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Frequent Contributor
Posts: 25
Registered: ‎01-30-2009
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On running away to sea

At age 17, I moved from the desert of Southern California to Grays Harbor, WA. One day, at least 5 years later, I was driving up Hwy 12, and there were sails on the river! Under the sails, there was a boat! I gasped. “Boats like that don’t exist anymore!” The logical side of my brain took over: “Well, apparently they do, because there is a ‘boat like that’ right before your eyes!”

I asked around town, and the people seemed to think it was an ordinary occurrence, an 18th-century vessel sailing around. Her name was Lady Washington. I went down to the dock behind WalMart that evening, where a big gruff sailor turned me away, saying the boat was not open for tours. He simply didn’t understand! I wasn’t just curious, I was captivated! I wanted to know everything! For what possible reason would such a boat be built in the 1980s? What was it like to sail on her today? How did the crew end up being crew? Did they live onboard? What did they eat? Was there a bathroom? Did they sleep in hammocks? How come I’d never seen this boat all this time I’d been driving past WalMart?

Jumping ahead another five years, when that same “big gruff sailor” was my Captain, and I had no home but Lady Washington’s companion Hawaiian Chieftain, I tried to remember that first glimpse of mine into the world of tallships. I tried to consider the public as people, people who were as intrigued as I had been and who also had never seen anything like our home before. Many of them didn’t even realize that we actually lived there.

The first time I went to visit Lady Washington and actually got onboard was at Westport in 2006. It took me over an hour before I would walk down to see her, because the docks felt wobbly and were grated, so I could see the water below. I was scared. I had a fear of heights, a fear of falling, and a fear of water (not being able to swim), but I really really really wanted to board the Lady. Eventually, I made it. Greg Gempler was sitting on deck, making a seine twine bottle net. Everything was amazing. I had so many questions, and he took the time to talk with me, share his own experiences, and his enthusiasm. He encouraged me to sign on. I remember how thrilled I was that tourists were allowed to go down into the main hold. I sat on deck and listened and looked and smelled and took in everything, until they made me leave.

I went home and pored over the GHHSA website. There I found personal accounts of a few sailors, including Robert Kennedy. There were also a few email addresses, so I tried one. I emailed Annie, listed as Lady Washington’s Chief Mate, and she promptly replied with encouragement for me to sign on. I remember her telling me that all I needed to know as a beginner was that the pointy brown bits were called masts and the billowy white bits were called sails. I wasn’t sure if I could come up with the volunteer fee, but she told me that I could come volunteer on Hawaiian Chieftain whenever I felt like it without paying a fee, since the Chieftain was staying in Westport for “100 days of summer” and needed a lot of maintenance done. I showed up every morning for chores. Then it was breakfast and chores. Then it was breakfast, chores, and Saturday morning maintenance and public tours. The crew thought I was nuts, driving out to Westport for morning chores and then back into Aberdeen to work at the bank at 9:30 every morning.

One day Captain Kevin was trying to teach me about the lines, which line does what to which sail, etc. He realized how difficult it was for me to understand, since I had never even seen the Chieftain under sail. That afternoon, I went sailing. They put me in funny clothes, everyone started shouting things, and wow. It was amazing.

I logged 100 volunteer hours that summer, even earning a small grant for the Seaport through the bank I worked for. I didn’t get a chance to do my “two weeks before the mast” until September of 2007.
Sarita Li