The Pink One: A Love Story

We'd been at sea for four months, give or take a lifetime. The crew planned a midnight galley party on the night we were charted for Dixon Crossing, the rough expanse of open ocean that would take us into Canadian waters. It was The Big One.  We worked all evening to secure the vessel, plate by plate, glass by glass. We tied everything down and tucked away all the wine bottles. In the bridge, the radios squawked warnings of thirteen foot seas. 
The galley party was a costume party. One of the stewards drew up a poster on a piece of cardboard and tacked it up in crew quarters. Best costume gets a prize. A prize! The officers would be the judges and the captain herself would make the final decision.

Because we lived on our ship, the universe Endeavour, the very idea of costumes posed a serious challenge. We had only our stiff blue uniforms to wear, and very few other personal possessions besides that. Any new thing that wound up on the boat was coveted, it didn't matter what it was. Someone once sent me a package with a plastic drinking straw that looped around your eyes like glasses. The crew fought over it and by the end of dinner it was in three pieces.

All this to say: we wanted that prize.
So we docked in Ketchikan, Alaska, and raced into town to hunt for thrift stores until we realized we were in Ketchikan, Alaska and there were no thrift stores. Just overpriced kitch stores for tourists, and that's where I found her, forty dollars steep and pink-beautiful:
Much later that night, after the passengers were sleeping soundly and all the eggs put away, we crept into the galley and we danced. We danced a whole summer's worth of dancing, since this was the first party we'd had after four months of working 15 hour days and nights. We danced like sober sailors who were almost home.

Then we went into The Big One. The floor was rocking back and forth. The waves pounding against the steel bulkheads sounded as loud and hard as waves of splintered ice. We kept dancing. Some times we'd all go crashing against one wall, then slide across the floor and crash into the other wall.

Then the waves got very big indeed, and the ship lost an engine. The captain was on the radio and the engineers went scurrying from the galley to the bridge. We limped into Canadian waters at a pathetic 4 knots, and something was awry with our international papers. The captain and the mates had their hands full. The engineers were down below studying pages and pages of code in their party outfits.

There was no costume judging that night, and there were no prizes.

I felt mega-stiffed. Then the season ended, and the crew parted ways. And I was a lonely soul without them.

Some time later, after I'd lost my sea legs, my wingmen decided to throw a big party at their cabin in Montana. It was Sebby's birthday. The theme of the party was Peter Pan. "Lost boys. Eternal youth," said Ryan over the phone. "Have you any footy pajamas?"

This is when I knew the world was still looking after me.

I told him I was ready. I was ready for confetti. I dug up my Alaskan pink onesie drop seater, threw it in the passenger seat with the dog and we all three hit the road for Montana.

That's the story of how I found the Pink One. But it's not the end.

The Repositioning

The Southbound trip- the Reposition, as it's called, when the ship goes back to her home harbor- is when the whole season snapped into place for me.  We went everywhere, from Glacier Bay to Gloomy Knob, Lamplough and Bay of Pillars to the ice fields of La Conte and the Salish Sea. The crew gathered closer, and we spent more time with each other, any time we could, but especially late at night, after the ship was asleep. We had a dance party in the galley as the ship rolled through the huge waves of Dixon Crossing, we filmed a movie- all of us- we were let lose in Ketchikan and Petersburg to spend time with each other out of uniform, away from work and the passengers.
We got by on less sleep and more vitamins, B-12s and adrenal pills, nicotine vapor sucked from electronic cigarettes. The energy was somehow both manic and sustained- we kept it up the whole trip, bouncing around the ship like bunnies, prone to loud, tearful fits of laughter, never flagging. The rumors of gale warnings and big seas for our open crossings kept us fueled by excitement, the miles rolling beneath us bolstered us, each one taking us closer to home.  
Professionally, the ship ran like clockwork, like the swiss rail system.  The deckhands, engineers, mates, stewards, guides- everyone had the place on lockdown. Even when we lost an engine and crawled through British Columbia at 3.9 knots, even when half of the occupants onboard got taken by a fever, even when we rerouted to Petersburg, throwing off our whole meticulously planned schedule, because a man had a terrible infection which was preventing him from breathing- nobody on the outside would have realized that anything was wrong. We worked diligently, and cheerfully, and collectively we ran with whatever needing running with.
At the beginning of the two week trip, we dropped anchor in Pavlov Harbor for a whole day, meaning kayak trips and leading hikes in the rain from 8 till 6. My trip came home after crew dinner. Someone had saved me a plate and I ate it on the fantail with Conner, both of us standing up, still wearing our drenched clothes, listening to the engines firing up. We were going to cruise all night which was good- everyone slept well while we were underway.
 It took me one minute and forty seven seconds to eat my dinner. I was in a hurry because in just a few minutes I was to give a presentation, one that I was always excited to give:  Expedition Photography. I loved this presentation because I created it out of photos all shot in Southeast Alaska, and over the course of the season it had evolved into a photography workshop in the field and a workshop around the boat. I'd co-led the workshops with National Geographic photographers we'd had as special guests onboard, and they all had good things to say about it. But the best part was how excited the passengers would be afterwards, always asking questions and wanting all the buttons to be explained on their cameras. I'd catch people for days afterwards, crouching down on the bow, trying to get a shot of whales framed by the holes cut into the sides of the boat, just as I'd instructed them to.
I had just enough time- if I hurried- to change costumes and be presentable. I ran down to my room, peeled off the wet guiding clothes, buttoned my uniform and tucked it into the dress pants, switched the extra tuffs for the nice shoes, dried my hair with a towel. Then, still at a run, through the watertight doors that have to be unbolted and then sealed shut behind you, up two flights of stairs to lounge.

The lounge was full of people drinking cocktails and playing card games as I prepared it for the presentation, pulling down the screen and closing all the blinds. Just as I hooked up the computer and was about to begin, the Captain radioed me to get down to a guest's cabin immediately.
There in the room, lying propped up in his bed, was a man with severe dyspnea, gasping for breath, his skin pale and feverish. In an instant I switched modes, had the trauma kit and the oxygen brought to his room. I uncoiled the tubes and cracked the tank, watched as relief spreads through his whole body and his blood oxygen saturation soared back up. I took his history, his pulse, listened to the wheezing in his lungs, struggled to find a blood pressure. He needed to get to a hospital, that much was obvious. Just how we would get there from here was a matter for the captain.

Someone asked if I could still give the presentation- everybody was still sitting up there, waiting to see it.

It felt like a movie; I pulled the stethoscope from around my neck, peeled off blue exam gloves and reached for the microphone. I was soaring on adrenaline, proud of myself for having done right by my instructors and used my medical training correctively. I did no harm! I crowed to myself, first rule of EMTs! I actually helped somebody who was very sick.  The presentation went perfectly, the questions finished up one minute before dinner, dinner was called, and my day was essentially over.
The days flew by like this. Not always so dramatic, but all full of tasks that felt meaningful and fun and if they weren't, it was just more to talk about late at night as we painted our toenails in the laundry room. Mornings on the water, afternoons on the glacier, evenings on the bow watching humpbacks bubble net feeding only yards from the bow. I took hundreds of photos, led each hike and paddle without incident or accident or injury. In the later part of the trip, a flu ran through the crew and the passengers. It was a nasty flu which presented with red runny eyes and a deep, rattling cough. I went to their rooms, took temperatures, doled out medicine, lay cold cloths onto  foreheads. One woman was so sick that I checked in on her every two hours, although I could really only offer Theraflu and tea. A few days later, when she was feeling better and able to walk around the ship, she and her husband beckoned me into their room, where she handed me a necklace of beautiful, multi-colored pearls as a thank you.

