On the job
Real world people working on the water
Authored by: Margaret Boyes
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David LoVine, Shantyman, S.V. Lady Washington
David LoVine is a well-known shantyman on North America’s west coast, an enthralling performer who writes and sings shanties about life aboard tall ships. A fine musician and actor on both stage and screen, he sails the Pacific ocean as shantyman aboard Lady Washington, the famous replica of the original 18th century square rigger of the same name.
On The Job: Tell us about your position. How long have you been doing it? What does it involve and what are the challenges?
David LoVine: I’ve been the cook, shantyman and helmsman on board the tall ship Lady Washington since 1991 and more recently on the Hawaiian Chieftain. There are challenges every day and every moment, although I’m not there every day and every moment. In 1991 I went aboard the Lady Washington with my concertina, played some music, went sailing with them and sang shanties on board for the first time in my life. I had been traveling around playing folk music.
Then I became the cook on board the Lady Washington and have done that on and off ever since. It’s a bit different every day, living on the water and going from port to port. As cook my challenges include finding a grocery store to get provisions from and a dumpster for our garbage. And it’s challenging to find showers and laundry facilities on shore. It’s challenging taking people sailing with us when we go from port to port and do education programs with kids. We teach them the history of trading 200 years ago on the west coast of North America. There’s a different group of kids every 90 minutes. We teach them a bit of navigation and about life at sea 200 years ago, then we let them haul up the lines. As shantyman I teach them a song so they’re singing when they haul up the sails. They feel the wind in the sails whether we’re out sailing around or just tied up at the dock. It’s nature in their hands.
OTJ: The role of shantyman is pretty unusual in today’s world — why did you choose this job, and what was your background?
LoVine: I didn’t really choose this job. I was just there when my ship came in. I was working at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon in the early ’80s, doing Elizabethan and medieval music, and I had started doing English, Irish and Scottish music. I started traveling up and down the west coast doing British Isles music which led to learning sea songs and shanties and meeting different influences. It’s nice on the coast and on the docks. So I knew this music and when my ship came in I had a repertoire of songs to choose from. It was very different from theatre or folk stages. I walked the decks of the Lady Washington, singing songs and living a new life.
OTJ: What makes a successful shantyman?
LoVine: A tall ship’s crew changes all the time and people work in different rhythms. The shantyman’s job is coordinating the rhythm of the work — work that involves lifting heavy objects using 18th-century technology such as block and tackle — and getting to know the crew members and how they work. Some like to haul the sail set quickly and others take their time. It’s challenging reading what people are capable of doing and moving them along in a rhythm to do the job safely.
OTJ: If there was anything you could change about your job, what would it be?
LoVine: I’d have longer showers, a bigger refrigerator to keep supplies in, perhaps win the lotto, a good wind but not too much wind, and good sunsets.
OTJ: What are your aspirations in your job? Where would you like to be? Can you be promoted?
LoVine: I feel very fortunate to be able to sing on a replica of an 18th century square rigger, to cook and drive the Lady Washington and to be on the helm. If I was promoted I couldn’t do much of that. I’d have to worry about too many books and paper work. What I do is really nice. I’ve already been promoted from basic swab.
OTJ: What was the most memorable moment on your job?
LoVine: I’ve had quite a few, but probably being 330 miles up the Columbia River at 440 feet above sea level in the middle of the desert on a square rigger coming down the river when a railroad bridge unannounced decided to close off the river. We were trapped by the bridge for a short time then pulled out of it. None of the 26 passengers or the 13 crew members were injured which was a miracle. Getting away from the bridge was unforgettable. It was terrifying and there was exceptional work by the crew. The group of people we were taking from one spot to another was amazing. We really pulled together.
OTJ: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
LoVine: I’d be digging potatoes, planting garlic, tending chickens and singing more songs.
OTJ: What are your thoughts about the future of your job?
LoVine: A lot of people think the tall ships are gone — they think of them as historic and romantic, but as something you only see in pirate movies. But more tall ships are being built every day all around the world. They’re used by many different organizations for training, for getting groups of kids together, keeping them out of trouble and giving them a focus. On board a tall ship people learn the craft of the shipwright and rigger. You gain an appreciation for the smell of pine tar and all that goes into the running and upkeep of a tall ship in the 21st century. There’s a lot that has to go on to make these vessels ready for sea.
OTJ: Tell us about people in your line of work that you admire or look up to.
LoVine: Dick Holdstock and Allan MacLeod are two singers who are originally from Britain but now live in North America.
They taught me some of my first sea shanties. Another mentor is a retired British navy seaman called Tom Lewis who spent most of his time in South America. He’s written wonderful songs about his experiences at sea and being at sea in general. Some of them were the first songs I learned. A hundred years ago people started collecting music that was sung back then when things were changing, when the tall ships were going away.
Someone else I admire is Stan Hugill who was one of the last shantymen and the number one man who collected songs more recently. As a youth in the early 1900s he sailed on the ships, met all the old sailors then later in life contacted as many people as he could who’d sung the songs and wrote down the words and melodies. He was also an incredible artist who drew pictures and did oil paintings of all the different jobs that went on and go on.
So today’s sailors can look at and read these and get someone’s knowledge and advice from the old days of the ships. I’ve been influenced by different musicians I meet everywhere. I meet people on different vessels who have their own songs and old traditional songs. Again it’s a growing art. I’ve written songs from my time on board in the style of the old music. I try to make it my own and record the experiences.
OTJ: Is being a shantyman an old profession? Are there many around today?
LoVine: On different ships there’s work to be done and for years the tradition was to have a shantyman to help ease the work and keep the crew’s minds off the bad times. He was a kind of go-between between the mate and the captain and had to know what was happening and how the work should be done. Things started to die out for a while but now there’s a revival. Sea shanties are sung in different languages all over the world.
OTJ: Do you have any advice for people who want to do what you do?
LoVine: All the training you need to work on a tall ship is to walk on down to the docks and get on the ship. You can read about it in books but on board is where you learn. And that’s a good thing. You learn some of the vocabulary and the jargon of the boat. So get your rain gear, learn a few songs, go down and let them know that you’re keen for it. The tall ships will be in Victoria, Port Alberni and Tofino in July of 2008 so people should come on out, walk on board and hear some music.
To learn more about the tall ships and the Lady Washington in particular phone 1-800-200-LADY or go to www.ladywashington.org. David Lovine’s website is www.sonicbids.com/davidlovine.
Figure 1 - Shantyman David LoVine sings aboard the replica tall ship Lady Washington while the crew hauls on a line. “People work in different rhythms,” he explains. “The shantyman helps ease the work and keep the crew’s minds off the bad times.” Picture courtesy of David Lovine.
Figure 2 - Shantyman David LoVine aboard the Amara Zee locking through on the Erie Canal. “A lot of people think the tall ships are gone,” he says “but more tall ships are being built every day all around the world.” Picture courtesy of David Lovine.
Margaret Boyes is a Victoria, BC based copywriter. She writes sales letters, direct marketing packages, e-mails, landing pages, web pages, brochures, sell sheets, case studies, newsletters and other communications that get leads and make sales. Visit her website for more information. This article was first published in Mariner Life Magazine, a Vancouver based publication, in May 2008.
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