Someone once told me that the older you get, the faster time goes by. And there is nothing like a calendar to make that apparent. This month I was flattered (if a little embarrassed) to be “Miss May” for Luke’s Lobster Ladies Calendar. It got me thinking about another time I was featured in a calendar – the year was 1995 and the month was April. The calendar was a sailing calendar, the shot was taken off the coast of New Zealand in early 1994 – finishing our leg from Australia to New Zealand during the Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Challenge). That leg was our shortest, less than two weeks, a jaunt between the two grueling Southern Ocean legs.
We had celebrated Christmas and New Years in Australia, it was my first Christmas away from home – I was 23 – the youngest member of the second all women’s team to compete in the Whitbread. How I got a berth aboard is still a mystery to me. The season before, facing a dismal job market, the recent divorce of my parents and with itchy feet, I had set off from Camden, Maine to assist with a delivery of a sailboat to Antigua. The skipper was from South Africa, the first mate Australian and the other crew member from New Zealand – all men. I can only imagine what my father thought driving away that cold November evening after helping me lug my sea bag aboard.
I was launched from Penobscot Bay to a world I had not known existed. In a matter of months, I could decipher a kiwi accent from an Australian one and could execute a jibe on the foredeck in 25 knots of breeze on the midnight watch. Once launched, I never looked back, or at least not for a time.
Delivering a boat from San Diego to New York, having just come through the Panama Canal, on a lazy pre-dawn watch, the kiwi who had made that first passage with me said casually, “I heard there’s an all woman’s team forming for the next Whitbread Merritt, you should have a go”. I didn’t need more convincing. I made my way to Annapolis and showed up at the boat, unannounced. I can only guess at what I said when I got there: “I’m Merritt, I’d like to have a go.”
And so it was I became the bowman aboard that team. Woefully inexperienced, I compensated by doing the tasks no one else wanted to do: oil in the bilge with a sea running, I was the first to volunteer to clean it. (I did get out of coffee-making duty after I inadvertently -?- made the coffee with salt water). The foredeck was the bowman’s domain; that job usually reserved for the least experienced and youngest members of the crew. I shared the honors with a kiwi girl named Leah. We “hot bunked” in the worst bunk, next to the galley, on the top, where during one of the Southern Ocean legs when our heater broke the condensation streamed on to our sleeping bag; we lined it with trash bags, an ineffective and uncomfortable solution. We spent our watches up the mast, or getting bashed about on the bow during spinnaker changes. We didn’t make decisions or offer input – that was reserved for the “after guard” – the navigator, skipper, tactician. Our value derived from how much we could endure and how efficiently we could get the job done– whether climbing the mast to repair the wind gear at the top, or doing a peel a from a #4 genoa to a #2 in a building breeze. The boat was a Whitbread 60- essentially a 64’ skiff – and we hurled through the ‘emerald highway’ surfing down waves so quickly we outran the sea and crashed into the wave in front of us. They call it the roaring 40s for a reason. The sound and exhileration was constant – and there, I cut my teeth on life.
From that round the world team, I joined the first all woman’s America’s Cup team. Life was picking up pace, I could feel it then. I hung my sailing boots up after nearly a decade, made my home in Maine, became a lawyer, got married, divorced, had three children. And then my youngest went to kindergarten. Time, accelerating.
One month + 2 Decades + A Different Ocean – it’s May, 2018. The Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op I helped found with Luke Holden and local fishermen from Tenants Harbor, many of whom I had grown up around, is in full swing. My connection to Luke and Luke’s Lobster was simple: I had heard the Miller brothers might sell their wharf (one of the few remaining locally owned fishing wharfs in the area), where I had worked for their mother and sister as a teenager. I got a mutual friend to introduce me to Luke, and we got on a call. It went something like this: “Hi Luke, I’m Merritt, there’s a wharf in Tenants Harbor I think you should get involved with.”
Another season is bearing down on us, the acceleration and excitement of all it will bring palpable – I can feel it on the sou’westerly breeze that’s more and more frequent as the days lengthen and warm.