Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Meditations on being lost at sea.

      As of the last few weeks the ship Bounty has been on my mind, as well as the two souls that were lost forever from this world when the ship went down. As a sailor the thought of abandoning ship is a subject of both my thoughts and nightmares fairly regularly. There is no way to understand it unless you have experienced it, as of yet I have been extremely fortunate despite a couple of mild to moderate close calls I have always come back. For this I have to thank excellent shipmates, captains, and mates for doing their jobs very well both for themselves and for those of us sailing with them.
      The best understanding I can lend to someone of the terror that lumpy weather can inspire on a ship comes from an excerpt of a larger narrative I have been slowly completing over the course of this sailing season. The entire piece is in and of itself not about sailing but the subject so often meditated upon by writers, a beautiful woman.
     The voyage to Kingston, Ontario, was the beginning, the ragged edge of a crack that would manifest, and then grow to gigantic proportions, destroying the bliss that was my life. The Welland Canal transit was infamous for both exertion and frustration. Negotiating this waterway’s seven locks entailed the installation of bulky wooden canal fenders, adjusting the placement of yards, housing the main top-gallant yard, and at least twenty four hours with all hands on deck and on duty for the majority of this time. Niagara has no power winches we pulled the ship up each increase in elevation with mooring lines and turning blocks. No Mechanization, no mercy. I served most of the Welland transit as assistant cook. I don't know which was worse but the bottom line was that none of us made it back from Kingston the same. The itinerary we served out was insane, total command disconnect from the physical reality of a schedule deftly created at a desk by people wearing suits and ties. Docking at Kingston, sailing to Bath 2 hours away, dropping a hook, weighing anchor, sailing back to Kingston, then sailing back to Bath at night to recreate the beginning of the flight of the Royal George. No one slept, sleep was a taunt, a tease, holding its infinite bliss just out of our reach. "Good morning, this is your wake-up, today you will work until you want to die, tomorrow you will do it again." The small bit that kept me going was the time I spent with Mariah under a willow tree. A measure of peace brought forth from recognizing the fatigue and frustration in the heart of another who I held dear. For just that short while under a tree we were able to laugh, live, and love. We survived, we made it, we finished the voyage and despite the fact that I was falling asleep on the throttles as we emerged from the Welland I felt optimistic, like some time in Erie to recharge would fix me. Then the next twelve to twenty four hours happened. 
       As we progressed further out from the canal the sky over Lake Erie darkened. As the beginnings of a storm cell started to rough us up a bit we received the Coast Guard distress call that would ensure we would have close calls twice that day. A small yacht off the south shore of Lake Erie had lost power and the Coast Guard requested vessels in the vicinity give aid. The captain decided to approach the vessel and perhaps bring it under tow to get the boaters out of danger. As we were on our way to do this the wind was picking up by the second and the seas started to get choppy. Initially this is fun, initially. by the tail end of my watch gusts were topping out around thirty. As I recall we had no sail set and were motoring. Perhaps thirty minutes after being stood down the motion in the ship when from delightfully spirited to downright rough. The wind had reached the mid forties and things were officially getting sketchy. By this time the Coast guard radioed again to indicate that they had peeled off a cutter for the stranded boaters, leaving us in the middle of a violent storm cell for naught. After a cursory look around the deck I went back below. Shortly thereafter an all hands called was issued. The problem was that it was issued very poorly. People did not pass it along below decks leaving some confused as to what had just happened. As voices got more frantic, confusion spread and in no time at all I began to feel a slight knot in my stomach. As I fumbled with my foul weather gear the call for all hands on deck went out again, this time the voice, and the motion of the ship belied the severity of the situation. "All hands on deck now!!!" echoed throughout the birth deck. When I came up in a t-shirt and shorts the wind was so violent it was chillingly cold, the rain now close to horizontal. The Captain had four professional crew members on the helm struggling to keep us bow to the wind. It was challenging enough that the side to side motion was becoming downright frightening. Eventually we were lined up on the windward rail of the ship to wait out the blow. I don't know how long it lasted. I know it seemed very long because I was mildly scared and cold. I don't know which one of those was more powerfully motivating. All in all, the first blow topped at forty seven knots and cost us enough time to set us up for the second blow of the day.
