Were I challenged to summarize the sailor’s experience in a single word, I believe I would choose ‘dichotomous’. The thought has indeed struck me many times over these last years since I took up this job – no, lifestyle – of being a sail training merchant mariner. While not an easy lifestyle, it is a simple one – and in many ways, concrete as well as abstract, it is also quite dichotomous.
I am far from the first person to observe the sailor’s talent for falling asleep when opportunity arises, although fewer seem to mark the complimentary skill of waking up again after a short rest, particularly when necessity (or chow time) demands. Last night was not my night for such heroics; for the first time on this voyage, I slept like the dead during virtually my entire off-watch period. This was good timing, I reflected: I particularly needed the recharge before today’s double dose of afternoon watch and field day. Strange though it may seem, I generally prefer the nighttime watches – not only to keep company with the stars, but because the sunshine in these latitudes, even in March, can be really draining. Field Day, too – when we rip the ship’s compartments apart, deep clean everything which doesn’t get covered in daily chores (along with the stuff which does), and put it all back together – tends to dock one’s reserves.
At lunch before the big shebang, I find myself seated next to Peter, who, as possibly the tallest individual on board, has found a niche for himself during field days: he stands atop the stove in the galley, stretching way up into the nave of the skylights, beyond the reach of us mere mortals. “So, Peter,” I joke, “ready to reach for the stars again?” He hesitates before replying, reckoning with the inevitability of the undesirable effort ahead. Probably everyone on board is wondering how the heck it’s field day again already; it feels like we just did this yesterday. But, two hours later, Peter is excitedly challenging me to a deadly duel, a single elimination of rock-paper-scissors, as the entire ship’s company psychs itself up for field day in the same fashion. I polish his rock off with a trusty throw of paper, and suddenly I’m the lone survivor except for Fiona, our spirited, tireless rugby player. I stomp up to her like a sumo wrestler entering the ring, initiate the Ka Mate haka of the New Zealand rugby squad, but she gamely shrugs off this shock challenge and shreds me on the second throw. I fall to the deck, defeated, as we all cheer wildly. Somehow, sixty seconds of silliness has stoked us – we charge into the now well-practiced frenzy of activity. We’re still singing two hours later as we fire chain the last pots and pans back down into the galley.
This group is indefatigable. In five years, I’ve worked a number of sail training programs around the world. They’ve been filled with high-caliber individuals and groups. I’ve come to expect fantastic experiences with the crew and students I sail with. This group, though – one of their hallmarks is their resilience. A week of motorsailing against the trade winds, plowing into head seas, eking out our easting towards the Antilles? They made it a joy. The intensive schedule, with nautical and natural sciences squished into a non-stop watch rotation? Great, let’s voluntarily add humanities and poetry sharing into the mix as well. At every turn, the genuine laughter is there – and how contagious it is! They make time for each other, they play games together, they play music together, they nonchalantly dive into chores and work and the incessant pile of dirty dishes together. We’re all human, we’re busy and we’re tired, but there’s nothing affected about the willingness – and often, joy – with which they embrace their experiences aboard. It’s fair to say that we collectively refuse to be anything but happy, no matter how reality changes around us. There’s too much out here which is more than worth being a part of, and this group really gets that. We all crack jokes as we slog through the dirty jobs, and then run aft to watch the whale spouts against the sunset off of the port quarter. I’ve never heard people laughing so persistently. How do they do it so well?
I’ve taken a break from the fishbowl, as I call the library (where I’m typing this), because its lone porthole is often immersed in a swirling sea when we’re heeled to port. Lying in the cool night air atop some deck boxes, staring at our red and green masthead lights some thirty meters up the foremast, I listen to C Watch organizing themselves to set the jib topsail. I glance at the hands running the sheets aft to their pins, then back up at the sailing lights. I love red and green together. Those lights are gorgeous. And yet: aren’t they opposites on the color wheel? Hm. I realize that the biggest dichotomy of all is the subtle one which resides inside each of these glimpses into life aboard: harmony. Harmony – multiple notes, each distinct, different, and individual, yet together becoming a consonance as wonderful and real as it is deep and inspiring.
This must be what it’s all about, why sharing life at sea is so precious. In the pursuit of perfecting this profession, one begins to perceive that the ideal mariner is a creature of harmony and balance. This is most outwardly visible in the ship herself, under sail, at one with the awesome forces of wind and sea. The sailor cannot always make the ship do exactly as he wishes, but he can always work with whatever nature gives him, to make the most of his present opportunities. There is always a way to balance the ship, to harmonize it, with the uncontrollable dynamics around it.
Something similar is happening, less tangibly, within ourselves. Perhaps it’s rooted in all of the dichotomies. We consign ourselves to living in this small hull, but it opens nearly the whole world, and nearly every land, to us. We subject ourselves to a rigid and rigorous schedule, but it lets us experience the full 24-hour day, unlike back on land, where nighttime is usually only for sleeping. We sail a traditionally-rigged vessel, with human beings, human skill, and human cooperation replacing machines and modern technology. We choose to need nature to drive our ship to where we want to go. In short, everything about our environment and the conditions we live under fosters growth – personal growth as well as professional growth. Above all, we further develop our patience and empathy for one another. This enables us to harmonize ourselves: firstly as individuals into a cohesive crew, and then, as that crew, to successfully face whatever challenges we come up against.
It’s a singularly beautiful and fulfilling thing to be a part of. The lessons will continue to be applicable everywhere in our lives, but it is only in the here and now that we can soak up the experience. Particularly among such wonderful people, this time is rolling by entirely too quickly.
- Geoff Geis
P.S. – Shout out to my shipmates from Voyage 685 on STS Spirit of New Zealand. Five years ago today, we began my first tall ship sail training voyage. Your hearts and minds changed my life. Thank you. <3