Local People

On Real Jobs & Real Trade-offs

Jun 10, 2016 Editor

As the Class of ’16 begins the next part of their journey, SVO offers one man’s story on adventure, dreams and creating opportunity.

by Ryan Karakai

My name is Ryan Karakai. I grew up in beautiful Brentwood Bay. I have been on the water in one form or another since I was a few weeks old, wrapped up in blankets on the deck of my parents’ 11-foot boat.

I can remember from early childhood how easy it was for me to fall asleep serenaded by the sounds of the water lapping against the hull accompanied by the gentle roll of the boat on the swell. Little did my parents know of the profound effect my early introduction to the ocean would have on my adult life.

As time went on, I developed a strong interest in nautical history, in large part due to my aunt taking me for adventures in downtown Victoria, generally consisting of a tour through the Maritime Museum and BC Museum, and rides on our harbour ferries.

As we toured through the museum I used to lose myself to daydreams of sailing square rigged privateers or naval frigates in the 19th century; of crossing oceans, climbing to the tops of the masts and looking out over the endless blue to a horizon perpetually renewed. I would imagine myself navigating by the constellations, as bright as neon signs against the pitch-dark backdrop of a sky unpolluted by man-made light of any kind.

But in every person’s life there is a stage where childhood dreams are swept aside; they are never truly forgotten, they simply lie dormant until life supplies new opportunities for them to be renewed or for them to be seen in a different light.

Through my early teens my interests varied, as is usual at that stage of life. When I was 14, my family life began to change dramatically and this, combined soon after with the death of a very close friend, started to take a toll on my mental state. In the subsequent teenage years I struggled to find real interest in any kind of profession.

There were always opportunities available but I hesitated and rebelled at my father’s side of the family repeating incessantly that I either needed to find an apprenticeship in a trade or go to post-secondary education. It was the topic of conversation at nearly every family dinner. During my mid teens my parents, being concerned about my disinterest in school and my mental state, looked for some kind of alternative form of education that would help get me through high school. They found some information on a program run out of Nova Scotia called Class Afloat. It was an experiential education-based high school that sailed all over the world on a square-rigged barquentine.

Hearing about this drew that long dormant love of sailing ships and of sea adventure to the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t help but be a little excited. Upon further investigation, however, the program proved to be well out of my family’s reach financially and I put the thought out of my mind.

Around the same time, the Tall Ships Festival came to Victoria. There were ships from all over the world. My parents surprised me with a ticket to go aboard one of the schooners for a day sail. They had initially tried to get me aboard the star of the whole show, the Lady Washington, the replica square-rigged wooden brig that played the part of the Interceptor in the Hollywood blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean.  Unfortunately the Lady had been sold out well before the festival came to town. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to have a ringside seat to watch the Lady Washington in all her glory sailing along the waterfront in a brisk twenty-knot breeze. I will not soon forget that day. 

When I boarded the schooner, the captain took a moment to address all of the passengers as to the state of the sea and weather. He told us it would not be comfortable and that if we had not been on the sea in those conditions before it was likely we would be sick. He offered everyone tickets for the next day’s sailing with the promise of fair weather. Nobody accepted.

As we left the protection of the break wall and began to make sail, it became readily apparent that at least half of the passengers regretted not accepting his offer. The schooner pitched and rolled and we made our way out into the open under minimal sail. Many were incapacitated and unable to leave the nooks and crannies on deck where they had firmly wedged themselves against the motion of the ship. I, however, was grinning from ear to ear. The wind was whistling through the rigging, the schooner was bounding along with no noisy engine clattering away (a phenomenon completely new to me), and the sea was alive with spindrift and the view of all of these beautiful sailing vessels clipping along.

When they were under sail they were using no fuel but the exertions of the seamen and the experience and the will of the captains directing them. I was wholly engrossed–so much so that I barely took notice of the wet and the cold, for which I was woefully ill prepared in a t-shirt and jeans. 

Time marched on and the memory of my sail on the schooner slowly faded. When I finished high school I fell into a less than inspirational job and worked full time for the following three years. At a point of personal frustration at not having any clue in which direction I should take my life, sailing ships came up once again. A friend from work suggested that I try sailing with the Victoria-based organization SALTS. On its website, I saw the picture of the wooden schooner Pacific Swift heeled over under a press of sail and tearing through the water near Victoria and I immediately signed up for two summer trips and had high hopes for a significant change. It came in a big way. 

After some amazing sailing on the Swift that summer, and quickly overcoming a longstanding fear of heights, I decided immediately that learning how to rig and sail these historic ships all over the world and becoming a square rigger captain would be my object. 

Since 2012 I have sailed and worked aboard seven of these amazing historic vessels. I’ve sailed between San Francisco, Washington and the St. Lawrence River and Seaway; to Lakes Erie and Huron and Chesapeake Bay; and on a 10,000-mile Atlantic voyage with two crossings and visits to eight countries, including the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. The dream has come full circle.

I have steered by the Southern Cross and other stars, so bright against the unlit backdrop that they defy description. I have seen the albatross soaring amidst the waves in mid ocean as the cut-water clipped through a 10-foot swell at 11 and 12 knots like a hot knife through butter. I have had the odd privilege of burying a man at sea in the traditional way, followed by one of the most stunningly beautiful scenes I can remember.

After singing a mournful shanty and committing the body of our friend and long-time volunteer to the deep, I was on the tiller and kept her straight into the dark swell while the rest of the crew crept up the shrouds and laid out on the topsail yards to unfurl and let fall.

As the topsails were sheeted home and hoisted away, I could feel the ship come alive through the tiller and she verily bounded over the eight-foot swells towards Gray’s Harbour, Washington. I stayed on the tiller the entire
watch, guided by a low harvest moon over the land.

I wish I could impart the emotion that is evoked by the steady hiss of the water down the side of a wooden sailing ship in the middle watch, the glow of phosphorescence in the turbulence of the bow wave, and the sight of dolphins darting underwater, agitating the phosphorescence and appearing as glowing torpedoes. 

These experiences have shown me that literally anything you dream to do in life is possible. I’ve had people tell me what I do isn’t a “real job” or a “real trade,” yet I am a registered merchant mariner, accruing sea-time towards a Master’s licence that I could use on a modern vessel just as well as a traditional one. I am currently working as able seaman and rigger aboard the frigate L’Hermione in France.

Follow your dreams, never listen to the nay sayers, there is still real adventure to be had in this world!