Sound at Sea

May 6, 2024

Author: Zahra Lalani, C Watch & Yale-NUS College

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Watching the beautiful sunrise and rainbow from the lab-top. Photo credits: Sam Rummler

Ship's Log

Thursday 2nd May 2024
Noon Position (Lat and Long): 17.32.2'S x 149.34,2'W
Taffrail Log (nm): 3917
Weather / Wind / Sail Plan (from 1300 Watch Change): N/A
Description of location: Port at Papeete!

LAND HO!!

WE HAVE ARRIVED AT PORT IN PAPEETE!

I was on lookout when we started motoring towards land. It was the most
surreal feeling knowing that WE DID IT. We sailed across the South Pacific!
It felt kind of strange to see another human being whose name and sleeping
schedule was not second nature to me, or even climbing the ladders without
tightly grasping a handrail to brace swells.

I'm incredibly grateful for everything I've experienced these last six weeks
and today's blog is going to focus on my experience with one sense: sound.

Sound at Sea

Imagine you are standing at the helm of a tall ship, steering away.  What
would be some of your favourite sounds associated with being at sea and
living on a ship? Perhaps the luscious waves harmoniously crashing,
celebrating the feeling of being alive. Or laughter amongst ship crew,
bonding them closer together. Maybe it's heartily singing sea shanties
"Heave away haul away. we're bound for South Australia," everyone working
together in sync to complete the task. You may think this sounds so
rewarding, so exciting, so together.

But I'm different. I don't always see it that way.

For me, as a profoundly Deaf person, this is more of an invitation to
loneliness.

Hours of exposure to the waves and wind felt like sandpaper being dragged
across my cochlear implant, chatter and laughter feels distant as my brain
raced to catch up with wrongly timed facial expressions. I hesitated to
comprehend the commands bellowed, fumbling to be in sync along with my
shipmates, not quite feeling that gratifying sense of accomplishment. Over
time, a hollow feeling grew within.

We've always known that this is a hearing world. Societal social constructs
are designed with an auditory focus. On land, given a lack of self-autonomy,
I find myself blaming wider institutions, but here on the boat, in our small
chosen community, a limited once-in a lifetime experience, I found that I
blamed myself more. I want so desperately to hear the names of star
constellations during the dark of dawn watch; I yearn to appreciate the
guitar strumming and singing during galley evenings; I aspire to confidently
shout "Hands to the jib," when we gybe; I wish I could do wakeups without
fearing that I'll be speaking too loudly or quietly; I'd love to chant "ooh
ah science report," and "na na na deck report," without believing that I'm
out of tune or saying the wrong words; I will myself to sit for longer than
10 minutes at meals, desiring to join into larger group conversations
instead of rushing away to avoid feeling left out; I am eager to stay up and
play cards rather than taking naps to recover from listening fatigue.
Self-doubt dampens my hopes of being fully immersed in the ship crew with
everyone else, digging a vortex of loneliness. These are the times I found
myself craving a hug, reading the encouraging postcards my friends wrote,
thinking of my family and reaching to my bunk for some alone time so I don't
have to keep faking my smile.

It's undoubtedly harder at night, a rise of panic ensues as the sun sets -
similar to trauma felt during covid when everyone was masked. One of the
main gateways to communication feels stolen - lip reading. The way that I
process auditory information is through a series of steps:

1.      Analyse facial expressions to gauge tone.
2.      Remind myself to listen (as it is not something that comes naturally
but rather something I must focus my energies on).
3.      Position my cochlear implant and body in a direction where there's
the least amount of background noise attacking it (while ensuring I can
still lipread).
4.      Focus hard to try and pick up and sounds and decipher the words like
a puzzle.
5.      Reflect on the context of the word in a sentence.
6.      Match lip-reading patterns to the speech and try slot in what was
missed.
7.      Repeat steps 1-6 for the next word.
8.      Catch up on the last 10 words missed while trying to figure out the
first word.
There's a pattern which gradually built up during the deck portion of dawn
and evening watches. While steering at the helm and people came on deck and
cheerily chatted amongst each other, tears pricked. When sail handling and
feeling unsure of the timing of the chant "fa'a ito ito" I'd sweat the ropes
at awkward times, cheeks flushing frustratedly. When conducting boat checks
and cleaning dish, I tried to ignore the growing throbs of a headache, a
reflection of the pressure to try stay composed and by the time I reached
lookout, the tears finally were free to flow.

I can't change my hearing ability, so I'm working on allowing myself to feel
it all and then remind myself of everything I am grateful for - this feels
healthier than supressing the frustration. I'm learning that maybe I don't
have to fulfil expectations of being the most capable shipmate, and instead
rely on people more than I am accustomed to. This growing trust in others
has allowed me really feel community. I have always been used to
self-teaching, predominately learning from textbooks and internet resources
but here at sea, the auditory world of accessing information is ever more
vital. Our lives and safety are in our own hands under the instruction of
the Mate and Assistant Scientist. We are the ones who carried ourselves
physically and mentally all the way across the South Pacific. It's a
different level of responsibility. And I'm learning how important it is to
share it.

As a keen advocate for Deaf awareness, I did my best to explain my needs
with my fellow shipmates. However, with how dynamic and tiring ship life is,
mid-cruise it became harder to prompt others, and almost felt futile once
the sun set. I didn't want to continuously bother people to ask them to
repeat what was said, I wanted to take a backseat and just absorb
information instead of focusing my energies struggling to reach it. Aside
from taking on more watches in the daylight, one method of relief I found
was tucking my cochlear implant away when I could - just reducing
unnecessary stimulation and focusing on the visual cues.

