Creative Adventurers: Laura Ifill

a life at sea

Laura Ifill, a sailor and writer, is our latest creative adventurer

Build a home or seek an adventure?

We ate a fine stew that night, cleaning our bowls with the cook’s home made bread. There was even butter, a rare treat at sea. I remember us all huddled in groups on the cabin top and about the deck. Our smiles and laughter were over steaming bowls as the sun began its slow descent off the starboard beam. The weather had broken and three days of gale force winds and heavy seas were over. The rain had been relentless, and seas of 10-12ft were the biggest many of us had ever seen.  Looking over the rail as the ship began its slide down the face of a wave, it seemed an endless descent into a moving abyss. In reality, these waves aren’t even big as far as waves go, but try and tell that to the line of students immobilized by sea-sickness and slumped over in the steady rain. But it was over, and there is no feeling at sea like the return of sun, of appetite, and the laughter of one’s shipmates.

I ate quickly and went below for a hot cup of coffee. On the aft deck I found the captain leaning against the rail looking out at the sunset. The sea had laid down enough that the ship’s slow rodeo was manageable and we sailed with our reefs shaken out towards Santo Domingo. I leaned on the rail next to the captain and we watched the sun in its progression of muted neon. Our world turned orange, and then got brighter. Even the sea churned in licks of color as if the waves themselves had caught fire. Hearing sounds of approval from the students, the captain turned to me and said, “Days of hell and twenty minutes of this and we all love to be sailors, don’t we? Weeeeeeee…” His voiced trilled off in high-pitched mockery. I laughed. It was true. Our students had been vomiting over the lee rail for days, staggering forward and aft clipped into jack lines, looking out at the seas in terror, waking during the night for sail changes in blinding rain. Those same students were now skipping about the deck laughing and hugging each other and taking pictures of the sunset. I marveled at the brevity of human memory. I looked out at the sea and considered the brevity of my own.

Later that night, when all was dark on deck except for the red glow of a few headlamps, I walked forward to the sound of a ukulele and sat leaning against a life raft. The cook played Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather and I quietly sang along. The only sound other than that of her sharply feminine voice was the steady plunging of the ship through the dark ocean. I closed my eyes and listened hard. It’s moments like these that bring me back, I thought. Back to sea, back to adventure, and away from home. In this same moment of wonder I felt the hollow of voyage. I pictured my belongings stacked far away in a garage, the garden I didn’t keep, the projects I hadn’t finished, my dog staying with a friend, and felt the familiar ache for stability. The cook broke my meditation and told me of a conversation she’d had with the first mate. His grandfather left him a piece of property in Maine, west of Camden. It had once been a working farm, growing pine for telephone poles. He intended to move there and get it producing again. It seemed to me a beautiful plan as I listened, filled with honor and the beauty of tradition. The cook said she didn’t know where she would settle, but that Brooklyn didn’t feel like home anymore, and she certainly couldn’t go back to the small town in Missouri she’d come from. Though I’d never been to Missouri I found myself agreeing, imagining my own little town in upstate NY, saying, “No, you certainly can’t go back there.” We would talk like this often, all of us, about our pasts and our futures after sailing.

I find myself in a particularly adventurous stage of a pretty adventurous life. Last year I resigned from my position as a public school English teacher and began working for Ocean Classroom Foundation. I teach Maritime Literature to students who sign up for semesters at sea on tall ships. They learn to sail, all about the science, literature, history of the sea, and most importantly how to suffer and celebrate as a community. Our itinerary reads like that of a delightful Caribbean cruise, but better, more remote and without the bullshit. Island after island after island. It’s a dream job, right? Or is it a job for dreamers? I can never decide. We spend months together laughing, learning, sailing, working, celebrating, but in the quiet moments it always comes to the same talk of home. We all know each other’s stories by now and I have images for each story, each little corner of the country my shipmates come from. I imagine the Captains quiet forge in Maine and see him there hammering, a fire in the woodstove, a project on the anvil. I imagine the preserved food company the cook wants to begin and see her stews lined up in neatly labeled mason jars. I’ve imagined the first mate’s farm and see lines of young saplings in fresh dirt. And when I talk of my own home I tell of ice sailing in February and the apple harvest in fall. In my own daydreams I plan out my future garden I will tend faithfully, its neat row of vegetables in the black dirt. We dream like this of home, talk of home, and then… we go to sea.

Essay and photo by Laura Ifill.