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Battle sail: Tall ships draw a crowd in Coupeville

Charlie Drummond climbs out on the Hawaiian Chieftain’s bowsprit, with the brig Lady  Washington in the background, as the ship’s crew prepares for battle.  - David Welton / The Record
Charlie Drummond climbs out on the Hawaiian Chieftain’s bowsprit, with the brig Lady Washington in the background, as the ship’s crew prepares for battle.
— image credit: David Welton / The Record

ABOARD THE LADY WASHINGTON — For connoisseurs of 18th century naval lore, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Imagine going to sea on a tall ship with sails billowing and crew scrambling up the rigging in response to urgent orders shouted from the quarterdeck, all accompanied by the roar of cannon fire as your ship maneuvers at close quarters.

More than 60 intrepid landlubbers put themselves in harm’s way Sunday onboard the brig Lady Washington and the topsail ketch Hawaiian Chieftain, trusting their respective captains to see them safely back to the Coupeville wharf.

It was all part of “Battle Sail,” an educational program run by Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, owners of the two meticulous ship recreations. During the summer, the vessels travel Puget Sound offering dockside tours and public sailings that give visitors a flavor of lives lived on the sea in the 18th century.

The 112-foot Lady Washington is famous, as well, for her role in all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

“We get asked all the time if we’re a pirate ship; that’s the number-one question,” said Lady Washington’s captain, Ryan Meyer.

“But that’s not who we are. All these folks come aboard and learn something about life at sea during the battle; sometimes they learn in spite of themselves.”

Sure enough, proudly flying high atop the mainmast was the official state flag, and not the skull-and-crossbones.

Launched in 1989, the Lady Washington was built in Aberdeen as a full-scale reproduction of the original Lady Washington to celebrate the state’s centennial.

Constructed in Massachusetts in the 1750s, the original vessel carried freight between colonial ports until the American Revolution, when she became a privateer. In 1787, she was given a major refit for a trading voyage around Cape Horn and became the first American vessel to make landfall on the West Coast of North America.

In 2004, the Hawaiian Chieftain was bought to increase public awareness about tall ships and provide the needed challenger for a sea battle. It’s a replica of a typical European merchant trader at the turn of the 19th century.

Built of steel in Hawaii in 1988 and originally designed for cargo trade among the Hawaiian Islands, her design was influenced by the early colonial passenger and coastal packets that carried on trade along the Atlantic’s cities and towns.

“We pride ourselves on the Lady’s history by keeping her as close to the real thing as possible,” Ryan explained.

Some passengers were surprised at the lack of a ship’s wheel.

“The original ship used a tiller and so do we,” Meyer said. “As a trading vessel, it wasn’t necessary to have the more complicated mechanism a wheel demands. If you don’t need all that mechanical gear, a simple rig is always better.”

Meyer has been Lady Washington’s captain for 10 years and steered the vessel through the Panama Canal for its starring film role in 2002.

Meyer noted that lack of a wheel was one of the first things the Walt Disney production company wanted to know about when the ship first arrived in the Caribbean.

“There’s no wheel? What’s up with that?” he said.

After the 312-horsepower auxiliary diesel powered both vessels still tied together into Saratoga Passage, the engine was shut down, the ships parted ways and the crew prepared to raise the square-rigged vessel’s sails.

Though dressed in authentic period costume, these sailors weren’t recruited from a theme park — they’re the real deal, some spending their summers as volunteers while others sign on full-time.

Each ship has a crew of 12, of which eight are full-time paid crew members.

Esther Whitmore has been on board Hawaiian Chieftain for just three months.

“Coming from Yakima, I didn’t have much contact with the sea before,” she said while threading a canvas bag made from old sailcloth. “It’s an adventure, but hard work.”

The Chieftain’s first mate, Sara Gempler, met her husband — Capt. Jeremiah Gempler — three years ago and fell in love with him and the sea.

“This is a good life, but people assume that because I’m married to the captain that I don’t do anything,” she said. Not true; she’s both educational coordinator and the ship’s gunner.

Not everyone is young. Charlie Drummond from Coupeville began volunteering after he retired four years ago.

“My grandfather sailed on a tall ship; I still have his rigging knife,” he said. “I love the sea.”

Drummond is really impressed at the dedication and work ethic of his shipmates.

“These people work hard, 12 hours a day,” he noted.

It seems romance on the high seas is catching; Capt. Meyer’s wife Ann came aboard three years ago and let nature take its course.

As she strains hard to batten down the lines to port, it’s clear she doesn’t get many breaks as the captain’s wife.

“My favorite program is bringing people, especially kids, on- board to teach them sailing,” she said. She admitted there were a few downsides to living and working aboard a fully-rigged sailing vessel.

“It can be difficult to get showers and laundry,” she said. “We have a limited water capacity.”

As the wind freshened and the topsails grew taut, the intricate dance began as each captain tacked and maneuvered about a mile off the Coupeville dock to secure the best firing position. With good-natured shouts across the water, gunner Roscoe Wascher loaded the midship 3-pounder cannons and the swivel guns mounted on the stern railing.

But Hawaiian Chieftain was quick off the mark, firing first to loud cheers and deafened ears. Smoke and the shot’s echo drifted across the water.

With unerring accuracy, the Lady Washington’s more experienced captain hauled on the tiller, captured the freshening breeze and sent two shots into the Chieftain to a loud chorus of “Huzzahs!” from passengers.

Throughout the “battle,” the gunner kept a lighted taper in his hand so he could respond instantly to the captain’s firing commands.

“We do as many as four Battle Sails over two days,” he said. “It never gets boring.”

Wascher graduated June 15 from from Chicago’s DePauw University and took up the gunner’s role the next day.

His major? “I have a degree in psychology, but maybe I’m the one who needs his head examined,” he said. “Hey, this is an incredibly unique experience.”

Wascher’s world was a big hit with one interested observer.

Evan Johnson, 4, from Greenbank, faithfully plugged his ears when the guns fired.

“The cannon is the best part,” he said.

Of course there were no cannon balls, but this was as close as anyone aboard would get to Lord Nelson’s Trafalgar triumph in 1805.

Passengers were thrilled by the spectacle.

Linda and Mike Rosenwood of Freeland read about the event in The Record and quickly reserved a spot.

“We’re fans of sailing and the Napoleonic Era and read all of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels,” Linda Rosenwood noted. They willingly volunteered to help haul the spanker sail aloft on the main mast.

Noting a squall bearing down from the north, and lightning in the distance, Meyer hoisted his remaining canvas, including the fore top and stay sail anchored by the bowsprit.

“We’re doing over five knots and might hit six-and-a half if the wind stays steady,” he said. The big ship heeled over, to the delight of all onboard.

The brief storm over, passengers discovered what the term “becalmed” truly meant as both ships slowly drifted apart, rendered motionless for lack of wind.

By then it was time to head back to port; the engine was fired up and sails brought in as the crowd cheered the hardworking crew.

And then three more cheers — “Hip, hip, hooray!” — for captain and crew at dockside.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or www.southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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