All Hands on Deck

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An isolated and diverse skeleton crew of four is helping keep the Kalmar Nyckel afloat during quarantine

Imagine taking someone from New York City, another person from Texas, a third from California, and a fourth from Hamburg, Germany, then placing them all aboard a tall ship to live through the duration of a pandemic quarantine.

It may sound like the pitch to a new Real World-type reality show brought to you by MTV or the History network, but it’s also an accurate description of the actual, real-world status of the winter crew living aboard the Kalmar Nyckel.

Steven Walker, from California, does maintenance on the Kalmar Nyckel

“They’re really quarantined to the ship,” says Catherine Parsells, executive director of Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, noting how the living arrangements for the current crew contrasts with those of past winter crews due to COVID-19 protocols.

“The situation is completely different for them,” she adds.

The four-person crew is essentially taking on more responsibility than any previous winter crew, according to Captain Sharon Dounce of the Kalmar Nyckel. “They do go out for groceries, and do take walks, but what I think the biggest difference is they’re completely on their own,” says Dounce, the port and relief captain. “As far as [work] projects, usually we have 10 to 15 volunteers each week—or each day, even—coming in and helping with jobs.

“Right now these four individuals are doing all the maintenance that they can do, and they don’t have any help from any volunteers because we had to suspend the [regular] volunteer program.”

That said, Dounce and Captain Lauren Morgens are meeting with the crew virtually via regular Zoom sessions to get status updates and review work lists. Likewise, Dounce visits the Kalmar Nyckel every week—a safe distance from the rest of the crew—usually just to double-check dock lines and bilges.

“But they are pretty much on their own with work lists and creating their own work lists,” Dounce says. “And the second mate, Manni, is really taking the lead on that.”

Dounce is referring to Enmanuel “Manni” Portes, who joined the Kalmar Nyckel crew in November, leaving his hometown of New York City.

“He’s relatively new to our ship, but not to the industry,” Dounce says. “He’s really good at making lists and keeping things going. So I’m very lucky to have Manni stepping up in a leadership role right now.

Mysti Sothen from Texas dons a crew jacket

“He [has] definitely showed that he’s above the norm from what I usually see in the winter deckhands.”

Parsells gives credit to both captains for fostering a workforce culture that can adapt to unforeseen circumstances—even a pandemic.

“Captain Dounce is responsible for the volunteers and for the maintenance projects,” Parsells says. “She does a really great job of organizing all the projects. She’s able to plan and see forward and project what needs to be done.

“I think a lot of it is that [Manni] stepped into a highly organized effort, and he’s the right person for the job, as well. It’s a really nice blend.

“Like Sharon said, it’s just been great for him to step up because, frankly, this is such an unusual situation, and you just don’t know how four people are going to do. They’ve become a family by necessity and not for any other reason.”

The other members of that work family aboard the Kalmar Nyckel with Portes are three live-aboard volunteers: Mysti Sothen (Texas), Steven Walker (California), and Ann-Cathrin “Ann-Ca” Rohrweber (Germany).

“We have about 20 years separating the oldest and youngest of them,” Dounce says. “So it’s a really interesting group of people.”

Although some of the tasks that require a larger workforce have been postponed for later, the diverse skeleton crew has applied their talents to focus on specialized tasks.

“Mysti is doing a lot of the art,” Dounce says. “She’s painted half the carvings that we have taken off the ship right now and I had that assigned to one of the volunteers [who] all of a sudden could no longer come. Mysti picked up the artist’s style and incorporated that into the unfinished carvings on the boat.

“Ann-Ca’s really taken to the carpentry projects and she has been helping where the shipwrights aren’t able to come in. She has been getting little pieces of that project moving.

“And Walker has been videoing a lot of this and making little productions. Basically he’s been doing some video editing and learning about that.”

“And Manni’s the leadership overall that’s making the plan of what we’re going to do each day and who’s going to do which thing—how we’re going to work together.”

Parsells points to another task to which the team has contributed:

Ann-Ca Rohrweber originally comes from Germany

“Their gift is really substantial to the organization because not only are they doing maintenance, but they’re providing security for our ship,” she says. “We can’t just leave it in the middle of the Christina River and go.”

If it sounds like the four crew members are in many ways adrift without a paddle in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not nearly that dire. Dounce says the volunteer-and-staff community has come together to support the crew.

“We’ve had little notes from board members; we’ve had little care packages, we’ve had cookies; we’ve had meals delivered, we’ve had puzzles delivered; toys delivered; all kinds of little things,” Dounce says. “People will leave [items] outside the gate for them. They just call the ship’s cell phone and say there’s something outside the gate for [them].

“We had one of our board members make a delivery of food last week from their [family’s] grocery store, and it’s really nice to see everyone coming together to support these folks.”

“That was Melissa Kenny of ShopRite,” says Parsells. “She just volunteered. It wasn’t like a request went out to the board. They’ve been a great partner for the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation over so many years.”

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, Parsells and Dounce say they see it evident in the devotion of the four current crew members and their supporting cast of characters.

“All of the people that spend a lot of time on this ship, including volunteers that live locally, come to us with a passion to do this kind of work,” Dounce says. “To learn new things; to volunteer and be a part of history; to share this history with the public and with schoolchildren (no experience is required).

“That passion, combined with the interest in maintaining the ship, is what really bring us all together.”

To see crew-made videos of them performing tasks aboard the Kalmar Nyckel, go to the foundation’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/kalmarnyckel. For updates on the ship’s adjusted sailing schedule this summer—or to learn how to volunteer as/or assist the crew—visit www.kalmarnyckel.org or call (302) 429-7447.

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