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Keep Gotheborg III Going the Columbus Way

Karin Gafvelin comes out of the stuffy and crowded cabin and climbs the steep and narrow staircases up to the gun deck.


After breakfast, she climbs again up to the capstan on the main deck.


The moon still shines, since it is a little before 4:00 AM, when Gafvelin starts her four-hour watch duty.


One of the toughest jobs for her and the other 50 crew members is reefing the sail.


It takes each three hours to roll up the large square sail on the main mast while almost hanging in the air with a heavy black safety harness secured by two hooks around her waist.


Despite the hardship and risk, Gafvelin enjoys her work on the Gotheborg III, the replica ship of the Gotheborg, a three-masted square-rigged merchant vessel that sank in the inner harbor of Gothenburg on September 12, 1745, with a full load of tea, silk and porcelain pieces from China.


She is proud to join the ship's "China Adventure," which started on October 2, last year from Gothenburg, Sweden.


She is especially happy that she is a member of the crew for its voyage's last leg, from Jakarta, Indonesia to Guangzhou. It will then sail to Shanghai.


After a few days' sojourn at Tanjungpriok, Jakarta, Gotheborg III set sail again on June 28, accompanied by 10 deafening celebration cannon shots.


"I am really lucky to be on the last leg to China," said Gafvelin, who works the mid watch, which runs from 4 AM to 8 AM in the morning as well as from 4 PM to 8 PM in the evening.


She feels lucky because on board this replica wooden ship, crew members have a precious chance to experience centuries-old sailing traditions which enabled Christopher Columbus to discover the New World in the 15th century.


Some 6,000 people applied to join the voyage, but only 600 have earned the chance to sail with ship to China in its six different legs from Sweden to Guangzhou.


Only 50 have made it to the list for the last leg.


When she is not on watch duty, she joins others to scrub or oil-pain the main deck, take the helm, wash dishes, cut vegetables or clean the kitchen.


Despite the drudgery, "these are necessary to make the ship keep going," Gafvelin said.


"Most of the crew here are those interested in history and sailing," said Peter Kaalings, 61, captain of Gotheborg III.


"Some of them have already grasped basic skills in maneuvering the rigging of this similar type."


"My father is envious of me because I was lucky to be selected to sail the final leg to China," said 21-year-old Christoffer Treutiger. One of Treutiger's ancestors was once the captain of a merchant vessel sailing to China in the 18th century.


"I am excited to sail to China in this traditional manner," Treutiger said.


"Though we have radar systems and automatic safety measures that can inform us of the ship's exact location the changes in the weather, for instance we still take the duty as the ancient sailors did, though they seem not that necessary," Treutiger said.


Of all the duties, the most exciting sailing experience for every crew is to deal with a great number of complicated ropes and dozens of sails.


Gotheborg III's rigging is one of the most authentic parts of this ship. What crew members do every day with the rigging is exactly the same as their ancestors did in the 18th century, except that every crew member is required to wear the harness.


"Among these hundreds of ropes, it's really tough to know which rope to pull when necessary," Treutiger said.


Aron Wangborg, 25, a political science graduate fresh from university, described his first attempt at climbing up the rigging as "a bit of scary." The fear soon disappeared after several days of training, he said.


Most of the new crew who embarked on the ship from Jakarta might have the same feeling as Wangborg when they first climb the rigging, especially at night.


But for those crew members who studied sailing at Sweden's only sailing high school, climbing the rigging is not a big deal.


"I was familiar with climbing the rigging and belying the rope to pin when I sailed at the high school in a similar ship like this," said Maria Jorbrant Rystedt, who at age 18 is one of the youngest crew on Gotheborg III. "I was once afraid of climbing the rigging, but I never fear it now."


To adjust the sails with the wind, crew members have to pull the thick tarred ropes or roll up or down the sails by hand under the order of their watch leader, who is a professional sailor knowing exactly how to maneuver the rigging and sails.


"This is a big ship which needs a lot of people to work together, quite different from the small boat I could sail single-handedly before," Wangborg said.


"And I feel fantastic when I climb up the top of the mast and take a look downward," Wangborg said. "I can even see which direction the wind is blowing."


Chanteyman reappearing


In the old times, sailors sang sea songs to give a rhythm to their hard work so that they could work in unison.


Most modern ships have been without chanteymen for many years, but on Gotheborg III, chantey reappears, thanks to JoLeif Stronen, a watch leader from Norway.


"Those people who can sing sea songs usually don't sail, while those people who often sail can't sing," explains Peter Karrlings. "That's probably why it's seldom to meet a chanteyman while sailing at sea."


"JoLeif is special, for those who like both sea and singing are not that common," Karrlings said.


JoLeif Stronen has a book on old sea songs written by Stan Hugill, probably the last chanteyman in the Western world.


Out of some 300 chanteys kept in this book, Stronen can sing about 15 sea songs with both lyrics and tune and remembers about 30 only by tune.


As Stronen said, these old sea songs have been passed from sailor to sailor and from ship to ship. It has developed from different types of old songs like slave songs, soldier songs and folksongs.


"The function of singing these songs are different from the old times," Stronen said. "We sing these sea songs more for fun than for work, but a real chanteyman should know how to adjust these songs to the working environment."


Philip Rose Thaylor, 64, the sail-maker, believes that although many people still try to sing those old sea songs, the chanteyman in its real sense is already gone. "Real thing is gone," Thaylor said.


As a watch leader, Stronen has been teaching sea songs to the crew almost everyday. It's not uncommon to hear his deep-pitched and melodious sea songs either at night or in the daytime.


"I have never heard those sea songs before I came to this ship," Gafvelin said. "I love those sea songs sung by JoLeif in this old-fashioned ship. It feels like (they are) taking me back to the old times."


"I'd like to learn some sea songs in this ship and hope that these songs can be passed on forever," Gafvelin added.


(China Daily July 14, 2006)

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