‘Cruise’ turns into plank walk

If I learned any lesson on human nature from my “cruise” on the brig Niagara some years ago, it was just how arbitrary and wayward the actions of an inside clique can be within a loosely structured organization.

In a social body with established norms, such as the military, the manner in which this small element operated would have been unthinkable. On a Navy ship, for example, they would have at least faced the wrath of the ship’s captain through a form of trial and punishment known as “captain’s mast.”

But on the Niagara with its very loose social structure, I am not aware of any dire consequences this group faced despite their very offensive and possibly even criminal behavior of which I was the victim.

I was a volunteer on the Niagara during the voyage in question, which was from Erie up into Lake Ontario as far as Toronto, with several calls at ports enroute and on the return.

Most of the crew had joined the ship through national advertising and were from many different locales. (There was even a young woman from British Columbia, and two other crew members were from San Francisco.) When not on the ship, they resided together in Erie.

I became eligible for the trip because I had worked on the ship itself and at its berthing area on Saturdays throughout the preceding off-season, driving up 100 miles to Erie from Youngstown. (There was only one person on the ship from that Saturdays working group, Bob Mayberry, a rather experienced Niagara hand.) I was the oldest person on the ship for the trip to Canada.

I was interested in the Niagara program since I had sailed on Presque Isle Bay for a number of years on a small sloop that I owned. Also, my maternal grandfather was a Norwegian sailor who had settled in Erie after he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the USS Michigan (later called the Wolverine), the first iron-hulled ship on the Great Lakes.

Both steam and sails propelled the Michigan. It was very unfortunate that this historic ship was scrapped.

Before getting to the troubles that are the crux of this story, I will digress by recounting just how much I enjoyed the ship’s visit to Toronto, which left me with a strong admiration for that hub of Canadian life and the way life was lived there.

While we were there, the air was often filled with the strains of Caribbean music emanating from some kind of ongoing festival. Near the ship, youths were undergoing rigorous water-based training for, as I understood it, a trip into the wild “bush” country north of the city.

The Canadians who visited the ship were friendly, despite the very hostilities which led to the Niagara’s construction in Erie, and the subsequent 1813 sea battle at the western end of Lake Erie which the British, who then ruled Canada, lost. The Niagara was Oliver Hazard Perry’s second command ship in the battle, after his first, the Lawrence, had been disabled.

During my time off, I rented very good bicycles from venders near the ship, and enjoyed the city’s bicycle trail system as I pedaled along the waterfront and north into areas where there were a number of parks. At one point, I recall stopping for a bratwurst sandwich at a stand manned by young men who appeared to be Arabs.

I was particularly impressed with the Toronto Islands, located just off the city and served by ferries from the city’s downtown where beautiful gardens were then in full bloom. People from India enjoyed the gardens as they pedaled conveyances which resembled rickshaws on trails that bordered the blooming plants.

I stopped pedaling long enough to enjoy a swim off one of the islands’ beaches. (I am a little envious today of the amount of physical activity I was able to absorb at that time, some 20 years ago in the early years of my retirement.)

No visit to Toronto would be complete without taking the elevator to the top of the CN Tower, with its glass-floor observation deck. The Niagara was a tiny shape far below.

Although I still had my sleeping bag, which I laid out on the Niagara’s deck for a night’s rest far below the tower, my sea bag, which contained all my clothes except what I was wearing as well as my toilet articles, had disappeared on arrival at Toronto.

I questioned the first mate, Pat Weakland, about what was going on, but he (apparently just going along with those who had “lifted” my sea bag) advised me to check the ship’s lifeboats, as well as the ship’s “sole” (the area below the floorboards).

The disappearance of my sea bag mystified Mayberry, the experienced Niagara volunteer.

On the morning of the ship’s departure from Toronto and still without my sea bag I again approached Weakland. “If I don’t get my sea bag back, I’m leaving this ship now,” I announced.

At this, perhaps fearful of some kind of international incident, Pat called “Muster, Muster” to have the crew congregate.

“Will someone tell this guy where his sea bag is,” Pat pleaded.

“It’s hanging right where his was, but it’s stuffed down into another white one and there’s a pillow inside the top so you can’t look down into the bag,” said a crewman from Erie.

He was obviously a leader of a clique on the ship who had decided to act out their exasperation with me in line with a Japanese saying regarding their society: “A protruding nail gets pounded down.”

There were reasons for this. I was older, and as a non-drinker, hadn’t joined in social activities ashore. I had decided not to climb into the rigging to help raise and lower the sails. This effort was not well organized, and I decided to let those younger and more agile than I do this.

I had persisted in taking photos, perhaps at times when I shouldn’t have, as I was thinking about writing an article about the Niagara.

However, my camera disappeared at the same time as did my sea bag, and I believe it was just tossed overboard by those unhappy with me. (The camera had sentimental value to me (as well as monetary) as I had inherited the fine 35 mm Canon from an uncle.

I had also been using an olive drab sea bag of German army issue, as I couldn’t find a traditional white one.

In addition, I had had a run-in with the captain, Walter Rybka. (Ship captains are of course minor deities, ever perhaps on the Niagara.)

The incident that prompted a personal rebuke to me in front of the crew by the captain happened at a Canadian port where the ship stopped. It was possibly Port Colborne, where the ship had been readied for entering the very impressive Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls and where locks equalize difference in elevation between lakes Erie and Ontario.

(The incident also could have happened at a port the ship stopped at on Lake Ontario after leaving the canal. My memory is fuzzy on this.)

A band of Canadian troubadours had appeared on the dock next to where the Niagara was tied up. Although tipsy (they passed a bottle around as they played) they were quite good and played a number of pieces of a nautical or folk nature as a number of the ship’s crew, including myself, stood above along the ship’s railing and applauded.

They even obliged when a young woman crew member from Vermont asked if they knew a certain number.

At the end of their set, the leader of the group looked up at me and inquired, “What’s your next port of call, captain?” He had apparently singled me out for the query as I appeared to be the oldest one in the audience.

“I’m not the captain, I’m just a volunteer … the captain’s back aft,” I stammered, rather startled by the query, even as I waved my hand toward the ship’s rear deck, where the captain had been standing. But at that moment the captain was starting to descend a passageway leading to a lower deck. He apparently had scant tolerance for tipsy Canadian troubadours.

It was a day or so later during a crew muster that Rybka chided me, saying, “Please don’t point me out to people on the dock.” Why he said this was a mystery to me.

“I was just trying to be diplomatic,” I replied.

I’m sure the incident helped lead to what happened with my sea bag, and probably to my camera as well.

The humiliating loss of the use of my sea bag during the ships’ Toronto visit, was to me demoralizing, especially since this action would have required a concerted effort by two or more people in a common area where others could well have observed what was going on. Yet no one came forward to me or to the ship’s mates or to the captain.

I therefore had my wife pick me up at St. Catharines at the west end of Lake Ontario. I later felt a little sorry that I had left the ship early.

My Niagara cruise had been a rather late-in-life learning experience, and perhaps a lesson in just how far people will go if their sensibilities are offended.

I reported what had happened to me to me on the ship in the form of a letter to the head of the Niagara League, but I never received a reply.

I later did write an article about my trip for the Business Journal of Youngstown in which I omitted any mention of my personal troubles on the ship.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for more than 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.



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