A Thanksgiving with the crew of the giant Lady Washington docked in Moss Landing.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Towering at 89 feet tall, the Lady Washington, anchored in Moss Landing Harbor, makes the sailboats around her look like toys. She sits almost perfectly still on a sunny Thanksgiving Day, her sails of synthetic canvas waving faintly, her lines of nylon imitation hemp wound tightly around the mast. Her planks of Pacific Douglas fir quietly creak beneath the feet of sailors who have made her their home.
On the deck one such young man sits alone reading a book, dressed in a loose cotton shirt and wool pants – 18th-century garb. Like the Lady herself, a recreation of an 18th-century trading vessel of the same name, his details are historically accurate.
But today is a holiday. It isn’t mandatory that the crew dress in costume to give a tour. The sailor’s shipmates, wearing board shorts and T-shirts, play cribbage.
“I haven’t done laundry,” Mike Mathieu explains. Mathieu is one of six unpaid interns in a crew of 12. He has been aboard the ship for five days, so he is a greenhorn, ripe for teasing. Soon he is ribbed for using verbose language, and when he asks if he is allowed to fire a cannon during an upcoming re-enactment battle with the Lady’s sister ship (during which locals are invited aboard at $40-$60 a head), The Hawaiian Chieftain, the answer from three more-seasoned crew members is a resounding, immediate “No!”
In the main hole below the deck, the aroma of roasted turkey and yams permeates and mingles with the smell of sea salt. It conjures the memory of home.
“I haven’t had a permanent home in two and half years,” says Mark Scibinico. “My mom gave up on expecting me for the holidays when I called on Christmas from a boat on the Artic Sea.”
Having worked on modern ships, Scibinico gets a little romantic when it comes to the Lady Washington. “Old sailors believed in a ship’s heart,” he says. “When you sail a vessel like this, you’re actually pushing 99 tons through the water. She is controlled by the sea beneath her.”
First mate Ben Saint – a man large enough to wrestle a buffalo but who goes by the nickname “Tiny” – interjects. “We have a relationship with the ship,” he says. “We have to be in absolute harmony with her.”
When the crew is not giving tours, they are enacting battles with their sister ship or performing everyday duties like housekeeping, maintenance and safety drills in four-hour shifts. During their downtime they listen to books on tape, play cards and… sing. Saint points to one of his shipmates, Dennis “Sparky” La Komski.
“Sparky is a veritable Broadway jukebox,” he says.
With the exception of the ship’s captain and officers, crew members share compact living quarters. There are eight bunk beds, each stacked four high in a room that’s about 200 to 300 square feet. With old sheets as curtains and books on the floor, the quarters could double as a dorm room.
The Lady Washington docks every two weeks, and when she does the crew members take the opportunity to stretch their sea legs. The ship’s cook, Tina Sanders, goes grocery shopping, and some go to bars.
“Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying,” Saint says. The occasional confrontation with locals results.
“Two nights ago a sea lion jumped on the docks and spooked a crew member,” Scibinico says. “She tried to kick it and ran away.”
Sanders calls the crew to the main hole for dinner. She has been preparing the buffet-style spread of 11 dishes for two days. The kitchen is small and pleasant, with all the amenities of a conventional kitchen, save a dining table. The crew eats off plates in their laps.
They devour turkey, yams, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and biscuits, all made from scratch. “Tiny” takes a second serving before other crewmembers have finished their first.
The digesting crew thanks Sanders.
“Tina is like my mom,” says one crew member, “and we never have the same meal twice.” La Komski and Saint take their desserts on deck and discuss shipboard superstitions. “Never whistle,” says Saint. “It calls the winds. That goes all the way back to Greek sailing. Knock on wood whenever something ominous is said, and never sing certain shanties unless you’re sending off a fellow sailor.” The men then belt out “Whiskey in a Jar.” La Komski takes large bites of pumpkin pie between lines – whipped cream smeared on his mouth – visibly content to be on the sea another day.