story by Joana Varawa
photos by Thomas Barwick
The Hawaiian Chieftain
"Will you look at that!" shouts Emily from atop the foremast of the Hawaiian Chieftain, as we sail into the small fishing port of Steveson, British Columbia, on the outskirts of Vancouver. Scattered over the beaches and breakwall, thousands of people come into view, waving and shouting a welcome to the parade of stately sailing vessels gathered here for the first-ever West Coast Tall Ship Challenge—a series of festivals from Vancouver to San Diego, with a race down the coast to Los Angeles to provide added excitement.
I have journeyed from my home on Lanai to sail aboard the Chieftain—a 103-foot ketch built in Lahaina in 1985 as a replica of a 1790s coastal trading vessel—because my son, Ian McIntyre, is her captain and owner. Once upon a time, I dreamed that my "golden years" would be spent ensconced in a private deck chair onboard a sleek liner, as the imperious mother of a captain resplendent in gold braid and blue flannels. But Ian’s heart has taken him to historic square-rigged ships, and this is not a first-class cabin on an Atlantic crossing, but a bunk in the hold with twelve other "men"—four of whom are women.
Skipper Ian McIntyre
There’s an old photograph of Ian at age eleven, intent and very serious, at the helm of a sixty-foot wooden ketch owned by a friend. Now, some thirty years later, his own desire to train young people in the arts of the sailor has led him to work closely with the American Sail Training Association, the sponsor of this event—one of a series of Tall Ship Challenges to be held around the world.
I know my way around a boat, own a classic wooden sloop and have spent many years near or on the ocean working on behalf of whales and dolphins. But my nautical skills are nowhere near up to par for a tall ship, so Ian has given me the job of waving to the crowds and orders to "just stay out of the way."
As we tie up at Steveson, we are a spectacle indeed: twenty-one proud sailing ships parading into the harbor. The largest of the fleet, at 185 feet, is the three-masted bark Europa, hailing from the Netherlands. Europa seems a dream out of the days of the clipper ships, with her hundred-foot masts flaunting more than twenty huge sails. There’s also the Zodiac, a 160-foot schooner with the grace of a tropic bird and the speed of a porpoise; the R. Tucker Thompson, an 85-foot schooner from New Zealand, whose captain entertains us nightly with dry, enigmatic comments over the radio; and the Nina from the Cayman Islands, an amazingly fast replica of the ship that Columbus much preferred over either the Pinta or Santa Maria. Soon to join us will be the Bat’Kivshchyna, a 97-foot schooner from the Caspian Sea, which is sailing the world on a cultural mission to acquaint people with the splendors of the Ukraine. Just aft of us in the parade is the Lady Washington, a 112-foot replica of the original, which traded on the Northwest coast in the 1800s. The Lady is our closest confidant, for we plan a series of mock gun "battles" together, replete with cannon blasts and intricate maneuvering.
Thousands more people are lined up on the docks, waiting patiently in the sun for a chance to tour the assembled vessels. They file through the Chieftain, peering into the tiny galley, gazing at the pinrails and the coiled lines, craning to look upward at the topmast, wondering why anyone would ever want to climb the seventy-five feet up there. Morgan and Emma, our aloft women par excellence, explain the pleasures of being up in the rigging at night in a howling gale, much to the disbelief of the visitors.
"Let’s get out of here and go ashore," says Alina, a fellow crew member and my daughter-in-law. We walk against the tide of people to the pier, where festivities abound. There are food and souvenir booths, beer is flowing like the Fraser River at low tide and reaching the festival stage I am somewhat astonished to find hula in full swing. A halau from Haney, B.C., is dancing to I Miss You, My Hawaii, and tears rise to my eyes. After the show, I seek out their kumu, Paddy Kauhane, and we embrace and immediately trade Island gossip.
In the morning, the fleet sails out of Steveson to the roar of our cannons, as we salute still more crowds who have come to bid us adieu. Once we’re at sea, Ian turns into a fair replica of Captain Bligh, as he puts the crew through sail training for the coming race. Most of the crew is experienced, but he wants them to be able to perform seamlessly under all conditions, without hesitation or confusion. So it’s: "On the foredeck ready to set the raffee!" and the foredeck crew sings out, "Ready to set the raffee!" and then Ian calls, "Set the raffee!’ This litany back and forth continues for hours as various sails are set, trimmed and hauled, until it seems the crew is about to drop, and I have to bite my tongue to keep out of it. Watching Ian’s confidence on deck, I am reminded that he was essentially born to sail. His father and I restored historic ships for the San Francisco Maritime Museum, and Ian was probably conceived aboard the venerable old lumber schooner C. A. Thayer. Then he sloshed around in my belly while we got the Free China, an authentic seagoing junk, off a mud bank in the Oakland estuary.
