Sometimes we study a market and look for article ideas to fit the style, voice and editorial calendar. The most prolific and successful writers find ideas everywhere, then pitch them to suitable markets. We can also start with experience and leave the writing and selling until later. I can’t always get a magazine assignment before an event has come and gone. And getting expenses paid is not that likely for a freelancer. So what do you do? Find something interesting and just do it.
One morning, I climbed the boarding ladder of the 101-foot topsail schooner, S.V. Adventuress. “Permission to come aboard,” I called, and gained the deck. In her home port of Port Townsend, Washington, the sailing vessel was moored under bare poles, two masts without running rigging, canvas or spars.
Adventuress was built in 1913 as a yacht for John Borden II, founder of Yellow Cab. On her maiden voyage out of Maine, she sailed around the Horn to the Arctic on a whale hunt. No whales were injured during this extravagant expedition. She now sails in a marine environmental education program run by the nonprofit Sound Experience with a mission to protect the inland sea of Puget Sound.
My self-assigned mission was to join the crew, take hundreds of photos, watch and listen, learn and write. And I was to take orders from Captain Wayne and his mates, lend a hand anywhere needed, and help myself to a bowl of hot soup and fresh bread at the dinner bell. Volunteer crew members scrambled over the boat in teams under the direction of the two mates. Every job was broken down into tasks and every task was given full attention.
Sound Experience has a saying, “Each one teach one.” Every one can teach another something. Over at the Sail Loft, where Capt. Wayne’s wife was helping to make a new sail, their daughter Nahja (10) was teaching an 80-year-old sailor how to sew around a grommet. Another day, that seaman would sketch a rigging plan and teach the crew how to haul the massive anchor aboard and stow it for foul weather. There was a lot of rigging to be done. Miles of ropes became lines when they were attached or used in some way. From bowsprit to stern, from the deck to the top-mast, lines were run through blocks, belayed, spliced, tied, whipped and braided.
“All hands on deck” included me when it was time to haul the booms aboard. Blocks and tackle from the mainmast took most of the weight, but it took all of us to position the boom while it was secured to the mast. I was recruited again to fetch the mainsail, which we carried aboard on our shoulders like a Chinese dragon. It was a load even when shared; this sail weighs a thousand pounds.
I had story ideas and markets in mind, of course, and filled my notebooks with details on the ship, her rigging, her history and valuable nautical knowledge for a pitch to Wooden Boat Magazine.
Meanwhile, winter turned to spring and I secured passage on the first voyage of the year. We took Adventuress to Eagle Harbor, where she would await her volunteer crew to train for the sailing season. The next time I saw her, she was at the dock in Port Ludlow and I was meeting up with her guest crew for the day: Mrs. Christianson’s fourth-grade class from Greywolf Elementary School. These kids from Sequim, Washington, where irrigation is critical to farming, were going to sea. Ten-year-old students learned quickly about safety, orders and teamwork. They were split into teams alongside the volunteer ship’s crew, given their orders, and hauled together to raise hundreds of pounds of sail high above them.
To the Sound Experience group, the ship is a metaphor for planet Earth – a closed system that requires understanding and care, and that sails best when all aboard are working together.
The Greywolf students were there to learn about Earth as well as ship, so they collected water samples, measured acidity and studied shoreline erosion. They learned about the sea’s food chain; they touched and discussed the animals in a tank aboard. Far away from everyday life, they were building community out there, doing something completely different and getting a whole new point of view.
I had witnessed over months the transformation of a multitude of tiny, painstaking, mundane tasks into the complex rigging of a sailing ship. Together for one day, we became aware of our interdependence upon each other and with the world. We learned that there’s a lot more to learn; a lot to be done to protect our environment. We know now that we can do it as a community. A kid who has steered a mighty ship knows well that she has the power to make a difference.
Capt. Wayne had known he was right, the day he called me topside with, “Jim! There’s your picture!” And I shot a young girl crewmember in sillouette on the sail. This day, I knew, “Here’s my story!” And after spending February till May aboard Adventuress, I wrote about this one day of sailing with a crew of boys and girls. We came home experienced and better equipped to take care of ourselves, Puget Sound and our Earth.
My stories went not to Wooden Boat in Maine, Classic Boat in the U.K. or even Good Old Boat-the sailing magazine for the rest of us. I sold the story to Spring Hill Review, a Journal of Northwest Culture and for Northwest Family News. Those who really want to learn about the ship should go volunteer to work on her. Hopefully, my readers will take their kids and go sail her on their own voyage of discovery.
James Robert Daniels is a BookLocker.com author, sometimes contributor to WritersWeekly.com and traveling freelance writer. At last report, he was somewhere in Florida during hurricane season, awaiting word on repairs to a house he plans to move into in Mexico. He will always stop in the middle of a working day to go sailing, and always answers fan mail sent to Jim-at-squirrelandalligator.com