Lance Wills, Atlantis Able-bodied Seaman

Lance Wills

How did you start working on ships?
I started on fishing boats up in Alaska when I was about 19, and I did that for several years. My brother was on a crab boat up there, and I decided I wanted to do that, too. He was kind of a larger-than-life figure, and he used to tell me all about it over the phone, so I got sort of caught up in the romance of it. I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which is a pretty small town, and there wasn’t much work opportunity there for me. My brother eventually told me I could come work on his boat, but I’d have to toughen up a bit first. So I went down to the Gulf of Mexico to work in the oil fields after high school, and by the time I was 19, headed to Alaska.

Later on, I got a job working on the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, which is the sister ship to the Atlantis, operated by the University of Washington. After a few years there, I decided it was time to move on. I had already been filling in on Atlantis during peoples’ vacations, so when Cecile [Hall, Atlantis’ mess attendant] told me there was a position for an able-bodied seaman open, I sent them my resume, and here I am.

Over the years, I’ve been on 30 different ships—oil tankers, car carriers, hydrological survey ships, fishing boats, you name it. Fishing pays the best, but it also takes a hard toll on you physically.

How would you describe what you do on Atlantis?
Most of my job involves standing watch on the bridge eight hours a day, in two four-hour shifts. If we’re moving, that means keeping the ship on course, responding to alarms that might go off, communicating over the radio, and so on. When we’re hanging out at one site for a while, like we are on this cruise, that basically means I’m watching video feeds of the deck to make sure everything goes smoothly with equipment deployment and recovery, and I’m answering calls to the bridge when the science party or crew need something from us. It can get monotonous, but you’re always up there with someone else, so you do a lot of talking.

What do you like to do when you’re not at sea?
I usually travel. I’m one of the “WHOI homeless.” I’m out here for six or seven months a year, and when I’m not, I take big trips. They’re never shorter than three weeks or a month, sometimes longer. Last year I went to Myanmar and Thailand for almost three months. Next, I’m thinking New Zealand. Aside from travel, I also take a lot of photography classes, and I’m working on two books right now. When I’m not on watch, I work on writing and editing them in my cabin.

Really? What are they about?
One is a cookbook that I’m helping Brendon Todd [Atlantis’ cook] write. I’m doing the food photography for him, and I’m writing a couple of short stories for the book. I’m also working on one about digiscoping. That’s like a compact telescope with a camera mount on it. With a scope like that, you can get incredibly close-up photos of wildlife from really far away, but they’re hard to use. There are a lot of tricks to them. So I teamed up with my cousin, a retired photographer, to write an e-book about it. Oh, and I also spent a couple of years writing a book about dressage.

Wait, as in, horse dancing?
Yeah, that’s right.

Do you ride horses?
No! My friend is a horse trainer, and he and his wife asked me if I could help them put a book together. I spent three years on it—did the photography, found a publisher, everything. Now I get a lot of friends asking me to help write their books. I’d love to do a science or history book at some point.

How did you get into writing and photography?
I’ve always liked them, I guess. I taught myself photography over the years, and liked to write. Eventually, I went to journalism school at the University of Florida. My undergraduate [degree] was in international relations, and I’m kind of a newshound, so it felt right. I’d go to school for two quarters, then take two or three months off, then work for a quarter. I was still working on the Thompson then. It was great. I was learning, but then I’d jet off to see the world, and the University of Washington would fly me back from wherever I was to meet the ship. It took three years to get through school, and then I got a job at the Gainesville Sun as an entertainment reporter. People were starting to get laid off at the paper, though, so I tried to get my foot in the door in Washington, D.C., writing for the State Department. From there, I got a paid internship as a writer at the Environmental Protection Agency, but D.C. was so expensive, I decided to leave and go back to sailing.

You still do a lot of photography out here, though. Do you find much to shoot?
Over the years, I’ve taken some really nice photos out here, but opportunity is the thing. A lot of times I’ll see a good photo, but I’m not in a position to take a picture, or don’t have my camera with me.

So what keeps you coming back to sea?
Well, it’s good money, for one thing, and the time off is nice. When you’re not working, you have money, and you have time, so you can do pretty much whatever you want. It’s kind of a crazy life, but without the schedule I keep—a few months on, a few months off—I wouldn’t have the opportunity to travel so much. Going so many different places is really intellectually stimulating. The main down side is that I don’t feel at home anywhere. Anywhere I am, I feel like I’m only there for a short period of time, because I more or less am. If I found the right place and circumstances worked out, I guess I’d settle down. I’m planning to take a big road trip out to Taos, New Mexico, the next time I’m off the ship, so who knows? Maybe I’ll decide to stay.


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