Boo’s Field Guide to Nerds (part 5)

This bearded species is most at ease when tinkering about in a back shed, fossicking in the rusty tools section of trash n’ treasure markets or re-enacting the American Civil War.

While readers may read this overview and think: ‘why, that is just most people’s Dad’, it is important to distinguish between an everyday patriarch and the full-blown DIY version, a Nerd for whom all peculiarities of his species must be expressed for him to qualify. For example, a Dad may own a back shed and may even use it to store eskys, bent nails, deflated Sherrins and other implementata of fatherhood, but to the Tinkerer the back shed is a well-oiled extension of his ego; the means by which he articulates the deepest passions of his id to create fantastic apparatus of no discernable use to anyone.

This Nerd lives to mess around with that which rarely needs messing around with in the first place. This can be as trivial as creating a stand for his model Spitfires, to constructing a ‘temple’ for his barbeque; an outdoor area for him and his friends to neatly prepare and cook an assortment of meats with all utensils at hand, all workbenches at the right height, party lights, speakers, padded seating and tiled roof. At said gatherings, and in keeping with his ‘everything home made’ philosophy, the Tinkerer will proudly serve a bottle of his latest home brew. This will start a vigorous debate amongst the assembled Nerds, all of whom will claim to have made a stronger brew when studying engineering at University (a nostalgic time for the Tinkerer).

Like the IT Professional the Tinkerer is devoted to technology, but that of a different, gentler age. The steam engine holds an uncommon pull to this Nerd, a technology that spans the ship, the locomotive, the tractor, or turbines and power stations in general. The sight of a well-oiled steam engine is soothing to this elderly Nerd, and he will travel long distances to attend steam engine festivals, a happy occasion when he can roll up his dusty sleeves and talk knowledgably with others of his ilk.

The author was fortunate to spend a number of months viewing the Tinkerer species up close while volunteering on the Enterprize, a tall ship run by a crack team of handy Nerds. This milieu combines two of the great loves of the Tinkerer: a complicated mechanism constructed entirely of recycled woods, hemp, pitch and tallow requiring a high level of daily maintenance, and explicit historical detail.

The strict onboard hierarchy ensured that from the General Hands to the Master of the ship, all commands were obeyed. Specific protocols were required in day-to-day operations of the Enterprize, including old-timey orders such as ‘helms a-lee’, ‘hard a starboard’ and ‘scandalise the main’, words like ‘fo’c’stl’e’, ‘mizzen’ and ‘futtocks’ and even superstitions, such as the inadvisability of inviting a woman on board. This intoxicating environment would occasionally go to the Tall Ship Tinkerer’s head, and some would even go so far as to bark ‘get down them stairs and make them sandwiches’.

Unlike Alexander the Great’s continental campaigning or Henry VIII’s ribald antics, Melbourne’s early founders are not known for their thrilling escapades and saucy bedtime heroics. But, just as the French Horn Player is perversely enticed to an unpopular shape, so the Tinkerer of the Enterprize is drawn to this lesser-known period of Australia’s history. This eager Nerd was sometimes disappointed to lose his audience with the phrase ‘semi-trailer of the seas’; faces would fall when younger members of the public learned that no piracy, swordplay nor buccaneering took place on its well-scrubbed decks. Regardless of this, the Tall Ship Tinkerer was undeterred. Special dress-up days were arranged, and tired phrases of derring-do were uttered to general glee. Thus the Tinkerer species is a close relation of historical re-enactment species, including members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

While teamwork was a vital part of life on the Enterprize, so was individual pride in one’s work. It was noted that as some Tinkerers were generous with information and advice, others would jealously guard their patch, be it improving the brasswork on the ship’s compass to furling a sail quickly in high seas. Any clumsy attempt by a novice Hand to do the same would be treated by such Tinkerers with anything from exasperated concern to undisguised belligerence. In such cases it was indeed more prudent to descend to the galley and prepare the lunchtime refreshments.