I wrote honestly about how much I struggled with everything at the beginning of the season, so I know you'll believe me when I say that I got very good at my job. I took great pride and delight in it.

Tuesday, two days after we arrive  home. The ship is docked in the port of Seattle, next to the quiet, empty Wilderness Explorer and great steel crabbing boats and fishing vessels of Deadliest Catch fame.  The guests are gone, the crew party is over, the laborious tasks of washing and packing and putting all the expedition gear into storage is gone. Down on the main deck, someone is hammering iron covers over the ships windows, preparing it for its rough journey down south to Baja.
I'm sitting on the sun deck, the last minute of my last hour of employment with this company, listening as the guy reads my end of season review in third person.

Effort, he reads. Melina did not show much effort onboard. If she had showed more effort, she would have been a more complete team member.

It goes something like that.

The guy has considered me worthless since the beginning. Back then, when I didn't know my port from starboard, I very nearly let him convince me that I was. But, due to a great many people, friends and strangers and crew members and their tireless encouragement, and their own candid stories of struggle and perserverence, I stayed on. Gradually, I grew much, much stronger and much better at my job. I took interest, then entertainment, then pure curiosity in the outright condesension of the guy. I took notes- today he walked out of the room as I was speaking. Today was my mid-season review, he stood up when it was my turn to talk- "I'm distracted-" he said, and walked out.

This shitty end of season review is no surprise, nothing I hadn't seen coming.

He continues reading about my lack of effort, my needed extra direction, my need to channel my creativity into something more 'relevant.' My mind is half listening, half wandering. I think, very calmly, very collectively, about what reaction I should have when he was finished.

There are two stories being told here. And in this version of the story I'm worthless and stupid and I just don't believe it.

I don't believe it, and I don't care.

The second the guy is done reading I pick up the pen, sign my name and stand up. "Do you want to chat about any of this?" He asks, obviously confused, expecting a fight. I say no. Because there is no point, absolutely no point in spending one more instant with this person, someone who seemed to find no value in everything I take pride in. Signing that document means nothing to me. It is not an admittance to laziness, not a resignation, neither defeat nor triumph. It is nothing.

And then I leave. I put my bag over my shoulder and run down the gangway to the other side of the dock, to the bar for a final beer with my crew mates, the best of the fleet, my treasure. The sun hovers low to the West and the windows of the boats bobbing at the dock glint gold, sparkling, like an entire city lit up at night.

I'm still out here

It is my last day in Juneau. The weather is starting to turn, it's September, it's not summer anymore, and now when crew members leave the boat for vacation, they are not coming back. The season is ending- today marks beginning of our two week Southbound voyage back to Seattle. Back home.

But for now, home remains the Endeavour. Actually, to be more specific, home is the crew of the Endeavour. I could be on any vessel on the sea, at any port in the world, and as long as I was with this crew, I would be home.
It's cliche, it's terrible, it's a fucking travesty, truly, to be so sentimental, and I'm feeling the collective slap across the face from every writer out there who is worth their salt; but in this quick, crystalline moment- a coffee shop somewhere in Southeast Alaska with the wind blowing through the door and my ship pointed homewards- I don't care. This crew, we love each other, and there is no other way to put it.
This sentimentality is gutting my writing style, but it's worth it. It's worth it because I'm happy, and the ship is fun, and the work never stops, ever, but it's studded with these ice-pure moments where look after one another so naturally, so instinctively, it's as if there never was any other way.
Our final tour around Juneau was a fun one- sunshine, good natured Australians, whales breaching through Icy Straight, bears fishing in Iyukean inlet fifteen feet from my kayak, polar plunges off of the stern. One morning Conor and I went tidepooling at Port Houghton and found watermelon colored anemones and fat, red-spined sea cucumbers and enormous purple sea stars all undulating back and forth in the water. We had started the morning with espresso from the bar, adrenal pills from my stash and vitamin B-12 from one of the stewards and maybe it was just a little too much natural energy, we were laughing so hard we could barely talk, and we had all our guests laughing and marveling at the weird-ass mollusks and gorgeous, grotesque intertidal things, and we kept saying "we have to come down, we really need to come down a little-" but we just couldn't.  
After the beach, I got in a small boat with the second mate, Jordan Davis, and we took off looking for whales but we found none, just some screaming eagles and an osprey and a few porpoises. Merril had loaded our boat with Chai tea and the sky was so deeply blue, the day wonderfully warm, and Jordan and I kept everybody laughing and this buoyant mood kept going....and going.....and going. And it didn't end till all the guests walked up the gangplank in tears this morning, and Jordan left too, done for the season, and it was very difficult for me not to cry watching him go, because I've grown so deeply fond of him, and as much as I swoon for the whales and the sea stars and the wolves howling on the beach, there nothing compared to the Conor Adams and the Meril Clarkes and the Jordan Davis's of this world.
But hey, it's time to go now. At this morning's crew meeting, Captain Jill leaned back in her chair and said, "What the hell, let's take her back to Seattle."

We're going home, boys! Pull the anchor and all that. I won't be writing for another two weeks, probably, but I'll be thinking of you guys, all of you reading this- all of you who have sent mail, who've called, who are waiting back in Seattle, all of you who sailed with me and left the ship too soon. I'll be thinking of you all the time. In fifteen days we'll be sitting around a table at Fishermen's terminal  sharing a round. I can't wait.

But I haven't let boat world yet. Not yet.

I'm still out here.

My Barrel of Merils

There is literally nothing on this funny blue marble that compares to the joy, loveliness and divine empathy that comes from having that one perfect girlfriend to sail with.

Sheer luck placed us on the same weird boat during the same strange season,  and I consider it my greatest piece of fortune of the whole summer.

Meril Clarke, you get your own post.
I'm crying my eyes out in crew quarters because it's day one of the season, we're underway through Canada churning a white wake on our two week voyage to Juneau, and already I've gotten in an argument with this boy above me that has me nearly spitting with rage. (This animosity will last the entire season and to be clear, the season, as I'm writing this, is not over yet. We have a few hundred sea miles left to go.)

But I can't stay in my room alone all day, looking at myself in the mirror. 

Out of the crew room, up the metal stairs, through the watertight doors locked in place by steel 'dogs' and up the steps to the lounge, my head down. The first person I see is the other blonde girl on the crew, her voice soft and lilting with a Louisiana drawl. I don't know her name yet. She sees my red face, messed up hair, expression. These are the first words she ever spoke to me:

"What? No! Oh honey, dry those cryin' eyes."

Since then, Meril has somehow has been my lucky charm, guardian of my sanity, this unflappable, unsinkable burst of joy who can communicate everything about how her day is going by a single eyebrow raise, the sharpest, the smartest, the most gorgeous girl sailing the sea right now. She's 27, the same age as me, yet somehow has about 100 seasons on boats behind her. She is overworked and underthanked, and in more than two months on the boat I have never shared so much one a minute of free time together.

And so our friendship is patched together by stolen moments, when we're both working. Whenever the boy sees us talking he scowls and assigns me some work up on another deck, intimidated, shaking in his shoes, by the strength and autonomy and irreverence that Meril and I find when we're around one another.
Our friendship is sealed by a thousand stolen moments of respit from our ragged exhaustion, a thousand waves rocking the boat on the grey open Pacific, one hundred tiny islands, one thousand moon jellies gliding by as we laugh at the absurdity of our lives onboard the floating circus boat Endeavour. She calls me Linafish, a nickname adapted from something that Andrew once called me in a letter. I call her my Barrel of Merils, because it rhymes, and because I wish I had a whole barel full of her.

