Aboard the Bill of Rights, an amended life

Written By kolimtiga on Rabu, 14 November 2012 | 12.56

The 160-ton schooner rocked in the choppy waters at the mouth of the Channel Islands Harbor, and Donna Reed swung on her high-heeled cowgirl boots between ropes that dangled like vines, untying the cords that bound the sails to masts as thick as utility poles.

Reed swung again as the sails unfurled, balancing the soles of her boots on a rope several feet above the deck. Her movements were quick and precise, as if she were an old pro.

Yet not even a year ago, the 33-year-old was living in landlocked Columbia, S.C., working as a real estate agent and hosting a political talk show that aired on radio stations across the state. She lived in a luxury apartment. Her car had the requisite leather seats.

Now her wages are $150 a week. Her quarters are the size of a closet. And the canary-yellow North Face jacket she just bought from the thrift store still has the $1.99 tag on it.

She's found a new life aboard the Bill of Rights, an aging tall ship that its operator sees as an educational vessel not just for the students who join it on trips like this, but for the crew: physics and environmental science majors fresh from college, a marine biologist who had run out of money traveling in Mexico and Central America, a massage therapist and musician among them. A geologist born in Kolkata, India, just joined them by way of South Carolina.

Their lives in transition, they all had found their way to the Oxnard harbor where the schooner docks.

"Sometimes, if you keep running into a wall," Reed said, "you have to change direction."


When Stephen Taylor found the Bill of Rights in 2007, it had been neglected. The wood on the once-majestic ship, built in 1971, was dry-rotting. The generator didn't run. The engine wasn't in good enough condition to handle the sea.

"It was pretty rough," he said.

Taylor, who had spent his career piloting private boats, dove into reinvigorating the Bill of Rights, imagining it as a classroom on the sea. Now, students can learn marine biology, sailing and even leadership on treks as short as a single afternoon or on excursions that last for days.

He started a nonprofit called the American Tall Ship Institute, which funds itself through charter trips, charging private schools for excursions and grants.

When it came time to form a crew, he operated on this premise: You can teach anyone to sail.

He sought professionals, academics and artists whose various backgrounds could offer something different to students and the fledgling operation in exchange for room and board. Some collect a small salary.

They typically sign three-month contracts. Some have shorter stays; many hang around much longer. But after about a year, Taylor will nudge them to move on.

"You get caught up in the awesomeness," he said, "and you completely forget that the rest of your life has stopped outside of this."

Many of the crew members found the ship through word of mouth, from friends who had worked on the ship. Taylor also posts to job boards for educators and on other sites.

As for Reed, she had unloaded most of her possessions at the start of the year and left to bicycle through Europe. She ran out of money in Spain.

To chart her next move, she visited a website for professionals seeking to flee the corporate world called escapethecity.org, where she found the Bill of Rights and reached out to Taylor.

As she waited, she found a job in Orange County, a lucrative sales position with a real estate website. She was two weeks in when Taylor asked her to come up for a weekend sail in June.

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