It Happened to Me: I Sailed Across the Atlantic Ocean

The last time I learned something completely new was that First Aid course in '05, when I nearly killed the CPR dummy. So with the advent of this sudden crash course in pirate, my noggin was all, "UNSUBSCRIBE."
Publish date:
March 26, 2012
travel, sailing

So there I was, ass hanging off the port side of a tiny sailing boat, going to crap town by way of the Caribbean sea. It was an immense relief after 24 hours of self-imposed colon strike due to performance anxiety and the six other people in my peripherals. But no applause please, because at that moment I was two months a salty sailor, and that's what salty sailors do.

Almost a year before that dump al fresco, it was decided (by me) that I would drop everything and go sailing.

I knew just the ship: The Picton Castle, a sail-training barque based in Nova Scotia. I knew just the reason: I wanted to.

It lingered in the back of my head for years, this idea of doing something scary and out of the ordinary and true to my roots (dirty pirate). It would take a whole lotta guts, a whole lotta benjamins and a whole lotta vacation days. Since I had already quit my job and was a bum at the time, the timing was perfect.

The Picton Castle was in the midst of a 14 month world circumnavigation, and I signed up to join for the last five. Bing bang boom, I flew to Cape Town and moved into a bunk roughly the size of your couch. I shared a "room" with 15 other trainees and very quickly learned that one, showers were a twice-per-week luxury and two, hot spaces get funky FAST.

Over the course of five months we would sail from Afreeka to the Caribbean, and then to Nova Scotia for a triumphant homecoming. I should note that I was a total mouth-breathing noob when I started this whole business - I had never even been on a sailboat. But I was really good at shading my eyes and pointing toward the distance, so surely I'd be a natural.

As it turns out, I am DEFINITELY NOT A NATURAL. Learning to sail a tall ship is like learning a whole new language, and on a scale of Spanish to Cantonese, it's probably somewhere around Polish. Worse, my brain was functioning on cruise control after 7 years of focusing on one job.

The last time I learned something completely new was that First Aid course in '05, when I nearly killed the CPR dummy. So with the advent of this sudden crash course in pirate, my noggin was all, "UNSUBSCRIBE."

This was made at times more maddening by the ship's subscription to the school of hard knocks. My generation has been raised as a doughy mass of "You can do anythings," which is fine, but it doesn't prep you for the opposite of that. If I failed at something growing up, I'd get a "good try!" and a cookie. If I failed at something on the ship (ALL THE TIME), I'd get a dirty look and a "you fucked up."

Eventually I came to appreciate this, because it fostered more strength and independence, and I realized that a coddling training environment doesn't necessarily keep a ship afloat. I may not have been the most graceful maiden at the ball, but I soon learned how to handle my shit.

Plus I loved the dirty work. We worked 8 hours per day (4 on, 8 off, repeat) sail handling, sanding, scraping, painting, climbing, fixing and sewing. We were covered in tar, paint, and sweat. Our hair grew sun-streaked and our skin tanned. I felt like a badass.

The most fascinating aspect of life aboard was the micro-society that was made for reality TV. Imagine 45 characters living in close quarters (the ship is 179 feet long) -- half women, half men. Yada yada yada, relationships emerge. There are break-ups, make-ups, friendships, fights, cranky days, happy days and birthdays. Amazingly enough, everybody knows to leave their drama behind when on watch, because at the end of the day we were brought together for the same reason. (Really good tans)

Our longest passage at sea was 30 days. 30 days without phones, Internet, TV or connection to the outside world -- and I WAS SO HAPPY. I devoured books, I wrote every day, I stared at the complete 360 of sky and water around us. For me, it was peace.

It was so beautiful to not multitask, and my greatest concern was that empty Nutella jar on the snack shelf. (GAH!!!)

One month later we're in Antigua. This is the part where I'm draping booty first off the side of an engineless sail boat, which seven of us delivered to St. Barts.

On the way, we got stranded for two days with no wind. The old me might have huddled in a corner with a coconut cell phone, trying to tweet for help. She definitely would have held off on the public dumparoo. But the new me -- salty, foul-mouthed and disgusting -- hauled down me drawers and went to town. I'm not saying I'm a glamorous lass, but I've sure got moxie.

At the end of it all, there was no adjustment period. Five months felt like a dream. I fell instantly back into a world of Facebook, traffic and glorious, glorious daily showers. I got another job and upgraded my phone.

Still, every day I take a moment to daydream about being on the water; sailing was the best decision I ever made. And every once in awhile, I take a whiz out my bedroom window just for old time's sake. (JUST KIDDING OH MY GOD, I'M A LADY. GROSS.)

And now the moment we've all been waiting for: hard core nudity!