Most of us spend our days on dry land within the walls of offices and our homes, but many of us understand the call of the sea.
In this interview, Carrie McAllister talks about her love of sailing on the tall ship Elissa out of Galveston, and how it has given her confidence as well as adventure.
I talked about my own tall ship sailing experience from Fiji to Vanuatu in episode 1, but Carrie found a way to sail in the same city where she works. You don’t have to go across the world to experience escape from your daily life. Sometimes you can find it close to home.
Carrie McAllister is a neuropharmacologist and life sciences consultant. She’s also a volunteer crew member on the Tall Ship ELISSA out of Galveston, Texas, and an instructor in the Seamanship Training Program. And today, we’re talking about sailing and tall ships, in particular.
- What qualifies as a tall ship
- What life is like living on a tall ship, both above and below decks
- On Galveston’s humid climate south of the rest of dry Texas
- The interesting history and restoration of the Elissa, a tall ship found abandoned in Greece
- The best places for an introvert on a tall ship
- The importance of emergency preparedness on a ship
- Customs and language that’s specific to the sailing community
- On the superstitions specific to sailing and sailors
- Recommendations for good books related to sailing
Transcript of Interview with Carrie McAllister
Jo Frances Penn: Carrie McAllister is a neuropharmacologist and life sciences consultant. She’s also a volunteer crew member on the Tall Ship ELISSA out of Galveston, Texas, and an instructor in the Seamanship Training Program. And today, we’re talking about sailing and tall ships, in particular. So, hi, Carrie, welcome to the show.
Carrie McAllister: Hey, Joanna, thanks so much for having me on.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, I’m very excited.
First off, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into sailing.
Carrie McAllister: Sure. Well, first I have a confession to make. I don’t actually know how to sail a normal sailboat. A 205-foot-long tall ship, yes. But the little boats, I’ve just never done it. I didn’t grow up around sailing.
I’m originally from Phoenix, Arizona, which is the middle of a desert. And maybe that’s why, but I’ve always been really just in love with water. Anytime we’d go to the pool, visits to California, I’m in the water, at the beach. I’ve just always loved water because it was never a constant part of my life.
But sailing was something that I knew that people did, but it was never part of my experience. So, it never occurred to me that, ‘Hey, I could maybe one day go out and learn how to sail a boat.’
Then when I was about 10 or 11 years old, I read this book called ‘The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.’ And the basic premise of the book is there’s this 12-year-old Victorian girl, very well-bred, and she sails on her father’s merchant ship across the Atlantic to join the rest of her family. With their circumstances, she ends up unchaperoned, completely alone in the middle of a crew that’s about to mutiny.
And at one point, she sides with the crew against the captain and the captain’s like, ‘Well, fine. You love the crew so much, you are no longer a passenger. You have to be part of the crew.’ But the crew didn’t want her either.
She’s this delicate little flower who’s never worked a day in her life. So, they tell her, ‘Okay, if you wanna be part of our crew, you have to climb all the way up to the broil, which is the highest yard on the ship, and back down. If you can do that, you’re one of us.’
So, she does it and she’s terrified the whole way. She almost falls at one point, but she’s determined and she does it. And by the end of the book, she is this completely different person, very confident, knows who she is, knows what she wants out of life. And I love this book so much. I really identified with that character.
I wish I could say it changed my life at that point, but it didn’t because I was 11 and still super introverted. I would still much rather sit down and read a book rather than go out and experience what I was reading about. So, my life just kind of continued on the way it was.
I went to school, I went to grad school. And about halfway through grad school, I went to San Diego, for a conference. And the convention center is just down the street from the San Diego Maritime Museum, which is a fantastic museum. At that time, they had two tall ships that you could go and visit. The ships are still there and now they have a couple more.
