Interviewing Captain Robin, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

hauling aboard the Bounty

* * *
[Robin] Walbridge, who’s been with the Bounty since 1995, comes from South Florida. The captain says, “I’m from Ramrod Key, which is the 26-mile marker, down in the Keys, but I ended up getting out of there, because it was getting way way too crowded. What leads up to the Bounty story is I have probably done a little bit of an awful lot of everything, from flying airplanes to professional photographer, and everything in between. Diesel mechanic, sailing, etc.

“But sailing has kind of been my life blood, it’s been the thing that I’ve always come back to. I worked for Texaco for quite a few years, made very very good money, but absolutely hated the work. And one day when I came home, there was a pair of schooners in the [local] shipyard. So I went down [to investigate] and about 15 minutes later, I was employed driving schooners. This was in Apalachicola, which is north Florida.

“The money wasn’t any good, but I loved the work. Then I had an opportunity to sail on square-riggers, and found out that I absolutely loved square-rig sailing. I found everything that I’d ever done in my past has come into play here. It’s like I’d been training for many years to be a square-rig sailor.”

The plan with the Bounty, he says, “is to do both dockside appearances and sail training. We’d like to work with youth; in the past, we’ve done a lot of work with orphanages, and places like that, but the big problem is that we have to pay the bills.”

Does corporate training mean ropes courses and things like that?

“As I said, the rig’s 115 feet high. Doing this on the corporate level, the thing that’s really interesting is that for almost every line on the ship, there’s an opposite line. So as far as the corporate world goes, it really is teamwork, because if somebody’s not working the other side of the line properly, if they’re not helping you out, then they’re working against you.

“For example, what we call bracing the yards around, which is trimming the yards (or the sails) to the wind, one side has to pull, and the other side has to let go. If you get both sides pulling at the same time, obviously we go nowhere. We also go nowhere if both sides let go at the same time. I find that fun to talk about because when corporate people do the usual rope courses, it’s to build up confidence. But the reason that corporations send people to do these kinds of teamwork [exercises] is to move the company forward. Really and truly, this is what it’s about. When they’re swinging from ropes, or doing whatever it is that they’re doing, they’re building up confidence with one another, but they’re really not moving the corporation forward. They’re still in the trees where they started.

“The thing that makes it interesting with the Bounty is that not only are you doing the rope course, and all of those interactions, but you actually are moving the ‘corporation,’ which is the ship, from one port to the next. You’re moving it into the future.”

This can be accomplished, he says, on an afternoon sail, a day sail, or a trip that lasts as long as two weeks. “Traditionally most of the teamwork-type building is from one day to three days. In doing the sail training I’ve had many many people tell me that they’ve done more business in one day out on the Bounty than they’ve done in a year in their office. Because they can get their corporate clients alone, out at sea, and they have their attention.”

Do the corporate people become your crew?

“Absolutely. Everybody. When I leave the dock, my whole plan is that everybody who’s onboard the ship becomes crew. As the saying goes, ‘We carry no passengers.’ ”

* * *

“If something happened to the Bounty, we can build another one and replace it. But we could never replace the original Constitution. It’s a true artifact…”

* * *

One of the captain’s favorite experiences with square-rig sailing came in 1997, when he and others from the Bounty trained the crew of the U.S.S. Constitution.

The Constitution, commissioned by Congress in 1794, “is really the only one left from that era that is still sailing,” Walbridge says. “They regularly take it out and do turn-arounds with it; I think they do 12 turn-arounds a year, take it out by towline in Boston Harbor, and turn it around so that it can weather equally on both sides. But it’s out there attached to a tugboat; it’s really just a big barge. We went out into the ocean in July 1997, went up to Marblehead sailing it.

“[Commander] Mike Beck, who was the captain at the time, gave us a wonderful slogan,” he adds, “ ‘The Bounty taught the Navy how to sail.’ ”

The rigging of each ship is very similar, Walbridge explains, coming from the same era. (The Bounty set sail with Captain Bligh 10 years before the Constitution was launched into Boston Harbor in October 1797.) But the crew sizes were not. Since “they were trying to fight with their ship,” the Constitution carried about 450 men, many of whom were needed to man the guns. The original Bounty only had about 10% of that number. “Today our ideal crew is about 19 people.