As an infant, Ian was coddled by old shipwrights while his dad and I repaired classic vessels for the State of California’s Hyde Street Pier collection. As a young sailor, he was mentored by some amazing skippers, and he got his captain’s license when he was just nineteen—the youngest captain in Hawaii—then sailed our small sloop around the Islands. I guess it’s no surprise that he now flings orders around the deck with such conviction.
Eighteen years ago, when the Chieftain’s original owner, a railroad heir named Lawrence Dorcy—otherwise known as "The Baron"—had her built on Maui, he poured $1.4 million into what was going to be his dream ship. Ian helped him rig the boat and became her first skipper. After "The Baron" sailed to Tahiti, he brought the Chieftain to San Francisco, where Ian again became her captain.
Then Dorcy became ill, and he offered to sell the ship to Ian and his father, my former husband. Now the Chieftain sails out of Sausalito, doing sunset cruises, corporate team-building adventures, weddings, whale-watching tours and other charters. But the work closest to Ian’s heart is taking classes of schoolchildren out and teaching them the art of sailing.
"I remember, Mom," he tells me, "how much it meant to me as a kid to be trusted and taught by such amazing sailors. I love this boat and what she teaches. It’s like a dance with all these players."
After the evening crew meeting is over, Ian and I sit in the aft salon, and he explains why he calls the Chieftain a "time machine." "See, Mom," he says, "it’s just like you’re on board in the 1790s. The way we sail is the same. If I call out, ‘On the starboard course clew, haul away,’ that’s exactly what you would have heard and seen then. These techniques haven’t been improved on for 200 years. With all our progress, there is still no better way to sail this vessel."
I cautiously make my way to my bunk in the dark, for there are no lights below deck to interfere with the night vision of the people on watch. With a little red glow from my flashlight to guide me, I slip into my bunk and close the thick green curtain to create a cozy private space, feeling a bit like a mother curling up to sleep in belly of the mother.
The next day, the ships gather off Seattle for a parade of the waterfront, then all the vessels pass through the Ballard Locks into Lake Union, an interior freshwater lake in the shadow of the Space Needle. "Mill about smartly," jokes Ian over the radio as we all wait to enter the locks.
There must be 200 boats zinging around us to the accompaniment of bells, horns, whistles and cannon blasts. Helicopters buzz overhead, and every ledge, outlook, balcony and pier is full of people watching us pass. My waving position has been elevated to full rank, since everyone else on the Chieftain is busy watching our lines as we pass through the lock, so I wave and wave. An elderly woman in a bright yellow jacket flashes us a smile as radiant as her coat, and I feel an immense companionship with all these people who have come to touch the magic of the tall ships.
After we secure the Chieftain, Ian, Alina and I cross the grassy festival grounds to watch Robert Vos, captain of the Europa, maneuver right up to the dock under full sail, an astonishingly deft accomplishment. A contingent of Japanese cadets—part of the fifty-person training crew from ten countries on board the Europa for the coming race—shows up dressed in red life vests over blue uniforms, their spiffy outfits contrasting with Robert’s usual T-shirt and jeans. With his graceful manner and extravagant gestures, he seems more like a dancer than the master of a sailing vessel.
Robert invites me into the cabin to share a beer and some insights into the lure of tall ships. When I ask him how he got started, he says in his Dutch accent: "Dingys! I started racing a dingy, and it ends up here." He is fascinated by history and the secrets of the old ships. "Their captains could maneuver in crowded harbors without the aid of engines—huge vessels, line them up on the dock," he says passionately. "How did they do it? That’s what I want to find out."
As I get up to leave, we shake hands. His fingers are hard and callused.
Our mission in Seattle is to stage battle sails with the Lady on the lake. This is seagoing theater, replete with chanteys, gun smoke and Ian pacing the quarterdeck, barking out orders to the crew. With his long hair flying, Ben—our engineer and gunnery officer—races the main deck from port to starboard, firing our four black-powder cannons. They roar and belch greasy black smoke and make my ears ring, but the passengers love it as Ian gets the Chieftain in position to score a "hit" without straying into the Lady’s line of fire. One eight-year-old swashbuckler races into the aft saloon, peers through the port with his binoculars and pronounces: "We’ll be dukin’ it out—pirate style!"
The Chieftain and the Lady play this game with one another every year along the California coast, and the rivalry between Ian and Brad Sousa, the Lady’s captain, is friendly but real. The exercise provides yet more sail training for the crews, with both ships maneuvering in a tight space and scores of small boats zipping around us.
few days later, it’s "hands to the braces, starboard tack, let go and haul," as we head out to sea. After the closed-in skyline of Lake Union, the open horizon feels comfortable and calm. From an estimated 700,000 people who came to look at the ships in B.C. and Seattle, we’re now down to the eighteen of us aboard. It’s time to concentrate; time to sail. The Seattle-to-San Francisco leg of the race has begun.
