cut of the jib
Same Walk, Different Shoes
“Same Walk, Different Shoes” is a community writing project that organized as a practical exercise in empathy. The premise is simple. A group of writers anonymously contribute a personal story of an experience that changed their life. Each participating writer is randomly assigned one of these story prompts to turn into a short story. The story you are about to read is one from this collection. You can find all the stories from the participating writers at Catch & Release. Enjoy the walk with us.
You could always tell who the first-time campers were. The first day they’d do their best to hide their seasickness, bowing out to the bathroom or, more often, to the sides of the ship, faces tinted green behind sad smiles. By the second, you could see in their eyes the slow realization that there’d be another twelve days away from the comforts of home, that this 30-foot two-mast clipper would be all they’d know.
At the age of sixteen, I was on my second trip through the islands, so I had already learned: you do it for the discomfort. You do it for the challenge, for being at the mercy of the oceanic elements.
It seemed like most of my fellow campers did it for some aspect of socialization, the concept of which was foreign to me and revolved around the alcohol they would sneak onto the boat in their bags, strictly prohibited for the youth campers but brought all the same, perhaps for its verboten nature.
At night in our bunks, they’d pour it into little plastic cups, offer me some. I always declined, having never drunk before nor having any desire to do so. I hated the tinny music played from their phones, the loudness their voices accrued after drinking. I preferred to be left alone and couldn’t help but feel like this was some kind of deficiency on my part.
It should have been impossible to find loneliness on such a moderately sized boat with so many others, yet I always did, even in rooms full of people. Except when I was with the captain’s mate, Vincent, a young man who demanded my attention even if at first he did not give it back.
Vincent was cool, he had a tattoo of a hammerhead shark on one shoulder, was handsome in a way that should have made him a model, never found without a brew in hand. He was a few years older than the other campers and – believing myself to be more mature than my contemporaries – a more fitting role model to me.
He was known for extravagant dives off the deck, for swinging on the ropes of the sail, for blaring music on the beach next to a bon-fire, unaware of the gaze of the younger female campers. They were quick to try and be friendly with him, but Vincent was a serious person and, like many serious people, not very friendly. Most of those that tried to befriend him, either male or female, came away from the interaction perturbed by his insistence on keeping the social focus of the trip squarely targeted towards learning the finer points of sailing, and not much else. His grumpiness seemed to be a symptom of cynicism borne from world experience we did not yet have.
Vincent began to sense a kindred spirit in me, despite my being younger, as we found ourselves meeting eyes across the deck when hearing the complaints and struggles of the other youth campers, the first timers and otherwise. The first thing he said to me, an aside from a lesson on steering:
“I’d like to see some of these kids try to do the lock transfer,” he said with a smirk.
“Haha, yeah,” I said back.
Of course, I had never done the lock transfer myself, nor did I hope to anytime soon. Vincent could not know this. It was known as the most difficult sailing maneuver of the journey, even with calm seas, in which we passed through the narrow transfer from the ocean to return to the large inland lake from which we cast off.
“These kids aren’t here for the love of the salt, the love of the sea, are they?” he asked me because I knew the answer.
“They’re not,” I said. I loved how the salt dried my lips, how the sun burned my face, if only because it was in the service of the masts.
Soon I was volunteering to do ship work, hoping to coax more moments between myself and the irascible Vincent. We would cook together, swab the deck. We would always do it without much talking, which I presumed was how he liked it, and perhaps another reason why he liked me.
Near the end of the trip, we stood on the deck one night and tilted our noses up to the moon like the lone-wolf pack we were.
“Smell that?” he asked. I nodded even though I did not smell anything different than I had smelled for the past two weeks. He expected me to respond, so when I didn’t, he said, “It’s in the humidity. The warmth. Low pressure coming in. Might be rough seas making the lock transfer.”
It felt like this was a piece of knowledge he had chosen to pass on to me in the form of a mentor, the likes of which I’d never had. From then on, I’d know the smell of impending rough seas, a secret I never knew I’d longed for, that the other campers didn’t know.
“Shouldn’t be a problem though, right?” I asked. He must have sensed my nervousness because he only laughed and sipped his beer. He reached down into the six-pack that was never far from his side and handed me a cold bottled glass.
I resisted the urge to assume it was somehow meant for someone else and popped the cap off with my keys in the same manner I saw Vincent do, thankfully on the first attempt. I brought it up to my lips, the smell hitting my nose before the taste to my tongue. It was like bubbly, stale bread, and I ended up only having one.
Vincent was in the middle of his usual midmorning nap when things started to get rough. Everyone went below deck, and the commotion woke him. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked me in a grizzled, hungover voice, leaning in the doorway of his cabin.
“Looks like we need the diesel engine. But we can’t find the captain,” I said.
Vincent sniffed and tried to shake the alcohol out of his head.
“Let’s check it out,” he said, and gestured for me to go above deck with him in our lifejackets.
The wind was charging, the sails carrying us inevitably off course. A light rain drizzled down, occasionally sideways.
“Shit!” He looked around at the sea, which threatened to erupt into chaos. “I need to try and run the diesel engine. Can you steer till I get her running?”
I had steered on the vast expanse of the ocean before, where there was no threat, no great danger other than being blown slightly off course and being corrected by the captain or by Vincent. But we were approaching the transfer, the narrows that led to the lake, and the welfare of the 30-foot clipper was truly in my hands.
Then was the time to prove myself deserving of the maturity I believed to have, an excuse I made for not befriending anyone besides the older skipper. I took the rudder and thought of how Vincent, whom I so admired and held in esteem, had entrusted me with the task, how we saw the difference between us and them, the true seafarers and the hangers-on. You can do this, was what it made me think. My grip relaxed as I became one with the ship, compensating in direction as she rolled, as the wind picked up and died again.
Vincent swore as he tried to get the diesel engine working, just as he would swear at unprepared first-year campers. We were reaching the lock, and without the power of the diesel, soon even the most experienced steerer would be at the mercy of the winds to escape damage to the clipper as it passed into the lake.
The swearing stopped as we entered the lock, and only then did my pulse quicken, my thoughts darken.
But in a moment, the roar of the diesel finally prevailed, and Vincent waved to me as control of the ship was gained. I looked back to him and all that was conferred between us was a nod as he came to take the rudder and right the ship, ringing the all-hands bell.
When we got back to shore, the other campers hurried into their cliques on the dock, squawking like seagulls about our little adventure, laughing in ignorance of the calm hands like me and Vincent who had guided us. They invited me to go to a café with them to get lunch, but I declined, and this time the declination felt triumphant.
Maybe not connecting with these other campers wasn’t a failure. Maybe life wasn’t about connecting with just anyone; it was about connecting with the right people, your fellow malcontents, the outsiders who are cut from the same jib.
I felt like I could sail a clipper around the world.