How about it? one of the men said to Karen on that first humid night in Tahiti, March 1970. The Endeavour II’s crew still numbered a few short. Her decision was immediate. She sent a letter to her supervisor at the airline she worked for and told him about this once-in-a-lifetime experience. She’d be two weeks late returning to L.A.—maybe more, definitely not less. She crossed her fingers and hoped he’d understand. The next morning, Karen—twenty-seven, husbandless on what was supposed to have been her honeymoon in the South Pacific—skimmed out of port on a tall ship.
Her fiancé had called off their wedding just weeks before; Karen had come anyway. On her first night in Pape’ete, she’d walked along the piers and heard boisterous American English wafting among the sails of a shoddy replica of Captain James Cook’s HMB Endeavour. She walked toward it.
A skimpy crew scuttled around the deck, drinking and rigging the masts. Weeks before, the Endeavour II had left Ensenada as the Monte Cristo, aiming for Hawaii. From there it continued to Tahiti, where most of its paying passengers disembarked. The ship’s owner renamed the boat and prepared to cast off. It was starkly understaffed, gloriously understaffed. But officials threatened to impound the ship—a 140-foot vessel with a crew of six was a shipwreck waiting to happen. The owner asked around for friends of friends with experience at sea who might like a free trip across the South Pacific and offered to fly them out. (If the boat made it to Australia for the bicentennial of Captain Cook’s arrival, in April 1970, he’d take away a cash prize.) They all converged on Tahiti right about when Karen arrived.
Karen had always wandered. As a toddler she used to walk right out the back door, into the world. She remembers the sensation of it, watery memories of streets she didn’t recognize. She’d wandered two miles once. Her parents had called the police; they learned to lock the screen doors. As a teenager, she’d sit on the cliffs in Santa Barbara, tracing vectors toward Alaska, Russia, Japan, Vietnam, Tahiti, Australia. She’d flown around the world. She said yes to sailing a chunk of it, too.
Clambering about on a boat in the sun all day with a dozen shirtless men, she thought of her ex-fiancé only in the evenings, as earth and wind tipped the boat past sunset. The adventures they could have had together would come into her mind and tinge the air with melancholy. But then the guitars would come out, stars would crowd the sky, and she’d return to the adventure she’d found on her own.
The first few times Karen straddled the yards atop the masts, she felt terror as the roll and pitch sent her closer than comfortable to the skin of the ocean below. After a while the fear abated. It felt like riding a horse. She employed a lot of ill-controlled running between railings on those first days, until she got used to taking wide steps with bent knees.
On quiet mornings, the creaking of the hull and the whipping of the sails and the endless ocean off starboard made Karen feel, at certain moments, disoriented. She was sure where she was but she didn’t know when she was. The ocean was timeless, solid blue in the distance and breathtakingly clear beneath her.When she swam, she kept an eye out for sharks.
Halfway through the trip, the ship’s head broke; the refrigerator had never worked. This was no luxury cruise. But it didn’t matter. She learned to hang off the bow with toilet paper clenched between her teeth, to judge a squall by whether she’d be able to wash her hair in it. Every day brought new knowledge.
The days were filled with tasks—braiding rope, managing sails, the collective work of moving a ship through the Pacific. The evenings were filled with music. Tom Dooley, Midnight Special, Jamaica Farewell. Some of the men even had talent, real talent. In Niue, where the crew took their first showers in a week, Karen and Maureen, the ship’s two women, walked around the port inviting any female they could find back to the ship for a party. The guitars stayed well enough in tune; the booze went into a bowl of punch. The last image Karen saw that night as she fell asleep in a corner of the deck was a body undulating in the moonlight.
No one in her family had ever left California before.
The letter waited for her in Fiji: Karen no longer had a job. But the job had gotten her this far; she had no regrets.
Back in California, Karen had tried to be a teacher, as her college degree dictated. She lasted a year. Even with her boyfriend and the family she loved nearby, even with students who adored her and a house near the Pacific, her wanderlust was irresistible. She had applied to work as a stewardess with a gauzy dream of the sort that is lovingly tended but rarely scaffolded with anything real: Someday she would walk away from her life in the most far-flung port she found, plane and tarmac at her back. But then the boyfriend became a fiancé, they moved to the mountains and skied on her days off, and the dream receded behind the solidity of the life constructed.
Now, here in the South Pacific, a sturdy set of fortuitous coincidences converged. Karen met a woman her age in Suva who found her a temporary teaching job in the village. A neighbor was vacating a tiny house covered in orchids, right near the beach. In a few months’ time she could hitch a ride on another boat to Australia, a country with higher paychecks and new landscapes. This was how it would happen, Karen thought: no fiancé, a tiny home in Suva, the ocean.
Later, on the last day her ticket was good, Karen would board a plane back to California. She would marry that fiancé, and then divorce him and marry another man who made her much happier. She’d beg for her job back and she’d get it. She’d court adventures large and small, alone and accompanied: wandering Tokyo and Beirut, flying war orphans out of Vietnam, writing a newspaper column, starting a company, raising a son. In Suva Karen had seen that the dream she’d cultivated, set in front of her, carried other constraints.
But she’d spent days in which that dream had been achieved.
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.