ON School of Seamanship sails across Pacific

“This was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Do you realize what we did? We sailed 2,600 nautical miles in twelve days.” So spoke Maury Bretzfield of Ardsley, N.Y., President and CEO of EcomWorks Inc., and one of six Ocean Navigator readers who signed on for an ocean passage across the Pacific from Honolulu to Seattle aboard the new steel brigantine Robert C. Seamans. Seamans is the latest training ship to join the Sea Education Association of Woods Hole, Mass. (For a complete description of this vessel, which was built by J.M. Martinac in Tacoma, Wash., and designed by Laurent Giles, see American Yacht Review 2001.) The organization in– structs college students in sail handling, navigation and applied marine biology. The crew for this voyage consisted of the master, three mates, two engineers, three scientists, two stewards and three deckhands. The other fourteen passengers, other than the seven of us from Ocean Navigator, were SEA alumni. It was a unique voyage in many ways.

The Ocean Navigator students shown on arrival were, from left, Maury Bretzfield, Dwight Knechtel, Carl Miller, Bill King, Ralph Johnson, Corey Wade. In the green jacket at bottom is David P. Jackson, director of the ON school of seamanship.
   Image Credit: Courtesy David P. Jackson

Normally engaged in college-level sail training and oceanography, this new 135-foot brigantine was scheduled to make a run from Hawaii to Tacoma this May for its first annual yard period. Ocean Navigator School of Seamanship reserved seven berths aboard the vessel for Ocean Navigator readers and me, director of the School. It was an opportunity to learn and practice the skills needed for cruising offshore on our own boats.

The Ocean Navigator School of Seamanship hands were all experienced cruising and racing sailors, but they were almost unanimous in their reason for taking the trip: They wanted the experience of an ocean passage. They were rewarded.

Separating into watches with the crew, they learned to sail a square-rigged ship with nine sails and more than 80 lines used to set, strike and trim them. Sail handling took place constantly, day and night. Perhaps the greatest lessons involved the planning of the route and various day-to-day operations. The crew met with the captain each day and shared in the strategy of planning the track according to the changing weather, as well as in other command decisions, like reducing sail and executing boat drills and checks. Bill King, an Ocean Navigator crewmember who owns a Bermuda 40 yawl, put it thus: "This trip was an eye opener for me. I now see that an ocean passage is much different from just cruising."

The SEA faculty and crew provided instruction on sailing and nautical science, teaching us ship's procedures individually and in small groups. Navigation in mid-ocean was primarily celestial and by dead reckoning, using the ship's GPS chart plotter to get a fix once a day. The schedule called for informal lectures in the afternoons on topics that included celestial navigation, weather and oceanography. Reports on the track and expected weather were made to the home office in Woods Hole every day.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the voyage was the way this disparate group of 35 people — including a recent high school graduate, young professionals, established professionals and executives, professional mariners and a couple of senior citizens in their 70s — bonded almost overnight into an effective, efficient crew and caring community. In this environment it seemed totally acceptable that a teenager might be in command of the watch while a middle-aged executive was below in the galley scrubbing pots and pans. It made it easy for me to imagine what it was like in the days of the clipper ships and whalers, with their legendary masters who were barely 20 years old.

As Joseph Conrad wrote on page one of Heart of Darkness, "Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other's yarns — and even convictions."

David P. Jackson is director of the Ocean Navigator School of Seamanship. Contact him at 207-236-7014.

By Ocean Navigator