Monday, January 12, 2009

The Battle of Long Beach Harbor

This past week, the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain stopped at Long Beach during their travels up and down the California coast. Pirate fan and tall ship lover that my wife is, she immediately booked us on Saturday's "Battle Sail." I didn't need much convincing to join her.

I realized during the drive to Long Beach that the day would be full of the "unexpected." Getting caught behind slow-moving cars on the freeway is nothing new in Southern California, for instance. Having every single slow-moving car be a Toyota Camry, however, is. And I mean Camry after Camry after Camry, defying all laws of probability. And just to reinforce the point, one particularly seedy portion of Long Beach showed us more pairs of cops and pairs of Mormons than I've ever seen together on a single street. (Not surprisingly, the Mormons looked a lot happier than the cops.)

Then we were at the harbor, and caught our first sight of where we would spend the next few hours.

Over the years, I've also realized that doings things with my wife means a very different experience than what another couple would have doing the exact same thing. My wife had already spent most of the past week in Long Beach at an astronomy conference, but she had spent her lunch breaks at the harbor. So when we arrived on Saturday, the Captain-in-Training and some of the crew of the Lady Washington already knew her, shouted greetings that surprised the rest of the ticket-holders (and myself), and basically cheered when they realized she would be sailing on their ship that day. (If we stay in California long enough, I have no doubt my wife will end up being Governor K., if she chooses.)

Once on board, the "unexpected" turned out to be unexpected bonuses. The Lady Washington appeared in all three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and was also the holodeck ship in Star Trek: Generations. My wife got her "Pirates fix," and the Trekker in me felt a warm glow as I stood where Data threw Beverly Crusher overboard.

That was just the start. Luckily for me, only two passengers showed up in full pirate costume. (I'll admit it. I just don't get the whole "pirate" thing.) And considering the crew and officers of the Lady Washington were far more Master and Commander than Curse of the Black Pearl, those two kept their "piratey-ness" to a minimum. (Unlike the female passenger with the cackling laugh of a turkey on Ecstasy, who thankfully sailed on the Hawaiian Chieftain and could be heard halfway across Long Beach Harbor.)

The group of Russians sailing with us more than made up for the two pirates, though, and for the piercing laugh from the other ship. I can't think of another language that I understand so little but enjoy listening to so much. And seeing a stocky bear of a man shouting insults in Russian at the Hawaiian Chieftain during the battle was worth the entire cost of the tickets all by itself.

Watching films about ships like these simply doesn't do the experience justice. The sound of wind actually filling real sails makes Dolby or THX Surround seem full of static. Feeling the deck shifting with the waves beneath your feet can't be recreated by camera work, no matter how good. Questions were fielded and answered for hours, and volunteers even got put to work.

My wife and I were lucky enough to spend most of the battle on the quarter-deck, between the First Mate shouting orders to the crew and the Captain (and Captain-in-Training) shouting orders to the First Mate. It was the best spot possible for me, because I could overhear the battle tactics being formulated and discussed. I played a lot of historical naval war games back in high school, but this was as close to the real thing as I'll probably ever get: On an actual tall ship, on actual water, with actual wind and actual sails and actual cannon being fired.

Adding to the day's defiance of all typical likelihoods, the captain of the Lady Washington turned out to be a distant relation of mine. Captain M. hails from the same Scottish clan that I do. "The M.'s have a long history of mariners," he said.

To which I replied, without thinking, "Stretching right back to the shipwreck that made us all Scottish."

Captain M. blinked for a moment, and I had visions of being tossed overboard like Beverly Crusher. But then he laughed. (Thank God.) And countered, "But we stayed mariners, just so we could get back off that island."

The battle itself was more intricate than any war game prepared me for. A constant jockeying for position, moves and countermoves based on how the other ship adjusted its sails. And in one thoroughly exciting mix of miscalculation, shifting wind, and who knows what else, the two ships passed so close that Captain M. had to fire up the diesel engines to avoid the rigging of each ship catching on the other. Even then, the aft boom of the Hawaiian Chieftain still grazed our ropes only a few feet above our heads. (Talk about getting your money's worth.)

In the end, no doubt existed that the Lady Washington had prevailed. The Hawaiian Chieftain was outmaneuvered from the start. Even considering that all the cannon were firing blanks, as one of our crew said, "Whenever you get off a point-blank shot at the other ship's stern, there's no question who won."

I think that "Mister Gunner" came to regret that stern shot, though. As I was told, after each trip out, the crewmember who made the worst mistake has to buy the beer. And even though the cannon were shooting blanks, Captain M. didn't want to set one off so close to the Hawaiian Chieftain while maneuvering to avoid its rigging. So as the crew and passengers cheered what in a real battle would have been the end of the Hawaiian Chieftain's rudder, I could hear Captain M. asking the Captain-in-Training, "Did he really set off that cannon after I yelled 'Hold fire!' three times?"

He really did.

In another time, of course, they would have been buying "Mister Gunner" drinks instead of the other way around.

Turns out the Lady Washington also has overnight "passage." My wife and I are already checking our calenders.

UPDATE: The official blog of the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain can be found here.