Battling the Boobies


Our ship must appear, to some birds, like the only truck stop along an ocean highway stretching for hundreds of empty miles in any direction.  Throughout our voyage, a strange assortment of birds—from sparrows to owls—found their way to the SSV Seamans.

Most of our avian guests paused to rest for just a few hours before heading on their way.  Others stayed for days at a time.  One such bird was a baby egret we found cowering in the scuppers.  We named him Henry.  Though he was clearly starving, we were forbidden by the ship’s authority to feed him, which of course only made us love him more.  A few of us formed an underground coalition to sneak Henry scraps of fish.

Henry looks longingly through a porthole

Chapter I, in which the enemy arrives

Two weeks after Henry presumably took off for home, a plague of nearly fifty boobies set upon the ship.  While Henry was a loveable bird eliciting much sympathy, the boobies were quite the opposite.  They established their stronghold high in the ship’s rigging.  Singing out with cacophonous gurgles and squawks, the boobies began to launch a barrage of fecal missiles.

Boobies on the courseyard

Chapter II, in which I become a casualty of warfare

We did what we could to stand our ground.  Late one evening, just after midnight, I was on bow watch.  I was alone.  I was harnessed to the bow of the ship, and had nowhere to run. I was thus was acutely aware of the boobies crowing overhead.  Listening to the little splats landing on deck behind me, I was beginning to think that putting on my foul weather gear might not be a bad idea.  All of a sudden, I saw a falling guano-bomb out of the corner of my eye.  With lightning-fast reflexes, I managed to lean to the side just in time to avoid being pooped upon.

This must have been exactly what the boobies wanted me to do.  Yes!  Yes!  She’s leaning this way now … wait for it, wait for it … fire away! And as I leaned, a second booby released a massive shit.  I saw it coming, but was too far off-balance.  There was nothing I could do.  It was…

(should I say it?)

…it was a booby trap.

Chapter III, in which we launch our counteroffensive

Days passed.  We were forced to retreat.  The foredeck was plastered in bird droppings despite our daily deck washes, and the ship reeked.  It was time to do something. Viva la resistance!  Our first method of attack was potato gun, a sizeable air rifle fashioned by the ship’s engineers from an old bilge pipe, capable of shooting chunks of potatoes and small carrots.  High-speed vegetable proved to be difficult ammunition, but finally we hit a booby. Cheers erupted from the onlookers below as brown feathers were sent flying from the topyard, but the example of one unfortunate booby was apparently not enough to ward off its cronies.

Adam fires the potato gun

Chapter IV, featuring a giant slingshot

While one contingent of our crew stayed in the rigging with the potato gun, another team attacked the boobies from on top of the doghouse.  This time the weapon of choice was an enormous slingshot.  Created from surgical tubing and a large plastic cup, the slingshot required three men to operate.  We had a few more successes launching cabbages, apples, and potatoes, but this still was not enough.  The boobies had gained a lamentable sense of impudence and fearlessness.

loading the slingshot

Chapter V, in which we get desperate

The battle raged on like this for several more days.  Finally it was decided that serious weaponry should be employed.  Our solution: fire hose.  Up into the rigging went Dave, the chief engineer.  Up into the rigging went the fire hose.  And up into the rigging spewed a six-million-pounds-per-square-inch torrent of seawater.  Dave valiantly faced many gooey white counterattacks as he sprayed down every last cursed booby.  Soon, they were all confusedly flying around behind the boat.  Back on deck, we commenced our victory celebrations, and considered erecting a small commemorative arch on the quarterdeck.

Dave with the fire hose


The next day, the boobies had returned, no doubt with vengeance in their tiny, evil hearts and excremental ammunition in their tiny, evil intestines.  We were shocked.  We were crushed.  We had been soundly defeated by boobies.

the boobies return

The Helm

When things are going well on the helm, it’s incredible.  It’s powerful.    You can feel the force of the water pressing against the helm in your hands.  You are in a position of ultimate control.  You know where you’re going and how to get there.  The boat does as you say.

This rarely happened.

You might think that steering would be less difficult than, say, hoisting up several hundred pounds of sail.  Or finding your location in the world from just the declination of a star.  Or calculating at exactly what time the sun will be at its zenith.  But you would be wrong on all accounts.

