I recently had the good fortune to spent an afternoon sailing on the Columbia River aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain. The cruise was billed as a three hour family-oriented adventure which demonstrates tall ship handling and life at sea during the turn of the nineteenth century. I was excited about the opportunity to sail aboard a tall ship but I was a little leery about the tour’s length. As we approached the sixty-five foot ship, I remembered that Gilligan’s big adventure began as a three hour tour. I took solace in the fact that Gilligan departed from a tropic port; since we were sailing from Astoria I assumed that we were safe.
The Hawaiian Chieftain is a replica of a typical European merchant vessel that sailed the coastal waters of California, Oregon, and Washington. During the late 18th century, this type of ship was frequently used by merchants involved in the Pacific fur trade. Ships of this type were ideal for navigating the shallow waters of the numerous coastal inlets where native Americans would be found offering furs for barter.
So what did I learn about sailing during this adventure? Sailing a ship with tall masts is definitely a job for the young. The Hawaiian Chieftain is not the biggest of sailing ships but it main mast still towers over seventy feet above the deck. The only way to raise or lower the sails is from working aloft in the rigging; a dangerous task under the best of conditions.
Climbing the rigging
“Holding fast” while preparing to lower the sails
Aboard a sailing ship, the captain is the closest to God this side of heaven. He is constantly barking orders at the crew to adjust the sails in order to keep the ship moving.
The captain keeps a watchful eye at all times
Preparing to fire the carronade which was used for defense and as a signaling device
It was an interesting juxtaposition as we sailed past the container ship Hanjin Washington as she was fully loaded and outboard for Asian ports of call. Just two of her forty foot containers hold more cargo than the entire Hawaiian Chieftain. In the late 18th century, a voyage across the Pacific to China in a vessel such as the Hawaiian Chieftain would take about two months. Today, the Hanjin Washington makes the same journey in about ten days. There is definitely something to be said for size and massive engines.
The Hanjin Washington outbound on the Columbia River as seen from the deck of the Hawaiian Chieftain
I am happy to report that following our three hour tour, unlike Gilligan, we returned safely to our original port in Astoria.