Get a feel for the life of an 18th-century shipmate aboard this replica of the first American ship to make landfall on the West Coast.
SAUSALITO, Calif. — My passage on the tall ship Lady Washington as it headed to sea beneath the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t how I’d pictured it.
I’d imagined bellying sails tweaked by rigging-scampering deckhands as the jaunty ship with its cheerful yellow railing plowed through foaming water beneath the brilliant orange bridge towers.
The exultant moment. The bracing breeze. The unforgettable photos — everything bathed in California sunshine.
If you go
Passages on tall ships
Aberdeen-based Grays Harbor Historical Seaport offers saltwater passages on the official Washington tall ship Lady Washington or its sister vessel Hawaiian Chieftain as they make their way south down the Pacific Coast in the fall and back north to Washington in the spring.
The Chieftain heads south this week from Westport; the Lady heads to California near the end of September from Port Townsend, where it is undergoing a maintenance haul-out, including the installation of three new spars.
Length and cost
Passage lengths vary, typically from 12 to 24 hours, and depend on weather and tides. Overnight, 24-hour passages on the Lady Washington or Hawaiian Chieftain typically cost $300 per passenger. One-day passages on the California coast or transiting San Francisco Bay typically cost $80. For details, see historicalseaport.org; click on “Public Tours & Sails,” and then “Passages.”
Day outings and battle re-enactments are also offered; see the website.
Gear you’ll need
Bring foul-weather gear, warm clothing and a sleeping bag. Full gear list provided when you book.
My northbound passage was in April. For the best sailing and most comfortable experience, book a southbound passage as the vessels head for San Diego through the autumn months. Vessels enjoy more downwind sailing and smoother passages. Northbound passages in spring are likely to be rougher, counter to prevailing winds and requiring more engine use.
In 1788, the original Lady Washington became the first American vessel to make landfall on North America’s West Coast.
A pioneer in Pan-Pacific trade, it was the first American ship to visit Honolulu, Hong Kong and Japan. Lady Washington opened the black pearl and sandalwood trade between Hawaii and Asia when Hawaii’s King Kamehameha became a partner in the ship.
800-200-5239 or historicalseaport.org
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It wasn’t at all like that.
As I prepared to board my plane in Seattle, bound for SFO the morning before I was to join the ship as a paying passenger on an overnight voyage embarking from San Francisco Bay, my cellphone alerted me to a voicemail.
It was the steward of the Lady Washington. Things had come up. Uncooperative tides and threatening weather. And so the ship would be leaving early.
Quite early. As in midnight, that night.
Under cover of darkness
Substitute “eerie” for exultant. Substitute low clouds for sunshine. Scratch the whole idea of sails, for the time being. We motored out through the Golden Gate in inky darkness, just another anonymous set of red and green running lights to any groggy drivers on the bridge above.
This was my first wake-up call to how authentic this voyage would be. Subtract the electric lights and the diesel engine and this was the reality for sailors on ships such as the Lady Washington in its day. Tides and weather ruled their fate.
After all, other than the engine and a few other modern conveniences, this was an authentic replica of the ship named after Martha Washington and used by Capt. Robert Gray to explore the west coast of North America in the 1780s.
The replica was built in 1989 to celebrate the state of Washington’s centennial. It’s the official state ship.
Based in Grays Harbor, the 112-foot vessel travels Northwest waters in summer, offering educational tours, day sails and battle re-enactments, often in conjunction with its sister ship, Hawaiian Chieftain. Every winter, the ships follow the Pacific Coast to Southern California and back, harbor-hopping and offering the same activities, as well as overnight passages for paying guests like me.
If you’ve not seen the Lady Washington around the Salish Sea, you may have seen it in a motion picture. Hollywood has used the ship in several films, most famously as the ship Johnny Depp stole in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
Why the change of plans for my trip? A nasty weather system was moving down the coast, giving incentive to get to our port before it arrived, and the shallowness of our destination — the inner harbor at Bodega Bay, 45 miles up the coast — dictated that we enter at high tide the next afternoon, Capt. Johann Steinke explained when I arrived on ship and visited in his cabin.
Like the four other paying passengers on this transit, I first got a tour and safety lecture from the ship’s steward, 19-year-old Ethan Nielsen, who left his home in Langley, Whidbey Island, to join the crew last October.
Just as they would have in the 1780s, every one of the 12 crew has a job title, such as steward — responsible for hosting guests, among other duties — and engineer, overseeing the vessel’s mechanical systems, along with purser, bosun and more.
By the engraved brass bell forward of the helm, Nielsen explains, “If you hear ‘ding, ding, ding’ that’s an alarm, and something bad has happened … If you ring this bell, you’ll have a lot of angry crew members charging out on deck with fire hoses.”
All guests get vital lessons such as use of the marine toilet, or “head,” and the best places to throw up if you’re seasick (by a scupper, a drain that leads overboard — note the bucket on a rope, for rinsing — or into the well where the ship’s rudder post goes through the deck; just don’t fall in).
It’s quickly apparent that this will not be a Princess cruise.
Nielsen, the youngest crew member, explains why he signed on, first as a paying trainee ($650 for two weeks), then as a volunteer, and now as paid crew.
“I lived on a small island in a small town where it took an hour to get anywhere. I wanted to see what else was out there … And it’s a huge blast. I fell in love. Before coming aboard I had never seen the Milky Way.”
