In a traditional rite of passage for sailors crossing the Arctic Circle for the first time, the three young crew members of the Wanderbird, an expedition vessel based out of Belfast, Maine, took part in a “blue nose ceremony” last summer off the shores of Greenland. The ceremony includes head shaving. That is how I came to see a photo of my 20-year-old daughter with a shiny bald head.
Tessa Wood and her crewmates, Sara Carter and Ian “Greasy” Stewart, are now back in Maine as the Wanderbird’s season comes to a close. Their hair is returning, but other transformations born of their six months at sea are less visible and more permanent. For half a year, they have hauled ropes, washed dishes, scraped, painted, polished, tended to passengers with a smile and forged an unforgettable friendship.
Capts. Rick and Karen Miles make no secret about the rigors of a job on their 90-foot converted fishing trawler, but they also know that it offers something extraordinary. Crew members work 14- to 17-hour days with little financial gain, sharing the jobs of passenger care, galley chores and most aspects of running and maintaining a ship. They also get extensive training, room and board, passage to exquisitely remote coastal regions from Maine to Greenland, and something else more difficult to define. Being a member of the Wanderbird crew offers a new identity, a strong sense of purpose. Through the best and worst of times, they forge an enduring bond with their new shipboard family.
I had the privilege of spending time with all of the Wanderbird crew recently, albeit under unfortunate circumstances. While on shore two weeks ago, Sara fell from a ladder and broke her neck. Suddenly, the Wanderbird’s end of season ritual was centered around anxious trips from Belfast to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Sara is OK, but will have a long recovery. In the meantime, I’ve been able to hear the three crewmates’ stories, watch them laugh together endlessly, and observe the depth of their mutual devotion. In lieu of everything else they have shared, shaving their heads together was only the tip of the iceberg.
This year’s Wanderbird crew came from different life stages, but what they had in common was a nagging sense of something missing. Tessa couldn’t put her finger on why she was restless in college, but she knew she needed time away, really far away. Ian, 24, who became known as “Greasy” on board because of his job as oiler in the engine room, had just graduated from college where he majored in classical languages.
“But I felt lopsided,” he said. He missed using his hands and seeing tangible results. Sara was the oldest, at 28. She knew from experience that a rocky road often leads to the finest destinations.
“I like to learn new things in new places with people I’ve never met before, knowing that I’m going to be really uncomfortable for a while. I’ve learned that that’s the surest way to personal growth.”
Although Greasy was the only one with experience on boats, all three were tantalized by the vast remoteness of the ocean.
No doubt, they became intimately acquainted with the sea. Whether marveling at its beauty or puking over the rail, they were in awe of its power. There were other awe-inspiring moments — standing alone in the bow at night on iceberg watch, seeing polar bears up close, and watching the sky dance with northern lights. For all three crew, however, the highlights of the season had most to do with people.
The crew worked with about a dozen groups of passengers, eight to 12 for each trip. Some were difficult; some became great friends. Reintroducing herself to people every week or two, Tessa found, made her recognize the changes going on in herself.
Greasy told about his friendship with an old, retired “Newfie” fisherman from Port aux Basques who loved to talk engines and show him around town. He described the scene when old “Brennard” ran to catch the Wanderbird’s heaving line as it came into port, dragging his oxygen tank behind him.
“The tube on his oxygen tank didn’t reach, so he just yanked it out and held on to the dock line.”
“It felt really special, somehow, being known as the Wanderbird crew,” said Sara. Locals lit up when the unique old Wanderbird came into port. It is a venerable converted fishing trawler, of a type that many of the old salts used to work on.
Perhaps nothing attests better to the fortitude of this crew, as individuals and as a team, than the way they have stood together in crisis. Every day Sara is tackling her recuperation with extraordinary good humor and determination. Tessa and Greasy continue their daily labors on the Wanderbird, prepping the ship they love for winter. But on free evenings they are by Sara’s side, where the three crewmates finish each other’s stories, exchange knowing grins, and fuel each other’s spirits, continually drawing upon the strength they have woven together as the Wanderbird crew.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.