Feb 062012


In 2004, when I was sailing up in Rockland, ME, I crewed on the schooner Elida for a trip. We were anchored in Stonington Harbor, where another schooner, the Stephen Taber, was also anchored. The Taber is known for the musical talents of her crew, and there was a little impromptu concert happening on board that night. We decided, like good sailors, to board her.

After making the most of what theatrics we could pull together, climbing in the dark over the bullwarks, we joined the party. That night I met a woman that I will forever remember. Evelyn was her name. With long, white hair, she must have already been in her late 70′s at least, but spry as you could imagine. She played tunes on the fiddle, and later I learned that she kept a junk-shop in Stonington where she sold knick-knacks and hand-painted book-marks.

I spent a lot of time in that junk-shop, asking Evelyn questions about life and listening to her answers. Her best words of advice: In life, if you don’t want to get to the top of the escalator, don’t get on the first step. It’s a lot harder to get back down.

This is a song I wrote for Evelyn.

Jan 212012

I found this piece recently in the annals of my computer…something I wrote in 2006 about my first experience on a tall-ship, and my journey getting there.

I was an early bloomer maturity-wise. I’ve always felt socially unsatisfied around most people my age. But I’ve been a late bloomer in a lot of ways, too. Up until I was a teenager, I was the girliest girl you could imagine. As a kid I played with barbies and hated the outdoors passionately, hated sports, hated exercise, loved music and art and acting and dressing up.

It’s strange, but there was a turning point somewhere along the way where I started to change. I can’t say exactly when it happened, but I find myself regressing to the mental state of a nine-year-old boy, totally curious about gross stuff, wanting to be tough and strong, wanting to prove myself, not caring about looks a lot, wanting to learn about cars and how to build things….wanting to get dirty and have scars. It’s weird.

I think this photo might have been taken of me the day I joined my first tall-ship. Oh how sweet and innocent!

This all hit a climax two years ago when I got a job aboard an 80 foot schooner, an old working boat that takes Muscles (capital M), balls (metaphorically), and a high pain threshold (sometimes) to sail. Working on her, sanding and painting her, putting backbreaking hours upon hours into her maintenance and then learning to crew on her….it all changed me so much. I got so strong in such a short period of time, stronger than i’d ever been in my life, that it was very shocking at times. I remember this one time we were just sailing along and out of boredom I grabbed a halyard and just started climbing it, hand over hand, like a fire-pole, not using my legs at all, not even struggling with it. I just kept climbing, without getting tired, without the least bit of trouble. I finally stopped when I was scared to go any higher….NEVER had I been able to do a thing like that before. Not even close!

A view from the cross-trees of my first schooner, the Isaac H. Evans (back in my no harness days!)

Then there was the toughness aspect. The being out on deck in the rain and wind and biting cold, clothes soaked through, after you’ve already been out there for hours, working your ass off, working under dangerous—perilous even—conditions because you have to, because when you leave that dock it’s not a job anymore, it’s your life. Because if you don’t do your job, under some extreme though not uncommon circumstances, you might not get home alive. There’s the being up aloft, 80 feet off the water, without a harness because it just gets in the way, doesn’t make any kind of practical sense to wear one (Note: 8 years later, I now always wear a harness aloft!). There’s the 18-hour work days with very little real time off except for that spent in your bunk, which just happens to be about 6′ long by 3 feet wide by maybe 2-3 feet tall.

And then there’s the on-the-job injury, worn in the sailing world like a badge. I’ve become a complete loser when it comes to injuries. I love them. It’s stupid. But wait, no, I don’t love the injury. I love the challenge of working through it. Of ignoring it. Of being tough. And it IS stupid. Because I’ve definitely ignored things that could’ve become very much worse than they already were because I ignored them.

Me sitting atop the "strongback" at the stern of the Evans, playing guitar, 2004.

I loved my calloused hands, my scarred knuckles. I loved my dirty bare feet, my salty hair, my sun-tanned skin, my chiseled shoulders and arms that were larger than most of the guys’ I knew. Getting into bed at the end of the day really TIRED. Going to sleep not because I have to so I can get up in the morning, but because I’m exhausted. Especially I love knowing that I’m living a life which is very different from the lives most people live. Knowing that in fact most of them would HATE what I’m doing. But the joke’s on them because it’s the greatest life there is because I love it so.

Jan 012012

Ocean of CloudI am staring through the platter-shaped pane at the space below. There are clouds, and then between clouds, little white specks against the deep blue Atlantic. They do not move. The ocean, like time, stands still when observed from a distance.

Are these truly waves I see? From so far away?

