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 III: On Deck

Continuing our tour of the SSV Seamans…

Climb out the ladder from the doghouse and you will find yourself on the quarterdeck of the Robert C. Seamans.  The quarterdeck is a raised deck in the back of the ship, and–between the helm, compasses, and proximity to the doghouse–is essentially the center of the ship’s command.


Pictured above is the quarterdeck, as seen from aloft.  The giant white triangle is the mainstays’l (main-stay-sail).  Below that white rectangle on the deck is the doghouse.  Just aft of the entrance to the doghouse is the helm:  the bane of my sailing existence.  More on that later.


Facing forward on the quarterdeck, you get a view like this:

Moving forward up the port side of the ship is the science deck, where most scientific equipment is deployed.  That big white thing controls a monster coil of wire, which sends equipment down as deep as 3,000 meters.


Continuing to walk forward, you will pass under the topyard and courseyard, where the square sails are set.  Pictured here is Pete, perched on the topyard, while I lay aloft on the port shrouds:


All the way forward is the foredeck:

Those red and white cone things–called “tubas” because of their shape–are for ventilation.  Every hour they get turned so that they face into the wind, bringing much-needed cool breezes down to the living quarters below decks.

The bow was one of my favorite places on the ship. At the risk of calling to mind Titanic: standing at the bow of a ship, you really do feel like you’re flying.   It’s even better out on the bowsprit.  On the bowsprit, there is no deck beneath you.  You’re floating about twenty feet above the water.  During the daytime, you can catch dolphins racing the ship.  At night, if you don’t mind the terrifying feeling of flying through pitch black, you can sometimes see glowing green bioluminescence being churned up as the ship slices through the water.

From the bowsprit, you get another good view of the ship, and all its rigging.  There are 93 pieces of running rigging (we counted once, during a slow dawn watch).  Learning every single line was one of our first–and most important–tasks on the ship.  It was also one of the most difficult.  Take a look at all these lines coiled and hung around the foremast:

…now imagine  me, never having set foot on a sailing vessel before, staring at these coils in utter confusion.  Seriously?  You guys think I need to know what all of those ropes do?  Seriously??

Terrifying.  But eventually we learned every line.  Eventually we learned how to set every sail using those lines.  And voila:


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,