Life Lessons I Learned As A Professional Sailor: Part I

The mainmast of the Elissa. I'm second from the left, all the way up there.

I don’t often speak of my pre-college (or hell, pre-Korea) life on this blog very often, but I really should.  Something most of my readers probably don’t know about me is that I used to be a professional tall ship sailor.  We’re not talking sailboats, we’re talking ships like the one on the right.  I sailed for about 7 years and I consider my experiences on ships to be some of the most formative of my life.  I learned a lot of lessons out on the high seas, and I feel that it might be a helpful thing to share some of them with you.  This will be the first of a couple posts.  Enjoy.

1. Your ability to do something is directly tied to your motivation to do it. The more you want something, the harder you will work to accomplish it.  When you haven’t showered in a week and you have the choice between a 60 minute wait for a three minute shower in an army tent or no shower at all, no matter how tired you are or how much you usually like to luxuriate in your showers, you will find a way to soap/shampoo/rinse in three minutes, I guarantee you.  When I hear people say “I could never do that.” about something, I frequently have to suppress the urge to say “No, you just don’t want it bad enough.”.  With the right motivation (disregarding physical ability, of course), you can do almost anything.

Looking up from the bowsprit.  I took this on my first sailing voyage, when I was 11 or 12.

Looking up from the bowsprit. I took this on my first sailing voyage, when I was 11 or 12.

2. Learn to prioritize, or the decision will be made for you. When you have to shove all your belongings into a hole in the wall about 12 inches square by 2 feet deep (that is frequently blocked by someone sleeping in front of it), you learn very quickly what you need, what you don’t need, and what you only need in an emergency.  What I just described were the personal storage areas on one of the ships I sailed on.  They were nested in front of the bunks, frequently had about an inch of water in the bottom, and I’m convinced they were designed to make it as difficult as possible to get anything out of them.  Consequently, you couldn’t really count on easy access to the whole of your belongings, so you had to prioritize.  Foul weather gear was thankfully stored elsewhere, but you definitely wanted your sweater, a clean pair of underwear, a pair of heavier socks, and a book on the top of the pile.  Anything else (clean shirts, your camera, etc) was good to have, but didn’t really need using immediately, and you could wait until a convenient time to retrieve it.  If you didn’t think ahead about how you packed that little locker, you could end up very cold and very bored, with the items you needed at the bottom of the box, sitting in water.

3. You’re more adaptable than you may realize. The largest bunk I’ve had on a ship was about 6 inches wider than my shoulders on each side.  The smallest was so narrow that if it hadn’t been for the netting holding me in, I probably would have rolled off it when I turned over in my sleep.  Some (in fact I’d probably say most) people I’ve told this to have had a reaction along the lines of “Oh, I could never do that.  I need at least a double bed to sleep comfortably.” or similar things.  The reality is…you don’t.  You don’t need a lot of the things you think you do.  When faced with having something sub-par, something really sub-par, or not having it at all, you learn to deal with sub-par conditions.  Sure, the bunks felt cramped at first, but you learn how to move in them, and over time it doesn’t even matter because you’re so exhausted that you could probably sleep on a bed of nails.  This ties a little bit back into lesson 1, about motivation.

On watch up front.

Folks sitting near the bowspirt on watch in the early morning. It was around 40 degrees (F) and raining when I took this shot - pretty much the definition of miserable.

4. If you think your assigned task is pointless, ask why it needs doing, and never assume your work is unimportant. One of my least favourite parts of sailing is standing watch.  When I first started sailing, I hated having to wake up at midnight, after only 3 hours of sleep, only to be told to go stand at the front of the boat and watch for other vessels or other items of concern.  My thought was “The other ships in the race are so big that we’d definitely see them long before we hit them!”, and I used to grumble considerably when I was chosen for this task.  Bowsprit watch is miserable, because you get the brunt of the wind and the spray, meaning that even in mild weather, you end up cold and wet.  For evidence, I have posted one of my old photos of this exact activity, on the right.  However, one day, while sailing on Lake Huron, we came across a giant freighter, rusty and crumbling, sticking up at an angle about 30 feet out of the water.  It was an unnerving sight, and I realized that I was not up there just to watch out for other vessels (vessels that would be well lit enough to see at a great enough distance to change course), but to look out for things like this decrepit freighter.  If we had been there at night, and there hadn’t been anyone on watch, we could have easily hit it and been added to the pile of thousands of ships at the bottom of Lake Huron.  1 I had felt like my job was a pointless waste of time, when in reality it was a matter of life and death.  Never assume your work is unimportant, and if you feel that it is, ask your superior why you’re doing it.

That’s all for now, but I have plenty more where this came from.  I hope this at the very least made you think!

  1. Ironically, something similar happened on that same voyage.  Our second mate was supposed to be supervising the folks up front, but she wasn’t, she was in the back, drinking coffee.  We ended up running aground on rocks only a few feet below the surface.  If they had been watching more carefully, it wouldn’t have happened.

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