how I became a sailor

I grew up in Duluth, and after quitting college the first time, I moved back. This was 7 years ago now? Yeah, sounds right. So I was working a couple of jobs, climbing and getting crazy like I did in the intemperance of my youth. Friend of mine asked if I wanted to go sailing in town and got me on a boat for one of the Wednesday night races. I’d never been sailing before, it was me and these two lovely older gentlemen who were kind enough to take me aboard. I raced once, and then the next week, and then got too “busy” to commit for the rest of the season. I was probably on the water a total of 5 hours. Enough to learn port from starboard.

Later that summer, Duluth hosted a Tall Ship festival for the Great Lakes Challenge. Bounty, Pride II, Roseway, Sullivan. Beautiful ships. I remember seeing Roseway’s tanbark sails set on the Lake, a rich crimson in the sunset, and I decided that was the ship I wanted to work on, somehow. I walked around during the festival and watched the bustle of line-handling and swarthy, salty sailor-folk barking orders and responding in kind. I don’t know, it captured me in some small way. Probably in a larger way than I knew at the time. I went aboard Pride and conveyed a greeting from one of my college friends. I think the guy I spoke to would later become a shipmate. The ships were formidable in their impact, both economically on the city (we all got caught with our pants down when 120,000 people showed up to eat and drink for the week…) but also their tall, swaying elegance had an inexplicable draw for me. I asked some of the sailors I met how to get started, and at this point, many of these boats were crewed by seasoned professionals. The answers I received were a bit vague, I was just some whippersnapper with stars in his eyes asking the questions I would later hear with some frequency.

I didn’t know shit about what that would entail, but I sent an inquisitive email to the folks that operated Roseway. I also did a little bit of internet research about other ships in the industry. I learned that “deckhand” was the title of most of the sailors I met. In my head, I had no marketable skills, and deckhand was out of my reach. So, I imagined myself as a ship’s cook, instead. I had recently purchased my own knife, at that point still working for sandwich-bar so it was some shitty vegetable cleaver, but still. It was mine, and I was just getting a feel for flavors and technique. That was my supposed entry to the world of Tall Ships.

A friend of mine from college called at the end of the summer. Must have been middle of August. We caught up, and then she said “Hey, I’m sailing on this tall ship and we really need crew.” I remember saying “Don’t tell me that…” and she repeated, “Hey, I’m working on this tall ship and we REALLY need crew!” So I said yeah. It was probably more of a hell yeah. Somehow in the ensuing conversation I got it out of her that the ship cooked food for crew and passengers, and that I would have shifts in the galley. So, I thought, at last I’m going to be a ship’s cook, working with a diesel stove (yeah, that’s a thing). I got off the phone, bought a 1-way plane ticket to Connecticut, and gave my 2-weeks the next day. In retrospect, my friend must have said some convincing words to Cap, as he didn’t know what I looked like and I didn’t submit a resume. Again, what I told my friends is that I was going to be a goddamn cook on a goddamn pirate ship. I was excited. I had a big going away thing, drank a million things, packed some clothes and some poetry and my knife into a duffel and got a ride to the college campus to wait for my bus to the Minneapolis airport.

Alright. So I get to Connecticut, I get on a train and meet my friend in Mystic. I bought a rig knife, because I was told I needed it, no idea what for. We met up with some of her friends, toured a blacksmith shop, and then later got a ride to New London sometime around midnight. I had my duffel, and walked down the dock to the ship where the guy on watch said hello and then we all turned in. I slept on deck so as not to disturb the crew in the fo’c’s’le. Yeah. Sailors like to abbreviate everything. Forecastle becomes fo’c’s’le. Pronounced folk-suhl. My first impression of the ship was a slight fear of somehow waking up the Captain that night when I arrived, a weird sense of how large or small the ship actually was, and the smell of bay-water. The sway of the deck was soothing but very noticeable to me at that point, and I didn’t sleep much that first night. I mostly stayed up smiling and looking at the stars, trying to calm my nerves. I had yet to meet the rest of the crew.

The next morning, I awoke, put away the deckmat, moved my duffel to the fo’c’s’le, and sheepishly approached the quarterdeck (the slightly raised deck where the wheel is at the aft end of the ship) where Cap was smoking a cigar and drinking coffee out of a copperish and well-worn mug. He ashed into a little red coffee can. He was listening to the robotic voice that recited the regional marine weather forecast on channel 2. Always this image. Cap, cigar in hand, wind-swept hair, beard that hid facial expression and amplified the smiles he offered, looking at the sky in all directions, feeling the air, and listening to the forecast. There was a very palpable density of thought and consideration, born of years living on the water and being responsible for the lives of crew and vessel. Every morning, the same distant, thoughtful gaze, the same mug of coffee, and the same Grenadier cigar pricked with a brass nail he kept in the Nav box for that exclusive purpose.

I approached this figure, introduced myself, I thanked him for the opportunity, and then we scheduled my drug test and some shopping for foul-weather gear. Hurricane Earl was expected to make landfall overnight. I went with another crewmate into town, and came back to the ship to assist in the battening down of the hatches, literally. I learned many kinds of knots that afternoon/evening, and learned the parts of the ship based on what we needed to tie down so shit didn’t blow away. It rained mightily, and she blew stink (translation: it was really windy), and we woke up, untied things and got ready to take passengers out.

My first moment underway was with 30 knot winds, under limited sail with 30+ passengers aboard, and we regularly hit hull speed. I had to learn quickly and learn the right way to do things, otherwise I would have hurt myself or someone else. No pressure. In retrospect, I was a good hire.

Turns out, I wasn’t a cook. I was a deckhand. Yay me! Galley shifts meant I had to do dishes and help the cook, but I was responsible for the sailing of the ship. Underqualified, perhaps, but I thrive in the moments where what is expected from me requires me to step up and learn skills and attitudes I don’t yet possess.

The remainder of the season was pivotal in my life. I learned things about sarcasm, engines, sail theory, and working with a team of talented humans. SO many ridiculous stories. Meeting new folks, parties, crashing parties, every day brought another set of adventures and responsibilities. A part of my duties as a deckhand were telling the story of the ship, the captain, my own story, and just relaying the mythology and history of sailing vessels like this one. I returned for the spring season and made some more friends that I value to this day, regardless of how much we stay in touch (Andrew, brother dearest…). I could fill many pages with some of these stories, and perhaps I will soon. But for now, that’s how it happened.

I later bought a small sailboat, and am still figuring out how to keep sailing a part of my life.

I don’t know. It’s easier these days to get started in sailing tall ships. I would encourage anyone who has a few months to give to the profession to reach out, find some options. I’m available for any of those questions, and I still have some connections in the industry.

Fair winds.


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