On a cloudy morning in March I boarded the topsail ketch Hawaiian Chieftain which was berthed along the pier that is a central feature of the harbor in Port Angeles, Washington. Nearby was the two-masted brig Lady Washington. Entering the harbor at the same time was the M.V. Coho a modern automobile carrying ferry that makes daily trips across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, BC. Across the harbor at the end of a long spit of land is a Coast Guard base featuring modern cutters and fast patrol boats. It seemed like a lot of history to jam into one small town.
I went on board to find an assembly of folks from the surrounding area. Some seemed to be fellow sailor-types like me having grown up reading Horatio Hornblower novels and various selections from the literature of the sea. Other were there for a boat ride of a sort that was quite different from what they were used to.
The crew did their level best to reproduce the flavor of a bygone age. The thrumming of an engine pulling us from the dock, the eruptions of static-laced voices from the radios, modern navigation equipment and various Coast Guard approved appointments dilute the illusion somewhat. The undeniable essence of the experience is in the competence of the crew members as they scramble aloft to unfurl the sails, the captain’s quiet competence and of course the feel of the wind on your face and the easy motion of a graceful vessel.
I could have wished for more wind that day but I will settle for the ambiance of Hawaiian Chieftain’s broad decks. Beneath the spread of canvas suspended on wooden spars there is scope for comparisons. This was modern transportation technology 200 years ago. When the vessels we now build reverent replicas of where plying their trade in earnest commerce the skies were devoid of machinery. Even as we chatter into cell phones and speed along the highways slicing through bedrock with high-priced ribbons of concrete there is a basic instinct to slow down occasionally.
History is the unfolding of progress seen against an ever accelerating background. Ships gliding across the horizon soon planed along at high speed. Then came the age of the airship, after that the spaceship. Men that once spread to the frontiers have been driven from the farms and the open range to dwell in tighter packed spaces. We need visible reminders of a time when civilization vibrated at a lower, more sustainable frequency.
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a long way from anything we normally categorize as metropolitan. Compared to the east coast the whole state is something less than cosmopolitan. Seattle has spawned a large area of urban sprawl on the other side of The Puget Sound. Once isolated communities now jostle for real estate with the full knowledge that there is no new land being made. The Chieftain and The Lady will leave our small town and make their way eastward. When these tall ships visit the big city I hope they will continue to bring history into sharp relief and not simply get lost in the clutter.