Monday, December 12, 2011

The Truth About November

Wow, a whole month since I posted last. I feel kind of sheepish about that, to be honest.

November was busy, yes; I had a six-day work week and typically drove to Long Beach to see friends on the seventh. And yeah, I didn't have internet access on the boat. Nonetheless, I could've made time to write and post. The real reason I didn't is that this is the first stop on my trip where I felt like things weren't going very well, and I kept thinking that maybe in a few days they would go better and then I'd be able to write a really upbeat post about boat life.

I've worked on tall ships before, so I knew that regardless of the weather, the port and the public, it's your crew that makes or breaks your experience (sometimes it even does both). This crew was burnt out, decimated by seasonal budget cuts, and fighting the kind of bone-deep apathy that comes from months of deep frustration. Most of their frustration came from how they were treated by the organization they worked for, and from what I observed, they were certainly justified in feeling so.

Largely because of this burnout, I felt continually out of sync with the rest of the crew. I was lagging when they were revved up, and rarin' to go when they were ready to quit. I was often frustrated with them and I'm certain they were likewise frustrated with me. I made miscalculations, stepped on toes, failed to the last to get on the same page with everyone else. Their salty jadedness clashed with my enthusiasm and bumbling lack of recollection of nearly everything I used to know when last I crewed a tall ship. As for me, I came to suspect that at times they were more interested in complaining about problems than in taking action to resolve them, and was disappointed in how difficult it could be to get people to teach me the things I needed to know in order to be useful.

But the thing is, I get it. I have been where they were. I remember working on an undercrewed tall ship in Sacramento in 2007, and being so utterly exhausted that I was downright surly to the public who came aboard. I remember an inspiring crew pep talk from Haida Bob, a great man whose impact on a certain tall ships organization cannot be overstated. I remember him exhorting us to remember the passion and enthusiasm that first inspired us to crew tall ships, and I remember we were all so far gone that it had little if any impact. I remember being bitter, well and truly sick of it, and certain that things weren't going to improve and the only sane course of action was to grit my teeth and go through the motions until my contract was up.

Also, I've never been the stoic type, so I probably complained every bit as much as they did.

Anyway, the crew's weaknesses aside, I feel like in some significant ways I failed, both to fit in and to become good at my job. And contemplating my own failures is, well, it's really uncomfortable. I've done a lot of obsessive alternating between external blame and self-questioning, trying to work out which percentage of fault to assign to which.  Of course I haven't reached any conclusions about that (seeing as how it's ultimately a futile line of inquiry), and I can't wrap any of this up in a neat little package like I prefer to do with my public writing. So that's why I've been putting off this post. It was uncomfortable to live, and it's uncomfortable to re-live by writing about it.

However, I have to admit I was due for an experience like this. I had a fantastic time on the Little Farm, a deeply satisfying stay at Tassajara, and have thoroughly enjoyed all the visits I've had with friends along the way. Something, sooner or later, had to turn out to be less than stellar. This was an encounter with a sort-of community that was not functioning smoothly, and it was good for me to observe that firsthand. If my plans go as intended, this won't be the last time I get to see something like that; how can I truly learn about community if I don't get to know its darker sides? But now it's clear to me just how painful it is to (try to) be part of it.

Now that I've got all that out of the way: there were many good things about my time aboard, too. I loved getting to know a new boat, sleeping aboard a gently rocking vessel, seeing some of the school kids get excited about sailing; I loved the surrealness of looking out the galley window and seeing a massive cruise ship or container ship drifting by, like a whole city block floating past; I loved answering the question "Do you live on this boat?" with a grin and a "Yup." I loved the times when liveaboard life was harmonious and we all enjoyed one another's company, and I loved working with the day volunteers who were actually excited to be there (surprisingly, not all of them were). I loved sailing, and wish we could've done more of it (we typically only went out once or twice a week). And I loved being close enough to Long Beach that I could spend time with my long-lost friends there. (Having a car handy for escapes was, I think, essential to my sanity, an observation I have noted for future travel plans.)

And there were a few shining, epic moments. It turns out the ringleader of Circus Vargas is a fan of tall ships. He comped the crews of three vessels entry to the big top for a night; we were by far the most enthusiastic (read: rowdy) segment of the crowd, and were much saluted by the performers. That was pretty awesome. Then there was the time we escorted the Lady Washington in to Rainbow Harbor. That day was kind of a dream sail, with several of the more stellar day volunteers canceling whatever they had going on to help crew, and we all had a blast despite the sudden mysterious disappearance of the wind. And... remember how painful it was, waiting for grade school to end so you could have summer vacation, and then the very last day of school there was a party and maybe you watched a movie or something, and everybody was in a good mood, and you thought, if only it had been like this the whole time, I wouldn't have disliked it so much? Well, that's how it always was for me. And that's how my last couple of days on the boat were. For that last little while, everything was just pretty all right.

But I was still ready to get off the boat. It was harder to say goodbye to my non-boat friends, but I did that too, and I've spent the last week lazing about my friends' home in Hanford, the place with the cute little blond boys from this post. Now it's just about time to move on again.


  1. November:
    I crewed an unhappy hermaphrodite brig...

    This is a much more interesting truth than I could give for my month. (in which i WAS a crude hermaphrodite prig - ok, that's not the truth, sorry.) truth = you're awesome

  2. Ohh... I remember that winter 2007 all too well. I have some very painful memories of that port that year, ("Stupid, Stupid, Stupid" and sitting on the ground outside the parking garage/shore head for an entire day), but they do not include any episodes of you griping. I do remember you guys going to church on Sundays while Esther and I did tours in English and Spanish. Oh, and there was that rainy day when Mangosteen took us to the train museum...