A friend rang to tell me that the owner of an extraordinary boat I knew from the boatyard had lost his wife and was looking for someone to help him with the boat. I took the leap and agreed to it, utterly unaware of what a soul-fulfilling arrangement it would come to be and what would awaken in me as a result. When I was introduced to this gaff-rigged yawl, I felt daunted by the profusion of ropes and the belaying pins, pin-rails and traditional rigging I knew nothing about, but it intrigued me.
Sailing and being on the water is a perpetual yearning for me, but until this boat came along, getting out there was a patchwork of infrequent opportunities that only intensified my need for the sea. Now, and for as long as it feels right, this boat is my love. She’s an unusual vessel, steel-hulled, 42’ on deck/58’ overall with a long bowsprit, modelled after Joshua Slocum’s SPRAY, and built over 16 years by her captain. She has no lack of old maritime character, carrying two yards and setting a square topsail. At times this salty square-rigger doubles as a pirate ship for a crew of professional scalawags who ‘pillage and plunder’ for family entertainment at festivals. We reenact mini sea battles and even fire an eight-gun broadside using black powder, which is thankfully not my job.
But the deep-rooted connection begins on land long before launch, during what is called “fit-out” by the waterfront community here in Maine. When spring arrives, everyone works like crazy to get their boats ready for the coming season.
This boat gets everything I have to give for those roughly three months that her owner and I are focused on fit-out. We do it all, from cleaning and painting the engine room and scraping rust out of the bilges to linseed oiling the mast. Some of what she calls for feels familiar in a way, and thrilling. During those cold, early spring days the captain begins projects mostly in his wood and metal shop, fabricating the necessary new and repairing wear and tear. My work begins in the shop loft. It is “work” because it needs to be done, requires protective gear and is physically tiring, but it’s become nourishing to my soul.
For several weeks I focus entirely on varnishing and painting. Varnishing is reputed to be tedious and often dreaded for its unforgiving nature. It can be all of that when working with intricate pieces of “brightwork,” the varnished wood trim, but not with spars. Oh, how I have come to love the spars!
A spar is a pole used for a mast, boom, gaff or yard, generally made of wood. We have nine of them. To me they are absolute beauty. Elegant, shiny, sturdy, carefully crafted, the spars inspire profound delight. My hands adore being steward of them, inspecting, sanding, wiping down, varnishing and painting top to tail. There’s a dance we do together. The spars lay side-by-side on high sawhorses while I stand next to them, rolling each one in turn with my shoulder as I meticulously apply smooth, protective coatings. I go into a bit of a trance with them. Varnishing and painting spars has evolved into an act of love and meditation. Over time I have become good at it and my heart bursts with the joy of something I enjoy doing so much becoming a skill.
The earthy smell of tar on traditional boats is delicious and when we tar the shrouds, I get covered in it and chuckle. That job also gets me climbing on the rig, which I crave. These deeply felt passions t have revealed themselves as clues, visceral and cellular memories, that point to a bosun’s life. Along my soul’s journey I have surely lived as a roving sailor and relished it. Sea shanties are so dear to me, and my love for traditional maritime customs pulses again through my veins.
I have learned to do some pretty extraordinary things on this boat: make baggywrinkle, braid sennits, whip rope ends, seize lines, mouse shackles, use a marlin spike, sea-coil, daisy-chain headsails, tar shrouds, linseed oil pin-rails, bend on, set and trim six different sails including a square top, climb the rat-boards, get up on the cross-trees at the mast head, and of course, secure lines with whatever knots are called for.
At Barnacle Babes, we aim to be interactive, engaging, proactive, purposeful, actionable and supportive to all women, their families, their ocean cause and sport.