Closed at Sea

by Michele Christle
On the ship, there were 23 men. I was not one of them. I was one of them. The vessel was a container ship, carrying thousands of tons of cargo across the Pacific Ocean. The ship was 906 feet long. My father was the Chief Mate and I was the only passenger, along for a fancy, exploration, and to behold the environment that shaped my father for the past thirty-odd years as a merchant mariner.

The voyage took 35 days. Crossing the Pacific took 10. We hit Long Beach, Oakland, Busan, South Korea, Yokohama, Japan, Shanghai, China, Yangshan, China, Okinawa, Japan, Busan again and back across the Pacific Ocean. To a veteran sailor, 35 days at sea is nothing—some go out for four or five months at a time. One sailor told me he liked sea voyages, because in contrast to his hectic life on land, every voyage has a foreseeable beginning, middle, and an end.

Two members of the crew were young cadets from an exclusive maritime academy. Most were older, many were veterans, quite a few were alcoholics, some practicing, others dry. Some kept their distance. They were mostly white, North American, self-proclaimed as happily divorced or remarried to women from the Philippines half their age. There was one man from Yemen, one from the Philippines. Former addicts, former convicts, former husbands, former fathers. Current sailors; all other identities could be left behind. These were storied men with jokes and nerve—my only company for the voyage.

My father began shipping out shortly after he married my mother. First, as an Ordinary Seaman and eventually as a Chief Mate. Some merchant mariners choose to live near a port, so that they can keep a close eye on incoming ships and jobs posted at the union halls. My parents chose to live near a lake in New Hampshire. When the money ran out, my father packed his sea bag and headed to the union halls of Boston, Seattle, or Oakland, ready to jump on whatever ship was coming in and never knowing where he would end up next. He went to Nigeria, Brazil, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Liberia, Panama, Kuwait. He took pictures of icebergs and brought home parasols, jewelry, and masks. Every time he went back to sea, he promised my sister and I that one day he would take us with him.

My quarters were on the second-highest floor, hundreds of feet above sea level. Many rows of containers were stacked between the ship’s house and the bow. They rested in towers, high above the deck, secured by hatches and dogs. We carried electronics, medicine, copper pesticides, and ice cream for the American military in Asia.

The days were divided into four-hour chunks. At all times, an officer and an able-bodied seaman stood watch in the wheelhouse, their eyes behind binoculars, fixed on the horizon. My father worked the 4 to 8 watch. During the second half of the later watch, I joined him. The sun was always setting.

What kind of things are you looking for? I asked.

Something wrong. Something strange. Something out of place, they said.

A good day for a sailor is when all systems are functioning normally and there is nothing on the horizon to catch your eye.

My time was loose; I had no duties. I wandered the decks as if I were the ghost of a cruise. It took seven minutes to walk from the bow to the stern. At meals, I ate in the duty mess, where both the officers and the crew could lawfully sit together. With time, I was invited to wash down the deck with the gang. I followed my father deep into the cobwebbed bowels of the ship to monitor a malfunctioning bilge pump. I sat in the hot engine control room with the engineers. The deck department tried to get me to jump rope with them using the mooring lines on the stern. At midnight, I went ashore to Texas Street in Busan, visiting the fondly dubbed “Four Floors of Whores.” I followed the sailors wherever they would go, wherever they would let me be.

All merchant mariners will tell you that things have changed since the industry’s heyday when ships spent weeks in port to allow local dockworkers to manually offload their cargo. There were beaches to roam in Madagascar, girls to meet in Brazil. One sailor told me about making love during a monsoon to a girl he met in Calcutta and the thrill of reuniting with her there a year later. Another bragged about finding his way into bed with the mistress of a cathouse—it was forbidden but she couldn’t resist him. The longer they had to spend in port, the easier it was to develop relationships to the land and people. Merchant mariners often romanticize these days, and along with it, the camaraderie they felt with their fellow sailors.

Coordination and cooperation are still a requisite part of the job. Hands still work together when the mooring lines are being laid out or the anchors are being dropped. The problem, if you would call it that, is that little is done with these bonds when the day is done. On this ship, instead of laughing or nodding about a day of hard work, a night in a storm, the sailors retreated to their rooms, as did I.

One sailor blamed the phenomenon of cocooning—people holing up in their rooms with technology in order to avoid conflict. Nearly every bedroom on the ship has a television. Flat screen televisions still hang in the lounges—the unlicensed workers occasionally hosted Wii-bowling tournaments. The only sailor I saw in the officers’ lounge was T. making popcorn to take back to his room. T. was a mountain of one-sad-turned-mad experiences piled on after another—a trail of wives and vast knowledge of various Asian cuisines remaining from each. The only thing he brings to sea with him these days is a photograph of his daughter. He brought it up on the bridge one day to show me.

