Therapeutic Writing in the Caribbean

Note: I wrote this about a week ago in Tortola, during the ARC Europe / Atlantic Cup start week. It was a nice evening.

I’m back in my element now. After four long days being social and cheerful, I find myself a bit exhausted. Mia doesn’t understand this. Introverts (and I classify myself as one), find it physically tiring to be in social situations. Some more than others, of course (so I’ve read). I’m there now. Don’t get me wrong, I love these events, wouldn’t be doing anything different. But being introverted, it takes a real effort to be social, and all of the time. It wipes me out.

So now, here I am. Cold shower to clean off the grit and sweat from the Caribbean sun. A hot cup of strong coffee that we packed along with us. Music playing in the background (always Moby’s ambient music when I write, at least since Australia in 2005). And my computer screen darkened except for the white Word document I have open currently. I’m basically talking to myself when I write like this. But that's easy. There is only me here.

Anyway. This is eventually going to morph into my next Spinsheet article, but it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. I like to start these out simply as a stream of consciousness to get my fingers moving and get me in the mood to write. That takes time as well, that shift. The shift from being outgoing and social all day to come back to this, thinking about what I’m going to put down on the page.

There is always a connection to the Chesapeake in some way with these articles, and this idea provides several in fact, even though it takes place farther afield. That’s what I love about writing for Spinsheet. One of the things anyway. That I can usually choose my topic and write from the heart. I find they’re my best articles, or at least my favorite, even if the subjects sometimes aren’t so professional.

This Spinsheet article is going to (sort of) be about taking new people out sailing. Last month I wrote about going aground in Rock Hall after having sailed 800+ miles up from the Bahamas, stopping once for 6 hours in Beaufort. We came up literally 200 yards shy of the dock at North Point Marina. I wrote about how we tried everything to get the boat off, and ended up going to sleep at 4 in the morning and waiting for a tow from Baltimore to arrive the next day around noon. It was a good story, though a frustrating (but ultimately successful) end to the trip.

What I didn’t write about, at least in detail, was the crew on that trip. My dad came along, like he usually does (when he can), so nothing odd about that. Our third crewmember, Andrew Staus, is (sort of) what this article here is going to be all about. Because prior to that trip, Andrew had never been offshore before. In fact, he’d never been sailing before.

I grew up with Andrew. We were nearly the same age, and went to school together since we were very young. I don’t really remember too many of the details, but we used to play at each others houses when we were little kids. So we go back a long way. In high school, he played on the football team while I played golf, but we had a lot of the same classes, and anyway the school only had about 400 students in it, so you pretty much knew everyone (especially in your own grade).

After graduation, we lost touch, as you tend to do with your high school friends. Ten years went by. Though we were probably friends on Facebook, I don’t know that I ever even spoke to him during that time.

Our ten-year high school reunion happened last November. Normally I’d scoff at that type of thing, but because one of my best friends had the unfortunate position of being class president the year we graduated, she was responsible for organizing the reunions and I wanted to support her. So Mia and I went.

We reconnected with Andrew that evening, sharing stories about our sailing trips and his climbing trips. We discovered that he used to live in Alaska, goes ice climbing in Tuckerman’s Ravine in New England and had recently gotten certified as a nurse, in the hopes of working as a traveling nurse, a pretty neat way to see the world if you ask me.

So when I posted the crew opportunity on my Facebook page, Andrew bit. Knowing that if he was completely useless my dad and I could handle the boat just fine the two of us, I took him on. It was an easy decision – I always preach that on any kind of long-distance ocean passage, a person’s sense of adventure is more important than their sailing skills. I knew I’d get along with Andrew in close quarters. He’s spent time sleeping on the side of a cliff in a bivy sack, so I figured he’s handle the elements just fine. I can teach someone how to stand a watch in a day, and I’m more comfortable asleep in my bunk when I know the person on watch will wake me if they have a question rather than do something of their own accord that might not be right. And they learn to sail my way, which is also worth something.

Aside from our grounding in Rock Hall, the trip was awesome (though we did suffer a bit coming up the Bay – the last night saw a low temperature of 36º, with 25 knots of headwinds. But then again, that’s why I brought an ice climber onboard – he was prepared at least!). Andrew did manage to jinx us though – before we left the Bahamas he’d mentioned that he wanted to experience a storm at sea – “I want the full experience!” he’d said – and sure enough, just as we entered the Gulf Stream the wind picked up, the lightening was all around and the seas started climbing on the boat. He and I went forward to set the storm jib (though the wind never got above 37 knots), taking green water in our laps and rain in our faces. “Happy now!?” I joked. He was loving it (then again, he didn't even know what to be afraid of).

Two days later I was on a plane again, this time headed for St. Thomas to bring a Tayana 48 north to Rhode Island, via Bermuda. Dad couldn’t come for this one, so I’d lined up my friend Billy Rudek – a captain at the Echo Hill Outdoor School on the Eastern Shore, who sails a skipjack and a buyboat on the Chester River – as first mate, and agreed to bring along Casey and Lindsey Alexander.

I’d met them quite serendipitously in fact. They called back in January I think, inquiring about the Caribbean 1500. ‘We want to sail our own boat in the event in 2014,’ they’d told me, ‘but we’ve never been offshore. Do you know of anyone looking for crew?’

Indeed I did! I invited them on the spot, right there on the phone. They keep their boat – a 45’ Van de Stadt sloop – in Solomon’s island, and have spent the past four years refitting her themselves, something Mia and I could certainly relate to. We had dinner at Middleton’s in Annapolis about 6 weeks before the trip was set to depart. I didn’t have any specific interview questions as such, but let my intuition guide me. They were about my age, and I got a really nice vibe. We settled it there and then, and they booked their flights.

I met Casey and Lindsey in St. Thomas the day after they had arrived. Billy was there too. Our first evening was spent at dinner, Billy showing off some of his sailorly tattoos and the two of us educating Casey and Lindsey on maritime customs and superstitions. They’d inadvertently bought a bunch of bananas at the grocery store earlier that day, and thought I was joking when I told them to get rid of them. It made the guys on the neighboring schooner happy though!

The trip north to Bermuda was a picture perfect ocean passage. Five days close reaching in 20 knots of breeze, clear skies and warm weather. I overheard Lindsey say to Casey one morning, ‘this is my favorite kind of sailing!’ No kidding! We stopped the boat to swim a bunch of times, and Casey and Lindsey learned what it’s like offshore and how to stand single-handed watches. And like Andrew, they woke me up when something wasn’t right or they weren’t comfortable, the single most important aspect of offshore crew to my mind. We swapped them out in Bermuda (they had to go back to work) for Lindsey’s dad Dave (a liveaboard himself and a very experienced sailor), and 23-year-old Austin, who very spookily reminded me of myself when I was his age (but that’s another story – and it actually is a good one!). He’d never been offshore either (and that worked out too, but I’m starting to sound like a broken record now).

There is a precedent for my style of choosing crew. When Mia and I sailed Arcturus across the Atlantic in 2011, our friend Clint came along. He’s only been on a sailboat once before, with us in New Zealand when we first met. But it didn’t matter – he’s an adventurous type and humble enough to wake me up when he wasn’t sure of something. Then, I just had a hunch about Clint, and I love him as a friend. But now, I think there really is something to it.

And there is nothing better than sharing sailing with people who’ve never done it. That’s the best part.