A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By

Sails, rigging, cannons, wormy biscuits and grog, disciplinarian captains in tricorne hats, rapacious pirates wreaking havoc with cutlass and pistol — these are images of the Age of Sail, when square-rigged ships flitted from continent to continent, bringing with them people, goods and sometimes, disease and warfare.

From far away, the tall ships are beautiful, graceful, with flowing sails, usually in white, brass fittings on the decks, neatly-tied-off ropes and fresh, clean paint.

Inside the vessels, though, you find the tiny cabins of the officers, see the space where dozens of men hung their hammocks only 22 inches apart and learn quickly to watch your head because the clearance belowdecks is only about 5 feet.

But even then, oh, they are beautiful, these ships.

My parents and I visited Duluth for its Tall Ships Festival last weekend, touring several of the stately replicas of Age of Sail vessels, and watching others move in and out of the harbor via the lift bridge.

Technically, not all the nine vessels at the festival were ships, a term once reserved for vessels with three masts and a bowsprit (that big pole that sticks out in the front). There were schooners, brigs, barques, brigantines, with square and triangular sails of immense size.

The oldest, the Barque Europa, was launched in 1911; and the youngest, the Denis Sullivan, was launched in 2000 as a re-creation of a 19th century three-masted Great Lakes schooner.

All the ships were gorgeous. Many of them deserved the name “tall ships” because of their height alone, with their 100-foot tall masts scraping against the clouds. But the ships also seemed strangely… small.

The star of the festival, the replica H.M.S. Bounty, was literally made for the movies — for the 1962 “Mutiny on the Bounty,” featuring Marlon Brando. But even the Bounty, with its stately sails and elegant masts (reaching 115 feet in the air) has a beam of 30 feet.

In ordinary language, the ship — and the Bounty is a true full-rigged ship — is only 30 feet wide.

Small.

The luxurious officers’ cabins were smaller than closets. A person could touch all four walls without moving, and a tall person would have had to curl up a bit in order to fit on the bed. But given that the men themselves would have been sleeping in individual hammocks literally up against each other, a private cabin, however tiny, would have been an enviable luxury.

The Bounty was built for film, so people could easily stand up belowdecks. Other ships were a bit more true to their predecessors and going below meant making a constant effort not to bump your head on anything.

Given the ship’s gentle swaying in the water while it was tethered to the dock, it would have been a lot more difficult to avoid brain-damage in a quivering, storm-beset sea, with anything not secured rolling around underfoot and people and cargo rammed into every available space.

Small.

But in another sense, these vessels, these ships, are not small.

Crammed into close quarters, shoulder to shoulder in the dark — fire was an ever-present hazard in these days — people prayed, lived, sickened, loved, wept, died, triumphed and surprisingly often, survived in ships just like these.

During the Age of Sail, people voluntarily walked into these ships — so much like wooden coffins from the inside! — and crossed oceans, for fortune, for family, for freedom, and sometimes, simply for finding out what was there.

The ships were small. The ideas and ideals they often contained were not.

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