The Fall

I’d love to be able to explain the full body feeling of falling into a bunk after three solid weeks of working on a tallship for no less than 12 hours each day, but I (James) can’t.  I just don’t have the words for what that feels like.


Day in and day out, two sailing adventures a day with up to 50 people aboard, setting sail, setting up for dinner service, serving food, washing dishes, cleaning heads on my knees, mopping cabin soles on my knees, load and unload bilges on my knees, ow, my god damn knees! And of course there’s putting the boat to bed at the end of every day, every single day… Furling sail, washing deck mats, finding hidden improvised trash receptacles, and ultimately falling into a bunk that is not my own and makes my entire body ache all the time. Did I mention sailing? Hmm, I guess I didn’t. Sailing the Mystic Whaler is spectacular but even somebody like myself who totally loves sailing and all that it takes to make that happen at some point wears down.

And this is how that happens… We lost two crew members in two weeks, leaving the two of us, Marie, and Pat to crew the boat, cook, clean, and make happy customers through storytelling.  We did a three day Whales Tales adventure to Shelter Island and Sag Harbor, followed by a day sail and a shit-faced drunk wedding that evening that went until 11:00pm that night, after which we got up at 6am the next day for a day sail followed by a lobster cruise with another day sail and lobster cruise the day after, and then we loaded up the boat for a five day sailing adventure to Martha’s Vineyard with another full weekend of day sails and lobster cruises at the end of that.

Once we were properly exhausted, we loaded 15 teenagers and two adults for a 5 day sail training trip to Boston.  I (Dena) cannot even express what it means to have 15 rich, spoiled fuckhead kids aboard.  Kids with no interest in sailing – the whole grade of this academy came.  Kids with no respect, no manners, a shitload of unrealistic expectations, and a constant fuck-you attitude.


This trip was organized by Ocean Classrooms, and the Harvey Gamage is their boat.  The class was split into 4 groups.  Two came on the Whaler – one for the trip up and one for the trip back.  The other was on the Gamage, a 130′ wooden gaff rigged schooner that is literally falling apart.

We also rigged for an flew a sail we’d never seen before.  Cap calls it the upsail.


To wrap that whole two weeks in a tidy bow, we hated them and they hated us.  James encountered the patented teenage apathy right away and, rather than kill them all and dump them overboard, opted out of the teaching program.  I wasn’t so lucky.  We were all exhausted by sailing the boat while keeping the kids safe and occupied and fed and perhaps, just perhaps, educated in some small way about schooner sailing.  Nope, they didn’t learn.


We had two days in Boston (rafted with the Roseway, above) between unloading one group and loading the next.  We spent those days walking and walking.  Anything to be off the boat, away.  It was the start of a new way of looking at the boat and our work there.


We’d been loving it, really.  Working hard and proud of it.  A bit rueful about how little money we were paid and how much work we did, but still.  Sailing, proving ourselves able shipmates and trustworthy sailors.  Doing everything that needed done, even short-handed.

Before this, I told Cap that I was looking at burnout.  That I knew it was coming.  The first week with the kids finished the job.  I was officially irritable, tired, overwhelmed, and unhappy.  Or, in my way, working way too hard for happiness.  With those occasional moments of glory that sailing can provide.  Like seeing whales on the Stellwagen Bank.  Like sunsets and sunrises.  Like full sails and passing the other boat powerfully.  Like this.


…but not enough of them.  And I was supposed to be the part-time relief crew!

And so we loaded the second batch.  Blah blah.  They were a little better than the first group, but I was beyond appreciating them.

Back in New London, we unloaded, cleaned, prepped for, you guessed it.  Day sail, lobster cruise.  Not a single day off.  Sunday, we didn’t sail, but we cleaned and made up every single cabin, because we loaded that night for the 3-day Schooner Rendezvous.

