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Battle Sail

Started: 2017-04-18 20:59:43

Submitted: 2017-04-18 23:38:20

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator goes sailing on the bay on a rainy day

At work I sit with my team on the edge of a sprawling open-plan office, next to a third-floor window facing the bay. My desk faces away from the window; I could take a selfie with the Bay Bridge while sitting at my desk except my phone can't properly expose both me and the bridge at the same time. Almost every day some interesting ship sails by -- today was a Coast Guard icebreaker that sailed under the Bay Bridge to drop anchor in the middle of the bay -- and as the ship passes we stand and gape. At least one of us has a browser window open to Marine Traffic so we can check what ship just sailed past.

A couple of weeks ago one of my coworkers noticed a ship he recognized -- the Hawaiian Chieftain, a modern reproduction of a shallow-hulled mid-nineteenth-century packet trader. This ship was visiting Jack London Square in Oakland with her sister ship Lady Washington and was selling tickets to sail out into the bay -- particular the 'battle sail' in which both ships run out their little three-pound cannons and fire blanks at each other. This sounded like an amusing way to spend an afternoon, so I bought tickets for Calvin and I on the next free weekend, which happened to be Easter Sunday.

Sunday, however, turned out not to be a great day for sailing. It rained in the morning, and when Calvin and I left the house at noon it had just started raining again. (I had to insist that he wear a rain coat.) We took BART to Oakland, and when we emerged from Lake Merritt Station it was raining harder. We walked to Jack London Square, past small grocery stores with produce spilling out onto the crowded sidewalk in Oakland's Chinatown,

Calvin with Lady Washington
Calvin with Lady Washington

It turned out we arrived with far more time to spare than we needed. The ticket suggested arriving forty-five minutes early; we joined the people milling about on the dock waiting for something to happen until the crew emerged to herd us back onto land to check us in.

Since both ships were sailing, we had our choice of either ship. Chieftain is built for green-water sailing close to land; she's maneuverable, and her shallow draft makes it easier to access small ports. Lady is built for blue-water sailing in the middle of the ocean; her deeper keel gives her better stability and speed. (She also appeared in Star Trek: Generations.) I chose Chieftain because my coworker took a few weeks off last summer to crew on her.

We boarded, met the crew, and tried to stay out of their way as they pulled Chieftain out of port. (This was easier said than done, since an expensive yacht was docked at the next slip, but Chieftain does have twin independently-operated diesel engines, which makes it a tiny bit easier to maneuver.)

Lady Washington sails past Daiwan Kalon at the Port of Oakland
Lady Washington sails past Daiwan Kalon at the Port of Oakland

We followed Lady out through the ship channel into the bay, past Oakland Inner Harbor and the massive ships docked at the Port of Oakland. The old-fashioned sailing ship looked proudly anachronistic between the cranes on the dock attending to ships at the active commercial harbor, between tug boats, yachts, and ferries sailing in the channel.

Lady Washington sails past the Port of Oakland
Lady Washington sails past the Port of Oakland

We sailed into the ship channel under diesel power. The crew invited the passengers to help raising the sails (at least when it involved hauling on ropes from the safety of the deck rather than climbing on the rigging). I grabbed a rope and hauled when instructed, and let Calvin do the same, and soon the ship's sails were raised. For a moment I forgot how cold and wet I was; then the sails were up and the crew needed less help tending them and I went back to trying to enjoy myself in the rain.

Helm on Hawaiian Chieftain in San Francisco Bay
Helm on Hawaiian Chieftain in San Francisco Bay

When we reached the bay we turned to the south, just outside of the main shipping channel, but close to a massive car carrier ship anchored in the middle of the bay. As passengers we were herded from the main deck so the gunner could prepare the three-pound cannons to be fired. From my seat on the poop deck I didn't have a good view of the procedure, but it appeared to involve relatively-authentic cannons, ram-rods, and a slow-burning rope to fire the guns. The only concession to modernity was that the gunpowder was wrapped in waterproof aluminum foil rather than paper.

Lady Washington in San Francisco Bay
Lady Washington in San Francisco Bay

Once we were in the open bay the ships circled each other trying to get a good shot. The ships were supposed to be assigned three points for a stern shot, two points for a bow shot, and one point for a broadside shot; though I never heard the final score (if in fact one was even kept). Lady was faster, and could use her speed and reach to keep the distance open or close at her leisure; but when she closed Chieftain could use her better maneuverability to claim control of the engagement.

One side benefit of the rain was the wind: we enjoyed a stiff breeze that filled the sails and actually gave us the opportunity to sail around the bay rather than just driving. The crew spent much of their time running around the deck trying to trim the sails, and ended up striking some of the sails to maintain control.

At times the rain subsided and clouds lifted and I could see San Francisco and the Bay Bridge; at other times the city was a vague smudge lurking in the distance. I envied the crew for their modern industrial-strength rain gear, and wished I had clothing better suited to the conditions (wool socks would have been a distinct improvement).

Lady Washington in San Francisco Bay
Lady Washington in San Francisco Bay

At length they declared the sailing complete, and we sailed back up the ship canal to dock in Jack London Square, ahead of a container ship bearing down on its assigned berth. The purser invited us into her office, which doubled as the gift shop, then we watched the docking procedure as the crew managed to parallel park 64 tons of steel-hulled ship.

Once we were back on dry land, I took Calvin to Starbucks to defrost and dry off before heading back home. We were wet and cold, but I at least enjoyed my opportunity to sail on the bay.

I swear, it's not my fault if I loose things, even if I do have huge
messes.
- Neelix, 0223 CDT 30 April 2000, upon finding something he was looking
for on the bottom of a pile of Humblik's clothes