Learning the ropes 110 sailors training on ship at Inner Harbor

September 08, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

On the deck of a square-rigged sailing ship, gangs of blue-clad cadets grip a section of well-worn rope with hands fast becoming calloused by salt and friction.

An officer in tan uniform strides the deck, barking clipped commands into a shiny megaphone, his words prodding the crew into action.

The sailors move as one, hauling on the lines with a rhythmic chant, their muscle power shifting the tons of steel yardarms and canvas sail that hang from the 150-foot mast.

That scene took life at Baltimore's Inner Harbor yesterday, where the German navy's training vessel Gorch Fock II has been docked for more than a week.

For the past four days, a new group of 110 German naval cadets has been training aboard the sailing ship in preparation for a trip back across the Atlantic.

And this is no exercise in historical reconstruction, the vessel's officers and crew members say.

Life at sea is tough and often unpleasant, said Lt. First Class Norbert Schatz, who has spent more than two years aboard the Gorch Fock on various tours of duty.

"You can't show all those things better than on a sailing ship," he said. "On a modern warship, things are more easy. . . . You are not forced in the night, together with your comrades, to work very hard in the rigging."

The trainees seem to agree, saying the hardships are more than outweighed by the sense of teamwork.

"You've got not much room for yourself; you're never alone under-deck, sleeping in hammocks," said Volker Stehr, 20, a naval officer cadet from Dusseldorf.

Still, he said, "to get the basic seamanship, you can best do it on a sailing ship. This ship is dependent on nature. If you're sailing on it, you realize how a warship will react."

Among the crew members are the German naval officer trainees, all of whom have volunteered for up to 12 years of study and naval service in hopes of a career in the navy.

And the cadets quickly understand that "without your comrades, this ship wouldn't sail," he said, "so you're dependent on your comrades."

The Gorch Fock, commissioned in 1958, is a bark, with three masts and 23 sails. It carries a crew of 220, including seven women and seven non-Germans from Nigeria, Benin, the Philippines and Thailand.

Among the crew members are the German naval officer trainees, all of whom have volunteered for up to 12 years of study and naval service in hopes of a career in the navy.

Their counterparts, who sailed the Gorch Fock into Baltimore, have been flown back to Germany. The replacements, who have been through two months of basic training, are learning their way around the sailing ship.

Yesterday's training exercises included setting the sails, an elaborate series of maneuvers that at one point sent about 100 sailors aloft into a spider web of rigging far above the deck.

"If the people are well trained, at the end of their journey at six weeks they can do it in seven to eight minutes," Lieutenant Schatz said. "At the moment, we need 20 to 25 minutes."

Eventually, these same green trainees must be able to perform all of the ship's sailing maneuvers in any kind of weather.

That is the sailor's eternal challenge, said Capt. Immo von Schnurbein, commanding officer of the Gorch Fock since 1986.

Yet there is something about that life that lures the trainees, despite the Spartan conditions and potential risks.

Far from being daunted by the high-wire work in the rigging, trainee Stephan Seissler, a 22-year-old from near Frankfurt, looks forward to that part of the job.

"I love it," he said. "It's a great feeling to be working in the high mast looking down to people. . . . Now I understand the sailors when they say, 'Yeah, take a look around, it's good.' Nice feeling."

The Gorch Fock will remain in Baltimore until next Tuesday.

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