The Rendezvous was on Block Island and the weather was calling for SW winds at 15-20 knots with gusts to 25 so before we left the dock we tucked a reef in the main and prepared ourselves mentally for some intense sailing that day. From New London through Fishers Island Sound the wind was calm and it seemed like we just didn’t have enough sail up but once we entered Block Island Sound we got the winds we were promised and than some! Being a schooner rendezvous we had to put on a big show so we didn’t strike the jib until we made our approach to the Great Salt Pond.

The person on the jib halyard was a first-day, unpromising apprentice.  She didn’t drop the sail on Cap’s signal, and when she did take it off the pin, she held onto it, forcing me and Dena to pull against her.  When the jib was most of the way down, I (Dena) moved to the tip of the bowsprit.  In a howling wind and seas ranging from 4 to 8 feet, I tried to yank the sail the rest of the way down while James kept pulling with the downhaul until the time came for me to use the downhaul line to tie the sail down.

When James slacked the line for me, the apprentice’s pressure on the halyard ripped the downhaul line out of James’ hands and gave the jib enough height to fill with air and race up the stay.  Suddenly, I was on the end of the bowsprit with a full and flogging jib jerking the head of the boat against the raging seas.

James immediately grabbed the downhaul again, but the sail’s rings don’t moved down the stay very easily, and one person can’t put down a full jib against that friction.  Pat materialized behind James and started hauling, but the jib sheet was tight enough to keep the sail full against their straining muscles.  I, still on the bow, shouted at the other apprentice, who was watching with big eyes and idle hands, to get behind them and lend them more power.

This time, when the sail got down, I got the downhaul line wrapped around the sail (between the halyard block and the stay) in record time.  Bunching the sail tightly enough to get my arms around it required that I let go of the stay, the bowsprit, and the whisker stays.  I planted my ass on the bowsprit and my feet in the ratlines, then hugged the whipping sail.  James came up behind and gathered sail while I continued to daisy-chain the downhaul line along the sail until I reached the point where I could tie it off to the whisker stay.


After that, sailing into the Great Salt Pond and doing a 2-3 strike at the dock was anti-climactic for us.  It put on a hell of a show for the spectators, though.

Guess what came next.  We had no idea, but we were about to get a couple dozen guests for…wait for it…a lobster dinner.


At the time, we were both pissed.  No warning, no guidance, just a bunch of non-tipping strangers coming aboard without tickets or a boarding list to eat our food and trash our boat.  In the rain.  I’m not afraid of the work involved in serving that meal.  But I was not prepared.

The apprentices were doing dishes until well after 11pm that night.  James scrubbed the lobster steamer (a hard dirty job on your knees, but we won’t go into that) and we went to bed, soaked, in our assigned cabin for the full trip.  This cabin has two single bunks, and the word bunk is being generous.  It’s the only cabin that leaks and, after all that we’d experienced that day, we didn’t even get to sleep together.

We delayed leaving for a while the next day to let the rain stop, but finally gave in and set the awning over the foresail.  That means an enormous piece of canvas tented over the boom, sail, and gaff, midships.  Makes for difficult visibility from the helm and, if the wind picks up, which it did, a harder time steering.

So James took the helm for a while, then a couple others.  Then I took it for a couple hours.  Chilled, wet, tired, but steering a massive and wonderful boat through the sloshing seas left over by the previous day’s winds, I kept us on course while the rain slackened and stopped.

Then it was lunch time.  I was relieved by Cap (meaning he took the helm) and went to the cabin to change out of my wet socks, shoes, shorts, etc.  Marie came down the companionway ladder and said, “Don’t freak out.”

It was my (James’) day as galley steward so it was my job to serve the soup, set up the lunch service and keep the coffee flowing. So when I was told that we were running low on coffee I grabbed a pumper-pot and went below to make up another pot. When I got to the bottom of the companionway I turned and both my feet just slipped right out from under me on the wet cabin sole and I fell right smack on my head into one of the metal baskets of dirty soup cups.  It knocked me out cold for a few long seconds. When I came to my hands were numb, my back was thoroughly wrenched and I was still on the galley floor surrounded by passengers and crew with a pillow stuffed under my head and not the slightest idea as to what had happened. Everyone was yelling and running around me but all I could focus on was the fact that my hands were still numb, everything in my body seemed to hurt all at once and I couldn’t see Dena anywhere.

