Standing By

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

It may have been brought to the reader’s attention that the “Williams-Mystic Program” that purports to be the subject of this column is a Maritime Studies program. I had heard the same, but over the past 11 days, one of them (that, 24 nonconsecutive hours) have been spent in a van, driving California’s highway 1.

Unlike our last field seminar, which had us sailing a brigantine through the waters of the North Atlantic, this seminar put the students of the Williams-Mystic program in a four-car convoy on the California coast.

“We’re stopping for gas,” the lead driver would say into his radio. “Stand by.”

Radio or no radio, all hearers instinctively responded “Standing by.”

Nautical language has followed us from the sea back onto the land. Bathrooms are still “heads” and our road trip involved a sea-watch schedule for van maintenance, packing, unpacking, and food prep. The aforementioned nautical term, “standing by” is by far the most heard here at Williams-Mystic. At sea, standing by is what happens when the crew has been ordered to a particular line before the wind is in the appropriate quarter, or when the helmsman receives an order to come about before the exact heading is known. Standing by in a van caravan is waiting. If one wasn’t driving (and, for insurance purposes, no students were) all 24 van-hours were spent standing by.

Some of the best standing by on the trip (there was a lot of it) occurred, not in a van, but in the San Francisco Bay. We had motored around the bay the day before on board a Crowley Maritime Corporation tug, dodging dredge scows and container ships out of Oakland. We took the helm from the captain and, under his instruction, used the tug’s thrusters to turn circles just past the Bay Bridge.

But this best-of-standing-bys was done on the deck of a gaff-rigged scow schooner. “A shoebox with sails,” the crew called her. They also called her by her registered name, the Alma. We were ostensibly on board to learn the history of these workhorse vessels (seen in the Bay in the early 20th century stacked with ten feet of above-deck cargo), but we all jumped when the first mate said “Hands to set the mainsail.”

“Stand by the peak halyard, stand by the throat halyard,” she said, and we took the lines.

“Standing by,” we said.

Nautical words are intentionally adaptable, designed, as they are, for use across a wide variety of vessels. It makes sense, then, that “standing by” can mean “stay in the van” while also meaning “look around at Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge until it’s time to haul away.” That was our standing by on board the scow schooner. After so much van time, even the square prow of the Alma seemed like a glamorous sea-perch, and a refreshing place to stand by.

The Alma was not the only vessel on which we stood by. The Williams-Mystic Pacific Coast Seminar included a whale-watching trip, and as we came into tall Pacific swells, the naturalist in the pilot house said “Stand by for spouts over this next swell.” We did see three humpbacks spouting over the next swell, and (without standing by) saw an albatross and two sea otters on our return trip.

Standing by can, and often does, come to a surprisingly quick ending. We would be shaken from van-induced sleep to view some significant landmark (Cannery Row, A Russian fort, Sir Francis Drake’s landing site, etc.), or to take up temporary lodging in a hostel.

On board the Alma, our standing by came to its appropriately nautical end:

“Haul away peak halyard! Haul away throat halyard!”

“Haul away aye!” we shouted, and the mate called out a rhythmic heave-ho chant that took the mainsail, and then the staysail up the masts. Later that day we were back in the vans, standing by once again.

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