I feel like I’ve had a love affair with the ocean for lifetimes. And I probably have. The more I learn about life and about my life, the more I understand my love for the sea.
As a child, my family packed our bags and spent every August in a little summer cottage by the sea on the coast of Maine. I spent my younger days there playing by the water, running around on the rocks and seaweed, and having adventures. Life for me there was relaxed.
There was no school stuff to deal with, and my parents let us run around, calling us home for meals by ringing a big, hand-held bell. In fact, the most challenging days were the rainy ones, when we were tired of being soggy wet and came indoors, looking for something to do. Puzzles were my go-to on a rainy day.
When I was by the sea, I could run free, without the threat of my mother attacking me. It was a safe place for me. Because we were on vacation, my father was around full-time, and his constant presence meant a reprieve for me from being the object of my mother’s venom.
Dad would take us out on the sea in boats, and shared his love of boats and the sea with us. He was my first navigation instructor, showing me how to set and follow a compass course, and how to read a nautical chart. He taught me about balancing the load in a boat, telling us to “trim ship!” when the boat was tipping over to one side. And he was the first one to teach me how to fish.
Some of our grand boating adventures included visiting local islands for picnics. And there were the trips into the harbor where we kids would buy penny candy. I can still remember loading all five of us into a skiff that couldn’t have been more than ten feet long, with a two or three horse outboard motor on the back, puttering all the way into the harbor and back.
Left to our own devices, we kids would wade into the water’s edge or explore the tide pools. We’d swim off a nearby dock, or inflate rafts and float around. More fun times were had simply messing around in rowboats. So many adventures. And even a few ending up with a boat being swamped. The nice thing about a wooden rowboat is, even when it’s full of water, it doesn’t sink.
When we were old enough (8) we entered the island’s little sailing program, which remains active today. We learned our eight basic knots, and learned how to sail, memorizing a few key nautical rules of the road. I learned what the wind and current does to a boat, and how to navigate in and out of our little harbor. I also learned race strategy and about being a good sport, even when I didn’t want to be one.
As I grew up, my summer time by the sea changed from being a time of mostly play and freedom, to dipping my toe in the workforce as a teen. I spent one entire summer living there, working in the big local harbor as a motel maid and also scooping ice cream at a parlor that catered to mostly tourists. I loved my motel job making up the rooms, because the rooms were on a pier over the water of the beautiful and bustling harbor, and I got to do my work on my own. No one looking over my shoulder telling me what to do. The ice cream job wasn’t too bad, but after a while, the insincerity and BS of my boss helped make it easy to leave that job, freeing up some time to relax before school started up again.
College took me inland for four years, and after graduating and fumbling around for a while, having a job just to have something to do and earn some money, the sea called to my heart once again.
I listened to that call, first taking a class that brought me back to the sea, this time living on a schooner and learning about humpback whales. And then finding work on boats, back in the harbor where I’d scooped ice cream and made up beds as a teenager. After a few years of exploring working on smaller boats, I went back to school and ended up working on ships around the world.
I got to sail the Mediterranean Sea twice as a maritime cadet, tying up in several ports to pick up supplies. And a few years later, when I was on the job, one of the ships I joined in Norfolk, Virginia, became my home for nine months, taking me to New England and across the Atlantic to the UK and working on cable that lay on the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. That tour will forever have a special place in my heart, as it’s where I met and fell in love with my husband, going on our first official dates when we docked in Scotland.
Life on board ship took me to ports across the globe, from Oakland and San Diego, to Djibouti in Africa and the Red Sea. I’ll never forget the day we were steaming down the Red Sea, when I saw a large patch of what I assumed to be trash. Smaller ships from second world countries had no qualms about dumping bags of trash overboard. But as I had the helmsman alter course to miss the dark plastic bags, I soon realized they took on triangular shapes. And the closer we got, the clearer the shapes became, until I realized they were triangular dorsal fins. What we saw was a gigantic school of sharks, slowly milling about near the surface. They were all different sizes, the largest being around forty feet.
