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The sailing life

By: Kate Davis, high school alumna High School Adventures, Sailing

Of all the life-changing teen experiences—the first day of freshman year, getting a driver’s license, or going to college—embarking on a 600 mile sailing trip with eleven other teens on a 50 foot yacht captained by a dreadlocked anarchist named Moxie Marlinspike doesn’t usually make the list. But this is exactly what I did last summer. Starting in Sint Maarten, we sailed over 600 nautical miles to safely dock in Port of Spain, Trinidad, just out of sight of Venezuela. Along the way, we explored dozens of islands, some posh tourist destinations and some unknown paradises. We did things I’ve only seen in movies, but the trip was not all Hollywood glamour. I came to many realizations through the people I met and the volunteer service I provided on the islands.

We flew in to Sint Maarten and made our way to Anse Marcel, on the French side of the island. We took a dinghy out to our rocky anchorage in the marina. As the tall silhouette of our boat, the Persephone, rose against the moonlight, I began to seriously doubt my decision to spend my next thirty-one days aboard. After just minutes aboard, I was feeling incredibly seasick. Seasickness is horrible, because you feel like you’ve always been deathly ill and you’ll never feel well again. But I knew I had to tough it out, and I gave myself an ultimatum: if I didn’t feel better in a week, I would find a way home.

We motored out of Anse Marcel the next morning and immediately began our sail training. We learned all the parts of the boat, from the bow roller to the snatch blocks to the transom. Our first week was dedicated to learning how to sail, in preparation for our International Yacht Training sailing test. We spent hours practicing man-overboard drills, which was like the parallel parking section of the driver’s road test: you dread it and pray that you’ll never need to use it, because even if you can pass the test, you know you don’t really know what you’re doing. To make it even more difficult, one must coordinate with ten other people, some of them fifty feet away!

On July 4th, we made our first island exploration on St. Eustatius, affectionately known as Statia. While most of our group climbed the Quill, a dormant volcano, I could not, and instead spent the day with Moxie exploring the lower part of the island. We went to customs and then walked along the beach, collecting coconuts. I’d only seen coconuts in tidy packages at the grocery store and never realized that they had to be husked. Moxie taught me how to remove the thick, green husk as we talked about our lives and aspirations. As we returned to the boat after a long day, I realized that I had lived up to my ultimatum: I had found my way home after the first week, but only by redefining where home was.

We passed our sail training with flying colors and continued sailing south to Portsmouth, Dominica, where we stopped to clean a beach and reprovision with fresh produce. The produce market glistened with weird and wonderful fruits, like starfruit and passionfruit, and the locals eagerly cut up samples for us to try. I had never eaten many of these things, but they were all dripping with bright juices and lush flavors. Even ordinary pineapple was completely new—it was so naturally sweet and soft; if I didn’t know better, I would think it was an entirely new fruit from the ones I’d had at home.

It was around this time that we stopped in St. Lucia, in Marigot Bay. We went ashore for the afternoon to look around and have gelato, which we searched for on every island. While we were ashore we discovered a large luxury hotel overlooking the bay and everyone wanted to take a look at this wondrous building. They admired all the people sipping their tropical drinks by a Jacuzzi and lamented that they had to go back to the tiny boat—they would give their world for just one night in that hotel. As the others said these things, I suddenly realized how much I had changed in the last two weeks. I wouldn’t give up one night of life onboard for a lifetime of tropical drinks, hotel suites, and room service. The community we had on board was too precious to me, and I didn’t care if it was small, or uncomfortable, or if we had to converse fresh water or risk death. None of those things mattered to me anymore.

We continued sailing through the Leeward Islands, stopping in Bequia to render community service at the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. The Sanctuary was founded by a fisherman, Orton King, who had noticed fewer and fewer sea turtles every year. He retired from fishing to try to save sea turtles, especially the endangered hawksbill, from extinction in the Caribbean. Mr. King now takes hatchlings and raises them in his sanctuary until they are three years old, when he releases them back into the ocean. This ensures that the turtles have lived through the most vulnerable stage in their lives, which greatly increases the chances that they will reproduce and regenerate the turtle population. We spent a full day helping Mr. King with his ambitious project, cleaning the turtles’ tanks, feeding the turtles, and learning about conservation efforts.

As we sailed away from Bequia, we began the third phase of our journey, the self-directed phase. Suddenly, it was our decision where to go, how to sail, what to do. Captain Marlinspike was just Moxie again because we were now in charge. We immediately learned to deal with disasters as our motor promptly broke. Though we sailed for most of our journey, the motor was essential to us when we docked, moored, or anchored. We had to completely change our plan for the last week so that we could sail someplace to fix our engine. But with teamwork, we managed to sail to Union Island, anchor without a motor, and fix our engine. We felt like we had achieved the impossible.

We spent the last week relaxing as we sailed around the Grenadines. We spent a peaceful night in the Tobago Cays, snorkeling around the pristine, untouched islands. Part of The Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed on Petit Tabac, a little sandy strip better known as Rum Island. Inspired by this fact, we learned how generous other sailors are when we radioed to the other boats in the bay to see if they had a copy of the DVD. Someone answered our call, and we watched the movie in the galley, thirteen of us huddled around the small laptop screen, eating popcorn.

We sailed on to Carriacou, where we hiked up a long road to a hospital, advertised in the cruising guide as having great views of the bay. As ridiculous as it may seem, the view was magnificent, and we showed local children how to use our cameras as they ran and played around us. There was a radio tower nearby, which the intrepid non-Captain Moxie suggested we climb. Several of us were brave and climbed up for a bird’s eye view of the sparkling sunset.

By now our journey was at an end. We motored into Port of Spain after a long, mournful night sail. Though we celebrated the completion of our trek, we all silently grieved the loss of our new home and friends. We cleaned our ship from stem to stern and packed our bags. We spent the night saying our good-byes, sharing email addresses and writing our last notes to each other, to be read on the plane.

My flight took off just after sunrise. I was dead-tired from being awake for over twenty-four hours, but I could not close my eyes. We flew over the bay where we had docked the night before, and before we rose above the clouds, I spotted her, our home, sitting empty at the dock. I had not cried when I left Harrisburg, but the tears flowed endlessly when I left Trinidad. I had become a whole new person, had redefined home and redefined myself. After thirty-two days abroad, I had severe reverse culture shock when I returned. Just my bedroom was bigger than our whole living space onboard. I still keep in touch with the people I met and the friends I made, but it will never be the same. We want to have a reunion in a few years, to bring back the old times, but I think it will never happen. However, I am content with that because the experiences I had will affect me the rest of my life; there is no need to relive them. I gained a new sense of community and wonder, and these new senses will keep me satisfied for a lifetime.