by Bethany Loudon

When I first stepped aboard the Lady Washington in 2003, I, much like everyone else who had never been up in her rigging, could only associate the ship with her role as the HMS Interceptor in the wildly popular Disney film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

My whole view of square-rigged sailing changed entirely when I joined the crew a couple of years later. I had signed up for the Lady Washington’s “Two Weeks Before the Mast” volunteer program, only to discover that the life of the true “square rig” sailor was not at all what I imagined, and certainly nothing like Hollywood portrayed it.
I was really excited about the novelty of climbing the rigging, but my first time up aloft was the most terrifying thing I had ever done in my life. I had also romanticized the idea of sailing off into the unknown, but when I found myself on deck in the midst of the afternoon Adventure Sails, I was totally confused and had absolutely no idea how to be useful on deck.

I felt as though I had violently hurled myself far from my Bellingham existence and had fallen somewhere very foreign a midst playful brethren of brawling, rollicky, sea-shanty singing, tar-stained sailors.
Two weeks later I was one of them.

I came back to Bellingham for a grand total of three days before I did the one thing in the world I never thought I would do. I ditched every single one of my responsibilities on the home front and high-tailed it back to the ship for the adventure of a lifetime: the annual ocean transit to San Francisco Bay.

After almost a month of grueling boat maintenance in Aberdeen and a week on when we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dirty and exhausted, having battled seasickness and twenty-foot swells off the Oregon coast. We were also completely awash in our crew camaraderie, and success of our journey.

I knew my life on land would never be the same again, and when I got on the plane back home, I fought back tears through the whole entire flight. At that point I would have given just about anything to do it again.

I’m not the only one, either.

During the time I’ve spent aboard over the last couple of years I’ve watched two-week volunteers come and go and then come back again having happily abandoning respectable employment to live the unpaid life of a tall ship sailor.

If you ever find yourself on a sail or dockside tour of the Lady Washington, please don’t ask the sailors where Johnny Depp stood during the filming of the movie or what parts of the ship Orlando Bloom touched when he was on board. Instead, ask them how they ended up as part of the crew or just take a seat on the main hold hatch and gaze up into the rigging. With any luck, you might find yourself up there some day.

Bethany’s essay first appeared in Currents, the Historical Seaport’s newsletter.