Falling Overboard


First Person

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.