Had Captain Jack Aubrey had the occasion to board the Lady Washington, docked in Humboldt Bay since last weekend, and take it for a spin around the bay, his face might have darkened with dismay at the brig's unhealthy complement of civilians bumping about, getting in the sailors' way, holding soda pop cans, answering cell phones - "sorry, you have the wrong number" and "I'm in the bay, where are you?" - pulling on ropes, asking impudent questions of whoever was at hand and approaching the captain as if he were a mere boy in need of a scolding. And Stephen Maturin, he'd have paled at the dull disregard most everyone showed toward innocent life - that harbor seal caught swimming between the Lady Wand its traveling companion, the Hawaiian Chieftain, just as the two vessels decided to engage in noisy cannonfire competition; that osprey's nest stacked like a giant pitchforkful of hay on a long wooden pole near the peninsula; those greater scaups peddling frantically to get out of the way. And oh, was that a long-tailed duck? Stop the boat! Ha, as if they would.
Don't know Aubrey and Maturin? Then you've got some reading to do: Patrick O'Brian's 20 (plus one unfinished) seafaring novels that take place during the Napoleonic Wars. Familiar with the sophisticated odd couple of adventure? Well, then, you're in!
Just kidding. These tall ships, ambassadors of the American Sail Training Association (ASTA), are for everyone to enjoy. They are replicas of actual 18th century merchant ships - the original Lady, trading in furs, was the first American ship to travel between the West Coast and the Orient (1788). The replicas, built in the late 1980s, travel the coast throughout the year, enlisting and training volunteers and teaching schoolchildren about the Pacific Northwest's maritime history (and, said one captain, they are slowly beginning to build relationships with tribes along the coast, for whom tall ships represent past oppression and a significantly altered history).
They're merchant ships - shudder the thought that prize-hungry captain Aubrey would have been saddled with such a plebian command. Still, he likely would have smiled at the competition in the bay last Saturday afternoon - if he was on the Lady, that is, which is a bit like his beloved old Sophieand has a seasoned captain to boot. As rain squalls whipped through canvas and drenched passengers and crew, the Lady's green-eyed Captain Evil Ryan, dark ponytail sticking out from under a green felt fedora, stood aft, occasional nudging the tiller with his butt to correct the brig's course. He shrewdly watched the Hawaiian try to beat up the bay behind them. She flew only two sails, for some reason. She faltered. Finally, she caught up. There was shouting. "Argh, we're gonna fire!" (it sounded like). "We're gonna fire!" repeated the crew. Everybody lifted their elbows and stuck their fingers in their ears as the steward/gunner packed a three-pounder with gunpowder and shoved a stick wrapped with sweet-smelling smoldering rope down it and yelled, "Fire!" Kabomp! Captain Evil Ryan hollered to his first mate, "Rise stacks and sheets!" "Rise stacks and sheets!" the first mate yelled to the crew. "Rise stacks and sheets" the crew shouted back, leaping to action. Captain: "Helm's a-lee!" First mate: "Helm's a-lee!" Crew: "Helm's a-lee!" and leaping again for ropes. First mate: "Mainsail haul!" Crew: "Mainsail haul!"
And so on, as the ships circled the bay in an old-fashioned dogfight, the Lady's gunner racing between the maindeck's two three-pounders and the stern's two one-pounder swivel guns. The Hawaiian fired. The Lady fired. It was smoky. The Hawaiian fell back, again, and, still not hoisting enough sails, had to start her engines to catch back up. At which point, said Captain Evil Ryan, "We pretty much win by default." Yet the competition boomed on another good hour or two. Practice makes perfect - Aubrey would approve.