          The first blow took place sometime in the early afternoon. Several hours elapsed before the second, which cropped up virtually out of nowhere, heartrendingly close to the warmth and respite of our home slip. Had it not been for the Coast Guard errand we pursued, we would have missed it altogether. It was evening, perhaps seven or eight o’clock when we went all hands to dock near the mouth of the channel into Presque Isle Bay. As we approached an ominous black cloud formation darkened the western skyline, making me uneasy. Mooring lines were rigged and we were so very close to getting to use them when the wind started to fill in rapidly. Twenty knots, thirty, thirty five, then it became clear we would be eating this storm as well. Rain started to fall, the radar view of the cell showed a lot of red headed straight at us. Rain continued, the water got choppy and the wind kept blowing harder all the time. The captain had the port anchor made ready to drop as we used the engines to keep us bow to wind. At this point everything shook loose. The wind got even worse, rain was now flying nearly horizontal and visibility had dropped off to almost nothing. The ship was swaying violently side to side even worse than before. All hands was called and everyone was told to don a life jacket and stand along the windward rail. Every time I looked at Mariah I saw my thoughts on her face, “this isn't fun anymore, what is going to happen?” This time I at least had my foulies on. Some of the trainees, high school kids were crying, some of the apprentices were as well. I stood next to Mariah and waited as nature’s fury pounded the ship. Our friend Claire came up on deck late, with no foulies. Apparently someone forgot about the Assistant cook’s cabin when passing the all hands call .Claire looked absolutely miserable, Mariah and I stood on either side of her to provide some protection from the wind and rain. As the wind crested at fifty two knots the Captain decided the only way we weren’t getting blown over, or onto land for that matter was to drop the hook and hope for the very best. The wind and rain was so loud that those dropping the anchor could not hear the captain on the radio. Commands were screamed back and forth ever more frantically. I looked at Mariah and saw real, poignant fear in her eyes for the first time. I am sure she saw the same in mine. At that moment her hand reached out and found mine. We both squeezed hard and waited. There was nothing else to do. Finally, after what felt like decades spent in cold, wet, fear the hook went down, gripped the bottom, and held us. The engines and rudder were used to pivot us on the hook and keep us bow to wind. The storm blew over and a collective gasp of relief and exhaustion went up from all of us. From this moment on the routine was somewhat normal. We pulled up the hook, got to the dock, tied up and stowed the ship. What was going on in my mind was far from normal. I was thinking about what would have happened if either of those two squalls would have went differently? For the worst god forbid? What would be left undone for me? What would I have regretted not doing? My mind immediately jumped to Mariah and the willow tree. As I walked up behind her on the plaza I put my arms around her and whispered “is it weird that maybe almost dying made me horny?” She smiled back at me and replied “not really.”I kissed her cheek and walked on. I set up an air mover in the shop for drying out everyone’s sopping wet gear. When I got upstairs to the crew kitchen in the museum I saw her coming out of the doorway. I went for her fast, arms wrapped around tightly and just kissed her as hard as I could without hurting her. The squall had snapped my priorities into crystal perspective, and she was too important to lose, or to die without having loved fully and truly. At least one crew member saw us like this, and we remained so for several minutes. Eventually we managed to pry ourselves loose from ourselves and began scrounging booze like everyone else. Mariah and I, Chelsea, and Alex all sat on the balcony drinking, smoking cigarettes and staring blankly into the night as we relived the squalls. It was reminiscent of all the scenes in war movies where battered soldiers smoke cigarettes down to their fingers trying to come to grips with what just happened to them, and their friends. Mariah and I came to grips on a bed of burlap and sleeping bags in the sail locker. Neither of us has ever looked back and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have loved her long enough and well enough that I could leave this world at any moment and be at peace.

This excerpt is a little piece of what bad weather at sea really is. My heart rends at the thought of the Bounty crew getting to the other side of my question, what if it had gone differently? The fear associated with distress on a ship is heightened by the fact that you might as well be in a space shuttle, everything you need to survive in a foreign environment is on the ship, your floating home. Water is not where we live, no matter how well you swim or float, you are intruding in a place you have no right to be. You lose your ship, your chances of survival get really slim, really quickly. While saddened by the Bounty tragedy I am happy that the Coast Guard got as many back as they did. My heart goes out to the families and friends of Claudine Christian and Robin Walbridge, you are our brother and sister mariners and will be forever missed.

Stay Safe out there.

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