A Day on the Elissa

The "Official Tall Ship of Texas" -- the Elissa -- is now making its weekend "day sails" in the Gulf of Mexico, giving its recently repaired sails and volunteer crews a good workout. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell went along on one of the voyages recently, and met a man with one of the most interesting jobs in the world.

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Jim Brink is one of only a handful of people in the world who make and repair sails for big sailing ships. He's so well known in tall ship circles you've probably seen his work in some movies. He made the sails for the 19th century warships in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and sails for two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, plus a third Pirates film that's now in post-production. He's also expecting a sequel to Master and Commander, and, who knows, maybe a fourth Pirates film. Brink made new sails for the Elissa when she was restored in the early 1980s, and he comes back to Galveston from time to time for maintenance and repairs. Brink has been doing this for a living for years. He went to sea as a teenager in the 1960s and worked as a deckhand on several sailing ships until he discovered making sails was easier.

"I'm from the midwest. I'm not a coastal guy at all. I came out of Michigan, I didn't know port from starboard. For the first year or so, I was just, it was a rough school for me. It was like I didn't know what I was doing. Like I say, this captain made his own sails, and I saw an opportunity to do something a little more interesting than scraping rust and the painting, and this looked interesting to me and I took to it, and he started to teach me and I became his sail maker, he turned it over to me. I had a knack for it I guess, and just pursued it from then."

Brink makes most of his traditional sails for tall ships owned by museums, and naval academies around the world that still use sailing ships to train young men and women for a life at sea. His own home base is the San Diego Maritime Museum, which owns one of the three remaining 19th century square riggers left in the United States, the Star of India. The other two are the Gazelle in Philadelphia, and the Elissa in Galveston. Brink says making sails is hard, tedious and boring work, but he can't imagine doing anything else.

"This is very labor intensive work. This is not an eight hour a day job. I tend to be a night owl, and there's a lot of long nights. A lot of the work I do I'm kind of a one man show. Certainly when we had the deadlines for the movies and we had to make 50 sails in four months I had a big shop going, I had up to ten employees, but more often than not it's me and a helper, or just me. Roping a sail is about 12 feet an hour. You sew one of these grommets, it's about three an hour, you can sew at your rate. It's a lot of repetitious boring work, and then you pinch yourself and you look back and say boy, I've been in a lot of neat places and worked on a lot of beautiful ships. You finish a sail, a new sail, and you look at it, and you see it go up on the ship, and used, and you say God that really does look good."

And Brink takes great pride in his work.

"There's a bit of art to it. I don't do computer design. I don't do computer cutting. I still cut by eye, on the floor, I have rules of thumb and things I was trained to do. The modern lofts will cut with a laser cutting machine and it's all computer. They do, like America's Cup sail, they get the optimal shape to try to win a race. But ours is a little more of the eye, with a little more art to it. There's definitely a mix of art and science to sailmaking, traditional sail making."

Jim Brink finished rehabbing Elissa's sails just in time for her to begin her weekly day sails out into the Gulf. Elissa Skipper Kurt Voss thinks Brink is the best.

"Jim has been making our sails ever since 1982, when we got the first set. He was working for a man named Nat Wilson, and then Jim went out on his own, and ever since then he's made every sail that Elissa's ever had. The suit that we have now are starting to get old and tired, he's patched'em up, and we're going to be imbarking on a five year to replace each and every one, to get a whole new suit of sails."

Voss says that will cost about 100 thousand dollars, and the Historical Foundation will spread that work and the cost out over five years. Large sails for tall ships are expensive because they have to be made by hand by people who know what they're doing, using strong durable materials that hold up under constant exposure to salt water and bright sunshine. Voss says they're worth the cost.

"Well there's a new material called Oceanus, which is a form of dacron, and that's what most traditional sailing ships have gone to. What we have on Elissa now, and what we've had since 1982, is a material called duradon, which is sort of another form of dacron, but there's only one mill in Scotland that makes this material, so getting it is very difficult, it's very expensive to get it here, but the advantage of the Oceanus, which was developed about ten years ago, is for the same strength it weighs half as much."

Elissa's owners can't afford a full time crew so they use volunteers, which means no long trips - anywhere. They have a professional windjammer skipper come in to serve as the guest captain and several of his full time crewmen on board to make sure things are done right, but all the deckhands and mast climbers are volunteers who spent months in training before they go to sea. The volunteers on the day sail I took ranged in age from about ten to people in their sixties. Sandy Laubach is nearly 60 years old, but there she was, climbing the rigging to help open the sails.

(56 years old and you're climbing this rigging like a 16 year old?) Something like that, yes. (How do you do it?) You just concentrate on what you have to do when you're up there and try not to be nervous, and just do what you have to do. (You know you're making other people your age, such as me, very ashamed of ourselves.) Takes a lot of practice though. I've been doing this for four years. The first year was scary. It doesn't get easier to get up there because you're off the deck quite a ways, and stuff, but you have to concentrate on safety and make sure you're clipped in when you're doing your job, and get your job done and get back down on the deck."

(voices on deck: "On the fore, let go and hold.)

(Singing: "And when we arrive on Australia's shore, yo yo ho-oh-oh down. Walk around me brave boys and go down.)

That's Michael Wonio, a regular volunteer on the Elissa. He and about a dozen others are hauling a large sail up into position and he's trying to keep up the rhythm with an old sea chantey. The others were too busy hauling to join the singing. Kevin McFarland, was so winded he almost couldn't talk.

(Giving you a small taste of what it must have been like?) "Very small taste. My god that's a killer. That's the longest pull we have on the ship. That's the hardest one. The upper topsail on the fore and the main, that's a long hard pull. You can see from the length of the line we pulled out there. (Think you'd a made it as a seaman 200 years ago?) I doubt it very much. Not if we have to pull this every five minutes, I doubt it very much."

Then there's that strange language people speak onboard a sailing ship.

"On the main. Race up hard. Fore tack, fore tack high, on the main, ease on starboard, ease on port........"

I asked the volunteer First Mate for a translation.

"What I just did was set the mizzen stay sail, it's fore and aft, runs along the center line of the boat, you have to pull on the halyard, which raises the head of the sail up, so I said 'heave around the halyard'. And the other order was 'harden in the sheet'. That controls this lower corner, it's the line that runs right down here to the rail. So they pull in there until that sail is fairly flat. Right now it's backwinded so it's flapping around, but we'll turn to the left a little bit and the wind will come in from the right hand side and fill that sail up. (What's your day job? I work for General Electric, and I sell power plant equipment. I don't get to yell at anybody then. (Ever find yourself wishing you lived back in the days of sailing ships?) I was born 200 years too late."

In many ways it's sad that most everybody today was also born too late to experience the sheer exhilaration of standing on the rolling deck of a full-sized tall masted ship at sea under full sail, with the wind and salt air in their face. That's just part of the magic that's drawn people to the sea for countless centuries. Even the biblical psalmist was awed by that spiritual majesty when he wrote of "they that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep."

Today this mystical pull continues to attract people who want to serve on Elissa's volunteer crew. They want that experience too. By the way, crew training for next year's day sails begins in a couple of months. There's more information on the Elissa, and how to sign up for the crew in a link on our website KUHF dot Org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.

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