It’s sea shanty time!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a TikTok fan — I confess I enjoy it but don’t follow people — you’ll have noticed a sudden interest in, of all things, sea shanties.

Here’s a nice piece from Vulture (part of NY Magazine) explaining why:

On the surface, it’s a little weird that digital culture in 2021 would become suddenly obsessed with 200-year-old folk songs about men on whaling boats. They sound like prehistoric oddities, which is part of the appeal. Simplistic in structure, they are deliberately repetitive and full of ideas and references that feel very, very far from life right now. Aside from the word Wellerman, they’re full of harpoons and pierheads and the specifics of butchering whales; the most recognizable lyrics are lines about “rounding the Cape” and the love of bonny brown-haired lasses.

Sea shanties are also resiliently uncool. They’re songs about whaling and strong winds…

One of my favorite songs ever, all nine verses, is by the late great Canadian folksinger, Stan Rogers, Barrett’s Privateers. Few things are as lovely for me as when I find a gang of fellow Canadians to belt out the words — some of which of course curse Americans!

Written in September 1976, it even has a detailed and helpful Wikipedia entry!

Here are some of the lyrics:

Oh, the year was 1778
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
A letter of marque came from the king
To the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen
God damn them all! I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears

But I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers

It’s a good time to sing and sing loudly and sing together.

There’s so much now we just can’t calmly discuss:


Massively divisive.

Money/income/economic status

Millions in desperate straits, facing eviction, job loss, unemployment — while the wealthy keep scooping up the gold


Who dares?



Here’s a gorgeous, haunting song about heading out to hunt whales, Farewell to Tarwathie, sung by Judy Collins.

How I got my latest NYT story


The poor kids! It poured rain all day….but they went out anyway!


By Caitlin Kelly

So, I have no kids and I don’t live in Brooklyn and I’ve never attended school in New York nor visited a middle school here.

Yet I found this terrific story for The New York Times about an after-school program for students who, in their classroom, build a wooden boat by hand from scratch — then set sail on an inlet of the East River, with huge boats passing and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop.



I watch the game show often and, a year or so ago, a contestant said he volunteered with Brooklyn Boatworks, a non-profit program founded by two naval architects.

As a lifelong sailor, I was immediately intrigued — when you think of Brooklyn, you don’t necessarily think first of boats or sailing.

So I did some digging and contacted the program’s executive director and asked her enough questions to pitch the idea, which was accepted. I do this a lot with my potential stories, pre-reporting them enough to create a compelling pitch — that means persuading people to talk to me even though I don’t yet have a definite assignment.

I knew I had to watch a team of students working on the boat so I visited MS (Middle School) 88 on February 14 for two hours and again for two more hours on April 18, the length of each week’s building session. I observed, listened, eavesdropped and took far more notes than I would ever be able to use — I was only allowed a maximum of 1,500 words for the story.

How would I be able to encapsulate this amazing adventure?

I took photos with my phone for later reference and interviewed several students and their two teachers. The students were friendly and easy to talk to. It was great to watch their teamwork and self-confidence easily handling tools as they built a boat together, my favorite being two young Muslim girls in hijab working with cordless drills.



The boats are seven foot, six inches — those buoyancy bags help keep them afloat!


Few of the students had ever even been on a sailboat before and, likely, none as tiny as the Optimist, aka Opti. It all seemed like some sort of dream. Would it ever really be a boat? Was it possible? Would it sink?!



Students wrapped in plastic tried to stay dry while cheering on their team-mates. That’s the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The orange thing in the photo is a PFD, a personal flotation device every sailor needs to wear in case of capsize.



Program director Marjorie Schulman was the soul of patience for the many, many emails and calls I needed to report the story. This was June 10, the day of “graduation” when every student who participated got a certificate and public recognition of their months of hard work.


Launch day was June 10 — a day of non-stop rain!

The event was held at Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with speeches beforehand and a few special guests. I met the freelance photographer there for the Times and introduced her to some of the people I needed her to focus on; typical of my freelance work, I had never met her before yet we would have to work well together quickly and under uncomfortable conditions.

