While the rest of the “crew” huddles below me in the fo’c’scle, I’m clambering around on the foredeck trying to furl the staysail that’s come undone and decided to flap about like a water-logged albatross. It’s a wrestling match between me and a couple hundred pounds of soaking canvas and there’s not a chance that I’m going to let it get the better of me.
In the end I give up trying to make it or myself look proper and straddle it into submission, pinning it together with my knees and lashing a rope around it. It’s like the rodeo, and this steer is down for the count – a few heaves and it hangs limply above the deck; trussed, hogtied, and dispirited in my moment of triumph. A German tourist looks on admiringly as the sound of 30 fourth-graders singing “Little Sally Racket … haul ’er away!” floats up from below. Greenhorn one, staysail zero.
All of which begs the question: what the hell am I talking about? I get this response often when describing what I do for a living, or did, until I was promoted to a desk job. The premise of the whole thing, known as the Age of Sail, is that a class of fourth or fifth-graders, accompanied by their teacher and a handful of adults, arrives at the Hyde Street Pier, is accosted by the nefarious shipping agent Mr. Clyde, and is signed on to work by the bumbling second mate of the tall ship Balclutha .
Once aboard, they’re made to work for their keep – rigging, rowing, swabbing the deck, and making the ship ready for a lumber run up the coast. All of which is done under the booming direction of the acidic first mate and the stern and generally unimpressed captain. There’s also a slightly batty cook who mans “Bertha,” the wood-burning stove, upon which the meals are cooked. Oh, and the year is 1906, just a few hours after – you guessed it – the city’s been reduced to smoldering rubble.
Sound familiar? It may take a few sessions with the good doctor, but if you went to elementary school in Northern California sometime in the last three decades, there’s probably a memory tucked away in there of flailing over a bowline or guessing at the contents of your lobscouse stew. Though I’ve graduated through the roles (the ranks, as it were) of second mate, cook, first mate, and captain, it’s been a while since I was on active duty, and on this particular program I’m just on deck as an observer.
While the four instructors interact freely with the more height-challenged sailors, or “lads,” the adult chaperones are only allowed to utter two phrases: “Avast!” and a “private word.” The first signifies that there’s something amiss in a possibly dangerous way and cues the lads to freeze, figure it out, and carry on with their work. The latter is how the adults communicate with an instructor; maybe they want a sweater, or possibly Evan’s about to lose those Joe Froggers all over the deck.
With the program running from 2 p.m. until 9 the next morning, that’s nearly 18 hours of silence, and many a chaperone (or “tall sailor,” as they’re referred to) cracks under the pressure of not being the center of attention. With this group it’s already beginning to show – the bo’sun tall sailor has his pockets turned inside out, his “discipline” for leaning against the rail warming his hands in them, while the galley crew’s tall sailor is nervously eyeing the chopping of vegetables and hollering “Avast!” every 10 seconds, much to the irritation of the 11-year-old galley mate.
Observing all this also makes me realize that from an outside perspective, the Age of Sail is like a foreign island, complete with its own bastardized language. It’s a mix of arcane nautical jargon, turn-of-the-century vernacular, and whatever accent its particular speaker chooses to affect (“Sir, are you from England?” “Of course not, lad, I’m from Indiana!”) and allows people to holler out such gems as “Mate! Did you send these lads to relieve themselves inside the fo’c’scle?” while the adults on duty snicker under their breath and the lads just look more confused than ever.
As “officers” on the ship, everyone’s historically male and carries the title “Mister” regardless of their present sex, promoting, I’m sure, a not-insubstantial gender scramble as lads work their way through an “Aye, aye, Ma’am! Sir? Ma’am?” The first mate, Mr. Phoenix, checks a gold pocketwatch in mock disgust as the deckhand mate clangs out a cacophony of what sounds like six bells, when it’s clearly supposed to be eight. A gaggle of what looks to be rubber-overalled Oompa Loompas trundles by dragging a huge length of line, muttering, “She didn’t tell us we were going all the way to Oregon. Mymom’s gonna kill me.”
