Tall ship Bounty sparks teens’ imaginations

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A visit to the historic replica helped some mall-milling urbanites forget themselves for a while

Ever since I settled at the end of the dock on the East Boston side of Chelsea River — locally called Chelsea Creek — aboard my classic motoryacht Crowflite, I have been entertained by the day-to-day operations of the Eastern Salt Company directly across the creek in Chelsea. The company is responsible for supplying salt to de-ice the roads of New England, keeping the traffic moving during winter storms.

Over the years I have uncovered the pattern. In the spring the remaining depleted piles of salt around the huge yard are shoveled, bucketed and swept into one large pile, and covered with giant red, white and blue striped tarps. The three gigantic cranes with the buckets used to manage the salt sit pretty idle for the remainder of the summer.

Then, after Labor Day, the salt ships start arriving. These behemoths are generally around two football fields long, maneuvered by the tugs against the bulkhead across the river, and start disgorging their cargoes of salt into the yard in Chelsea. The unloading operations go on around the clock for however long it takes for the waterline to come 16 to 20 feet out of the water and leave a mountain of salt in the yard.

It’s good action. The cranes all going around the clock, the lights and the noise going on all night and day. The oil barges refuel the ships and the supply trucks bring food and necessities at the same time. The ships come and go with little lag time until mid-November when there is the biggest pile of salt imaginable on the bank across the creek. At which point an endless line of trucks starts hauling it all off to places where there is likely to be ice on the road.

History pays a visit

Imagine my surprise last year when I peered out into the first light of day through my bedside porthole and saw a three-masted square-rigger tied right up against the salt yard.

I hopped down into my skiff and rowed across. There, on the dark blue transom above the bank of stern windows, read “Bounty.”

Visions of Mr. Christian, most notorious of mutineers, putting Captain Bligh and 18 loyal crewmembers into a 27-foot boat with a small jug of water and damn little provisions sprung up in my mind’s eye.

As any former school boy knows, the mutiny led to one of the most amazing trials of survival and seamanship ever recounted: 3,600 miles, 41 days, and a run-in with cannibals later, Bligh and his crew were returned to mother England with a most extraordinary tale.

The Bounty, meanwhile, carried the mutineers and their Tahitian consorts to the practically unknown Pitcairn Island, where they moved ashore and burned the ship more than 200 years ago.

I couldn’t get aboard this 180-foot replica of that famous ship fast enough.

In an ensuing conversation with the very salty first mate, I was informed that Bounty was here for three days to give tours to school kids and locals. I arranged to return when she was open to the public.

The following day I joined a group of students from the Chelsea High School in a large wedding tent with tables and chairs set up in the yard of the Eastern Salt Company as the captain introduced himself and his crew.

Capt. Robin Walbridge gave a short history of the original Bounty and the subsequent drama that led to the demise of that ship on Pitcairn Island. He then went on to explain how this ship had been built in Nova Scotia in 1960 for the MGM movie, “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando. During the production of the film Brando threatened to quit if they burned the ship. So MGM built a small model and burned that for the dramatic end of the movie.

For 21 years the Bounty lay against a bulkhead on the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Fla., and served as a tourist attraction. When Ted Turner bought the MGM film library he consequentially (and quite unknown to him) inherited the Bounty. She was used in a remake of the movie “Treasure Island,” and did a promotional tour in the Great Lakes and up the West Coast to Vancouver before coming to rest in front of the Hard Rock Cafe in Miami for six years.

In 1993 Turner donated the ship to the chamber of commerce of Fall River, Mass. Captain Walbridge was hired in 1994. He convinced the town that the best thing was to keep her alive by moving her back and forth between St. Petersburg winters and Fall River summers. But moving water under the keel was not enough for the now aging ship. Despite all the care and maintenance, the captain performed two haulouts and the expenses were too much for the town. They pursued selling the Bounty.

In 2001 the ship was purchased and HMS Bounty Organization LLC was established to see to the preservation and operation of the ship. With Capt. Walbridge still aboard, she was hauled at Smith & Rhuleand in Nova Scotia, and treated to a freshly planked bottom and sections of keel in the same yard where she was built in 1960.

Now she is in the care of Capt. Walbridge and his crew, which numbers 15.

“I would ideally like a crew of 20, and have sailed her with as few as six, but with 15, we manage just fine,” Capt. Walbridge assured me.

Hands-on experience

The large group of school kids was divided into smaller groups and I tagged along with one as they moved through the stations manned by the crewmembers. The kids were shown how the ship and her systems work, then encouraged to pull some of the myriad lines to perform the action of swinging the yards high above the deck. They tossed the heaving lines, raised the headsails and chatted with the genial crewmembers, some of whom were dressed in the garb of seafarers from two centuries ago.

I watched the young urbanites as they were introduced to a way of life certainly none of them had ever imagined before. As their self-consciousness gave way to curiosity, I could almost see their imaginations start to work. This strange boat for them began to take on a life. As they passed along the decks, handled the lines and went below into the shipboard spaces between the decks, they dropped the air of cool nonchalance as interest was stirred. Their questions to the crewmembers became relevant to a time and era when these types of ships were fortresses of the sea. The men who sailed them were hard and lived lives unimaginable to these young, modern city dwellers.

The two hours the kids spent with the Bounty and her crew went quickly. The captain gathered them all around a square sail laid out on the ground, and gave them a summation of what the ship was about and life at sea demanded. Then he invited them to come back when they had finished with high school and sign on for a hitch aboard as a deckhand if they had a taste for adventure. I could not help but think that perhaps he had planted a seed in a young imagination that someday might prompt a life change for one of these youths.

Between school groups I talked with several of the crewmembers. They were as diverse in backgrounds as they could be, but the one thing in common they shared was a love of their seafaring lives. They all exuded an air of self-sufficiency, subtle confidence and independence that seems uncommon in the cell phone-hugging, mall-milling youths of today. They had tossed off the ideals of modern civilization — TVs, computers, even cars — to explore their own selves while experiencing a life from an age long gone. They had responded to the sign by the gangplank that read: “Deck Hands Needed, Live Aboard, Low Pay, Long hours, Good Food, Permanent Crew Space Available, Opportunity Of A Lifetime.”

And they were loving it.

Seaver Jones is a freelance writer who lives aboard his 44-foot Pacemaker motoryacht, Crowflite, on the Boston waterfront.