A new sailor friend asked me about my tattoo, which is on my right forearm.
He had never noticed it before and wondered what it meant to me.
I told him how I got the tattoo last summer to remind me of the time I faced a fear and signed on to a sailboat delivery crew for a 2300 mile voyage from Boston to St. Thomas in a small wooden schooner. I crewed with six men I’d never met and saw firsthand what a bunch of 20-somethings were like loose at sea. I sailed on the open ocean when all I’d done up to that point was volunteer to serve drinks on a boat on Lake Michigan.
My captain for that trip was a 27-year-old surfer boy with a baby face and blonde hair. He had a ridiculous sense of humor that usually involved him wearing galoshes and denim short shorts or releasing live birds into sleeping crew’s bunks. He sailed like he lived: without apology. He had none of the tattoos or facial hair that seemed to be commensurate with some men’s tall ship experience, just a complete love of sailing that was communicable.
In the days that lead up to this moment, he had cleaned up a fair number of my messes. But he never once got angry; reasoning that I had to make mistakes in order to learn. One night he made me take in all the sails by myself while he timed me. His thought was to prepare me in case I ever had to do it in an emergency.
We played nightly games of “star or airplane” in the deep Atlantic darkness and imagined what we would do if approached by a ghost ship.
I both trusted him and was irritated by him in equal measure; indeed he was the younger brother I’d never had. There was an evening when my Captain decided to let me take the helm while he disappeared for one of his legendary bathroom stints. Despite the fact that I’d done remarkably badly using the GPS and had done two full donuts in the ocean previously, he wanted me to try. He wanted me to become a sailor who could use her instincts rather than the modern technology.
“I’m going to cover up the GPS. You suck at it anyway,” he said in his trademark no-filter way. “You’re going to look up at the sky. You’re going to pick two stars. And you’re going to keep the mast in between them until I come back up. It will probably be at least an hour.”
And with that, he snapped the cover on the GPS. I selected my constellations: Orion to my right and Pleiades to my left. Then he and his cat shirt disappeared down the hatch to take reign of the boat’s throne, leaving me on the dark black deck. Shore was miles away. There were no other boats. The radio crackled with occasional chatter from tanker ships in our rough vicinity. We were somewhere near Bermuda. It was warm. Everyone else was asleep.
So it was me and the boat.
Me, who had steered us wildly off course while playing the GPS like a video game. Me, who looked like a cartoon cat on ice when I first walked on a heeled-over schooner. Me, who got to this point through a series of Craigslist ads rather than a license from maritime school. What was I even doing here?
I looked up at the inky sky and released the nervous breath I’d been holding. I saw the three bright dots of Orion’s belt. The thought that people had been using these stars for thousands of years gave me enormous comfort. And all the usual chatter in my head just…stopped. Those stars were there to help me. As long as I had that light, I knew I would be fine.
The moments after he left were among the best of my life. I think we all have them. Moments when we are wildly out of our comfort zones. Moments when we are totally alone in nature and that anything could happen. Maybe even a moment when we recognize fear as excitement for the growth we are about to experience. And something makes us step up to that fear and become someone a little braver.
For me, there was a palpable shift in my awareness. The knowledge that I was by myself flooded me, pouring into all my senses. I gripped the wheel, felt it tug at my grip with each wave. I learned to feel what the boat wanted. My patience, firstly. If the wind or the waves nudged me off course, I couldn’t just panic and throw the whole wheel over like I had the first few times. I had to be deliberate. Thoughtful. I had to trust myself, the way that my Captain had trusted me by leaving me alone.
I felt everything acutely. The silence. Waves licked the boat, occasionally spitting out some water on deck as if they didn’t like the taste. The wind chattered with the sails, making some loose plans for later. And I just stood there with a ridiculous smile on my face. I couldn’t think too far ahead, because I couldn’t risk getting distracted. I couldn’t worry about things from back home that had tried to follow me here. So I just steered the ship.
I thought about every single thing that had added up to me being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at midnight, steering a wooden ship by starlight. And I realized: this was the most real thing I’d ever done.
I was far from home, out in nature with a bunch of people I barely knew. I understood my own vulnerability in a very visceral way that is rare in the modern world. I was just a small little person on a small boat bobbing around in a huge ocean. I was tiny. But not insignificant. Not to the men on my crew, as I held our ship in my hands. Not to the other boats or the sea life we’d encountered. I was small, but I mattered in huge ways to them. And maybe that’s what this was all about: Understanding that my role was to accept the absolute vastness of the universe while appreciating the wonder in my small corner of it. This moment was mine.
I felt my feet firmly planted on the wooden deck. I felt my palms, which had developed a thin sheen of oil from the wooden spokes. I felt the salt dry on my lips and cake my hair. Everything I saw was completely mine to marvel at. I was the only person in the world at this particular latitude and longitude. I saw shooting stars so huge that they looked like dragons hurtling from space with bright green tails.
I thought about my crew mates who were asleep in their bunks. I imagined scenarios where I would have to steer the ship through some dramatic situation. “Erin, you’re the only one who can get us to safety!” I thought of how I would behave as a heroic helmswoman; the underdog protecting her shipmates…
Okay, so my mind wandered a little bit. No one can be Zen all the time.
Time did not carry the usual logic during my stint at the helm. When my Captain came back on deck, I could have sworn only minutes had passed. He informed me I’d been at it for over an hour. He wanted to check my course, so he cracked open the GPS. Drumroll, please. I was exactly on course.
I looked up at my stars, which had kept me safe and kept my mind from spinning out during my first time alone at the helm of a wooden tall ship. I nodded a silent smile of thanks to Orion before giving over the helm.
A year later, walking through the north side of Chicago, I had an impulse to commemorate my evening at sea. I popped into Bee Tattoo and met a former graffiti artist named Jolly, who had never done watercolor in his life. For some reason, I decided to turn my arm over to him and trust that he would do a good job. Jolly understood what I wanted and we designed a tattoo together which is now painted on my right forearm, on the same side Orion was on that sail.
Every time I look at that tattoo, I am reminded that even on a night with no stars, I still have someone watching out for me.
Author: Erin Johnson
Editor: Renée Picard
Photos: author’s own