Tall Ships

Updated on April 22, 2019
DzyMsLizzy profile image

With seafaring ancestors in her maternal line, Liz gives them credit for her lifelong fascination with boats and water.

Figurehead of the Hawaiian Chieftain
Figurehead of the Hawaiian Chieftain

My Very Favorite Poem

Sea Fever, by John Masefield (1878-1967)

I must go 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.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

(This poem is in the public domain in the USA because it was 
published prior to January 1923.)

Why I Like Tall Ships

Seafaring ancestors ran deep on my mother's side of the family. They were whalers out of New Bedford, MA. While that is a big “no-no” these days, that was back when it was a common and accepted way to make a living; ships would be out for months at a time. My great-great grandfather was a whaler until he married, and his wife made him give it up as too dangerous. (It was very extremely dangerous work!)

But, it is because of these genetic connections that I feel drawn to the sea; to water in general; and to tall ships in particular.

Hence, it was an easy choice to make a trip down to the local marina for a photo shoot when I learned a tall ship was to be docking there.

A Ship or a Boat?

Whether a seagoing vessel is called a ship or a boat has largely to do with its size. Personal pleasure craft are boats, up to and including large yachts.

Ships are vessels of much larger sizes; such as the Hawaiian Chieftain, and up through massive ocean-going cruise ships and cargo ships.

The "Hawaiian Chieftain" coming in to dock.
The "Hawaiian Chieftain" coming in to dock.

An Afternoon Well Spent

While I waited for the ship to return to dock from a short cruise with a group of schoolchildren, I took the opportunity to test out my new camera on various scenes around the marina.

Sailboats at dock, Antioch, CA marina
Sailboats at dock, Antioch, CA marina
Sailboats at dock, Antioch, CA marina; Mt. Diablo visible in the far center distance
Sailboats at dock, Antioch, CA marina; Mt. Diablo visible in the far center distance

As the tall ship approached, I snapped several shots of her coming in to dock, and after the kids trooped off, I went down on the dock to await the public tour.

I was not disappointed.

Here she comes!  At this point, she is under engine power, as it is very tricky to try and maneuver a sailing ship in to tight quarters at a dock while under sail.
Here she comes! At this point, she is under engine power, as it is very tricky to try and maneuver a sailing ship in to tight quarters at a dock while under sail.

The Hawaiian Chieftain

This ship is a gaff-rigged topsail ketch, and she is about 60 feet long, with a 22 foot beam, and about a 5 foot draft. She weighs in at nearly 70 tons.

As such ships go, she is on the small side. Because she is almost flat-bottomed, and has no keel, as does a more traditional sailing ship, she can navigate somewhat shallower water than her counterparts.

Built in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, and launched on June 12, 1988, she is a steel hulled vessel. She was designed as a coastal packet ship, plying the trade between the islands, like the old wooden ships before her.

By the time she was made, steel was the more practical alternative, and the packet trade had dropped off, having become impractical. Her somewhat larger sister ship, the Lady Washington, is a wooden-hulled ship.

Heading for the dock
Heading for the dock

Many Parts and Pieces

Operating a sailing ship requires many more parts and bits of rigging than you might think. Yes, they are simple, but not so simple as might first appear.

Compared to a modern engine-powered vessel, with its boilers (for steam ships), or diesel engines, fore and aft thrusters, gauges to watch, and massive space that requires, yes, a sailing ship is much simpler. But don't let that fool you. Their operation is quite complex, and there are also plenty of hazards for the crew who fail to pay full attention to what they are doing.

All of the lines to manage the sails must be tied off to belaying pins, to keep them from loosening and causing the sails to flap uselessly. Each sail has more than one line, and the crew must have them all memorized, as well as to which pin they need to be fastened.

The pins are inserted into holes in the top rail, (seen in a row behind the block and pulley in the photo below), and can be moved as needed. These "pins" are the equivalent of a good sized wooden club, so if you ever hear of someone being bashed with a belaying pin, know it's a tool that can inflict some serious damage.

Belaying pins are used to fasten the rigging lines
Belaying pins are used to fasten the rigging lines

Where Are We Going?

The compass binnacle is a vital part of any ship, sailing or powered. The early steamships also had such devices, though today's modern cruisers and freighters use electronic and GPS direction finding.

You cannot go anywhere and return without knowing which way you are going. The compass was a massive technological improvement and labor-saving device over the original navigation by sun and stars. It works regardless of the weather, while navigating by the sun and stars is going to be nearly impossible under cloudy skies.

