“Man cannot discover new oceans
unless he has the courage
to lose sight of the shore.”
– Andre Gide
Life at sea. Like me, I’m sure everyone has his or her own romanticized notions of it. Maybe it’s the adventure of pirates. Maybe the gruff lifestyle of a northern fisherman. For me, it was something that I could never really put into clear words, but it was never really about the sailing, but using it as an acquired skill to go new places. I hope for all who still romanticize that my experience was an isolated one, but once aboard the Wanderbird, all those romantic notions flew out the porthole.
As stated in the post, A One Way Ticket, in late January I came across Captain Rick Miles’ post seeking crew for the Wanderbird. Out of sheer curiosity amidst weeks of Monster.com resumes, I emailed him on 23 January, 2011;
Hello Captain Rick Miles, I saw your posting on Crewfile.com and was hoping you could provide me with some more information about the opportunity. My name is Benjamin Williams and I am a 25 year-old from Michigan with degrees in writing and anthropology. I have little in the way of experience other than the amateur fascination in ships I gained while bouncing around the entirety of the Great Lakes. Still, I am very eager for new undertakings and knowledge, and sailing is an art I've longed to learn for some time. You have a beautiful vessel in the Wanderbird and I hope for the chance to learn more about it soon. Regards, Benjamin
After that email, the whole thing kind of slipped from my mind, as I was in Marquette with Sheylyn. However, on 11 February, about 3 weeks later, I received a response out of the blue;
Hello there Benjamin and thank you very much for your interest in working with us as aboard the Wanderbird this winter and /or next summer. We are confident to say that our crewmembers will leave this job with 5000 + nautical miles from the Caribbean up to the land of icebergs and Polar bears...an adventure of a lifetime...Northern Labrador and Greenland. You will receive all the experience necessary to secure an above entry position on any vessel. You would have plenty of deck and watchkeeping experience even in a cook or asst. cook position. We would hope for you to arrive here in the Caribbean to finish the season here and to begin the journey north as soon as possible. The Caribbean season would end in late April when the vessel returns to Maine. We send you this email as it is here that we highlight all of the hard work and un-glamourous aspects of the jobs that we are offering and for which you are applying. We are a drug and alcohol free vessel with no crew smoking aboard. We must emphasize that this IS a fun and rewarding position but that it is formed on a base of qualities that we find are essential to a happy ship. Karen and I have been carrying passengers on ecology and cultural expeditions to remote destinations for more than twenty years and it is our life. We have found that it is to every one's advantage to be "picky" about who we choose to sail with us as crew each year. We will mail this "hate mail " out to appx. 50 candidates in the next two weeks. Many of our crew have been with us for multiple seasons and we are proud of each of them. You have probably read our website by now, and have a good idea about what we do and who we are. As a shipmate aboard the Wanderbird you'll soon be aware of how much of a family environment exists aboard. Karen and I take the obligation that we have to provide a safe, fun, educational and respectful workplace for all of our crew aboard the Wanderbird very seriously. This is not a job for you if you want to earn a lot of money. Think of this more as a hands on sea school. We do prefer folks with no previous experience as those folks have the most to gain in this type of situation. There are not many boats you will find who encourage "no experience required" even in a practically volunteer position as we are offering here. Financial gains were not the reason that Karen and I became involved in this lifestyle, and we want you to know that the greatest rewards that you take from this experience will not be in your wallet. We do offer room and board, (the food is awesome and plentiful, and a share of the end of the season gratuities which work out to $750-$1000 each. Our work schedule is seven days per week and up to 16 hours each day. The ship usually arrives back in port at noon on Saturday and passengers arrive at 6pm on Sunday to start the next trip. While the ship is between trips the crew must, clean the vessel, make up the cabins, clean the composting toilets, re-provision the vessel, complete any maintenance projects and then they can clean themselves and take care of any personal business. Saturday night is free and we often take the crew out for dinner on this night. During the trips,you will be up and ready to work at 0630 and we sometimes don't get to bed until 10pm. We feel strongly that we should all have at least 8 hours of sleep each night. As a crewmember, no matter where on the vessel that you work, you are not done each day until your shipmates are done as well. This means that the engineer may well be helping with dishes after the last meal of the day or that the galley crew will be helping on deck during sailing operations and during other times like raising and lowering the anchor. Remember, we did say there would be fun things as well. The crew has time to join the guests sometimes for snorkeling kayaking, shore trips, wildlife encounters and research trips. There is opportunity provided to spend time in the wheelhouse learning from the captain or at different locations on the ship to learn new skills. We want this to be a rewarding learning experience for you. The skills that you develop aboard the Wanderbird will assist you in all aspects of life and in any work environment. After you receive this email, you may choose to respond to us. We do realize that about 70% of our applicants will decide not to pursue this opportunity after reading this email. To the 30% who are still interested, let's talk. Yes, this is hard work for little pay but I promise , you will learn, you will gain extensive and quality sea time and you will be part of an extraordinary vessel and crew that travels to places where few will seldom visit. We would like to thank you again for considering us. If you have more questions after reading this, please don't hesitate to contact us as we would be pleased to answer them. Kind Regards, Capts. Rick and Karen Miles
I replied, and for the next month and a half played email tag with the captains on when would be a good time for me to arrive there or even if they would end up needing me at all. Finally, after all the pestering on my part, I nailed down an arrival date of sometime between 10-14 April and a mobile number to call when I arrived.
