When I was fourteen years old, I was invited to be part of an all-girls crew that sailed from Puget Sound in Washington State to Victoria Harbour in British Columbia, Canada. We sailed aboard The Odyssey, a 90-foot yawl originally built in the 1930’s for a member of the Vanderbilt family. Having been born and raised in a completely land-locked state, I was enthralled with the ship, the sea, and all the mystery and adventure they promised. We were immediately divided into starboard and port crews, and I quickly learned that sailing is about 90% work and 10% fun. Our tasks included hauling in and spraying the anchor, cleaning the heads (the toilets), galley duty, hourly watches, hauling the mainsail, stacking chain and rope, manning the helm, making notations in the log, bow watch, and yes, swabbing the decks (ahoy).
Though it was certainly hard work, there was a certain fierce joy in being at sea, an adrenaline-boosting exhilaration of water in all directions with only the simple integrity of streamlined wood to keep you from the rushing water. I was proud to crawl in my bunk with sore muscles and sea salt in my hair, exhausted but deeply satisfied by the day’s work.
A few shining vignettes remain with me: using the halyard as a rope swing into the Pacific, spotting a pod of orcas cresting mere feet from our ship, and the quiet hush of a midnight watch, the moon filling the horizon like a hot-air balloon. But I will never forget the sheer terror of a pounding storm that sent us scurrying into our yellow Helly Hansen suits and clinging to the rolling deck in the midst of pitching, nausea-inducing waves. We were extremely fortunate to be in the expert hands of our skipper, a veteran sailor who seemed unimpressed by the fury of the storm, and unworried by the gaggle of unpracticed girls that made up his motley crew. Eventually, the storm abated, and like all ships, The Odyssey returned to port.
All ships, that is, but the lightship: “Here is a ship that holds her place…” So begins Brian Floca’s brilliantly illustrated children’s book about a ship that “does not sail from port to port,” but “holds to one sure spot as other ships sail by.” Readers are introduced to the crew of eight (plus a cat!), each with their own important tasks that keep the ship and its parts running smoothly — and yet, the ship waits. Floca’s detailed illustrations depict scenes of ship life: the small spaces, the rocking of the waves, the constant upkeep and maintenance. And still the lightship remains anchored…waiting. At last, the fog rolls in, and the role of the lightship is made clear.
As you read, point out the various crew members (can your reader find the helmsman? The cook, the captain, or the engineer? How about the cat?) and discuss what they are doing in each illustration. Younger readers will delight in guessing what the ship could be waiting for, and older readers will enjoy the detailed diagrams and cutaways of the ship’s inner workings. Talk about the dangers endured by the lightship and her crew, and ask your reader whether they’d enjoy a life at sea and why. As the author notes, lightships are no longer in service, but the book is a fascinating peek into the careers of heroic men and women who keep others safe.
Thank you to Simon & Schuster for making Lightship available to read for free throughout the month.