I'm on a very short vacation right now, and in a week I'll be back on the ship. I'll be happy enough to return, there is something very alluring about the weird life at sea, but it's not the sea that's calling, it's this letter I have from Meril that says "Linafish, when are you coming back to me?"

The very attentive lover

Yesterday was national tell a joke day. So, in the spirit of being a day late and a dollar short, today I'm going to tell you a quick story about a hilarious linguistic trap that I recently set for myself and quickly became ensnarled in.

Now, if you read this blog somewhat regularly, you'll know that somehow I ended up working as a Naturalist on a boat in Alaska. Which is unfortunate for all involved, because I know next to nothing about wildlife. 

Or geology. Or glaciology, botany, ornithology, biology or anything else I'm supposed to be an expert in. The things that I don't know about Alaska could fill a rather extensive collection of field guides. 

But I'm an excellent expedition guide. Safe, experienced, always on time, very well liked.

And I'm a pretty good medic- reliable, caring, knowledgeable within my limited but still useful scope of practice.

But I am the world's worst naturalist.  How my title job lept from the ideal "Expedition Guide and Boat EMT" to the frustratingly misguided "Naturalist" or worst- "Interpreter"- is something I may never understand.

Anyhow, a couple of times a week I'll end up as the naturalist on a small boat tour, motoring up to glaciers and gliding along the shoreline in search of bears and eagles. When the glaciers calve and the bears are mating on the beach, or, on one grim but fascinating tour- the daddy bear is ripping the head off the baby bear and eating it live- I don't have much talking to do. The passengers are pretty satisfied just to watch the show.

But on the days when nature isn't ponying up, I have about an hour and a half of silence to fill.
When I've run out of my basic eagle facts and my basic bear facts, I can usually get away with talking about ship life and boat lore. It's bad luck to whistle on the ship, for instance, or have a potted plant.  I'm very interested in these types of things and they tend to stick in my brain better than, say, the average weight of a humpback or the hibernation habits of a coastal brown bear.

Just the other day, I was on an extremely uneventful boat ride. We were supposed to motor up into Ford's Terror, which is like Yosemite only nine times longer, but the tide was flowing and a tidal surge prevented us from getting there. So we had an hour to kill in a pretty but unremarkable bay in Endicott Arm, looking at bits of ice and rock walls.

After exhausting all of my ice material (slush brash growlers bergie bits ice bergs glaciers, in that order) and all of my rock wall trivia (all of this rock is technically "exotic rock," please do not ask me any questions about it," I moved on to boat trivia.

"Did you know," I said to the sixteen guests, standing up in the prow of the boat. "That the word Bosun originates from the word Boatswain."

They appeared interested.

"And Swain means attentive lover. Isn't that interesting? So the Boatswain is the attentive lover of the boats." Our relief Bosun, Adam, had just told me that the day before, over dinner, and I was thrilled to have a new piece trivia for my collection.

My guests nodded, attentive in their own right. I plugged forward.

"It's like the coxswain, for rowing? The coxswain is the attentive lover of the-"
Hold up, I thought to myself. The attentive lover of the cock? That can't be right.

There was a long pause. Somewhere, from the tops of the dark granite Fjiords, an eagle cried out in distress.

"Of the what?" asked an older gentlemen in the stern of the boat.

Ladies and gentlemen, for one thousand dollars, the correct term would have been "cockpit." But, like a possum stuck in the suicidal freeze of headlights, I couldn't think. The only thing running through my head was:  Don't say attentive lover of the cock. Don't say attentive lover of the cock. Don't do it. Don't say it. Seconds dragged by.

I pulled my parachute.

I said, "The skeleton of a grizzly bear bares an eery resemblance to the skeleton of a human. Isn't that interesting?" Then I sat down.
There are many prime examples of me being a terrible naturalist, but this one really takes the cock.

Please Dry Out My Under Things

This morning, the boat seemed to be inside of this dream world. The softest fog, like feather down, covered her on all sides. I turned my head as I paddled away and saw her floating there, suspended between sea and sky. It was mysterious, and cold, pieces of white and blue ice drifting around her hull.

It rains, it rains, it rains. The rain erases the boundaries of the physical world. I feel like I could jump off of the bow and turn a very slow somersault in the sky before drifting down into the water, which would be the same temperature as the air. I feel like I could breathe underwater, that I am breathing underwater.
And, that's it. That's as poetic as I can get about the weather. Everything is wet and slippery and it requires extreme concentration to climb up and down the ladders, especially when you're trying to hold onto a cup of coffee and an armful of other people's long underwear that they want dried out. How? How do you expect us to dry your things? There is water everywhere. Water. Everywhere. 
With all that aside, we're having a wonderful time! The adventures never quit!

 But I'm sorry, all I can write about today is this insidious rain. That, and how sometimes we open the hatch in the galley and crawl down into the engine room where there is hot air blowing out from some sort of fan or level. We hang up all the wet gear down there, in the deafening, churning guts of the ship, wearing ridiculously big head phones, miming to one another since we can't talk. It's quite an operation just to dry out somebody's damp long underwear. And once, somebody lost his glasses down in the bilge, and also somebody dropped a guest's shoes down into the bilge, and once somebody poured oil all over a guest's brand new hiking boots, and really people, I wish I could just be straight with you: throw your clothes over the shower curtain, turn the heat up in your room, it will be dry by morning.  Don't give it to us, because we don't mean to, but we might destroy it. 

As the sea will allow

These notes are written alone in my crew cabin, below the water line, as much as I can possible write after each long long day. The full stories will be flushed out when I come home.

Adam is our bosun this week. He plays guitar and has a beautiful voice although it's a little bit difficult to get him to talk. The other night we sang chanties together. I liked everything about it: the sounds of water splashing against the hull, the dim yellow light of crew quarters, the late hour. Adam looks like a young sea captain and I take a lot of photos of him. He taught me a song that went like this:

It’s wave over wave, sea over bow
I’m as happy a man as the sea will allow
There is no other life for a sailor like me
Than to sail the salt sea boys, sail the sea.

I particularly like this song now because sometimes, sometimes, it's true. Sometimes the wind is blowing salt off of the ocean and I look around, I live on a ship with all of my friends, I'm as happy as this weird, transient, rocking, listing world will allow. 

Today we saw humpbacks bubble feeding. These great pods of whales would blow a ring of bubbles under the surface of the water and then emerge all at once from the middle, twelve whales with massive mouths gaping open. The shrieked and groaned when they came up. We got into a little boat to be close to them, and a baby whale breached right in front of me, it’s glistening, barnacled skin so close I could have reached out and touched it.  The spectacle lasted all day long. 

Towards the end of the day when the sunlight was finally slanting, I was out in a little boat and three whales blew in succession, and the sun caught the spray so that each blow was a rainbow.  At crew dinner that night I kept saying over and over “I just saw whales blow rainbows. I just saw whales blowing rainbows."

Happy a man as the sea will allow.

