The Flagship Niagara Diaries Part 1: Welcome Aboard!

Welcome to The Flagship Niagara Diaries, the weekly blog series which chronicles my life as a tall ship sailor aboard the historic Flagship Niagara of Erie, Pennsylvania. Before I begin, let me introduce you to the ship and its faithful, friendly crew.

This is the Flagship Niagara, one of the last surviving warships from the historic Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812:


That, my friends, is not a painting.

The Flagship Niagara is a two-masted, square-rigged sailing vessel.  In 1813 she had a crew of 155 men who manned her sails, 18 carronades and 2 long guns.  Today’s Niagara sails with a crew of 40 and carries two 32-pounder carronades.  Original 1813 timbers, which were recovered, have been incorporated back into the ship (particularly in the captain’s cabin). It was with this ship that Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie after his primary warship, the Lawrence, was destroyed.

The ship itself is still in its originally constructed condition — all ropes (except for the docking lines) are made of real (not synthetic) rope, usually of manila or hemp. All blocks and tackles are made of wood (generally Douglas fir), as is the rest of the ship. More than fifty pins (where sail lines are fastened) line the pinrail, and yes, we have to know all of them. A pinrail looks like this:


A little less than 200 feet in deck length, the ship is compact and short, with a deep keel that keeps the ship balanced despite its stoutness. Below the deck, where we sleep, eat from tables temporarily hung from the ceiling, and cook, the ceiling is 4′ 10″. I was okay, at least. 😉

For this week, I just want to acquaint you to the ship. Get to know her before I start talking about all the time I spent aboard! But if you’re going to know the ship, you should also know her crew.

The captain, Wesley Heerssen (hereafter known as Captain or Wes), is one of the kindest people I’ve met. He and his wife have two children who love the ship just as much as he does. He goes out of his way to make people happy and comfortable in what can be a strange and seemingly threatening environment aboard a tall ship. Certainly it’s an environment that not many people have seen first-hand!


You see someone with long hair in one of my pictures, it’s probably Captain.

Next in line below him is the First Mate or Chief Mate, who has almost as much authority as the captain himself. Chief Mate Billy (who just got married recently aboard the Niagara, yay!) was also a great person who was compassionate yet wouldn’t tolerate a slacker.


In addition to his respectable work ethic, he also became our unofficial (and comical) “poster child” for the ship: Come Sail With This Guy!


It was the beard. Always the beard.

Second Mate Joseph Lengieza was the head of Bravo Watch, but Third Mate Christopher Cusson (hereafter known simply as Cusson) was my Charlie Watch head. Cusson always liked him some watermelon. I think you can figure out the rest.


Finally, the Fourth Mate (also Engineer) was a kindly guy named Pat Crosby. I do believe he used to be a teacher. He came into some unfortunate scars later in the journey, but that’s a post for another day.


After those main positions, it’s sufficient only to mention the other roles in passing: Able-Bodied Seaman (AB), Ordinary Seaman (OS), Cook, and Boatswain (pronounced BO-sun and occasionally written as such; he is in charge of hull and ship maintenance).


Feel like you’re a little more acquainted with the Flagship Niagara now?

I’ve only glossed over it, and I think you’ll see soon enough that there’s so much more to learn from a ship. It can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, as I was. Ropes, sails, watches and checks, all kinds of rules. Drills. Man overboard. Fire on deck. I learned by being and doing, not by being told. I was guided, not instructed.

What are the rules like on a tall ship? I certainly can’t cover them all, but I think I can give you a feeling of the atmosphere with six basic rules:

1. First and of utmost importance, take care. Care first for the ship, then for others, then for yourself. If the ship goes down, everyone goes with it.

2. Follow orders promptly. Things can malfunction if you are tardy.

3. Repeat all orders given. No “uh huh” or “okay.” If you didn’t hear, ask “SAY AGAIN.” Don’t say “huh?” or “what?”

4. Holy ship, fasten all lines to a pin when not in use! SO many things can go wrong when they’re not made fast.

5. Wear tennis shoes or ones with steel toes. You can and WILL break toes otherwise.

6. Do not EVER, ever, ever, allow the American flag to touch the deck when you hoist it or lower it. EVER.

You get the idea.


Be patient, my friends! You have to set the scene before you can delve into the action. Next week is where the fun really begins. 😉

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