And they didn’t want me.
Have you ever seen the face of the last person chosen for a school team? Glad to be finally chosen, sad to be last?
Well, my major professor and his colleague were literally asking people on the street with no science background whatsoever in a desperate attempt to fill the crew positions before I found out about the deep sea science research cruise. They did not want me at all.
Wow. As his student, I should have been asked first. Why didn’t they want me?
scuba diver, I could sail, and I even had my
captain’s license. I was a slender young person but fit; I ran daily and worked out with weights. I got along well with everyone.
But there was one problem. I am female.
There were persistent myths about women on ships. Women brought bad luck. Women were more likely than men to become seasick. (Not true. This is an equal opportunity affliction.)
But, as far as I could tell,
the real problem was that I would be
the only woman
on a ship with about 20 men.
And they were afraid of me.
cruise wasn’t so important to me.
I grew up landlocked. When I was eight I saw a short film on the sea and was hooked. I decided to become a marine biologist and work on a ship.
I didn’t share my goals, just set about doing whatever I could to achieve them. Science and math courses seemed obvious choices. Writing skills are important for research papers. I pursued art just because I love it, never dreaming this skill would someday help me achieve my goals.
My certification scuba dive was in a murky northern lake in winter with almost zero visibility. I wore a loose, poor-fitting wetsuit borrowed from a large man. I thought I would freeze to death.
I had been working toward this sea research goal since I was a child. This was my dream. I was not about to give up now.
I found my major professor in his office and asked to join the research cruise. His response? “I was afraid you’d find out.”
He confirmed my fears. The one person who should be in my corner was not. We talked for a while and I was grudgingly allowed to join.
Because I was such a dangerous person, I was isolated in a lonely room two decks above everyone else. Here I had the opportunity to experience the full arc of the ship as it heaved from side to side. I was against the winch room with its eternal grinding serenade. And it was cold.
It was summer and my room controlled the temperature of the other rooms. For my crewmates to have comfortable air conditioning, I turned blue with cold. During my sleeping shift I wore layers of clothing, socks, my raincoat, and every blanket I could find. I shivered myself to sleep and didn’t complain.
I was thrilled to finally be here!
I watched the circles form as we left shore. I learned to walk with the sea, keeping my knees slightly bent to accept random motions. I found the curious center of moment where the ship stood still. The evening sun melted into the sea. These experiences became part of me and my Dragon Dreamer books:
“Arak tore through the sky, flying above the vast sea.
When the dragon shore disappeared, sea and sky met in a perfect circle. As he flew, Arak remained in the center; the circle moved with him. He was alone in a private world. There was no fixed shore to judge the distance he’d flown, and no trees with lengthening shadows to mark the march of time.
Above an endless sea, beyond the touch of time, Arak flew further and further from home.” ~ "The Dragon Dreamer" by J.S. Burke
The scientist crew was divided into two groups with opposite shifts. We worked 8 hours on, 8 off, 8 on. We were always out of sync with our circadian rhythm, but saw the sea at all hours. One early dawn a pod of dolphins played in the bow waves, jumping just beyond the ship. Once, we dip-netted a clump of sargassum seaweed from the sea, examined the matching life within, and released it.
The cook set out plates of fruit, sliced cheese, and dangerously delicious homemade rolls. This helped with our odd meal times but it was easy to overeat. So we skipped rope on deck, competing to see who skipped the most without stopping. It was never me. The ship tilted beneath us as we jumped, so it wasn’t possible to truly jump in place.
Some of us brought a paperback or two, often science fiction, and this became an informal library. I read "Watership Down" and revisited the deserts of "Dune" while surrounded by sea.
Many of my co-workers neglected to don their flotation vests at night and in rough seas. They felt an unfortunate need to appear macho. But any person who fell overboard without a vest would die before we found them. So I rounded up the vests and distributed one to each person, reminding them of their loved ones on shore. Soon everyone wore a vest automatically. My crew-mates seemed grateful that I pushed the issue.
Regarding the seasickness myth? I learned that there were bets placed on me. So, of course, I was determined that no matter how rough the seas were, I would never succumb to nausea. And I never did.
And the person my professor nearly shanghaied from the street, hoping to fill all the positions and keep me off the ship? “John” was useless. Instead of helping he worked out with his elastic bands, seeking to maintain his perfect Adonis body. But he neglected to improve his mind or manners. “John” was the only person who tried to enter my igloo, certain that no woman could resist him. I shoved him out the door faster than a whirling snowstorm. “John” left wearing a stunned expression.
Women were on trial. I figured this type of interaction was what the professors feared most. No worries here. I never mentioned “John” to my ship-mates and he never bothered me again.
I believed then and now that positive change occurs best through positive interactions. It was my place to show these men an example of a safe, reliable, competent woman so that other women would not need to work quite so hard for a chance at their dreams. And the next research cruise? They invited me along! As my character Scree says, "What will be, will be. And then I'll fix it."
I Love The Sea. I also love art, and this helped me land my marine science job. The man who would one day hire me bought my best scrimshaw piece as a gift for his wife. Many of the job applicants had the requested skills. My boss thought that being able to illustrate my own research papers would be a bonus.
Now I also write and illustrate the Dragon Dreamer series: science fantasy adventure with dragons and the sea, for young adults 9 to 99.