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A Day Aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, Part 1 – Victoria Tall Ships 2011

Thirty kids with backpacks isn’t a usual sight, especially on a Wednesday morning. But you wouldn’t expect them to be smiling, snapping photos and climbing aboard a 103-foot long tall ship—the ultimate educational institution.

As part of the Victoria Tall Ships Society’s Educational Outreach Programme, three groups of Sea Cadets and Navy Leaguers had the chance to spend the day on the Hawaiian Chieftain, a topsail ketch from Grays Harbour, Washington. For many, this was their first time on sailboat, let alone a spotless replica of a 19th-century European merchant trader. And in true 21st-century fashion, one Cadet accidentally christened his voyage by dropping his cell phone off Ship’s Point, smashing it on the dock below.

That must have been good luck, because the only things to go overboard that day were two hats, one of which was subject to a fruitless, yet shockingly efficient, hat rescue mission.

No one has ever fallen overboard—other ships yes, but never the Hawaiian Chieftain. The crew is used to young passengers, as the Hawaiian Chieftain is used year-round for this type of educational sail, plus public sails, evening sails, mock naval battles and adventure sails, where passengers learn to set sails and sing sea shanties.

The ship was breathtaking from land, especially after being shined to perfection by the crew. But once onboard, its true allure came out. The Hawaiian Chieftain is both complex yet orderly, beautiful yet functional—satisfying combinations that I’ve only ever found on sailboats. Even the crew wove effortlessly through the crowds. And when the boat is six times larger than what I’m used to, it’s six times as satisfying.

Or as one chaperone put it, “It’s more complicated than a 420”—a statement met with nods of agreement from many wide-eyed kids.

As the Hawaiian Chieftain motored out of the inner harbour, the crew introduced themselves and gave a rundown of the ship, including basic safety rules, proper language, callbacks and how to use the head, which is what sailors call the bathroom. They also explained that “poop deck” isn’t funny because it has nothing to do it poop. It actually comes from the Latin word puppis, meaning “stern.”

One Navy Leaguer demonstrated his mastery of multitasking by simultaneously listening to the crew and solving a Rubik’s Cube—the most scenic solve I’ve ever seen. Not many people can say they’ve solved a Rubik’s Cube, let alone on a tall ship.

Just outside the harbour, a crew member entertained the kids by singing traditional sea shanties. Some of the older kids already knew all of the words, but the younger ones happily joined in on the chorus while watching a crew member climb the mast. When I asked if they’d climb the mast if given the chance, the kids shook their heads, called the crew members crazy and said “no way.” Six hours later, at the end of our trip, they were all dying to go for a climb.

Once the sails were ready, the kids split into their pre-assigned “watches,” divided by age. Each watch was assigned specific tasks to accomplish, with their first big job being raising the sails, After some training on which line did what and how to properly belay, they completed it in 23 minutes—an impressive feat considering they’ve never seen those types of sails before.

A pod of killer whales must have also thought it was great, because they quickly appeared off the starboard side amid of cluster of whale watching boats.

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With the sails set and a proper whale-sendoff, we were ready to begin our journey to Sidney!

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