What am I Supposed to do with all These Ropes


Mackerel skies and mares' tails make tall ships carry short sails
When the sea-hog (porpoise) jumps stand by at your pumps
Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand; It's never good weather when you're on the land

Actually, there was a time when I would have found such quaint sea lore as quoted above extremely interesting; unfortunately, this is not the time. Although the lines are for some reason running through my head, I am far too otherwise engaged to enjoy them. In what is a dream come true, I am at the bow of a "tall ship," a "windjammer," a "square-rigger," an almost exact reproduction of a 24-gun British frigate, the HMS Rose.

The replica I am standing on was built in Nova Scotia in 1970 to sail during the American Bicentennial; the original was built in England in 1757 to fight in the French and Indian War and to eventually bottle up American towns, destroy American ships, and stop daring Rhode Island smugglers once and for all. She did her job well; partly in response to her power, the Americans began building their own navy

Yet, just as nature-lovers belatedly learn that Henry David Thoreau forgot to mention bugs, lovers of tall ships belatedly learn that people who write pretty paeans to the sea forgot to mention seasickness. And so what I am doing at the port bow of a frigate on a storm-tossed sea somewhere off Long Island is what seamen often refer to as giving back to Neptune what Neptune demands; i.e., I am throwing up for the eighth - yes, 8th - time in thirty-six hours. In between such pleasantries, I have to continue working the lines and sails as well as pull my watch including tricks as helmsman, bow watch and boat check.

It is just as well that I continue to work on deck because on my hard mattress cot in the compartment, where sleep is impossible, I hear the loud, monotonous, nausea-inducing sloshing of the sea within the bulkheads and exquisitely feel the sway of the boat. Make that: swaaaay of the boat. And, sure enough, none of the versions of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY be it with Clark Gable, Marlon Brando or Mel Gibson suggests for a second that there might be a problem of that nature. In such films there is no need for Dramamine, patches behind the ear or accupressure on the wrist. So much for Hollywood and mal de mer verite.

Fiction written on life at sea is, at least, far more realistic. For example, in C.C. Forester's Ship of the Line a very seasick Captain Hornblower reflects on how he hated "the indignity of seasickness as much as he hated the misery of it. It was of no avail to tell himself, as he did, despairingly, while he clutched the rail, that Nelson was always seasick, too, at the beginning of a voyage." Meanwhile, Captain Hornblower's seasick crew is being yelled at with: "Off the decks, there,blast you!...Keep it off the decks!" That much, at least, I managed to do.


In any case, I am here because while doing research on Hong Kong in the mid-1800's, I realized that in addition to Chinese junks with their beautiful butterfly-wing sails, the Hong Kong harbor was often crowded with brigs, barques, brigantines, clippers, barquentines, East Indiamen, ships-of-the-line, sloops-of-war, paddlewheel steamers, merchant ships, and, yes, by God, frigates.

For many years I looked out over modern Hong Kong harbor and I spent many hours pouring over the beautiful paintings of the period showing the harbor and tall ships in all their glory. I walked the very lanes described by sailors where once stood taverns, brothels, opium dens, gambling houses and ship chandlers. I often stood imagining Hong Kong as it once was with the "shady shops in Endicott Lane, where ships' stores were often to be had cheap and no questions asked...." And I had often thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to actually work on such a ship to really know what it was like? And then one day while visiting New York City's South Street Seaport, all of a sudden, before my very eyes, there it was, coming up the East River: an honest-to-God, three-masted, 24-gun, wooden frigate!

Her mooring ropes had hardly been secured before I was pestering the crew for information and I soon learned that she was based in Bridgeport, Connecticut's Captain's Cove Seaport and that yes, I could sail on the Rose, but as their MANUAL FOR SAILING ABOARD THE AMERICAN TALL SHIP ROSE makes clear:


I would, in time, learn what an understatement that was.

By the time the day for my boarding actually arrived, I had already managed to buy my rigging knife and marlin spike, my small but powerful flashlight with lanyard, foul weather gear including a slightly ridiculous rain hat, old clothes (which would soon be full of tar from the standing rigging of the ship), insect repellent and binoculars. I had also bought an excellent video about the Danmark, the famous Danish tall ship which trains cadets over a four-month voyage. (Not a good idea for confidence-building as the narrator mentioned the disastrous loss at sea of a similar Danish training vessel with all hands several decades ago.)

