Monday, May 10, 2021

Other People's Sea Stories

 Finishing up our cargoes from the weekend (today being Monday), just before lunchtime today, we sailed from a small container ship to the next berth forward, which is one of my employer's lay berths, where we can go to sit and wait for the next cargo load. In the New York harbor area, having 800 feet or so of waterfront property is NOT cheap, and so having a place to tie up when we're not making money is an expensive proposition... and we have four of them scattered around the harbor, by necessity. While we do utilize the anchorages, too, to lie around and fuck off  do maintenance between jobs,  we can't leave barges untended by tugs, and we have a lot more barges than tugs.


 So I am in the lay berth, and with the latest job complete, I was able to file my papers and change clothes (it was raining this morning), and get lunch on the stove finally. 


    Our tug today is crewed with all guys I like. The younger of the two deckhands, an experienced 25-year old, is someone I get along with especially well. We work very well together, and he's very level-headed, and pleasant company besides. 


        So today we had a little delay while waiting to sail from the container ship we were moored up to. While I was waiting for the last of the papers to be passed, the kid and I got talking, as we do, and the subject of family, we're both children of US Navy 'lifers.'  We shared a few of our fathers' navy sea stories... and that got me thinking about how much harder it is to acquire sea stories today. 


       Sea stories are how we come to grip with memories of the past at work. Often really bad ones, sometimes exceptionally good, often both, in hindsight. During my first 'real' voyage to sea, and having grown up on my father's sea stories, both war stories from Korea, and merchant marine sea stories too, I had made peace with the fact that I would never do the crazy and insane shit my father did, and never have the memories to go with it. Things are just too safe and regulated today. 

    Well, turns out, I did acquire sea stories of my own, over time. Perhaps not to the Elysian heights and hellish lows of my father's, but enough to make him laugh, commiserate and be proud that I was living a free life when we got to talking. I'm fortunate enough to have done some shit and come away with just a few little scars, a touch of a limp at times, and some friends and memories I don't regret making. 

     Most sea stories aren't things that happen from your choosing. I met a very nice girl at a bar in Savannah one time, having wandered into the ladies' room by accident while drunk on shore leave. I almost got away with it until a local girl recognized my shoes from under the stall. My friends and I entertained her friends and she for the night as penance for my sins. During Hurricane Ike, at a moment when my ship's survival was absolutely not guaranteed, and I felt the hull hesitate to roll back from a deep roll onto her beam, not just once, but a few times, The captain sent the mate and I into the gyrocompass room to stop whatever was banging around in there before it knocked the gyro off it's stand. Turns out, the captain had a couple of 50lb sacks of his private stock of coffee beans in there, and they're been ripped open, and 100lbs of coffee beans was rolling loose across the deck, and so boxes of stuff were rolling across the beans. Since we were rolling through about 120 degrees of arc and probably pitching through 50-60 during the good moments, I have good memories of me cussing out and refusing the chief mate (one of my closest friends) when he ordered me in the room to lash down the boxes. We went in together, and got rolled, flipped, crushed, hit by sliding and flying objects, he kneed me square in the ear, I booted him in the back of the head, all while flailing around and cursing, sliding over the damn coffee beans... in retrospect, it was hilarious, and in later years, we laughed about it a lot. Hell, I talked to him about 2 weeks ago, and I haven't seen him in years now. We still talk a few times a year. 


 Nowadays, while that particular company no longer exists, there would have been hell to pay over the coffee beans. A Near Miss Report, possibly a Nonconformity Report, and the Safety Managment System would have been chapter and verse all up in our business. And maybe in most cases that is a good thing. We are undoubtedly more safe at sea than ever before... and the truth is that I was a LOT happier when we were left to our own devices when it comes to safety at the micromanagement level. I recognize that a safer workplace increases the odds of everyone coming home. I don't recognize that filling out a Job Hazard Analysis for climbing a fucking stepstool has value to me as a mariner, though. Like anything taken to hyperbole. 

       No risk, no reward.  That is the reality on a longer timeline when it comes to job satisfaction. I speak only for myself, not for my peers or my employer, certainly.  I lacked the temperament to work in an office, no matter how hard I tried, as a younger man. I needed to get some bruises and scrapes to toughen up and live life more deliberately, especially as someone who tried and failed to last at nicer, less physical jobs indoors. I still don't know if having spent years and a small fortune to be a biologist was a mistake or not. I have the occasional regret. 

    Where I don't have regret is the 'holy shit we're all OK!' moments, like when a rogue wave buried the bow of my ship, and 6 of us were working... on the bow. Going underwater deep enough to make my ears hurt, hugging the mainmast up forward and getting knocked down to the deck by the breaking wave as it fell down on us. Guys got washed 150 feet back on that one, one ending up in his underwear after the nonskid deck tore his coveralls right off.  I walked off the deck feeling so alive after that, laughing, all of us laughing, at having had a close brush with disaster. 

 I don't regret that. Look, I had a little sea story to tell from it too. Today, the mate on watch would have been called on the carpet, placed in full proskynesis, and heaven forfend that the vetter or ABS hear about it! Dear Lord! 

    I feel a little bad for the kid I was talking with today. It's so hard to have a good sea story now. We don't drink whether in port or at sea today, and that alone is responsible for much of the improvements in safety on board... but he'll never get sent on a scavenger hunt in a strange city with a grocery list of porn DVD's that the captain wanted and $600 either. And the clerk at one of the porno stores wouldn't be a hot goth girl his age, and he wouldn't have to turn around, down 4 shots of Jamison next door, and come back, put the list on the counter and say "hello, miss, do you have..." and read some of the most degenerate phrases out there, with a pen to check off the titles she did, in fact, have. And then go to another adult video market, facing dirty looks from the taxi driver, to repeat. Four times. 

On the other hand, that was how I got a permanent position as crew on that ship. No more sitting in union halls. And my wife nearly died of laughter when I told her that story. I was smiling too. It was, in hindsight, hilarious. That was my favorite captain to work with. Shit, he was the first person I talked to after I proposed to my wife. 


          We'll find a way to have our own sea stories, I suppose. Perhaps they won't be the high highs or the low lows of our sailor forebears, and maybe I squeaked in under the wire at the time when even being a merchant seaman got boring, but the phrase 'months of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror' still applies to the job. I just hope today's young sailors find enough to keep them satisfied, because right now there aren't a lot of young sailors who stick with sailing as a career, and I believe I know why. It's not an easy job, so it has to be a satisfying one. We NEED sea stories of our own. 



2 comments:

Captain Jill said...

I agree Paul. We may be more safe, but we've traded in a hell of a lot for that. Personally, I don't think it was worth it. Not at all.

Heath J said...

Dude, I think (and pray) we're going to see a renaissance of that kind of thing. 20 years of "woke" should have a similar opposite reaction as the pendulum swings. People are sick of all this BS, and the chink virus orders have fueled it.

We had the same thing in the military, but it was the comparison to deployment vs peacetime garrison. When there's a job to do all the chicken shit goes away, and you really get to live.