Surviving the sea - The sea spit us out - Soundings Online

Surviving the sea - The sea spit us out

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At low tide in a boatyard in Nelson, New Zealand, Pamela Sisman Bitterman could look up from the deck of the 126-foot tall ship Alvei and read the history of Sofia written on a nearby cement wall.

At low tide in a boatyard in Nelson, New Zealand, Pamela Sisman Bitterman could look up from the deck of the 126-foot tall ship Alvei and read the history of Sofia written on a nearby cement wall.

Read the other story in this package: Surviving the sea 

As Alvei dropped with the tide, there were the declarations of crews past in the form of graffiti: Sofia 1968, Sofia 1973, Sofia 1982. Bitterman says the last one must have been scrawled shortly before the tall ship departed on what would be her final voyage.

“She was memorialized in the cement,” says the author.

Alvei was the site of a Sofia reunion in December 2004, one month after the release of Bitterman’s book on the sinking of the tall ship, “Sailing to the Far Horizon” (University of Wisconsin Press). She and the other survivors boarded the steel main topsail schooner Alvei at exactly the same dock from which Sofia had departed nearly a quarter-century earlier.

“There were about 10 of us from the lifeboats,” says Bitterman, who attended the reunion with her husband and fellow Sofia survivor, Joe Bitterman, and their two college-age children. Seeing their former shipmates 25 years later — and 25 years older — shocked everyone, she says. “We were completely taken aback.”

For many of the survivors, it was the first chance they’d had to talk about their memories of the sinking. “Most had been completely alone with it,” says Bitterman. “We spent the better part of a solid 24 hours … trying to help them come to terms with this thing.”

The tall ship that played host to the gathering is captained by Evan Logan, the former skipper of Sofia. Following the loss of Sofia, Logan set out to create a similar on-board teaching program (www.alvei.com ), says Bitterman.

“Evan spent the next eight years putting together a tall ship. But he’s the captain; it’s not a cooperative effort [like on Sofia],” she says, though there certainly are similarities between the two ships. “[Alvei] is eerily reminiscent of Sofia.”

Logan wasn’t the only crewmember to keep ties to the sea. In fact, almost every one of the survivors continued sailing, says Bitterman.

“I think it was the fact that we all survived it,” she says. “The sea spit us out.”

After their experiences aboard Sofia, Pamela and Joe Bitterman settled in California. They raised their two children in San Diego aboard a 50-foot traditionally rigged brigantine, which the Bittermans refit themselves. Pam Bitterman taught maritime history and seamanship at the San Diego Maritime Museum for about three years while working on her book. Since publishing “Sailing to the Far Horizon” Bitterman has left the museum to tour and lecture about the book and her experiences aboard Sofia. She plans to visit the East Coast in July, though no firm lecture dates have been set.

Bitterman’s next adventure begins this September when she sets off for the small village of Maseno, Kenya, to help out with the Maseno Project — an AIDS hospital and orphan feeding program established and run by American doctors Gerry and Nancy Hardison. “It’s a seven-hour bus ride from Nairobi,” she says.

She plans to base her next book on her experiences in Africa, and donate the proceeds to efforts to help the local children.