I watch keenly for some minutes, like a child silently examining a stranger, to verify that they are not, in fact, small clouds. No, they are too evenly scattered, too distant and grounded. There must be a good bit of wind down there, to produce waves large enough Rough Sea Drake Passagefor me to see. I track what must be a single crest for a minute. Its movement is undetectable against the sea.

An hour later there are no more waves. The great blue expanse below is calm; its storm has passed, or we have passed its storm.

How odd it would be to hear the familiar echoey rumble of a jet from the cockpit of a boat sailing slowly, primitively through the middle of the Atlantic. You look up. “Here goes civilization,” the rumble proclaims, “what are you?”

In my beginning with boats, when I worked on the Isaac Evans up in Maine, I used to stare out at the water most days, with the sun spread across my shoulders and bouncing off the waves, knowing that I was discovering something great. I would think to myself, my God, there are millions of people in their homes right at this very minute, sitting on couches, watching programs on television that mostly bore them. Civilization sounded a little less cocksure in those moments.

Later in the season, we hit a memorable storm. Rain, wind, cold. Hard sailing with a double Sailingreef in the main. Water sloshes across the decks, slippery, slick. Fingers are numb, and raindrops like lead shot when they hit your face. Get those sails down, quick. There’s no time to think in moments like these, just to do. And yet I managed one thought: Millions of people, sitting at home, this very minute…

But now the sea has disappeared for me, under a velvet layer of cloud and twilight. Behind us the sun is setting, just five hours after I saw it rise: the strange time-warp produced by eastward travel during winter. The last of its light reaches up from the horizon, tinting the sky pink, a touch of shimmer across her eyelids before she disappears into the dark.




Dec 212011

One of the thoughts I had when creating this blog was to make it a resource for people who are captivated by the idea of an adventuring lifestyle on the sea, and want to know how to make it happen. I did not grow up on the water, and until I was 20 had never myself experienced what has now become the predominant force in my life: the thrill of being driven through a frothy chop, sails tight against a steady breeze, with the sun happily bearing witness to this greatest of partnerships between man and nature.

And yet, HERE I AM, preparing to embark on another boat-based journey, once again following this passion to a new part of the globe. I’m not saying that this life is easy, comfortable or lucrative (although parts of the industry certainly are). It is, however, doable…if you truly want it.

I’m going to start a section called “Methodology” to address this topic. Please email me at stephanie@shesails.net or just comment on this post if you have any specific questions along these lines. Otherwise, I will answer questions that I’ve been asked in the past. Starting with…

This could be you! Photo by Matt Millar

Can I get a job on a boat without experience?

The answer, as you might expect, is absolutely yes! I got my start on Traditional Tall-Ships, and for people without any experience on the water at all, I think that this is a great place to get your start. It’s definitely not for everybody, but as a launch pad, it has a lot of advantages. Since it’s where I have almost all of my experience, I’m going to start here.

The goods: Tall ships are a great place to learn, and are a relatively easy industry in which to find work. Many are operated by non-profits that specialize in education, and thus are perfectly suited to train newbies. Plus, they often can’t pay very much, so they’re always looking for enthusiastic new recruits! Camaraderie is the name of the game on these traditional boats, not only because of the serious teamwork required to make them go, but because of the hardships you’ll certainly have to endure together. So if you’re looking for a “professional” community to welcome you with open arms, this is it.

The questionables: The pay, as mentioned, is often pretty low, although room and board is almost always covered. The culture, to some, can seem quite base (best not to be easily offended by swears or bodily functions), and, ironically, also stuck-up (try to tell a tall-ship sailor the right way to do anything!). The most important caveat that I would give anyone getting their start on tall-ships is: Don’t think that being able to crew a tall-ship means that you know how to sail. To really understand sailing, you’ll eventually have to find your way to a small boat, and sail it yourself.

The connections: Here are some websites that have become a standard part of my seasonal tall-ship job-search. My best advice at this point is to explore, inquire and check back often!

Tall Ships America Billet Bank: This is the best resource I’ve found for hunting jobs on tall-ships. When you’re in the heat of the search, check this daily!

Maine Windjammer Association: This website contains links to 13 of the almost 20 schooners (and one ketch!) that operate in mid-coast Maine June-September. Apply in January. Spring outfit usually starts in April. The Maine coast is one of the most beautiful and interesting places to sail in the world.

Sail Training International: I’ve never actually followed up on a lead from this one, but they do seem to have an active billet bank. Most of the postings are for Captains or mates, but on occasion there will be openings for volunteers with less experience. Mostly it’s just fun to imagine sailing off to exotic places…

So, that’s all I have for now. Other sailors: any thoughts to add?