Sailing on the Tall Ships

Visitors to the Washington state coast could be in for a special seagoing treat if they time their itinerary carefully.

The tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain will be making port calls. When they put into a harbor there are opportunities to tour the historically accurate reconstructions of old sailing ships. You can even sail on them, and sometimes you can enjoy the excitement of sea battles when they offer a “battle sail,” where one ship pursues the other and they fire their cannons at each other. They don’t use cannon balls, so no damage is inflicted, but there’s a lot of noise, smoke and excitement. Sometimes just one of the ships is in port, sometimes both. The ships’ homeport is Grays Harbor, Washington.

The Hawaiian Chieftain is styled in the manner of the 1850s, and was built of steel in Hawaii in 1988. It was purchased by Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority in 2004. It is a topsail ketch.

The Lady Washington, a brig, is a reconstruction of a much earlier ship built in the Massachusetts colonies in the 1750s. She became an American privateer in the Revolutionary War (yes, a pirate ship!). She became the first American ship to make landfall on the west coast in 1788 after a successful rounding of Cape Horn. She was also the first American ship to sail to Honolulu, where King Kamehameha became a partner in her trading pursuits.

The ships have a crew of about a dozen each, and some are paid officers, but most are volunteers eager for a chance to live aboard a tall ship. The ships have an education program teaching children how to take stations on a ship, hoist sails, navigate, and even man the cannons.

Lady Washington replicates a 1750s ship.The ships are open for tours and more. A three-hour “adventure sail” invites, but does not require, passengers to help operate the ship; “evening sails” entail two or three hours at sea; “sunset/moonlight sails” are offered on calm, full-moon nights, and “passages” take passengers from one port to another, sometimes on a sail that lasts more than a day.

When the ships came down to California this past spring for the 200th anniversary of Bodega Bay, they caused an instant sensation. Instead of an orderly 30 or 40 people expected to tour the ships, up to 1,000 at a time showed up, causing traffic and parking problems. The crews tried valiantly to serve as many as possible. When they staged a battle sail, 3,000 people thronged the coast to cheer them on. Usually their appearance is a quieter affair, although the battle sails always draw eager onlookers on the shore.

The ships look like giant white butterflies on the water as they approach each other slowly and gracefully maneuvering until suddenly they are close enough to be in range and one or the other takes the initiative and starts firing. Since they aren’t using real ammunition, curious kayakers and party boaters cluster around them.

On board the Hawaiian Chieftain, Captain “Shiny” (James McClurg) explained that while most modern sailing ships had computer-controlled sails, his were “voice activated.” He then yelled, “Hoist the mizzen!”

“Hoist the mizzen, aye, aye, sir!” his crew called back as they leapt to grab the ropes.

One of the exciting parts of the sail is when the crew is sent scampering up the masts to “clew up” the sails. Unlike sailors of old, they wear safety harnesses, but it’s still thrilling to see people 70 feet up on a tossing ship working. The crew knows their sea shanties, and they enjoy bellowing them out. It’s easy to see why there are always willing volunteers.

We have all become so accustomed to the sound of motors when on board large vessels that it comes as a thrill when, out of port channels, the motors of the tall ships are turned off and what you hear instead is the wind in the canvas sails, and the creaking of the spars. The sound of the seas makes you realize you are intimately connected to the ocean now.

There are no refreshments on board, you must bring your own. You will also want a jacket. One of the cabins on board is converted into a small gift shop for the last hour of the voyage, so that you can buy a souvenir.  One thing is for sure, when you have sailed on a tall ship, you will never forget it.

Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.



You can find information on sailings of the Hawaiian Chieftain and Lady Washington at

Lady Washington is being taken out of service this summer until Aug. 9 for a major restoration of the ship’s hull.
The Hawaiian Chieftain will be in Port Angeles, July 13-18; Bellingham, July 20-24; Anacortes, July 26-29; Blaine, Aug. 4-6; Coupeville, Aug. 8-13, and in Everett, Aug. 15.

On August 17-19 both ships will be in Seattle, then they sail on to Brownsville, Aug. 21-23: Bremerton Aug. 25-26, and Kirkland, Aug. 28-23.

Because sailing ships are dependent on wind and tides, the schedules are subject to change without much notice. It’s always best to check the website for confirmation.

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