Three Days Before the Mast

`JUST don't look down," they said. Climbing the rigging of a tall sailing ship was my idea, not the idea of the two cadets escorting me. "Here; grab on to here. Put your foot here," one of them directed. I gripped hard and hoisted myself up to the first platform. Then what did I do? I looked down. Whoa!

When I was invited aboard Norway's Christian Radich for a three-day journey from New York to Boston, I didn't know what to expect. Several things piqued my interest: I am of Norwegian descent: My grandmother was born in Lillesand, a coastal town in southern Norway. To ride on a flagship of Norway would be an honor. I love sailing, and I had never been on a "tall ship" for an extended time. The voyage was part of a commemoration of Columbus's journey to the New World 500 years ago. The Christian Radich (R AH-dick) was one of 225 vessels in a flotilla from 35 countries.

Leaving New York Harbor allowed a spectacular view of Manhattan. Everything gleamed (believe it or not) and even the Statue of Liberty seemed to be waving us on. Come nighttime, the stars and a half moon came out. As we crept up the coast of Long Island, lights from five other ships in the flotilla could be seen in the distance. It could have been the early 1800s. The next morning, after a comfortable sleep, I woke up and saw no land.

The Christian Radich is three-masted, full-rigged ship named after a well-known businessman of Danish descent who donated money to have the ship built. Completed in 1937, it's 241 feet long. In many people's eyes, it's a classic, the ultimate tall ship, made famous for its role in the 1957 movie "Windjammer."

These days, the Christian Radich serves as a school ship. The 78 cadets on board - nearly half of them women - were accepted from among 500 high-school applicants from all over Norway.

When I came aboard, the student-sailors had finished their "tutorial" exams (the captain is a college professor; the other members of the adult crew are teachers, too). The past few months at sea had been the "practical" part of the trip, as well as fun: traveling to Spain, the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, New York and, next, Boston - as well as socializing on other ships in port and racing them at sea.

On the ship, the cadets had their day-to-day duties down to clockwork. They polished brass, sanded woodwork, painted, and followed officers' orders. They climbed the rigging like monkeys and sidestepped out the 50-foot yardarms with the confidence of high-wire acrobats. The cadets wear a knife and a metal fid (a round, pointed tool for splicing rope) in a leather sheath at their belts. They also wear a harness when they're working in the rigging.

As for me, I spent much of my time observing. Hoping not to get in the way, I'd perch like a parrot on deck. The zoom lens on my camera doubled as a telescope.

SOMETIMES, I would listen to the cadets, crew, and officers speak the beautiful, sing-songy language. An extremely good-natured and good-looking lot, they shared a casual camaraderie, an understandable result from months of close-quarters living. Many were looking forward to going home, but they also said they suspected that after being back a week or so, they would miss shipboard life.

May-Helen Rygge, 18, gave me and another reporter a tour of the ship. We asked her to talk about ship life as she showed us around. "With the regatta, there's so much happening. You make a lot of friends around the world - Germany, Spain, Mexico, England, Denmark, Sweden," she said, leading the way past cramped bunk rooms down to the refrigeration room, one of many contemporary conveniences on board. "You don't have private lives on board this ship. Everybody knows everything," she says, widening her blu e eyes and then smiling.

Talking with the cadets was a treat. Catching them on watch often yielded good one-to-one conversations. (Socializing while you're on watch is usually forbidden, but cadets made courteous allowances for me, talking while keeping their eyes peeled.) I would ask each of them why they chose to do this for a year and what their home life is like.

Bent Jorgen Haug, 17, from Tonsberg-Noterroy, says his grandmother and grandfather spent a lot of time at sea. "I want to feel what they felt," he says. "I love sailing. It's a nice feeling when everything is silence. It's hard work, too, but I thought it would be harder," he says.

Erik Larsen, 16, from south-coastal Hidra, says he wants to be a naval architect. "I want to design old-looking ships that go faster," he says. He reveals that his father is a sea captain and his grandfather on his mother's side builds houses. "I want to apply both things." According to the ship's captain, Dag Frigstad, very few of the cadets end up in careers related to sailing.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the ship is that the women are just on the ship for show. Says Andreas Eide Pettersen, 16: "The women work side-by-side with the men."

Off-duty activities for the cadets included sleeping, meals, and perhaps reading a book, writing in a journal, playing cards, sunbathing, or hanging out with friends. In port, the cadets stay with families.

After two weeks in the New York area, almost all I spoke with said they were ready to get back to sea. As Captain Frigstad put it: "Ships and crew are rotten in port. When you go to sea, everything is routine again."

From what I could tell, the captain runs a smooth ship by delegating and what he calls "a balance of democracy and discipline." "Too much discipline kills their initiative and creativity," he says.

For the cadets, that balance of democracy and discipline means that they go home having learned not just the age-old ways of the sea, but also the importance of teamwork, perseverance, integrity, and more. As cadet Pettersen says: "You learn more about yourself."

Soon after we dropped anchor in Boston Harbor, the peace of the sea evaporated. Swarms of pleasure crafts flocked around us to get an advance look at the Christian Radich before the parade of ships into Boston the next day. One small boat zoomed around us and evidently identified either the ship or just the Norwegian flag, for several men pointed up to me and yelled, "Inga!"

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