I woke up at three in the morning to something banging on the boat. It sounded like something in the water was smashing repeatedly against the hull. The boat was rocking, not back and forth but up and down, like airplane turbulance. My bed would fall away from me and then bounce back up.  I could hear footsteps going up and down the stairs, although that’s nothing new because my bed is directly under the stairs. I sat up in bed and wondered if we were sinking. If we had hit ice and been crushed. I contemplated going upstairs to investigate. But what happened instead is that I fell back asleep. breakfast, most of the crew were talking about it. We had all woken up at three in the morning to a the dreamy thoughts of shipwreck.
“What you felt was the boat getting the shit kicked out of it,” said Scott, the former cop-who-trained-Iraqi-cops-turned-liscened deckhand who had been working the night shift. “Iceburgs!”

Jordan, our second mate with the sharpest, keenest sense of humor on the planet, looked up from his plate and laughed at all of us. “What woke you all up last night was two foot waves." 
We were quiet.
"Two feet."
“How big to the waves get in Baja?” someone asked from the corner of the table.
“Twelve feet.”
Two foot waves and I thought the ship was in dire peril. Shows what I know. But the truth is, our Endeavour, she doesn’t have a keel. She's got a flat bottom and even two foot seas can send it pitching hard.

 Big new: I know longer hope for some epic but ultimately benign disaster that would have the ship hauled off to shipyard for the rest of the summer, because I’ve started to sink into ship-life. I’ve started to look forward to my days. I like Reid Glacier, in all her elegant, moon like monstrosity, and I keep my  eyes on Margery and Dawes whenever we float past, hoping for some calving and the swell of wake that will follow. The food is better under the relief chef, Mike, and he flirts with the girls on crew like all good chefs should.  

I've forgotten the running countdown of the days till I can go home. Now when I fall asleep I worry about not having enough days left on the ship, because I know exactly how boat word works. Everyone will be on different ships next season, or no ship at all, and all the friends I have here, the stalwart stewards and exhausted engineers and the hilarious mates, as much as I love them now, I'm not going to see them ever again.

Already this week I've been almost written up for:

1. Not forking over my prescribed anxiety medication to my supervisor. It's captains orders to hand over any medication you're prescribed when you're on the ship. But I wouldn't do it. Boy, did I get into trouble for that one. I eventually did. Maritime rules are funny. If you disobey your captain you can get locked in a cabin alone and fed bread and water. Or go to jail. 

2. Not wearing my uniform. This one really ticked me off. It's not worth getting into. "This is your final warning before your'e written up," was how it was worded. And I stood there, I had my arms full of rainboots, and thought, "My final warning? When was my first warning?"

Would it be too terrible to ask how many write ups I can accumulate before something actually happens? Because I only have four weeks left on the boat anyway.  I don't think I will ask that.

Today I don't feel like a sailor or happy or anything. I wonder how I got out here in the first place.

Today was different. Better. I don't know how to explain it. It's been raining for days but my mood is buoyant. All day I sang the song that Adam taught me. I walk the decks singing the chorus which is the only part I can remember. “I’m as happy a man as the  sea will allow.”

Today we were close in the Bay to our sister ship, the Wilderness Explorer. Their chief engineer and their chief mate took a rescue boat between our ships to pick up some fuel. The WEX floated in the blue evening light so close to us I could see people standing on the bow waving.

Randall is on that ship, and I had this idea that he’d come on the small boat just to put his arms around me. We sail so close to one another but I haven’t seen him since  we left Seattle on May 27th. I got so giddy about this idea of seeing him in person that I ran circles around the ship. I put my radio on channel 74, the channel we’d agreed to talk to eachother on if our boats ever sailed in site of one another.

It was invented idea, there as no room for him on the rescue ship.  But I hung out on the fantail anyway and watched the little boat come and go. I gave handsome chief mate Kevin an envelope with a chocolate bar and some almond butter for Randall and saw them melt away into the distance.

And just then, Randal patched through on Channel 74 and we talked over the radio for the first time all season. It’s weird having a person you love so much just ahead of you in  the middle of nowhere, and you know they are there, but you never get to see them. It’s very similar to just not seeing them at all.  
Between the Safari Endeavour and the Wilderness Explorer
This week I became an amateur glaciologist and an expert in pinepeds. I put on a photography slide show and gave a performance about nautical terminology, shuffled kayaks endlessly on the easy dock, threw jokes back and forth between the cheery deck staff and every night cleaned the wound of the poor, red haired steward with the mangled toes. I wrapped knees and examined sores and tried to amuse myself with books and music at night, but I never had much energy.

Last night I dreamt I was halfway up a huge cliff with Andrew, and we were just climbing like normal, nothing out of the ordinary. Climbing all day, pitch after pitch, like we do when I'm home. I woke up and immediately tried to close my eyes and go back there. 
Total Soul on Vacation

Well, chef quit. Not the flirting relief chef but the real head chef who was supposed to come back from vacation today.

What happens when the chef quits the day before 55 guests walk onboard for a week?

I guess we'll see.
The hotel manager quit as well. She's married to the chef so it makes sense. Just this morning she walked down the gang plank in Juneau so we all thought she was coming back onboard. But she was just coming back to collect her things and Chef's things and she's flying right back to Seattle.

It's truly sad because she is an incredible, kind woman, sharp as a tack. I'll miss her on the ship. I'll miss the chef, too, even though he never spoke too much. The stewards are being all shuffled around now and we are running with a very, very small crew. 

The days will stretch even longer as we each take on more and more duties. 

This is a great experiment.

I still feel like a journalist, although not so much undercover  anymore because I know a lot of sailors who are reading this. 


  At this point, having been out here for months, with no lease in Seattle anymore and no exact "home" to go home to anymore, I start wondering about where I really live and what is really mine. I feel like I'm hovering, floating between the ship and some other place that only exists inside my head. Then I'll look out at the flat Pacific and realize, I'm sort of nowhere right now. No longer with the urge to bolt from the ship life, I wonder how long I can remain living in nowhere. It's comforting, to live in a shrunken world that's inside of much bigger one. And it's certainly not lonely anymore.

The under cover reporter

The world got quiet, it was never quite day or quiet night. The night turned the color of sky turned the color of sea turned the color the ice.
-Josh Ritter, Another New World

Notes from sea, written in my crew cabin at the end of each fourteen hour day. 

Sunday was short and disorientating, I was alone on a plane, plunging into Juneau with a view of my tiny boat from way up high. I took a taxi to the boat. I walked up the gangway and felt nothing until I started seeing my friends waving from the windows. It feels a little like coming home to the strangest family on earth. Today I stayed in my crew room the whole afternoon and evening, dizzy and weirdly exhausted, my heart skittering around in my chest like something being thrown around in a dryer. Out on the bow we passed the Brother Islands which are full of rude, roaring sea lions. I saw none of them. I slept intermediately and ate toast for dinner but there was no butter to be found. My favorite deckhand worked the night shift, and since I couldn't sleep all the way through the night, he made me some tea and brought it to me in my bed. 

I was up today on Tuesday morning feeling calmer and level headed. We played on Reid glacier today, and there was this whole family that ran up the rocky side and went sliding down the ice on their backs, and it was fun to watch. The water around Reid Glacier is turquoise and milky with glacial silt. The whole place looks like a construction area, or Jupiter's moon. 

Later on I brought out the colored pencils and started drawing pictures with the little kids. I tried to draw a map of the Reid with pictures of all the wildflowers and tracks and marbled murelettes that we usually point out, but it didn't come out exactly how I'd imagined it.

