Pilot Report:  Star Trek's 'USS Enterprise'

Posted April, 1999

 [This was originally posted as an April Fool's joke.  Although the story is totally true....]

A couple of weeks back, I bragged that I'd taken the controls of the  "USS Enterprise" from Star Trek.  And, in fact, had the helm during combat (simulated, of course).  A couple of folks thought I was  referring to the "Star Trek Experience" sort of movie-set tours, where  members of the audience wear makeup and bounce around on an Enterprise bridge mockup.

Not at all.  While the vessel I "piloted" was merely NAMED "Enterprise" in the movie, it is a fully-functional vessel.

Let me take you back to the movie "Star Trek:  Generations."  It begins with a prologue with William Shatner as Kirk.  But then it skips 80 years into the future...but at the same time, 500 years back.

Yes, trekkers:  The *holodeck* sequence in "Generations"...where Picard, Riker, and the rest of the officers are shown on a "holodeck" simulation of an 18th Century sailing vessel.  With the name "Enterprise" proudly painted across its counter.

The "Enterprise" in this case, was played by the brig "Lady Washington."  As the Lady is nothing more than a large wooden homebuilt, I feel quite qualified to post a pilot report here.

Mind you, the Lady does things on a grander scale than the old Fly Baby.  It's 112 feet long and weighs 195 *tons*.  The Fly Baby has 120 square feet of wing, but the Lady can set 4400 square feet of sail.  Even though the design is much older than the Fly Baby, it is equipped MUCH better:  five radios, LORAN, GPS, even a Radar.  Not to mention two bathrooms, a galley, quarters for eleven people, and a pair of fully-operational cannon.

The Lady Washington is a Brig, a two-masted square-rigged sailing vessel built to commemorate the exploration of the Pacific Northwest.  It was built in Gray's Harbor Washington about ten years ago.  As most of you know, I'm a bit of a nautical historian.  The Lady tours the west coast, and for a nominal expense, you can climb aboard for a hour's sail or for a week's indoctrination into the 18th century.

(Check out the Lady at http://www.ladywashington.org ).  The picture to the right was gently stolen from the Lady's home page.)

On one such sail several years ago, the Captain started talking having the film crew on board for the "Generations" movie.  He did confirm that a number of the cast and crew had been seasick, though was too much a gentleman to mention names.

Probably the weirdest thing had been the wheel.  Hollywood thinks a sailing vessel has to have a huge spoked wheel, but the Lady has just a tiller.  It works identically to the steering mechanism in a small boat...the rudder is hinged, and the "spar" portion of it projects through the deck, where a long piece of wood leads horizontally forward.

The moviemakers where aghast.  The HAD to have a big spoked wheel, just like Old Ironsides has.  So they built one and brought it aboard.

It turned out to be too tall...the mainsail boom of the Lady was too close to the deck.  So the prop people made a 3/4 scale wheel which just fit under the boom...which, of course, they positioned actors next to while filming.

But the big movie wheel wasn't hooked up to anything.  They took the  tiller off the top of the rudder, replacing it with a much shorter version that sat lower to the deck.  The Captain...that is to say, the REAL Captain... crouched on the deck, doing the actual steering while they shot the scenes.

You can even catch a glimpse of him, if you watch the movie.  In the first scene, the camera starts out behind the brig and moves slowly forward.  You can see the fake wheel, the actors pretending to move it, and Captain Picard and Commander Riker at the rail, staring out to sea.

However, as the camera pans forward, look at the scuppers at the bottom of the rail.  For one instant, you can see a piece of the shortened tiller, with the real Captain's hand upon it.

Anyway, the Captain told us of the moviemaking world as we slowly made our way out of Seattle's Elliot Bay near sunset on a warm summer evening.  We had motored away from the waterfront on the Lady's 318 HP Diesel, but the Captain has shut it down as soon as it was safe, and set the fore and main tops'ls, with jib showing up forward as we headed West on a starboard tack.

