I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
Exactly 499 years, seven months and 19 days after a lookout on board Christopher Columbus's Pinta spotted terra firma, Capt. Dag Frigstad, on board the Norwegian sailing ship Christian Radich, did too. Of course, with the help of five centuries of navigational advancement, Frigstad knew that this particular piece of terra firma was Puerto Rico. Columbus thought that he had guided his three small ships to the shores of Japan. He was off by about 7,000 nautical miles.
In celebration of that historic miscalculation, this spring 29 tall ships from five continents took part in a race across the Atlantic, from Càdiz, Spain, to Puerto Rico (the actual route of Columbus's second trip to the New World, in 1493), as part of the Grand Regatta Columbus '92 Quincentenary. The 240-foot Christian Radich—three times the length of Columbus's flagship, Santa María—won the race by reaching Puerto Rico on May 31, 13 days, 17 hours, three minutes and 33 seconds after she left Càdiz; it took the Santa María 32 days longer to make a trip to the New World in 1492.
A three-masted squarerigger built in Norway in 1937, the Christian Radich was never considered a speedster. Her old-fashioned design and heavy rigging were meant to duplicate, not necessarily improve upon, the great ships of the 19th century. Named for her benefactor, a wealthy Norwegian businessman and ship owner, the Christian Radich was built as a training vessel for young merchant marines. Since the 1960s, however, she has been crewed by Norwegian high school students—almost half of them girls this year—who get six weeks of sailing in the Mediterranean and six weeks of navigation in a classroom before spending the next nine months at sea. A year aboard the Radich is considered an honor for a Norwegian student.
The Quincentenary race marked the first ocean crossing for most of the crew members—certainly their first one on a sailing ship—and the voyage was filled with delightful surprises. Southwest of Càdiz the students were greeted by dozens of dolphins, who escorted the ship for several days. At night, as the mysterious guests sliced through the gentle swells, phosphorescent plankton would gather around their fins, lighting a path for the ship through the water. And even though the dolphins disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared, the Radich's luck, at least, did not. Sailing downwind the whole way, the Radich, with her wide yards and enormous sails, had an advantage over her competitors, and she was in, or near, the lead for almost the entire race.
Only once was there any real trouble aboard ship. In a brief squall in the mid-Atlantic, with heavy seas washing across the deck, the 20 cadets on watch had to hook themselves to safety lines running from bow to stern. With the nonchalance of day sailors out for a Sunday turn on a lake, they scampered across the yards, hauling in, then securing, the sails. Fish out of water at the start of the race, the students were old salts by the end of it.
The Christian Radich may be better known for her comeliness than for her competitiveness. Her sleek bow and pristine white hull were surely what made her Hollywood's choice for the starring role in the 1958 movie-travelogue Windjammer. The story of a seven-month voyage at sea, Windjammer, the only feature film ever made in Cinemiracle (a wide-screen process), opened at the Roxy in New York City on a movie screen measuring 100 feet wide by 40 feet high.
The Radich's movie debut was more than just a star turn, however; it marked an amazing turnaround for the ship. Only 13 years earlier, broken and battered, she had lain on her side in Flensburg Harbor in Germany. Commandeered by the Germans after they invaded Norway in 1940, she had been taken back to Germany and converted into a submarine depot ship. After the war she was abandoned. Resurrected, repaired and rerigged by a private Norwegian foundation, the Christian Radich has, since 1947, been one of the most active of the world's school ships.
Each year more than 500 Norwegian teenagers apply for 78 crew openings and the privilege of spending 12 months at sea. The captain's rules are strict: no drinking, no sex, no MTV. And no elbow room, either. "When you live with 35 other girls in one room," says 18-year-old Elen H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®eg, "about the only place to get some privacy is 130 feet up the mainmast." Not that there's much time to enjoy the view. Frigstad—a Captain Kangaroo look-alike, minus the epaulets—keeps his crew in constant motion. The routine is age old: mop the deck, polish the brass, mend the sails, wind up the 5.27 miles of rope and, just in case you thought you were through, it's your turn to be a lookout. In the bow the lookout watches the water for floating debris; in the stern the lookout watches for the rare man (or woman) overboard.
Despite the hard work, life at sea is considerably easier today than in centuries past; the Radich has washers and dryers for the crew and a cellular phone and fax machine for the captain. There are even taste treats for the hands, the favorite being Norwegian chocolate. When the chocolate runs low, the crew reaches for the Turkish Pepper—a kind of spicy licorice ball that threatens to set fire to the brain if one makes the mistake of swallowing the candy whole. While some find an outlet in food, many others find it in a pack of Camels.
Berra Spetz, 27, one of the 13 permanent crewmen aboard the Radich, has a more novel approach to combating boredom at sea. "I like to do something different each time we go out," he says. "When I made my first Atlantic crossing, I got my car pierced. When we cross the equator, I'm planning on getting a tattoo. Who knows what will happen when we round Cape Horn."
After reaching Puerto Rico, the Radich crew's next adventure was a cruise in company with more than 150 other ships and boats to New York City for the Operation Sail celebration on the Fourth of July. On July 10 the fleet reached Boston, the last port of call before the Radich's trip back across the Atlantic. The following day 26 tall ships assembled for the Parade of Sail into Boston Harbor. An early-morning fog swirled around the hulls and rigging. Groups of masts, like ghostly digits, would appear out of the mist, then disappear. By the time the sun burned off the haze, the parade was well under way, and brightly uniformed cadets, manning the yards, made colorful pyramids against the blue sky.
More than two million sightseers watched the spectacle from the shore or from the 10,000 small craft that crowded the harbor. After berthing, hundreds of young sailors swept down from the yards to greet the waves of visitors. Three days and a few hangovers later (a Boston tea party it was not), the global get-together began to break up, and the Christian Radich prepared to set sail for Oslo. Early on the morning of the 14th, the mist still rising off the water and half obscuring the ship, 12 cadets, arranged in a tight circle, pushed on capstan bars thicker than baseball bats and slowly brought up the ship's 4,000-pound anchor. With all hands on deck, the call was given "away aloft," and in a flash, 50 sailors, blond hair against black sky, swept up the three masts and out onto the yards, ready to unfurl the sails. As the Radich disappeared into the dawn, it was easy to imagine, 500 years ago, standing on the Spanish shore watching as the captain of a small fleet of ships scanned the western horizon expectantly. You could almost hear him crying out: "Adelante! Adelante! [Sail on! Sail on!]"