Captain in the Straits of Mackinac
Bay City helped me to get my feet back on the ground, quite literally. Time to connect with the Jack Pines and Sugar Maples, with my feet planted on slightly damp grass, was imperative to processing my time at sea. Land is safety, familiarity, connectivity; water is freedom, intensity, and impermanence. Love for familiarity inhibited my ability to enjoy the novel experiences at sea, but comfort shouldn’t my prerogative for joining the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE® race series this summer. Rather, I have chosen to use sailing as a learning experience and a way to understand myself when I’m out of my element.
From Bay City, Michigan, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was aboard the S/V Denis Sullivan. The people, pace, and peace were an absolute delight. On Monday, before a group of high school trainees from Milwaukee boarded the ship, Susannah took me out on the head rig (the net at the bow of the ship) and showed me the meticulous process of building a new safety net. She has taken to sailing a lot quicker than me, and I’m impressed by her initiative to learn, to immerse herself in her role as a crew member. Her joy and passion for sailing reminds me to not take this experience so seriously.
On the first day aboard Denis Sullivan, we set the sails and meandered out of the Saginaw River. The wind was light, the cumulus clouds particularly cottony, and the students were excited to take part in the sailing. I was proud of myself because I made fast a line (tying down a rope to a pin) without instruction, which is definitely progress. I also taught some basic coiling to the students, revealing to myself that I’d picked up a thing or two. The chaperones, Susan and Deborah, reminded me of my family, and went out of their way to check that I was okay even though I wasn’t one of their students. Susan brought me a cup of coffee while I was at the helm during a night watch and I instantly felt accepted into the group. The professional crew were easy to mesh with and incredibly patient with my slow learning and lack of sailing experience. Walker, Johnny, and Abbey were excellent teachers, demonstrating knots and coils, then patiently watching as I did my best to recreate their work, mostly failing, but the effort is the most important part.
The first night watch on Denis was from 6pm to 11pm. We ran through boat checks and I got the rundown on the best way to steer. It’s not like driving a car in any way. You’re given a course and expected to turn the ship left and right to keep that course. The wheel does not gently turn and it takes strength to force the spokes in the direction you desire. The sunset consisted of violet red stratocumulus clouds that dispersed the way water ripples when you throw multiple stones into the stillness. The setting sun dropped into the horizon in only a few minutes, almost as if it procrastinated leaving and then remembered that it had somewhere else to go. When the last rays of the sun departed, all the clouds disappeared and the open sky was in the dominion of the stars.
The second day aboard ship, we sailed past Sleeping Bear Dunes. The massive dunes stood in stark dissonance with the Michigan woods around them. Thousand foot long cargo ships greeted us in the distance, offering a break from the infinite emptiness of the water. A little bit after noon, the students, Susannah, and I had a lesson about invasive species. Susannah and I were assigned the sea lamprey. If you’ve never heard of them, take a moment to Google these heinous creatures. They are eels with a suctioned row of teeth instead of a head. Susannah thought the sea lamprey was plastic and proceeded to play with it for at least a minute. To Susannah’s surprise, and to my amusement, it was a real specimen. She jumped up and ran down below to wash her hands, while I laughed until my cheeks hurt.
My night watch was from 11pm to 3am. I draped myself in all the warm clothes I had available to endure the chilly Straits of Mackinac. I emerged from below deck to see the Mackinac Bridge illuminating the night in an emerald green. I took the helm as we neared the bridge and felt a peace beginning at the tips of my freshly callused fingers, traveling up my arms, and halting in my throat. I felt freedom and untempered power. A power that originates from experiential knowledge. The towering Mighty Mac, which could be seen for miles away in the dark space between the two enormous land masses of Michigan, was eclipsed in no more than two minutes. The three masts of Denis Sullivan were nowhere close to the metal grates of the Mackinac Bridge- a reminder that context and comparison can drastically shift perspective. What can make a tall ship feel like a short ship? The Mighty Mackinac Bridge. When I glanced back, I was greeted by a yellow half-moon, a cheeky grin in the dark.
The third day on my journey, I had the graveyard watch from 3am to 8am. The moon was white and the sky empty from the moon’s omnipotent light. The frigid wind bit at my ears and I secured my green hood over my head, making me feel like a puffy green burrito. Johnny, the chief mate and head of my watch, gave me a lesson on charting our position on a chart using a copper compass that measured nautical miles. We charted our recorded position each hour to make sure that the ship was being steered on course. I was master of the helm for several hours, which I loved. I discovered I was a mediocre lookout because of my poor eyesight which not even contacts or glasses can solve perfectly. Thankfully, Lake Michigan was devoid of company on our journey. The sun rose almost as quickly as it set. It was a red circle at the stern of our ship, a period to signal the end of an informative journey.
In this transit, I became aware of my own adaptation. Sunlight shows a complicated, unfiltered world. There are simply too many objects to observe. Darkness reveals only what someone wishes to see. Interpretation of darkness is all dependent on what someone already believes is there. The red light offers both a realm in which someone can see what they wish without being overwhelmed by the details. The red light which transported me into a realm of complicated binaries my first night on Niagara no longer unnerved me. Instead, the red light was a solace. It allowed me to see what I needed and nothing more.
The seasickness I felt on Pride of Baltimore II never reemerged, instead I found myself shoulders forward, standing lookout at the bow, smiling because I was witness to the rhythmic dancing of the ship and the sea. As we bounced up and down, I found myself imagining being on a rollercoaster. I even contemplated throwing my hands up at the drops but vetoed the idea for the sake of not falling overboard.
I am starting to adjust to life at sea, embracing an irregular sleep schedule, drinking water by the gallon, forming relationships with new people, bathing in sunscreen, eating meals like a vacuum cleaner, and taking the initiative to be helpful to the crew. This week, I will be rejoining the crew of the U.S. Brig Niagara. There is not a doubt in my mind that I can succeed. The fears I had about my own capabilities are not the truth. I am excited to try again.
Captain in the Straits of Mackinac:
Bourgeoisie hands have been transformed,
Mimicking the yellowed Night Goddess
As she changes white in the sky
Occurring in the mere murmuring moments
When eyes divert to darkened sea.
Perhaps, my sight is slowly failing.
Perhaps, my eyes can see anew.
The bright ones tell archaic parables
And I their auspicious audience
Must chart their equivocal whispers.
The mighty one, green and luminous,
Is the just monarch of altitude
Allowing passersby permission
When they keep their unwavering course.
It courses through your veins, your arteries
Until breathing is conscientious