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Diary of a Sailmaker’s Apprentice


Bonnie, first day of sailmaking

March 3

One week ago today I was aimless, jobless and homeless. The good people of Port Townsend, Washington, changed that in less than a week. Now I live here and I am a sailmaker’s apprentice.

I do not know how to sew. I have never aided nor abetted in the construction of a sail. Still, something happened in the sail loft last Monday that always seems to occur at key moments in my life. I told someone I could do it, that I would work hard and learn quickly, and they believed me.

The first time that happened, the L.A. Times hired me as a summer intern for the short-lived and now-defunct Outdoors Section. The recruiter asked me questions like, “What do you read?”

I trembled and held a newspaper in front of my chest to conceal the sweat stains under the arms of my blue Oxford and responded, “I don’t.”

The recruiter shook his head and asked me if I had any idea how many people applied for an internship at the paper.

I may have mustered a nod.

I sat in front of the recruiter for one reason. I had read an advertisement about the Outdoors Section and sent an email to the editor with a desperate request to be a part of the venture. I was 20 years old and in my third year at Hampshire College. My self-designed major was Journalism: Writing About the Outdoors and I founded and edited an adventure-travel literary magazine on campus. That editor said I should apply with the recruiter. I lied and told the recruiter I was swinging by L.A. on my winter break and very much wanted to stop in and see him. He agreed. I bought the first airplane ticket of my adult life, wincing as I clicked “purchase” in anticipation of my parents’ disapproval at traveling somewhere so far away and dangerous.

After the recruiter had had enough of me, I met Bob Sipchen, the Outdoors Section editor. Bob had outdoor magazines spread across his office, guarded by a large, foam banana slug. I began to relax as I shook Bob’s hand from underneath the bottom edge of my newspaper.

“I like Bonnie,” Bob said to the recruiter after a few minutes. “Let’s hire her.”

I told Bob I could do it and he believed me.

How to get a job you don’t know how to do:

1. Prepare

I don’t know how to sew sails. I do know how to sail boats. I didn’t know how to work as a professional journalist. I did have basic writing skills and a knowledge of outdoor adventure sports. Everything you do is a step. You might not know what the next step—or leap—will be, so make the most of each one. An employer should be able to look at your resume and see potential rather than limitations.

2. Believe in yourself.

Not everyone will believe you when you promise to work hard and learn quickly. But, in the right place at the right time, they will. You have to take that first step. You have to take a chance before someone takes a chance on you.

3. Let your friends and family help you.

When it came time to work out the details after I bought my ticket to L.A., my friends and family helped me and I would not have made it to my interview without them. Same goes for Port Townsend. Don’t have friends or family like that? See Appendix B.

Appendix B

Become a tall ship sailor.

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