That’s journalism!


Here’s the story, and an excerpt:

Dana Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she really enjoyed building the boat. “I sawed many pieces of it and we got to use epoxy, which my parents thought was pretty cool,” she said. “Sawing is actually pretty hard. You have to practice a lot. You have to be safety conscious and patient. We wear gloves so we don’t get cut and safety glasses so no sawdust gets into our eyes.”

Students also had the opportunity to use math and science in the workshop. “When it came to our measurements, we were always trying to get everything right and we had a lesson in the science of sailing, how to use the wind,” Dana said.

Dana, it seems, has caught the building bug. “I’d like to do a sculpture or another boat or a treehouse,” she said.

Other students felt empowered from the experience, too.

“I love learning new stuff,” Karla Miranda, a seventh-grader, said. “Before I was just doing basic girl things —- I’d watch TV, go outside, do homework. I got more comfortable using tools and how to control them,” she continued. “I didn’t know I could do all this.”



What do you know how to do — IRL?

By Caitlin Kelly


For those of you who don’t have one — and I’m guessing that’s most of you — here’s my current sewing box: needles, thread, ribbon, vintage and new buttons, a bit of vintage cotton, my beloved and very un-PC pincushion of Chinamen (wrong phrase, yes I know) holding hands. My thimble appears to have gone missing, but I rarely used it anyway.

I pulled it out the other day to repair a cotton rug whose edging, after only a few washings, had begun to come apart and fray. I think there are people who would have kept it looking crappy and others who might have simply thrown it away. Not me.

I also have some mending on my to-do list, old cashmere with a few holes.

I love using my hands to make and repair things.

Some of the things I can do, or have done, very happily far away from a touch-screen:

— cook a good meal, with sauces or nicely plated

— bake quick breads, cookies, cakes, pies

— sew and mend

— take photos, draw and paint, (both artistically and walls/furniture, etc.)

curry a horse

— play acoustic guitar

— set and trim sails: jib, spinnaker, mainsail

— paddle, steer and portage a canoe

— fence saber (nationally ranked for four years)

— prune a (very small) tree

Here’s a recent story from The Guardian about a guy who learn how to butcher.

Inspired by this post, from Kentucky high school teacher Paul Barnwell:

Here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this.

How about you?

What are some your handy skills, in real life?

What are some you wish you had, or hope to acquire? (I’d like to learn to knit.)






Summer Sounds

Glass of iced tea
Ice tea....aaaaaah! Image via Wikipedia

I listen to NPR every day — and they’re running a lovely series called Summer Sounds. The one I heard yesterday was “screen door slamming.” So true!

Others have included golf, a steel drum and firecrackers.

Some of mine include:

The clang-clang-clang of a metal halyard against a sailboat mast

The gluoup sound of a canoe paddle digging deeply into cool, dark lake water

The lap of water against stone at lakeside

The haunting call of a loon

The clink of ice cubes in a glass of ice tea or lemonade — or (oooh, yes please!) a Tanqueray and tonic

The crunch of bus wheels on gravel, the sound of arriving at summer camp one more time, eight weeks of joy ahead

The gentle murmur of voices on the patio in the dark

The low steady hum of the air conditioner

The whine of mosquitoes (and the slap of getting one!)

The sing-song tune of the Good Humor truck

The sizzle of food cooking on a grill

The flapping of flip-flops

The farting noise when you try to squirt out the tube’s last little bit of sunscreen

The roaring buzz of cicadas

The splash of someone diving into a pool

The roar of a motorboat engine

How about you?

What I Found Behind The Fridge

The Lovely Fridge
Image by shrff via Flickr

Because that’s how I live….a handwritten note from the year 2000 from Jean Harris, legendary for shooting and killing her lover, the famed inventor of the Scarsdale Diet. I had written to her asking her for an interview for my book about women and guns.

She wrote me back, hand-written in blue ink on her personal stationery, to say she would not participate: “Since leaving prison, [prisoners’] children are the center of my concern — the future, not the past. The future can still be touched, maybe even changed. The past is over.”

