Being a sailor is not for the faint-hearted: it takes courage, endurance and a healthy dose of physical and mental strength.

But for Matt Gibas, captain of the Appledore IV, a Michigan-based schooner currently in Tall Ships Erie 2022, luck also plays a part. And for him and his crew of five, that chance comes in the form of a stuffed octopus.

“It’s Fweej the Watcher,” Gibas said.

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The 30-inch orange octopus, which Gibas calls the “lucky charm” and “mascot” of the crew, is not entirely original. The character of Fweej the Overseer comes from a social media post that said a high school class jokingly started “giving offerings” like food and money to a stuffed octopus in their class . The character has gained a cult following online and has become an internet meme.

Gibas, 45, said young people would probably recognize Fweej after a simple Google search.

“We make offerings to him too, and all of a sudden the weather is getting better,” he said with a smile.

Old-fashioned life and a bit of work

Every little bit helps on the water.

The Appledore IV made a 52-hour trip from Bay City, Michigan to Erie for the festival, with a single stopover in Cleveland. Gibas, who raced on sailboats for much of his life, described the voyage – and life in general aboard a tall ship – as a lot of manual labor and boat maintenance, members of crew rotating on four-hour shifts.

“That eight hours feels like a whole day because you work for four hours and then you sleep for four hours. Sleep and work. And then the next thing you know, it’s like it’s Thursday but it’s really still on Monday,” Gibas said.

The crew – despite all being 22 or younger except for Gibas – live “old fashioned”, as Gibas described it, playing cards and reading books when they can, at the instead of being glued to an electronic device.

The food is also simple, with most meals consisting of fish, rice, vegetables and fruit. Gibas said the ship had a cooler filled with ice, a diesel stove and an oven on board. The ship has electricity, which powers radios and other equipment.

The Appledore IV sails west during the Parade of Sail on Almost Isle Bay, Aug. 25, 2022, which opened the 2022 Tall Ships Erie Festival on the Erie waterfront.

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For 22-year-old mate Taylor Lantz, life aboard the ship isn’t just a job, it’s his life. He has lived full time on the ship for the past two years.

“It’s kind of like a college apartment and you have a lot of roommates,” he said. “You don’t really get personal space, but you just have to learn to recover from it and work as a team.”

Lantz described his duties as “skilled labor”.

“We do electrical, plumbing, carpentry, varnishing – real detail work,” he said. “But even stuff from yesteryear too, like deworming, packing and serving.”

He described it as a process of preserving steel cables and ropes by wrapping them in cotton and canvas and tarring them for protection.

As Lantz said, “It’s a traditional maritime thing that people don’t do anymore.”

U.S. Brig Niagara, bottom right, leads the Parade of Sail, kicking off Tall Ships Erie 2022, in Erie August 25, 2022. Four ships following Niagara were also heading east after making a bend in the bay of Près Isle.  Smoke rises after a cannon is fired from the Pride of Baltimore II, top left.

Don’t Whistle on the Bridge and Other Superstitions

The days can be routine, but bad weather is always a possibility. Gibas said every four hours is “meticulously planned” taking into account weather forecasts, so the ship can sail around or between storms.

This is where superstitions come into play.

“We have a lot of superstitions,” Gibas said. These include not whistling on deck – which some sailors say brings bad weather – and knocking on wood whenever someone says something negative.

“You also never mention the name of a sunken shape while you’re on the bridge,” Gibas said. “So if you talk, we’ll literally jump off the ship onto the dock and say the name of the sunken boat and then get back on the ship.”

So far, Gibas said the trip to Erie has been smooth. The Appledore IV participated in Tall Ships Erie 2019.

“When you come to ports like Erie, that’s kind of what we live for,” he said. “It’s super exciting to be here.”

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As for Fweej the Watcher, the Appledore IV remains his home. Following Thursday’s Parade of Sail, Gibas retrieved it from a cupboard and placed it on a mast.

“He is mysteriously moved, a bit like an elf on a shelf,” Gibas said.

Discover the Appledore IV

While the day sails on the Appledore IV sold out Saturday and Sunday, the ship can still be seen up close when moored on the west side of Dobbins Landing.

The schooner, launched in 1989, is owned and operated by BaySail, a non-profit organization based in Bay City, Michigan.

The schooner was originally commissioned by Herb and Doris Smith and built by Mark Treworgy. The name “Appledore” was chosen by Herb in honor of his wife whom he first saw while sailing on a small boat off Appledore Island, according to the Tall Ships Erie website.

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AJ Rao can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.