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Adventure: Sailing : Three Days Before the Mast : The tall ship Kaisei is a place to learn the ropes--and the sails and the helm

<i> Ray is a free-lance writer who recently moved back to Chicago from Guam</i>

I awoke to the creak of wood and the slap of water. The easy roll that had lulled me to sleep was now a jarring bounce. I could feel the bow rise high out of the water, pause, then smack the swelling waves. I clipped on my safety harness and headed for the deck.

It was our second night at sea. Ghostly whitecaps flashed through the blackness. The clouds raced over head. Water crashed onto the deck. My lips tasted salty from the spray. I hung onto a rail near the main mast and rode the deck like it was the Chicago El. Keep the knees bent, don’t fight the lurches, move with it.

It had sounded intriguing: Spend three days learning to crew a tall-masted, square-rigged brigantine--the kind of ship that carried 19th-Century explorers. Join an international crew in an environment with no political or social boundaries; share the pleasures, hardships and camaraderie of life at sea.

Sail training, as it’s called, began in Europe and America 20 years ago and has since spread the world over. Its goal is to teach sailing with none of today’s push-button ease, calling instead on self-reliance. Late last year, when the tall-masted Kaisei, owned by the Sail Training Assn. of Japan, sailed into Guam, my home of the last few years, I got on board.

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I was 33 and had never sailed a day in my life.

The Kaisei is no pleasure yacht. The 180-ton ship spans 151 feet, has two 100-foot masts, 15 sails and more than 100 lines. Only its navigation equipment and engine (for motoring into ports) is modern. The accommodations are Spartan but comfortable. There are six- and eight-berth quarters with hot showers, some cursory air-conditioning and bunk beds with just enough padding. Meals are plentiful and shared in a mess hall of benches bolted to the floor. Crew members must be 15 or older and willing to work hard. They must also get used to hunching over, knocking elbows and squeezing past.

To date, more than 3,000 trainees have enjoyed a glimpse of life at sea aboard the Kaisei. The ship’s maiden voyage was in 1990 from Gdansk, Poland, where it was built. During a 16-month voyage to Japan, the Kaisei joined an international fleet of 300 vessels in New York for the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage. It arrived in Tokyo Bay in January, 1993.

Last year was the first time the Kaisei sailed Micronesia. After three days off the island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the Mariana Islands, the crew embarked on an eight-day trip to Palau, about 830 nautical miles to the southwest. A group of about 100 islands and islets in the West Pacific, the Republic of Palau is known for its deserted beaches and beautiful Rock Islands, popular with divers. From Palau, the Kaisei sailed to Okinawa--the scene of fierce American-Japanese fighting near the end of World War II--then returned to Japan. The Kaisei’s home port in winter is Okinawa; the rest of the year, it’s based in Fukuoka, Japan, near Nagasaki.

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Each leg was considered a separate trip. Sailors could board from Japan or any points en route. For the voyage out of Guam, we had a crew of 10 experienced, salaried sailors plus 17 trainees (the Kaisei can host 32 trainees.) Four trainees had sailed from Japan and were already tanned, barefoot and exuberant. The newcomers were a mixed bunch, mostly Americans, split evenly between men and women. Some had come seeking adventure; some came to improve sailing skills. Some of us came for the challenge.

The crew quickly put us at ease. Though mainly Japanese, it included two Australians for English-speaking trainees. Aussie instructor Carol Jackson would become a lifeline for many of us. Through sickness and storms, mistakes and fears, she coaxed, cajoled and commiserated.

We were divided into three teams, which split the three eight-hour, round-the-clock shifts. The first part of our training was easy: Remember your team number and fall in line. While still docked, we got a quick rundown on the sails and their ropes. We learned the basic knots and the “heave-ho” needed to hoist the sails. There are no winches, and the sails are heavy. When they had to be trimmed or hoisted, it took all of us, grunting and groaning.

No sooner had we digested the ins and outs of ropes and sails than we were donning harnesses. I think the crew kept us pondering the difference between a topsail and a staysail so we wouldn’t notice that we were about to climb a 100-foot mast.

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*

But up we went. Jokingly, I asked Carol which would be better should we fall, a cannonball or dive. “Neither, unless you’re planning to commit suicide,” she said, with only a hint of a smile. This just before I came to the first balcony at around 40 feet. Since the balcony is a platform without any hole to squeeze through, I had to bend backward, grab blindly for the ladder rung above me and, defying gravity, hoist myself onto the small platform. I’d taken physics; this worried me.

I was greeted by three shipmates already clinging bravely to anything that would hold them. From this platform, we were to take one (psychologically) giant step into midair to the yardarm laid out before us. Palms sweating, I clipped my waist harness hitch to the yardarm cable. One didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize this harness wasn’t much more that a mere placebo of security. If I fell, I would be dangling from my waist, held by one contemptuously small clip attached to one very thin cable.