I took the train from New York City to Connecticut, grabbed a cab, and ten minutes later, I was boarding the ship. I could see the "blue peter" flying high, the flag with a white rectangle within a blue background. Foreign seamen in China in the 1800's saw this very same flag as Tanka boat people rowed or sculled them out to their ships and it meant then exactly what it does now: "All persons should report on board as this ship is about to proceed to sea." Being part of this tradition sent a thrill through me and I thought of the sailors over the centuries as they prepared to leave the safety of a port and to once again take their chances with what Joseph Conrad accurately describes as the "unconcerned immensity of the sea."

Fare ye well and adieu to you, fair Spanish Ladies
Fare ye well and adieu to you, ladies of Spain
For we have got orders to sail back to old England
But we hope in a short time for to see you again

At first glance, it looked as if pirates must have attacked the ship shortly before I arrived. The mainmast course yard was missing, the mainmast t'gallant yard was lying on the weather deck and cannons and piles of rope were strewn everywhere. The course yard, I would learn, had been lost in a 50 knot gale off Nova Scotia and the topgallant (t'gallant) yard would be daringly replaced at sea. An expertly performed cleanup soon cleared the deck and had the Rose "all shipshape and Bristol fashion" and ready to leave by noon the following day.

My second surprise was the number of people joining the ship. During wartime, there had been 160 men on board the Rose to both sail the ship and man the cannons. During modern cruises there are up to 49 people on board. What I found was a crew of about 14, myself, and one other person who. like myself, had joined for the four-day journey. Apparently, by boarding in May, I had come aboard before the popular season for coming aboard had begun. Another surprise: As I walked with bath towel in hand toward the men's head, I was informed there would be no showers; as we would be out to sea for four days we could not spare the fresh water. Oh. Little did I know that I would be so tired working, not to mention seasick, that not taking a shower would be the least of my problems. And yet another surprise was the youth of the crew. Many of the crew members were 19 or 20. One moment they might be horsing around like boys and the next they would be expertly and daringly dangling from footropes 100 feet up the mainmast while, with great expertise, working to control flapping sails during a strong wind. even at that young age, in many ways, "the austere servitude of the sea" had already matured them far beyond their years.


Seasick or not, one quickly learns he is needed to participate in whatever sail evolutions are called for. "Hands aloft to ungasket sail!" What's a gasket? "Sheet home the main topsail!" The main topsail; you mean there's more than one? "Hands to the braces!" Whose hand and what's a brace? "Let go and haul!" Let go of what and haul what?! And why don't you people color-code these ropes for God's sake? And why isn't the compass closer to the wheel so I can make out the little numbers on it when I'm at the helm? And whatever happened to room service?

I often wondered when the ship was tossing violently and it was difficult simply to walk on the deck how men could scramble up the shrouds and work aloft. Come to think of it, it might not be unreasonable to ask if the author of this article actually did go aloft. Well, let me say, that depends on how one defines the term "aloft." At the beginning of the trip, one of the crew members offered to take me aloft toward the end of the trip and - being afraid but being more afraid of being called afraid, if you get my drift - I agreed that I would try to make it to the very lowest point which could be called aloft, which, I suppose, would have been a course yard or fighting top ("crow's nest" to you errol Flynn fans). Alas, then I was seasick, then the weather worsened, and, finally, as we entered New York's East River, I was simply too dead tired to pack my bags let alone attempt to climb up onto the yards and deal with the Rose's 13,000 square feet of often tempermental sail. However, while at sea, I did go out onto the bowsprit and unfasten sail and I did twice climb the shrouds to place a line through a leaderboard. True, to do that didn't involve climbing more than four or five ratlines but, one mistake, and I would have plunged into the wet, wide blue yonder, so as far as I'm concerned, when asked if I ventured aloft, my answer is, "Hell, yes!"