 One of the kids has a father who is a very famous movie director in LA, he’s done a lot of animations and he started coloring glaciers with us. He drew a little sketch of a calving glacier and it was really good. It looked exactly like you’d think a movie director’s sketch would look like. We were all crowded around this little table. I found out later that he directed Puss in Boots and Shrek and a lot of other things. He is the nicest man, with two little boys and his wife on board. He has a very dry subtle sense of humor. 

After dinner this evening, his little boy was careening down the passageways the other day towards me. "Catch that kid!" Shouted the famous film director. I bent down and took the boy up in my arms. "Now, take all his clothes off and put him in the bath!"

There are a couple of crew members “down” which is nautical parlance for "not feeling good."  Whenever the deck hands get sick they fight it like dogs, refusing to lie down because they want to get back to work. Me, I don’t really have this problem. When I feel sick I want to lie down and die and I figure everyone else can deal without me. I wonder if I get sicker than most people or if I just have a bad work ethic.
One of the assistant engineers went into my room to check the head and saw my favorite deckhand in my room, and he saw the cup of tea he'd made for me, and his mind starts clicking away. He calls his girlfriend who is the first mate on our sister boat and tells her that me and the deckhand and I are doing things that we're not supposed to do. And she tells the deckhand's girlfriend who is also on that boat, and now everyone's in all sorts of trouble. The deckhand wants to tear the engineer into pieces. The engineer growls.  Meanwhile we float around on the same boat and point out whales to all our guets.  It's very Love Boat drama and I never thought there'd be so much rigamarole over drinking a cup of Orange tea after midnight. It didn't even have caffeine.  

As always, I feel a powerful sense of disassociation, "Depersonalization" I believe is its clinical term. As if I'm in the corner watching myself and all these interesting things happening and wondering how they're all going to play out, like theater. 

I am very grateful to have been in a relationship of sorts for eight months without a drop of drama, jealousy or pettiness or anything bad. It's so easy, as it should be. 


The crew were in such a terrible mood today! I’m thinking people have been on the boat too long and it’s starting to show. All the stewards are worked up because they have to uncloak the espresso machine which is a big pain in the butt. After our first week when the stews, who are overworked beyond understanding, were trying to make espresso drinks for seventy people, until finally the bar tender burst into tears and hid the thing beneath a black curtain. There it's stayed until we got a new hotel manager demanding to know why 15,000 dollars is hiding under a cloak. 

Some of the guys are trying to break up with their girfriends but can’t do it because we have no way of communicating from the ship.  And this one guy who used to be a good friend wasn't talking to me or looking at me since I came back, and finally on the stairs down to the engine room I said what the fuck? And he admitted, a few days later, that he can’t talk to me anymore because he’s attracted to me, which really made my jaw drop because, as the famous film director’s son pointed out, I really look shapeless and terrible in this horrific uniform. The hotel manager of the whole fleet is onboard right now and every time I see him I growl because he  chose this uniform for us. 

Then one of the guests took a long hike to a glacier and had a few guests capsize in the glacial water. Everything turned out fine, but the guide and the supervisor, they went into the ship’s office and locked the door and you would have thought it was an international incident or a tri-state killing spree, the way they were dealing with it. I knocked on the door of the office just to get the damn chocolate to start doing Turn Down and they glared at me.

Just trying to do my job, sir. 

I’ve been spending more time on the easy dock with the deck staff slinging kayaks around. I really enjoy my time with the deck staff and being away from the guides and being in the sun. Or the rain, really it doesn’t matter what the weather is out there. It's nice to finally know where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing. I've found that if I show up and do those things, nobody really bothers me. 

Today the whole crew and passengers jumped off the boat on a polar bear plunge. Everyone was running and diving and gasping in the glacial water and I felt completely happy. 

I cleaned out the weeping, ingrown toenail of a steward and suggested she go to the doctor when we get to Juneau. "It feels painful, like this," she says, squeezing and unsqueezing her hands into fists. The pus is leaking into her sock. 


Today I took seven passengers on a jungle gym hike in the pouring rain. This is a hike that sent two passengers med-evac packing last year and I’ve done it now four times without so much as a twisted ankle. And they loved it. I had the famous film director and his wife and his older son. The son, who is sweet and polite and sincere and interested in the world, kept telling me it was the most adventurous adventure he’d ever been on. We took a lot of photos and saw man-eating size skunk weed and devil’s club nine feet tall and came back in head to toe mud. 
There he goes again, inventing conflict and pulling stress out of thin air. I pat myself on the back and whisper, “Today you took the famous guy and his family on a beautiful hike and everyone was safe and had a good time. You did a good job at what you were hired to do.”

I've studied people's swollen mouths and written details about their vomit, pulled out splinters, washed out eyes and cleaned out wounds. It's not enough. I want more. I want to be on an ambulance.

Later on I take a woman in a double kayak and paddle her out to the waterfall and then we played around with the kids on a paddle board. She's worked on many movies and written books and I was grateful to be out in a kayak, just me and her. 

One of our stewards woke up sick one day, was medivaced back in Seattle, and is so sick she can't return. And our dishwasher still hasn't been replaced. And Ema has that toe and she needs to be off her feet. So the stewards are understaffed and the deck and the guides do turn down, we fold people's beds down and leave them chocolate and we used to fold the toilet paper into little points, until someone realized what a stupid waste of time that is. I don't mind turn down, because I get to talk to my friend Scott for a whole half our as we gather up used towels and throw back sheets. 

The mighty turn down and the day stretches into thirteen hours or more.

There is more discrepancy about hours and paycheck which just burns me up.  
Too tired to write after seventeen hours of my feet. But the kids organized a dance party in the lounge and I did the worm backwards and they loved it. It totally floored them. At one point all of the guests were dancing and some of the crew. It was so much fun. Our boat is so small and so lovely. I saw our sister ship out in the distance as we steamed towards Juneau and I slammed myself against the window thinking it was the Wilderness Explorer with my friend Randall aboard, and it suddenly hit me how much I miss Randall and how I'd do just about anythig to see him, swim across to ocean to get to his boat. So I ran up to the bridge and asked captain Kendra is that boat was the Wex thinking I could get Randall on the radio, but it wasn't the Wex. It was the Wilderness Discoverer and I don't know anyone onboard except the deckhand's poor girlfriend who thinks I'm sleeping with her boyfriend which I'm not, of course, just enjoying the tea.  This was a good week, a very good week. 

The company sent both Ema and I to the doctors. They burned her toenail off and they explained to me that Depersonalization is a sign of severe anxiety. I don't mind it so much. I feel like I'm watching myself, like a reporter. I feel like an undercover reporter. 

The Survivor Mentality

On the ship you're either working or you're hiding. You are hiding by lying very still in your bunk in your crew cabin or, if you just can't take the confinement of that little room, you are up on the cluttered boat deck with the rescue boats and stacked Zodiaks, where the incredibly loud ventilation system guns away at all times but at least you're by yourself.

Sometimes I sit there under the ten o'clock twilight of an Alaskan summer night and think about what it would be like to go overboard. Unlike the rest of the decks, the boat deck has only a thin wire railing that you could easily slip and fall under or trip and fall over. Then you would plunge three stories into the sea, and unless someone happened to be looking out the window at the exact moment of your rapid descent, your plight would go unnoticed. Then you'd be in an exceedingly unfortunate spot indeed.  The ship would keep steaming along at 10 knots, leaving behind its foaming wake and then, nothing. The waters would calm and you would be alive and alert and treading water for probably four minutes before you lost control of your limbs and went under with only the jelly fish and bull kelp for company.
Adam and Scott, survivors both.
 About a week ago I got into an impassioned debate with my friend Adam about just how long one would last in that deadly cold water without a survival suit. It was crew dinner time and we were eating rice with chunks of unidentifiable animal. I was declaring that you'd have just a few minutes, tops, and my argument was augmented by  an onslaught of satisfying statistics on hypothermia and numbers regarding core temperature and comas. 