With a gulp, I stepped onto the rope that Adventure: Sailing runs along the underside of the yardarm, and wrapped my body around that yardarm and peeked bravely into the distance. I clung there, swaying with the ship. Some of my crew mates had the moxie to appear relaxed. With time my fear subsided and my legs became stronger. I cautiously straightened up. Before me was a vastness of blue, blue and more blue. Only once before had I felt this inconsequential: as a child standing on a rise in the prairie, a sea of green cornfields stretching before me. I glanced below seeking the comfort of smaller spaces, smaller scale.

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Once we were under way, the barrage of instructions was overwhelming at first, but eventually it fell together. Our days on board were filled with ship chores: galley duty, charting and navigating. In between, we had time to talk, sleep or daydream. We warmed to each other like children at summer camp. Language posed no barrier; like tourists in any strange land we resorted to a lot of bowing, nodding and laughing.

The crew, while demanding, allowed for differences in ability, culture and sea legs.

Seasickness is a fact of life. Nearly everyone was ill at some point or another, some a few hours; others all three days. Nevertheless, the ship sails on, with the sick leaning over the rails. My stomach wasn’t the only thing needing adjustment. The first day I lunged about like a drunk, desperately trying to maintain my equilibrium along with my dignity.

The highlight of the voyage was taking the helm. The lumbering ship responds slowly to a sweep of the wheel. You must adjust to its pace, not it to yours. Wait for it to respond before correcting your turn. Sense the timing. Wait. Correct. Wait again. The smell of salt air in the tropical night, the moon pooling gold on the horizon, the boat creaking and slapping the water--it’s simply beautiful.

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I was at the helm on the second morning, when the cook, binoculars in hand, excitedly yelled for me to change course. He had spied a school of tuna running off our leeward side, their yellow fins slicing through the blue. With the Kaisei’s cruising speed of four knots, however, the tuna had me beat.

Giving up the helm, I climbed atop a cabin roof to sunbathe. As I lay watching the waves march past like noontime pedestrians, I noticed dark clouds gathering in the distance. They were quickly upon us. Within minutes, the sails were snapping and, with a whoop from the helmsman, the Kaisei doubled its speed, skimming the surface. Before I could pull on my oilskins, the rain burst was over and the sun was shining through again.

Barefoot and soaked, I climbed back to my perch to watch the storm travel on. The teak deck was glossy with rain, the air invigorated. I sat alone under a snapping sail, the sun drying my clothes, saltwater stretching my skin taut, the sweet tartness of a persimmon filling my salt-parched mouth.

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Guam appeared at sunrise on our final day. To approach an island slowly from the sea, to see it gradually forming out of the mist, green amid the blue, is to comprehend its languor in a way not possible for those who drop from the air with a bump. As the harbor neared, we kicked into full gear, dousing sails and coiling ropes. I manned the rail, flipping lines off like a pro, the rope yielding to me this time. Rushing to a mast where crew mates were being bounced by slackening sails, I joined the heave-ho. Once again we got a soaking as the ship keeled wildly in the waves, loose now from its canvas constraints.

Out on the bowsprit, three of my crew mates bobbed like corks as the jibs came down. With only a spider web of netting below them on this narrow beam jutting from the bow, they tangled with the unwieldy sail, concentrating fiercely on maintaining their balance. The bowsprit tipped up 45 degrees, then crashed back down, meeting the rising waves with a thud. Hanging on for dear life, laughing, soaking wet, the crew finally crawled back to safety.

Exhilarated, we climbed to the top of the masts as the Kaisei motored the last few hundred yards into port.

I could see on the faces of friends and family members the same look of astonishment we had had just a few days earlier watching the Kaisei dock with its seasoned crew. This time, high aloft, the thrill was ours. We had met the challenge of the sea and possibly something deeper.

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GUIDEBOOK: Sailing on the High Seas

Getting there: You are on your own as far as getting to Okinawa, or other disembarkation port for the Kaisei. The program itself offers no discounted airline fares or package deals. From LAX to Okinawa, there is connecting service only. Japan Airlines, China Airlines and Eva Airways connect through Osaka, Japan, and/or Taipei, Taiwan, for fares beginning at about $1,120 round trip, including taxes.

Cruise details: Through the winter, the Kaisei will sail Okinawa and surrounding islands in the East China Sea, leaving from Naha, Okinawa, or from other Okinawa island ports. Five- and six-day cruises can be booked consecutively to create two- or three-week voyages. The fee schedule is simple and attractive, because it’s partially subsidized by the Japan Foundation: Fares are $60 per person per day including meals. The spring program (Feb. 23-March 16) features voyages from Okinawa to the port of Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China, for fares of $100 per day. The Sail Training Assn. of Japan (see below) can provide precise itineraries.

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Trainees must be at least 15. No sailing experience necessary. Recommended equipment: Passport, sheets and pillow case, good deck shoes, toiletries and sailing gloves. The Kaisei provides wet weather gear, safely harness and helmet. Smoking is prohibited in living quarters.

For more information: Contact the Sail Training Assn. of Japan, Nan-yo-do Bldg, 4F; 1-14-4 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113 Japan (telephone 011-81-3-3818-2852, fax 011-81-3-3816-1673).

--B.R.


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