After telling us the tiller story, he asked if I'd like to take the helm.  HA!

The tiller is a massive piece of wood, about six inches around at the end, thickening to about ten inches square where it attaches atop the rudder.  It's about ten feel long.  The deck on either side of the tiller is kept clear, allowing the tiller to sweep all the way across the 15-foot width of the poop (quit giggling every time I say, "poop" :-)

Now, ten feet is a lot of leverage.  But not nearly enough.

I grasped the tiller with my hand, trying to hold it like a joystick.  First my hand clenched, then I brought my other hand down to steady the tiller.

By aviation standards, the controls were "out of rig."  The brig *badly* wanted to turn left, away from the wind, and so needed a lot of pressure to hold course.

Like airplanes, sailing ships must balance the center of mass vs. the center of pressure.  While we adjust the location of the mass to keep our CG range proper in aircraft, square-rigged ship move the center of pressure by setting the sails on the various masts.  The Lady was trying to turn away from the wind...it needed a little more sail set on the mainmast, the rearmost mast.

Not like *I* was going to suggest it to the Captain, of course.  He'd had the tiller, he would have known whether it was time to show a little more sail.

I moved around the tiller until it rested hard on my hip, using my body to hold against the continuous pressure.

The pressure wasn't continuous, though.  The tiller surged against my hip with in about a three-seconds-per-cycle pulse.  While the surface of Elliot Bay was pretty smooth, there was a slight swell.  The rudder was reacting to every wave.

Ahead of me sat the binnacle, with the compass mounted atop and all the electronics cunningly kept in the cabinet below.  I peered to check my course.

"Watch your luff, there," said the Captain.  I followed his pointing hand upward, to the windward side of the main tops'l.  The edge ("leech") of the sail was curling inward slightly.  I had inadvertently turned the Lady into the wind while compensating for the pressure on the tiller.  The leech showed the first sign that the sail wasn't meeting the wind at the proper angle; the curl was, in effect, the start of a stall.

I eased the tiller back, and the sail edge straightened out.  "Just pick a point on the horizon," said the Captain.  "And aim at that."

FINALLY something that worked just like the Fly Baby. :-)

We sailed along for ten minutes or two.  Then, ahead, came a ferryboat, crossing to Seattle from the opposite side of the sound.  In accordance to the maritime (and aviation) rules, we were going to pass port-side-to-port side.

"Let her fall off to port a couple of points," said our Captain.

"Fall off to port, aye-aye," sez I, wondering.  Why were we altering course to pass *closer* to the ferry?  The wind comes aft, and the Lady starts picking up speed.  But with the moderate amount of canvas set, we come nowhere near the Lady's 9 knot redline.

"Mr. Gunner," calls the Captain.  "Load the port battery."

Well, that answered THAT.  Forward of the mainmast, one of the crew busied himself around one of the three-pound guns the Lady Washington is armed with.  The "three pounds" refers to the weight of the BALL it normally fires...though, of course, the gunner was just loading with black powder.

"That's well," the Captain says to me.  "Come back to starboard."  We had closed the range sufficiently.

"Mr. Gunner, fire as you bear.  Everybody plug your ears!"  Nice advice...unless both hands are full of brig tiller.  I remembered an old artilleryman trick and opened my mouth to equalize the pressure.

A firecracker fuse jutted from the touchhole of the cannon.  The gunner dropped a cigarette lighter to it.  A quick fizzle, and BAM!

Grey smoke surges downwind.  Screams echo from the ferry.  Hmmmm...strike that, I guess they were cheers.

Another sound filtered across the water.  "Bweee Bweee Bweee...."

The Captain grunted.  "Looks like I'm ten bucks poorer."  He looked at the crowd of tourists on his quarterdeck and grinned.  "I pay him ten dollars for every car alarm he sets off....."

I steered the ship only fifteen minutes or so...but it was a quarter-hour at the helm of history.  How do you enter THAT in a pilot's log?

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja .

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