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Call Me Captain

Call Me Captain: A Memoir of a Woman at Sea

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 282
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  • Book Info
    Call Me Captain
    Book Description:

    Writer and marine biologist Susan Scott had an enviable existence—a home in Hawai`i, a prized 37-foot sailboat and exciting international adventures, all shared with her physician husband Craig in a marriage so intimate they called it the “Twinship.” Yet, when her menopausal hormones raged and Craig grew preoccupied with Ironman triathlon training, this perfect life ended. Once blessed with well-being, love, humor, and sharing, the Twinship exploded with fights, silence, accusations, and failed counseling. Shell-shocked, Susan sought solace in the one thing that always gave her joy: marine wildlife. She overhauled the couple’s neglected boat and, with a male friend nearly half her age, sailed away. Except it wasn’t that easy; Susan had always relied on Craig to make the sailing decisions and Alex, her young first mate, was a sailing novice. Call Me Captain follows Susan as she leaves everything behind—or tries to— and sails to spectacular but isolated Palmyra Atoll to work as a volunteer biologist. Susan helps rescue baby sea turtles, bands seabirds, and corrals ten-pound coconut crabs that look like Godzillas with knife-blade claws. She determinedly repairs her sailboat, skippers it through terrifying storms, and to her surprise, finds she and Craig are falling in love all over again. This time the two rediscover one another via satellite phone—Susan calling from her tiny floating speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to Craig in his hospital emergency room on Oahu. Susan writes with passion about swimming with manta rays, kayaking with sharks, and sailing with whales and dolphins. In those passages, she shows ways these magnificent animals guided her through the journey of a lifetime. Her memoir of self-discovery is a romance, a rousing sea tale, and a personal account of nature’s power to put life in perspective.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4770-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[v])
  2. [Maps]
    (pp. [vi]-[viii])
  3. 1
    (pp. 1-8)

    Looking down the companionway, I watched Alex remove my husband’s foul weather gear in the red night-light of the navigation station below. This was no small task. The storm waves were rolling my thirty-seven-foot sailboatHonuso violently that he had to hang onto an overhead rail and shake his shoulder to remove first one sleeve and then the other. Unclipping the fasteners on the yellow overalls caused them to fall to his knees, and he used his feet to push them from his ankles. Free of the outer clothes, he stretched out on the sea bunk, filling it from...

  4. 2
    (pp. 9-16)

    It was easy to blame Christine for my troubles, and I did on and off, but when I was truthful with myself, I knew her arrival in our lives was only the spark that lit the fire. Besides that, she considered me her friend. When I talked about her and my situation, people judged her to be either conniving or crazy, and since I knew that to be untrue, I hated myself for even bringing her up.

    For a year Craig and I knew this athletic thirty-year-old woman, a molecular biologist whom Craig had met during one of his lectures...

  5. 3
    (pp. 17-38)

    I worked in my home office feeling anxious and unsure, not knowing if Craig would be home for dinner, or even home before I went to bed. My protests over his lengthy workouts triggered arguments, and for the first time in our life together, we fought. He wanted me to encourage him in his athletic endeavors. I wanted him to spend his free time with me.

    I behaved like an empty nester—except my nest was not empty. I didn’t even have a nest. I lived free-range, exploring my home islands of Hawai‘i and visiting the wildlife of the world,...

  6. 4
    (pp. 39-50)

    After nearly four months at Tern Island, I came home to Oahu proud of my bulging new muscles, my “Ocean Watch” columns, and my articles and photos of Tern Island. I felt upbeat on the flight home, sure that life would get good again.

    Life got worse. While working at Tern, the joints in my hands began to hurt. Sometimes my fingers ached so much I had trouble holding a fork or pulling open a heavy door. We were banding albatrosses at the time, though, and no way was I going to give up my opportunity to handle those remarkable...

