A Singing Ship is a Happy Ship!

Lessons from aboard a Tall Ship for ocean-based climate solutions

My daughter Esme and I meet the Statsraad Lehmkuhl in Singapore

Haakon Vatle is a world-renowned shantyman. He is also the Director of the Statsraad Lehmkuhl Foundation which set off in August 2021 on the One Ocean Expedition —a circumnavigation and mission to connect the global community aboard Norway’s 108-year-old, 350 foot tall ship. With a goal to visit ports around the world, the One Ocean Expedition engages governments, industry, and universities on the topic of ocean climate challenges, solutions, and paths toward a sustainable blue economy — all while attracting CEOs, politicians, researchers and students.

In December of 2021, I was invited to meet the ship in Miami to discuss the deepening relationship between Washington State and Norway regarding maritime decarbonization and innovation. I shared the story of our state’s strategy and the growth of Washington Maritime Blue — an innovation cluster organization modeled after, and now partnered, with Norway’s innovation clusters focused on shared goals and expertise.

Ten months later, my daughter Esme and I met the ship in Singapore and departed on November 1 for a voyage that will take us across the Indian Ocean. Onboard, we’re part of discussion groups, roundtables, and the Red Watch (0000-0400 and 1200-1600), helping to sail and maintain the ship and its crew.

As we eased our way towards Jakarta after crossing the equator and departing Singapore 5 days prior – Haakon the Shantyman led the whole crew in song.  We sang hauling shanties designed to keep sailors in rhythm and combined strength. We sang short haul shanties in order to render short bursts of power. We sang foc’sle shanties easing the crew’s longing for home. 

And while sailing ever so gently across the equator’s doldrums in the South China Sea between Sumatra and Borneo, we continued to sing. Esme’s smile coupled with the booming enthusiasm of more than 100 voyage crew on board embodied collaboration being built on a shared goal. We grew trust amongst our watch to safely guide us through these busy shipping lanes and Indonesian fishers. We stand on lookout using clear communication with the helm. We take turns monitoring our condition and course. We maintain and steward this majestic vessel in unison and humble willingness. We support each other as we challenge our fears aloft and celebrate our new found honor as Shellbacks given by Neptune’s blessing.

Over the last 25 years I have been a merchant mariner, tall ship captain and educator, community organizer, policy advisor, economic developer, husband, and father. I have always been struck by how much being at sea on board a vessel with a crew and a mission holds parallel lessons for how we can effectively engage in the world. Healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities and societies need a trusted vessel, a shared vision or mission, willingness to do the hard work, balance of risk and ease, thoughtful management of resources, a sense of wonder, innovation and adventure, and a deep caring and responsibility for your shipmates.

As we navigate this impressive sailing ship from Singapore to the South China Sea, through the Java Sea, and to Jakarta I am reminded why I LOVE what I do every day. I get to feel the ship under my feet balancing the forces of nature, innovation, and human engagement. We get to learn, love, and struggle together. I get to focus my optimism for solutions. I have the opportunity to watch my daughter lift herself into the rig, 90 feet above the deck of one of the finest sailing vessels underway today. We do this together in song, in rhythm, totally out of key, and we are smiling the whole time!

Fair Winds!


100 voyage crew on board embodying collaboration

Esme 90 feet above the deck

P.S. Look here for further updates as we get underway to cross the Indian Ocean en route to Mauritius. You can also follow our journey via One Ocean Expedition’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

*shantyman – The position on board a traditional sailing ship that sings sea shanties in order to help the crew’s motivation and coordination for work.

*foc’sle – The area under the deck of a ship towards the bow, or front, where typically the deckhands reside.

*shellback – A term, or badge of honor, given to those who cross the equator on board a ship or vessel. Often this is accompanied by a ceremony that varies by custom.