As crew members, we were taught every aspect of seamanship, from rigging to navigation. The Argus was just about as old school as a vessel can be. Every control was manual, there were no electric wenches or even a motorized skiff and in fact the newest piece of equipment on her was an old diesel engine added sometime around the early 1900’s. Just folding and frilling the sails was an adventure all its own. You would climb up a rope ladder to the yardarm and then hang over the yardarm while balancing on a single rope tied from one end to the other. The trick was to maintain your balance while all the while either pulling the massive sail up or lowering it down. This experience was so intense that while practicing in the harbor, one of my buddies made it up, but was too terrified to come down. It took us about two hours to talk the poor guy down and needless to say he never came back.
Our main mission was to ferry Cub Scouts back and forth to a Cub Scout camp on Catalina Island. The camp was located near an isolated cove on the far side of the island. This cove wasn’t like the calm bay at Avalon, it was open to the ocean and usually pretty rough. One of the Captain’s favorite initiation rituals was to pick out a new recruit and assign them the very important task of painting the ball while anchored in the cove. For all of you landlubbers, the ball sits atop the main mast and you remember that rope ladder I told you about earlier, well the rungs get progressively smaller the higher you climb and by the time you reach the top, you can barely shove your foot into it. Keep in mind that all the while you are carrying a paint brush and a bucket of paint in one hand while holding on with the other. Not to mention the fact that although the ship was gently rocking down on the deck, due to the arc of the mast it felt as if you were riding a rollercoaster up top. In reality I don’t think that ball ever really got painted, but it was an endless source of entertainment for the rest of the crew.
One of these excursions will always stand out in my memory. I had been rowing Cub Scouts into shore all afternoon and was the last dinghy to tie up, I signaled to the Captain that I had secured my boat and the ship got underway. Exhausted I made my way from one row boat to another, finally reaching the first boat where a single rope hung down from the tall stern of the Argus. As I started to pull myself up I realized my arms were just too weak from rowing and I wasn’t going to make it to the top. I yelled for help, but no one could hear me over the loud diesel engine and in the position I was hanging, no one could see me either. As I hung there, I felt as if my short life was passing before my eyes, when suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere I mustered the strength to pull myself over the top. As I lie there on the deck shivering from exhaustion, the Captain shouted to me “Sanford, plot the course for home.” I quickly drew a course using all of the navigation skills I had acquired from a one-hour course I had attended three months prior. I gave the coordinates to the Captain and slithered below decks to pass out.
I awoke that morning to the sound of foghorns and dragged myself out on the deck just in time to see the fog clear and realize that we were just about to go aground on the rocks. Luckily the Captain recognized our predicament just in time to steer clear. It seems that in my haste to hit the bunk, I had plotted a course some twenty miles South of our home port.
It’s like I always say
“You can’t control the wind Dude, you can only adjust the sails”