about her crew and captain. From the first minute I was welcomed with warmth and graciousness. What little I was able to help the ship make the trip was offset by a mountain of knowledge and experience gained on my behalf. A special thanks goes out to Cpt. Moseley for his kind invitation, to Cpt. Edick for his hospitality, and to 1st Mate Sara for her patient tutelage. To the rest of the crew, especially Carey, thank you for taking the time to welcome and tolerate a lubber within your ranks. I look forward to sailing with you all again!
-Brendan Burke