Setting sail on the Victory Chimes

Published June 21, 2013
Personal space acquires a different definition on board a cramped wooden sailing ship. I found myself squeezing past fellow passengers in the companionway and eating meals elbow-to-elbow with people I met only a few hours earlier. Doors on cabins have louvers that afford privacy but not silence, and conversation, a diesel engine, galley noises, and people coming and going are part of the sounds that at home can try my patience, so when I needed solitude and quiet to write in my journal during our recent cruise on the Victory Chimes, I sat on my bunk, using my soft suitcase and pillow as a writing table, and blocked out the noise with my iPod.
We cruised aboard the schooner last week in West Penobscot Bay, boarding Monday evening at her home port of Rockland, Maine. The schooner’s complement of passengers was a few souls short of capacity, meaning it could have been even more crowded. But we had it easy. The crew members were truly cramped, and they lived that way by choice for several months with very little time ashore between cruises, working long hours in all weather while we lounged about, socializing, reading, playing cards and generally relaxing and watching the scenery.
The only spacious crew quarters was Capt. Kip Files’ master’s cabin, aft below the quarterdeck, a few steps from the wheel. First Mate Robert Wheeler and Second Mate Yoko Bowen had small cabins on deck, and Mr. Wheeler, who plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar, told me he has little chance to practice fiddle because he can’t extend his bow arm in his small cabin. Galley hands Moriah Keat and Grace Cullinane had quarters just off the saloon (the dining area), but the deckhands’ quarters in the fo’c’sle (a shortening of “forecastle,” the forward part of the ship) lay beneath the deck at the bow. When I saw the ladder going below deck through a small square opening I thought it probably led to a dirty engine room, but that was where deckhands Christa Miller-Shelley, Nick Totaro and Jay Madison slept. I never learned where cook Pam Smith-Sheridan slept — perhaps in the galley, so demanding was her job.
Those nine crew members enjoyed leisure time on our trip because poor weather forced us to anchor in sheltered harbors for long periods, but when we sailed they had to be ready to jump at a moment’s notice. The galley crew hardly finished one meal’s washing up before they began preparing the next and pitched in to help the deckhands, and the deckhands, when not working lines, often cleaned and polished equipment. Crew members stood two-hour night watches, and their days began quite early. All this meant that many evenings the crew members quite early quietly slipped off to their quarters to sleep, and if I arose in the middle of the night one would be sitting quietly in the saloon, on watch, perhaps studying nautical texts. I admired those ambitious young people for their work and dedication, their love of sailing and their plans.
Particularly interesting to me was the fact that several crew members played music: Mr. Wheeler, as mentioned; Nick is learning ukulele, Christa is learning Appalachian banjo, Moriah plays Irish whistle, and Yoko brought aboard her younger sister’s half-size cello. I watched that first afternoon as Mr. Wheeler, Yoko and Nick experimented with the cello, I played my Irish bouzouki after they returned to their duties, and that evening Mr. Wheeler brought out his mandolin after I said I hoped he would play it.
On our second full day, Wednesday, I restrung Mr. Wheeler’s mandolin while he attended to his duties, and when he came below I inspected the bridge on his violin and moved it to its proper position, showing him where it should be, and I played a couple tunes while Grace and Moriah danced in the galley. After supper, Christa practiced her banjo on deck and let me play it a bit, and later we all held forth in an extended jam session in the saloon, Capt. Files and the passengers joining on some songs.
Aboard a ship passengers and crew members alike are confined to that ship but for short visits to shore communities. We made one 45-minute visit ashore to the small town of Brooksville in 3 1/2 days, and aside from that my life was largely dictated by the ship’s schedule and menu. All my life I have longed to sail the seas, but I found myself wishing for a visit to the land, and I imagined trials of the immigrants who spent several weeks at sea while coming to America. The contrast is similar to how I feel about traveling: When I’m at home, doing the same things, driving the same roads, day in and day out, I wish for new sights, and when I travel I long for home. But that is not bad. Longing is part of what makes us human, and it is what drives us to new experiences. Now I’m back on land, and I’m again longing for ships and the sea.

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