I’ve always been a romantic, so when I saw that the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain were headed for Coos Bay, their first time since 2008, the call of a Tall Ship was more than I could resist. I talked my two teenage sons into going and I made ready. I went to the website at historicalseaport.org and bought tickets, dug up an old pair of deck shoes and a hooded raincoat (since getting wet during Spring in Oregon is a foregone conclusion), and headed for the weather forecast. Gale force winds, heavy seas, driving rain…youch. I decided not to tell the boys and go anyways. I’m glad we did, the only time it actually rained was for 3 minutes near the end of the sail, and before we went out while we stalked the boardwalks of Coos Bay looking for a bathroom.

Before we board a little background on the two ships is in order:

The Lady Washington

The Lady Washington
Launched on March 7, 1989, the Lady Washington was built in Aberdeen, Wash., by Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, and is a full-scale reproduction of the original Lady Washington as she was rigged as a Brig for her historic voyage to the Pacific Northwest in 1788.    She was also the first American ship to visit Honolulu, Hong Kong and Japan with King Kamehameha of Hawaii as a partner in the vessel.   The new Lady Washington is the Official Ship of Washington State.  She displaces 210 tons and is larger than the famed Santa Maria sailed by Columbus. The Lady Washington is recently famous for her role as the ship “HMS Interceptor” that “Captain Jack Sparrow” steals in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The Lady Washington was named in honor of Martha Washingon, wife of President George Washington.

The Hawaiian Chieftain

The Hawaiian Chieftain
The topsail ketch Hawaiian Chieftain is a replica of a typical merchant trader of the turn of the nineteenth century. Laid down in 1988, her hull shape and rigging are similar to those of Spanish explorer’s ships used in the expeditions of the late 18th century along the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts.  She is unique, having the rig of an 19th century trading vessel combined with a modern triple keel, shallow draft hull; only 5 1/2′ from waterline to keel (draft).  She displaces 64 tons and boasts a steel hull.   The Chieftain was designed for cargo trade among the Hawaiian Islands.

As we drove along the harbor looking for the pier where we would embark on our voyage, we spotted the Hawaiian Chieftain coming up the bay and immediately found ourselves part of the traffic jam that ensued – the entire right lane was blocked with all the other lanes in both directions slowing to a crawl.  We pulled off the road to grab a couple of shots of the ship going past.  It is safe you say you will not be immune to a surge of enthusiasm when you see one.  As touristy as it all sounds, it was far from it. At the dock there was genuine interest and chatter from kids, parents, veterans and even a few locals at seeing these ships tied up.

We steam upstream while the Hawaiian Chieftain prepares to weigh anchor.

As we signed in we got to pick the ship we wanted to sail, we picked the Lady Washington, something about being a wooden ship I think.  Once aboard we got a rousing welcome and safety briefing from our gunner, and off we went.  The Chieftain was facing down river, we were docked facing up river, so on departure we steamed (ok, big diesel engined) up river a couple hundred yards to clear the way for the Chieftan to get under sail and move down river to setup for the battle. Once Captain JD Morrison had reached a wide spot in the bay, he spun the Washington to starboard, put up the sheets, cleared the “George”, killed the engine….and the magic started.  The feel of the sails pulling on the ship, the sound of the ropes, Captain JD calling the next maneuver to his “Sail Mistress” (1st mate),  who would call it out to the crew, who would then echo it back as they executed the commands brought a smile to every face I could see.

Don't let the tri-cornered hat fool you, look at his eyes; no pirates here.

I made my way up to the after-deck and spent nearly all the cruise watching and conversing with Captain Morrison, a master seaman and veteran sailor of 28yrs.  28 years old that is.  A sobering reminder that most of us aim well short of our potentials.  He was a confident and calm man who was kind enough to let us in on his tactics and maneuvers during the course of the sail.  The challenge we faced:  the shallow draft and swift maneuverability of the Chieftain.  While he stated that any cruise where we didn’t hurt a ship, passenger or crewman was a successful outing, he was optimistic about not being the one buying the drinks that night.  For those of us paying attention, we got a lesson in tactics and the abilities of an outlier as he consistently out-positioned the faster, lighter ship, only giving up our bow twice and a glimpse of our transom once.

The Chieftain crossing our bow and firing a very loud volley.

The trip lasted almost 3 1/2 hours as we made our way charging, luffing up, tacking, and often times firing on the Chieftain as she worked to cross our bow or our transom and in turn fire on us. Initially I took for granted that this was 420,000 lbs of douglas fir, iron and paint dancing around in a narrow channel simulating a duel with another ship. Then it starts to sink in: the Captain and mistress are watching the sails, ours and theirs, the riffles on the water, the channel markers, all the while unraveling what the other captain may do; these are after all, unscripted battles. Watching a multi-million dollar pair of ships come withing 30 yards of each other as Captain JD “pinches” the Chieftain forcing her to give way in order to protect our rudder from “gunfire”, then pivoting and “letting her luff” to set the Chieftain up to over rotate and give up her transom was revealing: they take it seriously this re-creation of 18th century sailing and tactics, and it’s no mean skill.

Our Gunner fires a zipper down the pier with a swivel gun.

Time went very quickly till at last we’d run out of time and wind before we could sail the bridge. The Captain had the crew furl the sails as we wen’t under power for the jaunt from the bridge back to the pier.  The crew let us in for a little fun as they demonstrated a “zipper shot” – using a swivel gun to set off a chain of rapid fire echoes down a long pier, and the “car alarm”; apparently made famous by a cannon shot down the length of a Washington Ferry, the concussion setting off most of the car alarms in the process. We made a shot at a viewpoint and the casino parking lot; alas no alarms, but plenty of cheers from the many onlookers along the shore.

The Tall Ships will be in Coos Bay through April 6th, then on to Newport where they will be until April 13th.   Even for the most timid, you owe it to yourself to get a ticket and go on one of the cruises, it is both nothing like you expect, and much more at the same time. If you are more adventurous, you can apply to sign on for a “Two Weeks Before the Mast” cruise as a volunteer, or book a berth on a passage run as they go from port to port. I told the boys once they were off to college they’d find me at sea. Over my shoulder the Sail Mistress suggested I might send the boys to sea instead.

As an old song goes, “Ships are the nearest things to dreams that man has ever made…” and continuing on to its conclusion brings up the wistful fog of a longing you didn’t know you had for a different time and a simpler life….boy, I need to keep the “Billy Bones” album safely put away.

*watch EDN for our story about the discovery we made on the way home from our adventure...

Find more songs from the album Billy Bones and Other Ditties

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. John Masefield from “Sea Fever”