I dragged a friend of mine down there and I was just so happy and so excited, and geeking out to finally be on a real tall ship. At this point, I’d read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series at least twice. So, I was like a kid in a candy store, and thinking to myself the whole time, like, ‘I wish I could do this. I wish I could sail a ship like this. How exciting would that be?’
Eight years later to the day, I was back on one of the ships there, the Star of India, sailing her as guest crew. And if you’d told me that that would happen, there’s no way I would’ve believed it. I would have said, ‘No, you’re crazy. I can’t do that. I’m a normal person.’
So, cut forward a few years later, I finally graduate and I move down to Galveston for my first real job after getting my PhD. And the first thing I discovered when I moved to Galveston, I didn’t know anything about the city or the island before I moved there, was that the Galveston Historical Foundation owns a historic tall ship, the ELISSA, and you can be a volunteer on the ship.
You can work on the ship, you can climb on the ship, and if you go through the training program, you can actually sail the ship. So that’s my journey. Once I found the ELISSA, I fell in love with her. And now, I don’t know if I can ever leave.
Jo Frances Penn: I love that story because it was a book that got you into tall ships.
What is a tall ship and what sets it apart from other sailing boats that people might have in their mind?
Carrie McAllister: A tall ship is sort of a catchall phrase for a lot of different specific types of ships. But, basically, it’s a traditionally-rigged sailing vessel. So, the image you have in your mind is a ship with masks, and yards, and sails, and rope rigging. That’s a tall ship.
Jo Frances Penn: If people think of a historical film, are there any films that might bring it to people’s mind or a way that we can evoke an image?
Carrie McAllister: I hate to bring pirates into the conversation, but the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ used actual existing tall ships for the films. I know some of the people who are involved with that.
And a few years ago, Russell Crowe came out with a movie based on Patrick O’Brian’s books, called ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.’ That’s a great film to watch if you want to see a tall ship in action.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, great. They’re really good. I think everyone can now see it in their mind. And I think the point is, as well, like you said at the beginning, it’s not something you can do on your own, it needs a full crew. Right?
How many people do you need to sail a tall ship, say the ELISSA?
Carrie McAllister: It depends on the ship. Historically, if you were talking about a naval ship, a line of battleship, you had hundreds of crew because you needed people both to fight and sail at the same time and maneuver very quickly.
For a merchant ship like ELISSA was, there’s not a lot of maneuvering that you need to do, you’re basically sailing across the ocean on a single tack and maybe you change tacks once or twice. So, you don’t actually need that much crew. And ELISSA’s original crew was only eight people.
What we do when we sail, is we take about 30 crew because we have fun with the boat, we play with her, we want a lot of people to sail. But originally, just eight people. It’s all she needed.
Jo Frances Penn: Wow. And I mean, I’ve talked about this on another show that I did earlier, which I know you’ve heard about, the tall ship I went on, the Søren Larsen. But one of the things is when you’re on the deck, there’s quite a lot of room, right? You feel like you’re up in the air.
But when you go below deck, it’s quite cramped.
Give us a sense of what it’s like below deck.
Carrie McAllister: It’s definitely more cramped below decks. ELISSA, actually, has bulkheads in place, watertight bulkheads, as a safety improvement that we’ve done during her restoration.
It feels even more cramped because we have different compartments, and the villages are accessible through another deck through trap doors and it’s a little claustrophobic if you need to do any work down there. The bilges are definitely not my favorite place to be. But anytime you’ve got a lot of people sleeping in close proximity to each other after a full day of doing physical work, it gets a little stuffy.
Jo Frances Penn: And smelly!
Carrie McAllister: And a little smelly. There’s not a lot of air movement down there. I’ve slept on board many times while we’re underway. And, it’s like anything, you get used to it. The first night, it’s a bit of a culture shock, but then you get used to it.
Jo Frances Penn: Is it bunks in that ship?
Carrie McAllister: We have bunks. Yeah.
Jo Frances Penn: People might have an image in their mind of some luxurious room, but it’s not really a room, is it?
