The Flagship Niagara Diaries Part 2: Joining the Crew

Somehow, I don’t think this is going to be as much like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle as I thought it would.

The sky plastered with grey clouds only adds to my uncertainty as I watch the trees sweep by outside the Jeep’s window. My agitated mind wanders back to the aquamarine book cover that got me started on this outrageous journey; if a thirteen-year-old girl could do it despite a mutinous crew in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I can do it too.

I can live on a tall ship.

At least, that was the thought that occupied my mind then. But this is now. This is me, strapped into a silver Jeep, careening toward my maritime doom — Port Erie, where a giant wooden brig is rocking gently back and forth, waiting for me to join the crew before casting off to new horizons.

No refunds. Why am I doing this again?

I breathe deeply as the Jeep rolls to a stop in the gravel parking lot outside the maritime museum. My parents look at me, and I try to project back an air of confidence that’s so much the opposite of how I feel inside. Because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I tell myself. Because the captain said yes.

I can do this.

I duck around the edge of the museum, taking the shortcut to the dock. Although it’s her shadow that reaches me first, I know that I’m there, and she’s waiting. Niagara looms high above me, like a giant wooden dragon with canvas wings furled in. Her crew crawls like ants over her immense hull, and the smell of pine tar and turpentine hits me like a baseball bat to the face.

“Welcome aboard!”

I look up from the grey pavement near my feet to spot a tall man with long hair reaching his hand out to me. It takes a few moments of rattling my brain, but the name comes back. Wes. Err…I guess that’s Captain Wes now, isn’t it. 

I give his hand as firm a shake as I can manage, though his sailor’s grip still manages to crush my tiny fingers. After a quick goodbye to my parents, I follow him down the steep, temporary steps onto the deck.

“Find Billy, the first mate,” Wes says, smiling. “He’ll give you a job.”

I nod a little slowly, my eyes darting to and fro just taking in the ship. I’d seen her in all stages of construction, seen her “naked” without her masts, sails, and deck as we’d sanded, turpentined, and repainted during the winter, but she was never this big a ship, was she?

I snap myself back to reality and turn back to Wes only to find that he’s gone and probably has been for a while. I’m alone in a sea of people. Taking a few steps toward the prow, I know that the journey really begins now.

*****

I stand alone again, feeling the gentle rocking of the brig from below deck and trying to piece together my memories of the empty husk of a wintered ship into the full, living beast whose belly I’m hovering in. I stare at the wall at bag number 24, my own bundle of clothes slung over my shoulder. It’s just you and me, sea bag. Prepare yourself to be packed.

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A short wrestling match ensues, but I come up victorious, all of my worldly belongings packed into a three-foot sack, just as Billy had instructed. Not a few moments later he finds me and orders me back up on deck. My mind has cleared, focused. I’m here to do a job, and do a job I will.

I pass four hours like a shadow, trailing behind people and watching what they do. The sky turns darker and blacker by the moment until I can barely see the ropes and tools people are working with. For a moment, I smile. It’s getting dark. The day’s almost over. Just hang onTomorrow will make sense.

It’s roughly 11 at night when the crew slows and I fall into line with a group who’d been sanding. We congregate like a gaggle of geese toward the back of the ship, eyes on Billy and Wes up on the bridge deck above us. My breath catches in my throat as I realize what’s happening, and my heart quivers just a little.

“Cast off!”

Thick, white ropes whip off of dock anchors and my cement lifeline scoots past us ever so slowly.  A flurry of commands echoes from the bridge deck into the still night air, and I hustle along with the group who moves and make like I’m doing something. Hours pass as my eyes (and the work) get heavier. Today’s almost over…it’s almost over. It…no. It’s past midnight. It IS tomorrow.

I meander around on the deck, watching people “haul away” on lines and make them fast. Every now and then I’m lucky enough to get a grip at the end of a rope that a line of people are yanking on, so at least I feel like maybe I’m being remotely useful. Dozens of eyes glance back and forth from edge of the ship up into the maze of ropes twined between sails and masts like a spiderweb above our heads. I follow their stares but see nothing I’d qualify as “unusual.” Of course, that comes from a whole day of experience.

I’d say I’m a pro. Obviously.

My eyes still fixed up into the ropes, I lean a little to the side and ask what’s happening. A curt “tuning the rigging” is all I get in response.

Yup. I get it now. As if….

1:30AM (or, as I’m now prone to call it, 0130) rolls around, and the Captain sneaks behind me to put a hand on my shoulder. He smiles, though whether it’s from his excitement at finally being underway or from trying to stifle a chuckle watching me try to keep my eyes open, I can’t tell.

“You’re on Charlie Watch. Go get some rest.” He hands me my hammock wrapped in a giant mess of twine and heads off.

I stare at it for a moment as I head below deck, strategizing how to undo all those knots. Finally, I look around and see that same pink-shirted girl from earlier.

“Hey.” She pauses and looks at me. “Can you show me what to do?”

The giant nest of knots unravels with a few expert yanks and she smiles, hunched over underneath the low ceiling below deck. “What’s your number?”

“24.” That’s what it is, right? Oh jeeze.

“Come here.” She points to the ceiling where wooden bars painted with numbers are hidden up in the shadows. Finding the number 24, she takes the untied twine and loops it through a hole in the wood, sliding out a few quick knots that I have no idea how to replicate, then doing the same with the other end of the hammock. I really did pay attention when they taught us how to do knots in January. I swear I did.

But it’s June now, and this knot-tying goddess has obviously lost her divinity. Ugh. Mortals.

I thank the pink-shirted girl, my eyes following her as she heads back above deck, swearing that I’d seen her someplace before this ship. Deciding that I am far too tired for it to matter, I turn back to my strung-up hammock.

Which is at eye level.

I lean into it like one might lean over the back of a bareback horse, but all that does is ungracefully flip me over to the other side. Jumping, twirling, crawling, clawing, twisting…I try it all before stepping back with a huff. I look around to make sure that no one is watching me fail so miserably. You are NOT getting the best of me.

I back up, trying to figure out how much the wall of the lower deck slants. Maybe, if I can run up the wall, I can fall backwards into my hammock from above. Ninjas can do it….

I charge, running up the wall only to slam my head into the ceiling with a grunt. Mmm…not high enough.

I look around, nursing a growing goose-egg on my head, when my eyes are drawn back to the black and gold “24” around which my hammock is strung. Beside it, number 22’s slot is empty.

So this is why Captain asked if I could do chin-ups….

I brace myself and grip the wooden beam on the ceiling tightly. It takes a few tries, but I manage to hook my heel into my hammock and let myself tumble in. It’s one shaky readjustment process, but finally I’m wrapped in a cocoon of canvas and I breathe a sigh of relief. 2AM, probably. Gosh. Let’s get some sleep.

It doesn’t take more than ten minutes for me to begin shivering as the cool night air wafts around under my hammock. A snore reaches me from across the berth deck and I scowl, wrapping my arms around myself. Finally, after what seems an eternity of shivering, the slow rolling of the ship gently rocks me into a fitful sleep.

Seemingly only a few seconds later, I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder and I roll over, dazed.

“You’re on Charlie?” I stare for a minute before the words register and I nod. The shadowy person shifts. “Watch in five minutes.”

Of course.

*****

[What fun it is to finally flip through my ship log again and recall all these days! This is a true story, not a story “based on” the Niagara. Each week, the entries come from my ship log, which I wrote in every day and brought home with me after the voyage.]

Best quote from the ship log that accompanies this post:

“Froze my butt off.”

See you next week!

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