Sailing away

The ups and downs of being a trainee on a Tall Ship

Kid's corner - September 2006 I had never been on a sailboat before. Suddenly I had an opportunity to not only ride on a sailboat, but to be a crew member for a Tall Ship. I had only seen Tall Ships in movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean."

On a hot August day I stood in the harbor at Sturgeon Bay, Wis., about 250 miles north of Chicago, and looked at my Tall Ship. The Pathfinder is a 72-foot sailing ship called a brigantine. The sailing rig itself was 54 feet tall.

The Pathfinder was built in 1963 but it is a replica of the type of ship that was very popular with pirates a long time ago.

During my trip I tried to help a crew of more than 20 sail the ship down Lake Michigan to the Tall Ships Chicago festival.

A lot of people don't know it, but the Tall Ships that were in Chicago this summer sail all the time, and kids can sign up as trainees for voyages of different lengths. I was on the ship for three days, just to see what it was like.

I first met the crew of adults and kids aged 13 to 18 while they played a game on shore. They were divided into two teams about a hundred feet apart with an empty water bottle in the middle. The two teams ran at each other and used, well, physical force to get the bottle to the opposing side.

"It's like rugby, only worse," said one of the counselors.

The voyage wasn't much easier than that.

"You're on blue watch-you'll help us clean lunch," were the first words I heard when I brought my gear aboard. That meant scraping the food off the pots and pans and putting it in the gash, or garbage and trash. That was my first experience sailing.

Some of the trip involved just waiting. It was more than a day before we got under way because of waterspouts in the lake. And when we did finally set sail, it was with a motor at first because the lake was still a little stormy.

I was a trainee, and all the trainees were taught a lot of things-to tie knots, work the sails, steer the ship (I didn't hit anything because we were in the middle of the lake) and even clean the head (the toilet).

The less said about cleaning the head, the better-and that goes for the waves when the lake is stormy, too. I threw up twice. And for baths we had something called "swim parade."

This was not a vacation-it was hard work and, in a way, roughing it.

But it was fun, too. I'm not just talking about the pranks, like having a smiley face sprayed on your chest with shaving cream when you fall asleep on the watch, which happened to me. And you don't want to know about the bananas on the clothesline.

It was also fun steering a big ship, even if only for a while. And being out in the lake at night with no sounds around and watching the waves was fun, too. I'd tell you what the stars looked like in the sky at night, but we were kept so busy doing what needed to be done on a ship that we all slept when we could.

It was an adventure I was glad I had.

And anybody else-boys or girls-who wants to try it should go to for more information about the Pathfinder and for more on other Tall Ships.

Next time I think I'll climb the mast. Or maybe not. The masts are sort of tall.

Zach Smith, 14, Oak Park


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