Most crew members are in their 20s or 30s. Several have served on other tall ships. The bosun, Josh Scornavacchi, was rescued from the Atlantic when the HMS Bounty sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He lost crewmates. But he came back to another tall ship.
A merry mix
It’s a diverse but close-knit crew.
Megan Allison, the ship’s purser, is filling in as cook the first night. She slips a CD of sea chanties into a player as she prepares a dinner of meatballs in the small galley below decks in the heart of Lady Washington.
Having grown up in the farming town of Warden, in Eastern Washington, she just completed a degree at Georgetown University, concluding with a stint studying filmmaking in New Zealand.
Sunny-grinned Californian Nathan Koerner — a deckhand who is also gunner’s mate and gets to help with firing the small cannons during battle sails — has done a bit of theater. He works as a haunt monster on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., at Halloween.
“The only commercial I was ever in, I was a zombie,” he confides.
As the crew balances plates and perches on the edge of crowded benches at dinnertime, a few hours before departure, Captain Johann tells everyone to expect swells of 5 to 7 feet and winds of 15 to 25 knots out of the northwest — right on our nose — as we head up the coast, possibly strong enough to merit small-craft warnings from the Coast Guard.
“It’s nothing the boat can’t handle. Hopefully it won’t be until we’re past Point Reyes. By leaving tonight, we’ll have a lot more flexibility. The worst-case scenario is that we come back in. We’re hoping to get into Bodega Bay by 3:30 or 4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.”
When I went on a big cruise ship, nobody told us about worst-case scenarios before leaving the dock.
First mate Katherine Pogue, from San Diego, announces who will stand four-hour watches. For guests, standing watch — helping at the helm — is optional. I sign up for B Watch, from 8 a.m. to noon.
“Take your seasick medication now!” Capt. Johann bellows.
“I’ll be distributing personal strobe lights to everyone, and whistles,” Pogue adds. To help them find you if you go in the drink.
A last voice chips in a final reminder, “Don’t puke in the heads or the sinks!”
It makes it unpleasant for the next user.
Up early on lively seas
After a rocking-and-rolling night in my sleeping bag on a narrow berth right up against the hull’s ribs, where I can hear water gurgling past my ear, I’ve had enough sleep and I join crew members at the tiller at 6:30 a.m.
After a golden sunset in Sausalito last night, the sky a few miles offshore is dimly gray. The sea is leaden. The ship pitches and bucks as swells break over the bow. The middle deck is often awash in seawater.
Off to our right is the low mound of Point Reyes. Standing with hip braced against the bucking tiller is someone I don’t recognize, they’re so swaddled in heavy coat, hat, and a collar fastened high against the cold wind. Back by the rudder well, first-time crew member Liz Dal-Bon, from San Francisco, is huddled on the deck, seasick.
Through the morning, others take their turns vomiting into the rudder well. I’m lucky. My Dramamine seems to have done the job.
I take a turn at the giant tiller, a bruising experience as I learn to lean into it with my full weight while the sea plays with the boat like a cat batting a felt mouse.
“How’d you sleep?” Capt. Johann asks a passenger coming up from below.
“Oh, all right, but I think I have a better appreciation for the phrase ‘shiver my timbers’!”
We claw our way north against the wind, dodging crab pots in the water, when someone sees a whale spout. The captain slows the boat and suddenly a gray whale breaches in front of us all, to a chorus of “woohoos.” An hour later, I’m gazing out to sea when another whale leaps clear out of the water — a clean back flip. I holler. Others turn in time to see only the splash. It’s my own private Leviathan.
We pass the time with riddles, and sing a few rounds of a sea chantey, “Paddy Lay Back:”
“That day there was a great demand for sailors,
For the colonies, for Frisco and for France,
I signed aboard a Limey bark, the Hotspur,
Got paralytic drunk on my advance!”
But on this passage, the captain made clear, no imbibing is allowed.
At 11 a.m., Johann decides we’ve made enough northward progress that we have time to sail the rest of the way into Bodega Bay.
Now is when exultant crew members climb high into the rigging, even as the boat rolls and shimmies, to unfurl the topsails. Total sail area when all is flying: 4,442 square feet, controlled by six miles of rigging. In this wind only a few sails are needed.
It’s glorious to hear the engine go silent and feel the sails carry the ship.
Is it scary to go up in the rigging when at sea?
“Sometimes it’s a lot harder. We have fairly steady winds, and these swells aren’t that kind, but it’s not too challenging for me anymore,” Ethan tells me. “But I’m still careful.”
“Let’s set the spanker, I just want to see what happens!” calls the skipper, excited like a Christmas-morning child.
“Two — six! Two — six!” chant first-mate Katherine and Ben, the cook — it’s an old nautical version of “heave-ho” — as they haul on the line to set the spanker sail, which rises above the helm at the stern of the vessel.
The sun is out now and the water is teal blue. Rollers curl with white foam, the big swells have eased, and we’re making headway at a sedate 2½ knots.
“With so much wind and current against us, it’s not bad, really!” Capt. Johann says.
By 3 p.m. we’re in Bodega Harbor. By 4 p.m. we’re at a marina cafe enjoying a frosty beer. It never tasted so good, even to those who were sick all night.
It was no Princess cruise. It was an adventure.