  7. 5
    (pp. 51-64)

    To some sailors, changing a boat’s name is bad luck, but that superstition came from men who thought taking a bath made you sick and women on ships caused storms. Craig and I had changed our boat’s name toHonu,the Hawaiian word for green sea turtle, because above water she reminded us of those serene seaweed grazers with shell homes wide and heavy yet efficient and seaworthy. Green sea turtles can weigh up to four hundred pounds with shells about four feet long, yet likeHonu’s hull, they cut through the water as effortlessly as the dolphins that surfed...

  8. 6
    (pp. 65-76)

    The first year Craig and I knew each other, there had been some urgency to our affair, partly because of the three-hour drive that separated our towns and partly because we were both divorced and half believed that true love did not exist. But suddenly, there it was. We found each other, love was easy, life was beautiful, and Craig wanted to get married. It was his idea, and he said it several times that first year. Marry me. Be my wife. I thought this a little premature and somewhat clingy, but he was the most wonderful man I ever...

  9. 7
    (pp. 77-93)

    One of my biggest fears about driving the boat was that I would hit the dock.

    I hit the dock.

    At the moment Craig cast off mooring lines and I shifted into gear, an avalanche of wind came roaring down the mountains.

    “Goose it,” he said. “In this wind, you need power.” I revved the engine, and the boat began to move. Backward. Into the pier. “Stop, stop,” Craig shouted. On our boat, pulling the shift lever back put the transmission in forward gear; pushing it forward put it in reverse. This was the opposite of other boats, and the...

  10. 8
    (pp. 94-105)

    I thought it would never happen, but finallyHonuwas put together enough for practice sailing. For my first venture into the ocean as captain, I chose for my crew two young women, Cari and Tracy, who both wanted to learn to sail. I had lived with Cari, a biologist, on Tern Island and had always looked forward to helping her band seabirds. She loved the species assigned to her, red-footed boobies, and carried on one-way conversations with them as she worked. “I’m sorry I scared you, sweetie,” she’d say to a startled chick that had just pecked her arm...

  11. 9
    (pp. 106-120)

    After a few days at Ko Olina, Scott, Howard, Cari, and I were ready to take the leap across the Kaua‘i Channel. At sixty-three miles, this is the longest distance between any of the main Hawaiian Islands. In 1796 the island of Kauai kept its in de pen dence because of this channel. When King Kamehameha, who had conquered the other main Hawaiian Islands, planned an invasion of Kaua‘i, wind and waves overturned several canoes, forcing the king and his warriors back to Waianae. They did not try again.

    Still, there’s a big plus in sailing from Oahu to Kaua‘i:...

  12. 10
    (pp. 121-133)

    Craig and I lived like two hamsters running on adjacent exercise wheels. Occasionally we got onto the same rhythm and talked to each other, but it was often in code, and sometimes in anger. I was still taking estrogen, progesterone, and antidepressants, but I felt out of sorts, as if I had done something wrong but couldn’t remember what it was. I agreed with the recent change of terms from HRT, hormone replacement therapy, to simply HT, hormone therapy. Estrogen relieved some symptoms of menopause but did not replace everything I had lost, such as self-control.

    Once while Craig and...

  13. 11
    (pp. 134-147)

    I knew that Craig and Christine had not excluded me from everything they did—I had excluded myself. At restaurants, they talked about clip-in pedals, the merits of carb loading, and the variation of strokes in freestyle swimming. The only thing more boring than watching them work out was listening to them talk about it. Even so, seeing Craig jog, pedal, fix flats, swim, laugh, chat, share food, and drive off with Christine in her red convertible sports car felt like a stab in the gut each time it happened. As a result, I usedHonuas a haven, a...

  14. 12
    (pp. 148-162)

    Get a gun,” my neighbor Paula said, sipping white wine. “You can buy them at Sports Authority. I saw them there in a glass case.”

    “I’m not buying a gun. Palmyra is a wildlife refuge full of birds and crabs. There are only a few people there.”

    “Exactly my point,” she said. “What if pirates show up?”

    Paula wasn’t alone in her fear of pirates. The media coverage of boats being hijacked off the coasts of Somalia, Columbia, and Indonesia had the public, and many of my friends, imagining the high seas to be full of murdering thieves. My research...

