Friday, October 29, 2010

Returning to the Routine

Those late to rise easy going mornings on vacation, sipping coffee while listening to NPR, walking to the local bagel shop for breakfast, conversing with the fair proprietor while picking the fleas off her Corgi have given way to the horrendous ring of a telephone mere meters from my head at three twenty in the morning. When I was traveling in Guatemala I learned a word for this time of day; madrugada or early morning and on the four to eight watch every second of la madrugada can drag.

Each day at sea begins by mentally more than physically pulling myself out of bed, halfheartedly dragging a toothbrush across my teeth and then relying on the power of caffeine to keep me alert until the sun finally comes up sometime between six o'clock and breakfast. It's a tiring day starting so early and continuing until nine at night if I want to read or call home. My reluctance to nap doesn't help. Doing so would mean no time to write this blog or work off stress in the gym.

Gym time is going to have to be more of a priority this hitch than ever before. That's because the food our multi-talented steward and overqualified cook put out is unlike anything seen throughout the history of the American merchant marine. I would venture that these two men make better food than most privately owned restaurants ashore.

It is absolutely unbelievable fare, especially given the budget constraints the steward operates within and on top of pan seared scallops with rice pudding and bacon wrapped sirloin with asparagus the steward can bake like a son of a sea biscuit. Furthermore the numerous instances when a familiar face has asked me "Have a good vacation mate? Looking kinda pudgy aren't ya?" is lending me to believe I let myself go a little this last time home. I suppose a thousand bottles of Shipyard Ale and half a dozen bagels a week could do that.

On a side note the Steward told me that crew, namely the last Boatswain and another unlicensed individual of formidable beam, complained about the quality of the food. They were genuinely upset that hot dogs, grilled cheeses and fried chicken were not making a weekly appearance on the menu. After the Steward tried to explain that he uses a more expensive canola oil in the fryer rather than a blend of hydrogenated oils and that fried chicken ruins the oil he just gave up. Word is that the cook will be pulling out all the stops now that the grumblers have left and a truly supportive clientele has returned.

In addition to the incredible meals and a well appointed (And secured) gym for burning them off I'm extremely grateful for two other refreshing differences onboard. One, it's not my first trip which means all the systems my relief and I have put in place are well . . . in place. No need to organize the paint locker or corral loose lashing gear and tools, it's all ready been done. Nor do I need to create endless three ringed binders of documents, certificates and inspection records, that's all been done. Instead my time can be used more productively repairing, maintaining and improving on the systems and most importantly the ship.

The second aspect of this trip that I'm absolutely thrilled about is the fact that I have a crew. My last voyage there and back to the Middle East was greatly lacking in competent manpower. One of the watch standing "Able Bodied Seamen" refused to work overtime on account of his disdain to work for idiots, also known as mates, since he himself was about to become one and was keenly aware that he was of a seafaring caliber far above and beyond any of us officers (He claimed he was about to sit for the licensing exam and yet couldn't distinguish a pilot boat from a fishing boat day or night).

Another watch stander was certifiably nuts and earned the nickname wind talker for prolonged conversations on the bridge wing with no one else present. When he would turn to for overtime he liked to use his needle gun as a chipping hammer breaking off needles to the boatswain's dismay and was an absolute hazard with a paintbrush.

One of the dayworkers, and my best A.B., was so exhausted by a shipyard and six months onboard that he stopped working his two hours in the evening while the other watch stander was 71 and ran on a permanent slow ahead bell. Plus half way through the east bound trip the other dayman twisted his ankle and was sent home from the middle east leaving me down yet another man for at least a week.

Unlike last voyage this time around it seems that I have guys that want all the OT they can get and appear capable of the skill set expected of any seaman before the mast. Even my aforementioned elderly watch partner who has now had his 72nd birthday onboard and is still here is an incredible cleaner professing just this very morning his love of all things janitorial. He hasn't missed more than a week of overtime the whole five months he's been onboard and keeps the gym and bridge spotless.

Despite the heartache returning to sea conjures in one's personal life it would be a lie to say I wasn't a little inspired to be back at work returning to the routine of a seafaring existence. Every sense is stimulated by something here at sea which is completely unknown to land dwellers and absent from the last three months at home.

When I go to work in the morning the sky is filled with unimpeded starlight. The bridge is filled with the aroma of Folgers coffee, something that smells a million times better brewing than drinking and would never be found in my cupboards.

Everything inside the windows is dark save for the glow of two radar and a gyro repeater on the helm stand. The caterwaul of nine pin Sat-C printers screeching out the latest hurricane advisory can be heard every twenty minutes and the distant calls of a lonely Filipino bridge watch looking for someone to talk with in Tagalog comes over the VHF radio throughout the morning.