The binnacle is the protective housing around the compass, protecting it from the elements. In the photo below, it is just possible to make out the compass inside the binnacle. (Unfortunately, the sun was in such a position as to make it impossible to get rid of all the reflections in the photo below.)

The compass lives inside the binnacle
The compass lives inside the binnacle

Steering the Ship

The ship's wheel was another technological advance over the old hand-held rudder at the rear of the ship or boat.

The wheel is still connected to the rudder, so it's an indirect steering method, but it adds a lot of leverage to make steering easier, especially when needed for holding the ship against a current or making a sharp turn.

Turning a sailing ship often involves more than just turning the wheel. Often, sails must be adjusted to coordinate with the new direction in order that the wind may assist in making the turn. When running against the wind, it is necessary to steer in a zig-zag pattern, called "tacking" in order to make forward progress.

Running with the wind at your back, or going "downwind," explains a New England expression of going "down east to Maine" from Boston. Maine is about 50 miles to the north east of Boston, and the old sailing ships would be going down (wind) and somewhat easterly to Maine. Hence, "down east," sometimes rendered as one word: "downeast."

The compass binnacle is just forward of the wheel, so the person steering the ship can easily see it.
The compass binnacle is just forward of the wheel, so the person steering the ship can easily see it.

A Peek Down Below

In the areas labeled 'crew only,' tour guests were not allowed to enter. However, it was possible to peek inside, and see the tiny galley where they prepare their meals.

My goodness, but efficiency is imperative! Surely only one person at a time is doing any cooking or food preparation. As you can see by the photo below, even one is a crowd in this area.

Forward of the galley appeared to be a storage area, and possibly a passage to some sleeping quarters for the crew.

Aft of the wheel, which was approximately amidships, was another ladder down into more crew area. Here, guests were allowed to visit, but it was so crowded as to make picture-taking impossible.

In this space there was a table, the ship's radio and other communication and navigation center, and around the table, more seating that could double as bunk space.

To say the galley is small would be a world-class understatement
To say the galley is small would be a world-class understatement

Where Does She Live?

The ship has changed hands a few times, and is now owned by the Gray's Harbor Historical Seaport in Aberdeen, Washington. For more in-depth details and history, you can visit their page.

Ship's history plaque
Ship's history plaque
Looking up through the rigging of the main mast.  How do they remember all those lines?
Looking up through the rigging of the main mast. How do they remember all those lines?

Setting Sails

In this view, the sails are furled and tied down to the yardarms to prevent damage. When it is time to set sail, the crew must scramble up the rope ladders, called "rat lines," to untie and let loose the canvas, while other crew on deck manages the lines to fix the sails to the desired position, or "set."

You can see the black ropes that form squares in this photo. These are the rat lines. Imagine climbing up there when the ship is under sail on a windy day--the best kind of day for sailing ships. A sailor's second-worst nightmare is getting "becalmed," or dead in the water for lack of a breeze. (The worst nightmare, of course, would be stormy seas, putting the vessel in grave danger.)

And of course, I've referred to 'ropes' forming the rat lines; in truth, there are only 2 ropes on a ship: the bell rope and the bucket rope. All the others are lines, shrouds or stays, halyards, and sheets.

General Classes of Sailing Ships

There are many, many different classifications of sailing vessels.

This ship, as mentioned, is a ketch. This is because the mizzenmast (the rearmost mast) is ahead of the rudder. If it were aft of the rudder, it would be a yawl.

Some classification has to do with size; other bits have to do with the sail configuration.

Some of the other types of ships are:

  • Barque, or Bark (a three-masted ship with the foremast and main mast are square-rigged, and the mizzen mast fore and aft rigged)
  • Yawl (a fore and aft rigged two-masted ship with the mizzen mast (aftermost) rigged far to the rear so that its boom overhangs the stern)
  • Sloop (has only a single mast, with a fore and aft mainsail, plus a jib sail)
  • Frigate (this was a European warship designed for commerce raiding)
  • Square Rigger (this is a ship like the Star of India--see videos, below)
  • Schooner (fore and aft rigged sails, the aftermost mast being equal to or taller than the main mast; the ship Yankee was a schooner, but also sometimes called a brigantine)
  • Full-Rigged or Ship Rigged (three or more masts, all of them square rigged; for example, the Star of India, seen in the video below)

What Does it Take to Get a Sailing Ship Underway?

