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A teenager finds her sea legs

Editor’s note: Our sailing editor’s 13-year-old daughter shares her experiences from a three-day cruise aboard the schooner Martha this summer in the Pacific Northwest.

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The first time I saw Martha was at her dock, about midnight. I still had a kink in my neck from the flight and the car ride from the airport to Port Townsend, Wash., with my friend Lauren, her dad and her two snoozing siblings. I felt like falling asleep, too, but the prospect of going sailing on a 106-year-old schooner kept me up.

I didn’t know what to expect, but there was no question that I’d found Martha in her berth when I caught the first glimpse of this magnificent vessel. She was the largest boat in the harbor, and her masts towered high above all the others. We grabbed our bags and made our way below. Wow, what a place, I thought, seeing all of the wood paneling and the oil lamp above the table in the main cabin. I could definitely live here for a few days.

There wasn’t a lot of space for baggage, probably because this wasn’t meant to be a luxury cruise but rather a vacation from that kind of lifestyle. I picked the upper berth in the starboard cabin I shared with my friends.

Learning by doing

Early in the morning, the boat was astir with activities, and adults were talking among themselves. What are they doing so early? I sat up but forgot where I was. Bang! I hit my head on the ceiling. Ouch and good morning. Then the guests met Martha’s crew: Capt. Robert D’Arcy; his wife, Holly; and Mary, their daughter. And I quickly found out that life on a schooner is about simplicity. My outfit consisted of jeans, a wool shirt, a sailing jacket and no shoes. No need to fuss with my hair. For the next few days, attire was about function, not fashion.

After we helped fetch bread from the bakery up on the hill, the captain addressed us newbies. He’s an old salt and a shipwright who grew up in New England, and Martha is his baby and his life. “We want you to have fun on this trip,” he said, “but first of all we want you to be safe.”

It was the kind of talk an adult would give on a school field trip, but falling off a boat is a bit more serious than falling off a rope swing, so we listened closely. The most important rule? One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself. Funny thing, too, that we weren’t shown how to do stuff before we got under way or bored silly with terminology. It was learning by doing and gleaning what we needed to know from the crew, who worked with us during the maneuvers.

The crew aboard the schooner Martha anchored in Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island.

From Mary, we learned how to make fast lines on cleats, how to properly coil and hang them on the pins. She, too, is an old salt. She’s only 10, but she grew up sailing on Martha, so this is a piece of cake for her. She also showed us the bowsprit, where we could hang in the net above the water. Pure fun, but there are lessons in that, too, as we were to find out.

We headed north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the San Juan Islands. That strait is a challenging body of water. It can be churned up or glassy like a millpond, but today it was foggy. Our first task was to stop fooling around and help spot logs in the water that the radar couldn’t pick up. When the gray shroud lifted and the breeze filled in, it was a glorious and sunny day. I inched all the way forward on the bowsprit, whooping as I tried to touch the water with my toes. When the boat hit bigger waves, all of us got soaked, so we went below to change into dry clothes but didn’t consider the motion of the ocean.

“I’m feeling nauseous,” Lauren’s sister Alexa informed us. I felt it, too. In a New York minute, Holly got out ginger and saltine crackers for us to munch on, but I didn’t recover until I had tossed my cookies — to leeward, like you’re supposed to. It was a bit embarrassing, but it made me feel better, and I managed to grab some winks in my bunk.

We’re in charge of our choices

“There! Orcas!” someone shouted. I was on deck in a flash, on edge with anticipation to see killer whales in the wild. Maybe they were circling their prey, or maybe they simply put on a show for humans who pay chunks of money to come out from Anacortes or Friday Harbor, Wash., or Victoria, British Columbia, to see their dorsal fins, flukes and occasionally their heads with their distinctive white spots.

After so much excitement, Martha sailed again. We helped with trimming, and I got a trick at the helm. This was exactly what I had pictured us doing: everyone moving around in a flurry, pulling, heaving and yelling. But it didn’t feel like work. Sure, you could sit back and be lazy, but you might feel bad afterward. “Take care of the boat so it can take care of you,” the captain reminded us. Everyone needs to do their part, which is the beauty of life on a boat.

The breeze petered out, but we managed to sail into our anchorage in Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island. We doused most of the sails and ghosted in under main only because the captain wouldn’t have it any other way. After dropping the anchor and putting everything away, I settled on the bow in the warm sun to read, losing track of time while dinner preparations were under way in the galley. I was last to be served at the dinner table, which wasn’t on purpose, just karma. So I volunteered to do the dishes and thought about the captain’s advice that we are in charge of our choices. To me, it would be better to cook dinner than be stuck with cleanup.

We turned in early, rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of Martha tugging at her anchor. I was dead tired but also excited about what the next day would bring now that I was in the groove. Little did I know …

“Get into your swimsuit and jump in!” What? Swimming? That had not been discussed. What time is it, anyway? Seven? That’s practically midnight for a teenager in need of her beauty sleep. On deck, others were already dripping and shivering after they’d taken a dip. This ain’t Florida, you know. That water here is icy. But with some encouragement I suited up in a bikini, determined to overcome my jitters and jump overboard. And there was an incentive: Holly and Mary had strung up a sun shower on the forestay, filled with steaming hot water.

To be perfectly honest, you can’t be prepared for dipping into 53-degree water. I learned that the best way to do it is not to think about it. Just jump, baby. So I cannonballed off the bowsprit. Ouch! Again. It was absolutely butt-freezing miserable. I tried hard not to take a deep breath with my head under water when the shock hit me. All I could think was: Get … out … now. The boarding ladder was too far back, so I clambered back on deck via the bobstay and the bowsprit “schooner style,” with my teeth chattering, of course.

I immediately collected my reward: a sprinkle of warm water and a fresh towel. I also was commended for my performance. Capt. Robert told us that this exercise helps us prepare for the eventuality of falling overboard because you improve your chances for a quick rescue if you don’t panic. Most of all, it helps you get over your fears and master your own reality. And I surprised myself by jumping in again.

Next on the program was a hike to the lighthouse of Turn Point, where big cargo ships bound for Vancouver have to thread a needle along the international border between Stuart Island in the United States and South Pender Island in Canada. Then I had a chance to grab one of Martha’s kayaks to join Lauren in a paddle to explore Prevost Harbor.

The club of the staysail jib provided a quiet perch to catch up on some reading.

When the adults cranked up the anchor with the manual windlass, I was sent below into the anchor locker to flake the chain into neat layers so it wouldn’t foul next time we dropped the hook. Later, the captain explained the basics of navigation using lines of position, or LOPs. It was important and interesting, even though most teens would mistake maps, charts, compasses and the whole plethora of tools for artifacts.

We motored down the San Juan Channel and turned east to squeeze through Upright Channel before turning south again to anchor at Watmough Bight on the southeastern tip of Lopez Island. It’s my favorite beach from previous vacations, but gliding in on a boat and looking up those steep cliffs from the water made this a special experience.

On the next morning we hoisted the anchor one last time, sailing out of the anchorage and pointing our bow south to cross the Juan de Fuca Strait. The tide was fair, the breeze was sweet, and the sun warmed our backs. Even the sniffles couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was determined to spend every second on deck, demonstrating my acquired skills and knowledge. I hoisted two sails. I finally made fast right for the first time. I sat in the bowsprit again for a long time to remind myself what it feels like. I would have liked to sail on the Martha for a little longer.

For more information about the schooner Martha, visit

November 2013 issue