Carrie McAllister: No, it’s about a dozen bunks all crammed together. We have privacy curtains that are just cloths hung over a line. It’s not glamorous.
Jo Frances Penn: No, it’s not. But I think that’s part of almost the attraction.
I want to just circle back to the idea of desert versus water. Tell us a bit more about Galveston, because it’s in Texas. I’m in the UK. I have been to Austin, Texas, but Texas, in many people’s mind, has this desert, cowboy idea.
What’s interesting about Galveston?
Carrie McAllister: First of all, Texas is big. If you overlay the map of Texas onto Europe, it takes up like half of Europe. So, there’s actually quite a lot of different landscape throughout the whole state.
And the stereotype is, just like you said, pretty deserty, lots of cowboys, cows, skulls, things like that. The western and southern parts of the state are pretty deserty.
But Galveston is just off the coast of Houston, so the southeastern part of the state. It’s a barrier island. And it’s pretty swampy. There are bayous. Houston has a lot of pine trees, which really surprised me the first time I came down. It’s a very wet and humid atmosphere. So, the complete opposite of a desert. I mean, it gets hot, but it’s 80% humidity with the heat.
Jo Frances Penn: I went to look at it on a map and I think that’s what’s so cool. When you said about this, I was like, ‘Oh, I just wouldn’t have thought there’d be a tall ship in Texas.’ So it’s always quite weird.
Why did the ELISSA end up in Galveston?
Carrie McAllister: It’s a pretty cool story. She was built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and spent most of her life as a merchant ship, sailing all over the world. And she actually touched at Galveston twice, once in 1883 and once in 1886.
Was sold through several owners, several different countries owned her. And in the 1960s, she ended up in a scrap yard in Greece and just sort of languished there.
At that time, the Galveston Historical Foundation had been thinking about building a replica of the Pirate Jean Lafitte’s ship because he had a pirate colony on the Galveston island in the early 1800s. But a couple of guys from GHF were over in Greece and they saw the ship sitting in a scrap yard that had the lines of a tall ship, her master gone, she’d been completely down-rigged.
The shape of the bow had been changed. But they said, ‘Hey, that looks like a tall ship.’ Went and checked her out and found the builder’s nameplate in brass below decks, which says ELISSA 1877 Alexander Hall and Company, which was the shipbuilder.
So, they dug into the research, into the history, found out that she’d visited Galveston twice, and that was enough of a connection. So, GHF bought her, started the restoration in Greece, then towed her across the Atlantic, home to Galveston, finished the restoration. And in 1982, she was sailing again.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s so interesting to hear that it was in Europe. And this happens so much with the historical things, doesn’t it? They’re left and then someone finds them again.
You mentioned Jean Lafitte there. I’ve been to New Orleans and, of course, Jean Lafitte is famous for the pirate stuff and being in the bayou.
You’ve sailed the boat to New Orleans, haven’t you?
Carrie McAllister: Yes. Last year, it was pretty exciting, through the hard work of our Texas Seaport Museum staff and a few of our volunteers and we worked with the organization, Tall Ships America, and the Coast Guard, and The Navy, and a whole bunch of other organizations and put on the first ever Gulf Coast Tall Ships Challenge.
We had five other tall ships from around the world come to Galveston. We had a festival, a parade of ships, and then the whole fleet sailed to Pensacola, Florida for another festival out there, and then sailed to New Orleans for one more festival before sailing home to Galveston.
Unfortunately, I have this thing called a job, where I have to work and I couldn’t sail for the whole voyage. I met the ship in New Orleans and worked at the festival there and then sailed her home.
Jo Frances Penn: Wow, that’s very cool. I wondered also, coming back to the desert and the water, because I love deserts as well and I also love being on the water. I wondered if you had any thoughts given that you’re from Arizona and you love the water.
What are some of the similarities, do you think, between desert and water when it comes to being out there?