Mr. Phoenix lets that drift and admonishes them for the umpteenth time to roll the bottoms of their yellow pants up. I for one have forgone foul-weather gear in favor of my favorite uniform – a gingham button-down under a brown wool sweater and heavy wool coat, 13-button navy pants, and a Greek fisherman’s cap. It’s a lot of wool and probably quite an eyeful for the occasional passerby, but as someone who sports this sort of thing on the regular, I’m feeling perfectly at home. As the Balclutha resides in the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and is open to the public until 5 p.m., there’s no shortage of tourists to ogle and question the instructors (if they can get them to stand still).
While it’s an eclectic group of folks who work on Age of Sail, most would probably shudder at the idea that they’re seen as historical re-enactors or lumped with the Live-Action-Role-Play-(aka LARP)-ers. Or maybe they’d just chuckle. First and foremost, they’re educators, and that’s the important part. They’re all smart and funny (and I’ve got to say it, pretty damn good-looking when they’re all done up) and they all really like what they do. Which is probably why, at this particular moment, a very serious-looking member of the galley crew is hustling around with the captain’s long johns in her hands, asking, “Where is the poop deck? I have to give these to the captain on the poop deck!”
I decide to dry myself for a bit and sneak into the galley, where Geoduck is stoking the fire and tending the cornbread while shouts of “Gooey Duck! Gooey Duck!” are volleyed from all sides. Why he’s named himself after a clam I’m not certain, but he’s doing a fine job keeping his crew busy with cooking, ensuring dinner will be somewhat on time, and biting his tongue as the lads decide for themselves how large a tablespoon of sugar should be, all the while dipping it into the container labeled “SALT.” Looks like neither of us will be eating the applesauce cake tonight.
Meanwhile, out on deck, Mr. Phoenix is having a hard time keeping a straight face (as am I) as a diminutive member of the deckhands squeaks out a tremulous “Mr. Fox…nix?” and Captain Blackwell is interrupted by another member of the galley crew who wants to know if she should put his special hand salve on the dinner table, the one Gooey Duck has told her he uses to keep his hands “soft and supple.” It’s an ordered, hysterically funny chaos if you’re not 10 years old and completely engrossed in the apparent truth of it. They’ve even sold out the second mate, Mr. Foley, who’s tried to get them to pull her in a wagon instead of walking, disgustedly leaving her behind and telling Mr. Phoenix she’s a ne’er do well.
How long can this illusion last? Walking off the pier at 8 a.m., sleep-crusted and very much in need of an adult beverage, I can hear the bedraggled crew of tweens singing “Leave Her Johnny” as they lower their flag and prepare for life back on land. They’ve all slept less than I, having stood two-hour night watch shifts from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., and awakening to more work and a mess of oatmeal. With only a visit from Stretch the resident cat and a marked lack of intoxicated swimmers streaking the pier, it’s been a quiet night. No marching the hawser off the ship at midnight, no tall sailors trying to sneak off to the Buena Vista for a nightcap, and the ship looking, well, pretty damn ship-shape after all its action.
The tall sailors, now free to chirp as they please, are happily discussing whether the coffee tasted more like ash-can water or an old sock, and the teacher is beaming from her hoist in the bo’sun’s chair. Or maybe it’s the fact that she now has a newly autonomous group in her hands, hollering “Aye, aye, Sir!” as she, their new captain, marches them to the bus. In either case, I’m off to Fiddler's Green for a Bloody Mary breakfast and a chance to record my new favorite phrase (“my dad says babies come from beer and special hugs”) in the logbook.
The Age of Sail overnight is just one of the education programs run by the S.F. Maritime National Park Association, which is a mouthful of a name. They’re also the nonprofit partner of the S.F. Maritime National Historical Park and run a whole host of programs for Bay Area youth (and beyond). Check them out at www.maritime.org or visit the Hyde Street Pier and watch one of the programs in action. Better yet, shanghai yourself a kid and tell their teacher you want to come on the trip as a tall sailor. It may be the most entertaining 18 hours of silence you’ve ever had.
Photos by Mariah Gardner, with the exception of the first shot. For the full photo essay, go here.