The Flagship Niagara Diaries Part 4: “That Didn’t Sound Good….”

The coarse but oh-so-welcome canvas of my hammock wraps me into a snug cocoon as the day gets warmer and brighter. Charlie watch was relieved at 0715, and as far as I know, we get to sleep until about 1300.

Finally. Sleep. Maybe after a good nap I won’t be telling people we’re going to run the ship into cloud banks any more.

My heavy eyes hover somewhere between open and mostly closed as I ponder the captain’s last words — “It’s the Welland after sunrise. Seven locks, and they’re hard work. Get some rest.” Of course, Toronto has to be the only port we’re going to that requires travel through a series of locks. Locks…like the Panama Canal kind? I think, rolling over in my hammock. Why would those be so hard? All we’ve got to do is sit there while the water drains or fills or whatever. But I only have to look Captain Wes in the eye when he’s talking to know that he wouldn’t beat around the bush. If he says something’s hard, that’s because it is. Hopefully we’ll be through all seven locks by 1300, I grin rather selfishly.

The growl of the engine, the shouts, the creaking wood and zipping rope are nothing but distant echoes as sheer exhaustion allows me to tune out everything around me. For the first time since boarding the Flagship Niagara, I sleep.

1300 rolls around a little more slowly than I might have expected — I’m almost ready to get up. Midday has sneaked up on me like a thief, and the gentle swaying of my hammock tells me that we’re underway. Underway…that means we’re through the locks! Looks like I dodged a bullet there, I think. Sleep has erased my mental fatigue, but my body is still quite a complainer. 

I scamper up the steep steps onto the deck, screeching to a stop immediately as the blinding sun relents and I get a good look at our ship. Or rather, what I think used to be our ship.

So, you know how ships have those “yard” things — according to my diagram, the horizontal beams that hold the sails? Yeah, well when I took a picture of them yesterday from on deck, they looked like this.

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Now, they look like this.

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What the heck happened!?

I walk along the port side, seeing these massive yards hanging almost haphazardly from the ropes above, their thick wooden ends only feet from the deck. Aren’t these things supposed to be horizontal? It’s like the whole ship has been tilted. I don’t know-

HOLY CRAP CAPTAIN WATCH YOUR HEAD!

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Wes doesn’t seem too perturbed even though I’d just about leaped out of my skin seeing that spanker beam careening toward his face. He stands resolutely up on the bridge deck staring down whatever mysterious ship has come upon us while I was asleep. Looking over the stern, I notice that the other ship’s yards are way tilted too. What’s going on?

I head back to the center of the deck, finding one of the OS [ordinary seamen], Jesse. “So how many locks do we have left?” I ask, my eyes still entranced with all the displaced ropes now pulling and twisting in ways I don’t think they were meant to.

“Oh, don’t worry, we already made it through one.”

One. One! It took you until 1300 to make it through one lock! My shoulders slump slightly. That means we still have six locks left.

Part of me is incredibly disappointed, as my body’s exhaustion is starting to drain my mental energy again. I don’t feel like doing whatever this “hard work” is that Captain described. At the same time, there’s this part inside of me that’s been growing steadily over the last few days. It’s a part that says if they’d made it through all the locks, I would have missed out on the chance to see it. Somewhere inside me, this mysterious part has always existed. Being on this ship, though, is like teasing it. Like a cat watching a fluffy toy on a stick, I’m being teased. Teased toward adventure. Teased, and even pushed, toward being who I actually am but have always been too afraid to be, probably.

I snag a quick drink out of the blue jug on the starboard side and then head up to the prow to watch the tree-covered shore roll by on both sides of the river. I’m still a little disconcerted by the ropes hanging slack and the beams tilted, but the clear blue water makes for some nice scenery that I choose to focus on instead.

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After a good ten minutes of cruising, I catch sight of a long, grey something on the horizon. Well, it’s not a cloud, I grumble, as it clearly looks like some sort of pier this time. As we get closer, the crew begins to bustle. I follow along, unsure of exactly what’s happening.

I return to the back of the ship and watch a few crewmembers, Pip among them, wrangling with some ropes swung over the side of the ship and through the gun port that weren’t there yesterday. Ducking down a bit to catch a peek out of the hole where a cannon is supposed to sit, a huge, swinging tetris-block of wood meets my gaze. Behind me, giant white buoy-looking things are being rolled onto the deck.

A few nimble OS and ABS (able-bodied seamen) clamber up to the edge of the ship, sitting with one leg inside and one dangling over the outside of the brig. A few people are lifting the white buoys up to them, so I find a nearly crew-less part of the ship and start flipping the buoys up as well. After a few deft twirls, they’ve been fastened to a steel ring beside each gunport and are dangling along the outside of the ship.

