Friday, August 01, 2008

Come Sail Away

Let me tell you a sea story...

That's how our radioman used to start his wonderful stories when I sailed on LNG ships half a lifetime ago. You knew that when he said that, you were in for a treat. It was guaranteed that within five minutes, you would be helplessly laughing at whatever reminiscence he would pull out of his ass from his forty years of sailing in the merchant marines.

I grew up in Michigan an hour or so away from any of our Great Lakes. From my earliest memories, going to any body of water was as close to a spiritual pilgrimage as I could get. When I was old enough to drive and my friends were going to all the "fun" places, I would plot out my escapes to our closest Great Lake, which was Huron.

I've heard people talk about the mountains or the desert in the same way that I feel about large bodies of water, it is humbling. In a culture where people feel entitled to grab mother nature by the nads, pollute at will, build at will, and "enjoy" nature by slowly destroying it, it is a vital lesson to be laid at the feet of nature and to learn that you are not in control.

I've sailed through typhoons in the South China Sea and in the dead of night, after putting on the brave face for my all-male crewmates all day, I've curled up with my life jacket as my pillow. Not putting it all the way on, mind you, just using it as a security blanket. The irony of the situation is that on an LNG, if it were to go down in a storm, there is a good chance that the temperature change would cause a very large boom to occur. If I really wanted to survive, I'd have to be very good at pulling an oar in a small lifeboat in the middle of a typhoon. Yeah, basically hanging onto the lifejacket was a way of saying "I'd rather blow up than drown".

But life on the LNG tankers was still fairly removed from having the spray in your face. We were 1000 feet long and aside from glimpses of whales or dolphins or once, a submarine that surfaced near us, it was kind of like working in an industrial factory.

Long before I sailed deep sea, I went to school at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City. If you get your spiritual ya yas from water, Traverse City is like the Vatican. I used to live within walking distance of several beaches and I spent my days in, on, and around boats. Back in the day, I volunteered on a schooner named the Malabar where we would take kids out into the bay and teach them lake ecology. It was also at this time that volunteers were helping to build the sister ship to the Malabar named the Madeline. I ended up dropping out of Great Lakes Maritime Academy when my mother got cancer and I returned home to try to get my head together as she died. I never saw the Madeline finished. I did, however, fall in love with these sailing ships. I would later go on to crew a couple similar ships on the east coast and that's where I learned that there is no feeling like being in the rigging when a sailing ship is underway. It is one of the most exilerating sensations. You have the best view in the house, you are so completly small, the ship feels totally alive, and if you are a very lucky person and the moon and the stars align, you'll have something else happen to affirm your miniscule status. Yeah, when I had this experience, a finback whale surfaced not far away and suddenly I was a very small person on a very small ship, with a very large animal in a vast, vast ocean.

It was amazing.

Perhaps you're wondering what's brought up all the nostalgia? Well, yesterday, three tall ships came into port in Duluth for our Maritime Festival. One of those tall ships was this one:

It's the Madeline. She's here from Traverse City and she's making me all weak in the knees. The newspaper commented that she is taking on crew members for a two week trip and I almost wet myself. I then read that it costs $1200.

Well, at least my memories are free!


Alaina said...

Just breezing by...saw your ship blog and thought I would comment...

Those ships looked gorgeous...we had planned on going down to view them and just ran out of time....

Did you tour any of them?

Debbie said...

Well, since I've had experience as a crewmate on tall ships, paying $10 to stand in the sun for five hours wasn't high on my list...if I hadn't had those experiences I probably would have sucked it up!