Vikings Raid New York! Or, Topics in Non-Euclidean Marlinspiking

Hello from Yonkers, everyone! I’m excited to be based for a few days in Walla Walla’s East Coast sister city in being more famous for having a goofy name than for being a city. I sailed here aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, where against all odds, I am treated as a member of the crew. In the last month I have seen, done, and learned so many things that if I tried to just vomit them out this post would be a bigger mess than my SAT essay (side note for any high-school-aged readers: the SAT essay is graded using the reverse of Godwin’s Law. Hitler it up, even if the topic is cell biology). So I’m going to organize this update on my maritime activities via the time-tested method of the Good, the Bad, and the Environmental Humanities.

What? That’s a real movie. Clint Eastwood as Henry David Thoreau is a cultural icon. Who can forget that famous scene where he mows down the huckleberry collectors while Emerson quips one-liners? Classic stuff.

Anyhow, I’m about to get kicked out of a library, so let’s get started.

The Good: I should probably explain that title. It’s referring to Draken Harald Harfagre, a replica Viking ship that made a transatlantic journey from Norway through conditions so hazardous the crew were ordered to sleep in their survival suits. For reference, these are the poofy full-body flotation devices you wear to stay alive until somebody’s Coast Guard notices you. Draken (as we call it) has a checkered reputation on Clearwater, as having only one square sail, and a 9th-century steering mechanism largely dependent on a large Swede probably named Gunnar, is objectively funny. That said, I did volunteer to crew for them before landing the Clearwater gig, largely out of my love for replica voyages kicked off by Tim Severin’s Brendan Voyage. And it was thrilling to throw up our full sail and try to photobomb their press junket off the Manhattan coast, as we did a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if we actually made it into any of their publicity, but I got some fantastic pictures.

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This is my favorite, with the Freedom Tower in the background. I like it as a reminder that history never leaves us: that 800s ships look over the same Atlantic as 2000s skyscrapers.

As for the other part of the title, it came up as part of a discussion of how many coils of line should be hung from certain parts of the rigging, but honestly, I don’t quite know what it means. I think I’m just going to let it exist as an inside joke with just me. Everyone should have at least one of those.

The Bad: It’s been a long road to dredging up my old knowledge from my Corwith Cramer trip around the Lesser Antilles back in 2013, and honestly, I overestimated the strength of that foundation from the beginning. Before boarding Clearwater, I may have known what a ballantine and a beam reach were, and why it’s important to swab the deck with saltwater. But knowing the steps for an arrest in countertime doesn’t mean you can pull one off in a pitched battle against a deranged clown with a weed whacker. It’s all in the muscle memory, the ability to act without thinking, and I have never been good at that.

Nor am I great at details. The fact is that the ideal sailor is an extremely meticulous, detail-oriented person, who can’t look at something without thinking of a way to make it better, prettier, more functional. And I’m…not. I can be a details person when it comes to my writing–no way around it if I want to be able to pick my crutch words out of a manuscript–but it’s not my strong suit in other areas. Just look at my attitude toward cleanliness. Past a certain reasonable point when all the big blemishes are gone, I’m constitutionally incapable of being dissatisfied with an object’s cleanliness. I am like the man from a groaningly dated stand-up act. I cannot see dirt.

(I also frequently leave the toilet seat up. This is another mistake that’s worse if you make it on a boat.)

In the long run, being forced to learn the processes of sail-raising and striking, to practice the skill of moving onto the next step as the previous one wraps up, is going to be good for me. Especially if I plan to skipper my own small boat someday. But I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t taken a toll. For a week or two, it seemed like I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without making some obvious mistake. When I got a handle on those, more things cropped up. Honestly, the only thing that kept me from despairing about ever being a real sailor was getting to know some of the “real sailors” and discovering they have the same problems. Sailing is like anything else in life: anybody who claims to have all the answers is lying. Even the mates forget things, and no captain can demand the current change course.

Good: Working with students has been the best part of the job, other than the astounding views, which I’ll get to in a bit. Clearwater spends the majority of its time on the water taking students out sailing to teach them lessons about the Hudson River–students from 4th grade to college, but mostly on the younger side. The lessons take the form of stations, usually five to a sail, preceded by all the kids helping us raise the 3,000-pound mainsail together. The passengers get to touch a fish and help steer the boat, but my favorite station to teach is often history, which happens belowdecks with the aid of a box of artifacts and a stained-glass history of the river valley. There are so many great stories, from George Washington’s enormous Tyrion Lannister chain to the English leveraging their dubious territorial claim to turn New Amsterdam into New York without firing a shot. Runner-up stations are water quality, which allows me to explain that the murky waters of the Hudson are actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and art, because in internet parlance I am Hudson River School trash.

Bad: Really really am not going to miss sharing a cabin with between seven and twelve other unwashed people, one of whom has to climb over my bunk to get into his. Or having people literally underfoot when I’m doing the dishes. Or being that people. Or having to keep my backpacks on my bunk when I’m not sleeping in it. By now you’ve probably gathered that I enjoy having my own space. While this is nothing I didn’t expect, it’s not exactly a perk of the job. Granted, though, it’s not hard to find moments to myself–whether on my days off, which each take place in a different river town, or on the transits, when nothing immediately needs to be done.

Good: This is an absolutely beautiful part of the country. Just like Cape Cod, I’m pretty good at winding up in these places. Just a shot I took recently off of Poughkeepsie:

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And one of Beacon, current home port of the Black Squirrel, a little south:

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It’s not hard to see why this estuary inspired so many people to take up arms in its defense. Even though this isn’t my native land, I’m proud to be one of them.

The Environmental Humanities: On that note, though, one last complicating thought. It’s critical to educate the younger generation early, so they learn why it’s not acceptable to use a river as a garbage can for sinister acronyms like PCBs. That said, I can’t help but feel like we’re taking something from the Hudson in our fight to defend it. Lots of the rhetoric aboard Clearwater treats the river like a babe in the woods, helpless without the altruism of humans. I myself talk like this to students all the time. But in the old days of the Lenape Algonquins, when the Hudson was called Muhheakantuck (loosely, “the river that flows two ways”), it might have been a god. The body and presence of a divine, not just its metaphorical home.

How do I respect something like this in the modern era? Does it make any sense to treat the Hudson as an object of as much respect and even fear as love? After all, it’s no grandfatherly Old Man River, delighted when its children come to visit–its currents and winds have as much power over human life as in the old days.

Like with sailing skills, or non-Euclidean deck arrangements, I have no easy answers here. Perhaps I’m working too hard to drag consciousness out of the landscape, and I should sit back and let it develop in its own time. In all things I ask for patience.

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