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From UTMB to the Deep Blue Sea

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Twenty years ago, if you told Roxanne “Rocky” Hadler (pictured below) she would be spending her golden years sailing tall ships across the world’s oceans, she would have thought you’d gone quite around the bend.

Back then, Hadler was deskbound, staring at computer screens eight hours a day as assistant registrar at the University of Texas–Medical Branch, near Galveston’s harbor. Not far from that desk, workers had restored the now-138-year-old barque Elissa, Hadler’s eventual ticket to a new life, though one she was then oblivious of. “When all that restoration was going on, I was raising a daughter and living on the West end of Galveston and driving every day to UTMB and had no clue all that was going on,” she tells the Daily Post, adding that her only sailing experience up to that point had come on infrequent trips on a tiny single-masted Sunfish. “That taught me ‘port’ and ‘starboard,’ and that’s about it,” she says.

In 1996 Elissa sailed to New Orleans and back. “There was a lot of publicity about her when she came back from New Orleans,” Hadler says. “They hit a gale on the way, and all this stuff. Also about that time my daughter started college. And amid all that publicity there was an invitation to come down and volunteer, and I thought, ‘Oh, I need a new hobby. Let me go down and see what this is all about.’”

Hadler was instantly smitten, both by the ship and its crew. “I went down there one Saturday and everybody was so welcoming, so I went back the next Saturday, and the next,” she says. “The other thing I loved about it was it was such the opposite of my work at UTMB. It was like a mini-vacation every weekend that I worked on the ship. I could forget about all the computer problems, the grade problems, all that stuff.”

And there was that camaraderie, the sort you can get only through long hours of working with a dedicated team at a dangerous job. “When you work together like that, week after week after week, it really becomes like a family,” she says. “And that was what sort of drew me in at first, but I also loved the physical aspects of it and some of the mental challenges it presented.”

Elissa’s crew is made up of a handful of professional officers and several dozen volunteer deckhands of varying degrees of experience and responsibility, up to and including climbing the 99-foot-tall masts to set and furl the ship’s quarter-acre of sails. Just learning the nautical jargon of days gone by takes many hours, but is utterly vital as ships like Elissa still rely on crew members swiftly and competently heeding the officers’ shouted commands. Given the literal constant motion of things, it’s imperative that trainees know the difference between, to cite just one example, the “royal” and “topgallant” masts. And then there are all the knots the crew must know by sight and know how to tie, from the alpine butterfly loop to the soft shackle Edwards to the zeppelin bend. Learning the ropes is not just an expression aboard ships like Elissa.

You can witness all that expertise if you are lucky enough to wrangle an invite aboard Elissa for one of its rare day-sails, hosted by the Galveston Historical Foundation. Watching the crew work is like a trip back in time to Horatio Hornblower/Master and Commander days, the quiet of the Elissa, which runs on sail power, deepening the time-warp aspect. If you can just manage to tune out all the passing shrimp boats, oceangoing tankers, and speeding fishing boats and focus on the dolphins breaking the waves, the squadrons of pelicans flying slow and low over the surf, the antiquated jargon of the crew—and Elissa’s rough contemporary, the Bolivar lighthouse, sitting off in the distance, it’s about as true a ticket back to the maritime Texas of 1880 as you can get.

And Hadler now has the relatively uncommon pleasure of regularly experiencing life aboard a tall sailing ship. Between 1996 and 2005, after countless hours of classroom training and on-deck experience, Hadler rose through the ranks of volunteers to the post of mast captain of the Elissa. In 2005 she retired from UTMB and intensified her seamanship studies and is now, at 62 years old, a certified able-bodied seaman and a third mate. She still keeps a condo in the Clear Lake area, but, between hiring on to various ships around America and the world, she’s not often home; one of her more recent jobs has taken her sailing from American Samoa to Auckland, New Zealand, and in a few weeks, she’s setting sail from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to Cork, Ireland, a voyage that will take about a month.

Both of those sails came under the auspices of the Sea Education Association, a Massachusetts organization offering college credit to marine science students via bluewater sails. “It’s pretty amazing waters and I find I really enjoy the educational sailing ships,” Hadler says. “The students are so intelligent and creative. They have such good energy and you can feel it on the ship when they arrive—just this whoosh of energy!”

Fulfilling their educational needs also keeps the trips intriguing, Hadler says. Long voyages can get boring, Hadler admits. When a crew sets its sails and the ship is on a good course and the wind doesn’t change, there isn’t much to do and tedium can set in. Unless you have students aboard. “With SEA, the students we take are also learning science, marine biology, and oceanography, so a minimum of twice a day and usually four times a day, we’re doing deployments, and that requires some sail maneuvering and some working of the ship, getting the ship into place to get those nets and scientific equipment over safely. So that keeps things interesting.”

As a fan of the Deadliest Catch series, I wondered if Hadler had been privy to any strange shipboard traditions, such as Northwestern mate Edgar Hansen forcing crew members to eat the still-beating heart of a codfish. Hadler just laughs. ”Usually we do something when a ship crosses the equator,” she says. “I’ve heard stories from guys in the Navy and all the stuff they went through when they would cross the equator for the first time, but for us, it’s frowned on, kind of considered hazing. But we have a little mini-challenge for them and then a celebration once they are ‘shellbacks.’

She says—and other sailing women have told her—that they have felt empowered by acquiring knowledge of the sea. “You gain a lot of confidence from it,” she says. “You learn that Mother Nature is in charge—like Saturday morning, when that front came through and we had to wait a few hours on the dock. But that’s all part of it.”  

Like most people who find a way to make a beloved hobby into a livelihood, Hadler allows that it’s become a little harder to feel the unadulterated bliss that sailing once brought her when she was a mere volunteer. It’s the only drawback of being a pro. “That can be a two-edged sword,” she says. “Volunteers remember the joy of why they are doing it. Sometimes when you get paid, you get focused on the work and not the joy.”

But it sure beats pushing paper around a desk and staring at a computer.

“There’s nothing like being on the water. I don’t care if you are on a kayak, a stand-up paddleboard, a Sunfish, a 51-foot Morgan; in my book the whole spectrum is good.”

(Roxanne Hadler portrait: SEA.edu; Elissa mast and in port: Kelly Graml Lomax; tattooed man and rigging: John Nova Lomax)

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