I (Dena) gave Marie a narrow-eyed stare and said, “That’s a terrible way to start.  Just tell me what’s going on.”

“James fell down the aft galley companionway ladder.”


So I re-buckled my belt on my wet shorts and bounded up the forward compartment ladder.  When I reached the galley, James was stretched out on the galley floor with a pillow under his head, Pat by his side, and a passenger asking him questions.  He was flexing and twisting his hands, repeating over and over again that he couldn’t feel them.  I used my serious voice to clear a path and got down next to him.

The passenger is a nurse and we all decided pretty quickly that we could move him to a bunk in the Great Room, 3 stairs and about 20 steps from the galley.  He came up and almost went down again.  His balance was terrible, but we were on a bucking boat and he had hit the back of his head.  Once he was on the bunk, things settled down pretty quickly.

The crowd dissipated and I joked with him a little.  Coherent, check.  I had him describe what happened and tell me everywhere it hurt.  His eyes were tracking, his pupils were the same size.  Concussion but not immediate emergency, check.  He could move his arms just fine and they were going from numb to pins-and-needles.  Nerves coming back, check.

Cap came below and informed us that the coast guard had been called and they needed a final word on whether or not to send a helicopter or boat to remove James and get him to the hospital.  We looked at each other and the answer was clear.  “No need.”

I (James) mean FUCK NO! I wasn’t bleeding anywhere, I could feel all my body parts, and really, I couldn’t differentiate between the soreness of the last two months of sailing and falling on my head into a basket of dirty soup cups. I was fine, my head was ringing like a Chinese gong but I could tell that I was going to be okay. Sure, I was literally at the end of my rope but I didn’t break anything and I could tell right away that all I really needed was a fucking day off.

With Dena and Pat huddled around me keeping me awake which meant keeping me laughing we came to anchor in Stonington Harbor, CT about three hours later. Cap had called ahead and arranged for a ride to take me to the hospital to get me checked out.

We took the harbor launch from the Whaler to the dock and that’s when I discovered that I had really bumped my head good. I got sick as a dog on the way in but because of the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything yet that day I didn’t actually puke, I just got sick and blue as a smurf on the way in.

Dave, the Mystic Whaler office manager, was waiting for us at the dock and very graciously gave us a ride to the nearest hospital but between the freezing cold of the emergency room and the woman on the phone that was running the check-in the whole experience put me off so bad that I refused to be admitted. Dave (very reluctantly) gave us a ride to a hotel that was close to the Mystic Whaler dock in downtown New London and that is where we stayed for the next three nights.

Rest and recuperation? Check.  Time off? Check.

What’s next?

Cap and Pat came to the hotel and we talked.  James knows how to keep his feet on a pitching deck.  The only time shit like that happens is when you’re fucking exhausted.  The bottom line is we were working too hard and it is time to reevaluate how much we should work.  We’re going to sail sometimes and have time off as well.

But Cap won’t let James go back to work until he’s been cleared by a medical professional.  He’ll go for the poke-and-prod routine on Tuesday and, after that, we’ll talk again and figure out our future aboard the Mystic Whaler.



  1. The stormy weather and raging seas, telling Cap you are burnt out the night before…all adds up to a bad action movie. Dena gets a turn at the wheel and the skies are clearing, but you know that’s just to lull you into CAN’T YOU HEAR THAT MUSIC?!?!
    Glad you are ok, James. Coulda been tragic.

  2. …your life still sounds rich and full …love reading along! i’ve just unearthed a couple monkeywrench photos from SF95. looking for a good email if you’d like ole’friend.
    xo h

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