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.


The price of safety is eternal vigilance. This is a phrase we heard often.  It should be noted, however, that there also exists an unstated sister to this maritime maxim:  the price of cleanliness is eternal diligence.

It’s hard to know where to begin narrating my experiences at sea, so I’ll begin with the mundane: cleaning.  I have gained a new appreciation for the word “shipshape.”  You might guess that there isn’t a ton of dirt on a ship 300 miles offshore, but you would be guessing wrong.  Never before have I spent so much time armed with bleach, toothbrush, squeegee, or sponge.  The ship is cleaned every single day.  Each morning at dawn, the soles (floors) and heads (bathrooms) get a thorough sponging and squeegeeing.  Each evening after dinner, the galley (kitchen) gets scrubbed.  With every Saturday comes “Field Day,” during which the ship is torn apart in a three-hour cleaning bonanza, so that neither nook nor cranny will escape with grime.

This all sounds tedious, but it’s indicative of how incredibly meticulous you must be to keep a ship clean and safe.  And aside from a few  grumpy moments spent scraping frozen food goo from the sole of the enormous refrigerator, I felt a genuine sense of  fulfillment and responsibility while cleaning the boat.  I was proud to keep the boat shipshape.  Perhaps only those of you who have seen my disaster of a bedroom may grasp the full significance of this statement.

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,