Setting Sail

Six months ago, around a hodgepodge thanksgiving feast. I told a circle of friends the words I associated with the ocean. It was a personality test game. No one remembered what the results were supposed to indicated, but that didn’t stop us from asking.

“Dark and terrifying,” I said. I didn’t have to think twice.

samuel-ferrara-503849-unsplashunsplash-logoSamuel Ferrara


Then three months later, around a lunchroom table a group of coworkers were eager to get to know the most recent hire. Their hands bore the calluses of wet ropes and weathered wood, their hearts a love for the sea.
“Are you a water person?” they asked me, seeking connection.
“No, not really,” I hesitated, “I am from up north, maybe that makes me more of a snow person?” My mind’s eye cringed. When would you have chosen the frosty slopes over a board game, a good book, or even a bad debate?

There’s no denying that I am a land-based inside-girl, even on the best of days. So how in the world did I end up fighting nausea while chopping apples on a tall ship for five days at sea?

I stumbled into a job at SALTS (Sail and Life Training Society) for a few reasons. First because my PhD dreams had been dashed on the rocky shores of academic job insecurity and secondly because I recently realized that weaving words is a marketable skill. So I set forth with a Communications Coordinator resume in-hand and a strong suspicion that I was in over my head. I got the job. There, somewhere in the fine print of the contract was permission to take one week per year away from the office and experience the SALTS tall ship sail training program firsthand. So I swallowed my fears, grabbed a camera, a notebook, and some borrowed waterproof pants and climbed aboard.

The ship I chose for my voyage was the Pacific Swift, the smaller, older, and more piratey of the two tall ships.

Photo credit: Leftcoast Media House

Can you guess which one is the Swift? Yes, the one with the square top sail. Did I know that sail’s name when I climbed aboard? Of course not. Could I even tell these two boats apart two months ago? Certainly not.

I had no more than about an hour to settle into my sea-bound home before teenagers began arriving in a boisterous flock. Everywhere I looked there were knobby limbs, French braids, and fluffy pillows. Piles of oversized duffle bags began appearing on the ship, each containing Ziploc baggies lovingly labeled by fearful mothers doing their best to ward off hunger, or dampness, or nausea from 100 miles away.  I secretly hoped that my mom would appear over the railings with a bag of cashews and a couple seasickness wrist bands.

The information overload began right away. I traded left for port and right for starboard and before I knew it, I was stationed at the bow looking out over the Salish Sea.

Bow view on Pacific Swift.

“Tell us if we’re going to run into anything,” they said. I’m afraid you’ve put too much faith in me, I thought to myself and began scanning the steely water.

“Do you remember the signals?” I turned to the thirteen-year-old assigned bow watch beside me. He stared intently.

“There’s a big log,” he responded and continued to gaze into the rapidly approaching distance.

“Yes that does seem to be a big log,” I replied thoughtfully.

My mind riffled through the terms we had just learned. The teenager looked at me expectantly. Maybe now would be a good time to remind him that not all adults are as competent as they look.

“We should probably tell the duty officer?” I replied unable to move as the log approached more rapidly. I could see the headlines already, “Historic Tall Ship Meets Demise on West Coast Driftwood.” At least it would make for a good blog, I thought, still glued to my lookout. Actually, this is great evidence that I didn’t miss my calling as a paramedic. What a relief, wouldn’t want to deprive the world of a paramedic. I snapped out of my contemplative state at the sharp call of “5 to port!”

I glanced to my left. Ah yes, my young lookout companion had disappeared to deliver the warning and I was still stuck here imaging our imminent driftwood destruction.

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Over the next few hours the rest of my seven person watch group rotated and took a turn on radio watch, steering, and lookout. I took a backseat hoping that my uncertainty manifested itself as confident indifference. Oh steer a 111’ tall ship? I live a pretty adventurous life, so I’ll take a turn whenever you get bored. No big deal. If you need me, I’ll be here in my happy place with my notebook recharging my extroversion batteries.

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By 10 pm we had sailed 38 nautical miles, learned to tie six knots, hauled ropes, dropped anchor, scarfed stroganoff, sung songs, sipped lattes, nibbled cookies, and closed the bulkhead doors between the hyped teenagers and our crew cabin oasis. I was ready to pull on my sweatpants and disappear from this foreign seascape, when I was called to attention. There were two tasks still to complete. The crew had committed to:

  1. Doing 50 push-ups (or another predetermined workout) before bed every night and
  2. To sharing their life stories with each other throughout the season.

I had never really done either, but I was sure I could dodge both.

“Take one look at these chicken arms,” I said, “I can commit to five and hope for ten, but fifty is otherworldly.”

As for the storytelling, I decided to stay silent and allow their crew community-building traditions to unfold around me unobstructed. There were no volunteers to tell their lifetime tales, so we let a spinning pen decide. I don’t know if it came to rest port or fine or beam, but I know that it came to rest pointing at me.

——————————— to be continued ————————————-


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