Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sugarplum Fairies

A sailor rarely boasts about how fine the weather has been for fear of
the sea's reprisal but I must say, it's been marvelous this past week.
Just as it was last month, the jet stream has again formed a large arc
over the mid North Atlantic keeping the eastern seaboard busy with
Nor'easters and the shores of Europe fraught with huge swells
originating from the waters south of Iceland. We've stayed under it all
crossing close abeam to Bermuda and then over the Azores amid a blocking
or Omega high-pressure system. This has ensured a constant flow of warm
air from the more temperate latitudes and lighter winds towards the
center of that high. And the wintry weather that blew over Ireland this
week has been pushed over Central Europe just as were arriving at the
English Channel making for a clear passage.

Today the skies opened up as I had been hoping for. We've had a cadet on
this trip who has shown a genuine interest in his on the job training.
This is a marked contrast from the last couple of midshipmen that have
spent their 90 days onboard with me. Rather than standing watch
oblivious to the outside world and immersed in sea projects this fellow
has left most of his project to his off hours and instead has been
meeting the expectations I very clearly set for him as I do with every
cadet out here the first watch we stand together on the bridge.

This morning was a success because the stars were finally out and the
horizon ripe for the shooting just as we were both coming up from
breakfast. We got enough down for a fix and more importantly the cadet
was able to see why the math works in practice which I hope will make
his next two semesters of Celestial Nav a little more interesting.

It's surprising how much work it takes to instruct a cadet through a
round of stars for the first time but I think that person-to-person
exchange is critical for any student who really wants to give sailing a
shot. The wallflowers whose presence all too often graces the bridge
make me reluctant to go out of my way, i.e. cut into my schedule, to
help them with things that they genuinely seem indifferent to. Those are
the third mate's I'd rather not see coming up the gangway.

Sprits are high onboard as we all found out that our coast schedule
includes a solid five days in Germany followed by an overnight in
Antwerp and Southampton. This amount of time for a ship in our trade to
be alongside is unheard of, and is due in part to a flexible schedule
and as the Captain put it "Low friends in high places."

Now that the crew knows we'll be alongside for a week of overnights the
draw list has been put out and a few record amounts of cash are being
taken against wages earned. I prefer not to exchange money at bars and
will just hit up the ATMs if in need of Euros but all the same, it might
be an expensive port stay. It's pretty common in cases like this for a
seaman to have next to nothing at payoff after blowing it like a rock
star in port. "You can always make another trip but can't always go back
to Rio" is the mindset for many.

Bets are already being laid as to who will end up in some sort of
trouble ashore, the known gas hounds taking the lead. So far the police
have investigated a few crew/local interactions since I've been to
Germany. The most memorable being when the 3A/E was shook down for 400
euro while his "Girlfriend" distracted him with her bare chest in the
red light district. That turned out to be an expensive date. The story
actually gets better when the Police arrived to question the offended
victim in the Captains reception area. As the third assistant reenacted
the event with boisterous animation in a thick Down East accent for the
attentive and attractive female detective, the Captain's face turned
redder and redder. Being very keen in maintaining good relations with
the local authorities the Captain later reported that he was looking for
a hole to crawl into out of embarrassment.

This time he has assured that any social misbehavior (Besides getting
robbed blind) ashore will be met with stern discipline aboard. This much
time in port for us is more of a privilege than a right. It would have
been easy enough for the company let us swing on the hook for a night or
two off Flushing.

(If you've read the front pages of the Official Log Book for Merchant
Ships lately you know that the Captain still retains the right to
restrict a sailor's rations to bread and water and may confine them to
quarters for disobeying direct and lawful commands until they can be
handed over to authorities in America)

Being in port will surely take some of the sting out of being at work
for Christmas. Just having access to cheap phone cards and a place off
the ship to talk with family will make a difference for us, especially
the crew with children at home. Until then I'll be dreaming of sugar
plum fairies in the form of the St. Pauli's girl on beer bottles and
hearty winter Sauerkraut. A large and long northerly swell born a few
days ago from some hellish storm is slowly rocking the ship and soon me
to sleep.


  1. I once sailed with a guy nicknamed "Max". Curious one day I asked the Bosun how he got the nickname, he said to take a look at the draw sheet...

    On the draw sheet next to each name was a blank spot for a signature and another to write in the amount of money you wanted drawn. Next to this guys name (on every entry) was "X" and "MAX".

  2. Oh yes, I first heard of Max Cash from my father when he would explain how he liked to receive his own payoffs. I now understand a little more about the excitement my mother exuded on his return from sea and why we were usually festooned in new clothes and either riding in a new family van or on a boat for the lake soon after picking him up from the airport. Not always the best choice for fiscal responsibility but it was always a good time for us kids.