A final note on the Enterprize –while the name of the vessel is almost identical to that of the starship in the well-known Nerd touchstone Star Trek: The Next Generation, albeit with a minor change in spelling, this is pure serendipity; a joyful coincidence of Nerdy proportions. The name of the replica ship relates to the actual tops’l schooner first piloted by John Fawkner from Launceston across Bass Strait to found the city of Melbourne. It is a sign of the exacting research and dedication of the author to be acquainted with such facts.


Behold…the futtocks

Many things have happened in the month since I last posted, including the calling of the election, the launch of K-Rudd’s incisive forefinger, millions spent on confusing new ad campaigns and scare tactics aplenty. The country is in uproar! I love a good election campaign.

But even more important things than that have been happening: I have climbed above the futtocks and lived to tell the tale. Lubbers – let me explain.

People who know me realise that I’d rather die than exaggerate a point. But my first day aboard the Enterprize shall now be known as THE GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE. I overcame all my fears in one day, went aloft no less than three times and furled the sails. While wobbling on a rope along a yard, pyrate-style.

But not everyone who knows me realises that I’m scared of heights. Like bile-in-the-mouth, head-between-the-knees scared. You know those kids who tremble at the sight of a 2-metre diving board? Co-ordinated enough to fly under the radar at school but unco enough to look kind of funny when they run? I am still that kid.

Anyhoo. So when I was bustling eagerly around the Enterprize on my first day, Brasso in hand, the Master asked if I want to go aloft. I presumed he just wanted to let me monkey about 2 metres above the deck, but nay. With Jack, the First Mate at my side, we clipped our harnesses onto the ropes and cautiously ascended the rigging up until the first boom-thingy, or course yard. We were well out in the bay by this time, and the boat was pitching and leaning like mad, as well as the rigging, which gets narrower and scarier the more you climb.

With trembling limbs I ascended, freaked out, descended and flopped onto the deck with great pride. Then the Master came up and said, “pretty good. Up you go again.” Then strode off. I thought he was joking, but Jack said “you gotta go, quick!” Because what the Master says must be done.

So I shinnied up again, this time on my own! I touched the course yard and wobbled back down again, to general acclaim. I thought that my bravery was all used up, but again, I was told to go right up to the top. The third time, we climbed up to actually stand on the course yard. Then reach out into the abyss onto these sticking-out bits of wood called the futtocks (pictured – they’re the square thingy, but on the Enterprize there’s no lovely platform to stand on, just thin air). They have two ratlines underneath it that you have to step onto, swing out with your whole weight on your arms, then scramble up like a lunatic until you reach a higher handhold.

I stood there for ages, reminding myself to concentrate only on what was in front of me. I then chanced a peek down to the anxious faces 7000km below and started gasping and wheezing like faulty plumbing, with the earth spinning around under my feet. I think I stood there for ages, with my hands balled into little fists. Then leapt up into nothingness!! And kept going up until the topmost yard!

At this time my entire body was exhausted, and I couldn’t move. I clung to the ropes, gazing out at Williamstown and wondering what on earth I was doing. And picturing embarrassing scenes of assorted cherry pickers, cranes and hoists being required to get me down again. Meanwhile, Jack had come up again on the other side of the boat, all spry, and said, “right! Let’s get this sail gasketed!”

Oh, so I actually had to do something! We had to inch out along each sail, standing on a rope (I did the splits; nothing could have made me unhook a toe from the main rigging) and pull in this massive topsail. By bending over the yard. And wrapping it up, like a prezzie, as far as it would go. Using the non-existent strength in my arms.

Oh yes, I did that too.

Apparently they are looking for more people to go aloft, and I think I may do it! I’d like to be one of those lean, dashing rockclimber-types you see with a far-away look and bad shorts. I’m now in training to build up the strength in my arms, and be certified to go aloft whenever the mood takes me.

Last week I did the same tasks with Allen, an even gruffer sea-dog than Jack. And would you believe that I shinnied up those futtocks like they weren’t even there. Once I’d swung out into space and scrabbled for the upper handhold, the buggers had taken the first one away. And do you think I was bothered? I just kept hoisting my bulk aloft by holding onto either side of the rigging, crying ‘tally ho!’

