Friday, April 23, 2010

Becoming the dust

Allow me paint a picture for you. It's zero six hundred in the morning and the sun is slow to rise. I am dead tired from the last two days in port working my first cargo discharge on this ship. Despite six hours of STCW mandated rest the only brace I have against fatigue is the deliciously French pressed coffee I sip as the Gulf of Mexico slowly comes to life with supply vessels, fishing boats and birds.

As the sun rises and my weariness begins to give way to the caffeine I ask the new AB, a Yemeni from Dearborn Michigan, to take care of his sanitary duties on the bridge. With an emphatic "Yes Sir!" he takes up a push broom and in five minutes I'm almost doubled over from laughter in the corner where he can't see me. His sweeping methodology is akin to snow shoveling. His back heaves in the vertical plane in between horizontal thrusts after which he grinds the corn husk broom into the deck breaking straws and flinging dirt and dust bunnies haphazardly into the air.

I'm amazed that this Able Bodied Seaman, not much younger than myself, who has sailed on the Great Lakes since 2003, is completely incapable of effectively sweeping the bridge. I'm even more surprised because yesterday as a new crew member he stood out as a skilled quartermaster manning the helm for the narrowest and windiest parts of the Sabine River.

According to my new watch partner in his Great Lakes experience no one ever took the time to sweep the bridge well or much less paint the ship neatly, something else he confessed as not being able to do but was very interested in learning. "Deep Sea is so different" he told me as he explained that on the Great Lakes getting as much cargo on board and to the next port as quickly as possible, the longest run he ever had was 17 hours, were more important than all else, sanitary included.

Our conversation led into a half hour, one on one lesson about sweeping. I had never contemplated the possibility having to teach someone how to sweep. It had come naturally to me at a young age by a story my mother had told me about a skilled deck hand that would sweep her boat from stem to stern in the smallest successive sweeping motions imaginable. So I thought that if I could learn to sweep at the age of six than it would come naturally to most other seamen as well but here I was at sunrise, in the ocean, at work, instructing a seasoned Great Lakes mariner on how to do it.

We began on the port side behind the chart desk and and worked to the other end of the bridge brushing every square inch of shiny blue linoleum. In the gentle light I demonstrated half a dozen times how to make short small strokes without lifting the bristles too far and why using bulkheads is vital for corralling the dust. "You must think like the dust, you must become the dust" I waxed as we progressed finding each corner and nook in which the undo-er of electronics and clean freak mates resided.

Each time he would revert to his original method I would take the broom away and show him again. I explained how sweeping and painting were very similar and it was the paying of attention to detail that would make him great at both. His eagerness made me feel like I was doing an Outward Bound course all over again and for a moment I remembered that the thrill of seeing enlightenment in progress from your own instruction is one of the things that really sustains me in life.

The lesson also gave me cause to stop and ask myself, "Is this real? Am I actually teaching someone how to sweep the deck when steering a 70,000 dead weight tonne ship is part of their expected skill set. Yes, yes I am."

There will be a lot of learning with the 4 to 8 AB. Just yesterday I fielded two telling questions. The first was if we, as in mankind, could stop volcanoes from erupting. The second was asked after I had secured the mast head light early this morning to step out on the bridge wing and look at the night stars. I noticed basketball sized pulses of bio-luminescence in the wake and showed the AB. In amazement we then looked up at the night sky which was casting the palest of starlight on our faces unpolluted by land. I showed my new friend from Yemen the white cloud of stars that comprises the milky way and in all seriousness he asked me "Is that a rainbow?"

The sun was three hours from rising and as it turns out, Deep Sea sailing is a different place indeed. This week we'll be learning how to determine the direction from where the wind is blowing and how hard. It's Ocean Classroom all over again.

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