The Daily

First Person

Falling Overboard

November 2, 2012 | by

Illustration by Madzia Bryll, a fellow member of the crew.

At first, I couldn’t sleep on the ship. At night, bunked beneath the waterline, I put my hand against the wooden hull and imagined dark water on the other side pressing back. I lay awake holding my breath, picturing the route I would swim through a maze of cabins and hatches if the ship went down. In port, Bounty had looked tremendous: one hundred and eighty feet long, three masts stretching a hundred feet into the sky, and a thousand square yards of canvas sails. But underway, with ocean spreading toward horizon in every direction, she was small, and inside her I was even smaller.

I had lost my job and my marriage when I saw Bounty for the first time. I wanted to stowaway, cast off, and leave the ruins of my life behind—and Bounty let me. Yet I left far more than grief on land; what mattered at home—education, achievements, appearance—was irrelevant at sea. It was unsettling to abandon all that I thought defined me. I sat in the galley with the other deckhands and wondered what they understood from my face. I was uncertain of what remained.

To leave the shore required surrender; I had to give myself over to the ship and the journey, wherever it led and whatever it revealed. I fell into the rhythms of standing watch and eating meals. Soon even the ship’s deep rolls and strange music of creaking timbers became familiar. I learned lines and sails, practiced emergency drills, and studied the compass and charts; I tarred, painted, spliced, caulked, and I finally slept. I slept deeply, trusting when I closed my eyes others were awake, on watch, keeping me safe, just as I had done for them. We were profoundly dependent on each other.

With that dependence came an admission of fragility. We relied on each other aboard the ship because it was necessary to survive. Every day we climbed up the shrouds together, we lay our bodies over the yards to furl and unfurl sails, and we trusted we were safe in the rig while the sea swelled underneath. Change happened fast: winds suddenly shifted, waves crashed over catheads, and storms appeared. Every day I grasped how easy it would be to fall, to slip, to let go, to die. To recognize that risk is also to understand the dominion of nature. Our voyage depended on understanding the winds and currents, and respecting our place beneath the movements of the stars.

To explore, to protect, to fish, and to trade have always required facing the ocean. The risks have become legend, and the language for intense emotions—whether love or loss—are borrowed from the extremes of life at sea. We are in the same boat; We ply uncharted waters; We weather the storm; We are lost at sea; We go down with the ship. Yet, these expressions are far from figurative for sailors. Instead, the words are literal and steeped in animism; they contain an understanding that the sea, the ship, and the winds have power. Our captain often patted the pinrail and reminded us, “If we take care of her, she will take care of us.” To survive, we had to reckon with each other, the ship, and nature.

The pact formed between ourselves and the environment is delicate and easily broken. Sea levels rise, currents change, and a hurricane twice the size of Texas churns towards New York. Off the coast of North Carolina, Bounty is tossed in its wake. I am split in two by the storm: I am home as my city floods, while at sea the ship loses power, founders, and begins to sink. The order to abandon ship is given and the crew in their heavy red neoprene survival suits leap into rafts to await rescue. As they evacuate, the captain and two crewmembers are swept overboard. One swims to a raft, the dead body of another will be found hours later, and after four days the Coast Guard will give up searching for the Captain.

I want to look away from the broken ship with her masts snapped and hull submerged. I want to blur the crew lifted by helicopters from twenty foot seas. I want to veer from the Captain, washed overboard, and drifting alone in rough waters. I say the truth is unfathomable and the phrase snags in my throat, a trope already taken from the sea. I catch myself saying fathom again: a word that once meant embrace, and then the length from arm to arm of rope or water, and now means understanding. Bounty is on the sea floor and her Captain lost (my ship, my Captain gone); I don’t want to hold, or measure the depth, or understand this loss.

I was never meant to stay aboard the ship forever; I knew this. Bounty carried me from one place to another, and I let myself be taken. I lost myself in the wind and the canvas, and the open ocean. Inside her hull was a home; between the crew was a family. Now the ship is wrecked, but we are not stranded. To fathom is truly what the voyage taught: to embrace, measure, and understand the fragility and strength in this blue world and our dependence on each other within it. I learned to love a ship and then I stepped ashore willing to risk my heart.