Then got tangled up in some other lines above, but I think you get the idea.

Apart from my innumerable acts of derring-do, there’s actually some sailing to be done on the Enterprize. It’s devoted mostly to school groups and excursions, as well as booze cruises, corporate shenanigans and weddings. In a few weeks we’ll be scattering some ashes. We saw a seal in the bay, floating on its back and waving its flippers in the air.

The students are particularly hilarious. Last Friday a ferry sped up to us, with its decks lined with merry schoolies. They were jeering and shaking their fists at our lumbering craft. They were actually shaking their fists! Who does that? But all the Steiner school kids on board raced to one end of the Enterprize, shouting, beating their chests and crying ‘Bring it! Bring it, yo’!!!’ When the schoolies came around the other side again, a mighty heckling sound rolled in, and the Steiner kids did the same thing.

The whole thing is really very pleasing.

Avast ye lubbers!

There was much excitement in the house of Boo over the weekend.

I attended my first induction aboard the Enterprize. I know you’re all thinking it’s some sort of Star Trek gathering, and that my geekiness has finally found a public outlet, but no. There’s a replica tall ship in Melbourne by that name, and I have volunteered as a willing deckhand for two days a month over the next year!

Weigh anchor! Hoist the mizzen!!

The Enterprize is a replica of the original trading schooner that came to Melbourne from Tassie (then still called Van Dieman’s Land) in 1835 during European settlement. They used all original materials and methods to recreate it such as copper rivets, pitch, bronze fastenings and hand-sewn flax sails from Scotland and hemp rigging. All the wood was salvaged from interesting places, such as grey gum mast steps from an old railway bridge, NZ kauri ribs from brewing vats in Ballarat, jarrah floor joists of a wool store in Freemantle and Californian redwood that was planted by Melbourne Water in the ‘20s as an experimental crop.

It is gorgeous. Look at it! It was built to commemorate the founding of Mlebourne, and to educate the public about exciting historical things. It dashes about the bay all week, mostly for school excursions, corporate training days, office parties, overnight excursions and hourly tours. Every now and again it does a grand sail up the coast or over to King Island where it fires cannons at other replica ships, or is received at various historic towns to enthusiastic bagpiping. The crew manual even specifies: ‘on occasion, historic outfits may be issued to crew, and all members are expected to participate.’ Bliss.

They keep it running with a Master, Bosun, Mate and deckhands, as well as a motley crew of clueless trainees such as myself to fill in the gaps. You must admit it’s a damn cheap (free!) way to learn how to sail the high seas. We have to do 20 ‘sea days’ to qualify as a deckhand, which means basically signing up for a voyage and jumping on board. There are more bearded, nautical coves, who have ‘got tangled up jibboom shroud and landed in drink’ than you can poke a stick at. It’s like a dream.

The nautical terminology is thrilling and unfathomable, and I have included below my favourite parts of the official Enterprize training manual:

-Reef pendants are rove through the cringles on the leech of the sail
-The square sail thwartships is the topgallant
-Ensure the vang is free and available for use
-It may be necessary to avast heaving on the peak whilst the throat is sweated off the table

What does any of this mean?? Is it even English? It all becomes a little clearer when you realise that ropes are not just called ‘the big one’, ‘the white one’ or ‘that long bendy bit over there’. In six different parts of the ship you find the ‘pinrail’, with at least eight different tarred ropes, each relating to either sail, rigging, mast boom and god knows what else. Some of the basic ropes are:

Staysail sheet, course lift, clewline, buntline, flying jib halyard, boom topping lift, preventer, anchor stopper, catting tackle, downhaul, main gaff, course brace, running backstay, bowsprit shrouds, martigale, leech lines, foot and tack ropes, gaskets, stern, fore and aft breast lines, aft spring and tricing lines.

When I finally learn what all this is about I will become insufferable. Watch this space.

And here’s some essential references for all things seafaring:

Enterprize website
International Sea Shanty organisation
Talk Like A Pirate Day
Nautical expressions: Pay particular attention to why a boat is called a ‘she’.
Lady Pirates