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The Young Men and the Sea
By Rick Marshall

Photo: Chris Shields

The H.M.S. Bounty—which docked in Albany last week—offers aspiring sailors a taste of a disappearing lifestyle

‘It’s right around the corner here,” says Charlie Adams, pointing out past the shipbuilding shop, down toward the Hudson River. “I can’t take you very close, but once you get around the building here, you’ll definitely be able to see it.” It’s late on a Thursday night, and we’re walking past the exposed hulls of party boats, schooners and sloops up on blocks for the winter.

“There it is,” says Adams’ crewmate, Josh Cohen, motioning to the water as we near the corner of the building. And they’re right; even from a hundred yards away, I can see it just fine. After all, the H.M.S. Bounty is hard to miss.

“It’s beautiful, right?” asks one of my teenage tour guides. I haven’t been able to take my eyes off the ship. The sight of such a craft among all of the freighters and shipping vessels lining the river is, to put it mildly, surreal. Moonlight and light from the shipyard gathers at the points where the Bounty’s body meets the water and casts shadows over the deck. The massive ship rocks slightly in the current, the web of its rigging visible from a hundred yards away.

I don’t normally hang around shipyards at night, but I was lucky enough to meet Adams and Cohen while waiting to get my car out of the lot it had been towed to earlier that day. Now here I am, half-expecting to see a horde of pirates with swords and torches storming into Albany and setting the city ablaze.

“We can’t really bring you any closer tonight,” says Adams. “But you can come back tomorrow and talk to the captain. We’ll be working on it as long as the sun’s out.”

“It looks even better during the day,” laughs Cohen as the two head back to their floating home.

And once again, they aren’t kidding. The next morning, the ship looks even more impressive, especially considering that the Bounty has been sailing the high seas for some 45 years. Built in 1960, the ship that arrived in Albany last week is a replica of the late-18th-century vessel whose crew conducted one of history’s most famous mutinies, setting Captain William Bligh and fellow crew members out to sea, then burning the ship once they had escaped to a remote Pacific Island.

The Bounty was constructed using the same plans as its predecessor, built from scratch for the 1962 film about its infamous adventure, Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando. After appearing in a slew of television series and films, the ship was bought by the Tall Ship Bounty Organization in 2001, offering people the opportunity to run off to become seamen—and seawomen—ever since.

The original Bounty’s sordid past notwithstanding, there’s little ill will to be found among the crew of today’s vessel. At 19 years old, Adams and Cohen are on the younger side of the Bounty’s crew, and yet the age of crewmembers doesn’t get much older than 21 or 22.

Instead of sitting in cubicles or poring over college textbooks, members of the Bounty’s crew learn how to sail one of the few remaining square-rigged tall ships, and see a good portion of the world while they’re at it.

“I wasn’t really enjoying college anyways,” shrugs Cohen, as he and a fellow crewmember check the placement of a mast from shore. After deciding to postpone school, he joined the Bounty’s crew three weeks ago when it docked in Chicago.

According to the ship’s first mate, Andy Jagger, the Bounty normally carries an 18-person crew, made up almost entirely of people who are new to sailing and eager to learn. The current tally is around 30 crewmembers, due to a recent surge of interest generated by both increased media attention to the ship and its tour, as well as recent films like Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean (the Bounty makes an appearance in the DVD of Pirates). The overlap of new and old crewmembers allows for one group to teach the next, says Jagger. Crewmembers typically stay on for six months to a year, and along with receiving a free room and meals, they receive $50 per week.

“It’s definitely not something you do for the money,” laughs the ship’s cook, Lucas Ferrill, a member of the Bounty’s crew for just over a year now. The 24-year-old from Actworth, N.H., is carrying a tray full of chocolate-chip cookies he prepared in one of the ship’s two kitchen stoves a little while ago. As he makes his way around the ship and then down to the shore, members of the crew grab a cookie before getting back to work hammering, hauling, painting and climbing through the rigging. There’s a sea of activity onboard the Bounty, with every hand working to get the ship prepared to set off for sunnier climates.

For the crew of the Bounty, it’s a short stop in Albany, with much of the time here spent re-rigging the sails and other parts of the ship that had to be disassembled in order to make it to Albany from Oswego via the state’s canal system. While the canal is large enough to accommodate the 30-foot-wide and 180-foot-long ship, the crew needed to reduce the weight of the Bounty in order to pass safely through the 12-foot-deep waterway. The vessel’s hull normally sinks 11 feet into the water. (The extra parts were delivered to the Capital Region by truck.)

Once out of Albany, the Bounty will head to its winter home, St. Petersburg, Fla., and eventually take part in the filming of a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean.

While the Bounty is nearly a perfect replica of its ancestor on the outside, it has been subject to a few upgrades over time. An onboard engine and propeller allow the ship to move without aid from the elements, but the amount of work needed to keep the ship seaworthy—painting, sealing, reinforcing, checking the rigging— hasn’t changed much over time. A typical day aboard the Bounty is divided into three shifts, with a third of the crew keeping watch while the rest either sleep or perform maintenance.

“Nobody can complain about being on the four-to-eight watch,” writes a crewmember on the Bounty’s official Web site (www.tallshipbounty.org). “You get to see every sunrise and every sunset.”

As one of the last of its kind still actively sailing the high seas, the Bounty is a testament to the efforts of its crew and captain, Robin Walbridge. According to Walbridge, who’s been sailing the Bounty for around 10 years now, the ship provides the sort of experiences not likely to be found anywhere else in the world, in a lifestyle that’s being edged out by the conventions of the modern world.

“It’s too big a boat for anybody in the crew to be too specialized,” says Walbridge. “Everybody learns to do just about everything on the Bounty.”

“Sailing a tall ship won’t get you very far in the business world,” laughs Jagger, “but it’s an experience you won’t forget.”

While they chat with me, several young crewmembers begin work on the Bounty’s rigging in the background, suspended from ropes over the water while they measure outlying portions of the ship.

While Ferrill admits that the close quarters can sometimes make people a bit edgy, a constantly changing crew means that there’s always new blood to teach and new people to become familiar with. The opportunity to travel and meet people from all over the world always keeps him coming back, says Ferrill.

To Cohen, however, the benefits of becoming a part of the Bounty’s crew are obvious—at least when compared to the alternative. As I walk back to my car, I ask Cohen whether calling an end to school and all of the fun that tends to go along with college life was worth running away to the sea.

“Well, I can always go back to college,” he smiles. “But how many people can say that they’ve sailed on the Bounty? I mean, seriously—it’s the Bounty.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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