Robin Beth Schaer’s work has appeared in Tin House, The Awl, Bomb, Denver Quarterly, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Djerassi, Saltonstall, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches writing at Cooper Union and Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.

See more work by artist Madzia Bryll here.





  1. L.Jaye Bell | November 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Beautifully written essay Robin. Very well put.

  2. Bob Triggs | November 3, 2012 at 12:32 am

    From the heart. My most sincere condolences to all.

  3. Alan Ramsey | November 3, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Thank you for sharing at a most difficult time – your ability to recognize the value of the trial, and to keep it with you will serve you well. That fear, overcoming that fear, and your own survival will galvanize your spirit. I hope you find an opportunity to sail again – it is, and always will be, soulful.

  4. Alan Ramsey | November 3, 2012 at 9:23 am

    To Madzia Bryll – I love your artwork, not only for this account of your journey, but your ability to capture nature so well. You have a gift – thanks for letting us experience the delight of your work.

  5. bruce smith | November 3, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Bounty was not tossed in Sandy wake, Bounty was plowed under Sandys bow wave.
    Having a vessel sink from under you is not falling overboard.

  6. Nmurphy | November 3, 2012 at 9:59 am

    It’s amazing that no matter how descriptive a writer, so matter how carefully the picture painted, our imagination plays a great role in defining our experience with literature. While reading this, I imagined it written by a 18th century male – until the helicopters and by line appeared.

  7. Norm Lehman | November 3, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Beauty derived from tragedy. Thank you.

  8. Heather Wright | November 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    This tragedy has bound itself to my core since Monday and I, not Bounty family, crew or even her guest. A great sympathy is created by sharing your insight and I hope you may gain peace through your expression in text. My thoughts and sorrow for your loss, as well as the loss shared by the friends, family and crew past and present of the HMS Bounty.

  9. Walt Whitman | November 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    bruce smith: idiot.

  10. John Hoare | November 4, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Thank you for sharing in such a concise manner the equisite pain of tragedy that one only can know if it is actually experienced.

  11. Alice Twombly | November 4, 2012 at 4:30 am

    Bruce, I think you may have taken the term ‘falling overboard’ too literally. Please re read the article. Our family has been intimately connected with Bounty for 8 years. We ‘fell’ for her, hook, line and now, sinker. Get it? The Bounty ‘family’ is grieving this tragic loss. Please don’t judge those who choose to go to sea as this lady did.

  12. pamela e. grady | November 4, 2012 at 6:21 am

    This story is so powerful, told in such beautiful, poetic prose of a personal life experience and tribute to the Bounty, the sea and the communion of mankind. thank you!

  13. Dona Lambert | November 4, 2012 at 9:58 am

    An incredible account. Thank you. Dona

  14. Dona Lambert | November 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Thank you for this. Dona

  15. Barry Sousa | November 4, 2012 at 11:34 am

    The day she left Gloucester after the schooner festival I snapped a dozen pictures of her under full sail from my home on Rocky Neck. It pains all of us here in Gloucester to learn of her sinking and the passing of the crew members.So beautiful to see and less than 3 months later gone. We have been through this many times here,and probably will again. So glad you and the others survived and thank you for the beautifully written piece. PS Well said Alice Twombly !!!

  16. Camille Charbonneau | November 4, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    This is beautiful, thank you for reminding me of my time at sea

  17. Patti Rockhill | November 4, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    There are those of us who love boats and the sea above all else. It doesn’t have to end well, you don’t have to come back, but you do have to go out.

  18. Mike | November 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Sad because it didn’t have to happen.

  19. Bart Blankenship | November 5, 2012 at 7:51 am

    A beautiful letter and a tragic end. For those who love the sea, she’s a powerful mistress. And the fact that grand ships sink in storms will never keep those who’s call it is to come from going outward bound.

