When a tall ship comes to port it demands a certain measure of attention. People pause as they walk by, some stop and observe the activity on deck and ask questions, cars drive a bit slower as they pass. Being on board one is like “being a celebrity everywhere you go” (as I’ve heard it described).
From July 20th to August 20th I, and thirteen other University of Houston students, sailed around the Northern Atlantic Ocean on a Dutch tall ship named the Wylde Swan. During my time on board, even in the busiest of cities, I observed, in onlookers, a common fascination with the ship. At Port Ellen a couple small motorboats ventured out to where the ship was anchored and circled us, calling out greetings. In Kirkwall I was often asked if I’d come from “that big ship in the bay.” Even in busy cities like Dublin and Bergen it wasn’t odd to see one of the people passing by stop and take a picture. Over the course of the trip the ship demanded this attention in France, at a small town thirty odd minutes from Brest; in Dublin; in Douglas on the Isle of Man; throughout the Hebrides at Islay, Iona, and Staffa; on Scotland’s western coast in Ullapool and Scoraig; in Stornaway at the Isle of Lewis; in Kirkwall; in Lerwick; and, finally, in Bergen, Norway.
It’s likely that I’ll appear in some of those photos, hastily taken over the metal hand-rails at the Port of Dublin. It’s likely that I won’t be more to the photographer than a small figure in a blue jacket looking out from the deck of a ship he or she doesn’t know the name of. These photos will end up posted on Facebook and forgotten or tucked away on some hard drive and never revisited. I might get shown to a spouse or a child, I might get deleted, I doubt I will get framed. What happens with the picture isn’t what strikes me, it’s the urge behind it–the fact that someone saw the Wylde Swan and, without knowing anything about the ship or the people on board, felt it ought to be (even if it wasn’t) remembered.
Of the many stops the ship made over the course of the trip only four had been planned from the beginning. The others were places to hide from the wind or islands that fell in our path on the way to another. I’ve discovered the true meaning of going where the wind takes you.
Our days on board were spent, for the most part, busily. A very romantic notion, if not an altogether accurate one, of sailing involves a lot of standing at the railing of a ship and looking out at the horizon. While there is time for this on a tall ship, there’s always something else you could be doing. I quickly found that between stops there is both nowhere to go and no time at all; there are sails to raise or take down and ropes to coil and decks to scrub (another common perception of sailing that is much less romantic and much more accurate) and dishes to wash and meals to cook and toilets and tables and floors and walls and showers to clean and there is always something that needs to be fixed or clothes that could be washed and, if all else fails, you could always be standing watch or steering. As trainees we did all these things, both pleasant and unpleasant, and I’ve found the best received question you can ask on a tall ship is “What can I do next?”
Of course this question doesn’t suit everyone at all times and it would be a lie to say we all hurried from aft to foredeck constantly at work, like busy little elves, until we fell asleep each night of exhaustion. When docked or anchored the priorities of the crew and trainees were markedly less productive and often, though not always, revolved around some sort of fermented liquid.
While on board we participated in group sessions with the aim of making us better people by the time we stepped off the Wylde Swan for the last time in Bergen. There are trainees who are leaving the boat better than when they got on and if the same is true of myself, or if I have remained the same, or, even, if I have gotten worse, I doubt I’ll know immediately. But I am leaving with full hands, most certainly. I have a lot of baubles and trinkets to fill my suitcase, I have a lot of memories as well.
The largest among these memories is not the misty, green hills of Ireland, or the Scottish heather fields, not the blue and grey-green oceans, not the dramatic coasts of the Hebrides, not the pubs and the fermented liquids, not the ruins, not the mountains around Ullapool, or the pink sun rising over a rowdy ocean–the largest memory is of cold nights on the deck of the Wylde Swan, nothing around but ocean, no sensation but a gentle sort of rocking, no dramatic starry vistas, no full, swollen moon (though I did see all of these things), only clouds and the cozy, yellow light of the Navigation room and the conversation of crew and trainees, rising and falling with the waves, talking until we could see the sun.
I am leaving, if not better, then different. I am leaving with the certainty that this has been my first trip aboard the Wylde Swan, but not nearly my last. I am leaving with the hope that the same is true for the University of Houston.