• Tall Ships America

Three points of contact

By Susannah

Sunset Swim Call

On my first night aboard Denis Sullivan, I remember well the feeling of profound gratitude for what resembles a prison mattress. What luxury! I had not one, but two bunks (one for my belongings, the other for sleeping). You can stand up when you’re down below! We ate at a real table! We didn’t even have to wear shoes! The opportunity to sail here was too sweet to pass up. They had no passengers or students aboard our leg -- it was just me, James, and the professional crew -- thus I received a greater degree of specialized attention, which lends itself to an enriching voyage.

My first impression of Captain Tiff was from a profile article in the Buffalo News, that I saw at Walgreens, outlining her career in the maritime industry. She exceeded the lofty expectations I had, proving to be an incredible person and leader. When she told me that the gaff topsail that James and I furled looked neat and we had done a good job, I felt immensely proud. Despite the fact that I just held and punched in the sail where James told me to (he was the brains of the operation, I was just the muscle). The captain is not the type of person to pay a compliment unless she actually means it. From the deck poetry readings to intricate “stick and poke” tattoos, being part of her crew was an utmost privilege.

I could not help but feel guilty for enjoying my time on Denis Sullivan since that also meant ditching the Niagara crew. They lovingly call me “Traitor,” while I assured them that they cannot get rid of me that easily, that I’ll be back in a leg or two. At sea, the bonds I forged were unprecedented to those on land. In such an unfamiliar, physically demanding, psychologically draining, and overall exhilarating experience, you have to depend on those around you. I am eternally indebted to Wilmer, one of Niagara’s ABs and an exceptionally wonderful human being, for preventing me from having a mild panic attack while busting sails. This process consists of around five crew members standing on the same support line along the yard. “One, two, three, BUST” someone yells, and in perfect unison, we roll up the sail. This requires one to use both of their hands, so your balance derives from a shaky support line (since others have laid on behind you) and leaning over the yard (I still have the bruises on my chest).

This made me feel incredibly insecure, since I am only comfortable aloft whilst maintaining at least three points of contact. When Wilmer noticed my anguish, he assured me that my innate, primal instincts would not allow me to let go, and that even if I did fall, my harness would catch me. He coached me to breathe slower and reminded me that I was safe, that it was all in my head. Ethan, a dear friend who makes an effort to dress in period sailor’s clothing, which I find endearing, promised to always climb at my pace and to not leave me alone on the shrouds.

When you’re pushed outside your comfort zone, inching toward your breaking point, survival and success is incumbent on the support system you cultivate.

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