  15. 13
    (pp. 163-170)

    Wind that had whistled now howled, making such an unnerving wail through the rigging that it sounded faster than the twenty-five knots we saw on the anemometer. And it was faster. When sailing downwind, you add the boat’s speed, about seven knots, to the reading, making the real wind closer to thirty-one or thirty-two knots. It takes effort to walk against this much wind, a Moderate Gale, or Force 7 on the Beaufort scale. At Force 7 those umbrellas that are hard to control at Force 6 turn inside out, heavy tree branches move, and sailboat captains become hypersensitive to...

  16. 14
    (pp. 171-189)

    Nonsailing friends and readers often ask me two questions about being at sea. The most common one, mostly from women, is how you go to the bathroom on a boat. To me it seems like an odd question, because nearly all boats big enough to cross oceans have bathrooms similar to the ones we have at home, complete with toilet, sink, and shower. Not everyone knows that, though, and besides, women want details from another woman. Do you have to squat over a bucket? If there’s a toilet, how do you sit there when the boat is bouncing all over...

  17. 15
    (pp. 190-205)

    I stared bug-eyed. My sparkling new jib no longer flew off the starboard bow like a billowing banner of downwind sailing. Instead, it drooped over the lifelines like so much wet laundry. The bottom of the sail remained attached to the bow, but its middle and top had fallen flat on the surface of the wind-swept sea and lay jerking in the breaking waves.

    I had been sitting on the left side of the cockpit when the oddpopoccurred. A second later,Honurolled to her right, suddenly elevating me to the high side of a teeter-totter. The canvas...

  18. 16
    (pp. 206-216)

    As we limped toward Palmyra, now only ten miles away, I remembered how I had imagined my arrival in the atoll: droppingHonu’s crisp new sails, the engine leaping to life when I pushed the starter, driving proudly down a wellmarked channel. Inside the calm, sparkling lagoon, I would stop my finely tuned boat in the turquoise waters and drop my anchor in soft white sand. Curious terns would balance on my booms. Booby birds would rest on my rails.

    Instead, I felt more like a ragged, eye-patched sailor staggering into port. With the bow missing its rigging, a blanket-sized...

  19. 17
    (pp. 217-232)

    First off, I want you to eat in the dining room with us,” he said.

    “You mean bring my meals in from the boat?”

    “No. I mean share the meals we prepare here three times a day. I know they told you that you couldn’t eat with us, but there are too few people here to live separately, and it just creates an us-versus-them mentality.”

    I was so shocked that all I could do was gape.Honu’s lockers bulged at the seams with canned milk, freeze-dried soups, boxed macaroni and cheese, and a hundred other food items that would last...

  20. 18
    (pp. 233-246)

    I spent my first night on the boat in the lagoon having nightmares. Blasts of wind blew rain sideways beneath the awning over my bed, forcing me to close the overhead hatch. The cabin grew hot and humid.Honuswung back and forth on her anchor chain in a wide arc, and I lay in my bunk listening to the steel links drag over the hard-packed lagoon floor, clunking like the chains of Marley’s ghost.

    I got up, donned a foul weather jacket over my T-shirt, and went to the bow to check the anchor. You can’t, of course, actually...

  21. 19
    (pp. 247-260)

    Alex and I were ready to begin work at the four ant study sites. Each plot had both young and oldPisoniatrees, all crawling with ants that nurtured the scale that killed the trees. In some areas, dozens of dead trees lay like collapsed columns, a forest sacked and pillaged by an army we could barely see. We measured and flagged the areas to be poisoned (fifty yards square), and the areas inside these in which I would count ants (fifteen yards square).

    To count ants systematically at each plot, I was to cut twenty one-inch paper squares from...

  22. 20
    (pp. 261-272)

    What part of the forestay failed exactly?” Craig asked me on the phone.

    “I don’t know. It broke at the top of the mast, and I haven’t been up there to look yet.”

    He paused. “You’re going up the mast?”

