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Current position of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers. Dates and times use GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans

December 19, 2014

Tattoos and Tall Ships

Matthew Alan Porter, Mystic Seaport Museum of America

Ships Company, Left to right. Top Row: Matthew, Emma, Mickey Middle Row: Taylor, Caitlin, Heather Bottom Row: Michele, Phoebe, Tanner

Ship's Log

Noon Position
18° 19’N x 063° 56’W

Caribbean Sea, Heading from St. Martin to US Virgin Islands

Ship heading (degrees)
Sailing Full and By at 170°

Ship Speed (knots)
6.7 k

Taffrail Log (nm)
3523.2 nm

Weather / Wind / Sail Plan
5/8th cloud coverage, still sunny with winds E x S at around 12 knots, Sailing under Jib Tops’l Jib, Fore and Main Stays’ls and Mains’l

Marine Debris
None Spotted

Sargassum Observed
Too much

Most of my maritime training has been geared towards learning about 19th Century sailors’ traditional lives at sea and at home. One of my favorite things to talk to people about is traditions that have continued into modern day tall ship sailing, parallel older traditions, or are just beginning. Tattoos, both nautical or otherwise, are a continually evolving tradition. Some maritime tattoos can simply be talismans for good luck, while other can signify great achievements.

Some common nautical tattoos:
Sea Turtle (Shell Back): equator crossing
Compass or Nautical star: guides a sailor home
Anchor: Atlantic crossing
Swallow(s): sailing over 5,000 miles, or one swallow per increments of 5,000
Pig and a chicken on feet: Prevents drowning
Shark: to keep from being eaten by a shark

Over 1/3 of our Mama Cramer’s company has tattoos. These works of art can be seen displayed on the students and crew during the ever loved swim call, on the occasional bare foot, or when the temperature demands tank tops. Upon observing the vast array of designs you’ll see that our tattoos are as diverse as the company themselves, each one with a meaning that we have wanted to keep present and permanent.

As mariners, many of us have tattoos relating to the vessels and bodies of water we call home. A horseshoe crab rests on the neck of one of our students, Emma, so that she will always be reminded of the bay where she grew up and how grateful she is to call it her home. Caitlin, a sailing intern, designed a pelagic bird hybrid based on a frigate bird and a tropic bird after her time spent in Costa Rica and with SEA. She chose these birds because they spend most of their lives at sea and rarely return to land. Her tattoo also refocuses heavily on her Irish heritage as the body of the bird is inked in a Celtic design. Meanwhile, someone who has traveled thousands of miles across the oceans uses her tattoos to keep her Midwestern homeclose to her heart. Hailing from Wisconsin, Michele has her home state tattooed on her back with the quote, “My Roots Run Deep.” She chose this design to bring part of her home with her for, as she says, “Home will always be home.”  Our Assistant Engineer also has tattoos reminding him and guiding him home. Tanner has a traditional maritime tattoo of a compass and has 42°21’Nx71°03’W, the latitude and longitude of Fort Point Channel in Boston Harbor.

Other Maritime tattoos include our Chief Engineer Mickey’s turtle shell to indicate that he’s crossed the equator. What’s especially unique about his tattoo is that his shellback is in a Tahitian design: the tattoo is formed of many small geometric designs rather than contiguous lines. Americans typically go to a tattoo parlor with a specific design and location on the body in mind, which the tattoo artist has little license to change. Mickey described his experience as going to meet the artist, giving him an idea, sitting down and talking, letting what the artist learned about Mickey influence the design of the tattoo, creating a one of a kind piece of art. One of my tattoos is maritime themed. It is a toggle iron harpoon that I had created after my summer of sailing on the Charles W. Morgan. Many of the Morgan’s company got similar whaling or whale-themed tattoos to mark this historic voyage. For me, it’s a reminder of the Morgan’s crew and of my coworkers at Mystic Seaport who became my family and taught me everything I know about sailing and maritime history.

Some of our crew have chosen animals for their tattoos in recognition of their resiliency or behaviors. Tanner, in addition to his Fort Point Channel tattoo, has a giant squid on his shoulder because of their representation of the mysteries of the sea, and because of their connections to old sea tales. Heather, one of our students, has a (non-maritime) California condor on her leg because condors were on the brink of extinction and now are making a comeback, a history she feels resonates with her own life.  There are a plethora of non-animal, non-nautical tattoos too. Our newest crew members both have a couple of tattoos they were willing to share. Our new deckhand Phoebe has the word “Maktub,” which means “it is written” in Arabic.  The saying is accompanied by the star design of The Traveling School which she attended and worked for, where she first heard the phrase.

It reminds her you have a hand in choosing your fate and that hardships are an experience and you will grow from them. Our new visiting scientist Taylor sports a lily on her foot that doesn’t have a black outline, something you find on most tattoos. This allows the tattoo to be softer, almost water color-esque.  She treats her tattoo as a part of her identity, “A quirk you can wear.” One of the things she has enjoyed observing is as a scientist is that having a tattoo is more accepted in her chosen profession.

There are too many thoughts behind the what, the how, and the why to mention all of the crew with tattoos, nor to mention all of the tattoos of the crew already mentioned.  Many of us plan on getting one or more in the future, we are just waiting for the right experience or the right moment. A common planned tattoo among the crew is the anchor, seeing as how we just made an Atlantic crossing. One of the science voyagers, Annie, is playing with the idea of combining two traditions, a swallow carrying an anchor. With our lives shifting so much between boats, crews, and places we call home, few things remain permanent. Some traditions and experiences we feel so strongly about that we choose to have a permanent reminder with us forever. It is those experiences that have made this wonderfully diverse and interesting crew such great company for crossing the Atlantic and exploring the Caribbean seas.


Categories: Corwith Cramer,Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean, • Topics: c256  culture • (0) Comments
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