The Lady Washington
that I served aboard is made of tar and iron and fir and oak, but she is not a relic of the 18th century. She's a replica. Most tall ships still sailing these days are: The Lady
, the Bounty
(All three of them), or the HMS Surprise
; all replicas of one sort or another.
The original Lady Washington
was built around the 1750s, in Boston, at the time a British colony. There's no knowing what name she was given first - those proto-Americans kept horrible records. But in the course of the American Revolution, she was re-Christianed, despite the renaming of a ship being bad luck. But there was a war on. These things slip through the cracks.
Whether or not she was involved in the war, we don't know. I kind of doubt it. There is a Letter of Marque from the time for a ship named the Lady Washington, of her approximate size, but 'our' Lady Washington
was a squat little thing, built wide and round to hold as much cargo as possible, and not the sort of ship to be privateering up and down the coast. In all likelihood, the only guns she boasted were a pair of six-pounders and a stern swivel or two to scare off small boats of nefarious intent, all four manned by only one gunner among her twelve-man crew.
Bos'un-gunner Sara touches off the starboard gun in its usual roar of flame and
smoke. Poor Sara, everyone else in the picture is wearing rain gear, but she's in
period-appropriate wool, kneeling on a rain-slick deck. Now that's dedication.
(Picture credited to Alabama Holman, the "Pixie Pirate.")
Our replica doesn't have six-pounders, but we do have a pair of threes, which throw up a fine enough blast, especially when you can echo it off stone walls or the glass faces of buildings. Prefabricated warehouses, also, toss back a perfect reverberation. We don't load shot, of course, not even for our ferocious battles with the Hawaiian Chieftain
. (Not even when they fling moldy bread.) We judge whether or not a shot was true by the echo off her steel hull. You can really hear a good shot; the report comes right back to you, sharp and clear.
The battles were, in many ways, the best part of the job. Frantic and ponderous all at once, we put our two ships, nearly 300 tons between the pair of them, through their paces, spinning them around each other by changing sails, stealing one another's wind. Our captain's favorite move was box-hauling the spars, putting them at right angles to one another to effectively stop the Lady in her tracks. Chieftain, hot on our quarter, would be forced to fly right past, and all we had to do was swivel towards the wind to not only take a good shot at her stern, but take the weather-gage.
On the left, the Lady Washington heading towards the camera, and on the right, the Hawaiian
Chieftain in profile, approaching a buoy in very, very crowded Lake Union, Seattle. That little
electric boat in front of the Chieftain harassed her every time we went out to fight.
In a good three-hour battle, each ship would fire twelve to twenty shots, generally in twos (Although the Chieftain,
with her modern deck layout and enormous bos'un and mate, could occasionally muscle all four of her guns down to her main deck to rake us with a broadside of four), wind depending. On a calm day, we might sit with our sails slack most of that time, trying to entertain three dozen passengers, all asking why our battle isn't more like the broadside-to-broadside cinematic fights of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Well, that's a movie, folks. At sea, real battle was slow. Two ships on the open ocean might take days, even weeks maneuvering for the perfect position. A chase could take you halfway from the coast of Spain to Brazil before you'd get close enough for a single shot. Very, very good gun crews might shoot three rounds in five minutes, but the wind was everything
. And you didn't want to be shooting them while leaving your boat where they could shoot you back. You wanted to fire with your boats at right angles, either into their bow to take down spars and crew, or up their transom and hopefully destroy their rudder, their means of steering. Either one meant a disabled ship, with the right shot. Firing into their broadside, the best you could hope to do was kill a few crew and maybe destroy a gun, or maybe sink their ship, your valuable prize.
That's me, in my period costume and not-period (not flattering) safety harness, watching
the Chieftain try to take for position across Bellingham Bay. If I remember right, this
was a nearly perfect sail, sunny with a moderate breeze. Just look at those waves.
(The Lady won, of course.)
So our battles are not as exhilarating as they could be. We don't board, we don't damage, we shout friendly invective. ("Rufio! Rufio!" always gets a response, in the same cadence, of "Movie quotes! Movie quotes!") But we have three hours, not three weeks, before we have to set our spectators back on dull dry land. We want to give them a little taste, just a flavor of something real in our imitation.[This post was written for therealljidol Week 12, and is part of a series of entries looking back at the time I spent last year on the Lady Washington. I hope you enjoyed reading it, and please come back for more. I also delight in explaining terms, so please ask away. Thank you for being here.]