Saying Goodbye (For Now)
In my last transit from Kingsville to Erie, I had a revelation: I had finally adapted to living the tall ships lifestyle. After two months of sleep deprivation, physical labor, transiency, and being overwhelmed socially, I’d finally adjusted. As such a schedule regulated person, craving control in all aspects of my life, sailing on tall ships and this internship did not come easily. Sailing isn’t a lifestyle affording much personal control and I struggled to find my place.
My first instinct had been to reject sailing and close myself from others (except Susannah, who was my faithful confidant). After my first transit down the Welland Canal on Niagara, which I now refer to as the Helland Canal, I was petrified. It was the most physically demanding work I’d ever done and tested me socially, forcing me into an environment in which I was never alone. Back in Ann Arbor, I’d developed unhealthy patterns of social introversion, isolating myself from others in the comfort of my on-campus apartment. Once, I spent four days without seeing or talking to another person. It was debilitating, but I normalized the behavior and dismissed it with a wall of humor, deterring people from asking any further questions.
I’ve had social anxiety since childhood, breaking into panic attacks when I felt the judgement of others, especially people I considered authority figures. My anxiety prevents me from making eye contact and saying more than a few words to people I’m unfamiliar with, particularly those of the opposite sex. On the ships, I experienced the most intense exposure therapy for my anxiety. When you live, work, and eventually become friends with a group of people, you begin to understand them in a different way. After only a few days of knowing someone, you can become accustomed to their behaviors. Being around others in this way has convinced me that many of my long-held beliefs about people generally are unfounded. Yes, some people can be awful and unthinking, but my experience on tall ships has taught me that they are kind and entirely predictable. One of the roots of my anxiety has been a fear of others unfavorable opinions of me. Throughout my experience, I’ve found that the only thing sailors judge is someone’s inability to do the most basic form of engagement on a ship: to try. The tall ships community is diverse, emotionally supportive, welcoming, generous, and, most importantly, fun.
My last week sailing on Fair Jeanne was special. The social dynamics on this ship appealed to me and I bonded more quickly with this crew than any I had before. Perhaps this was in part because of my realization that I’d adapted to this lifestyle and that I enjoyed sailing. Or, maybe it was simply that the professional crew was predominately female which was a much-needed change from the overwhelmingly male crew of Picton Castle. I was so comfortable that I felt confident going aloft to help a crew member, Steel, measure a new piece of chaff gear for the course. The yards had all been braced sharp, so it was about a five-foot gap to lay on to the yard. Although I was a bit nervous, Steel patiently gave me directions telling me where to grab on and place myself. Cautiously, I stretched my foot out until my legs were fully extended and then meandered myself onto the course yard. In that moment, I recognized how far I had truly come over these two months and I was proud of myself.
The next morning, Susannah and I were assigned the task of covering the head rig in pine tar. We had so much fun out there together, working as a team. By the time we were finished, the pair of us were covered in pine tar. Susannah looked like she had bathed in hoisin sauce and, somehow, I’d managed to get pine tar in my hair, but I was smiling the whole time. There’s a lot to love about sailing but the potential to become grimy and disgusting is surprisingly one of my favorites. Seeing your hard work on your visibly stained clothes is incredibly validating. When I return to the world of tall ships it will most likely be with a program like Fair Jeanne, working with kids on a brigantine or small schooner. Having the ability to ship hop this summer has allowed me to find the best kind of ship for me and for that I’m incredibly thankful.
I think it’s important to paint tall ships for everything that they are. Sailing is challenging, demanding physical and mental fortitude. Every day I gained a new battle wound- a bruise, a cut, a scrape, or a mini-concussion from hitting my head on a hatch. I endured unbearable sea sickness, fatigue, sleep deprivation, sunburns, dehydration, and bug bites from my feet to my face. Showers were infrequent and there were many times that I woke up covered in my own sweat. The blisters on my hands gained their own blisters and my entire body ached from grueling physical labor.
However, I found the greatest pain of all is saying goodbye to newfound friends.
What makes the whole experience worth it for me is the people. People like James Rogers, Susannah Pittman, and Erin Short. When I first met James, I was intimidated by his sailing experience and his apparent salty demeanor. I remember our first encounter. He was wearing a black Picton Castle hat which featured a gold drawing of the magnificent barque and long khaki type pants with more pockets than a Hot Pocket® factory. At first, James was reserved, and I was unsure how to approach someone with such a distinct sense of self, so opposite of my own. He was well-traveled, intelligent, and a tad cocky. His carefree nature and my tendency to overreact would seem like they wouldn’t mesh well, but I quickly realized that James is an incredible person. He became like a little brother to me and has fundamentally helped reshape what I think of friendship. I appreciate that he even puts up with my affection. James is self-aware, passionate about sailing, hilarious, and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. At the same time, James is the kind of person who accidently drops his shoe in the bilge and can make a mess wherever he goes. He doesn’t sugar coat anything and will never lie to you. When I hugged him goodbye, I told James to take care of himself. I am certain that wherever he ends up, he will be following his passion… and, of course, he’ll be up to no good.
