Sailing with Tommy

[Guest blog post by Kari]

I first met Tommy one hot, late summer day several years ago. I had just joined the tall ship LADY WASHINGTON in Port Townsend, and had been assigned to watch the bottom of the ramp while the brig was open for dockside tours. “Good Morning” said I, to a broadly smiling gentleman with a long grey ponytail, striding purposefully down the dock. “We’re open for tours if you’d like to come aboard!” “Actually” he said, eyes snapping with excitement “I am your new mate!”

As Mate aboard the LADY WASHINGTON Tommy knew better than most the importance of keeping objects well stowed on a ship. Everything must have its place, and the place for crew toothbrushes was evidently NOT balanced precariously on a small ledge inside the head door. After several warnings to some recalcitrant shipmates, Tommy informed me one day “The way you solve this problem is to clean the head with the toothbrush… and then put it back exactly as you found it!” The toothbrushes quickly disappeared into their owner’s bunks. Tommy also showed us how to correctly sea-stow the main hold, and lash down everything on deck in preparation for heavy weather. Then, after our work was finished, he pulled out his sextant and explained how to use the big blue nautical almanac to plot our position without the GPS.

“One day this will save your life” Tommy told me as we tacked our way up Malaspina Strait on his quaint little ketch AVANTI. And he showed me how to turn a course wool blanket and an old oil lamp into something called an Irish Oven – an ingenious way to keep a helmsman warm on a cold middle watch. Later on he showed me how to get my bearings on a chart, figure out the tide tables, and to tell the difference between the ever abundant haze of shore lights, and those ever important running lights that signify an approaching vessel.

Another day we anchored off a place called Sandy Island, and paddled the Grey Ghost ashore to pay a visit to a dead man in a giant douglas fir. But it was a beautiful cloudless day – a rarity on the northwest coast in March – and we fell asleep in the sun. Lo and behold, we awoke some time later to discover the tide had gone out and dear old AVANTI was stuck fast on a sand bar. But instead of cursing bad luck or lamenting our predicament, Tommy told me a story about Captain Lem, and how the ancient mariner had once advised him to try beaching his boat – just for practice – so he’d know what to expect if it ever happened by accident. So we sat down to wait, munching on a cold deli chicken and taking turns reading aloud from Moby Dick until the incoming tide gently floated us free.

“Life” Tommy earnestly advised me one stormy night 40 miles off the Oregon Coast “is either a daring adventure, or it is NOTHING!” And that’s how it always is. Whether he’s pounding into the teeth of a gale on an old wind ship, shooting the Skookumchuck rapids, repairing a diesel engine, or setting bungs into a plank under LADY WASHINGTON’s main channels, sailing with Tommy is always an adventure. I wish Tommy was part of my family. But in a way he is. We are all part of the same family, every single person who loves the sea.

Kari in the Gray Ghost, Princess Louisa Inlet BC

Shipmake Kari in the Gray Ghost, Princess Louisa Inlet BC

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