On deck the mellifluous metallic symphony of needle guns working the rust off steel blends with the constant thump thump emanating from the main engine's exhaust stack. The paint locker smells of epoxy resins and thinner where as the nearest fuel vent intoxicates the nostrils with the sweet sulphuric smell of mother earth's gunkiest oil.

During the day the smell of the next impending meal, the harbinger of rest on ship, fills the stomach with expectation. Clouds are reflected on a pristine ocean surface which hides a water column 16,000 feet deep. The bulbous bow pushes an endless bulge of clear liquid as bright blue flying fish dart for their lives across an ocean I forgot could be so easily admired. In it's seductiveness on a blue bird day the sea can almost make you feel welcomed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Bus

It is inevitable, this bus ride down the sunless highways of New England. Southward to the airport where bags in hand the next three months of my life will begin. This is the dreaded commute filled with a numbness I’ve cultivated from a young age. A commute filled with acceptance of the unescapable reality that has shaped the lives of mariners for centuries. Filled with goodbye hugs and sad text messages. Filled by reluctance and anticipation.

At a young age I remember my dad disappearing into the sky over Maine. My mother would pull the van to the side of the road along the runway and there we would watch my dad’s plane lift off the ground. I remember the seabag he would pack, a massive black navy style seabag big enough to fit all four of the kids which he joked about doing so he could bring us to sea. There would be socks and underclothes, razors and shaving cream and a brown briefcase with his license. That was about all that filled the nearly empty bag that drifted down the conveyor and disappeared through the wall.

Those goodbyes were hard on my mom as were the next three or four or six months raising four boys in the woods. Knowledge of these goodbyes were the only reason for which I hesitated following in the same path to work at sea. Yet the education and then the job felt so right I forced myself to ignore how hard these mornings are and learned to deal with it numbing myself a little each time until I could at least get back on the boat and see the open ocean.

Change is inevitable. When it involves leaving all that is good in my life at least I have the time to prepare. I do this in two ways, one of which I realize is hard for some of my friends to understand. “Why aren’t you going surfing today?” A friend asked the other morning. I couldn’t blame him for not understanding why cleaning my apartment and wrapping up all the loose ends was more important than enjoying my last 72 hours of freedom on dry land or in the surf.

Yet this is how I deal with leaving an empty home. I clean it thoroughly, unplug all the appliances, lock the windows and secure the systems. I leave it like a mothballed ship ready for reactivation as soon as I return for the comfort of knowing my home is clean and waiting, my business completed and my life on hold, allows me to better keep moving forward and to tackle the impending voyage at sea.

The other way I deal with the change is to pack. Unlike my old man’s nearly empty sea bag I attempt to bring every comfort I might need with me to sea. With the luggage limitations, and the green impression a massively overpacked bag brings with it to a ship, I have gotten better about packing lighter and leaving as much gear on the ship as possible. Still, it would be a lie to say my duffel didn’t contain a bottle of Vermont maple syrup, a pound of Starbucks coffee and enough Tom’s of Maine toothpaste to last a year.

Packing in itself has become a chore I dislike as much as these predawn departures orchestrated by a penny pinching company reluctant to pay for direct daytime flights. Even after years of practice it is a stressful affair feeling as if I’ve missed something, some article without which I will not be as prepared as I should be. Even on the bus I feel like something must have been forgotten sitting on the kitchen table or the bureau. Perhaps it’s just the knowledge that once I’m hurling down the road towards the airport there’s no turning back and if I ever did forget something, like a passport or my eye glasses, I’d just be plain old screwed, blued and tattooed.

Cleaning, packing, commuting. They are a few of the challenges involved in seafaring but they hardly compare to saying goodbye. It’s leaving the people, the friends and the family, that make this commute so brutal. The mornings we watched my dad’s plane fly away, something which my mom would learn not to do with time, were heavy events. Nothing has changed from then to now except that I’m the one saying goodbye and there are no children involved (At least not my own).

No matter how many reassurances that cheap satellite phone calls and internet connectivity are a blessing to long distance relationships there is nothing to fill that physical void left when you leave someone (Very) unique and close to you behind. Just as this bus increases the distance between two people it also increases the time apart and this is a burden unlike any other I know in relationships. It has to be true that no other wife, husband or partner knows any greater sacrifice than that which is required to love a sailor. Not even soldiers will spend as much time away in isolated places doing dangerous work.

As the bus passes by the sleeping homes of Boston and I am furthered on my way to meet the ship there are two additional things which I carry with me that bring more comfort than all the maple syrup I could pack. One is having work to return to on a good vessel with excellent management and therefore a means to a living. The other is knowing that someone is waiting for my return. The two most important things I have.