I’m looking for the stars in their eyes at the sight of tall masts and white sails.
I’m looking for the woman I once was, eyes on the horizon, feet on the topgallant footropes and hands on rough canvas. She’s out there, I’m hoping that she will still be out there a century hence doing the work I once did. Now that I can no longer do it, I’m looking for the next set of hands who will take joy in making ships brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar.
I work in a museum of ships. I came there with stars in my eyes. I was so taken with them, their beauty and the adventures that could be had aboard them, that I took the hands of the sailors that came before me and volunteered to help care for them. My weekends were filled with the lessons that only an historic vessel and living sailors can teach. I learned the precise language required, the names of things and tasks that allow specific instructions to be passed in few words. By doing the various jobs that must be done if the boat is to make it to the future, I forged relationships with every vessel I worked in. I couldn’t help it—I came there in love with adventure and the sea, and it wasn’t long before I fell for the ships too.
There is nothing like being part of a crew. I’d wanted this since my teens, when I was a Sea Scout. A wooden whaleboat wasn’t enough, but being female, there was no way at the time that I could find to take the adventure farther. By the time I returned, in my late thirties, tall ships had become, if not common, far more numerous and it wasn’t long before I made my first trip as a volunteer. Times have changed. Women are an accepted part of this world now. I came to it too late to do it for long, but I have been out of sight of land in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans now, furling sail high above deck, the sky close enough to touch. It has changed me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen and wouldn’t trade for anything. The adventure has been mine for long enough to know how to share it.
I don’t sail in these ships any more. I can no longer do the work, and I won’t inflict myself on a crew if I can’t do my share. But I can still be useful ashore. I know how to do the work and can teach others. I can transmit that DTI—that Deckhand Transmitted Infection of love for the vessel and joy in being part of a crew. Working where I do I can be there when those people walk in with stars in their eyes and I can tell them the things that no one was there to tell me. I can tell the stories of the ships and help everyone who wants one to find their connection to them. So many people come in with a fantasy. Pirates are a starting point, but adventure is a shared experience and sailors are far more interesting. My treasure chest is full of memories, tools, and skills. Sunrises shared as the watch was gathered around the tiller, the ship plunging and rising as the wind carried us along. I went aboard my first ship with a duffle bag full of books. I was afraid I’d run out of things to read in three whole weeks at sea. I’ve never been aboard a ship where there wasn’t an active and varied bookshelf. My canvas ditty bag is on the shelf in the next room, filled with everything I need to repair a sail or for that matter, fix anything else made of heavy fabric or leather. That is something I can still do. The knots I know are just as useful for tying down a load on a bicycle or a truck because these skills are not all limited to ships and sailing.
I’m looking for the next pair of hands now. The tasks and the ships are passed from hand to hand, sailor to sailor. The language of ships is an oral tradition. You can read about it, but what seems incomprehensible on the page is perfectly plain when the tools are in your hand and a living person is showing you how it’s done. When I tell you that the ship will also tell you how to do the job, you’ll probably think me fanciful—or insane—but it’s true. You just have to speak her language. You probably know part of it already. Flaking paint or bare wood or metal is easy enough to spot. Knowing how to prepare and paint the surface is not hard to learn. Is something broken? If the vessel is well cared for, the same equipment on the other side is probably fine and can serve as a guide for repair. Experience will tell you what is dangerous, what is annoying, and what is just unkempt.
A vessel forges a group of people into a crew, by the simple act of caring for her. A vessel without a crew will soon be gone. It’s expensive to take care of a boat. They truly are holes in the water into which you pour money. This is why a boat without a job is destined for the breaker’s yard. The time and effort her survival demands requires a purpose for her existence. The next pair of hands must be sustained by the work. So a vessel and a crew live in symbiosis, we both need to earn our keep.
My museum is that purpose, on both sides. When I talk of the vessels, I count their existences as museum ships as careers, as legitimate as their time carrying cargo, fishing, or any other purpose they served. Their cargo now is memory, education, and to serve as our living memory. I learned the beginnings of a trade in them and would be learning still if injury had not cut my days as a hands-on member of the crew short. I earned a living aboard then, and I do so still. In my own personal symbiosis I, too, carry memory and knowledge. A museum is a place where Muses dwell. Those vessels are nothing less. The people of my nation, and visitors of all nations are willing to pay to maintain these ships, and so they go on living. They grow ever more precious as the years pass because there are fewer of them every year. The sheer amount of work that is necessary to maintain them, and the lack of an obvious economic return for that labor means that many are lost. FALLS OF CLYDE is fighting for her life even as I write. WAPAMA was cut up in 2013, and WAWONA in 2009. Those three are just some of the latest casualties on the West Coast of North America.
Discovery is sexy, maintenance is not, except for the few insane individuals like myself who find meaning in scraping paint and tarring down. Those next sets of hands who will take these vessels into the future are a rare breed, and so my job, essentially, is being paid to be that crusty old sailor who used to haunt the dockside. Being able to make a living doing it is a relatively new development. The maintaining of ships simply to serve as repositories for memory and the teaching of skills is a product of prosperity. It is difficult, when money is the yardstick, to see the sense in it, but how precious is the maintaining of skills in the human database? What price can we put on living memory? If we value it enough to continue doing it, then we as a species will still be able to go to sea under sail, and the bodies and minds of those who choose to do so will still have the option of being shaped by that knowledge. We will retain something rare, a very special way of life and a hard and rewarding school for those who choose to enroll in it. The skills will possibly become very useful if the oil runs out before we find another means of powering our civilization. Wind will always be free, if fickle, and it is up to us whether or not we will still remember how to harness it.