setting sails

The very first thing I did my very first day working on a tallship was nearly cut the tip of my finger off slicing limes in the middle of the breakfast rush. I knew nothing then about anything, which included the location of the first-aid kit or even the paper towels; the cook was hurling hot brötchen into the bread-basket while simultaneously frying a platter of eggs as the head of service ran back and forth ferrying plates of meats and cheeses to the buffet and the guests clamored for more coffee. It was not a good time to ask questions. I surreptitiously wiped blood off my cutting board with my palm and fled downstairs to my cabin, where I had a stash of band-aids in my rucksack, praying my brief departure would go unnoticed; but in fact I had left the kitchen looking like a crime scene. 

“Fingers bleed a lot,” the head of service said pragmatically. “But God, I thought somebody died in here.”

How I ended up working on a Dutch charter tallship on the Baltic Sea is a long story that I will leave for another time. I was actually meant to be working this year on a different Dutch tallship in a different month in a different ocean, sailing through the diminishing ice and glorious light of the Arctic, but then March happened, and we all know what came after that. And after spending six months feeling as though my life had entered into an indefinite holding pattern, the terrible endless hiatus with which you are also no doubt very familiar, I got a call: We need someone in service for a while, can you come. 

Let me check my calendar, I said. Oh look, it seems to be clear.

Fig. 4: Yes, really.

The Netherlands is home to the largest historical sailing fleet in the world, comprising around 400 ships. Many of them are over a century old. Once whalers or fishing boats or cargo ships, essential cells in the vast organism of capital, they now ferry tourists and sailing students and schoolchildren through the waters of the Baltic and the Mediterranean and the Pacific and the Atlantic, returning every winter like migrating birds to their home ports.

Charter ships are most often one-person businesses, although some are operated by larger companies that own anywhere from a few to half a dozen or more ships. Traditional Dutch charter sailing is a complex mycorrhizal network of booking agents, captain-owners, captains, owners, sailors, service workers, dreamers, geniuses, fools, and drunks. Everyone knows everyone, everyone has slept with everyone, and if you do not know someone and have not yet slept with them, they are more than likely to have sailed a season or two on the ship you’re working on now. Sailors, in my experience, are in general the kind of people who will both lay down their lives for you in a barfight and drag you into bars where fights likely in the first place; which is to say, easy to love and hard to be around for extended periods of time.

Let us first get the unglamorous bits out of the way: Service work on a charter tallship is something like working in a miniature twenty-four-hour hotel-restaurant where you also live in an extremely limited space with your guests and colleagues and sometimes your working environment is tilted at a forty-five-degree angle or moving violently up and down. As with any other service job, the work is repetitive, dirty, menial, physically difficult, and exhausting. Fifteen- and sixteen-hour days are not uncommon; eight-hour days are nonexistent. The pay is hilariously bad. Although sailors are more and more often women, service crew are rarely men. Working on the nautical crew is also demanding, exhausting, and often filthy, but it is infinitely more photogenic; the guests delightedly take endless photos and videos of agile sailors clambering mightily about the rigging, but no one wants to Instagram a woman scrubbing nineteen toilets in a row and then making twenty-three beds. 

For someone who writes about myself as much as I do, I am averse to talking about myself in person. On day trips the guests assumed I was an unusually reticent Dutch person, and I was happy to let them. But on week-long trips one has a great deal of time with the guests and cannot so easily dodge questions about one’s origins. I would always say I was from New York. I no longer have any idea if that is true, or for how much longer I can get away with saying it, but if there is one thing I have learned in the last six months it is that telling a European person you are from New York goes infinitely better than telling a European person you are from the United States. And then their eyes would light up and they would ask me a lot of questions about Times Square (“I don’t go there if I can help it”) and is it really true that in America we let sick people with no money just die (“Yes”) and is half of America stupid or what (“Why don’t I tell you a bit about voter suppression”) and isn’t this whole Black Lives Matter thing just blown out of proportion (“No”). The same dissonance of legibility I have in German class—What is your street address (“I don’t have one”), what is your profession (“Which one”), what is your neighborhood like (“The campground in rural Germany? Or the part of Brooklyn where police drive cars into Black protestors without consequences and for all I know all my neighbors are being evicted as we learn the genitive?”), although at least on a ship the guests expect the crew to be a little weird. 

How did you get here from New York, the guests ask, and I say It’s complicated, and they nod and say How do you feel about your country now?

And I want to say how the fuck would you feel if every day you are more and more afraid that it will be months or years before you can safely see any kind of family, chosen or blood, ever again, that you are terrified your country will not have an election, that no one you know can go to the doctor, that half your friends have no idea how they will keep paying rent, that your friends with children are having to choose between sending their kids to virus-swarmed schools or losing their jobs because they cannot manage childcare at home on top of working sixty hours a week, and that somehow you dodged all of it with an accidentally well-timed plane ticket to a functional country where now you are standing on the deck of one of the most beautiful sailing-ships in the world on a sunny day with the salt breeze in your hair and in a moment you will leap headlong into the wild blue Baltic and float on your back looking up at the sky and thinking of everyone you love back home going mad locked up in their apartments, you fucking tell me how you would feel, sir, but instead I smile and say I am very happy in Germany! would you like another beer! and we all laugh. Ha ha! What they are really asking, of course, is Isn’t it better here? and the answer is, obviously, yes.

Yes, but safe isn’t the same thing as home.

Fig. 5: Please do not ask any more questions.

I have a lot of good sea-stories and I will write you more about sailing in a week or two. For now, I am back on land. After the paralyzing lassitude of the summer my life here is resolving into something like order. I talked M into moving into an apartment in town for the winter so that I might enjoy the unparalleled luxury of a bathroom inside my abode during the cold months. I am emailing about an extended visa. I am looking at the local university. I went to the doctor; it was incredible. Everything they say about socialism is true! I am trying not to look at the news and failing, probably in the same way you are trying not to look at the news and failing. I am trying to remain hopeful, probably in the same way you are trying to remain hopeful. Maybe that’s been going better for you.

I have been thinking a lot lately of that particular genre of science-fiction movie, like Arrival or Contact or The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which vastly advanced alien races are watching in the wings, waiting patiently until it becomes absolutely clear that we will be unable to save ourselves from ourselves, crash-landing in the eleventh hour with the key to our enlightenment. I have often joked that therapy never works for me because what I really need, what will actually make me feel better, is for someone with knowledge of the future to put their hand on my shoulder and gently say Everything really is going to be okay, and there is no one among our grubby and desperate and brilliant and heartbreaking species who can do that for me or for anyone else. I don’t want a therapist, I want an omniscient tentacle-being from Alpha Centauri. But here we are. The hero in the end will have to be us; there is no one else to do it.

Fig. 6: A nap in the net.

Which makes me think of a moment on the ship I sailed on as a guest in 2018, the trip that set in motion everything my life has become since. Somewhere in the Arctic, the glorious light, the diminishing ice, the white circle of the sun looping overhead. The wind came up, and the first mate wanted to set the sails. You, she said, pointing to us, and you, and you, and you. Go to that line. Nobody knew what they were doing, but when you are setting the sails, that’s fine. All you do is pull in concert with your fellow passengers when whoever’s in charge tells you to pull. The deckhand released the line on the other side—Pull!—the first mate said, watching us fall over ourselves with a dry little smile on her face and her cigarette dangling. We pulled together. We pulled together. Have you ever tried to put up a mainsail? A mainsail is fucking heavy. We looked up; the sail flapped awkwardly, nowhere near where it was supposed to be. 

What now! someone yelled, and the first mate looked at us, laughing.

What do you think? she said. Pull harder.