She lives with her mother. I don’t see her much but I think we have a good relationship, he said.

She’s beautiful, I said.

She must take after her mother, an eavesdropping sailor said.

T. ignored him.

Did you hear me? I said she must take after her mother. Because she sure doesn’t take after you.

T. returned the photograph to his wallet and slid it into his back pocket. A familiar weight. He withdrew to his room, patting his pocket on his way down the ladder.

The longest time we were in port was about 20 hours. The average was 10—just enough time to get to the closest bar, Internet café, shopping center, or cathouse. There is massive pressure to stay on schedule, keep costs low, and come up under budget. There are mandates regarding how many hours the sailors can work and how many hours of consecutive sleep they should get, but by the end of the voyage, they were overworked and we were all crazy.

They had warned me of the inevitable threat of boredom and the dangers of going mildly or extremely insane. There were stories of hallucinations. Men overboard. Angry crewmembers taking axes to doorways. To combat this, it was understood that you should have some sort of hobby. So they studied real estate and transcendentalism. They read books about the Tuskegee Airmen. They wrote to their wives, lovers, and children. They probably watched a lot of porn.

But around me, the boss’s daughter, we’re keeping it clean, they said. My presence was an interruption to the flow of their conversations. Their sense of propriety was based on a loose interpretation of political correctness and company policy. It did not mean that they wouldn’t use the term “woman” as an insult.

What do you do to stay sane? I asked a man whose walls were plastered with breasts and derrieres.

This, he said, cracking open a can of beer.

Many sailors are loners by nature. Some report that going to sea has made them even more so. The divorce rate among merchant mariners is unbelievably high.

The best relationship I ever had, said one of them, was with a girl whose father was a sailor. She kind of understood.

I have known few other children of sailors. In this rare account of a parallel woman, another sailor’s daughter, what could I learn? What was familiar? The notion of reliable absence. Winters with women. A perennial resignation to the idea that men need to go away so that we could eat and live and have opportunities. The question I had then, as I have now, is how much of these choices are financial and how much is about desire for a life outside and beyond? Or, a desire to flee?

You’ve got to have something to live for at home, the sailors said. If you don’t, that’s when the problems start.

Why do you do it? I asked again and again.

For the money and the time off, they all said.

Why are you here? They asked me.

 

 

My prepared response was that it was both for experience and to provide context that would allow me to comprehend the work my father had done to support our family. I wanted to understand the pressures of life onboard a containership and the effects of those pressures on the crew. Beyond that, I wanted to understand how the crew brought their experiences home with them and how those experiences affected each sailor’s relationships and families. I wanted to understand how my father’s protracted absences affected my own potential to love when I never trusted or expected my lovers to stay. I wanted to see if the place to which my father had withdrawn for so many years could offer me any clues to my own solitude.

One sailor told me about sleeping next to a sex worker who reached for him in the night. He woke up to find her pulling his back closer to her while they slept. There was something else there, he said, something that gave him pause. While his confession of relief at this unexpected intimacy did not erase my sense of the potential violence and exploitation of the sex trade industry, it gave me pause as well.

During the last week of the voyage, the ship threw a pizza party, both as a morale booster and to celebrate a voyage without incident. Our ship had pitched and rolled on the edge of a typhoon but we delivered our cargo safely. Several presents were presented to me during the party—a mug and baseball cap sporting the ship’s logo, as well as a certificate of “nautical excellence” that they had all signed.

You are part of the crew now, they told me.

One sailor gave me a handheld mirror with inlaid mother of pearl. He looked like a movie star—a chest of steel and furtive obsidian eyes. He called me the Pacific Princess. He brought his own salad dressing from home and ate his meals in his room. He had done time in prison. Halfway through the trip, he stopped taking his medication and was keeping people awake at night, yelling and thrashing against the bulkhead. When we passed each other in the hallway, he always called me Sunshine. He was the only one who dressed up for the party—his bulging back muscles resting underneath a freshly pressed lavender button-down shirt.

What the fuck are you wearing, man? One sailor yelled. You smell good enough to fuck!

This mirror, you can use it for an SOS signal, he said, if you are ever in an emergency and you need help, you can just flash it up to the sky. If there’s a helicopter. You can make a distress signal.

He grinned at me and I back at him. He equipped me with a tool to use if I am ever in an emergency. To see myself. To flash at the sky.

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Closed at Sea