20 years before the mast (sort of)

by on 11/11/10 at 8:17 pm

About 20 years ago, my wife and I had a fledgling Celtic band, and we’d just put out our first album, and our marriage had survived. We had given a copy of said album to a well known local maritime musician, and while politely telling us that he did not think much of it, he did invite us to play at the Northwest Seaport Concert series, held on the sailing ship Wawona, berthed at the foot of Lake Union. That was the beginning of my time “before the mast” on that ship.

About every two years, we played on the deck of the Wawona until she was deemed unsafe to do so. That fateful day when we played there for the first time, I met a community of musicians and friends whose friendship I cherish to this day.  I cannot forget the memories of those warm summer evenings playing or listening to great music and enjoying the company of good friends on board the Wawona.  It was magic, pure and simple.

To this day, the monthly shanty sings put on by Northwest Seaport that started on that ship continue to entertain, inspire and educate. Countless children had their first sense of what it was like to be on a sailing ship courtesy of Bob Kotta, Dan Roberts and others who patiently explained and demonstrated long forgotten skills and told colorful stories of her past.

Oh, and what gatherings we had on that ship!  During Folklife, there was always a party and a shanty sing, and the place was full of well oiled musicians and others singing their hearts out and having a great time.  Those that couldn’t drive slept it off down below.  I lived on Queen Anne at the time and I walked home a few times myself!   Find anyone who was at those gatherings and boy do they have stories…

When we lost our friend and keyboard player from our band to lung cancer, we as a band were lost musically, and could not play.  Yet when it was time, our first performance back was on the Wawona.  She and her crew welcomed us back with open arms and understanding.

Wawona was a huge part of the lives of most of the maritime music community, and for all of us  who spent time around her it is hard to see her gone.  I was there the day she left us; I really did not want to go, yet I felt I owed it to her and her rather motley crew to say farewell.  She left us that day with the dignity and grace befitting the great Lady she was. That was a hard day.

In case you were wondering why I decided to be so maudlin’ and to even write about this, I was reminded of all this by the excellent article by Deborah Bach just recently about the ship and the final disposition of what remains of her.  Some of that has begun.  Personally, I have three trophies for the maritime songwriting contest I started made from pieces of her hull, and I blunted a carbide blade trying to make them ready!  She really was a tough ship.  Also, north of here, the Anacortes Museum’s Marine Heritage Center has a superb exhibit on the Wawona that is really worth checking out.  I’m sure you’ll continue to find reminders of her in museums throughout the world.

A good friend, Tim Wittman was commissioned by the museum in Anacortes to write a song about the Wawona for the opening of their exhibit this past summer and I include that here, as well as a live recording by the Cutters on board the ship during her Glory Days. It is my hope that through what is left of her, education and understanding about the age of sail in the Northwest will live on.

[audio:http://threesheetsnw.com/musicalwanderings/files/2010/11/Sweet-wawona-clip1.mp3|titles=Sweet Wawona ] [audio:http://threesheetsnw.com/musicalwanderings/files/2010/11/The-Cutters-Nova_Scotia_Farewell.mp3|titles=The Cutters-Nova_Scotia_Farewell]

While the ship is physically gone, she has taken on another life; reminding us of the many faithful years she spent hauling lumber, serving her country, fishing and hosting music.  In a day when many do not seem to care about the things that remind us of our past, in my opinion the Wawona has and shall continue to be a potent reminder of where we came from as Northwesterners, and through these experiences, perhaps we’ll know how to avoid similar tragedies.

Those of us who spent time with her will always remember being up on deck swaying to the sound of a fiddle, concertina or a song on a warm summer’s night at the south end of Lake Union.

Long live Wawona.


Notables:  Pictures courtesy Alice Winship, Nova Scotia Farewell Courtesy The Cutters and Sweet Wawona Courtesy Tim Wittman

4 Responses to “20 years before the mast (sort of)”

  1. Deborah Bach

    Nov 15th, 2010

    Great post, Chris! I love that you’re including the audio links in your posts, and was particularly happy to hear Farewell to Nova Scotia. I learned that song while in elementary school in B.C. and my brother now lives in Nova Scotia (on Cape Breton island, which, as I’m sure you know, has a rich musical culture), so it has a special meaning for me. Thanks!

  2. jimmy

    Dec 1st, 2010

    makes me want to drink alchoholic beverages

  3. Aja Claar

    Apr 10th, 2012

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all of us you actually know what you’re talking about! Bookmarked. Please also visit my web site =). We could have a link exchange contract between us!

  4. Denny Wheeler

    Feb 2nd, 2013

    Nice article, Chris. I never got to go aboard the lady, though Steph’s told me many tales, mostly true, I suspect, and of course I have recordings from concerts on her.

    ‘Tis sad that in each picture you put up, 2 of the performers are gone.

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