Photo: Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock

16 Things Only Tall Ship Sailors Understand

by Claire Shefchik Aug 14, 2015

1. You don’t make friends, you make family — and they drive you crazy.

Seriously, do you see your friends at home and at work? At every meal? First thing in the morning and in the middle of the blackest night? At your best and at your very worst? Well, on a ship, you do. And, just like your real family members, they can be so obnoxious that sometimes you’ll want to chuck them overboard to a ravenous school of piranhas.

2. You don’t make friends, you make family — and they keep you sane.

On the other hand, when you’re feeling depressed, useless, seasick or just plain miserable, there’s always somebody around to buoy your mood with an off-color joke or to just to listen to you vent.

3. You’re not a stranger anywhere.

For the veteran solo traveler, this may be the greatest gift of all, because no matter where in the world you anchor, you’ll always have built-in friends to hang out and drink with. Plus, in every port of call, people are fascinated that you just arrived on the morning tide onboard an honest-to-god pirate ship.“You’re a girl? Who got on a pirate ship? Alone? For how long?”

Trust me: It never gets old.

4. Coffee is precious.

Onboard, money might as well be toilet paper, but when we ran out of coffee on the last leg of a voyage, the entire ship went into mourning. Epic shanties were written and sung, and when the cook discovered an extra few pounds in the back of the pantry, enough to last us for the rest of the trip, it was like the heavens had opened up and shined upon us. No exaggeration.

5. Fresh food is even more precious.

After the twentieth straight day of living on canned beans, granola bars, and vinegar-soaked pineapples, it’s scary to think what you’d do for a salad. When we arrived on Ascension Island after a month at sea, my roommate and I burst into the general store, grabbing apples and oranges as if in preparation for the coming apocalypse.

6. Sailing is not the hard part.

Anybody can follow orders — haul this, knot that, steer there. But when you’re missing out on jokes when you’re one of three people onboard that doesn’t speak the ship’s native tongue, or comforting your weepy roommate who won’t tell you what’s wrong, you encounter the real test of life at sea. Worse still is trying to puzzle out the infuriating hot guy who flirts with you one minute then goes cold and distant the next. And you have to be okay with that, because what’s the alternative? They don’t send in a rescue helicopter for hurt feelings.

7. You have to stay on the high side.

Climbing to the top of the mast, with the vast, shimmering ocean spread out before you, the way the great explorers once did, is something so few people will ever experience. By now you know to stay on the windward side. No one wants to get slammed against the ropes and left dangling like a worm on a hook…

8. Everything (seriously, everything) hurts.

When the ship is in motion, you get slammed against every hard surface around — doors, masts, deck boxes, bathroom sinks. Some people, like me, are thinner-skinned than others and end up wearing bruises like a purple roadmap of pain. And just when they start to fade, the wind will pick up again and you’ll find yourself with a whole new crop. Wear them proudly.

9. Compasses are basically useless.

It’s all lies. Like the captain explained to me, because of the earth’s gravitational field, north is always changing. Instead you just look toward the horizon, pick a star, and steer by it. And you always remember to watch for when the sail starts fluttering — you know if you’re not the first person on deck to notice it, there’ll be hell to pay.

10. You’ll never have so much free time again.

The image of people running around madly on deck all day and night, trimming sails, jibing and tacking and helms-a-leeing, is a myth. For as long as a favorable wind lasts, you can easily find enough time to finish a Thomas Pynchon book and move onto Gore Vidal… or be shaken awake in the middle of the night only to huddle in the wheelhouse for hours, doing nothing but guzzling coffee and struggling to keep your eyelids open.

11. You go where others don’t.

Most travelers don’t think of Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha, Pitcairn Island, or the Azores as typical destinations, if they’ve heard of them at all. As tall sailors, our world map looks a little different.

12. When it comes to partying, spring breakers have nothing on sailors.

“Work hard, play hard” takes on a whole new meaning when your workday is three weeks long and the weekend is only one night. You could not be more ready to unleash all your pent-up stress on the unsuspecting natives in whichever little watering hole you spot first from the harbor.

13. Being a woman is a curse.

You will constantly be looked at, so bring makeup and a comb. You’re shorter than everyone else, which means an elbow in the face whenever you haul a line. Sexist sailors boss you around unfairly, and make crude jokes when they think you aren’t listening.

14. Being a woman is a blessing.

You always get to eat dessert first. You get to lay out on deck in a bikini and sarong while guys walk by and say you look like a mermaid.

And I mean, any female traveler can have have a drunken hook-up with a handsome stranger in a foreign land. But only a tall ship sailor can spend late nights in the saloon, stone cold sober, with a guy who, when he looks at you, makes you feel like you’re the most beautiful thing he’s seen in months — because you probably are.

15. No one is ever a passenger.

This isn’t a cruise, even though you probably paid money to be here. Whether it’s sewing a ripped sail back together, washing dishes, polishing brass railings, or swabbing the decks, you’ll do it happily and (usually) without complaint. When you notice someone working, you’ll probably even ask if you can pitch in, because it’s all part of being in this thing together.

16. There’s always more to learn.

In fact, the captain will probably be the first person to confess how little he knows. You’ll quickly learn how to belay a rope, tie a stopper knot, read a compass, or identify a constellation… and just when you think you’ve got it all down, someone throws a new skill at you to mess up. But it’s all good, because the only thing sailors love more than sailing is teaching somebody else how to sail.

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