"I guarantee you, I could last a lot longer than that," Adam shot back. Adam- deckhand, relief engineer, relief bosun, has 32 years of sailing experience to my five weeks. "I'd take my pants off, blow up the leg, tie it off, and use that as a personal floatation device."

"Oh REALLY?" I asked. "When you're submerged in 42 degree water and your body is losing heat TWENTY TIMES FASTER than air of the same temperature, you'd just undue your belt and take your pants off, all the while kicking for your life? You think you'd have the dexterity to do that?"

"Yes I do. I know I would. And you know, that's what separates a survivor from a casualty. Someone who has a plan, and sticks with it and refuses to give up."

He seemed to have a point on this one. "Then I'd better not go overboard,"I whispered, stabbing a bite of seamonster with my fork. "I'd never be able to take my pants off and make a flotation device out of them when I was drowning. I can't even take my pants off in my own room."

And it's true- I can't. Not when I wear the company issued belt.

The belt has a cheap, silver metal clasp that jams up every damn time. My first night in uniform it got so badly stuck that I had to get a deckhand to undue it WITH A PAIR OF PLIARS. I didn't know anybody onboard and there I was, having to ask for help taking my pants off. ("I'm'm the medical team leader,"I said the next day during introductions and I swear I saw eyebrows raise.) The next day it got stuck again and this time, while wrestling with the thing, the sharp metal cut a long, straight gash into my thumb with bled on my equally horrible blue crew shirt. Oh, how I hated that belt. And now I didn't merely hate it, I feared it.

What would happen if the ship went down, and everybody made it into the lifeboats except for a few heroic crew who would include myself and Adam, certainly, who stayed on the listing, sinking vessel till the last possible second trying to jig the failed electrical system and call out our coordinates for somebody, anybody, to come to our aide, but we couldn't make it so we jumped into the ocean and the lifeboats had since rowed away leaving us to our lonely and icy demise? I can tell you what would happen: Adam would just whip his pants off and construct a little life raft out of them, and as he floated towards shore I would go down, straight down, my last wretched moments in this life spent wrestling with the clasp of the cheapest tin belt in the entire Mariners' Lifestyle catalog.

That very night I took the belt and I threw it into the trashcan in a dramatic gesture that demonstrated my wrought iron will to live.


There are moments on the ship when I feel like Eloise, the girl from the children's book who lives inside the Plaza Hotel in New York City. All day she runs around the hotel getting into things, and when I was a kid growing up in the country it seemed like the most fantastically fun existence imaginable.

Sometimes when the guests are eating lunch I'll get a break, run up to the sun deck and have the whole place to myself. I'll be doing yoga by myself with whales breaching alongside the boat, and I know I'm the only one who is seeing them. If I run up to the bar and there's not many people around, the bar tenders will make me something to drink- something with alcohol, but better than water, which is all we're given as crew.

That's not true. We have a soda machine, we can drink that. But you just can't drink that much soda every day you'll get sick. I guess what I mean to say is, there is no juice for crew. I think it would be nice to have just a little juice for the morning, or iced tea, but what are you going to do.

At night I'll go over to Pat's room, the chief engineer, and for some reason is office is in the Galley. And while I'm in the Galley I'll take a look around to see if there are any leftover desserts from the guest's dinner, and if so I'll take some for myself and for Pat or whoever else is around. We've pilfered profiterols, creme brules, layer cakes and just the other day- a bucket of rum soaked fruit and a bucket of marscapone creme.

That's right, a bucket.

We'll take what we can and steal out the hatches onto the fantail, where, if it's late enough, we'll watch the sun try and set. But that requires me to stay up so late that the next night I'll be extremely tired, so I'll choose some movie to watch- we have a whole library full of movies and books about whales, I ignore the books about whales- and I'll go down to my bunk at 7:30 and pull the curtain and watch the whole movie and then fall asleep.

There's more- there are always people up, deckhands and officers, somebody driving the boat, and most nights we are underway so there are mountains cruising past us. And everybody is doing the same tasks every day, and nobody can escape, so we all find the smallest things to be just the funniest things in the world.

It's fun.

The sad thing is, my friends keep leaving for their break. Bumbee left, and Greg, and this week Pat and Scott are leaving. This is going to be a lonely week for me, not an Eloise week. I was happy leading up to this day because Horner, my favorite, was supposed to be back as relief engineer. But he missed his flight and he didn't show up to Juneau and we're leaving in a few hours. Half of me expects to look up and see him lumbering down the gangway with his bag, but the other half of me knows he won't.

I'm going in for another week- fifth week. Each day 12 hours, sometimes more, not one day off. In one week though, I'll be stepping off the boat and onto a plane. And Andrew is picking me up and taking me to Derrington to go climbing, and we'll drink beers on the road somewhere and I'm not going to think at all about Alaska.

Photo book: The Inside Passage

I've been onboard the Safari Endeavour for one month now. I'm sitting in Juneau right now- on my one precious and unbearably short free hour -wondering how to possible write about the inside passage in such a small amount of time. 

I can't. 

The boat has been exhausting and unrelenting, and it will continue to be for the rest of the season. But in between all that work comes the smallest, brightest joys, like sparks. 

Speaking of sparks, the toilets sparkle at night. The bioluminescence glows blue green when you flush. I was a little surprised when, one night after work, I was hanging out in the engineer's room and he calls me from inside the bathroom, "Come in here and shut off the lights! You gotta see this!"

Strange things in strange places. That almost sums up this entire thing. It's not always good and it's not always bad.

I can do better than that, and I will, but for now....take a look at some of the places we've been.             

Week Three at Sea: Notes

I tried to write from Juneau today on my one hour off, but found that my keyboard was broken. I couldn't write a thing EXCEPT FOR LIKE THIS. Anyhow, I sneaked into the ship's office and publishing what I can- notes I've taken throughout this week, week 3 at sea. 
Today at dinner the assistant engineer unpeeled a mostly raw hardboiled egg and stormed out of the dining room. To date, this is his second storming out of the dining room episode.  He’s a big guy with a Mohawk but he’s very sensitive and he takes the terrible food personally.

Dave Horner is back on the ship for a week.  Dave is another engineer and they asked him to come back because the ship is in such disrepair. I begged for him to come back because we became close friends instantly in ship yard. He’s got one of the guest rooms, which means two real beds and a window and a space where guaranteed nowhere is going to find me. 

I have Dave for a week and whenever I see him on the ship I feel like I’ve won the lottery.  Last night I brought mango juice up to his room and he had bought watermelon in town and these little packs of gummy fruit, so we ate fruit till we felt sick and then we sat on the beds- you can’t sit up on the beds in crew quarters so even sitting was exciting- and told stories till 10pm, which is the latest I’ve stayed up on the ship, ever.

Bumbee left yesterday for another ship for six weeks . He walked away in a handsome pea coat, looking just like a sailor. I ran after him on the fantail of the boat, tripped on a taut line and fell across the entire fantail and landed with my body half out of the ship. He used to leave me notes all over the ship, stuffed into my radio and coat pockets. After he left, I found my waterbottle I’d misplaced but found I couldn’t drink out of it. Bumbee had rolled up a note into a plastic back, rolled it up tightly and stuffed it into the straw.