This felt more natural to me.

I know that reading this blog so far has sounded rather negative, but I
wanted to share the honest highs and lows of life at sea. You might think
that I wish I were hearing. That does seem like the logical thing to want.
But actually, it's the opposite - I wish everyone else was Deaf, because
then it'd be the normal. Being Deaf is not the challenge. Existing in a
world that caters first to the hearing audience, then to us, d/Deaf
individuals, is.

In fact, there are way too many benefits of my Deafness that I would never
trade just to feel the same as everyone else. I almost feel sorry that my
fellow shipmates do not get to experience some aspects of life the same way
as I do. These are my top three favourite things about being Deaf on our
boat.

1.      Sleeping like a baby: Once the rough swells at the start of the
programme passed, I found that sleeping at any moment of the day or night
came with ease. Just flicking off my cochlear implant, crawling into a
toasty bunk, and often within two minutes of counting sheep running in my
head, I know I'm dreaming. Sounds from the loud cranking of the main boom to
the hourly shuffle of the ship's crew stumbling down each corridor on a boat
check, harness a clanking, has never caused me to lose a wink a sleep 😉
2.      Switching off: Whether it is crafting, reading, studying pin rails,
or doing galley clean up, extra noise can just be an unnecessary stress and
distraction. The ability to quickly focus on a task in a dynamic environment
by taking off my cochlear implant feels immensely relieving. It's even
helped me with small things like figuring out a new way to determine wind
direction which can feel like it's haphazardly striking from everywhere:
first remove sound, second stick tongue out long enough for it to get a
little dry, third close eyes, then fourth twist head around slowly until
tongue feels coldest- tada!
3.      Connection to nature: Life at sea is hard for everyone. There's
always something happening, always people around. To be constantly
surrounded by 38 people whom you eat, sleep, clean, go to class, socialise,
do watches with in a 41-metre length space is special but can be
overwhelming. I feel immensely grateful to have the opportunity to recharge
by disconnecting from sound. Silence fills my heart with warmth as I stare
into the ocean, breathe deeply in sync with the swells ebbing and flowing
beneath me. I can feel myself being absorbed into nature, like a little
personal treat. It's just me and the sea.
Regardless of the challenges I have faced with my disability, but I have
also never received so much support. Whether it's Davi sprawling in awkward
positions with a whiteboard trying to scribble notes to having Jordyn use
American Sign Language to say "good morning/afternoon" every day without
fail, or C watch signing "make-fast" and letting me momentarily blind them
at night with a light so I can lipread. Although nothing can perfectly
replace the absence of fully comprehending sound, the care and effort means
everything. One extra torch on is another face I didn't feel as anxious to
speak to. A simple holding up of numbers to say the course steered just
evaporated a whole weight of stress and doubt I didn't know lay on me. Or
during wakeups when I received a paper with the time and weather on it or
saw Amanda waving her hands around to demonstrate the strength of wind
outside, it started off the day so seamlessly. These small moments helped
dissolve that burden to fit in and instead weaved together my Deaf world
with everyone else's hearing one.

This morning, I was junior watch officer (JWO) and my job involved calling
the strike of all the sails before we entered port. While bellowing: "Ready
on the halyard?" "Ready on the downhaul" "Ready on the sheet?" "STRIKE THE
MAIN STAYS'L!', I found myself beaming with pride. It felt so freeing to
realise that after 6 weeks, I had finally gained the confidence to not only
understand the sailing procedure but lead my shipmates through an auditory
medium. It may have taken a bit longer to reach this stage but on the final
day, I did what my shipmates could do. This would never have been possible
without S-314's community.

It's beautiful to trust in 37 individuals who were strangers to me a mere
two months ago, their care reaching a point of even anticipating my own
needs before myself. For example, ensuring that I'm in the best position to
lipread or writing out the lyrics to the newest goofy song in class to
repeating things before I've even asked. Thank you to everyone accepted me
and made me feel seen.

While sailing across an emotion, one will find that all emotions can feel
extreme for everyone. The lows are low, predominately triggered by hearing
challenges, but the highs are high. Standing watch and gazing out into the
ocean nourishes my soul, I love using my body to haul on sails and I am
eager to engage my mind with science. A neat little triangle: mind, body,
soul. Wavering emotions stretch it into various scalene shapes but as a fan
of Keats' depictions of negative capability, I believe that we truly can't
recognise joy without melancholy. My deafness just means accepting the highs
with the lows and learning to share my whole identity with the ship
community. It'll always be a part of me that I'll continue to embrace
whether it's while sailing across an ocean or wherever my next adventure
takes me.

Special mention: A huge thanks to Finn for encouraging me to write this blog
by not only giving up one of his slots for me but also helping proofread and
edit.

Message from Finn to his family:

To my mom, I'm staying safe(ish!) and learning a lot. To my dad, I have
swabbed the decks as well as seen the timbers shiver. No parrots yet though.
To Conall, I can't wait to get back home to tell you all of the great
stories. To Grandma Judy, I've been doing lots of sextant readings. I just
lead some star shootings on Dawn Watch this morning! To all of you and to
everyone else, I miss you, I love you, and I hope you're doing well.

Zahra Lalani, C Watch & Yale-NUS College

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