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Jennifer gets to sail….finally

Posted by Tall Ships America on July 9, 2009

“ALL HANDS ON DECK! – There’s an emergency!!!  Wake up! ALL HANDS ON DECK!!” 

            I tried to remember where I was and what kind of emergency there might be… Ah, yes, I’m on board the Spirit of Bermuda racing from Charleston, SC to Boston, MA.  I had been on board for almost 2 days, and was still trying to get some sleep whenever I could.  This call came at 22:15, just about an hour before I was to be woken for my midnight watch. 

            I remember hearing ,“Man overboard,”  and thought , “Oh, no.  Not one of the kids”…  There were 22 of us on board Spirit of Bermuda for this passage, most of them sail trainees from Bermuda between 15 and 18 years old.  I really hoped that I was dreaming and what I was hearing wasn’t true. 

     Quickly, it was made clear that all of our crew was safe and now on deck looking for signal flares in the distance.  Several red flares had been spotted by the watch on deck and they feared that there had been an accident up ahead.  Each watch has a responsibility when it comes to different emergency situations and my watch (A watch) was in charge of readying and launching the dinghy for potential rescue. 

            After about 10 minutes of looking for more flares, and racing adrenaline, we were told to gather in the cockpit.  After radioing the Coast Guard to find out how we should assist in case of an emergency, we discovered that it was in fact the Coast Guard which had been testing some emergency equipment and that there was no actual emergency.

     Not knowing until later that there was no emergency made for a very good drill for our crew.  About a quarter of the crew is on deck during a watch, so to have the rest of the crew up out of bunks and ready to act within a matter of minutes was encouraging!  If there had been a situation where help was required, we would have been in a very good position to be able to offer help, and it made me proud to be a part of this competent crew!

            We knew we were in for it the next day, however, when the water was dead calm around Cape Hatteras on our morning watch.  Apparently, there is rarely calm weather there, as the convergence of the Gulf Stream nearing land around the point is usually pretty rough. 

            After our watch, as the winds continued to rise, we ate lunch.  We were trying to get some rest before our next watch, when suddenly the call went out that there were several waterspouts around us.  There was a flurry of activity as trainees and crew set about shortening sail as best they could.  Then the lightning came, and lots of it.  The professional crew made the decision to send all trainees below and to seal all the doors.      As the forward hatch in the forepeak was not completely watertight, we all sat in the galley with our harnesses on, waiting for the squall to pass.  The wind gauge in the galley kept creeping upwards.  25 knots… 35…  45…  Rain was descending in torrents.  We were hitting larger waves and rolling all around.  Several trainees were sick.  It was HOT in the galley, and many people found it easier to sleep.  We watched the water wash over the deck through the deck prisms.  One trainee was sitting on top of a cooler, and during a major wind gust, slid right across the galley floor – that’s an image I will remember for a while!

            Suddenly the hatch opened and an inflated life jacket was thrown down, and a request for a new one heeded and sent up.  The wind gauge now was going from 50 to 60 knots, would we ever get out of this?  About an hour and a half later, after a series of squalls topped out at 72 knots of wind speed (hurricane strength…) we heard the engines come on.  We were motoring out of the area. 

            I was deeply impressed by the crew managing to maintain control throughout that ordeal, and was relieved that all was well.  After we were out of danger, the Captain held a debrief in the cockpit which provided the opportunity to air any questions or concerns that anyone might have.  During this brief interval, we observed a fantastic sunset, and managed to prepare for the next stage of sailing. 

             This trip was my very first voyage on a tall ship.  I have sailed on smaller boats, but my job as Operations Coordinator in the ASTA office ties me mostly to my desk.  I try to convey to as many people as possible the positive effect sail training has on people, especially kids.  Until now, the things I have been telling everyone have been based on our interns experiences during the summer and from talking to crew throughout the year. This summer, I figured it was high time to take to the seas and see what this thing called “sail training ” is really all about. 

     I would also like to make clear once and for all, that sail training is NOT just for kids.  At 41, I feel like I should still be able learn and benefit from the sail training experience.  And I have.  My perspective is clearly different than the younger generation, but it certainly was no barrier to all of us getting the most of our the situations we found ourselves in.  Giving kids this kind of experience early on can really help shape the person they become, but the benefits don’t disappear if you start later in life. 

            It has been extremely encouraging to see this group of 22 people come together and become each other’s support group in limited time and space. 

Bunks down below

Bunks down below










     Living out of a bunk in a room of mostly teenagers could have been a disaster, but this group of kids were polite, they looked out for each other and tried very hard to behave themselves, at least while I was around!  At the end of my week on board, we began to feel like a family.

     Here are a few things that I have learned from my brief time on board Spirit of Bermuda:

  • Finally, after years of unsuccessful attempts, I have learned to tie a bowline! (Thank you Andrew!)
  • You might get stinky and dirty, but you can survive sweltering conditions and hard work without taking a shower for many days in a row.  
  • Always be nice to the chef – not only does he provide you with delicious meals three times a day, he also distributes extra food and treats at his discretion. 
  • Don’t leave your personal items on the sole (floor), as they will be collected and only returned to you after you provide some kind of entertainment for the rest of the crew (nursery rhymes sung in deep Bermudian voices can provide some great comic relief…)
  • Be ready to lend a hand at any time, and you will find help when you need it.
  • There are three main things that take up all of your time while underway: Being on watch, eating meals, and sleeping.  There is no time for anything else.
  • Standing on the bow or at the helm in the middle of the night, watching the shooting stars, the waves, and the dolphins and flying fish glide through phosphorescence has got to be one of the greatest ways of feeling connected to this planet.


Night and the Bermudan flag

Night and the Bermudan flag

Sunset safety harness instruction

Sunset safety harness instruction


2 Responses to “Jennifer gets to sail….finally”

  1. Matty ain’t got nothin’ on you…. Awesome job Jen. Start writing your story for the directory!

  2. Daria said

    Nice piece. Having crossed the North Atlantic myself last summer, you took me right back out there with your story. Thanks for sharing.

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