We like to pretend that we have a choice about everything. “This was a good restaurant.” We’ll say after dinner. “Want to meet here tomorrow?”
“You know, that sound great. There are a few other places I’ve been meaning to check out, but I really like this place. Same time?”

In the evening I’ll say to Dave, “Do you want to go out tonight? Maybe grab a drink, see a movie?”
And Dave says, “You know, we’ve just been going out so much lately. What say we just  stay in and watch a movie?”

Two days ago I was nearly crying to Bumbee and Scott and told them I was going to quit. And Scott, who is a former police officer who used to train Iraqi police officers in Iraq, talked me down so patiently and gently you would have thought he was a saint.

The crew and their infinite patience! The stewards who make this special effort to bring me things- cookies, food, stuff. They steal it from the kitchen and slip it into my pocket. I’ve grown to love them immensely.  When I got to Juneau I went looking for things to give to them. Buy bags of cookies to bring to the stewards when they are polishing silverwear at ten o’clock. You start looking for nice things to do for one another and those things become your sole purpose for being on the ship.

After 12.5 hours on your feet with all these strangers asking me questions I don’t know, by the end I feel like I will burst out into tears at any moment. It doesn’t matter how much I love anybody.

The Galley Smasher

May 31, 2012
Day 5 at Sea
Somewhere in Canada

Bosun and his spy glass
Everything was smashing in the galley this morning. The weather was rough as we were completing our first open Sea crossing. It was heavier than expected and while I was up getting breakfast the boat started really rolling and everything slid off the shelves.  It was spectacular. 

A palette of eggs was the first to go, and after that came the plates, a tower of chocolate croissants (not for crew) wine bottles, coffee mugs and silver wear, all hitting the steel floor  and smashing apart with a satisfying raucous. Everyone in the Galley made a grab for something- I threw myself on a stack of china plates- and held on as the sous Chef, Karlos, tried to keep his feet from slipping on the egg-covered floor and his palms from falling onto the hot stove top which takes up the entire wall as the floor of ship tipped back and forth. Meanwhile someone made a lunge for the broom and was trying to sweep up the glass while fruit platters continued to sail off the shelves. 

We sat in the dining room as waves of grey water lashed against the window and our breakfast slid all the way down the table and the all the way back. If you got up to get a fork or a knife, you had to task somebody with babysitting your plate and holding it down so it didn’t topple over and spill onto the carpet.

Then you’d be in real trouble.

We’ve sailed straight through an Orcas pod, and seen a glistening humpback appear slowly out of the water, and a Grizzly bear on the shore lumbering along, looking exactly like a man in a Grizzly bear suit. Those were my thoughts when I saw the bear- “That looks exactly like a man in a Grizzly Bear suit-“ and that’s when I knew I simply was not a naturalist at heart.

We’ve engined past bright, white waterfalls cascading off of deep grey granite (the granite was the color of the Humpback) and massive rivers spewing out of the trees and into the Sea and a dozen types of waterbirds including trumpeter swans and Marbled Murellettes and still, it is the image of the eggs and plates smashing in the galley and everybody hitting the deck in a collective hail Mary that sticks with me the most, and in particular the cook, dancing on the split yolks, his legs bicycling beneath him the way they do in cartoons, trying not to get grilled on his own stovetop.  

A Tiny Thing Heads North

Everything on the ship is so small- the bunks and passageways and tiny bathrooms- and all the doors are remarkably heavy. The watertight door to the crew cabins make me fear for my fingers. I've become acutely aware of my fingers, actually, how very small and fragile they are, how quickly they'd crush inside those iron doors or snap in two inside a taut line when we are docking.

And then there is the utterly fearsome, wrought iron anchor that makes a sound like the earth splitting in two when dropped.

In two days I've logged 28.5 hours of work. Its safe to say I've been in a complete daze through all of it, except for the two times I've cried in my cabin, then the daze sort of broke and it felt nasty. Last night however I gave a presentation I put together about the nautical origins of certain phrases, and I felt a bit more myself now that I was the whole show. It went over well and everybody liked it, and I didn't use the microphone I just projected across the whole big room. So today all the guests are coming up to me and saying what a good loud voice I have for "such a tiny thing."

That makes me feel about seven years old, which is a funny thing to feel when you are the head medic and reaching into people's mouths to examine their infected teeth.

I've got to go now, we're sailing away from Friday Harbor and North into Canada in a little bit. From now on I'll only have internet once every week.

If you want to write me a postcard, or a letter, or a story, a letter of encouragement, a pep talk, the story of your own toughest job, the story of your own thriving, or surviving, sinking or swimming or quitting or breaking or whatever.....send it here. My friends have strict demands to write me often. If you are a reader and we've never met, well, now is the time my friends. I welcome your love or your Harden The Fuck Up speeches, whichever you see fit. In return, I'll patch up your teeth if ever they break.

Melina coogan, safari Endeavour.
C/o inner sea discoveries. 
PO box 33579, Juneau Alaska 99803 
Write me everybody. 

Write my story for me

Leaving Seattle

May 28th Day 2 Anchored somewhere in the San Juan Islands, Washington.

I cried in my room today, twice, once out of pure frustration and once out of sadness. I should never have taken this job, is what I was thinking. I really shouldn't have gotten on this ship.

I was standing in the bathroom of the tiny, windowless room, afraid my roommate, another guide, would walk in. Therefore I was forced to look at myself in the mirror as I cried, never something one wants to do.

This will not work, I thought. It will not be like this.

This is the time to find humor- the deeply buried humor and appreciation of irony that my wonderful, dry, Midwestern mom and Bostonian dad imparted on me.

 The fact that on this 8,000 dollar a week cruise the toilets don't work is a great start. The fact that on an 8,000 dollar a week cruise the toilets don't work is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me.

 Everything that happens on this boat is a story being written. Everything that now makes me crazy or furious or frustrated is merely my story being written for me. This is my autobiography being cranked out.

And all I have to do is do my job and laugh at everything and stand my ground. So the people that challenge me, I do what they say if what they say is reasonable. If its unreasonable, maybe I do it anyway. Maybe I have to do. Go ahead, I say inside my head. Write my story for me. Do your worst. I want it to be a good one.


May 19th
First full day living on the ship.

Last night was my first night on the ship. I fell asleep in my bunk anchored at Fisherman’s terminal in Ballard and woke up to the sound of roaring engines and water splashing against steel.  We left the harbor at 5:00 in the morning and I remember some small part of me woke up, felt the shift take place and knew that we were underway. When I came up on deck at 7:00 sharp for breakfast, I stood out on the Fantail and watched the coastline running by, faster than I had expected, and our frothing white wake coming up over the swim step.

It should have been a triumphant moment , one of pride and excitement, but for the moment, fear is eclipsing any positive emotion that tries to break through the cloud curtain of my thoughts.

The days are extremely long, and half of the time I don’t know what’s going on. Things would move much faster if I felt like I was really helping with some of these projects. If only more deck hands would get giant splinters embedded beneath their nails like yesterday, then I can be helpful.

 It seems like most of the energy of the expedition crew, together with the deck hands, is all poured into how we’re going to lash 26 double sea kayaks onto the extendable dock and then hoisting the whole thing from the fantail to the sun deck four stories up.  It’s a lot of winching and rigging and engineering and crap I don’t know anything about.

I know a little more today than I did yesterday.

