Wooden Ships And Iron Men? You Bet! They Had To Be.


My first, and only, experience handling a sailboat came during my junior year in high school. For a kid my age it was high adventure. I got up in the middle of the night, dragged out my old bike, and pedaled through the night to Niantic, Conn. And there at anchor in the dawning light sat the Karakal, a 21-foot sailboat my friend Earl had named after the Tibetan mountain that towered above Shangri La in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon.”

Twenty minutes after I dropped my bike in the dew-wet grass beside the Niantic River, the Karakal was scudding across the bay, plowing through rolling surf on a windy October day. And what a day it turned out to be!

One of the best of my life.

The Karakal did not have a fixed keel. If it had we would have had to stay in deep water. Instead, the Karakal had a centerboard, a large iron plate which did the work of a keel, acting as a counterweight to the sails and allowing the boat to sail close to the wind. But the centerboard was not rigidly fixed to the bottom of the boat as a keel is. It could be raised and lowered, letting us sail right over the sandbars in the harbor.

I had never set foot on a sailboat before, but Earl was a great teacher, and after a short turn as “crew,” during which I learned to handle sails and centerboard, I found myself cast in the role of “captain,” sitting at the tiller and calling the shots while Earl did the work. How beautifully the Karakal handled! We could close haul our fore and aft triangular sails till they were as taut as steel, and sail right into the wind.

Yes, that day taught me a lot about sailing, Johnny.

Most of it wrong.

Let me tell you something. There’s a big difference between what a tiny little sailboat with a centerboard can do, and what the “tall ships” which opened the world for us can do. Yes, Earl and I whipped around that harbor, tacking back and forth, sailing with the wind, across the wind, and literally right into the wind. It was as though the wind were our obedient slave. But as any sailor will tell you, Johnny, the wind is no man’s slave.

I thought it was. Thought so for a long time too. You see, another thing that contributed to my abysmal ignorance was the fact that the next time I set foot on a sailing vessel happened in Karachi, Pakistan, 11 years after that day on the Karakal.

A very sweet young lady I have mentioned before in this column suggested we go for a sail. Sounded like fun to me, so we hired an Arab dhow — crew and all — and off we went. For an entire day, from sunrise to sunset we sailed the warm blue waters of the Arabian Sea. What an idyllic day! There I sat amidships with my one true love, watching happily as the five-man crew managed the ship, which was of course much larger than the tiny Karakal, but still seemed able to ignore the wind, its huge lateen rigged sails now billowing out in a following wind, and now tight-hauled as we jammed our way upwind. It was a wonderful day in every way except one. It added to my already considerable ignorance.

So how did I learn the truth about European sailing ships?

Not the hard way, thank God! I can’t tread water very long.

No, it was when I began reading the history of exploration that I came face to face with the fact that I was stuffed clean full of blueberry cupcakes when it came to sailing vessels.

You want the truth?

If the crossing of the vast oceans of our planet had been forced to wait until I was willing to put up with the things our seafaring ancestors put up with we’d still be sitting around in Europe, drinking tea, bowing to lords and ladies, spelling harbor “harbour” and wondering what the rest of the world looks like.

Listen to the words of one of the world’s great explorers — Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy. The year is 1771. Cook, already famous for his seamanship and discoveries, is mapping the new-found continent of Australia.

He is sailing the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, its dangers then unknown, and has just spent 60 days fighting a running battle to stay afloat, during which his ship Endeavour has barely escaped sinking among reefs and shoals a half dozen times. The winds are unpredictable. The water below his hull sometimes less than 4 fathoms deep. Endeavour has twice been driven upon unseen rocks. The crew has thrown overboard more than 50 tons of precious supplies — including food — to lighten the ship. A huge gash in the hull has been hastily repaired, but still leaks “prodigiously.” The crew is worn out and the ship afloat only by constant day and night pumping. Here are Cook’s words. I’ll give you just the choice bits ...

“A little after four o’clock of the morning the roaring of the surf was plainly heard, and at daybreak vast foaming breakers were plainly to be seen not a mile from us, toward which we found the ship was being carried by the waves ...

“We had at this time not an air of wind ...

“The yawl was put in the water and the longboat hoisted out, and both set to row ...

“We [found ourselves] not 80 yards from the breakers ...

“The ... sea washed the side of the ship ... in a breaker [so] high the very next time, that between us and destruction was only a dismal valley the breadth of one wave ...

“We had hardly any hopes of saving the ship or our lives as we were 10 leagues from the nearest land and the boats were not sufficient to carry the whole of us ...”

Can you sense the hopelessness in those words? The knowledge they are doomed and there isn’t a thing they can do about it?

They survived by a near miracle — a slight wind that lasted just long enough, along with constant rowing, for them to angle slowly away from the reef.

Many, many other ships were not so lucky.

But wind and reefs and rocks are only a small part of the dangers that beset our valiant ancestors when they dared upon the seas in wooden ships with nothing but sails for power.

Wait till you see what else they put up with — next week.


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