Gaining Their Sea Legs

by Tom Williams on January 1, 2009 - 9:34am

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 1

Through history, many a young man has gone to sea seeking adventure, so it came as no surprise when the Williams brothers decided to take on the challenges of the sea.

Isaac, Noah and Ezekiel are three young men who, along with their little brother, Jesse, know the true meaning of the word “challenge.” The four brothers all share Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). In January 2004 they gave up the comforts and securities of the common landlubber to try their hands at the helm of a 64-foot wooden schooner, the Arctic Ark.

Learning the ropes

The schooner’s home port was San Francisco Bay, tied to the Coast Guard dock at the Vallejo Marina. For over a year, the crew did restoration work to their classic schooner and learned the ropes, so to speak, of living on board.

 The Arctic Ark

The schooner’s crew numbered 11 sailors, all members of the Williams family. Seven able-bodied crew members would handle manning the lines, cooking, engineering and swabbing the decks. The important technical jobs of navigation, radio communications and electronics would be the responsibility of Isaac, 25, and Noah, 19.

The first thing Isaac and Noah did was hit the books — books like Bowditch’s famous “The American Practical Navigator” and volumes on celestial navigation and ham radio operation. Both obtained their amateur radio licenses. Ezekiel, 16, learned to keep a ship’s log and became the ship’s artist. Jesse, 5 years old and not yet depending on a wheelchair, became the cabin boy.

Getting on and off the boat was easy, thanks to the boatswain’s chair (a canvas seat used in going aloft on a sailboat). Once buckled in, a crew member could be hoisted aboard using one of the schooner’s large block and tackles, and then helped into his manual wheelchair.

On board, the boys were transferred below deck by getting piggyback rides from other crew members. Their bunks and chairs below decks were fitted with safety belts, and padding to keep them from being thrown around in rough seas.

The ship carried both an electric wheelchair and a manual chair for each boy. On shore, the boys used their power wheelchairs to get around the docks, do the ship’s paperwork and pick up supplies for the schooner. When under way the electric chairs were stored below and the manual chairs were put into use.

The magic of sailing

After a year tied to the dock and many hours of woodworking (including laying a new deck) and lots of scraping and painting, the Arctic Ark was ready for her sea trials. No one knew what to expect, as the crew was totally green. The captain (Dad) motored the schooner into the Napa River and out onto San Pablo Bay. Everything seemed shipshape and the entire crew felt confident and proud of their fine vessel.

But, motoring and sailing a large boat are two different things. The time had come for the Williams brothers to put their book learning into action. On deck, Noah called out orders to raise the foresail and then the mainsail, keeping an eye open for loose lines and other hazards. The crew responded by hauling on the halyard (the line that hauls up sails). Up went the sails, and with a loud snap, they filled with wind. The engine was turned off and in that blissful moment, the entire crew reveled in the magic of sailing.

From down in the navigation room, Isaac read the GPS (global positioning system) and announced that we were doing 5 knots. He reported the depth of water under us by monitoring the boat’s depth sounder, and the distance to other ships by reading the radar screen. The VHF radio crackled with voices from other boats around us.

“Wow,” one of the crew members exclaimed. “We’re doing it.”

The “it” was sailing. A year of hard work and study was finally paying off. No longer was the Arctic Ark a disabled boat tied to a dock. The sails were up and the good ship was flying across the waters of San Francisco Bay. The same feeling was shared by the four brothers with DMD. They too had been freed from their bonds and fully enjoyed sailing and being a working part of the schooner’s crew.

That first day on the bay did much to boost the “can-do spirit” of the entire crew. Returning to the dock, serious plans were laid for the first voyage. Final adjustments had to be made to the boat’s many systems. A big share of this workload was shared by the crew members in wheelchairs. Their dedicated work on the laptop computer, studying the charts and calculating our fuel, water and food supplies was important to a safe and pleasant voyage.

One fine day, the Coast Guard paid us a visit and looked over the entire boat. Over the past year, we had shared the same dock with these great sailors and had come to respect these guardian angels of the sea. They gave the Arctic Ark a thorough safety inspection and it passed with flying colors. Shaking each crew member’s hand and saluting the schooner, they wished us fair winds and good luck.

First voyage

Isaac standing his watch at the navigation desk

So it was on one fine day in May 2004 that the Arctic Ark put to sea. One-third of its crew were sailors with DMD. All crew members stood their watch and contributed their full share of the workload and were rewarded equally with the wonders of sailing on the open seas.

The schooner passed by the great waterfront of San Francisco and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge with all her sails unfurled. The crew planned to take the schooner up the coast of California to Fort Bragg, a voyage of well over 100 nautical miles. This first voyage was to test both the ship and crew, what sailors call “sea trials.” As it turned out, it proved to put all to the test.

The crew soon learned that the Pacific Ocean is in a totally different league than San Francisco Bay. Eleven miles out from the “Gate,” the schooner rounded the sea buoy and headed north. Just about that time, a fog closed in and visibility dropped to the length of an outstretched hand. All of a sudden, the good ship and crew were totally dependent on our navigators.