Oh, Susannah! There’s so much to say about my soul friend and pseudo-little sister. It’s been about a week since I’ve said goodbye to Susannah and, after spending what felt like every single second of our two months internship together, I’m stuck with the feeling I’m perpetually forgetting something. Independence is now a novel sensation. I miss Susannah in the same way I missed my family when I left for University of Michigan my freshman year of college. When I first met Susannah, her confidence and extroversion intimidated me. She radiated this certainty, a profound surety of who she was, and I gravitated toward her. Susannah and I were almost instantly bonded, which in retrospect is odd because she and I juxtapose each other. I am the introvert to her extrovert. She is the unexpected midnight squall; I am the silent undisturbed water of Erie on peaceful days in July. While Susannah perpetually needs to be engaged and moving, I’m happiest when I can relax in an arboretum with the only stimulus being the feeling of grass beneath my feet. We make an odd pair, but an excellent team.
When sailing on tall ships you learn the intricacies of people- how they function, what will set them off, how to comfort them when no one else can, what they’re passionate about, their sense of humor and how this humor varies at different levels of energy. I wasn’t confident about much this summer, but I am sure of this, I know Susannah Pittman. Without any prompting, I could predict how Susannah will act and she knew what I’d say before I spoke. Our communication was post-verbal: words nonsensical, all we needed to understand each other was a pointed look or an unspoken offering of a hand. We have heard the others personal introduction so many times, that we began taking turns telling the life story of the other.
Susannah is one of the most accident-prone people, falling into bilges, tripping in front of large groups of sailors, and getting covered in bruises and bug bites. Simultaneously, she’s brave, energetic, and intelligent, making her one of the most fun people to spend time with. Throughout the summer, I was frequently amused by Susannah’s argumentativeness with James. They bickered like brother and sister, which was entertaining six out of seven times. I was impressed with her ability to assert herself; she unapologetically demands what she wants. Susannah is passionate about life and a bit of an adrenaline junky. She was always the first person to volunteer to go aloft or dive headfirst into the water at a swim call. It is very challenging to live, work, and be friends with someone, but Susannah and I made it work. We worked through any problems that we had and it made us stronger. We’ve gone through so much together, there is little in this world that could drive us apart. Tall ships introduced me to Susannah Pittman and for that I am entirely grateful.
Erin Short is the best boss I’ve ever had and now I imagine a lifelong friend. How she managed to effectively keep the tall ships festivals running, while babysitting James, Susannah, and I is beyond me. She was an anchor for the three of us, making sure we were always safe, comfortable, and focused. I’m certain that without her, I wouldn’t have made it through this summer. We were her Ducklings and I have never felt more honored to hold such a title. Talking to Erin about my experiences sailing, validated my own volatile emotions while also making me realize that everything that I was feeling was much worse in my head. Erin grounded me mentally and physically, while constantly encouraging me to keep challenging myself.
One week I had the fascinating experience of shadowing Erin and quickly realized she is one of the hardest workers in the tall ships’ world. Every day, she does a million things-scheduling events for tall ships festivals years in advance, security briefings, captain’s meetings, business calls, keeping everyone at the festivals happy- and wakes up the next day ready to do a million more. Without her belief in my ability, I wouldn’t have had the courage to get back on Niagara after the intensity of the Welland Canal. I am thankful she did because it validated something that I truthfully needed to understand about myself- I am capable. Erin understands people better than anyone I’ve ever met. When she says someone is a “delight” I trust that they are an incredibly insightful and kind person; the opposite goes for anyone she wouldn’t deem as delightful. She sees the best in people, and I aspire to see people in the way she does. The world needs more people like her.
Now that I have been back in the real world for a few days, everything that was normal before feels foreign. When you’re on a tall ship, life is intense and wonderfully engaging, now everything feels so sluggish and grey. I am experiencing a reverse culture shook being back in my little college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I feel like I’m a square peg, sanded down until I become a circular tube, and shoved back into a square hole. I miss sailing and my tall ships family. This summer has changed me in such a fundamentally positive way. I will take everything that my time with tall ships has taught me with me for the rest of my life. I’m a sailor now and hold that label proudly. Thank you to Tall Ships America for the most adventurous, and unforgettable summer of my life. Goodbye for now:)