Come Sail Away
By Bill Center
Susan Baird calls it the "best feeling in the world."
Every other weekend, the 44-year biotech specialist climbs 110 feet above San Diego Bay to the highest horizontal spar of the Star of India.
There she works on the rigging of the famed square-rigger flagship of the San Diego Maritime Museum.
Her pay: nothing.
Baird is one of 70 volunteer crew who work to maintain and sail the three square riggers of the San Diego Maritime Museum -- the Star of India, the Californian and the Surprise.
"This has turned out to be a wonderful hobby," says Baird. "It is physical, mental, historical and social. It's as great a group as one could imagine."
And it could include you.
The Maritime Museum is putting out a call for volunteer crew.
So the question becomes ... want to go sailing, really sailing?
Not a leisurely weekend afternoon cruise on San Diego Bay, mind you. But a position on the crew of a square-rigger. Here is the opportunity.
But a little advance warning. There is much more to sailing a square-rigger than just sailing. These ships require a lot of maintenance, which is supplied by the crew.
"There is a commitment involved," said Rich Goben, the captain of the Star of India.
And education required.
Starting in January, the Maritime Museum will be offering its "Introduction to Square-Rigger Sailing" classes -- or Square-Rigger 101 -- for prospective crew.
The course, taught on the Star of India on an every-other-Sunday schedule over three months, lays the groundwork for becoming a member of the Maritime Museum crew. After that, crew members are expected to offer 100 hours of volunteer service a year for the right to take the annual sail on the Star of India, crew on the Californian (which sails regularly) or be ready to serve on the Surprise when it returns to the water in 2007.
The Maritime Museum wants to expand its crew list by at least 30 to 100. But the museum wouldn't mind having a roster of 150 crew.
"There is nothing quite like this program," said Paul Dempster, a 50-year-old air traffic controller. "The ability to go down and work on a 140-year-old ship creates a tremendous amount of pride plus camaraderie. And when you are on the Star when it is sailing ... it's an amazing sensation, you feel a part of history."
Dempster estimates he has put in more than 300 hours a year since he joined the Star of India crew five years ago. He even takes some of the work home.
"I repair pulleys and blocks in my garage, although the work I prefer is to be up in the rigging."
It is not mandatory to climb the rigging to be part of the museum's crew.
"Climbing is not for everyone," said Goben. "But we have something to do for everyone. We have a physical test and try to match volunteers up with their interests."
Phillippe Freed, for example, is a gunner on the Californian, although he had no background in boats before he joined the program in 2002.
"A friend of mine got me involved because he was interested," said Freed. "Then he took off. But I fell in love with the ships. I enjoy the work. But there is so much to know. Every job you do on these boats seems to open its own page of history."
Both Baird and Dempster, whose 19-year-old son, Tim, is also a member of the crew, had sailing experience before joining the crew. But both said this was a different brand of sailing.
"Maybe a few of the terms carried over, but this is totally different from recreational sailing," said Dempster, who owned a Catalina 25.
The museum's volunteer base ranges from former America's Cup sailors to doctors, lawyers, nurses and students. The ages range from 18 to 80.
"Our primary purpose at the museum is to educate, maintain and restore," said boatswain George Sutherland. "In our classes, we pass along as much information as possible so that our volunteers become ambassadors as well as crewmen.
"Our three square-riggers are operating vessels. Our volunteers are involved.
"I consider the Star of India and the Californian my boats," said Baird.
For further information about the Maritime Museum's volunteer crew, visit the Web site (www.starsailcrew.com), call (619) 234- 9153 (ext. 120) or attend one of the two information meetings planned aboard the ferry boat Berkley (Nov. 30 or Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m.).
Applicants must be 18 or over, in good health and provide proof of health insurance. There is no charge for the classes, although applicants must become members of the Maritime Museum of San Diego ($40 a year).
San Diego Maritime Museum square-riggers:
Star of India: Launched in 1863 as one of the first iron windjammers, the Star of India sailed 21 times around the world, mainly ferrying settlers from England to Australia and returning to England with cargo, including lumber. The 280-foot, three-masted barque sails annually near the anniversary of her launch (Nov. 14, 1863) with a crew of 60-65.
Californian: The 145-foot, two-masted schooner is the official "tall ship" of California. The Californian regularly sails four days a week with a crew of 12 to 15.
Surprise: The 179-foot three-master was originally built in 1970 but was re-designed as a British man o' war to star in the movie "Master and Commander." The museum purchased the ship from 20th Century Fox and is re-outfitting the rigging with the plan to have it sail along the Southern California Coast starting in 2007. It will require a crew of 50.