Unlike a bicycle or car, a ship does not respond immediately to turning the wheel, which means you must sense when to stop turning the wheel before you get on the desired course.  Assuming you don’t over-correct (I usually did), you must then hold this desired course for any number of hours.  This means paying attention to the true direction of the wind (which is tricky when there is an apparent wind due to the motion of the boat).  This means paying attention to changes in weather.  This means paying attention to how full the sails are.  This means paying attention to how much right rudder or left rudder you might need to use.  This means … I sucked at steering.


I notice one night, around 4:00am, that I am having more and more difficulty maintaining the course ordered, and have to constantly change my steering.  Eventually, all actions become useless. I decide to inform the chief mate, attempting to mask all terror in my voice.

Hey … Chief Mate? I squeak.  Something’s wrong with the helm.

Wrong with the helm? says Chief Mate.  I don’t think so.

Yes, there is! I say, a little indignant.

Well … what’s the ship doing? asks Chief Mate.

Absolutely nothing I tell it to do.  The helm is useless. By now, I am panicking, because the boat seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what I am steering.

Be more specific, says Chief Mate.  What is the ship doing?

Well … [painfully long pause] … It goes left when I steer right, and right when I steer left!  Something is terribly, horribly wrong! I say, imagining that some gear has gotten itself reversed and–horror–I have broken the helm.

Chief Mate looks up at the sails.  Chief Mate goes over to the railing and looks at the water.  Chief Mate begins to laugh at me.  Chief Mate informs me: the ship is going backwards.

Apparently, with my supreme lack of talent on the helm, I had steered the bow of the ship directly into the wind.  Nice work, dumbass.  I wish I could say that this were the only time I put a 135-foot brigantine into reverse, but, as it turns out, it happened to me again… three more times.

The Geographies of a Ship, Part II: Living Below Decks

Two-and-a-half feet wide.  Questionably six feet long.  Dark and smelly.  Welcome to my bunk.

We continue our tour of the SSV Seamans with an anecdote of claustrophobia.  All of your belongings must sleep with you in your bunk, making for a fun game of Human Tetris any time you’re hoping for a nap.  Most of my time asleep was spent spooning with my large hiking backpack, while also trying desperately to wedge my feet in between a pile of books and a pile of dirty laundry.

Bunks are clustered throughout the ship, arranged in “neighborhoods” with names like Sixteenth Street, Sleepy Hollow, Shellback Alley, and the fo’c’sle.  I lived in Shellback Alley, which was just foreward of midships.  The fo’c’sle, historically, was the shittiest place to live on a ship, as it was usually the most crowded, and packed with the most racial tension.  These days, it’s still a pretty shitty place to sleep, since the effects of seasickness are amplified by the bouncing bow.

In the middle of the ship are the galley and salon, where food is made and eaten, respectively, six times a day.  The rocking motion of a ship makes cooking and eating complicated.  You must be very careful with knives.  You must be just as careful with forks (the chief engineer regaled us with the tale of Captain Jeremy Law, who once had the tines of a mate’s fork accidentally buried in his back when the ship took a roll).

In the salon, all the tables are gimbaled.  A gimbaled table is weighted at the bottom and is free to pivot, so that it stays perfectly horizontal even as the ship rocks back and forth.  The boat is essentially rotating around the tables.  Sometimes, in heavy seas, our plates would be practically at our shoulders as the boat rocked one way, and then in our laps as it rocked the other way.

Depending how much the ship is rocking, you can often see the ocean sloshing up against the glass.  If the ship takes a big roll, you can see underwater, as if through a giant pair of goggles.

Also below deck are the heads, or bathrooms.  Heads got their name from the headrig, a net-like construction underneath the bowsprit (pictured below) at the bow of a ship.  It was through the holes in the headrig that sailors of old did their business.


There is not much else to note about the heads except that our toilets were marine toilets, and were thus prone to clogging by anything from particularly firm turds to the notorious ladies’ “cotton torpedo.”  To our chief engineer and assistant engineer: on behalf of my shipmates, I offer my sincerest, sincerest apologies…

Farthest back below decks is the aft cabin, where the captain and chief scientist sleep.