“The Navy has no square-rig sailors today, so dozens of naval officers and crew did a lot of their training on the Bounty,” he says. “As a result of that, I got to be like the civilian captain, or the civilian advisor, when they actually did that first sail in 116 years. I probably, really and truly, had total control of the ship during that sail.

“After the sail, as they were docking it — we docked it with the tugboats — people were giving little talks, speeches about the importance of the ship, and how George Washington had commissioned the six frigates to be built. All of a sudden, just like people talk about seeing ghosts, I really and truly felt the presence of Washington there. It was a very eerie feeling; it was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

“Truthfully I could have cared less about history, George Washington or anybody, before this happened. My interest was in figuring out how to sail a square-rig ship, in all of the complicated evolutions that you could do with a square-rig ship. I was just there because I wanted to learn how to sail square-rig ships, I truthfully couldn’t even have told you what my parents did for a living, because I had no interest in the past. And all of a sudden, since [sailing the Constitution], my interest has peaked, and as a result I’ve started studying a lot of historical maritime things. It’s made history come alive for me.”

“I mean, my father was in World War II, but that was like ancient history to me. I mean who cared about World War II, which was so long ago? [But my interest in history now,] the only thing I can relate it to is it comes from George Washington talking to me. The War Between the States? My grandfather’s father fought in that war. George Washington himself wasn’t that many generations ago. Everything all of a sudden is starting to really connect.”

Walbridge knows that “if something happened to the Bounty, we can build another one and replace it. But we could never replace the original Constitution. It’s a true artifact, and if something happened to that, we would lose a national treasure.”

He feels even more strongly, though, that the process of sailing is more important than any individual ship. “It’s important that we keep these square-rig ships sailing, but what we’re really and truly doing, like salesmen always say, ‘I’m not selling you a new car, I’m selling you a new feeling, or a new emotion.’ We’re not really keeping square-rig ships alive, what we’re really doing is keeping square-rig sailing alive. And unless we do, the skills used in square-rig sailing are going to be lost.

“I have two analogies I like to use a lot; the first is the Pyramids. We think we know how they built the Pyramids, and we’ve got a good idea, but we really have absolutely no idea. It’s the same way with square-rig sailing; we think we know how they sailed square-riggers, but we really and truly don’t.

“The other analogy I like to use is a manual clutch. Most of us have probably been brought up driving a manual clutch, but by now the automatic transmission has taken over. It’s been 200 years since the Bounty sailed. Think about 200 years from today, there’s going to be a few old cars in a few museums somewhere, in different places, and nobody’s going to know how to drive them. Because every one is going to have a manual clutch.

“When you read the owner’s manual of your first car, it never said ‘Push the clutch in,’ because everybody knows that. So why would you write about something that everyone knows about? It’s the same way with square-rig sailing. There’s wonderful books written about very complicated square-rig evolutions, or sailing maneuvers, but the stuff day-to-day that everybody did, nobody wrote about it. Two hundred years from now, in the museum, somebody’s going to get in, and try to start that car, and they’re not going to be able to drive it, because nobody’s going to know a simple little thing like pushing the clutch in.

“It’s such an important factor in the history of the human race. These are the ships that [Captain] Cook drove, these are the ships that the East India men used to go to India with, these are the ships that all of the great explorations were done with. This type of vessel probably has shaped our lives today more than anything else, with the possible exception of electricity. They certainly, geographically, have shaped what the world is today.”

Before the Bounty sets sail from Maine, I can’t resist asking one final, dumb question: What are you going to do if, somewhere out on the ocean, the crew mutinies?

“What am I going to do if the crew mutinies?” Walbridge laughs, not afraid of that possibility. “I’m like the old captains; I’m the only one [on board] who knows how to navigate.”

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About RPS

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