I must admit that from the moment I spotted the Rose, a boyhood fantasy immediately came to life: I would be placed in charge of the cannons of a beautiful sailing ship of war. Actually, it made a bit of sense: Inasmuch as I am not mechanically inclined, I knew I wouldn't be much help working with the lines (ropes), and inasmuch as I don't particularly like heights I knew I wouldn't be much help working aloft with the sails, but I had done my military research thoroughly so at least in theory I could, if ordered, load and fire a cannon; so where better to place me than in charge of the guns?

And while that did not happen, to my great joy, during my four days at sea, the good ship Rose fired at passing ships not once but twice! The first time was when a two-masted schooner dared sail a bit too close to our ship. Some of the crew rolled a three-pounder over to the starboard bow and aimed it while another crew member appeared from below and shouted:


Everyone put out his cigarette and men began loading the cannon. No, they were not joking! The uppity schooner was to be taught a lesson. And, incidentally, "three pounder" refers to the weight of the cannon ball it would fire not to the weight of the cannon. For example, the ball of a "nine-pounder" weighs nine pounds; the cannon which fires it weighs 2850 pounds.

rather than the old-style linstock with slow match, two wires from a hand-held modern device were attached to the cannon, the crew member doing the firing donned earmuffs and, after a suspenseful several seconds, the Captain gave the order:


Even from a mere three-pounder on an open deck, the noise was incredibly loud, and, until it quickly dispersed, there was plenty of powder-smoke. I could see people on the schooner jumping up and down although to this day I am not certain if it was in relief that we had not actually loaded the cannon with a round shot (cannonball) or if they were simply joining in the joy of the monent. However, far better was yet to come.


The following day, I had just come up on deck to inform the watch officer which of the ship's various compartments needed pumping (my stomach, for one) when I happened to look up. There, flying high on the mainmast, were two signal flags, SN (Sierra November): The S with its blue square on white background and, beneath that, the checkered blue-and-white N. I also noticed a modern naval frigate off our port bow about to cross our path. It was, in comparison with the size of the Rose, enormous, immense, massive. I asked one of the mates what the flags' message was and he showed me the book with the International Code of Signals.

The message we were sending to the modern frigate - which apparently had notified us that he would be crossing our bow - was:


Even as I stood there, mouth agape, yet another three-pounder was being run out to the bow and loaded. Apparently, what HMS Rose lacked in modern armament, her Captain and crew made up for in brazen daring. The behemoth continued to ignore us and sail past our bows at about 18 knots while we headed toward her with reduced sail at about three knots. We opened fire. I could just make out a sailor running quickly (in panic?) on their top deck and joined in the laughter with others in my crew. But then I realized the sailor I was watching seemed to be heading toward some kind of huge turret gun. Worse, I suddenly remembered that modern frigates such as the one I was laughing at - the very one we had just "shot" at - have anti-aircraft and ship-to-ship missiles. Fortunately, the captain of the modern frigate seemed not to take offence that the captain of a traditional frigate was busting his chops and off they sailed into the distance while the crew of the Rose speculated on what - if anything - a cannonball would have done to the frigate's hull had we actually fired one.

Patrick O'Brian, in his Master and Commander, wrote of such a battle scene this way: "He could see the round blackness of her guns' mouths now, and as he watched so they erupted, the flashes brilliant in the smoke and a great white bank of it hiding the frigate's side." No, it wasn't exactly as he describes it but we had held our (watery) ground; we had prevailed. And I began to understand what Herman Melville meant when he wrote over 150 years ago that "sailors are the only class of men who...see anything like stirring adventure!"

But make no mistake about it: Working aboard a tall ship is grueling, arduous and demanding. The helmsman must keep his eye on the compass and make certain the ship is on the correct course fighting, if necessary, contrary winds and the awesome power of the ocean; while the ship rolls and tosses, the boat check must scramble down into tiny spaces with his flashlight to determine when certain areas of the ship need pumping; and the men high aloft in the rigging soon learn that the old saying of "one hand for the ship and one hand for yourself" is fiction. The ship often demands both hands and, when aloft, men balance on the footropes as best they can.

Watches are in four-hour shifts but one must also work each day for another four hours and be available for any emergency. On one occasion, after pulling watch from midnight to four a.m., just as I was getting into my bed or, rather, swaying cot, I was told that the weather had worsened and all hands were needed back on deck to furl the sails. It was 4:15 in the morning and until then I hadn't known there was a 4:15 in the morning. Trying to haul recalcitrant lines as a strong wind blows over the bow of a swaying ship in the middle of the night is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

And with such a small crew on board, even those without nautical skills must pitch in and do the best they can. My greatest fear was not the height of the main t'gallant yard or the height of the waves but that I might be thought of as the type of sailor Conrad described so well: "...the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work. The man who is the last out and the first in when all hands are called. The man who can't do most things and won't do the rest...the sympathetic and deserving creature that knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship's company."


But sailing and working on board a tall ship has been compared to bush flying in Alaska and scaling impossibly high mountains: it leads to the discovery of another universe. And to be far from land on the deck of a tall ship at night is to enter a world of intense, vivid beauty and breathtaking resplendence. I shall never forget the first night I came out on deck for my watch. The ship's port and starboard lights cast very little light on deck and I stepped out into a world of complete darkness above which was a sky more full of stars than I had ever seen. And in the darkness on deck I saw the glow of a cigarette; the only sign that, in the midst of this immense, dramatic, almost unimaginable landscape, another human being was somewhere near. I could hear the wind singing in the rigging above, the slight complaint of sails as they cracked in the wind, the clattering of the blocks (pulleys) against the masts and the water striking the bow. I could see waves breaking into foam or, as they are often referred to by sailors, "Neptune's sheep" and "white horses."

Not surprisingly, it was Conrad who best described such a scene; as he wrote in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': "A multitude of stars coming out into the clear night peopled the emptiness of the sky. They glittered, as if alive above the sea; they surrounded the running ship on all sides; more intense than the eyes of a staring crowd, and as inscrutable as the souls of men...The ship was a fragment detached from the earth...round her the abysses of sky and sea met in an unattainable frontier."

One other thing I shall never forget is the size of the waves at night as they approached the ship. I had no sooner taken up my place as bow watch when I noticed that the distant lights of another ship had suddenly disappeared. Something had blotted them out. Then I realized the rolling layer of darkness which seemed to be getting closer was in fact an enormous wave which - in my fertile imagination - seemed to have my name on it. I thought of the huge tidal wave the Japanese call tsunami or, as I would translate it, "helpmommy." In any case, it was too late to report to the helmsman so I sat glued to the forepeak hatch, with bulging eyes, awaiting my fate while my entire life passed before my eyes.

The wave arrived. The ship rose a bit as it passed under us and then settled again. In other words, it was not a nasty tidal wave; it was a huge but friendly swell. My heart began again and, just as I spotted yet another wave, the watch officer appeared standing close by and yawned. "Calm night, huh?" he said. (I hate it when they do that.)

One thing sailing on board a tall ship will give any modern sailor is a deep sense of respect for the men sailing them today and especially for those who sailed them in yesteryear. Whereas we had excellent food and well balanced meals, they had salted meat and weevil-filled ship biscuit; whereas we had emergency engines, radar and electronic depth sounding devices, they had lead lines and sextants; whereas we at least had berthing areas, they slept in 18-inch-wide hammocks on the gundeck. And to be wounded in battle usually meant facing the ship surgeon's "dismembering blade" which more often than not ended in death.

Ships such as HMS Rose are keeping such experiences and traditions alive. And to sit at the bow or to take the helm of a tall ship like the Rose as it sails on alone through a vast, dark ocean under a sky full of stars is to understand what Conrad meant when he wrote: "The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land."

Copyright 2014 by Dean Barrett


In the film Master and Commander, the HMS Rose was used as the main ship. 




Richard Bailey - Captain

(The HMS Rose was the ship seen in the film Master and Commander based on the work of Patrick O'Brian)


A full-rigged ship: three masts with square sails on each one.


Length overall 179 feet
Length on deck 125 feet
Height of main mast 130 feet
Displacement 500 tons
Draft 13 feet
Beam 32 feet
Sail area 13,000 square feet

Click on picture for larger image



Hangman's Point - A Novel of Hong Kong

by Dean Barrett

ISBN: 0-9661899-1-4

Published by Village East Books


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