Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Forty Days Before the Mast

{Dick Watson}
Dick Watson

Most Americans would like to lose weight, particularly if they could eat, and eat some more, at the same time. Dick Watson recently told the Right Angle Club about an adventure cruise on a sailing ship in the South Pacific, where he and everyone else ate huge mounds of delicious food, but still lost 12 pounds in a month. About twenty of these voyagers spent eight thousand dollars for the privilege of working as sailors for a month on an authentic pre-steam brigantine, sailing from Aukland to Easter Island. Dick took fourteen hundred beautiful photos of the experience, but most of his audience sat transfixed at the description of the horrors of sailor life. Not your average luxury cruise.


A brigantine is about an eighth the size of the Moshulu parked in Penn's Landing, and definitely does not plow the waves. Bobbing like a cork with every ripple, the ship "rode" waves throughout this "Pacific" cruise that averaged six meters or about twenty feet high. It thus follows that every single voyager was deathly sea-sick for the first two or three days; welcome to the bounding main. In spite of excruciating incapacity, sailors are not excused from standing watch; that's just about the first law of the sea. However, after a few days, this problem seems to go away for almost everyone and becomes only an initiation rite in retrospect. What doesn't go away is the wind, the cold, and the rain. Climbing the rigging gets you up to the fighting top, a wooden platform forty feet above the deck. Bigger ships sometimes have a hole in that platform to crawl through, but brigantines don't have rubber holes. You climb the mast and work your way out to the edge of the platform hanging upside down, then drag yourself up and over the edge. Once you are there, you can attach your safety belt, but the transition depends entirely on having enough strength in your hands to hold on while the ship rocks from side to side, forty feet below. Above the fighting, the top is another fifty feet of climbing, as the shrouds (ropes) which are attached to the top narrow down to the point where there is no longer room for your foot unless you turn it sideways. Ballet dancers learn to walk on their toes, but walking and climbing on the side of your foot is a step beyond excruciating.

Perhaps it is the good thing our ancestors came over to settle America that way. Except for a few people like Benjamin Franklin they gladly gave up all thought of returning to the home country. However difficult it may have seemed to cope with the Indians and all, they were going to be Americans forever. Other people could fight wars about events that took place in 1384. We weren't going to worry about that sort of thing because we were not going back, ever.

Originally published: Friday, October 26, 2007; most-recently modified: Wednesday, August 07, 2019