Shipped Off To Camp

By Joe Follansbee

The challenges of running an outdoor recreation facility keep even the most competent manager on his or her toes.

A camp adventure on the high seas.

Buying new safety gear, renewing annual insurance, hiring qualified counselors, and updating marketing materials demand constant vigilance.

But what if your facility is 89 feet tall, weighs 210 tons, and floats?

Add a few layers of federal regulation, limitations of wind and tide, and large, thick pieces of wood swaying in the water, and you have an idea of the unique problems faced by the operators of the Lady Washington and her companion, Hawaiian Chieftain, which take guests on weeklong on-the-water camping trips in the San Juan Islands, near Seattle.

“We’re able to share the experience of exploring the islands while sailing a squarerigger,” says Capt. John Morrison, master of the Lady Washington for the summer 2011 trip. “And there’s potential for multiple things to go wrong at any time.”

A Look Under The Sail
The story begins in 1985 when the city of Aberdeen, Wash., chartered a new non-profit--the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority--to build a tall ship for Washington State’s centennial. In June 1989, the Historical Seaport launched a 112-foot wooden replica of one of the first U.S.-flagged ships to explore the west coast of North America.

To the casual observer, the brig Lady Washington looks almost exactly like the original 18th-century vessel. A closer look reveals a small radar dome, GPS and radio equipment, and a locker for life jackets. Below deck are a modern galley and a 450-horsepower diesel engine.

In 2004, the Historical Seaport added the steel-hulled, topsail ketch Hawaiian Chieftain, purchasing it from an excursion operator in Sausalito, Calif. At 103 feet, 9 inches and 100 tons, she’s Lady Washington’s junior partner. But with twin engines, Hawaiian Chieftain is faster and more versatile.

Engines on both ships are for safety and convenience; they’re only used for maneuvering in port or running against the wind to make an arrival deadline. The vessels take advantage of nature’s free power source--wind--whenever and wherever possible, a policy driven by the Historical Seaport’s mission of providing hands-on, living-history experiences to the public that preserve maritime traditions and train the next generation of tall-ship mariners.

Both ships sail to as many as 40 ports a year, from San Diego to Port Alberni, B.C.

During the school year, an education coordinator on each boat leads K-12 private, public, or home-schooled groups on day programs. The “EdCo,” the captain, the first mate, the engineer, the bosun, the steward, and the purser are all staff positions. They are joined by short-term and long-term volunteer deckhands.

Besides handling education programs, the crew members conduct public, ticketed sailing programs year round. The most popular is the Battle Sail, when both ships recreate a typical 18th-century naval skirmish, complete with cannon firing real gunpowder ... but no cannon balls, of course.

Expedition Voyages
Every July, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain host a dozen guests each on an Expedition Voyage, a five-day exploration of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago on the northern edge of Puget Sound near the Canadian border.

Authentic sailing ships take attention to detail.

Lady Washington is reserved for family groups, and Hawaiian Chieftain hosts youths 11 to 17 years old. Traveling together, the ships sail among the islands, anchoring off a number of state park islands.

Guests are encouraged, but not required, to perform many of the tasks of a traditional tall-ship sailor: stand watch, take the wheel (or the tiller, in the case of Lady Washington), and even climb the rigging.

Once at an anchorage, guests and crew row 18th-century-style longboats to shore and set up camp. On the island, guests can join staff to hike the island, swim in the salt water, or explore a tide pool.

Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain are not cruise ships--there aren’t any waiters in waistcoats here. The Historical Seaport markets Expedition Voyages and its Passages--one- to eight-day open-ocean voyages--primarily to the adventure traveler or the person who can accept limited facilities.

Guests sleep in bunks aboard, campsites are primitive, and showers are impossible. During Expedition Voyages, the crew invites guests to plan the daily itinerary, taking into account weather forecasts, tides, and currents at anchorages.

Additional Wrinkles
Though many campgrounds and outdoor recreation areas offer similar hands-on programs, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain have one unique limitation: they are constantly surrounded by water. Even at an anchorage, they may be several hundred feet from shore. Everything must be transported from ship to shore and back by small boat.

The margin of safety is smaller; an individual can suffer hypothermia in only a few minutes after falling into the 55-degree water. And it can take hours for help to arrive.

“You have to be ready and fully trained to implement an emergency response at all times,” says Capt. Les Bolton, GHHSA’s executive director. “Dialing 911 is not necessarily going to get you what you need.”

He recalled an incident off the Oregon Coast on Lady Washington during a storm involving a diabetic who could not keep any food or liquids down, forcing the ship to alert the Coast Guard and divert to an unscheduled stop.

Training is the key, and the crews run daily drills, such as man-overboard or fire-fighting exercises, to maintain readiness.

The ships pass an annual Coast Guard inspection, and inspectors pay special attention to safety equipment, such as the life rafts.

Key members of the crew--the master, the mate, and the engineer--hold Coast Guard licenses. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security requires masters and mates to carry a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, intended to control who can access sensitive areas of ports and other transportation facilities.

Beyond safety and security, large sailing vessels have special insurance needs. In addition to a standard liability and collision-damage coverage, the Historical Seaport purchases insurance to cover crew members who climb aloft to handle sails. Federal laws similar to state workers compensation are also covered in the insurance policies. The policies comply with state laws in California, Oregon, Washington, and the province of British Columbia.

In a few cases, specific ports require additional liability coverage. And unlike ground and air transportation, ships come under a specialized set of international rules called “admiralty law,” which governs maritime questions.

The growing body of environmental regulations also touches Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. All waste is stored in tanks and discharged at a dock facility. In 2010, Lady Washington required a $100,000 upgrade to her power plant, or the Historical Seaport risked violating California’s stringent air-pollution standards. And recently, the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules requiring permits for engine cooling water, allowing any water, even rain and seawater during a storm, to run off the deck into the sea.

And don’t forget the gunpowder, which requires its own special training, storage, handling, and government inspections.

Worth The Effort
But sailing aboard Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain has its special rewards. The ships have inspired dozens of young people to explore a maritime career. Working tall ships tend to attract adventurous and independent souls, who learn a unique brand of camaraderie; they know instinctively that the shipmate next to them on a swaying yard would save their life if called upon.

The old-timers, such as Morrison, have a love for the work that goes far beyond needing a paycheck. “JB” has sailed both ships, starting as a deck hand more than 10 years ago, and working his way up to master. His recipe for success in the tall-ship business is simple: good mariners who are good with guests.

“Having both is fine,” he says. “But make sure they are mariners first.”

Joe Follansbee is communications director for the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority. More information about GHHSA’s Expedition Voyages family and youth camps and other programs is at