Carrie McAllister: I’m like you, I love the desert and I love the water. I think the desert is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes out there, especially the American southwest. And I really do see a similarity between the desert and the ocean.
They’re both very harsh, unforgiving environments where it’s almost man versus nature, and they’re unchanging in a way. There’s not a lot of weather or things that happen quickly in the desert. And oceans have storms, but at the same time, the ocean is very unchanging. It’s very constant.
It’s just this really interesting dichotomy when it’s dry, when it’s wet. You’ve got the superficial similarities.
For me, the desert is like exposing the bones of the earth. You can really see the shape of the land, whereas the ocean is the depths of the land or the depths of the earth. They are two extremes.
Jo Frances Penn: You mentioned you’re an introvert and you love reading. And I am too. And possibly many of the listeners who are interested in books also are. I found when I was on the tall ship, even though you have to be with a crew, I found it quite good for an introvert because especially doing the watches, for example, looking out to sea in case there’s any danger for hours on end.
How do you feel being an introvert on the water? How does that feel?
Carrie McAllister: Being with the crew on the ship is a challenge for an introvert because when we were sailing from New Orleans to Galveston, it was, I think, four days and three nights or maybe five days and four nights, I don’t remember now. But it’s a long time to be with the same group of people in an enclosed space.
Below decks is not a very relaxing place to be. There’s not a lot of privacy. So, I always felt like I needed a break from people. So, I always volunteered for bow watch, because like you said, you’re out there by yourself just focusing on the horizon and not what’s happening behind you on the ship, and that’s a great place to be.
The best time I had on the entire voyage home from New Orleans was one morning, I spent three hours slushing the foremast, so I was up aloft 97 feet in the air by myself. Nobody around, nothing but the horizon for 20, 25 miles. I couldn’t hear people on deck unless they were specifically shouting up at me, and it was heaven. I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I was just by myself, doing my job.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s so cool. And what’s so funny is I always volunteered for bow watch as well on the Søren Larsen, and I think it was seven days, bluewater. Most of the time I took the four till eight, or whatever it was, watch. Most of the time there’s nothing there at all.
Carrie McAllister: It does get boring after a while. I was doing bow watch once. I had the 8:00 to 12:00 watch, so it was on 8:00 to 12:00 in the morning, 8:00 to 12:00 in the evening. And there’s a fair amount of traffic in the Gulf because we have oil rigs and the ships that go out to support the oil rigs.
But they’re way, way in the distance, so there really wasn’t much to comment on. But Galveston is also in the migratory bird path. And this was April, which was the spring migration. So, we would see so many birds. We’re 90 miles off the coast and there’s swallows, and hummingbirds, and warblers just flying.
One of our officers was an avid birder, so we’d call back and forth to each other on the radio about the birds responding because there’s nothing on the ocean to see.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, wow. That’s just so lovely.
You mentioned being up on a loft, the rigging as such, and that was what scared me the most. I had a picture, literally, I don’t know, a foot and a half off the deck because I couldn’t go any higher, and lots of people went up all the way.
As you said, it’s not like you’re going to be totally safe.
What does scare you about the sailing or being out there? Or what are some fears around the ocean?
Carrie McAllister: Sailing is inherently dangerous. No matter how many steps and precautions you take to make it safe, it’s not safe. Whether you’re climbing aloft and fighting the roll of the ship and holding on and fighting against gravity, basically, storms spring up that you don’t expect even with modern radar.
I think probably the most frightening thing is the idea that you were out there by yourself. And yes, there are other ships in the vicinity but they can’t really see you, and if something goes wrong, you don’t get a distress signal out in time or it doesn’t make sense or…
There are so many things that can go where you might end up in a life raft, by yourself in the ocean. And it is incredibly hard to spot a small life raft in this vast ocean.
On the ELISSA, we drill extensively. We do man overboard drills, fire drills, abandon ship drills, so that we know what to do in an emergency. And that really helps allay the fears a little bit because I know, ‘Okay, if something happens, I know how to react. I trust my crew mates. I know that they will react properly because we’ve been drilling for so long.’