    I had always been afraid to climb that forty-eight-foot-tall aluminum pole rising, and usually swaying, over the solid deck. With Craig’s help, I had once gotten about a quarter of the way up, but the sight of all the gear below that could skewer me if I fell scared me so much that I clambered back down. In truth, I...

  23. 21
    (pp. 273-277)

    Now that we knew how quickly and thoroughly the hermit crabs could scarf down the ant bait, another topic of concern in the study became coconut crabs. Would the giant crustaceans gobble up the peanut butter and corn syrup, too? Could we prevent that? How would we keep them from eating the ant poison that we were planning to scatter throughout our plots on Eastern Island? And my burning question: What the heck do these things look like?

    Discussion of how to manage coconut crabs frustrated me, since I had yet to see one. It was possible to live on...

  24. 22
    (pp. 278-283)

    After we chose and flagged the ant plots, Alex worked almost exclusively on his doctoral research and left the fieldwork to me. I had been right about Palmyra all those months ago in Honolulu. It was my kind of heaven. My solo trips to Eastern Island brought me as close as I had ever come to nirvana. Without another human being to be seen or heard, it was just me, the atoll, and the animals, my own private paradise.

    Each day I enjoyed exercise elation from the strenuous workout required to paddle upwind and upcurrent to Eastern Island. While counting...

  25. 23
    (pp. 284-298)

    In another arm of the pi lot study regarding the effect of ant poison in the refuge, we tested waterproof, one-inch-long radio transmitters that we were to attach to the backs of randomly selected strawberry hermit crabs, making sure the radios sent a clear signal. The purpose was to enable us to follow the signals after we spread the ant poison to see if the crabs were alive and well or sick and dying. Alex and I epoxied twenty-four of the transmitters, about the size and weight of a single peanut in its shell, to the tops of the crabs’...

  26. 24
    (pp. 299-306)

    When Pierre and I installedHonu’s wind generator, people warned me about its annoying whirring noise, but I loved the little windmill churning up there on the mizzenmast. Besides making electricity, each time I rowed home at night in Palmyra’s pitch-black lagoon, it came in handy as a homing beacon.

    One dark and rainy night, typical eve ning weather in Palmyra, I watched an after-dinner movie in the yacht club and afterward set out forHonuin wind gusting to twenty knots and with visibility so poor I could barely see the end of my eight-foot dinghy. After rowing much...

  27. 25
    (pp. 307-311)

    A few days later I was eating dinner in the new shoreline dining room, recently completed by the builders, when the light easterly wind turned to a strong westerly wind. That meant that, in terms of keeping the boat safe and secure, Honu ’s anchor was facing the wrong way.

    Luke squinted at the lagoon through the sudden downpour. “Susan,” he said, “I think your boat is moving.”

    I stared. All the warnings I heard and read about the poor holding ground of Palmyra’s lagoon had been true. The boat had turned around and was slowly but surely dragging its...

  28. 26
    (pp. 312-317)

    As the ants began coming back to my bait stations, I had to start tallying again. Crazy ants were harder to count than big-headed ants because crazy ants race around in stop-and-go zigzags. Peter, the ant man in Honolulu, wondered via e-mail how far the crazy ant pioneers were traveling to get the bait, a question impossible to answer. As a joke, I suggested that we glue one of our few remaining radio transmitters, each the size of your average bonbon, to an ant’s back to find out. He wrote back, without any irony that I could detect, that the...

  29. Epilogue
    (pp. 318-324)

    It took twenty-four days to reach Tahiti, more than three times the length of the voyage from Honolulu to Palmyra. That’s a story in itself, but deciding to do it was the hardest part. With my new forestay and furler, assembled and installed by me, I sailedHonutwenty-five hundred miles (because it was upwind, I could not sail a direct route) and made it safely to the Society Islands, consisting of Tahiti, Raiatea, Bora Bora, and others. In the middle of the voyage, the cantankerous starter finally gave up the ghost. Alex and I rebuilt it at sea using...

  30. Author’s Note
    (pp. 325-327)
  31. Back Matter
    (pp. 328-329)