Bridging the gap between on deck and below decks is the dog house, the ships hub of navigation.  The nautical almanacs, sextants, charts, radar, and radio all live in the dog house.  Pictured below is a view of the dog house at night.  All the lights are red, since red light pollutes your vision the least.  Night vision is crucial, since there are no white lights on deck.


The Geographies of a Ship, Part I: Down Below

Thanks to a few principles of physics, ships are taller than they are wide.  The world on board a ship is a vertically-stacked world, like a layer cake of labyrinths.  Allow me to take you on a tour of the brigantine I called home.  This will be a multi-part post.  We will begin our tour at the very bottom of the ship.

“What is an engine doing on a sailboat?” you ask.  Well, kids, sometimes there’s no wind.  And moreover, there are plenty of things besides a propellor on board that are in need of power.  And so, behold: the engine room.  Farthest aft (back) in the bottom of the ship is the realm of engineers, a three-compartment space.  Largest, hottest, and loudest is the main engine room, which houses an enormous diesel beast, about as tall as I am.  The main engine room is, incidentally, the ideal place to hang laundry on the ship, since it’s about the only place where they’ll dry.  Pictured above is the passageway leading to the machinery space.  Even I have to duck to get through that door.  Visible through that door is the machinery space.  The rectangular thing with multi-colored buttons is the Marine Sanitation Device, fondly called The Poop … you can probably guess what it does.  Of note:  you must turn off The Poop before making any scientific deployments, lest you catch a school of turds in your plankton net.

Farther forward is the friendly village of Dry Stores.  There, you will find more rice, canned goods, pasta, and other sundry edibles than you have probably seen in one place.  Pictured above is the main salon during “provisioning,” a multi-day process during which the ship is packed with enough food to feed 40 people for six months.  I can’t even begin to describe the collection of hot sauces we have on board.

Moving even farther forward is the science hold, the storage space for all things oceanography-related, from buoys to petri dishes.  It smells terrible in the science hold.  There are two more main storage spaces on the ship:  the forepeak and the laz.  The forepeak is at the very front of the ship.  The laz (short for lazarette) is aft, and holds extra sails and enormous ropes, among other things.

Coming soon: The fo’c’sle, Shellback Alley, Sixteenth Street, galley, head, and other exciting locations on the SSV Seamans.

land ho

Happy Thanksgiving, Internet!

I am still in shock that it’s even November, let alone Thanksgiving.  Two days ago, I was in shorts and a tank top, sweating on the quarterdeck of a sailing vessel in Mexico.  A week and a half ago, I was still out of sight of land.

* * *

Approaching land from the ocean, you are not simply arriving in port, the way you arrive at an airport or the parking garage of a hotel.  Approaching land from the ocean, you have made it to port.

2,500 nautical miles after leaving the dock in San Diego, we made it to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  And now, after staying on board an additional week as a deckhand, I am back home in the United States.

Since mid-October, I’ve been living on board the tall ship Robert C. Seamans, a 135-foot brigantine.  My hands are calloused.  My watch is still on military time.  I am having trouble convincing my body that it is no longer necessary to wake up every four hours to stand watch.  Apparently there are more than 28 other people in the world.  I can name dozens of stars in the sky, but without an unbroken horizon or nautical almanac, it seems more like an inconsequential party trick than an important navigational skill.

Coming home is hardest when, for a time, you’ve felt so at home somewhere else.  Coming home after having been without phone, internet, or any other form of contact has been nothing short of jarring.  I miss the sea, but I can’t imagine a better group of friends and family to return home to.  Bear with me for a little while.

Radioactivity, Knots, and Stars

Good news, everyone:  I am now certified to handle radioactivity!

This is probably strange news, as you haven’t heard from me in more than a month.   Since early September, I’ve been busy learning how to tie knots, learning how to use a sextant, learning what angle to turn a sail in order to make best use of the wind, learning the history of whaling and fishing, learning how to navigate by the stars…

In a few hours, I leave for a voyage south from San Diego, into the Sea of Cortez, and down to Puetro Vallarta, Mexico. My bag is packed with more bandanas than shorts or shirts.

That’s my home for the next six weeks.

You can visit to track where I am.

As for radioactivity, well, I’ll leave you in suspense for a few more weeks.

There isn’t much in the way of cell phone or internet reception 300 miles offshore, so you won’t hear from me again until November 20th.  Maybe I’ll send you a message in a bottle.

Until then,