On January 14, 2010, I crewed up for the first time on an ocean tug for a cargo run from Seattle to Valdez, Alaska. The boat was the Sidney Foss, a quintessential tugboat built at McDermott shipyard in Morgan City, Louisiana, in the seventies along with dozens of other boats; in my opinion, the most beautiful tugs that will ever sail the globe. They don’t make them like that anymore. After we loaded stores in the morning, we transited through the Hiram Chittenden Locks out into Puget Sound and down to Harbor Island to take on fuel for the trip. I had been nervously and eagerly preparing for this trip for weeks and still didn’t really know what to expect. I had some idea of what I was in for, but when you have no prior experience in something as obscure as working deck and lashing cargo on a tug and barge, there’s really no way to prepare (an aside on this: as part of our Sea Sisters project, a few of my friends have written about what they pack in their sea bag for a hitch – check out Claire, Katie, and Megan. This information would have been huuugely helpful to me as a newbie, but I could not find a single source to tap for information or advice – especially from a woman – on what to pack or what to expect; hopefully this will help anyone starting now and looking for info!)
Those first months were filled with adventure, excitement (a little too much excitement at times), drama, a lot of hard work and a little seasickness. My presence was embraced by some and loathed by others. I received enthusiastic encouragement and ugly, bitter discouragement. A member of my own family said I “wouldn’t last two weeks”; before I left, that same family member also gave me a Spyderco Atlantic Salt serrated knife for Christmas, which I still use today. I like to think he secretly hoped for my success as much as anyone. I was leaving behind an imploded relationship, a work community on the waterfront that I loved, and a permanent home on hard ground. I was elated and slightly terrified, moving too fast to comprehend that over the next several years I would reclaim my life and discover an entire world on the water.
I wasn’t ready to go: at least, not financially. I borrowed some money from my dad to make my first tuition payment to the school, and after that I made enough money as an ordinary seaman to pay my tuition out of pocket (which left little money for anything besides food and gas, when I wasn’t on the boat). But mentally speaking, I needed the change so badly I couldn’t wait another second to start. For at least a year leading up to this moment I had woken up every single morning unable to reconcile the life I was leading with the life I knew I could have, if only I wasn’t so afraid. I felt trapped, I was miserable and desperate. I needed to stand on my own feet, I needed to become exactly who I imagined I could be, and once things got started, there was literally nothing I could do to stop the chain of events that landed me on a boat headed for Alaska in the middle of the winter. I was borne up on the hands of my own instinct. I learned something very important too, something I see now and then written as an inspirational quote that makes the rounds on the internet: if you wait until you’re ready to do something, you will never do it. You have to go now, the only time to go is now. Now is everything. It’s the ultimate example of building your wings on the way down. If I had waited until I was “ready”, mentally and financially, to take this leap, I might still be waiting today.
And now here I am: after being shaped by my seagoing experiences from the Caribbean to the Arctic, I work on a pretty little boat in the Bay with black and yellow stripes on her stacks and I can say without a shred of doubt that I have become the person I pictured seven years ago: throwing lines in my steel toes and double-front dungarees, long braid flying, strong and fierce, known up and down the coast as “that tugboat girl”. Brag? Yes. I’m proud of myself. I earned it. What I’m seeing now is that not only am I doing this for myself, for my future, but I’m doing it for other women. My purpose now is to bring other women in; I need to stand here and be the proof that little girls can do EXACTLY. WHAT. THEY WANT. They don’t need to worry that boys won’t like them if they’re tough and wild. They don’t have to apologize for going after their dream and casting off the shit that holds them back. They definitely don’t need to worry about offending anyone by making a decent living. We’ve all been told since we were babies that we won’t be liked for unapologetically being who we are. I look around and the only women I see getting anything done are the ones who’ve stopped worrying about not being liked. The ones who aren’t afraid to own their success.
Come: make yourself into who you want to be. Those seven years will go by regardless so you might as well take them and bend them to your will.