I hadn’t moved the fridge since I moved in 20-something years ago. A new one moves into its spot tomorrow after the carpenters cut the counter and cupboards to fit it.

We bought a sexy new fridge this week, a Fisher & Paykel — which I will also enjoy using because I wrote about that company when I was in Auckland in 1998 writing a feature about the value of sponsoring major yacht races, as they did for the Volvo round the world race, (then called the Whitbread.)

This is likely my penultimate T/S post. I am hating this week, frankly. I hate endings and goodbyes. I’ve been on the phone and FB and email with some of my T/S pals, Claudia Deutsch and Nancy Miller and Fran Johns and Jeff McMahon, even Paul Smalera, who left in March when he got a great online editing job. I hope to be working with him soon as a freelancer.

I will miss this community’s easy camaraderie, for all the “independent” journalist party line. Independence gets lonely.

I’ll post tomorrow night where this blog is migrating.

A Free Summer Treat — Crewing On Others' Sailboats; My NYT Story

Vessal seen from below
One of my favorite sights in the world!Image via Wikipedia

Here’s my story in today’s New York Times:

IT’S a gorgeous Friday evening. There’s a breeze off the Hudson River, and the single best place to be — every sailor knows — is out on the water. But you, who wouldn’t know port from starboard or rudder from tiller, can only gaze longingly at those bobbing, darting boats on the horizon.

You don’t know anyone with a boat and you don’t know how to sail.

Get to Nyack, on the Hudson 25 miles north of Manhattan, and stand on the dock of the Nyack Boat Club before a scheduled race. “There’s always people looking for crew — you would definitely find a ride,” even without any experience, said Tom Lawton, who sails a 17-foot Thistle, one of the nation’s top 10 fastest such vessels. The club’s regular races are Wednesdays from 5:30 until dusk, and Sundays at noon.

Despite its blue-blood reputation, sailing is for everyone. Owning and storing a boat may cost thousands of dollars a year, but aside from membership fees at some clubs (not Nyack), crewing costs nothing when a skipper invites you aboard. What you do need are the will to learn and a boat in need of a crew.

The references are local, but the spirit is international — anywhere there are skippers eager to race their sailboats, there are skippers who need crew! And there is rarely an unlimited supply of strong, quick, reliable and friendly sailors to help them out.

Which is where you come in. I fell into crewing after my marriage blew up. I was in the boring ‘burbs with few friends, no kids, not much money. What was I to do on long, lonely summer weekends? Sail! Once I found a few boats who saw that I brought good skills — and taught me more — my summers, May through October, were set. I was racing sometimes two or three times a week, sometimes two or three times a day. Exhausting!

If, like me, you are outgoing, a quick learner, competitive, and love being oudoors on the water, there are few free pleasures as great as this one. All you need is a cap, sunscreen, non-marking rubber-soled shoes and a few skippers willing to take you on.

Their Ship Sunk 300 Nautical Miles Off The Coast Of Brazil, 48 Teens Safely Rescued

A tall ship in New York Harbor Apparently at t...
Image via Wikipedia

Terrifying ordeal for a group of 48 high school students and their 16 teachers when their sailing ship, Concordia, suddenly sank off the coast of Brazil.

From The Canadian Press:

The ship’s captain, William Curry, has said although the Concordia’s crew had prepared the day before for what they anticipated would be rough weather, the ship suddenly keeled.

When it keeled again the ship’s sails were exposed to the powerful wind and within 15 seconds the boat was lying on its side and began to sink. The captain said it slipped beneath the waves 30 minutes later.

Reports the Toronto Star:

The rafts were the worst part.

Tattered and torn from a frantic escape, the inflatable remnants of the S.V. Concordia were salt baths, filled with vomit, human excrement, and people.

“You do what you can. We were together, and alive,” 16-year-old Sam Palonek said of the 40 hours she floated in the Atlantic. “We just sang to keep our spirits up, keep us laughing. It was the most important thing.”

Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing,” Disney medleys. Even “Happy Birthday” was trotted out for a boy celebrating the occasion in a nearby raft.

“We started singing “American Pie,” but we got to the line, ‘That’ll be the day that I die,’” she said. “We axed that.”

The Globe and Mail reported:

It was, for most of them, the trip of a lifetime, sailing around the world, keeping up with their math and biology in between. The Concordia is a sturdy, steel-hulled tall ship, stretching 188 feet with three masts and 15 sails. It was built in 1992, specifically to become a floating high school. It had set sail on Feb. 8 from Recife on Brazil’s northwest coast bound for Montevideo, Uruguay, with a mix of mostly Canadian students continuing on from September and about a dozen who were just starting out on a trip with the Class Afloat program.

Tuition wasn’t cheap – about $40,000 for the year – but this was no five-star voyage, as one parent explained Friday. The students attended classes during the day, slept in close quarters and were expected to swab decks and share night-watch duty, and the fire checks and sail manoeuvres that this entails.

“This is the life of a sailor,” one student recounted earlier this month in a post to the web. “It is tiresome, stressful, difficult and unconventional, but it is fulfilling beyond belief.” And certainly an adventure, travelling to ports like Singapore and Egypt and Malta, no sailing experience required.

Quadriplegic Atlantic Ocean Sailor Relies On His Young Female Caregiver

Approaching The Canary Island Archipelago
His starting point, the Canary Islands.Image by Secret Tenerife via Flickr

It sounds unlikely, maybe impossible — but a quadriplegic Briton, Geoffrey Holt, left the Canary Islands this morning to sail across the Atlantic. A former professional sailor in the 1980s, before becoming paralyzed after a Caribbean diving accident, Holt knows the ocean, the winds and the challenge ahead.

His 60-foot yacht is wheelchair accessible, on loan from an association called Sporting Activities for The Disabled. His sponsors include the high-end yachting gear firm Henri Lloyd and Pol Roger champagne.

I’ve driven a 60-footer and it’s not simple, even with hydraulic everything; he’ll need all his strength and knowledge to stay safe.

Key to his voyage is a young New Zealand woman, Susana, his caregiver. Without her strength and skill, he can’t even get out of bed, let alone cross an ocean. It strikes me as strange that a woman upon whom he is so reliant to complete his dream doesn’t get the public recognition of her full name.

Best of luck to them both.

A 16-Year-Old Girl Is Sailing The World Solo. Brave Or Stupid?

Sydney Harbor Bridge from Bennelong Point
Image via Wikipedia

And — she’s off, in a 34-foot pink yacht.

Jessica Watson, a 16-year-old Australian, has begun a 23,600 mile journey, alone. She left Sydney harbor Sunday hoping to become the world’s youngest sailor to complete the voyage.

Not sure why the yacht had to be pink, as the deadly and inevitable icebergs and swells and gales she’ll face won’t care if she’s a boy or a girl. Solo sailing is no joke, and the bravest and best-prepared of professionals have met their watery graves in such endeavors. Frenchwoman Isabelle Autissier, who is 53, twice escaped death in icy Antarctic waters as she soloed in professional races.

There was much controversy recently when a 13-year-old Dutch girl, Laura Dekker, was halted from her hopes of doing a solo circumnavigation, even removing her from her parents’ sole custody.

I covered professional sail racing for several years for The New York Times and others. I traveled to Sydney and Auckland to interview pro women sailors competing in the Volvo Round the World Race (then called the Whitbread) and quickly saw the very real, very serious risks women undertake when they pit themselves against the elements, certainly alone and in the most vicious conditions. I even dreamed of one day competing aboard such a boat.

Then the vessel I was focusing on, an all-female crew, lost its mast and rigging en-route north from Auckland and had to make an emergency stop in Ushuaia, a remote part of Argentina. They, at least, had quick, ready, multi-million-dollar sponsored access to help.

I’m all for women making and breaking the toughest of athletic and adventure records. We’ll see how far Watson’s pink boat carries her. I certainly wish her the best.