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LJ Idol 10: Icarus

The tradition of setting coins under the mast of a ship is an old one, older than Rome. A sailor stands a good chance of dying without a grave, of never being buried. Never would a sailor be laid to rest near the graves of his family, with the ritual coin set under his tongue to pay for his passage into the afterlife. The coin under the mast is that coin, surety for the afterlives of all souls aboard. Under the foremast of the Lady Washington, in the hole in her keel for that sturdy timber, there are three such coins, one for each time the mast has been set in place.

Tar and Twine

When I rejoined the Lady Washington last spring, she was a ship bereft. There was a hole in her foredeck, a massive puncture through the foc's'l and deep into the keel. Rot had been discovered in her foremast over the winter, vast pockets of soft, mealy wood that couldn't be trusted, weakening the whole. So they plucked out that mast like a tooth, and now we were to replace her.

The Lady at sea trials to test her new engine, lacking her foremast
and looking very unbalanced. The mainstay hangs slack, with her
main topmast stays'l hanging in midair. Everyone is wearing rain-
gear, the boarding ladder is hanging over the side, and the light
anchor is hanging free, strangely.

I spent the better part of two weeks elbow-deep in genuine Stockholm pine tar, a fragrant black liquid that glinted gold in the winter sunlight and formed rigid shells around the hail-stones that fell occasionally into our cauldron. We heated it over propane, stirring it with a three-foot length of pipe, until it was the consistency of cough syrup and bath-water warm. Sinking your hands into it felt incredible, like playing in melted chocolate. You could hold your black-soaked hands to the sunlight and feel them soak it in. I loved it.

I even had a practical reason to be playing with the tar. Every inch of standing rigging, the lines that never needed to move but only withstand the elements for years at a time, holding the masts up tall and letting us climb their heights, all had to be saturated in the tar. On the old ships, you would boil the hemp and manila rope in the tar until they were soaked to their very core, with no space left for them to take in salt water, which would then turn into tiny abrasive crystals and saw apart your rigging from the inside out. On our Lady, we used synthetic line which was more impervious to water, but at the same time weaker to the predations of sunlight; just like us, the lines needed sunblock. And nothing blocks more sunlight than black tar. So we coiled all of the standing rigging, one set at a time, into the cauldron to soak for a few hours, then pulled it out, stripping the cooling excess off in thick glops with our hands. There was no way not to get it on your clothes, in your hair, on your face. And then the ship's dog would run past and you'd be covered in dog hair, too, but I digress.

Mostly, we were recycling the old rigging off of the rotten mast, so much as we could. Re-tarring everything gave us the opportunity to examine it all, touching every inch of it. Anything frayed beyond repair was replaced, anything that was beginning to show wear was re-furbished, wrapped in twine or leather and coated with still more tar. As much time as I'd spent messing with tar, I now spent hand-sewing leather onto rope, wearing a leather palm and threading length after length of waxed twine through heavy iron triangular needles.

It was hard not to feel the history of the tasks; just so might have sat a sailor two, even three hundred years ago, perched on a rejected length of timber amid a workshop that smelled of fresh-cut pine and beeswax. All around me, my crewmates and the shop's staff was working too. A few were doing the finishing details on the new foremast itself, kerfing in hand-carved wood cleats and mounting the wide platform of the top, painting the step of the mast with vivid red lead to seal against rot. One was worming, parceling, and serving the long stays, an involved process of making simple rope into iron-hard hawser. Our ship's carpenter was making deckboxes to hide the evidence of our new engine.

The mast being lowered into place, surrounded by anxious crew,
with our poor splintering dock in the foreground. I am wearing the
red shirt and three hats.

The mast went in on a rainy week in mid-March. In the days of Jack Aubrey or Horatio Hornblower, the mast would have been hauled down to the boat by oxen and erected by means of an a-frame derrick and all the manpower that could be mustered. We cheated. We used a crane. It threatened the integrity of our rickety dock, but it set the mast down into its socket on top of those three coins, through our living quarters and into the keel, neat as we could want. The tongued end of the mast fit so snugly into its step that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't force it all the way down against the air trapped under it. It would stand half an inch proud for weeks until the rolling sea settled it.

Once it was in, we worked as quick as we could to wedge it in place, filling the space around it in the deck, and rigged the shrouds; the long spiderweb of rigging that served two purposes. It held the mast in place against any side to side motion, and it formed our ladder to climb aloft. Before anything was even truly fixed in place, one of our crew was aloft like a a monkey, the first to climb our new mast. She did it with only the ratlines, no futtocks to bridge the distance between the shrouds, which connected to the mast below the top platform, and the edge of the platform itself. Thirty-five feet in the air, with nothing to which she could clip her safety harness. Hearts in our mouths, we all watched her shimmy up there, and then things could move forward.

