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Man About Town: At sea with a crew of fourth-grade insomniacs

Travel

All went well on the recent school outing to the tall-masted ship, which I helped chaperon. I only had to pull three kids from the water, and two of them were easy because the shark had just spit them out — pit-ewwwwwey — and I was able to snag them in the air, in sort of mid-somersault.

Pit-ewwwwwey ... gotcha.

The third kid, Snot, was a little trickier because he was covered in the traditional fourth-grade goo of Cocoa Puffs, grape juice and chocolate-flavored mucus.

"Yum," thought the shark, which released him only when I explained that fourth-grade boys cause vomiting and trichinosis in most sea creatures. Uncooked, they have many of the same traits as raw pork.

Otherwise, the fourth-grade field trip went off without a hitch, no small achievement with 30 kids and eight chaperons aboard a smelly old ship.

"You're cold? I don't want to hear about cold!" yelled the irritated first mate in the opening moments. "Not when I'm dealing with the coldness of a captain's soul."

"Oh, this is gonna be pleasant," I thought.

I love the poetry of the sea. Also love my own bed, a nice rib-eye and a nutty little Cabernet at the end of a day.

My wife knows this about me. So she secretly signed me up for the tall-masted field trip. Always in January, our school's annual Dana Point field trip is infamous for the lack of sleep it provides, the dank conditions, the coldness of the captain's soul.

As she signed me up, my lovely bride chuckled softly. All those scarves for Christmas. All those smutty, inappropriate birthday cards through the years.

Finally, revenge was hers.

In my defense, we lost no kids over the two days. That's the sort of courage and savvy leadership I brought to this, though my subgroup of six sailor-students took a lot of grief for making the most noise during our overnight watch.

We highly resented this, even though it was true. See, to keep them warm I'd fed them several cups of hot chocolate. As a result, we had the happiest bunch of sailors since Neptune.

They ricocheted around the deck during their festive 2-to-4 a.m. shift, as if having giggle-fits at the mall. Below, classmates and other chaperons tried to snooze.

"Shhhhhhhhh," I admonished my crew every few minutes.

"Whisper," I whispered.

Honestly, have you ever heard a fourth-grader whisper? Not me.

"Does this look like frostbite?" I asked one of the kids around 3 a.m.

To all those considering a maritime career, I say: Go to beauty school instead. Or if you're really desperate, study the law. Because the sea life is not for wimps. And we never even left the dock.

Kidding aside, these overnights aboard the Brig Pilgrim are probably the best field trips ever, a SoCal tradition that dates back 30 years.

You can have a wedding here, or a birthday party or just climb aboard during the Sunday public tours.

What makes the Pilgrim so appealing is that it's not at all Disneyfied. It's a rusty replica of the brig immortalized by author Richard Henry Dana in "Two Years Before the Mast." As such, it's a working ship, a few boards missing, suggestive of sardines, as if it's still 1835, when Dana's ship plied this same harbor in search of cow hide from the area's ranches and missions.

On this day, the ship is helmed by Capt. Gerald Freeman, salty as a pretzel. He screams at the kids about their duties — they cook the meals, they coil the ropes, they swab the decks.

For almost 20 hours, beginning with their hiring as greenhorn sailors, the kids work and learn and shiver.

Bless 'em, because they are good sports, challenged by this crusty-great Capt. Freeman, who jeers, cajoles and insists they do many un-fourth-gradey things, like stand up straight.

What an adventure. Through the captain's colorful stories, we travel halfway around the world in just one night, yet never leave port.

God must really have a crush on California, decorating it with glittery little harbors like this one, filling it with beautiful ships and pelicans and sun-kissed children.

And the best hot chocolate at 3 a.m.

Yum.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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