Jul 262012
Day-off with crew: opening a beer the sailor way aboard Silphide, Matt's family's sloop.

Day-off with crew: opening a beer the sailor way aboard Silphide, Matt's family's sloop.

Hello out there! It’s been so long since I’ve written that I wonder how many will read this. But to those who do, thanks for continuing to tune in to my adventure!

You might have guessed that I’m home again, back in the USA. I flew out of Hobart, Tasmania at 6:30 AM on Saturday, July 14th, and arrived in Los Angeles at 6:00 AM on Saturday, July 14th. (Awesome. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one. :) I spent a few days hanging out in LA with friends and volunteers from the American Tall Ship Institute, where I was First Mate in 2010-2011, and then continued on home to Massachusetts. In a few days I start a new job as Bosun on the Clearwater, a gaff-rigged sloop that sails the Hudson River. It will be a whole new culture and environment, and I look forward to reporting…

But for now, what things stand out to me in my first two weeks back in the country?

Cinderblock city in Guatemala

Cinderblock city in Guatemala

Re-entry shock: It’s amazing how challenging a return to home can be after an extended period of time away. I remember having reverse culture shock after just 2 1/2 weeks in Scotland when I was 17, and even more of a dramatic adjustment period in 2009 after returning from 10 weeks in Guatemala. After Guatemala, I remember noticing how all of the buildings seemed exceptionally solid — even over-built — in comparison to the flimsy-feeling cinder-block and corrugated tin structures in Central America. One would think that Australia and the USA are so similar that reverse culture shock would be almost non-existent, but I’ve learned that any change in cultural environment, no matter how subtle, can stir up emotion and reflection. We often don’t know what we’ve been through until well after, when the dust has settled.

U.S. Airport Security: Both times I went through International customs and security in Australia, I felt the process was effective, fair and efficient. Large throngs of people surged beneath signs in many languages, passed quickly through baggage checks and metal detectors, and finally several sets of  TRUE random check points which took no more than 2 minutes to complete in most cases. I actually saw grey-haired people and a business woman randomly stopped! Entering the US, even as citizen, took hours. I was shocked to see a sign at the metal detector exempting seniors from the need to remove shoes and jackets…a chivalrous gesture, but one that surely creates a weak point in our national security. Customs agents suspiciously looked back and forth between visitors’ faces and their passport photos, and one fringe-looking person after another was pulled aside for a “random” check. It’s hard to explain the perspective one has after being away, but after a six month fast from the constant fear-inducing American news landscape, my gut reaction to this inconsistent and intimidating show of muscle is that it is inefficient, flawed and disrespectful to our visitors. I was distinctly aware of America’s inflated sense of self-importance.

My first experience of Vegemite.

My first experience of Vegemite.

Re-adjustement to local customs: Some things have been easy, some difficult. The whole time I was in Australia, I constantly got mixed up about which side of the car was the passenger and driver, first thinking my instinct was wrong, and then second-guessing that. It has been a relief to be able to trust my instincts in such things again. On the other hand, I’ve caught myself pronouncing “tomato” like a Brit more than once, and taking to the left side of a foot path when meeting another walker head-on. I am a little sad to have to drop my favorite little Ozi phrases like “Rightio” and “I reckon…” People just give funny looks. Reliable internet and relatively inexpensive food are great luxuries that are a rare thing down under, so that is a nice change. Also, readily available cookie-dough ice-cream, inexpensive beer, and fresh bagels. I am not sad to say goodbye to Vegemite.

Wild Oats, Sydney-Hobart winner, with future boyfriend Iain sitting in the foreground. Taken before we met. :)
Wild Oats, Sydney-Hobart winner, with future boyfriend Iain.

Apart from this, there is a whole tide of fresh political awareness that I am subject to after being immersed in an outside perspective. And I wouldn’t be fully reporting on “my quest for a life at sea” if I didn’t summarize the last year thusly: I traveled to the other side of the world, sailed in the Southern Ocean, fell in love, got my first bit of professional licensing, and turned 30 minus 1 year. These major life events are leaving me feeling aswirl with looming life pressures and some new doubts and questions as to how I am going to make it all happen. But then, I suppose that the real reason we travel round the world is for a good mix-up so we can get to the tasty stuff at the bottom of it all. And I certainly feel mixed up at the moment.

For now, this is Stephanie’s blog, signing off.


Apr 282012

After so long away from this thing, it’s hard to know where to pick back up. Where I left off, or where I am now? Perhaps a bit of both.

I recently wrote a good friend about some of the struggles I’ve been having aboard lately: loneliness, ongoing sea-sickness, blows to self-confidence and wavering determination. I received an incredible email back, funny, encouraging and honest. He wrote “I do hope you are journaling these thoughts elsewhere, because being a vagabond is having these thoughts. Servicing a block is interesting info, but lets get our teeth into something, and now is the time.” So here are the thoughts. Enough of blocks for now.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the last two months have passed like rapid fire; weeks whiz by with no more than a whoosh to let you know they’ve gone, and yet somehow days drift sluggishly on. Forty-two of the last fifty-six were spent at sea, with one day off in ten. Friendships have deepened, but they become strained as well. It’s impossible to spend so much sleep-deprived time with even the best of individuals without a little something getting under the skin.

I guess I can report without too much embellishment that I have seen both the best and worst in myself in these past few months. I have reached deep to find energy, patience and humor in the most unreasonable of circumstances, like waiting almost an hour to raise anchor in the wee hours one morning after being hurriedly shaken from my measly three hours of sleep. One becomes practiced at choosing to laugh.

A crew-member sprawled out on the deck, waiting to weigh anchor

Waiting 45 minutes to raise anchor on three hours' sleep: sometimes this is all you can do.

The most recent trip was the most challenging. It was the final voyage before our first real chunk of days off, and the longest at 11 days, so we were all already exhausted; and the youth we had were mostly strangers to one another, half Australian and half refugee. As mentors and leaders, we not only had to guide them through the normal vaults and drags of a sail-training voyage, but we had the additional hurdles of language and cultural barriers to manage.

During the trip I found myself at times unable to disguise my emotions and frustrations. A small but biting comment from a fellow crew-member brought my American sensitivity back to full swing, and I’m afraid I punished him a bit for it. But as impatient as we are with each other moment by moment, we all thankfully seem to have an equal amount of patience for the long term. We are all struggling through the same arduous schedule, with the same trip-wires and sink-holes in our way, and if we didn’t have a little understanding for each others’ humanness, I guess we wouldn’t be cut out for this job.

So this is what it sometimes is to work on a sail-training tall-ship! Not always warm breezes and sunsets. It’s hard work, long hours, little sleep, and complex social challenges. Sometimes I do actually ask myself if it’s worth it. In the toughest moments I remind myself to take a fresh look when things have eased up a bit and I’ve had some sleep. The rest of the time I remind myself that living the dream isn’t easy, but it IS living the dream, and better than a nine-to-fiver most days of the week. And so instead of giving up, I choose to laugh.