In the next few days, we put up the rest of the forestack. Two more masts, stepped on top of the one we'd put in with the crane (each with its own dime in the step), had to be winched up there by hand, using our massive, primitive windlass. Then there were three yards, the immense forecourse, smaller topyard, and comparatively tiny t'gallantyard, each with their sails already bent on. More shrouds, these going from the top platform to the crosstrees, from the crosstrees to the truck, or the very utmost top of the whole stack. The stays. The stays'ls. Catharpins and footropes. Flag halyards. Miles of line had to be rove through the proper leads and blocks in arrangements that defy description. Only an accurate scale model could ever convey how difficult it was to lead everything fairly so that nothing bent cruelly or chafed another line. There is no recording of the right and proper way - each ship can only be fully rigged out by trying it, then trying it again.

And then we were sailing, our great towers of sails held together by tar and twine, resplendent above us once more.

The Lady at her home dock in Aberdeen, WA.
The Lady Washington at her muddy dock in Aberdeen, WA,
sails all furled and flags flying, taken from the bridge above.

This entry was written for [info]therealljidol . More information about this part of my career can be found in this entry. Thank you for reading!


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 22nd, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC)
Never before has being soaked in tar sounded so nice. The more I read about your work on the Lady, the more I want to sail on her as well. If I could stand the cold, which knowing me, I could not. I'm a big wuss about cold!

Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:04 am (UTC)
The only downside to being soaked in tar is that you have to practically sandpaper it off. That part is what ruins your skin.

If you ever get two weeks free, do it! 2009 excepted, she spends her winters down in SoCal, so you wouldn't be that cold.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
Hmm, that is definitely doable!
Jan. 22nd, 2011 04:13 pm (UTC)
I've just started reading your posts and I absolutely love them. I want more stories about the Lady, so I'm voting for you this week. :)
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:05 am (UTC)
I will do my best to oblige. I mostly write either about the Lady or about my own history and plans as a sailor.
Jan. 22nd, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC)
I didn't know about the coins - that's a fascinating tradition, though.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:06 am (UTC)
It's a neat one. It's also cool that using a gold coin has occasionally been thought to be bad luck, because the sea has a great greed for gold.
Jan. 22nd, 2011 10:43 pm (UTC)
You make sailing sound absolutely enchanting :) Love this entry!
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
Enchanting is a good word for it. There's something utterly magical about the ocean, and about sailing in particular. There's nothing more fundamental than wind and water, and few things more satisfying than using such simple technology to ride the two together.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:03 am (UTC)
Very interesting- thanks for sharing this!
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
Thank you for reading it. :) Remember to come back for more each week.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:30 am (UTC)
It was an informative, interesting story, I enjoyed it very much.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
I do my best, thank you.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed reading this. You paint such vivid pictures with your words, engaging all the senses. You also convey such a sense of adventure.

Great job!
Jan. 23rd, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
Boatwork is a very sensory process. One of the things we're all on guard for, every day, is the scent of salt water mixing with the bilge. Or worse, fuel. And of course you get to know all the sounds of the boat and which sounds don't belong, and what each vibration and roll means.

Thank you.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)
Very interesting and appealing. Good use of topic with great description of your reconstruction processes.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you. It's a topic that sank a lot deeper into me than I expected, so I'm glad this came out well.
Jan. 24th, 2011 12:34 am (UTC)
Wow, I loved reading this story, it all sounds like terrific fun.
Jan. 24th, 2011 06:10 am (UTC)
Nice work on the noble lady! Hopefully she will take to the stormy seas soon enough : ).
Jan. 24th, 2011 09:20 pm (UTC)
It was hard not to feel the history of the tasks; just so might have sat a sailor two, even three hundred years ago, perched on a rejected length of timber amid a workshop that smelled of fresh-cut pine and beeswax.

I love this, because I can imagine how it must've felt. Nicely written!
Jan. 25th, 2011 12:54 am (UTC)
This is so informative and cool. Thanks for sharing it!
Jan. 25th, 2011 06:24 am (UTC)
this was really interesting! that first paragraph is especially lovely!
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:32 pm (UTC)
These ship entries are so neat!
Jan. 30th, 2011 08:17 am (UTC)
What are the coins under the mast anyway?
Jan. 30th, 2011 09:52 am (UTC)
There's an old 50 cent piece, one of the Lady's signature coins, and a 2009 gold dollar, if I remember right.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )