Division of Labor

Happy Labor Day to everyone back in the States. Hope you’re enjoying the long weekend.

Here on the Norwegian Sea, we’re midway between Iceland and the Faroe Islands…and we’re sailing! And it’s sunny! We started sailing right at the end of my 3-6am watch when Boogie came on and shifted course 10 degrees to accommodate the wind, an act that pointed up one of the challenges to this summer.

When people have asked what I do on Polar Bear, I say (only half-jokingly) that I clean the heads (the toilets). I’m only half-joking when I say that because in truth, we all clean the heads, just as we all clean the rest of the boat, we all cook, we all sail — we take turns doing the various jobs required on a boat.

What we don’t share in is decision-making — which I understand since this is a commercial venture and it’s Boogie’s ass (and captain’s license and career) in a sling if anything goes wrong. But this morning was the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate a little initiative and the fact is: I haven’t felt empowered to make anything beyond trivial decisions this summer, and that’s not how I’m going to learn what I need to know.

An hour into my watch, around 4am, we were still plowing southeast into the wind, main and staysail up and engine running, when the fog finally lifted for the first time in days (though it seemed more like years). We’d been running a bit south of the rhumb line for a day or more, into a southerly breeze, so falling off the wind a touch (more toward the east) would have easily enabled us to sail at the same time it brought us back to our target course.

It’s a move I’d hoped to make for many hours, but given the fog and whatever reasons Boogie undoubtedly had (likely based on the weather forecast farther down our track) I’d never even considered asking. When the fog cleared, though, I was really clamoring to make the course change (if for no other reason that to appease the Finns aboard who’ve been pretty ticked about how little sailing we’ve been doing on their vacation). But again: the lack of empowerment was, well, overpowering, so I kept on keepin’ on, only to have the change made as soon as my watch ended.

The peace that settled over the boat as the engine was shut down was in direct inverse proportion to the frustration I felt at not being able to turn off the damned motor.

And it pointed up the fact that for me to learn what I need to learn at this point, I need to get out on a boat of my own and make my own decisions. If by falling off the wind I slow the boat’s velocity-made-good to the point where I’m late getting in, well, so be it — but of course, that’s not an option on a commercial venture, except at the discretion of the skipper and his call on things such as the weather (which, it appears, will prevent us from getting to Newcastle on time, but that’s another story).

We had a similar situation a couple of mornings ago as we made our way into Husavik: Polar Bear was close-hauled on a port tack with a broad bay ahead and Husavik directly off the port beam. I woke Boogie to ask him to make the decision: turn on the engine and head straight into the wind for Husavik or continue across the bay and tack back toward port later, extending the sailing but delaying our arrival at the marina. He opted for the engine; if it had been me on my own boat, I’d have continued to sail and opted for the later arrival. Again, a decision I didn’t feel empowered to make.

I’ve learned a lot on this summer’s voyage. Most of what I’ve learned has been about how to operate a boat — by “operate a boat” I mean: the systems and the people-, time- and project-management in the daily routine of life on board — and has come through osmosis as I’ve watched Boogie and Marlies operate Polar Bear. Navigation and handling the boat, however, have remained unattained goals, goals that were to make up for the money I was giving up by taking this summer gig. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich on Polar Bear but I was hoping to get more tutelage and hands-on experience in many of the requisite seamanship skills. (To be sure: I have experience in all those areas, I was just hoping for more, and in more diverse situations, than I currently have.)

Perhaps I should have been more assertive, insisting that Boogie teach me more (as he’s been doing on this cruise with one guest who’s working on his captain’s license), but I’ve always felt that my first obligation was supporting Boogie and Marlies’ efforts to run Polar Bear for the benefit of the guests. As a result of that prioritization, for example, I missed a few nice photo opportunities. But more importantly, I haven’t gained experience in certain key areas, areas I’ll have to develop on my own back home at some point. And that shortcoming, in addition to the shortened season courtesy of Polar Bear’s owner, has been a real damper on an otherwise spectacular summer.

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