Photo Credits

All photos by the author, October 30, 2018

© 2018 Liz Elias


Submit a Comment
  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    19 months ago from Oakley, CA

    Thank you, Dianna! They are impressive, indeed. I can barely imagine the hard physical labor involved to keep them sailing. Climbing the rat lines up the mast to deal with the rigging--letting sail out or taking it in (which I got to do once on a ship that was at anchor)--is one thing. But to attempt that feat in rough seas and stormy weather would be quite another matter!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    19 months ago

    I have seen some pretty impressive tall ships and can understand your fascination of them.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    20 months ago from Oakley, CA

    Thank you very much, manatita44; I appreciate your stopping by, and glad you liked the article.

  • manatita44 profile image


    20 months ago from london

    I see that you like ships, sailing ships. They are quite majestic. As is the sea also.

    Beautiful poetry

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    20 months ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi again, Shauna! Thank you for the suggestion. I do agree, the original version was a bit ... abbreviated, as it were! Glad you enjoyed the additions.

    @ Liz Westwood: They are special. They were such a vitally important part of world history, so I think they touch a chord within us all to some degree. This particular ship is a 'working' tourist ship, with cruises available, and she is crewed by people who do stints of about 8 months each, if I understood correctly.

    The museum tall ships I have been abord include the Balclutha, in my native San Francisco, and the Chas. W. Morgan, in historic Mystic Seaport, Connecticut.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    20 months ago from UK

    There's always something special about seeing a tall ship. We have often come across them on our travels. Some are museum/tourist attractions and some are working ships.

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    20 months ago from Central Florida

    LIz, I'm so glad you came back and added to this article. Your experience and the video above really put these regal ships into perspective. So much goes into getting them ready to sail. I had no idea.

    Thank you!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    20 months ago from Oakley, CA

    @ Bill De Giulio: Thanks so much for stopping by. The tall ships are indeed grand ladies! The most recent time I was on the east coast was back in 1981, and the most recent time prior to that was 1964, so I missed seeing the bicentennial celebrations. I'm glad you liked the photos; it's a fun hobby.

    @ BillyBuc: You are so right--they are a vital part of our history! You are lucky to live in the state where this particular beauty has her home base! Thanks for your kind comment; I do love photography.

    @ MarK Tulin: They are compelling indeed. I'm glad you liked this article. That is a great poem, and one I've loved since I first read it.

    @ Shauna: I am very pleased with the camera, not so much with its manual. (One of the functions I wanted to look up was on a page past the English language section, and in French! I'm not even close to fluent in French!) The camera is an Olympus OM-D. Fully automatic with full manual mode available. I've been wanting a DSLR ever since they first came out. Now that you can get one without spending $4K, it was time! ;-)

    You're right: I should add on the bits on the tour. It wasn't guided; you just snooped about wherever you wanted, and crew was on hand if you had questions.

    @ Eman: I know what you mean about longing for the sea. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and then lived for many years in Pacific, just south of SF, and right on the ocean. Now I live inland, but near the intersection of our two major rivers through the California central valley, so I still have water near me.

    I'm pleased you enjoyed the article, and yes, that is a wonderful poem! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • Emmy ali profile image

    Eman Abdallah Kamel 

    20 months ago from Egypt

    I have lived in Alexandria on the sea for years, but now I live in another city in Egypt far from the sea. All I want is to go back to life on the sea and enjoy the view of the sea and the sky. I loved the poem very much and also enjoyed reading the article.

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    20 months ago from Central Florida

    Liz, your new camera takes beautiful pictures. What make/model is it?

    Your tall ship is beautiful as well. I love the colors. Did you go on the public tour? You should expound on this hub and tell us all about it.

  • Mark Tulin profile image

    Mark Tulin 

    20 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

    Yes,there is something compelling and majestic about tall ships. love the poem.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    20 months ago from Olympia, WA

    How could one not like tall ships? They are our history and they are absolutely stunning to see. I love it when they visit the Puget Sound region. A must-see for this boy. Thanks for the memories, my friend, and the beautiful photos.

  • bdegiulio profile image

    Bill De Giulio 

    20 months ago from Massachusetts

    Hi Liz. I love the Tall Ships. I remember when they came to Newport, RI for the bicentennial celebration way back in 1976. Beautiful photos, looks like an enjoyable afternoon.


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