My Seamester of Overlap


They woke me differently. That was the first thing I noticed. When things first began to change, they started with sleep and that vulnerable time hovering near it.

We woke each other up often, due to the fact that we were newly in charge of a sailboat traveling around Southeast Asia and spent more time at sea than at port. We would wake each other up twenty minutes before the watch switch to ensure that everyone assigned to stay up for the next four hours and run the ship was ready and alert enough to be prepared for whatever unpredictable adventure might come their way.

At first, it had been awkward. A whispered rush of words, a sorry-um-it-is-time-for-watch, and then backing away. But slowly, at some point, it began to change. We sidestepped, into a kind of waltz, an in-between period. The beginning of real connection, the end of our clearly outlined divisions. We would spend more time. Start earlier. Speak softer. Then, suddenly, some began to touch. To squeeze another's shoulder, to rub a back, to tap softly on the arm. Sometimes I would wake up to offers of a hot cup of tea or a spoonful of the prized and quickly depleting instant coffee that kept us functioning. It was the beginning of something bigger, and even then I recognized the shifting strands of our web.

There was an abundance of people and things on the boat, and a serious shortage of space. We were always overlapping. Sitting in the galley during class, legs and knees would bump under the tables. On deck hauling sails into the sky, our hands would slip over and between as we pulled together. At night my feet would sometimes brush against those of the girl whose bed met mine.

Privacy was rare on Argo, the 112-foot sailing yacht we were learning to run thanks to the help of six incredible instructors. Thirteen students, aged 17 to 22, had signed up for a program called Seamester, which sent college and gap year students from all over the world to spend a semester learning how to sail a tall ship. Before we arrived and motored out to Argo on an inflatable dinghy from a dock in Thailand, we were complete strangers. Strangers who had three months to become a crew.

At first, physical contact was avoided whenever possible. But soon, I believe, around the same time that the waking changed, we began to search for it. To look for others to lean against, to revel in our closeness, in our intricacy, in the force that we made upon coming together. As the jet lag wore off we began to stay up nights talking, discussing everything from The Greatest Movies of All Time to the things we most deeply feared in life. We began to learn each other, to pay attention, to catch eyes and or secret smiles across deck, to repeat each other's phrases, to tease each other incessantly.

The thing was, we couldn't leave. When things were difficult, or awkward, when we wanted to argue, when we did argue, when we were in love or discomfort or in awe or in shame, we couldn't leave. We had to deal. We had to walk straight into whatever we were feeling, and we had to do it with each other. I think that is what made all the difference. All my life I have complicated my relationships by fearing that they would somehow end before I was ready, that the first disaster would be the closing sentence to whatever story we had built together.

On the boat, it didn't work like that. On the boat, as angry as you might be with someone, you couldn't walk away. You could give yourself space, you could distance yourself, but you had to find a way to make peace with whatever you were, to find a ground you both could stand on. Even when all of the points of sail or parts of the ship begin to slip away, that lesson is one I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

And that lesson, I think, is the reason that we cautiously call ourselves a family. Isn't that what family is after all? Fiercely loving and hating all at once and deciding to stay? If so, that's what we were. That is what we chose. We were a ship of fiery personalities, pulled together from all walks of life, who decided to stay. Who let ourselves overlap.

I am asked about my adventure all the time, and often I talk of the sights I saw; the glorious sunrises, the wild and unpredictable squalls, the slide of body against wave, the thrill of dolphins leaping in our wake.

But when I am most honest, when I speak from the place of strength these eighteen others helped me build, when I speak truly of what has left me transformed and settled in myself in a way I was unaware I could reach, I speak of them.

I speak of the way our legs crossed and our hands held, of how we woke up and slept in the same place for ninety days, how we hated each other often and loved each other more. If I could go back and just do one part of the whole crazy thing again, I would pick loving and learning them over every other adventure that came my way.