We bring out a professional officer corps and we trust them to keep us out of danger. And if we do run into danger, we know they’re going to take care of us and do the right thing and the best thing to keep us safe.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s fantastic. And, of course, if people do come out on the ELISSA or any of these other experiences, it’s very safe and there are lots of people who can look after it, after you.
I do think that part of the attraction is possibly the risk, is doing something different. It’s not being in your office job.
Carrie McAllister: Exactly. The first time I went climbing aloft, I was terrified and I almost didn’t make it up off the rail, which is just a couple of feet off the deck, because all of a sudden, that felt like such a huge height because I’d never done anything like that before.
But you do it once and you survive and you realize, ‘Okay, maybe I can do this again.’ So you do it a second time, maybe go a little bit higher the second time. And it’s just a matter of slowly building up that confidence and building up that strength in yourself and your capabilities.
It’s like anything in life, but I think it’s a little easier to feel when you’re doing something physical like that, is you can see your growth over time and how you’ve improved and how you’ve gained so much more confidence because you’re doing something risky and you’re doing it.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m going to give it another go then next time.
Carrie McAllister: Absolutely. You should. It’s the best thing in the world.
Jo Frances Penn: Now, one thing that I think prevents a lot of people from going out on boats is a fear of seasickness. Now, in a way, that might sound minor, but having been seasick for probably 24 hours when we left view of land, I wasn’t scared of the seasickness, but it’s certainly not pleasant.
Given that some people just have that, what are some ways, or some remedies, that you guys deal with that on the boat?
Carrie McAllister: There’s a lot of medications that really help with that. I don’t get seasick myself. I know I’m really lucky in that, but I’ve never been seasick. But a lot of our crew do get sick.
There are wearable patches that you can get that are a slow release medication that people say work really well. There are pill types that you can take.
One of the best ways to overcome seasickness is just to throw up and then eat a sandwich. It sounds terrible, but once you get that nausea out of you and then eat something, that helps a lot of people.
Jo Frances Penn: I’ve taken some of those medications. And actually, you’re a scuba diver as well, aren’t you?
Carrie McAllister: Yes.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m a scuba diver too. And I have had some of my worst seasickness going scuba diving.
How does scuba diving fit into your sailing life? Or have you integrated the two or dived off the ship, or is that area a good area to dive as well?
Carrie McAllister: The Gulf Coast isn’t great for diving, especially the immediate vicinity around Galveston. There are some dive spots, maybe like 500 miles out that I haven’t been to yet. But for the most part there’s not a lot of diving happening around Texas.
But scuba diving was one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do because I love swimming. I love the water. I want to see what’s down there. But I never thought that I could do it because I’m a normal person. Normal people don’t scuba dive right?
Until I joined the ELISSA and I met a couple of other crew mates who dive. So, they got me into it. And I’ve been on only one major dive trip so far, but I’m going on another one this summer. But just anything that gets me on or in the water, I love.
Jo Frances Penn: It sounds like this whole experience has just given you so much confidence.
Carrie McAllister: It has. And that’s something I didn’t really expect and I didn’t really notice it happening until after a year or two on the ELISSA all of a sudden I’m noticing, I’m coming out of my shell quite a bit more than I was before, I’m much more adventurous. It’s a different perspective, I think.
Because now every time I think, ‘Okay, I really don’t want to make this phone call. Phones are scary. I don’t like calling people.’ There’s this little anxiety with that. And I just told myself, ‘You know what? Last week you were 90 feet aloft, hanging off the yardarm and you were fine. You can make a phone call.’
Jo Frances Penn: Well, to be fair, I don’t like making phone calls. So, how we managed to get on the phone together, it’s quite cool.
You’ve used lots of different language in this interview about the boat and, of course, boaty communities have language and there are names for different things that people who aren’t in the community would use.
