All Is Not Lost

A novice sailor tells how an Atlantic voyage tested his mettle

view of Amistad ship sailing in open seas

Last spring, when I visited a boat along the Hudson River in Manhattan, someone told me the schooner Amistad was looking for volunteer deckhands. I phoned the operations captain for Ocean Classroom Foundation, which managed the ship, and learned that he needed crew to take the Amistad to Puerto Rico for a starring role as Blackbeard’s pirate ship in an NBC miniseries. John Malkovich would play the famous buccaneer. The captain offered no pay, but a berth, food and maybe a flight home. There was even a shot I could be cast as an extra.

This would be my escape. For two years, in my job as a newspaper reporter, I had dispassionately documented violent crime and tragedy—murders, suicides, fatal accidents along the New Jersey Turnpike. I hated how banal death had become for me and those around me. And I hated that I couldn’t write with care or depth about the circumstances or the experience of the victims. I sought a hopeful, abundant world. Holding me back from leaving the job was my body, which too often failed me these days.

In my twenties, I had been a bicycle messenger through two Boston winters, hiked the length of Vermont, gotten stranded in freak snowstorms in the Chilean high plains and rescued myself twice—once after getting lost hiking around a volcano and once while exploring a remote island during a search for a sunken ship in Patagonia.

Then I had a serious bicycle accident in Chile, followed by years of debilitating back pain and a string of associated injuries. I felt some sort of curse had befallen me. Just a few days before my departure on the Amistad in early August, I was diagnosed with a right hip flexor strain, something the doctor called “nasty.” It would take months to heal, he said.

And now I was about to ram my office-coddled, injury-prone 35-year-old body onto a boat whose sailing technology was a century old. What else was going to happen? Would I suffer another bout of tendinitis in my shoulder while swimming, or more problems with my knees? Would my back choose to go out, seemingly without provocation or strain, like it had one day as I walked to the convenience store? What if I had to be left behind in Bermuda, triggering the humiliation of having to explain my failure to all those who cheered me on my journey?

A Brand New Life

“I reveled in the fact I had actually taken this leap, which promised freedom, but also uncertainty,” writes Tomás Dinges. Photo: Sawyer Denning“I reveled in the fact I had actually taken this leap, which promised freedom, but also uncertainty,” writes Tomás Dinges. Photo: Sawyer Denning
On Aug. 1, I left my job. I would have a month of health insurance. After that I would be on my own.

We were off at midmorning the following Monday. From Gloucester, Mass., we headed southeast for a week’s sail to Bermuda. We would stop briefly there to change captain and some crew members, and then sail through the easterly trade winds to the port of Fajardo, on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico.

The Amistad, a loose replica of the infamous slave ship on which captive Africans revolted in 1839, was launched in 2000 and has been used as the official state flagship of Connecticut. She cuts a striking figure. Jet black and 129 feet long, she sports two steeply raked hundred-foot masts, from which are draped thousands of feet of lines and wire.

We were a motley group of 13, ranging in age from 18 to the mid-50s, from London, England to Olympia, Washington—and a small black dog named Penny. Unlike me, most had sailed on tall ships like Amistad before, and some were receiving a few hundred dollars for their efforts.

Two days into the trip, land faded away and the ocean opened before me. What looked like a bouquet of yellow flowers floated by on the clear blue waters. Seaweed, most likely. I spied the puff of spraying water, the glistening skin and fluke of a surfacing whale. A large fishing trawler passed in front of our bow. Trevor, a 20-something college student from Asheville, N.C., remarked as he looked into the easterly wind, “I now know what the people who run tall ships are thinking when they pay us so little—because of views like this.” I reveled in the fact I had actually taken this leap, which promised freedom, but also uncertainty.

Even with calm seas and supplemented by a motor, the 96-ton ship swayed and rocked constantly. Sleep was fitful, tense and hot. The crew had settled into a routine. There were three watches of four hours each and two shorter shifts. A watch operated the ship, steered a given compass course, adjusted sails to wind and weather conditions and checked the systems that kept us all safe. The watches also performed a daily task like cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors, scrubbing the deck with the aid of the saltwater fire hose or emptying the two wastewater containers.

