ST. PETERSBURG — For nine months, 19-year-old Sally Gardiner-Smith sailed alone with only her cockapoo for company. She would go four or five days without speaking to another human.
But now that she’s reached her destination, she’ll face a real challenge — sharing a bathroom with 13 college girls.
“I’m used to being hundreds of feet away from anyone, so living in a college dorm is a huge adjustment,” Gardiner-Smith said. “There are so many people my age all around it’s crazy. It’s definitely taking some getting used to.”
Gardiner-Smith had never sailed on her own — or lived away from home — when she decided to make the long journey to her freshman year at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg by sailboat.
After assuaging her family’s fears, though, she set sail Sept. 29 in a 29-foot Erikson called “The Athena” from her home in Woolwich, Maine, down the Eastern seaboard, through the Bahamas, and up Florida’s west coast to St. Petersburg.
She arrived at school in time for freshmen orientation last month and is busy settling in to college life at Eckerd — and working with her 7-year-old dog Elli to suppress the urge to bark at strangers. Still, Gardiner-Smith said, it was the solitude that allowed her to truly appreciate the journey.
“I obviously would have had a bunch of fun if I brought a friend or something but it’s a different type of experience; you don’t really focus on the sailing as much as you focus on socializing or making dinner together,” Gardiner-Smith said.
“This was about doing something by myself, figuring out what I was capable of and if I was comfortable begin alone with myself. I think I found out how much I really love being alone out on the water, which I didn’t see coming.”
And some of the skills she developed, like heating cans of soup on her single burner camp stove and doing laundry and bathing in a hand-pumped sink, will come in handy with dorm living, she said.
Her mother and 23-year-old sister visited her in port for Thanksgiving and were able to cook the entire holiday dinner on the little boat. It took an entire day, but “everything was still warm by the time we ate.”
❖ ❖ ❖
There were plenty of challenges along the way.
On a walk through a port town south of Boston, just nine days into her journey, 10-pound Elli darted into the street and was hit by a truck. Her right hind leg was shattered and had to be amputated. Now, the little black dog happily bounds up stairs and down the dock at Eckerd’s marina but the emotional toll on Gardiner-Smith was “heartbreaking,” she said.
“I remember the first time I saw her groggily walking around on three legs I was bawling the whole time. She would have to take medicine because she got sea sick and it was so sad because I couldn’t explain to her, ‘Sit up, take deep breaths, look at the horizon.’”
Gardiner-Smith spent a month without her “furry first mate” as she recovered from her injuries, and spent her nights reading “Chesapeake” by James Michener, “Fall of Giants” by Ken Follett and books like “Sea Steading,” given to her by people she would meet in ports. She also kept a blog published by The Portland Press Herald in Maine, fielded calls from reporters across the nation, and — in the “most exciting offer” — agreed to a photo shoot for Elli in The New Barker magazine.
In York Harbor, Maine, Gardiner-Smith’s dinghy line got tangled in her propeller, requiring a dive into the wintry ocean waters to cut it loose. In Stonington, Connecticut, a fuel tank clog required repairs. While sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway, her mast tangled in some tree branches and bent her wind vane.
She soon ditched her small icebox because it was too expensive to maintain and she had to make peace with the knowledge that daily showers “just weren’t going to be in my life.” On nights spent sailing, an alarm woke Gardiner-Smith up every half hour so she could “take a look around” and assure herself that everything was still OK.
Before the trip, Gardiner-Smith used to have trouble getting out of bed in the morning and would ask to have her bathrobe warmed up in the drier, said her father Willy Ritch, an advisor for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat.
“Her standards of comfort have changed dramatically,” Ritch said. “It gave her a great deal of confidence ... and the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from her mistakes. As parents we try to protect our kids from making mistakes, but she’s grown so much from this opportunity, I’m so glad she did it.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Whenever she encountered a problem she couldn’t handle alone, or simply needed human interaction, fellow sailors came to her rescue.
“The sailing community is incredibly tight-knit, so I did a lot of knocking on doors to visit friends of friends and met a lot of people that way,” Gardiner-Smith said.
People like the man who would go boat to boat asking for garbage to use in his night-time shark feeding dives, or the couple that gave her a large, bright orange “sailor suit” to keep insulated and, in a worst-case scenario, visible.
“The younger ones haven’t gotten totally loopy yet, but there are some people that have been living on a boat by themselves for, like, 15 years, and solo sailors are usually pretty weird,” Gardiner-Smith said.
“You have to be open to all different types of friendships, and some of the most meaningful people to me were people that a year and a half ago I wouldn’t have given a second thought to because they were really old or really weird.”
Staying in touch was key, not only for Gardiner-Smith’s sanity, but also for her family’s.
She used and iPod app, electronic GPS and paper maps and charts to maintain her course. A GPS tracking device allowed her family to see her location every 10 minutes, and her parents, boyfriend, grandparents and friends all made appearances at stops during her long journey.
Apart from a few weeks in the Bahamas, she was able to maintain constant communication by cell phone.
“There were a few sleepless nights where I stayed up watching that tracker,” Ritch said. “But she was confident she could do it, and she did.”
Gardiner-Smith’s family understood the allure of sailing and her desire to set off on her own, she said. As a child, her family embarked on two two-year sailing trips — one through Central America, the Caribbean, the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, and the other across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Bermuda, the Azores and the Mediterranean. She even learned to walk on a boat.
It was the waterfront that drew Gardiner-Smith to Eckerd College, she said, as well as the friendly atmosphere and extra-curricular activities. It was the only college where she applied.
She loves history, reading and writing, but is still undecided where she’s headed with her next adventure — choosing a course of study. She might join Eckerd’s sailing or search and rescue teams her sophomore year when she feels a little more settled, she said.
For now, she is enjoying making friends, exploring local festivals and growing some roots.
The only thing she knows for sure is that she’ll live on her boat.
“I’ll always remember this as time of my life I stepped out on my own.”