Life settles into a rhythm of watches, meals and sleep. The ship and the sea seem a single entity: motionless, caught in a windless, foggy void. Then it clears to sunny skies and sparkling seas, and someone shouts, "Come Joana, there are whales!" Just off our starboard bow, five fin whales slowly roll their immense backs in and out of the sea, their breathing audible above the hushed sloshing of the ship. A small brown bird has appeared, pecking at fragments of food on the deck, contained and thoughtful as he cleans his feathers and looks brightly around at this new forest. We are now forty miles off the Oregon coast, and the bird, having found us, is not about to leave.
There is now time for projects, so Ian decides that we need an additional sail, and he and Alina work together at the sewing machine to invent one. We are self-sufficient and self-contained, like a small village. Dylan gets out his violin and plays haunting old Irish melodies. Ben is whistling and fixing something. Kauri, Morgan and Emily are knitting, and Emma and Joel are making canvas buckets to carry gear aloft. We sail as fast as we can, but there is no tension. The wind is moderate and the seas smooth.
Later, a drizzly gray sky begins to lower as Ian gets all the sails up. There are people in the rigging, and a ghostly sense of phantom crewmembers moving about in the gloom. Orange and yellow foul-weather gear gleams in the mist. The fog closes in and the wind slacks, until we are sailing slowly within a darkening radius of visibility that contains only this ship and this patch of sea.
"This is mellow," says Emily on lookout. "If you drew a graph of a sailor’s life, it would look like this"—she draws peaks and valleys in the damp air. "On the way up, we had seven-foot seas and fifty knots of wind. The water was coming up over the ship to the quarterdeck." Stitch, bearded and bundled in an oilskin jacket, joins in: "A sailor’s life is always changing; it’s never the same from day to day."
Two days later the fog lifts, and we catch our first sight of land at twilight. It’s Cape Mendocino, contoured with golden evening light gleaming on the upper coastal slopes. It’s lovely to see the coast after five days of heaving seas. Listening to the weather radio, we hear that there is wind offshore and head out to catch the gale.
At 2:40 a.m., I wake to heavy wave motion, and a few minutes later the boat lurches violently, followed by the crashing sounds of people and gear being flung around in the dark. Everyone wakes up, and I see little red flash lights glimmering around as the crew scurries into activity. I put on my shoes and go on deck. There are big seas, lots of boat motion, and it’s very cold. Ian is at the helm, and the crew is taking in sails. "Everything is OK," Ian says, "but hold on." Then there’s a terrible shuddering, as the upper topsail flaps wildly against the mainmast. Josh and Joel go aloft to secure it.
Later, I find Joel drinking Gatorade in the galley. "I love it up there," he says of his mission high into the rigging. "There’s nothing like it—the view, the danger." It’s now blowing thirty-five knots with twelve-foot seas. The Chieftain is rolling from side to side, and the whitecaps in the moonlight look thick and dangerous—cresting, foaming, crashing. Rubbing noises, thudding sounds, all night long. After a time, she settles down and I try to go back to sleep, but each time she rolls I feel a twinge of fear.
By the next evening, it’s still blowing a gale, and the seas are even bigger. It seems incredible, but we are doing nine knots and winning the race. We pass Point Reyes under a cold, starry sky. The Chieftain is heaving and slipping over the wave-tossed sea, topsails straining, with Morgan at the helm, intent, serious and capable. We cross the invisible finish line just outside the San Francisco Bay shipping channel, with the Tucker Thompson about an hour behind us, and, somewhere behind, the Europa, the Zodiac and the rest of the fleet.
In the light of a half-moon, we sail past the Marin headlands and under the Golden Gate Bridge. The sea, obligingly, smooths to liquid silver, and the wind tames to a gentlemanly fifteen knots. We are home, and we have finished first.
Later, at the Captain’s Luncheon in the elegant Saint Francis Yacht Club, retired Rear Admiral John W. Bitoff welcomes us with a toast. "Your visit," he tells us, "allows us to return, at least in reverie, to a far simpler time described romantically as the period of ‘wooden ships and iron men.’"
Ian receives the award for winning the race with a joke and a bow to his crew. On the way out, he turns and tells me, "I think a lot of us are fed up with this fast-paced 21st-century technology and are searching for something more real. The ships are nostalgic, but grounded in real activity. They embody a self-sufficient spirit and simpler lifestyle."
After several days of festival sailing in the bay, the time comes for me to leave the ship before the next leg down to Los Angeles. Putting his arm around me as we walk down the gangway to the dock, Ian says, "Thanks for coming along, Mom ... and thanks for staying out of the way."
After all, there is no room for motherly guidance when your son is captain of his own ship.