Upon first boarding the Wanderbird, I was not entirely sure what to expect. What the owners/captains did to the vessel is truly a spectacle. They took an old steel trawling fish boat and completely remodeled it with a wood and brass interior into a beautiful miniature cruise ship. While my initial reaction was that the scale seemed much larger in the website photos, it was still a beautiful ship.
The crew quarters were six to eight bunks in the lower aft (rear) of the ship about a meter high. Each was equipped with minimal storage space (just large enough to slide my backpack into underneath the bunk), a single inflatable mattress, and a red curtain for some semblance of privacy. Unfortunately there happened to be a rough 2×4 construct at the foot of my bunk (which I later found out was a leftover attempt from the previous inhabitant of the bunk to create a shelf) that provided less than adequate legroom or even enough space to fit the mattress properly. Luckily, later in the trip my bunk proved to be the driest.
For the first few days on board, the captains were scarce, either on land or in their quarters and the wheelhouse. In their place, the first mate, Kyle, was in charge.
I had a rough idea of the work going in, but was certainly surprised when, on my first morning, I was handed a snorkel and a paint scraper and swimming in the Caribbean Sea while scraping the hull. Of course it was something that I was expecting to do, just not so quickly.
Much of the work around the ship was what I expected, tedious, sometimes frustrating, and a little dirty. But it was never overly hard. One element I didn’t expect, however, was the responsibility of the captains’ pets along with all of this. While sweet (aside from a caged parakeet which took a good chunk out of my palm a few days in as I was moving his cage), the dogs were nearly ever-present.
Luckily while still anchored in Culebra, I had a mobile signal and could pick up intermittent wifi from the island. I discussed with a couple friends the ups and downs of the situation. The costs of staying onboard versus the possible payoff in knowledge and experience I would gain later. As initially disenchanted as I might have been, I decided to continue on with the trip north. I was already there, after all.
The day we left, I spent tying down oil buckets in the storage area at the front of the ship, a task for which I was ill prepared, given the direness Chris spoke of if the oil spilled and we had to clean it up. I finished the last stack about 20 minutes into the trip, when we were starting to hit the first big Atlantic waves, bouncing me around at the bow of the ship while I’m kneeling down next to a sulfuric-smelling used oil bucket. To the best of my memory, I have never gotten seasick, but these conditions sparked that miserable feeling in me and persisted through the night and into the next evening until Kyle finally gave me a pill to help.
Over the next couple days, I began to regret what I had gotten myself into. I found out the day before we left that we would not be bouncing up the coast through various port towns like I had initially thought. Rather, we were making a straight shot up through the open Atlantic. While overall a faster course, this wouldn’t be broken up with sights and stops. Instead, there was nothing but day after day of only ocean in all directions.
This gave me the feeling of being trapped. Or maybe stuck is a better word. It was never a claustrophobic feeling, but one of a lack of freedom. After the work and meals were done for the day, there was nowhere else you could go and no one else to see. I’m a firm believer that life is too short to spend around people you care nothing for. And while I liked everyone aboard (save for a budding annoyance from Chris’ constant chatter and repetitive stories) they were not the the fictive kin that I might otherwise like to surround myself with for such an extended period of time. And ultimately, I think it was this sense of static confinement that led to my decision to part ways when we docked in Gloucester, Massachusetts.