I'm not exactly what you would call sea-worthy. While in Hawaii, I became seasick snorkeling in calm waters. Swings and merry-go-rounds . . . forget it! That's one of the reasons I find our next guest so interesting. Pam Bitterman was part owner and crew member of the sailing ship, Sophia, and spent several years circumnavigating the globe until disaster struck. Her book, Sailing to the Far Horizon, chronicles her life aboard the Sophia. Welcome to Book Blather, Pam.
When we were sailing our proud old tall ship, we considered that we were simply living our life, such as it was. There were those of us long-termers on board who were fond of saying we’d be the first to sail around the world, and NOT write a book about it. When I finally decided to write the book, I was going through an emotionally difficult time in my life. After 25 years, no one had yet told her story, and I feared no one else ever would. Sophia was known and loved by thousands across the globe. I could not bear to think her legacy might be forgotten. The writing became cathartic. While revisiting the adventure and remembering the brave gal I’d been at the time, it became transformational. The fact that the story could be told in such vivid detail after so many years was due entirely to the fact that my parents kept every soggy letter, worn journal entry, faded photograph, ancient trade good and artifact, newspaper and magazine article, and official Coast Guard document that I sent home from an endless succession of foreign ports all around the world. It is from these archives (and my husbands amazing memory of actual events!) that the story came to life.
Tell us how you became part of the crew on the tall ship, Sophia?
I learned about the existence of the Schooner Sofia while I was living in Mendocino, California, working as the Resident Naturalist for the Jug-Handle Farm, a 180-acre Nature and Wildlife Preserve. While there, I wrote a grant proposal for an Outdoor Education Program that would target the youths of the community who were struggling in a traditional academic setting. The funds were intended to help the Nature Preserve support itself. My grant was approved and the monies were to come from CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act]. Then Ronald Reagan was elected president, and CETA, and other government funded programs like it were quickly axed. Suddenly I had no grant, no funds, and would soon have no job and no place to live. While leafing lethargically through a publication called Co-Evolution Quarterly, I found, in a small blub on the back page, the advertisement for the 60 year old Co-Operatively owned and run 123 foot gaff-topsail Schooner Sofia, that was sailing into the east coast of the U.S. to participate in the bi-centennial tall ship parade in New York Harbor, and to enlist crew for her second circumnavigation. $2,800 would make me a full owner. “No experience necessary!” I gave away all my belongings, travelled cross-country, jumped aboard the ship at Lincoln Wharf in Boston’s Italian North End, and so began my sailing saga.
How long was the journey to last?
Were you the only woman on board?
No. Women were always in the minority, as the living and working conditions aboard the vessel were admittedly rough. But there was always a solid female complement to the crew; all brave, strong, capable multi-generational and multi-national women who were out there breaking convention, challenging stereotypes, testing themselves, having an adventure, and seeing the world. If you stayed long enough and you loved it fully enough, you invariably worked your way up the hazy hierarchy of our flexible chain of command. I was a grunt swabbie know-nothing when I boarded the vessel. Within a year I had become ship’s Boatswain, the crew member responsible for maintaining the traditional Marlinspike rigging – on our old girl; 16 sails, 5,000 square feet of canvas, 156 lines of running rigging, steel stays, wooden spars, block and tackle, shackles, splices, oakum, pine and coal tar. I learned to take the helm, navigate by the stars, run our ancient diesel engine, stand and record a watch at sea, and ultimately take responsibility for organizing and helping to command a crew. By the time of the final fateful passage, I was Acting First Mate, second in command.
When you signed on, the last thing you expected was a disaster at sea. What happened?
Actually, I think I fully expected disasters. The nature of the adventure had that possibility written all over it. Maybe that was part of the draw. Going into the venture without that realization would have been naïve, and ultimately self-defeating. And so it was for many I witnessed in my term of residency that came and in due course turned tail and left. And in fact, my maiden voyage out of Boston en rout to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, sailed us straight into what would develop into a horrendously violent, life-threatening storm – Hurricane Kendra. We survived that, and eons more real and potential disasters during the nearly four years during which I sailed aboard her. The event that finally claimed her was a gale off the North Cape of New Zealand that was, under normal circumstances, not the worst weather she had sailed through and endured. However, there were other prevailing circumstances that marked that particular passage that were anything but normal.
After the sinking of the Sophia, was it difficult to continue sailing?
The sinking of the ship, the loss of a crewmember and the near-death life raft survival episode that heralded the potential loss of the rest of us, is still a hard memory to revisit. However, I don’t think I ever seriously entertained the idea that I would never again return to sailing. The sea had been my home, sailing my element, and both overwhelmingly had been exceptionally good to me. So much so that even the tragedy of her loss, the loss of life, and the near loss of my own life was not enough to dissuade me from chomping at the bit to charge back out there. Most of my fellow survivors continued to sail and many sail to this day. My closest fellow survivor, my husband and father of our miraculous children – the happy result of a poignant life raft marriage proposal when we were certain that we were going to die – and I together returned to America and in short order bought a small tall ship of our own. We lived aboard her for many years while raising our own kids, always with the intention that we would someday sail away to introduce them to the wondrous big world that we had been lucky enough to have already discovered.
What is your current project?
I am presently chin-deep in marketing my three published books (Not my favorite activity. A necessary evil, nonetheless…), while concurrently creating two new projects; a new children’s book about make-believe, and an adult fiction that is evolving into far less actual “fiction” than I’d initially intended. These are still “works in progress” - as am I. I recently travelled solo to work in Africa and wrote two books about that adventure: One, my nonfiction, MUZUNGU; A-frican Lost Soul’s Reality Check, and a children’s book; WHEN THIS IS OVER, I WILL GO TO SCHOOL, AND I WILL LEARN TO READ; A Story of Hope and Friendship for One Young Kenyan Orphan. MUZUNGU is the Swahili word for white folk. Literally translated it means “confused person wandering around.” Astute. Quite a revealing and shocking adventure story! Not what I expected to find over there. Not what anyone else will expect, either. The children’s book is also true; the protagonist is a real little boy who is the voice of all the Kenyan children. The village youngsters created the illustrations for the book. 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this book are promised back to them. They trusted me, and they wait. I have also had a homily, a sort of inspirational prayer, titled, CHILD, YOU ARE MIRACLE, published by World Vision.
Please leave us with a snippet from Sailing to the Far Horizon.
“I boarded the tall ship in Boston on August 20, 1978. We left the harbor bound for the Caribbean in the early dawn of October 25, marking the beginning of my maiden voyage aboard the Sofia. Those introductory months in port had proved interesting if not illuminating, productive without the benefit of certainty. I was there, but I did not yet belong. Had I not spent so much of my early life marching chin high, shoulders squared through unfamiliar territory in which I felt no semblance of belonging, I might have bolted for somewhere safe and something accustomed. But as before, the magnetic attraction of the unknown ignited my resolve to face that interminable feeling of aloneness…