Charms represent events such as landings, dolphin sightings and paying taxes. (Suzanna Bobo photo)
Scuttlebutt: A sailing story in beads
by Suzanna Bobo Kodiak Daily Mirror
Mar 30, 2012
by Suzanna Bobo Kodiak Daily Mirror
Mar 30, 2012
How do you tell the story of a life? Or a culture? Or even a journey? Do you write a memoir or sew a quilt? Do you make a movie?
Washington teacher Fran O’Rourke-Hartman didn’t choose her medium: her students did. Mrs. O’Rourke-Hartman would tell her story with beads.
Their teacher now carries the story in a drawstring bag. It’s one of a few items she keeps onboard her sailing vessel moored temporarily (perhaps) at St. Paul Harbor in Kodiak.
Fran is one of those people you can know for a week and swear she’s been there all your life.
I met her at The Rookery, where I was trying to find the perfect fiber for a sweater and she was teaching a novice knitter how to cast on. She seemed so much a fixture at the store that I thought owner Chris Lynch had hired her. Truth is, by then Fran had been in town about five minutes.
She lives with her husband Jim on the Cape St. James, a 48-foot sloop-rigged sailboat. Fran and Jim have sailed that vessel all over the world. This winter, they tied up in Kodiak.
Fran joined a knitting group that meets Saturdays at Monk’s Rock. One day she told the rest of us knitters the story of the beads. A few days later I visited Fran and Jim at their boat and saw the story myself..
Fran keeps the story on a sinewy string that is so long she has to fold it in sections divided by tissue paper so it won’t tangle.
The string begins with a blue bead that represents water and ends with a green one representing land. Between these anchors the string threads through symbolic representations of 426 days Fran and Jim spent circumnavigating the globe aboard the Cape St. James.
The beads were a bon voyage gift from Fran’s students at Cedar Wood Elementary School in Bothell, Wash. Fran was preparing for her around-the-world tour and had invited skipper Karen Thorndike to give a presentation to her multi-age (third-fifth grades) classroom. Thorndike is the first American woman to sail solo around the five great capes. Thorndike showed the students a good luck necklace someone had given her.
The students liked the idea of the necklace, but they improved it. They wanted their teacher to make her own necklace, one that would be a meaningful record of her odyssey. To help her get started they gave her a box of beads and a map key.
According to the key, small blue beads meant a day spent on water and small green beads meant a day spent ashore. Larger beads denoted the beginning of a new month. There were charms for special events: dolphin charms for dolphin sightings, fork charms to show a meal shared with friends. White beads meant a day with no wind.
The students encouraged their teacher to add her own charms as the journey progressed. Their encouragement gave Fran a focus for her provisioning stops, and the small souvenirs were suitable keepsakes to bring aboard the cramped confines of the boat. “When Jim and I moved aboard I had to get rid of everything I owned,” Fran recalled. “But we were taking off around the world. I needed a hobby, but it had to be a hobby without big souvenirs.”
The Hartmans left Seattle in August 1997 and sailed south along the Pacific Coast of North America, across the equator to French Polynesia, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Trinidad-Tobago (with many stops along the way).
They picked up charms representing important events and added these charms to the necklace. There were charms symbolizing each country and holiday, pieces of lava reminding them of places they hiked onshore, sharks’ teeth, starfish and tiny tubes of sand. As Fran added a charm to the necklace, she would write her students a postcard telling them about the addition.
Most of the charms represented happy memories. Others depicted challenges. Wrenches meant mechanical problems. Looking at the necklace some 14 years later, Jim remembers every wrench.
“That,” he said when I asked him about a specific one, “was from an eagle landing on the masthead. It broke the wind sensors.”
The charm added in Panama was a tiny pistol. “Some of our friends were robbed at gunpoint,” Fran explained.
The white charm with the letters I-R-S represented yet another kind of nautical dilemma.
“You feel so free out there. You’re riding the trade winds. It’s the middle of the night. You’ve never seen so many stars,” Jim said. Then someone back home calls you on your ham radio and tells you the taxman wants to talk to you at once.
Like so many other difficulties at sea, the couple hunkered down and dealt with it.
When Fran returned to Washington in 1999, her story had become too long to wear as a necklace. She is a talented jewelry maker, however, so she made a captivating Reader’s Digest version she can wear around her neck as she helps her audience navigate the longer tale.
Fran has retired from teaching, and Jim has left his career as an architect. Fran still collects beads from around the world and makes and sells jewelry. Jim pilots his own small plane, hunts and occasionally delivers yachts and other vessels for competitive ocean racers.
Jim noted that it was difficult at first to get Fran to agree to sail to Alaska. Now, after wintering two years in Sitka and one year in Kodiak, it may be hard to get her to leave.
“Nowhere in the world has the beauty of this place, and the people.” Fran said. Jim added, “There’s something magic about this place.”
I asked Fran what charm she would choose to represent Kodiak.“A bear, a salmon, a pair of knitting needles, a group of people, a bead made from a snowflake photo by Marion Owen …”
The list went on.
It’s a good thing Fran doesn’t have to express it all with a single bead.Read more: Kodiak Daily Mirror - Scuttlebutt A sailing story in beads