Life on the ocean wave offers change of pace for data analyst

Ed Stemmler has seen pelicans, dolphins and whales on the open water. He’s sailed through dense fog and glorious sunsets, and been up and down the Atlantic coast, all in the Gazela—a Philadelphia-based large sailing vessel built in 1883.

Stemmler, a senior data analyst in Information Systems and Computing, admits he was anything but an expert tall ship sailor when he came aboard in 1989. “I learned from the ground up. I knew nothing about sailing.” But his mother loved sailing up in New Hampshire, and he found he enjoyed being out on the ocean and working with his hands—so joining the volunteer crew of the historic ship was a natural fit.

Stemmler learned how to stand watch, cast off sails and generally do what needs to be done around a historic vessel. Today, he is president of the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild, an entirely volunteer organization that maintains and operates the Gazela and the tugboat Jupiter out of Penn’s Landing. The Gazela, built in Portugal and used as a fishing vessel in Newfoundland, came to Philadelphia in 1971. In 1985, the 177-foot ship was transferred from the care of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum to the Guild.

For the Guild’s 120 active volunteers, participation means much more than just sailing on the high seas. On the historic ship, there is plenty of year-round maintenance work. From October to April, Stemmler and the crew catch up on woodworking and mechanical projects, strip and repaint rooms, chip rust and ensure the sails, masts and lines are in good working order.

Replacing the masts, sails and other parts of the vessel can be expensive and logistically complicated, so the crew tries to keep everything in use for as long as possible. When the crew replaced the mizzen, or third mast, in 2003, they had to ship in an 85-foot utility pole from Oregon.

Novice sailors must be trained to handle themselves on the open water, on top of pitching in with general maintenance work. “We expect everyone to have a working knowledge of the ship,” says Stemmler. That means eight weeks of training during the spring to learn about lines, sails and knots and what to do if there’s a man overboard.

On the water, all of the training and hard labor pays off. “It’s our goal to share the experience with as many people as possible,” says Stemmler. Of course, that is with the understanding the tall ship is no cruise liner. “There are no private cabins aboard—you have to get along with your crew. That takes a special kind of person to do that.” In fact, one of the biggest challenges is integrating crew members who are leaders in their day jobs into the ship’s strict chain-of-command, where the captain is in charge and the crew of 20 to 30 people has very little say in anything. “They have to lose their various society roles and become a crew.”

When the Gazela sets sail, she is crewed by a professional captain and mates hired by the Guild. On a recent run to Norfolk, Virginia, Stemmler was mentored by the captain and served as second mate, learning how to navigate the ship and run a watch.

When they’re not sailing, the ship is docked at Penn’s Landing and is open for tours. The Guild also runs the Girard Sea Cadet program, where students from Girard College learn traditional maritime skills and science.

These days, the Gazela sails as far south as Norfolk, Va. and north to Gloucester, Mass.

One of Stemmler’s fondest memories on board was a recent birthday, sailing across Massachusetts Bay during sunset and hearing the sound of whales swimming just 50 feet away. “It’s so powerful to be out on the water,” Stemmler says. “This is a treasure that is in Philadelphia that very few people know about.”

For more information on how to become a member of the Gazela crew, when to tour the ship or how to make a donation to the Guild, go to www.gazela.org.

Originally published on July 6, 2006