Life on a ship

March/April 2021

“Slop Chest”
by Dominic Zachorne. Stillwater River Publications, 2020. 120 pp. $20.

Review by Greg Coppa
For Points East

Slop Chest: A chest containing a supply of clothing, boots, tobacco and other personal goods for the ship’s crew during a voyage.

Although the book “Slop Chest” is billed as “A comprehensive view of rigging the topsail schooner Shenandoah coupled with random anecdotes,” it is so much more than that. It’s a glimpse into this country’s fascinating past, when complex wind-powered machines explored the sea-connected world, opened up global trade routes and initiated a new age of maritime commerce. Zachorne touches upon how these “starships of their era” were built, controlled and commanded. More than just the vessels themselves, the sailors who made them go are outlined, often using their own colorful language. What did they think about? What was it like to complete their monotonous onboard tasks? Zachorne paints a vivid picture.

Dominic Zachorne has lived on one boat or another for most of his life, first with his parents George and Norma Jean and his brother, Christian, aboard their 1929 English cutter, Ampelisca. In that venerable craft the family extensively cruised the East Coast from Halifax south to include the British Virgin Islands.

The Zachornes first crossed paths with the authentic topsail schooner Shenandoah while at anchor in Naushon Island’s Tarpaulin Cove. An impressionable young Dom was captivated by the almost ghostly image of the beautiful 108’ cruise ship/educational vessel as she glided by and dropped anchor. To the boy’s surprise and pleasure, once Shenandoah was secured, her owner and master, Capt. Robert Douglas, approached Ampelisca in a traditional Whitehall skiff with his two boys manning the oars. Of course they were invited aboard, and after it was determined that the Zachornes were kindred spirits, Bob reciprocated the invitation to the great delight of the family.

Several years later in 1989, Ampelisca and Shenandoah again crossed paths in Buzzards Bay and for Dom the rest was history. Suffice to say, he became a topsail schooner crewmember, but not without trepidation over whether or not he was up to the challenge. Turns out, he was. At the end of the summer Capt. Bob made Dom an offer he couldn’t refuse, one where he did not go right back to school that fall, but helped Capt. Bob to de-rig his pride and joy. Dom’s parents looked upon this experience as simply an exchange of one type of education for another.

Over the years Dom learned about every aspect of sailing, maintaining and commanding Shenandoah and vessels of her type. This is an even more impressive feat once you learn that Shenandoah had no engine, nor was any engine used for a windlass or anything else aboard. Eventually this young man earned the kind of superlative reputation as a repository of this almost arcane topsail schooner sailing knowledge, as his father had earned a similar reputation with respect to the construction and restoration of all sorts of wooden vessels.

Dom freely shares his hard earned know-how in “Slop Chest” and readers will be impressed with modifications he made to equipment, rigging and procedures. In Shenandoah’s capacity as a sail-training vessel, Dom taught his students that, “Despite the size and weight of everything, if you had a good grasp of blocks, tackle and leverage you could get any job done with only a few hands.” In “Slop Chest” there are plenty of examples of this. As well as an anecdote about a crewmember who looked with “fear and desperation” at a close by, but helpless, Dom as the crewmember fell from the high topmast into Nantucket Sound. The inherent dangers of sailing a tall ship today are no different than they were centuries ago.

If you are a fan of the Aubrey-Maturin Patrick O’Brian series; if you have to be pulled kicking and screaming from Mystic Seaport by spouse and children; or if you are a movie-maker who wishes to authentically depict the 18th and 19th century sailing vessels, then “Slop Chest” is a work that you want to read, savor and keep in your nautical library.

Greg Coppa, a resident of Wickford, R.I., is the author of the books “November Christmas and Other Short Stories” and “Second Chances.”