What are some of the other customs or things that you’ve noticed that are specific or unusual about the sailing community?
Carrie McAllister: One thing I’ve noticed that I think is very particular to sailing, and I love so much is that if you sail, you are automatically part of a community. Sailors are very, very accepting of other people. We have so many different types of people on the crew and everybody gets along, everybody loves each other. We’re like family, no matter how different we are.
I think you have to be that way because if you’re sailing for days, or weeks, or months at a time with the same group of people, either you get along or you murder each other. There’s really no middle ground there. I think this is something that’s been going on for hundreds of years in the sailing community, is that if you sail, you are just part of this community.
I’ve visited a lot of other ships and maritime museums around the country and even one in Spain and you just strike up a conversation with somebody there and it’s like you’ve known them your whole life because you have the same hobby, you have the same interest, and the same shared experiences. I think that’s pretty unique to sailing and it’s fantastic.
There’s a stereotype that sailors swear a blue streak, and that is so true. It’s so true. I’ve never been much of a person to swear in life; it’s just not part of my vocabulary until I started sailing. But when you’re aloft and you’re fighting with a pin and a shackle that just doesn’t want to come out, what do you say? You just have to swear.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s brilliant. I wasn’t expecting that, to be honest. But that’s very cool. And what about some of the superstitions, because there certainly are things that people…like, you mentioned birds. The Albatross is probably the most famous superstition.
Have you noticed anything interesting about sailing superstitions?
Carrie McAllister: Yes. Especially with my crewmates who have been part of the maritime industry for their whole lives. There’s some weird little quirks and superstitions that you pick up on.
Umbrellas are super unlucky. Never bring an umbrella aboard a ship. That has practical applications because it’s going to get tangled in the rigging, but also it’s just considered very unlucky to bring an umbrella on board ship.
Cats are very lucky. If you have a cat, you have a lucky ship. I’ve met a couple of ship cats and they’re always super sweet.
The number 13, it seems very stereotypical, but the number 13 is super unlucky. When I was learning how to do a round seizing, this is the way of tying two lines together so that they don’t slip, our pro captain was teaching me how to do it and he goes, ‘Okay, it’s going to take about 12 or 14 turns, not 13.’ And I said, ‘Not 13?’ He goes, ‘Not 13. Why would you do that to us? Not 13.’
Jo Frances Penn: I wanted to ask you about more books. You talked about the Charlotte Doyle book and the Patrick O’Brian series.
Are there any other books about tall ships or sailing that you would recommend?
Carrie McAllister: Those are both fantastic books, especially Patrick O’Brian’s books, if you want to get an immersive experience in what sailing during the Napoleonic wars was like. There’s no comparison to those books.
Other good books: Alexander Kent is a very popular author. I haven’t read any of his books, but I know a lot of people who really love them.
‘Tall Ships Down‘ is another great book. It’s nonfiction. I’m blanking on the author right now. But it’s a collection of stories about tall ships that sank in the 20th century and what contributed to their sinking, what happened to the crew, things like that. So, that’s a really sobering look at sailing and the more dangerous aspects of sailing, for sure.
Jo Frances Penn: I could talk to you forever, but where can people find you and also the ELISSA if they want to come on down?
Carrie McAllister: Sure. Well, the best place to find out the basic information, like the museum hours, and address, and things like that, is going to be galvestonhistory.org. And you can also see the other properties that GHF owns.
For more up-to-date information, pictures from our sailing, announcements about the events that we’ve got going on year round, and we’ve got some really cool stuff coming up in the coming years, Facebook and Instagram are going to be the best places for those. It’s just 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA.
Jo Frances Penn: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Carrie. That was great.
Carrie McAllister: Thanks so much. This was fun.
[Tallship photos licensed from BigStockPhoto.com. Photos of Carrie on Elissa used with permission from Carrie McAllister]