Being a sailor, having sailed tall ships and feeding dreams of sailing them further, I have thought much about last month’s sinking of the HMS BOUNTY and the tragic loss of life that day. I never met Claudene Christian, the crew member who, along with Captain Robin Walbridge, did not survive after the ship went down during Hurricane Sandy. However, when I read a comment on BOUNTY’s Facebook page asking, “What was a woman like her doing on a ship like that?” I knew the answer. Because of my sailing experience, I know something about Claudene’s heart, about the hearts of all sailors, especially tall ship sailors.
Out at sea, a sailor is both isolated from other humans and intricately bound to her shipmates through a strong sense of camaraderie and interdependency. Spending days offshore can cause a “sea change” within the sailor, a profound effect. “It happens days into a voyage, when you lose sight of land…” wrote Dr. Jerri Nielsen in her biography, “Icebound.” She noted that, “time no longer exists; nothing matters except the path you’re following, the sky and the rolling water. It doesn’t happen to everyone. But those who undergo the sea change are transformed forever, reborn in a new element.”
Already a Facebook fan of BOUNTY, I began to follow the ship more closely when I read that she was going to weather the “Frankenstorm” at sea, particularly because I was certain that my friend, Carl*, was crewing aboard the vessel. We had met aboard LIBERTY CLIPPER two years ago, when I sailed approximately 1,000 miles during 15 days with the 125’ schooner. Carl and I reconnected this past June, at Operation Sail in Norfolk, where I spent six days aboard the reproduction pilot schooner VIRGINIA—and where I was pleased to be able to tour BOUNTY at dock across the river in Portsmouth.
For over two weeks Carl and I had shared an adventure that included standing watch, emergency drills, sailing the ship day and night, handling the lines, enduring cold and rain, flying through the night during the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race and sailing the blue water 30 miles offshore of Cape Hatteras—the very waters where BOUNTY went down. Talking with Carl on that journey, I learned that it had taken him seven years to transition from his life on land to that of professional sailor. I found his decisiveness, determination and fortitude inspiring. I know nothing more about Carl’s previous life, the life he lived ashore. But I know his tall ship sailor’s heart, which shined in his daily actions and demeanor. During the time we were shipmates, Carl was a model team member: upbeat, helpful, always busy doing something useful and cheerfully volunteering even for the least desirable tasks.
Knowing that Carl had likely continued with BOUNTY after her stop in the Virginia tidewater, I followed the news closely during the storm. I learned that the ship was taking on water and had lost power and propulsion, which meant she was wallowing in high seas and, with her pumps useless, was going to go down. Anxiously, I watched for more news, learning that all hands abandoned ship, donning their survival suits and making for the life rafts. Word came out that 14 of the 16 crew were recovered, and I was afraid that my friend might be among the two missing.
With great concern, I searched for news that Carl was OK, checking his Facebook page for any update, and intently watching the video of the daring US Coast Guard rescue—carried out in gale force winds and with 15-foot waves—which gave proof that my friend did survive. As relieved as I was that Carl had been rescued, I also worried about the two who continued to be missing. I felt great empathy for their friends and family, who, no doubt, were anxious and hoping that their loved ones would also be recovered.
The tall ships community is small, populated by a certain breed of sailor, perhaps the quirkiest kind. These are the sort of people who experience what playwright Eugene O’Neill’s character, Edmond, described in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”: “I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself!” Aside from this abiding love of ship and sea and sky, tall ship sailors also share the common experience of working aboard the vessel. We know washing decks, making repairs, cleaning up rust, polishing brass and completing the other myriad tasks that make a person feel intimate with the boat and compel the sailor’s heart to fall in love with whatever ship she sails.
A tragedy like the BOUNTY deeply affects this close-knit community. Tall ship sailors often know someone- or sailed with someone who was aboard during- or lost in the disaster. We know the ships, having sailed them ourselves, toured them in port, or simply from taking great interest. At the very least, we know the life, the special camaraderie that develops when sailing together, relying on each other, hauling on lines, maintaining the boat, and folding the headsails perfectly so we can come into port with a shared pride in this ship that we love.
Out of such experience, we feel deep compassion for those who lose a shipmate or former shipmate. I have often thought of Carl and the other BOUNTY survivors, imagining what they endured, what it must have been like to be interviewed or “debriefed” by the USCG, and how they must be struggling to cope with the enormous loss of two of their kin, as well as their beautiful ship. I am sure I cannot begin to imagine, and yet, even in my meager effort, I am brought to tears.
Despite this tragedy, this horrific loss, tall ship sailors will and do continue to sail. It has been metaphorically noted that “ships are safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for.” That is the case for the sailors themselves, including a woman like Claudene, who was multi-talented, who could have stayed safe ashore and continued to find any measure of success there. Instead, as she expressed in a song she wrote, I Live I Dream, Claudene chose to follow her heart. Reportedly in her last text message she told a family member that she was “HAPPY TO BE HERE on Bounty doing what I love…And if I do go down with the ship & the worst happens…Just know that I AM TRULY GENUINELY HAPPY!! And I am doing what I love!”
Knowing of my dream to sail tall ships again, a friend cautioned me after the BOUNTY sank, to “be careful what you sign up for in the future,” as if anyone can determine which ship the sea will take, or when. Throughout millennia, sailors have sought the joys of that marvelous flight at the juncture of salt water and sky, regardless of dangers known and unforeseen, because that’s what sailors are made for.
NOTE: My thanks to Chava Gal-Or, for her support and encouragement in writing this piece.*Name changed out of respect for privacy.
© 2012 by Shay Seaborne. All rights reserved.