I’m a petite woman. I come in at just around 5 feet, 6 inches tall with boots on and have never weighed more than 115 pounds, soaking wet. I went to college for writing and communication studies, so you can imagine how pale and frail I was coming out of there with my degree in hand (that certificate sure was heavy for me!).
And then, right after graduation, I took up a training program to work on tall ships—think of the big sailing ships from Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the boat I trained on was actually in the first of those films). Over two weeks, I learned how to handle ropes, furl sails, and sand any and all types of salt-worn wood you could imagine. I learned about maritime history and trade while corralling kids to teach them the same things I had been taught just hours earlier.
The crew of that first ship hated me. To them, I was an irredeemable city girl with an attitude and less muscle than a towel. Behind my back, just a week in, one of the crew members called me a burden, making sure to be just loud enough so I could hear him. It shattered me. I spent the last few days of my training hiding in storage cubbies, crying and wishing I could rewind time so I was back home writing essays.
But after my two weeks was up and I was free to go back home, something felt different. I had this spark, and I couldn’t stand the thought of being back in my bedroom letting my leathery callused hands become soft and pink and fragile again. I called up the other ship in the company’s two-boat fleet and jumped on board, this time determined to prove to its crew that I wasn’t some weak city girl—and definitely not a burden.
Work aboard tall ships and fishing vessels has, until very recently, been strictly a man’s line of work. Historically, women on board a boat were seen as seriously bad luck, and some captains still think that. Veterans and other military personnel are nearly 85 percent male across the board; although Team Rubicon, a veteran and civilian disaster relief organization where I also worked for a time, boasts a higher percentage of women than that. I’ve also done groundskeeping and electrical work, and both of those groups would have been 100 percent men if I hadn’t have been there.
You may think it was rough, possibly even lonely, out there for a little woman like me. And, sure, maybe in the moment, I found myself thinking that being one of only a few women seems disconnected from the modern push for feminism and anti-patriarchal takeover. But that seems a little too cynical, like throwing down an anchor of pessimism on something that made me better because few women were doing it too.
You can read all the self-help and character-building articles you want, but it’s experience and hardship that really shows your true character.
Time working in a man’s field taught me a lot about physical labor, but even more about building character and introspection. On a ship, you take care of the crew and they take care of you. You become a cog in a machine that desperately needs you to run smoothly, regardless of your gender or background. There were physical tasks I thought I couldn’t do simply because of my lack of muscle, but with proper training and practice, I learned it was all a matter of technique. The tasks I feared doing became something I was good at. Now, even after leaving the ship, when things seem mentally or physically tough, I imagine not the muscle or determination I lack, but the finesse and technique that can turn me into a master of the task.
Late nights standing in the misty, salty cold of the sea, overlooking the horizon for any midnight dangers to the vessel gave me a new perspective on patience. I stood freezing and exhausted for four hours in pitch darkness with two or three other crewmates. We all silently wished to be asleep. But the time passed, and as I crawled back into bed, damp to the core, too tired to take off my boots, I was proud to have passed those hours, in reverence of the beauty all around me and the time of silence in my head.
You get to know yourself on the sea, and often, that patience is rewarded with something amazing: whales breaching, waves glowing electric blue along their edges, shooting stars cutting along the freckled sky. It’s only in patience that you get to experience these things. When I find long hours at work in the city dragging painfully slow, I remember the ocean and the hours of nothingness, and I remind myself that it’s just time, that it passes—that all things pass.
Many times when I was out at sea I thought I would never pull through, never be good enough, and certainly, that I would never work on another tall ship again. I wondered if staying inside writing would be the best lifestyle for me. But looking back on those times with pride helps me get through the rough days at my desk. In some ways, the dark and frothy ocean was easier than facing a week of writer’s block.
And when you’re faced with a challenge that you seriously can’t do alone, the moral support of those around you may be the best piece to the machine that is your crew. By bringing stories and laughter to my teammates at Team Rubicon, in post-Harvey Texas, the group worked in higher spirits and became the most effective (and fun!) crew in the operation during our time there. In tough moments, I channeled my city girl charm to help the machine run smoothly. In those moments, when I thought I wasn’t helping nearly as much as I should have been able to, I realized I was doing the best thing I could for my team by keeping them motivated.
I kept pace with the best men I ever met, and they gave me my due respect for it.
You can read all the self-help and character-building articles you want, but it’s experience and hardship that show your true character and afford you a window to see what you might need to change about yourself. Don’t take challenges, obstacles, or suffering as a sign to give up; use them as a way to become stronger inside and build a better version of yourself. It’s not always about muscle—sometimes it’s about finesse. And sometimes, when things are really rough, you just need a woman’s touch to get the job done right.