A Star to Steer Her By

By: Beth Anne Miller

To my dad, Sam Miller, for taking me scuba diving all over the Caribbean, and to my mom, Lois Miller, for not (totally) freaking out when I said I wanted to go to sea for nine weeks on a schooner—and to both of you for being wonderful parents.

To my brother, Rob Miller, for being an amazing guy, and for making it really difficult to write about a girl who’s angry at her brother.

Chapter One

The boat loomed before me in the cerulean water of San Juan Bay, Puerto Rico.

No, not a boat—a ship. “Boat” was too small and insignificant a word. “Boat” described Speedy, the little putt-putt dinghy I sat in, along with five other wide-eyed college kids and a blond deckhand named Nick.

The ship completely dwarfed Speedy. Her white hull shined brightly against the blue water. Two towering, polished wooden masts stretched far up into the sky. Canvas sails were neatly furled and bound to horizontal booms.

It was easy to see why ships were always referred to as “she,” because this ship looked like an elegant, classy lady. She was a throwback to a time when it took weeks for people to cross the ocean instead of hours in an airplane, when ships were powered by muscle, sweat, and blood instead of powerful engines, when the sun and stars—not a GPS—were used to determine one’s location.

That ship would be my home for the next two and a half months, as I sailed throughout the Caribbean and up the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States during the spring semester of my sophomore year of college at the University of Miami. But it was no cruise. In addition to taking classes, we’d be part of the crew, standing watch and learning how to steer, sail, navigate, and everything else that went with operating a tall ship.

The Semester at Sea was a special program offered by an independent organization called Marine Classroom. It was small, nationally accredited, and super competitive, and the course credits were transferable. It would count as a full semester at the University of Miami. The tuition was even covered by my scholarship. Participation in this program would sweeten my resume, which in turn would help me get a great internship and hopefully a job after college. In a highly competitive field like marine biology, I needed any edge I could get.

I’d wanted to be a marine biologist ever since I got my Junior Open Water scuba certification at age ten. I’d been on countless dives and seen so many amazing creatures—no two dives on the same patch of reef were ever the same—and I wanted to make a career of studying those creatures and that world. I’d worked my ass off to get into this program.

Which was what I’d told myself every day in the three months since I’d received my acceptance letter to Semester at Sea, each time I’d opened the email I’d drafted to withdraw myself from the program, stared at it for a long moment, then closed it, unsent. I’d wanted this so badly, for so long. If I quit now, it would ruin everything I’d worked so hard for.

“Hey, you all right?”

I looked up into the friendly brown eyes of the guy sitting next to me, then followed his gaze down to where I’d been unconsciously bouncing my knee. “I’m okay, thanks. Just nervous.” Understatement.

“Nervous? Are you kidding? This is going to be awesome!”

His eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, and I couldn’t help smiling. I hoped he was right.

Nick guided Speedy alongside the ship, just under a ladder comprised of wooden slats and braided rope. He cut the engine and stood, grabbing the side of the ladder to hold the small boat as steady as possible.

He slid his sunglasses down his nose and grinned. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, this is the last stop. Please check your immediate seating area for anything you might have brought on board with you. The crew will get your duffels.”

Everyone jumped up, eager to board the ship. I staggered slightly as the small boat shifted under my feet, mentally cursing my unsteady legs, and stuck my arms through the straps of my backpack. I slowly climbed up the wobbly ladder, focusing on each step and clutching the ropes tightly as the ship rocked with the movement of the water.

“Need a hand?”

I looked up into eyes the color of the sky in late September: sharp, clear blue. His hair had probably been average brown at one time, but it had been caressed by the sun and had streaks of blond, gold, and copper that people would pay anything for in a salon. The sides were pulled back, and the rest of it fell in tousled waves nearly to his shoulders. Not many men could pull off that look, but this guy definitely could. Sunglasses dangled on a cord around his neck. He was just a little older than me—maybe twenty-one or twenty-two.

He was still holding out his hand. When a hot guy offers you his hand, you take it. I let go of the ladder with my right hand and he helped me up the last step onto the deck. His fingers were long and tanned, with a smattering of scars across the knuckles and the crease of his thumb. The calluses on his palm scratched lightly against my skin. He’d clearly been sailing for years, hauling on lines and getting nicked here and there.

I glanced back up at his face. He grinned slowly, the kind of grin that caused otherwise sensible girls to do stupid things, and said something like, “I need ma hand back noo.”