Up the Coast

… from April 2010…a Pacific Ocean tall ship experience


How we do travel! We race from place to place in our self-contained vehicles that can tell us with finite, satellite technology that we are on the corner of 5th and Main, that warm our seats, hold our coffee and fast-food chicken sandwiches, and secure us lovingly in the event of a crash. We are safe. We are comfortable.

Not so in the majority of the human race’s traveling history. Aside from the hazards of overland travel such as walking, riding an animal, and wagons trains, traveling by water was never what we would consider safe or comfortable. Families of sailors knew they may not ever see their loved one again when he set out to sea. Yes, him, men have had the majority until only recent times. Sailors only ate what meager nourishment was rationed to them, and their lives could end during the next storm or unexpected accident. We know we can scavenge at a local burger joint, call AAA for a flat, and summon an EMT in an emergency.

The ocean allows no conveniences. Despite modern capabilities and securities such as, say, the Coast Guard; it doesn’t take long to realize just how remote of a location is the lone ship on the water.

While I may have learned a bit about the struggles of sea travel throughout time, I had a recent taste of these realities. I boarded the Hawaiian Chieftain, a nineteenth century cargo brig (a two-masted ship), not so small as the average sailing boat we have all seen tooling the waters on a brilliant Sunday yet not so massive as a Spanish galleon.Boat Trip026
The Chieftain draws many an eye as she makes her way through the harbor looking like a vessel emerging from a time warp. Shipyard and mill workers curiously spy her as if they half expect to see a centuries old sailor or even a pirate aboard.

I boarded in Garibaldi, Oregon in a heavy rain and deep, dark cloud cover in the month of April. Our destination: Aberdeen, Washington, a rough one hundred miles north. Garibaldi sits at the northern edge of the Tillamook Bay, along the mid coast of Oregon, and about ninety miles west of Portland.

Our first feat was crossing the Tillamook Bar. The Bar is where the ebbing and flowing ocean meets the Tillamook, Trask, and Wilson Rivers as they push their fresh waters into the Pacific. Silt, constantly being churned, lifted, and re-deposited, makes a dangerous entry and exit for boats. Sailing was oh-so easy and pleasant until we crossed the bar, fighting the incoming tide, climbing and dodging incoming waves under the mindful watch of our Coast Guard escorts.Boat Trip043

Boat Trip004
Open ocean was only mildly tamer than our entry. Swells, judged to be about four to five feet (in my untrained estimate mind you), accompanied us as we turned our course north, keeping ever visible sights on the coastal range about twelve miles to our east.
From this point on in my journey, my entire perspective on historical sea travel began its epiphany. For the next thirty-six hours, I concentrated on holding on so as not to slam into stationary objects.

Stationary, you ask? Yes, the force that was alive between me and the stairwell, handrail, and inner cargo door was akin to the same force in which Hulk Hogan would shove a wrestler across the WWF ring.
There was no control. The energy of the water, the reaction of the boat, and the transference of it through the body leaves one out of one’s own physical control. An exaggeration you say? No. Not for this greenhorn.
Granted, the extent of my boating experiences is limited, this enlightenment turned out to be a genuine method of getting in touch with the experiences of our maritime ancestors. As a writer and writing instructor, I wanted to investigate further the feelings and trial associated with ocean passages. And, that I did.
I have gained a new sympathy to those who were new to travel on the ocean: sailors who were pressed into service, immigrants who had never set foot off land, or those who had merely taken the rare transoceanic journey. IMG00056-20100406-1743
When we drive our cars, we gauge distance by landmarks; we pass time by observing scenery; we hold intermittent conversation with our fellow passengers. I can only imagine those setting out for a new and foreign land did not have such luxuries. Day after day, week after week, and perhaps month after month of seeing the same ocean. How long did it take them to get their sea legs before they could hold conversation and stroll the decks?

My adventure, though intense on my level, by no means dares to appear on the scale of those who are accustomed to being at sea today or those in our history who perhaps knew no other life, sometimes against their will. Their endurance, their bravery, and their inevitable detachment from the world on land is only explainable by them and understood by their like. To them I say, “Cheers to you. You are brave, admired, and unique.”

“Pirates” can actually be seen aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain. When in various ports, the crew dons period wardrobe to take part in mock sea battles and to provide educational programs for school children. Gray’s Harbor Historical Seaport owns both the Hawaiian Chieftain and her sister ship the Lady Washington.

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