Secret Histories

Such chores required my body to move in ways it didn’t want to move: clambering up and down steep steps, kneeling, hunching and reaching into small, narrow spaces while surrounded by sleeping crew members, spinning propeller shafts and hot diesel engines. When the wind came up, we hoisted our sails, four of us fighting to pull just a few inches of line through the heavy blocks. I deferred to the more experienced crew members, like 18-year-old Helen Denning, or the 50-something physics professor Duane Pontius, to make the 50-foot climb up the shrouds to unfurl the giant square topsail at the top of the foremast.

My limbs began to give way. Each stair step caused my right leg to ache sharply. My hip flexor strain had flared up while pulling on lines and had somehow affected a muscle behind my pelvis. I was heavily favoring my left leg. Five days in, my right leg and left arm were weak. My feet ached painfully and I had a bruise on my heel. I had felt something in my left knee pop. My eyelids were burnt and my hands rubbed raw. I wondered if, by signing on, I had made a serious mistake.

Photo: Tomás DingesPhoto: Tomás Dinges
My focus by that point was on not injuring myself seriously. I probably seemed lazy. I was definitely avoiding hard work. I felt like a fool as I did physical therapy on the bow of the boat, squatting with my butt over my heels in three sets of 10, then lying in a fetal position as I opened and closed my legs with a red exercise band on my knees. I imagined the snarky comments coming from the gimlet-eyed, tattooed and earringed crew on watch. But I grew less self-conscious when I saw Duane, the physics professor, performing ballet poses on the bow and running through a half hour of yoga. Things may have hurt, but I wasn’t alone. And my back was fine.

I shortly discovered that there were other, mostly invisible burdens weighing upon other crew that belied enormously positive attitudes. Hutch, a 31-year-old deckhand and cook, owed some $30,000 to the IRS following an ill-fated venture into managing a vegan restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. His partner, Greta, had a handful of dollars to her name. I learned that Helen, the 18-year-old, woke up daily with pain in her hip, the result of a shattered pelvis. A former skier for the British national team, she had also bounced back from a torn ligament in her knee. There she was, working harder than most.

And nobody had more to deal with than a 35-year-old marine engineer named Matt Provenzano. It was on a shirtless day that I first saw the scar. A quarter inch wide, it ran the length of Matt’s spine, from his shoulders down. I learned that he had awakened one morning when he was 10 years old with his legs partially paralyzed. Weeks later doctors removed portions of a cancerous tumor that had corkscrewed around his vertebrae and was choking the life out of his spinal cord. He then went through months of radiation and chemotherapy. But his vertebrae had deteriorated so much that a steel rod was fused to his spine. Matt spent the next couple of years wearing a back brace and undergoing physical therapy to learn to walk again. Numerous surgeries related to the implant ensued. “If I don’t stay fit, I am in a life of agony,” he told me.

He seemed to have boundless energy and strength. Some of it he devoted to a routine of yoga-like stretches, planks, push-ups and sit-ups. He found a perfect pull-up spot below a hatch in his officer’s quarters. Here was a peer who had suffered far greater trauma than I. How could I allow myself to fail when my own obstacles were so much smaller?

Making the Grade

Photo: Tomás DingesPhoto: Tomás Dinges
We arrived in Bermuda after a long seven days. I was planning on seeing if my body would recover. Matt suggested we get up before sunrise each day and go for a run while in port. It helped.

On the 900-mile weeklong trip to Puerto Rico, my hip continued improving, albeit slowly (I still avoided the stairs when I could). My left shoulder would make it. The knee did not swell up. My back continued to be fine. With my body strengthening, I began to enjoy myself.

I got off the Amistad on the first day we arrived to shore and flew home a day later, having decided against trying out for the TV show. Hutch and Greta later posted photos of themselves, their faces smeared in makeup as they posed on the converted pirate ship. The others returned to their lives.

I was tired but wanted to keep challenging myself. A few weeks later I sailed for more than 40 hours with a friend on a small sailboat from New Jersey to Rhode Island. Then we sailed back. Three days after returning, I set out on a solo five-day hike through the Catskill range, laden with a 45-pound backpack. And without fear or concern I hopped on another sailboat for a five-day trip from New Jersey to Chesapeake Bay.

For a month afterward I could see the passage etched into my hands. Once soft and thin, they were now powerful and bulky with new muscle. The surface was scarred by blisters and rough with calluses. These would fade, of course. But my new strength and self-confidence would not. If I could sail the Amistad, I could do almost anything.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Tomás Dinges, A99 (international relations), is a freelance journalist writing about outdoor adventures and the environment in Chile, where he is also working on conserving 32,000 acres of family-owned land in the Andes.

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