My time spent on the Schooner “Shenandoah”

I’ve gone to the Shenandoah in Martha’s Vineyard for the past four summers (minus this last summer because of Covid). When I first started writing my book my mom looked up writing camps I could do and she eventually found this one. I remember when we first took the ferry to the island and I first saw the ship how terrified I was. Living on a boat less than 120 feet long with 30 other people, skylights above the toilets, and less than a foot’s room for headspace on some of the bunks seemed more like hell to me than anything else. But then, it turned out, I actually kind of loved it.

I’ve been a camper for two years and a junior writing counselor for the other time and my life has completely changed because of. Something about not having your phone and being in the middle of the ocean for a week just totally refreshes your spirit. I remember the first time we set sail and how intoxifying that feeling was. Your literal home, your whole world for that week is flying in the wind effortlessly, and carelessly. The crew walks above on the ship, sails, and lines like cats making their way up a bookshelf. Kids laugh around me, the sky runs a race with me, the ocean uses its long fingers to grab our boat and rock it from side to side, but ultimately forward. 

We swing off the boat when it’s anchored from a rope swing. The water beneath is god knows how deep, but it doesn’t seem to matter to us. We sing songs in the dark, huddled in a circle with a guitar and lots of sun-kissed little voices. We go to islands like Tarpaulin Cove, paddle out and discover beautiful lighthouses. We run into the ocean at the shore and see the curve of the world fall behind our ship. For right now it is just us, the ocean, and whatever we want to make the shades and layers of blue around us. At night we turn the radio on and sing while we do dishes. We read ghost stories and make friendship bracelets. Captain reads to us John Masefield and we try not to fall asleep. At the moment we think it is really boring but when we get our land-legs we would trade anything in the world to be back. 

Living on a ship in the middle of the ocean without my phone has been one of the most striking and life-changing times for me. Writing and reading, sailing and flying, swimming to the edge of the world, jumping down to the bottom of the world, these are things that change my simple day to day manners back on land. I wrote something on my finsta that I think could go here:

“You know they say writers have always had a thing about the sea. As I’ve spent my time cooped up from the life we considered so normal just a year ago I’ve been able to reflect on the time I’ve spent in situations like living on a boat, in new places far away, and on grand adventures so different to me. Some of my friends have said I’m good at telling elaborate stories about all the things I have done, but I would argue it is more through the stories that I’ve lived where I’ve found clarity. As I’ve spent further time engaging with classical literature, and critically thinking about the constructs of big systems in our society, I can’t help but be taken back to a time where my biggest concern was slamming my head on the beam right above me or how long the captain would read his stories that night. For some reason the normal complacency and routine of a life we perceive, that is being projected so forcefully and unfailingly, is not settling well in me anymore. For a girl who loves those small routines I find myself wanting to escape the routine in a capitalist system that so oppressing-ly has drilled in me an expectation of what I must do. Maybe it is social media but this hopscotch map of graduation, internship, bad job, bad house, bad husband– is something I disbelieve. I find myself drifting back to the dreams I had whilst lying on that small bunk with just enough headroom to lie on my side at night. Where my biggest worry was breakfast smells, 6:00 am ferry horns, and a gloomy day lacking a breeze.” 

As my favorite John Masefield quote goes “And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by”, I find myself looking for my ship and star everyday when I’m back on land. But when you’re on the boat all you need to do is look down at the worn wood underneath, the creaking noises your container makes in the middle of the night. And at the stars above that seem to sprinkle the water. Maybe that is why my time at sea has seemed so pivotal to me. I never have to go looking, it’s always there for me.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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