After we left the Fri and got back to the Farm, people had this attitude, like they thought we’d been on a sailing cruise. “On a vacation.” It was anything but a walk in the park. It was a life altering experience. No two ways about it.
For one thing, we got to Amsterdam with this crew of radical folks — they were European radicals and to them we were the ugly Americans. They were used to resenting Americans. They were somewhat open to us, but there were members of the crew who would not have minded seeing us fail. They were going to work our asses off, sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week. Before dawn we had our muesli and yogurt and got busy. We were living on a houseboat tied up next to the Fri. There were no showers on the houseboat and the closest public showers were about two miles away. We were working dawn to dusk seven days a week so the public showers were closed by the time we got off work. They begrudgingly let us get off early once a week, Saturday, to get a shower.
Finally Dwane Jackson (the other Plenty volunteer) and I got to talking — here we are in Amsterdam and we ain’t seen nothing but the backside of a hammer — so we figured — this was Sunday and we were going to get out a little. They really howled about that. The crew rode us about it and told us what wussies we were. But that was okay and some of them took the day off too.
I don’t remember how many months we were in Amsterdam but the Fri was finally together. We left later in the season than we had hoped. The weather was holding which was good. It’s best to sail out of the northern lands in the summer because the winter weather can mean fierce storms. The weather had held, and hadn’t changed. We crossed the inland waterway that runs from Rotterdam to Amsterdam and set sail on the North Sea. The weather still held. We were in the North Sea — guess we were about six hours out when a storm came on us fast and we couldn’t make port. Gale force winds. The ship was not controllable for several days and nights. It was daylight when the storm hit and I was below deck. Dwane took first watch. He’d been in Amsterdam for the first six months or so that we were there. Dwane was, like myself, a hillbilly landlubber. After standing watch Dwane crawled into the bunk and with his foul weather gear on, so sea-sick he couldn’t get out for two or three days. Just wore his slick in bed. One of the ladies on the crew brought him a pan to toss up in. Lots of the crew were sick. I was lucky I hadn’t eaten anything and just ate lightly during the gale.
The Fri was in a force 9 gale and we were dragging a sea anchor. The wind was blowing so hard the tops of the waves and foam were caught by the wind and mixed with rain and spray. This was some pretty scary stuff for a Georgia hillbilly — you know — on a wooden island between two continents. I made peace with my Maker and was ready.
We had caulked the ship in a traditional manner. Seams in the Fri’s hull were sealed with pine pitch. The waves were so strong they ripped the planks and spit out the caulk and we were leaking pretty bad. During a three-hour watch we had somebody manning the pumps for every two out of three hours. One notable event, as I remember it, I went down to measure the water in the bilge. When the water got to a certain depth, we’d turn the pumps back on. To get there I had to pass through the crew quarters. Rest of the off-watch crew was sitting around a five-gallon bucket taking turns puking. Sometimes they didn’t really take turns, the urge would come on a couple of people at a time and they would fight over who got to puke next. Seemed funny at the time. We had a merchant seaman with us, a fella by the name of Riems, who was a merchant marine cook. He would be cutting veggies and just turn to puke into the compost bucket and go back to cutting vegetables.
The water in the North Sea was so cold you couldn’t expect a person to survive five minutes. We didn‘t even have life preservers on deck, because if a person went overboard they’d be gone before the boat turned around. There was no point. That’s how it was explained to us. That’s how it was.
We would try to make headway and set as much sail as we could — even the jib sail out there in the front of the boat. When the winds come up real strong and you are on a ship like the Fri, you had to get those sails down quickly and lash them to the jibboom. The Fri had a twenty-foot long jibboom with a woven net hanging below — in case anybody fell off the pole they’d get caught. In fair weather it was a nice place to hang out. When a storm came up like this one you had to scramble out there quick and secure the sail.
The waves in the North Sea are exceptionally high — tall and steep. The North Sea is very shallow. The nature of a wave is not that the water moves — it’s energy moving through the water. It’s not a wall of water rolling along — it’s a wall of energy. And it hits the shore and rolls back. When you get a big storm and you’re out in the North Sea you get the waves bouncing off the shore and off the seafloor. The sea is so shallow the waves do not get absorbed by any depth of water.
To lower the jib sail and tie it to the jibboom I had to shimmy out the pole with my legs on either side. It’s like riding a bucking bronco. When the front of the ship was rising, I could scoot forward. When the wave hit the middle of the boat I had to grab a-hold with arms and legs because the boom would move down faster than a man could fall. That was one of the scariest things I did the whole time.
Storm finally broke. We were able to sail on into the Channel. We made down to the White Cliffs of Dover. We didn’t have money to pull the Fri’s leaking hull out of the water. So, we used an old method of putting her against the quay, which is just a bluff, a place to lash your boats to, where you tie your boat up and the tides run very deep. When the tide goes out the boat leans over against the quay and you have three or four hours to reach the planking underneath so we could work on the exposed hull of the boat. We positioned the boat and worked on her there for four days.
Like everybody else from the Farm, we were teetotalers, but the night we made shore in Dover, Dwane and I and a few others took a little side trip through a pub. It was a courtesy trip. Myself, I was drinking cider, a good hard cider. You couldn’t taste the alcohol. It just snuck up on ya. I’d had cider growing up but this wasn’t quite what I was used too. Drank too much. We tried to row back out to the boat — laughing and falling all over each other, ‘bout missed the Fri and drifted out with the tide.
Karen Flaherty met us in England just before Christmas. Patrick Gribbin was there too. We were glad to see those guys.
There is a great picture of fishing with Anthony, he’s one of the European crew members, a young man; anyway, he is in the picture in the water. There is a humpbacked whale on the right and we are dragging Anthony beside it. Anthony wanted to see how close he could get to the whale so we put him on the rope. He got pretty close. He looked the whale in the eye. Then he got to thinking about how he was about one-twentieth the size of the whale and was in the whale’s element and out of his own. The humpback was gargantuan. The aura around these whales is very strong — it’s palpable. You can really feel it strong. Definitely, you can feel it.
We had occasions when all of us were able to get in the water with whales. One time this fin whale came up to the boat. It followed pretty close to the boat. Captain Dave got his flute out and started playing flute up on deck. So everybody went over to that side of the Fri where the whale was. Apparently responding to the flute, the whale pulled over alongside of David. Then the whale rolled over on its side and cruised alongside where the crew was leaning against the rail. It was just checking everybody out as much as they were checking it out. At one point the whale put its flipper out of the water and waved to us. Then it surfaced almost close enough to touch.