That sentence sounds a little more optimistic, and little more after school special, than I feel right now.

Everything is different on the ship. It’s more than a world, it’s a universe.  The walls are steel, ugly and magnetic, and the stairs are steep and loud. And everything has a different name- everything’s either a hatch or a ladder or a bulkhead or a head.

What cheers me up is two thoughts, and I run them together in my head during the day like clicking marbles.

One: the electronics I’m going to bring aboard when we set sail to Alaska next Saturday. Lovely, clean, glowing, little things full of music and electronic books. All the songs and stories I’m going to pack onto those things, even if I never get a chance to look at them just knowing that they are there. 

The girl in my head, the girl I probably ought to be, wouldn’t bring anything Apple onboard. She’s bring weathered books on Alaskan history and leather bound journals to fill in. She’s untether herself from the seduction of Steve Jobs and his many glowing, soothing screens.

Screw that girl. Forget it. This boat world is full of dirt and salt and engineer’s oil. The deck hands and guides walk around with sunburns and bleeding hands. Something about my little silver Ipod seems like a secret, a rebellion, a connection to my regular life on land that I refuse to give up. 

Does that make any sense?

The other thought that cheers me up is medicine.

But I’ll get into that in another post. Sometimes thinking about being an EMT onboard a ship cheers me up to much I think that maybe I just want the medicine and not the ship.
But then….

Then the day is over, finally over, it’s eight in the evening and I walk past the Bosun on my way downstairs to my room. He’s  sucking on an electronic cigarette and he gives me a nod and says, “You did a good job today.” He keeps walking. Encouragement is hard to come by around here. So when you hear it, you believe it. It starts to tilt your world back into place the smallest bit. 
A moment alone is nearly impossible to find so when you do stumble upon it, it’s like this perfect capsule of pure relief breaking over you.

Day number one. Thirteen hours pass between when you wake up and when you stop working. You stand under a cold shower for a minute. And then you climb into your bunk, which tips back and forth a little bit, and wait for tomorrow to get here.
Writing in a rare place of refuge...the emergency gear room.


I'm en route to North Carolina from Seattle. There is a two year old behind me, stuck between his mother's legs and the back of my seat, and he keeps plowing his head into the back of my seat with surprising strength. Bam! Bam! Bam! Those little people and their giant heads, like weapons. It goes on for hours and I keep turning around and looking at the mother but she always just smiles with determined ignorance. Finally I start to say something and she interrupts me: "Oh, is he bothering you?" And I say weakly, totally pathetic, "Um, maybe he could just stop with the head thing?"

She gently asks him to stop, with a little too much room in her tone for him to refuse, in my opinion. Then she flashes me one of those searing just wait till you have kids looks, and the plane starts to shake very suddenly. We're flying through something, something bad enough that the drink service is halted, which always feels way more disappointing than it should feel, and also unfair because the first half of the air craft got to have their drinks and now the plane is going down and they'll have more of a chance of surviving, since they're all hydrated and we're not.

The turbulence is bad. I hang onto my arm rest and feel really really angry at whoever is responsible for all of this, the invisible hydraulics in the air and the trajectory of the plane and the geography of the country and everything else. I was actually looking forward to the cross-country flight, a few relaxing hours to sit still and read a book and not be bothered. Actually, I was really looking forward to this trip- a quick trip- three days, two of them full travel days, to my grandmother's funeral in Cleveland.
The Wilderness Discoverer heads out to Alaska
You could say I'm a bit, oh how do I say this, overwhelmed with my new career choice. And I was looking forward to this little break with the excitement of a fifth grader about to be released on Summer break. Like, me? I get to go to Cleveland? I don't have to go to work for three days? Tell me, how did I get so lucky?!

It gets worse.

 Last Monday, some of my crew and I were hoisted away during the work day and taken into Ballard for a mandatory drug test. There were eight of us, and we had to go into that back room with the security guy one at a time. It took an hour and a half. I was the happiest I've been in a while, totally relaxed, sitting there with an Oprah magazine, mentally directing the others to pee slow. Make this last. When it was my turn, I did a quick overview of the space in the room- a tiny room with a nonflushing toilet and a sink with broken taps, no water- and just enough space for me to curl up on the floor and shut my eyes. If I wanted to. Which I did. I estimated how much time I'd have- ten minutes- maybe fifteen? Before the security guy pounded on the door. Fifteen golden minutes to myself.

I know how to work hard. I promise I do. But this life, this boat world, was dropped into my lap when I least expected it. I had a job, car, house, boyfriend, dog, routine, friends, plans. And then this offer happened, and I said yes, and suddenly I cannot keep up.  I wake up at six, try and get the dog out for a few minutes, pack my things, stop for coffee, run out the door to Fisherman's terminal. Almost everybody else lives on the boat. They already left behind the aforementioned dog, boyfriend, car, house. I haven't yet.
I screech into a parking space on the harbor and run up the gangway with coffee in one hand and it's amazing how much can spill out of that little hole in the to-go cup. I forget about breakfast or brushing my  hair, whatever it takes to get my ass onto that ship before the all-hands meeting at 7:30. Last week I went to the wrong ship and therefore was four minutes late getting to the correct ship and I got an extremely firm talking to by my captain. Being reprimanded by the captain of your ship is like being yelled at by the president, the chief of police and your mom all at once. I told this story to Lisa a few days later, recalling the whole scenario in horror in the back room of her work. "Did you cry?" She asked, eyes wide. "I would have cried."

I didn't cry. I think I left my body. Like a dying person who floats above their mangled, car-wrecked corpse on the side of the highway and feels peace. I felt peace because I was planning, with utmost certainty, to jump overboard and drown myself as soon as I got a moment to myself. I've never been yelled at before in my life- surely death was the only option.

The day ends after 6pm. Then I go home, to the moping dog, the half-packed house that needs a subletter, the car with the broken breaks that won't be fixed until October, and I run run run run from task to task, and late at night I drive across the city and shore up at Andrew's house and he makes me dinner and listens to my my tyraid, yet again, about how bad I am at everything. He's cooked me dinner three hundred times. I've cooked him dinner one time. I'm leaning on him hard.

Anyhoo. That's why the drug test was such a rush. An hour and a half sitting in a waiting room. The luxury. The magazines. The little cooler of chilled water. Peeing into a cup was nothing- I'd pee into a thousand cups if it meant having that quiet time with Oprah. I think my crew-mates felt the same way, only they have a legitimate reason. They spend all day scrubbing, sanding, hauling things. I outfit kayaks and put together slide shows about edible plants in Alaska. The expedition team does not have the most grueling job on the boat, at least not when we're in the shipyard. Whenever the bouson spots us on deck, studying maps or looking through books, he always finds something to slam. "Do you think this ship looks finished? Do you? Jesus, I wish I had your job!"

In case you were wondering, I didn't do it. I didn't curl up on the bathroom floor like a demented person having an episode. But I could have. And that was thrilling.
The view from my doorway
Unfortunately the airplane isn't as luxurious as I'd hoped. It's no drug test, that's for sure. The turbulence not only makes me nervous in a white knuckle seat grasping suddenly religious kind of way, it's making the kid behind me nervous and he starts screaming and banging away at my seat again. Only this time I don't blame him. There have been times this past week I've wanted to bang my head against the bulkhead, or the wall of my bedroom, or the window of my car when I'm driving downtown to the DMV. Maybe it would help? Let him bang out his two year old frustrations and fear into my thoracic spine. What do I care.