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Kim3 On the Bounty and the value of sail training vessels


February 14, 2013

Over the last two days I have been reading a friend’s live Facebook notes from the Bounty investigation, as well as watching a live stream of the proceedings when I have had the chance.

After working as a traditional sail training vessel captain and crew off and on for the last 10 years, this sinking of the Bounty hit home for me and all of my sail training friends. Many of them of shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears aboard Bounty. On these vessels we work for little or no money, and there are no unions involved. Our workdays often last well over 12 hours when not on a transit, and during one contract I did not get a day off for 90 days.

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One of my deckhands prepping a bilge for paint aboard Hawaiian Chieftan. 

Today, one of the lawyers asked a witness to explain the “phenomenon” surrounding these vessels. Much of the public does not understand a traditional sailor’s love and devotion to these boats. The people who join the boats are there because they have few glaring responsibilities ashore, and they figured out that life isn’t all about money and buying things – it’s about developing close relationships with a variety of people, learning a trade, and engaging in an inherently dangerous activity that takes us out of our comfort zone, allowing us to put trivial dramas into perspective.

After doing things like hanging from a wildly swinging, loose piece of wood 70 feet above deck at 4 a.m. in the wind and rain off the Washington coast, I eventually stopped caring about inconsequential things.

Most sail training vessels in the U.S. are either replicas of square riggers from the 1700s, replica schooners from the mid-1800s, or original vessels built in the early 1900s. There are several top-notch operators in this field. The models for financial stability usually include either vessels that are privately run by owner-operators, or non-profit “science at sea” type programs.

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Here, I'm tarring the rigging aboard the Elissa in Galveston. 

 There are exceptions, but the Bounty was not one of them, as far as financial success goes. She was always thought of as struggling to stay afloat (in more ways than one). She was high-maintenance, largely because she was not built to be seaworthy for the long-term. She was even more unique because she was the largest vessel in the U.S. sail training fleet that did not hold a COI for carrying passengers underway. 

Every former crewmember cherishes their experiences aboard the  Bounty , but in my discussions with them, I always got the feeling that the camaraderie and the valuable skills they acquired aboard came from the constant state of (mostly controlled) chaos. I’ve heard stories of people spending more hours up in the rigging completing repairs than on deck over a three-month period, and of a fire below decks during a Coast Guard inspection. Part of me always wanted to crew on the  Bounty  because other boats had more resources, had to follow regulations more closely, and therefore didn’t allow as many crisis-level learning experiences. I’m one of those people who retains the most knowledge when the stuff is hitting the fan, and I have to figure out how to fix it.  

Safe or not, when we lost the  Bounty , we lost a rare and valuable experiential maritime training resource. But we gained a collection of crewmembers who are now out of work. 

These sailors have a deep respect for traditional hawsepipe seamanship, and every modern vessel would benefit from including at least one of these hardworking sailors in their crew. Many of them have their TWIC cards, BST and either an AB or 100-ton captain’s license. They use sail training vessels as free trade schools on their way up the hawse, and now need either oceans time or more tonnage in order to rise up through the ranks. Any boat that carries ordinary seamen and wipers should try to hire from this pool first, if work ethic and teamwork are at all important. Feel free to contact me at kim@schoonerkids.com if you would like to let the traditional sailor crowd know about the positions available. I will get the word out to them. 

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