    My heart goes out to all in this tragedy.

  20. V. Gamage | November 5, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Beautifully written and very tragic

  21. Paul St.Germain | November 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I spent about an hour aboard the Bounty when she was in Gloucester two months ago.I have also crewed on the tall ship HMS Rose in the Irish Sea doing the same things you did.Luckily we never lost the Rose(only to Hollywood for the film Master &Commander;Far Side of the World). I can identify with your experiences and was very affected by your chilling story.I wish you and the crew nothing but calm waters from now on.

  22. prd | November 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I don’t see either the author or illustrator on the rescued crew list…pen names perhaps?

  23. Jane | November 6, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    “prd” … both are former crew members — not this trip.

  24. prd | November 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    It leads people like “Paul” to draw the conclusion the auther is a survivor.

  25. Catie Bushell | November 10, 2012 at 12:17 am

    After years at sea I had fish tanks in my bedroom. Seven of them. Somehow the rushing rise and rock of the sea could not be replaced but it helps you dream. I dream of it still, especially when there is the high whistle of strong winds and the smell the ocean through my window at night. I know the Bounty from ports. Another old lady gone.

  26. alan | November 10, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Written with great sensitivity. Thank you.

  27. Gretchen | November 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Off the coast of North Carolina, Bounty is tossed in its wake. I am split in two by the storm: I am home as my city floods, while at sea the ship loses power, founders, and begins to sink.

  28. Captain Colin Smith. M.Sc. | November 19, 2012 at 5:40 am

    Ships and the sea tend to attract purple prose in buckets. One school goes to sea just long enough for it to be thrilling and to burnish literary skills. The other, more serious, school commits to the sea as a profession on commercially trading ships. It is actually extremely difficult to write well about going to sea,,but easy to write badly. Sadly the latter are in a minority. I have samples of both kinds. I find the ‘voyage of self-discovery’ idiom the least readable. The best are unself-conscious and flow naturally.

  29. Captain Colin Smith. M.Sc. | November 19, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Ignore previous posting…I fell asleep.
    Ships and the sea tend to attract purple prose in buckets. One school goes to sea just long enough for it to be thrilling and to burnish literary skills. The other, more serious, school commits to the sea as a profession on commercially trading ships. It is actually extremely difficult to write well about going to sea,,but easy to write badly. Sadly the latter are in a majority. I have samples of both kinds. I find the ‘voyage of self-discovery’ idiom the least readable. The best are unself-conscious and flow naturally.

  30. lwusernamet4 | January 17, 2013 at 4:19 am

    Do you ever have a cluster of similarly themed messages showing up in a short period of time? That’s what I’m experiencing right now. The current message that keeps recurring for me is this: it is my choice to enjoy or not enjoy life, no matter what is happening.

    Lately, pesky fears about my health have been buzzing around me like gnats. I’ve been on a cancer journey for the past 4 years and am currently in remission, but a part of me is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. In response to those fears, I recently awoke with this thought: “Just enjoy your life right now. No matter what may happen in the future, DECIDE to thoroughly enjoy today.”

  31. justsomebody | November 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    This is so elegantly and evocatively written. I am reminded all over again of the beauty in and value of good writing.

  32. Jay Boland | August 15, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    i will never let this beautifully written piece go. I cannot not weep. Former volunteer crew for nineteen years. Loved it, loved them all.

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8 Pingbacks

  1. […] found this article in the Paris Review. For the original article, go to Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. […] an American poet and sailor who served as a deckhand aboard the HMS Bounty has a written, Falling Overboard,  a beautifully evocative essay which she describes as “My love letter and my farewell for […]

  3. […] Click here for this story on the […]

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  5. […] Beth Schaer, whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, Bomb, Guernica, and At Length, among others. She teaches writing at Cooper Union and Marymount […]

  6. […] has a beautiful essay at the Paris Review about living aboard and losing Bounty. And if you go to her website, you can hear a haunting […]

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