By Monica “Buttercup” Schumacher
Monica Schumacher, known to her shipmates as “Buttercup,” crewed on Hawaiian Chieftain as steward and education coordinator in spring 2014.
The last ride from Eureka to Crescent City was supposed to be hellish. Scheduled to depart on a Monday, we held back a day, despite our program requiring our prompt arrival, and left before light had hit the sky Tuesday morning. The Coast Guard wasn’t answering the radio to tell us we could leave or what the conditions were at the sand bar crossing. Eventually we got a hold of them, and they reported a difficult crossing, but the reality right before our eyes was quite different. It was a perfect time to cross, so we let them know the conditions and referred the information to our other ship, Lady Washington, as well. Motoring out over the growing waves, we gathered on the deck in our foulies and life jackets, expecting a tough transit. According to reports we’d observed, the waves that day would be washing all the way up to the quarter deck. We were as prepared as we could be, lifelines readied and watches scheduled, everyone dreading the next twelve to twenty-four hours.
My watch wasn’t until noon, so I stayed out for breakfast and watched the lovely yellow and peach-colored sunrise over the ocean before heading below to my bunk to nap. Trying to fall asleep, my mind played through all the things our captain, J.B. Morrison, had said about this transit. It’s hard to describe how incredibly wet and cold it is to stand on deck against the wind, with freezing whips of rain and salt spray coating you and everything you touched. On my second transit, we slept in layers of salt, stood watch washed back and forth by icy waves, which reached up to us on our perch on the quarter deck, battled the wind and waves throwing the helm hard at each turn, and staggered boot deep in sea whenever we crossed the main deck on our boat check. J.B. said this transit would be worse. I willed myself to rest, knowing every ounce of energy would be my ally.
I was rocked to sleep by the ocean.
There were several dreams, and light sleep, as heavy rest is not reliable when listening for possible alarms and the need to run up on deck at a moment’s notice, and finally I woke up, quietly awaiting my wake up call for my watch. I felt the ocean swaying around me, not tossing this way and that as it usually did. I hoped, I hoped this meant the sea was being kind to us today.
My shipmate Dave came up and called to me from outside my bunk curtain, “Monica, Monica?”
“Yes?” I answered, pulling back the curtain.
He was grinning. That was a good sign, or maybe I just had serious bedhead. “It’s 10 minutes till your lunch and 40 minutes until your watch. Also, it’s beautiful out there! Just beautiful!”
“Ooo!” I twittered, still not awake enough for concrete word responses. I was excited and simultaneously dubious about what “beautiful” meant.
“We should be there in four hours. During your watch. We are making such good time!” said Dave, as he headed off to complete his boat check.
I started piling on my layers, union suit, pj pants, pants, long sleeved sweater, wool coat, foulies, boots, and grabbed my harness. Just as I was heading up to deck, a crew member was walking down from the main deck, clad only in a t-shirt and his long underwear.
“You’re not going to need those,” he said, indicating my foulies and multiple layers.
I stripped off my foulies, but still was not trusting that the layers were not necessary.
When I got up on deck, there was a long underwear party in full effect.
Only the captain still had his work pants on.
The sun was shining, the wind was favorable, and the waves were rolling us along under fluffy white clouds. I felt out of place. I got my lunch, and after I ate, it became quite clear I was wearing much too much. I removed pants and pj pants, all the way down to my bright red union suit.
The first mate put me on the helm to steer, and my red bottom was set up on the pedestal as we rode along.
While I studied the compass with the rolling of the waves, the captain noted a southerly wind and mused about setting out the stuns’ls and the raffee. His musing quickly became a reality, as he told the crew members on deck to go retrieve these sails from the lazarette. I still stood steering in my red onesie and wool jacket, as pants were pulled back on and hands went aloft to let out the mains’ls.
Lines were thrown down from the yards, caught and tied on the foredeck, as I steered along our course. I started to worry I’d be entirely left out of the sail setting process, when J.B. turned to me and told me to relieve our first mate, Patty, at catching the lines. I ran up, still in onesie, caught some lines, and tied them off on the windlass, then answered the captain’s call for me to go cast gaskets on the course yard, about to go aloft in just my onesie. I ran back, pulled pants and harness on, laughing and feeling heat in my cheeks, then headed up the rigging, yelling, “Laying aloft!”
I had never been aloft on a seaway.
I moved slower up the rigging than I did when we were docked, testing my way as the lean of the waves affected my climb. It was not difficult, just new. Once I got to the course yard, I was told to climb out onto it and cast gaskets. I stared out over the ocean, and stretched my leg out to the foot rope, and locking my harness into the back rope before setting it behind me. I lurched forward, grasping the yard with as much contact and control I could muster. After a breath or two, I started untying the gasket coils to let the sail unfurl, traveling almost all the way out to the end of the yard. It was beautiful, exhilarating, and terrifying up there. When Patty lay out on the foot rope, I lurched again, still not used to the way the rope drew taut and tight and pulled my legs nearly into the splits when they had sat in a relaxed sort of squat a second before. We unfurled the sail, then lay off, climbing back down to the deck. I shouted as I got down from the rigging, “Back on deck, last on the main!”
Then we went to setting the stuns’ls and raffee, tying lines to sails pulled out of our storage space. We mis-set them a few times, but at long last, the sails were up and shining in the afternoon sun. We were sailing in a seaway: Triangle-shaped sail set on top of three square sails, with two rectangle sails to fill out the sides, raffee, upper mains’l, lower mains’l, course, and stuns’ls. Any ship who saw us would have fallen instantly in love at our glorious mating display.
We sailed for a little over an hour, watching the wind billow in our sails, dodging crab pots, and grinning in the cool sunlight. The captain had the helm, and guided us up to the red buoys, marking our entrance into Crescent City Harbor. All hands went to furling the sails as quickly as a group of wet behind the ears trainees and years of experience sailors ever could. Then we motored into their harbor, which was full to the gills with fishing boats.
In the harbor, J.B. steered our ship around a buoy marking a submerged rock washed over to our coast from the tsunami, turned her around and called hands to fenders on port side. Fenders were tied off, mooring lines prepared and then tossed to the dock, and we pulled her nice and tight and close in.
We’d made it, on a beautiful sail, to the windy land of Crescent City.