Conversations with Sarah

Posted By on March 4, 2014

Sarah and I were talking recently about upcoming content for this website and realized we haven’t said a lot about why we’re doing all this. So we whipped up a few questions and interviewed each other. Sarah drew the short straw chose to go first. My answers will come later.

Sarah as a safety-conscious - if not fashion-conscious child aboard a sailboat.

Sarah as a safety-conscious – if not fashion-conscious – child aboard a sailboat belonging to a friend of the family.

What got you started in maritime stuff?

Sarah: My dad is mostly to blame for this. My sister and I grew up puttering in small boats. We had a canoe and a small Point Judith daysailer, and spent a lot of our spare time each summer exploring local lakes and ponds. My dad had a sailboat when he was just out of college and did some yacht delivery work. I grew up listening to his stories of sailing around New England and transiting from the East Coast to Bermuda. He’s also a maritime history buff, so every vacation involved a trip to some historic ship museum or maritime site. I devoured children’s books about Robert Ballard’s Titanic expedition. One prominent family vacation I remember as a very small child was getting to visit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and seeing R/V Knorr (one of the ships used on the 1985 Titanic expedition) in port. When I got a little older, I started building my own boats from models of Greek triremes all the way up to 50-gallon plastic barrels cut in half lengthways and bolted together so I could pole my way through the nearby swamps.

What’s your favorite aspect of maritime history?

Sarah: I’m an Atlantic historian at heart. Some schools look at European or African or American history; Atlantic history looks at the ocean itself and the relationships of the nations that cross it. I’ve always been fascinated with the voyages of exploration, early settlement attempts, and how indigenous peoples and Europeans interacted and were changed by each other. That all couldn’t happen without boats. I’ve also had a long standing interest in the artificial social microcosms created on board ships at sea.

Why do you like reenactment?

Sarah: For me, there’s a bunch of factors at play. I love to get to try out the material culture of the time and see how it works. You really get a feel for what life in earlier eras might have been like when you’re seeing how the food tastes and how well the clothing handles the rain or heat. It gives me a connection to what I’m reading – you can read an account of furling a sail at night in a storm or loading and firing a cannon, but until you’ve actually done it you have no idea what it really feels like. I’ve met a lot of fascinating people over the years at reenactments, both in the general public and fellow history geeks. There’s no one reason people attend events.

Sarah explaining how to furl a sail while on the beach with Merganser, 2007.

Sarah explaining how to furl a sail while on the beach with Merganser, 2007.

As a museum professional, interpretation is my favorite part of the job. I love talking to people about history and making them as interested as I am. I meet a lot of folks who tell me how bored they were in history classes in school, and by the end of our interaction usually they’re asking me questions for how they can learn more. That makes me feel like I’m really making a difference. Familiarity with history is important for understanding current affairs in their context. The War of 1812 played a big role in determining Canada’s position within the larger British Empire, and it was the first glimpse of the US as a world power. The American Revolution contains complex themes of colonialization, armed insurgency, the rights of citizens vs those of subjects, and economic independence – all topics highly relevant in the news today.

If you could meet a figure from maritime history, who would you pick?

Sarah: I would like to sit and talk with Jane Townshend, the only woman we know by name proven to have served at the Battle of Trafalgar. Undoubtedly other women saw action aboard the various nations’ ships that were there – a survey of Royal Navy personnel files for that period includes men and boys who gave their birthplace as “at sea,” so that ought to count for something – but Jane is the only one whose name is known and whose captain testified to her presence. We only know about her because she applied for the Naval General Service Medal in 1847. Women were officially invisible on board and didn’t appear in muster rolls. When Jane applied for her service medal, she proved her service with a certificate signed by Captain (later Admiral) Philip Charles Dunham, under whom she’d seen action aboard HMS Defiance at Trafalgar. Defiance engaged both the Spanish three-decker Principe de Asturias and the French 74 gunner Aigle during the battle. Defiance managed to capture the Aigle, but her crew probably didn’t get any prize money for it as Aigle sank under tow after the battle. The action cost Defiance seventeen lives and fifty-three injured men. Captain Dunham wrote “strong and highly satisfactory certificates of her useful services during the action” to support Jane’s petition, but her request was denied on the grounds that there were so many women serving illicitly in the fleet that if the Royal Navy were to grant one woman the Service Medal it would leave them open to countless other female petitions.

A Milling Match Between Decks, c1812.

A Milling Match Between Decks, c1812.

I’d be curious to ask Jane Townshend about what it was like at the scene of Trafalgar, certainly, but more pressing would be my desire to learn about her and her everyday life on board. Why was she on board? Was she married? A poster on one of the genealogy forums I frequent noticed that there was a 32-year-old Able Seaman named Thomas Townsend aboard Defiance at Trafalgar – was she his wife? We don’t even know her birthdate, just that she was still alive in 1847 to apply for the medal. I want to ask her where she slept, where her meals came from, how she interacted with the rest of the crew – and the other women on board. What did she do during the battle? What did she do on a daily basis when everything was calm? So many questions, and women at sea in this period are so dimly documented.

What has been the hardest part of building Heron for you?

Sarah: The sheer physical work! Moving logs out of the backcountry with ropes and pulleys, on snowshoes. Cutting and pounding trunnel after trunnel. Transforming miles of heavy worn cable into snowdrifts of picked tow fibers to be tarred and pounded into her seams. And all of that under the little voice in the back of your head that says, “Gee, I sure hope you know what you’re doing with all this.” But the work has been good for me, and this isn’t the first boat we’ve built… just the largest. We’ve both read a lot of maritime safety manuals and construction reports, and done tons of woodworking projects that incorporate the same skill sets we’re using here on Heron. It’s just the scale that’s new for us.

Want to help make sure Heron is in the water this summer? Throw a few bucks at our rigging fund!

About the author

A blacksmith, woodworker, and general jack of all trades, Chris “Ekk” Collins has lived the extremely rural life on a small farm in Northern Vermont for two decades. One of those decades was spent living completely without electricity, which has given him a real appreciation for light bulbs and power tools.

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