During my time on ships, I sailed waters from the Persian Gulf, to the Arabian Sea, out to the Indian Ocean, past Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines across to Guam and the Marianas, and north to Japan, supplying US Navy ships. We picked up supplies in several ports, and as much as I enjoyed getting out and doing some shopping and grabbing a meal, I loved my time out at sea. The night sky crossing the Indian Ocean was so dark, I could see stars all the way down to the horizon. It was amazing! And when we hit patches of bioluminescence, the ship’s wake lit up with the most beautiful glow.
One of my last ship’s tours took me from San Diego, working off the Pacific Coast, dipping down to Mazatlan for an R&R port call, and eventually up to the port of Seattle, WA. Synchronistically, the Puget Sound area has become my home for the past 18 years.
Even after leaving life aboard ship, I worked part-time on deck of a small local ferry until I was so pregnant that I could barely fit between the cars I was parking, and I couldn’t handle the long shifts.
Being out on the water, seeing the horizon, has always been mesmerizing to me. I could stare at it for hours. Where the sea meets the sky. And as a merchant mariner, I actually got paid to stare at the horizon every day.
One of my favorite things about being on the water has always been navigating. Getting from here to there. Learning how to set and follow a course and actually end up where you want to end up. And one of the coolest memories of all was during a voyage from Guam to the Persian Gulf. Getting the navigation plan ready on short notice wasn’t so fun, but putting in lots of overtime over the course of a few weeks got the job done.
I worked my regular eight-hour shift (we were tied up in port) plus an additional four hours every day to get all the charts hand corrected and ready for the trip. There were many charts to go through and make sure all of the information on them was correct and up to date; and there had been some recent major changes in the Straits of Malacca that affected several charts. Basically, I had to plot out and draw new “roads” (traffic separation schemes) where ships could go within the strait. Lots of picky measuring, drawing, and coloring in (thank goodness for grade school skills!).
Once all the charts were accurate and up to date, I had to pick waypoints and draw track lines that would become our course, being mindful of things like rocks, islands, rules of who owned what waters, and where we could legally and safely transit. Based on when we were expected to be at the port of Jebel Ali, UAE, and based on the speed my captain wanted us to travel, I calculated the date and time we needed to leave Guam. Yup. I calculated how many days, hours, and minutes it would take to make the voyage.
Our longest transit without seeing any land had us looking at nothing but horizon for just under a week, as we exited the Strait of Malacca and headed into the Indian Ocean. One of the waypoints I used to navigate was thirty-five miles off the southern tip of India (as specified by the captain), and as we approached the pencil dot I’d written on the paper chart, off India, I switched the range of my radar from twelve miles, out to twenty-four miles, and then to forty-eight. There is was: an echo off land. Just exactly where and when it was supposed to be, thirty-five miles away. As much as I completely trusted our GPS navigation system, there is nothing like the confirmation of having land show up just when and where you expect, especially after days of seeing nothing but water.
If I’d had someone on my ship that didn’t know about celestial navigation or global positioning system (GPS) navigation, they would think it an incredible miracle to be able to sail around the world with such amazing precision and accuracy. And as much as I understand and trust navigation technology, there is still a sense of awe that comes over me every time I see it work.
I’ve been very fortunate to have earned a living doing something I loved, and I will always cherish memories of looking out from the bridge, scanning the horizon, and watching the sea swell and jump with the wind. And to be able to put my passion for navigation into action as a ship’s officer and the ship’s navigator is an experience no one will ever be able to take away from me.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on the sea is that it’s ever-changing. And if you are prepared for all types of weather, take care of your vessel, and know how to navigate storms, you’ll do just fine. As for navigation, the more I know and trust my navigation tools, the easier it becomes. For me, as much as navigation is about getting from here to there, it’s also very much about the journey between waypoints. Fair winds and following seas.