When I stand again and look ahead, I see that we’ve come upon the lonely grey peer I’d spotted earlier. In fact, we’re coasting right between two cement sidewalks. Ahead of us is a huge, menacing gate that remains shut despite our presence. A few crewmembers toss out the docklines and we anchor in front of the gate, the mysterious ship behind us doing the same.

Are we taking a break? I wonder, going back to the front of the ship only to back up as it gets crowded with professional crewmembers. The dockline here at the prow is wrapped about a dozen times around a wooden frame, and about ten people are holding the end of the line.

Having nothing to do with myself, I simply stand and watch a traffic light next to the dock flicker between yellow and red. There’s no longer a sense of nervousness at the uncertainty of what’s happening — rather, it’s more of an aloof interest. It seems that, in the last few days, I’ve finally gotten over myself. I’m here. I’m on this ship, and there’s nothing that’s going to change that. I chose this, and I’m going to make it work.

As I stand and ponder, the traffic light flicks to green and Captain Wes gives a wave, first to Billy and then to a man on the dock. I feel the ship tip to the right ever so slightly before creeping back leftward. The solemn silence is broken all at once by a cacophony of shouts.

“Brace!”

“Get out of there!”

“Hold fast!”

“Haul away handsomely!”

I feel the ship tugged suddenly to port as if it were a lure on a fishing line. The cement walkway next to us rises, inch after sluggish inch, until it’s far above our heads. The slanted yards detached from their proper places slide down parallel with the wall. So THAT’S why we had to tilt the ship sideways….

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Taking a quick peek over the bow of the ship, I see a cascade of water rolling over the edge of the monstrous gate.

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We’re being drawn ever closer to the tall stone wall to our left, and I brace myself against a wooden beam, for once indubitably confident about my intuitions — we’re actually going to hit something this time.

Suddenly, the front of the ship ducks sideways, sending the stern out into the middle of the draining whirlpool of water. At the prow, the line fastened around the wooden frame constricts with a vice grip, earning a defiant creak and whine from the wood it’s cutting into. Then, without warning, the deck dips and I stumble backward as the churning water sucks the wandering stern back toward the wall again.

Out of the corner of my eye I see the fourth mate Pat lock his knees, but it’s inevitable. I feel my heels leave the deck as the tetris-block hanging over the stern skids with a piercing shriek along the stone. I stumble forward a few steps, and everyone stands still as a statue, listening. A few dull pops churn out from around the gunport as the weight of the ship pinches the wooden fender against the wall. Then, everything is silent except for the frothy sound of sloshing water.

A deafening bang shakes us all from our staring, and a crackling sound, like a tall tree falling, vibrates through the deck and right into our toes.

Shards of khaki-colored wood skitter around the shattered gunport, and the splintered remains of the wooden framework stick up prickly and agitated like a brownish sea urchin. I try to get a better view, but I’m blocked off by the taller mates and the boatswain. I look around, seeing everyone’s eyes fixed on the stern.

That didn’t sound good.

An almost nasal foghorn-like beep from the front of the ship calls many of the crewmembers’ attention to the prow, although the dull mumbling of important voices is still huddled behind me at the wounded gunport. Together, all hands on deck watch the giant steel gates finally give way.

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As the docklines tumble back onto deck from above and the all hands on deck order is reissued, I revel in the shade of the stone wall and the cool breeze tunneling through the canal on this steamy summer day. The light from between the gates glows like white fire on the water, and I smile as I feel the ship set off and break from its rest against the wall.

One lock down. Five more to go.

*****

Captain Wes was right. It is hard work, and although we don’t have another incident while going through the remaining five locks, poor fourth mate Pat and boatswain Rob are lamenting the damage to the ship’s port side. I spend the rest of the day getting accustomed to the suction toward the wall from the whirlpool of draining water in each lock and the creaking and moaning of the fenders as they shield the ship from scraping the stone. That wonderful sound that a balloon makes when you squeeze it? Imagine that ten times longer and louder each time the ship stalls in a lock.

Thankfully, the fiery sunset hasn’t quite disappeared by the time we’ve battled our way through the seven locks of the Welland Canal into Lake Ontario. The tilted beams and slackened ropes have become commonplace in only a day, and we make ourselves cozy among them, Jason reclining in the forecastle (fo’c’sle).

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We settle at a temporary port for the night, and a few friendly crewmembers take me through my first brig check and dock watch, where I remain until 2300. Although a hearty sail to Port Toronto is supposed to occupy our time tomorrow, Captain Wes takes a glance up into the scattered ropes above and smiles.

“It’s been a long day,” he says, pointing up toward the tilted beams. “We’ll set all of this straight tomorrow. Let’s get some sleep.”

*****

Quotes from this day’s ship log:

“By the time I woke up, we had gone through one of seven locks. During passage through the rest, one wooden fender cracked against the lock wall and splintered one of Niagara’s gunports.”

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