Friday, July 6, 2012

Interview with Author Pamela Sisman Bitterman

My guest today, Pamela Sisman Bitterman, is an explorer in every sense of the word; she has been a mediator, a teacher of maritime history and seamanship at the San Diego Maritime Museum. Sailing to the Far Horizon, her first book, tells of the sailing adventures she experienced during her late twenties. This biographical novel is described as a cross between Master-and-Commander and
A Perfect Storm, both stories dealing with the mysteries and perils of the sea.

GAIL: Welcome, Pamela, and thank you for taking time for this interview today. Your book, Sailing to the Far Horizon, includes tales of your incredible voyages on the tall ship Sofia. How did you decide to begin such an adventure and what prepared you for the journey?

PAMELA: I was totally unprepared for the journey, with the exception that I was in my late 20’s in the late 70’s - a singularly auspicious time in my life. I suddenly found myself without a job, home, immediate direction, had no debts, and no dependants. The adventure presented itself, and I jumped! It was truly a leap of faith.

GAIL: Where did you board the Sofia, and what were the ship’s destination and purpose for your first adventure at sea?

PAMELA: I boarded the ship is Boston in the summer of 1978. The ship was enlisting crew for her next circumnavigation. She was a co-operatively owned and run 60 year old, 123 foot, three masted gaff topsail schooner. The purpose for my adventure was much the same as the purpose for the ship herself – to travel, sail the world, practice the venerable art of marlinspike seamanship, and keep a proud, salty old sailing vessel afloat.

GAIL: You mention “the many legions of wayfarers who participated in the Sofias diverse and colorful history.” During the time you sailed with the Sofia, what was the range of experience and education among your fellow crew members?

Sailing to the Far Horizon
by Pamela Sisman Bitterman
PAMELA: The crew (Sofia never carried “passengers”. Everyone who came aboard her came aboard as “working, paying crew” - either sailors who learned how to exist within a sailing co-operative, or co-operatively inclined adventurers who learned how to sail. Either way, the ships expectations of them were the same.) During my nearly four years aboard her, we sailed with as many as 25 crew, and as few as 5. The crew was always multinational and multigenerational, although the average age was typically around 30 years old. The range of experience, education and expertise was as varied and diverse as the weather. We ran the gamut from teen-age runaways and itinerate hitchhikers to doctors, lawyers and government dignitaries.

GAIL: When Hurricane Kendra chased the Sofia miles off course, what effect did this have on the ship, its crew, and the voyage?

PAMELA: It was a wake-up call. The veteran crew was challenged, to be sure. But they were capable and commanding in the face of imminent disaster. The rest of us, the grunt swabbie know-nothings, were either too clueless to even understand the severity of what was happening, or simply too sick or frightened to do much more than follow orders and try to stay alive.

GAIL: Pamela, you were a self-described, naive “shellback”; a swabbie; and later, a ship’s bos’un, before you became acting first mate. What were your duties as a “shellback” and can you share one of your first sea adventures as a shellback?

PAMELA: Needless to say, the hurricane was my first adventure as a shellback, as it was my first adventure at sea – my maiden voyage. During this passage, I overheard the Coast Guard Search and Rescue’s last radio communication with the ship prior to losing all contact. They requested the names of all those aboard, and their next-of-kin. The duties of any “shellback” or novice, was to follow orders and to learn as much as we could about our ship, sailing, and the sea. We learned on the fly, and often by-the-seats-of-our-pants. As well prepared and trained and orientated as the sailing veterans tirelessly tried to make new initiates, it was none the less often pure trial by fire. Folks either loved that aspect of the adventure, or they went running for the hills at the first port-of-call. I found, to my great surprise and delight, that I loved it. That made all the hardships inherent in the journey worth it ten times over.

GAIL: Within the scope of Sailing to the Far Horizon, what was your involvement with Cuna Indians, the Gulf of San Blas, and the Marquesas?

PAMELA: Remember, I sailed the planet in an era prior to globalization. We were often the only ship anchored off most of the outlying islands of the San Blas, and as a result were able to become intimately involved with the mysterious and fascinating culture of the Cuna Indians. We exchanged trade goods, stories, foodstuffs, and adventures. Many vignettes in the book detail these innocent and trusting interactions. It was much the same in the Marquesas. Either by interacting aboard the ship at deserted anchorages, or by hiking overland into hidden villages and tribes, we became close with natives who had never before seen “white people.” I personally met and was hosted by the direct descendants of the family that originally took in Thor Hyerdahl.

The author, her books and blog can be found at:


4 comments:

  1. That sounds like a fascinating adventures, and a book I would love to read! I love sea stories in general, especially ones based on real life.

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  2. Louise, Pamela sets a high bar for adventure. While I never dreamed of sailing the 7 Seas myself, I enjoy a good movie or book relating the adventures of others!

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  3. What an interesting life. I'm more of a land lover myself. I'm always encouraged by others love for life and appreciate when they share it with us.

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  4. Bethie, I agree, it is encouraging to read about the success of others. Pamela certainly jumped into life with both feet!
    Not only did she live these adventures, she relived them while senting everything down in print.

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