The Turk’s Head

16 Sep, 2011

by Stacie Williams

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Turk's Head Knot bracelet1

Jimmy McManus sits at a table in the lobby bar, having a beer.  He’s heavily bearded, gruff and scruffy, in a t-shirt featuring a skull & crossbones, drinking a nice pint of beer.  His appearance indicate you might not want to run into him in a dark alley, but he has the biggest, friendliest smile on his face.  Jimmy is a regular visitor to the Pfister, but only for beer because his home, at least for the summer and early Fall, is the S/V Denis Sullivan, the world’s only re-creation of a 19th century three-masted Great Lakes schooner, where he serves as 2nd Mate.  Peter, who introduced us, explains that the 1st Mate is the one putting the banana peel under the Captain while elbowing the 2nd Mate out of the way.

Having grown up sailing 14′ Hobey Cats in the San Diego Bay, Jimmy was 20 yrs old when he saw an advertisement for a “cannon battle.”  Intrigued, he checked it out.  In it, tall ships try to outmaneuver each other as they sail in a manner that mimics a high seas battle.  Drawn in, Jimmy started out as a volunteer, provided only with room and board.  Within a week and a half, he knew it was what he wanted to do: six years later, he got his Captain’s License.  Since then, he’s served as mate of Lady Washington, mate of the Lynx (where he sailed from San Diego to Florida by way of the Panama Canal), and as synchronicity would have it, as Captain of the Hawaiian Chieftain, the tall ship on which I celebrated by 18th birthday (a good number of years ago).

Most tall ships travel from port to port, upwards of three per week, but the Denis Sullivan parks in Milwaukee all season.  Its home is Discovery World, where there’s an entire workshop in the basement devoted to sails, supplies, repairs and work needed to keep the Denis Sullivan in tip-top shape.

A recent shipboard tour with Jimmy–where he regaled us with stories of a German count who served as a raider, of old clocks and compasses used on newer ships–gave us a glimpse into life on a tall ship.  Bunks below deck don’t offer much more than a simple place to sleep, which is fine when there is so much work to be done.  Whether you’re the Helmsman, assisting the Captain at the helm; or the “Idler,” not responsible for much more than delivering coffee, grabbing supplies, etc.; or serving on Bow Watch, standing at the bow, keeping a wary eye out for whatever might be missed by those at the back of the boat, where the wheel is but with a very limited perspective: all this is primary to the demands of cleaning, cooking, maintaining engines or plotting courses.  Deckhands may sit around, appearing to relax, but closer examination reveals minor, vital work, such as braiding large knots for use in hauling lines and sails (ten of them, with a total of 4300 square feet of rigging).  The floors are wood, waterproofed with cotton and “oakem” underneath pitch that must be re-applied every few years.  Even with all the new technology available, navigation of large bodies of water still relies heavily on traditional methods of work: the steering uses a King’s Spoke, string & weight rigging that helps the Captain line up the 3 ton rudder accurately every time.  The GPS may go askew, or stop working, but the boat will still run true.

Mostly an educational tool, the Denis Sullivan does day and sunset sails for the public, but concentrates its work with school groups.  Captain Tiffany Krihwan is especially proud of their program, which is essentially an “introduction to field science,” giving kids an opportunity to drop specialized containers into the water to examine the health of Lake Michigan via water quality and sediment examination.  Their extended trips teach first-hand energy conservation as the kids must eye up how much fresh water they have available, or amount of electricity they use each day, and how to ration each resource.  Jimmy has great stories from these overnight trips.  Like the time they were anchored offshore of Port Washington and motored to shore via dinghy for “emergency” cheese curds, or when an unexpected stop in Kewaunee meant a hike into town for peanut butter custard.

Jimmy lives an old life that we may be unconnected to in our modern age, his is encompassed by the humbling experience of being hundreds of miles offshore, where 23,000 lives have been lost to the ravages of nature, leading to a feeling of insignificance.  But in that feeling there is a sense of wonder that can only occur in such isolation and vulnerability.

One recent weekend, as the Denis Sullivan was making its way back from Sturgeon Bay, a thunderstorm having already delayed their departure once, the ship encountered a late-evening storm developing around them as they reached the precarious middle of Lake Michigan.  At the last minute, the storm split around them, going both North and South, revealing a clear, moonless sky above them.  The storm surrounded on all sides, but directly above was the brilliant sparkle of the entire Milky Way.

.~~~~.~~~~~~.~~~~.~~~~~.~~~~~.~~~~~.

Don’t just take my word for it!  You can visit the Denis Sullivan for FREE, as a part of Historic Milwaukee’s upcoming event, Doors Open Milwaukee, on Saturday, September 24th.  Take a tour of the ship, and hear the stories of 19th century Great Lakes life.

1The “Turks’ Head Knot” is an intricate, ornamental knot woven seamlessly from a single line of rope, braided to resemble a Turkish headband.  Jimmy got his from the first boat he worked on and has worn it ever since.

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About the author

Stacie Williams

With a love of stories and storytelling, Stacie Williams has worked at a local Milwaukee bookstore for six years, and has experience in travel writing and blogging. In 1998, she moved from California to study theater at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and stayed.

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