All through that first day and night, Isaac and Noah stood alternating three-hour watches and kept the schooner on course. With all the sea traffic associated with a major port like San Francisco, there was a real danger of a collision at sea. The radar screen had to be constantly monitored for approaching vessels. When another ship showed up as a blip on the screen, calculations had to be made, such as speed and direction. Sometimes this involved a change of course and speed. These calculations were passed on to the captain, and the helmsman turned the wheel until the boat was on the new “rum line” (a straight line plotted on a chart). Everyone learned just how demanding and serious sailing could be that first day at sea. It was a long day and night, but by morning the schooner had its first port of call in sight, Bodega Bay.

After a day in port and making minor adjustments to the ship’s compass, the crew put to sea again. This time it was clear with unlimited visibility. There was little wind so the captain started the engine and motored north. By evening, a breeze came up out of the south and soon the schooner was sailing under full sails. It was always nice to turn off the noisy engine and move silently over the waters under wind power alone.

Enduring a gale

As the night progressed, the wind picked up. Soon we were in gale-force winds. These conditions took the crew totally by surprise. Able-bodied crew members were called on deck to reef the sails. Hauling in sails under calm conditions is somewhat of a job, but in a gale, at night, in rough seas, it can become a nightmare. The schooner was pitching pretty good and the helmsman turned the wheel so the bow faced into the wind, lessening the power of the wind on the sails. All went well at first and only the big mainsail remained up.

The crew struggled with all their might to pull in the main boom to the center of the boat. Slowly the boom moved in, when suddenly a gust filled the sail and yanked the lines from their hands. The boom swung out to the port side with a loud crack. It had broken in two and the mainsail was wildly flapping. It was pouring rain and the crew was at their limit. The captain pulled out his knife and gave the order to cut the lines holding up the sail. Once the lines were cut, the crew grasped the big sail and hauled it on deck. What a mess.

The Arctic Ark under way, with the crew scanning the sun-drenched horizon.

“Hang on,” the captain encouraged. This was no time to lose anyone overboard. Once the mainsail was tamed and tied to the side of the cabin, a small storm sail was raised and the crew, except for the helmsman, descended into the cabin.

Below decks they found the same disorder as above. Books, instruments and other gear littered the floor. Noah’s wheelchair had rolled across the cabin and he was holding on to the bookshelf with all his might. Both Isaac and Ezekiel had rolled out of their bunks and were still rolling from port to star board with each roll of the boat. The crew snapped into action, and started putting things in order and tying things down. Noah was rolled back in front of the navigational desk and his manual wheelchair lashed to the floor. The other boys were put back in their bunks and wedged in safely with pillows.

Up on deck, the gale howled on. Every hour the helmsman at the wheel was relieved by another able-bodied crew member. It was a hard, wet job that night, standing watch at the helm. Down below, the second mate (Mom) was busy cleaning up after everyone’s seasickness. With the gale raging and no visibility, the navigators took turns at the “Nav” desk keeping the schooner on course and an eye out for other ships. It was a very serious and tiring night.

Finding a safe haven

By morning the gale had weakened and, although we were still rocking around, the worst was over. Out of the gray dawn, the entrance to Fort Bragg appeared. Isaac radioed the Coast Guard station and they replied immediately, advising us to wait a couple more hours until the tide rose and gave us more water to cross the bar of the Noyo River. Weary and tired, we put out to sea to wait. When we finally came in, a helpful harbormaster had a slip waiting for us. You could not have found a more thankful and tired crew that day on the Pacific coast.

The crew of the Arctic Ark spent the summer anchored in the Noyo River enjoying the hospitality of Fort Bragg. The time was well spent on more sea trials. Old salts in the harbor took the crew under their wing and shared valuable sailing and sea lore. Isaac and Noah continued honing their navigational skills and learned celestial navigation (mathematics for finding latitude and longitude). By November 2004, the Arctic Ark was ready once again to put to sea, this time by a much more seasoned crew.

Their adventure was just beginning. Little did they know they would sail many sea miles in the next few years.

Seasoned sailors

Between 2004 and 2007, the Arctic Ark visited many interesting ports along the west coast of the United States, as well as the Channel Islands off Southern California and the Baja California peninsula of Mexico. During those years at sea, Jesse grew into a capable cabin boy who knew the ropes. Ezekiel documented the voyages both in the ship’s logs and in his paintings of the different ports.They took on an adventure that would have challenged any man or woman, learning nautical skills and contributing their knowledge to help make a dream voyage come true.

For four crew members who depend on wheelchairs to get around on land, it was a great pleasure and experience to gain their sea legs and become accomplished sailors.

Tom Williams, the captain of the Arctic Ark , lives with his family in Nogales, Ariz. The crew of the Arctic Ark and their current ages are: Jesse 9, Grace 12, Gabriel 15, Luke 17, Peter 20, Ezekiel 22, Noah 24, Martha 26, Isaac 30, and Mom and Dad in their 50s. Williams was a columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner for 10 years and a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. Ezekiel Williams shares his perspective in From Where I Sit.

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