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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
Moments from the Life of a Beginning Sailor
1 ° 46.4’N x 157° 38.1’W
31 nm N of Christmas island
E x N winds, Force 4
Sailing under the four lowers on a starboard tack
A gust of wind whips my hair like a great tumbleweed as my brain does double time to accept the fact that I’m standing - actually standing – on the deck of the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a vessel I have only dreamed of experiencing over the last few years. It is nighttime, and a strange darkness I’ve never seen before is in its final moments of settling in for the night. The final hues of ocean blue fade from the surface of the sea and I sigh a breath of thankfulness for arriving in this moment. Suddenly, a rock of the ship sends my land-lubber legs outboard toward the deployment zone of the science deck. and my life flashes before my eyes as I realize how very close my body is to going over the hull forward the port beam. In an instant, I manage to catch hold of the wet lab’s steel door, and I steady myself once more – not for the first time, and certainly not for the last aboard this ship.
Sweet smells of salty water and wind waft through the open lab doors, mixing like a great whirlpool among the ripe odors of body sweat and plankton. Behind me, a stream of water sends a sample of the ocean’s elements swirling to the bottom of a lab sink, and the voices of my science officer, Gabo, and shipmate, Sam, register once more in the background of my new life as a beginning mariner. This is the most vivid memory of my first watch on the sailing school vessel the Robert C. Seamans as she made her first miles north from Pape’ete, French Polynesia, headed toward the island atoll Rangiroa.
However, if someone were to ask me to pinpoint the moment when it finally hit me that I was sailing on the Pacific ocean as a part of a sailing school vessel carrying out oceanographic research, I would simply have no answer – but not for the reason you think. Let me explain first. Like most memorable moments in life, it is the ordinary moments that turn into not so ordinary lessons and memories, and there is no way I could describe all of the revelatory moments aboard the R.C. Seamans since I boarded 18 days ago… but I will share with you some of the highlights:
On board this ship, I am constantly losing my balance. You betcha - day 19 and I still have trouble walking, climbing, and even, standing. I have always been prone to losing my balance even when standing still on land! So, if you think about it, I’m actually super lucky for my years of experience of falling upstairs and tripping on absolutely nothing but air.
One of the first nights aboard, I woke up in the middle of the night to the comforting motion of a rocking ship and the exhilarating sounds of my shipmates on deck above me calling out orders as they set a sail in the early hours of the morning. That night, I turned back over in my sleep with the new and surprising realization that this was the way falling asleep should always feel.
I’ve also learned that some of my favorite sounds in the world are of people working and persevering on the same struggle bus (or ship, in this case. Palming, sweating, heaving, hauling, easing – it doesn’t matter what part of sail handling we are doing – I’ve learned to love the nautical lines and ship commands of “2-6, heave!” – “take all you can and don’t give anything back!” – and “let’s go – sailing!”
Yesterday we had the amazing opportunity to walk ashore on Christmas Island. It was here I met TeKe, a boy of (maybe) eleven years old who at first made his introduction by weaving in between the structures of rusting boats as my fellow shipmate and watch member, Sam, and I, set foot on the island for the first time.
Nearly two hours later we would meet again and strike a deal together over a couple of seashells. Later I would motion him over to look through the photos I had on my camera, to play a very rough version of chopsticks, and to go against one another in exactly one round of a thumb war. As an English speaker with ability to hold small conversation in French myself, and as a young Gilbertese local with knowledge of only a small amount of English himself, our interaction was limited. However, communicating the way we did only made the experience richer for me, and I hope it did for him too. As I prepared to leave Christmas Island and return to the Bobby Seamans by small boat, TeKe clipped my PFD back into place and we shook hands. As we motored away, I waved vigorously from the boat back to his fading figure on shore.
Meeting TeKe was only one of the many experiences I could never have imagined having when I left my home in Virginia 24 days ago. Other moments I didn’t expect or prepare for include – crossing the equator, being overwhelmed, frustrated, and challenged by my life’s ambitions, rejoicing in solving the puzzle of the galley mats, the meaning of a shellback, shaving half of my head, and realizing how much there is still to learn about a sailing and mariner lifestyle.
Just 9 days left aboard the SSV R.C. Seamans, 9 more days full of lessons, challenges, and joys. In an hour at approximately 0100 hours, I will resume my watch responsibilities on deck. All of my fellow watchmates have since gone to bed, and they all think I’m crazy for still being awake at this hour.
I would like to give a shout out to the amazing crewmember, science officer, and watch officer of “Stormy Petrel” C-Watch - JJ, Gabo, and Tristan, respectively - for all they have taught us and for all of the ways they have challenged us to grow. I would also like to give a shout out to my extraordinary watchmates, Sam, Maya, Siobhan, and Kylie – you all have made this experience so very full, and I am so thankful to have been a part of the same watch as you all.
To my family – I hope that you are able to read this blog and that you have been able to access our location and journey since leaving Tahiti. I have only just begun to describe my experience aboard the ship. Sometimes when I stand lookout at the bow, or look over the crashing waves to either side, I can almost remember the sweet smells of forest and fields of Virginia and feel the rising humidity on my skin. I think about the animals every day, and looking at photos of Wishie, Spursles, and Toller has been a great comfort to me. As you all know, I’ve never been particularly homesick before when traveling… that is, until this trip. I didn’t realize how much I would miss Virginia until I stood alone in the darkness at lookout – and I can’t wait to see you all again soon (PS Happy Belated Birthday Wolfer! I am sure you celebrated in style and can’t wait to wish you a happy birthday in person).
So now, back to the question - if someone were to ask me to pinpoint the moment when it hit me that I was fulfilling my dream of participating in a SEA Semester voyage, I would be speechless – because there has been no one moment. But like that first night of our voyage, when I stood on the edge of the science lab, catching my breath and courage in between great gusts of salty air and sweet wind, I am comforted by the notion that it is truly the ordinary moments in life that bring us fulfillment and meaning.