July 8, 2012 – At the Captain’s Table
I’m on the RED OCTOBER. Only this is not a submarine, I’m not Jack Ryan, and the captain is neither Ramius nor Sean Connery. However the officers are stalwart men with Russian accents. Or Croatian accents. Or Romanian accents. And I acquire an Old World affinity to them. Strangely it’s like coming home to some place I hadn’t known I’d left.
The small halls, the tight stairwells, the separate mess halls for officers and crew all work together to make me feel like I’m in a movie. I’ve never experienced this outside a television screen. This can’t be my life. It’s comfortable, wonderfully peaceful.
I’m really on the RICKMERS DALIAN, a German freighter vessel that takes cargo from port to port all around the world. The officers work it into their conversations with me that there’s a difference between container ships (that only carry cars like the ones seen on trains) and cargo ships which carry anything from steel parts to the fuselages of F16 planes. It seems an important distinction.
I’ve spent my first night in my new digs and am still wondering if I’ll be seasick once we move away from the dock as I head downstairs to the mess hall for breakfast. There are a few guys at the second officers’ table busy eating. I nod to them. The solemn, shaved headed officer is seated at his spot at my table.
“Good morning,” I say.
“You like eggs?” Joe asks me, coming in from the kitchen to hover near my elbow.
“That’s fine,” I say.
“Scrambled?” I ask.
“Okay,” Joe says.
It’s quiet at the table even when the Russian cadet breezes in, hastily eats her eggs and sausage and breezes back out again.
After a few bites of my scrambled eggs, I gather up my courage and open my mouth to talk. “Do you know if the water in the room is safe to drink?” I ask the solemn officer.
“You can ask the second engineer,” he says, motioning behind me to a happy faced Ukrainian who sits just behind and to the left of me. The second engineer turns at the mention of his name, his eyebrows raised in question.
“Is it safe to drink the water in the room?” I ask him.
He starts talking and I get a little bit lost in the Hunt for Red October accent. “If you want distilled water then I can bring you some,” I catch at the end of his spiel.
“Distilled water would be great,” I say, not entirely certain what my other option was.
“I’ll bring it to your room,” he says, “from the engine room. No problem.”
“Thank you,” I say, and we all get back to the business of breakfast.
It’s my second day on ship, and we’re still at port. I don’t really know when we’ll be leaving and that’s okay. I don’t have any place I really need to be until August 1st. Wherever this ship is until Hamburg, I’m with it. I’ve spent the morning in my cabin reading, making last minute calls, napping and watching the stevedores and crew work from the vantage point of my port side window. When the clock clicks its hands up to signal noon, I leave my room and walk down the four levels of stairs to the Officer Mess Room for lunch. I’m beginning to think my only true activity is eating. I take my assigned spot at the table next to an amiable Indian-Irish-American man who turns out to be the Houston port supercargo officer. His accent has the soft sing-song rise and fall of British India embedded in it. “English is my native tongue,” he tells me later when I ask him if he speaks Hindi, “if you can believe that.” He’s a good conversationalist and tells me stories of his years spent in Ireland, of his two daughters, of his ex-wife, and his love for his job, his time spent as a captain, his family in Houston and the seaman’s life. We’re never formally introduced, sometimes that seems unnecessary.
The man directly across the table from me wears a pink shirt, has glasses that he pushes up the bridge of his nose with his ring finger and a thin patch of hair that creates a small island from his lower lip to his chin; not quite a soul patch, but catching enough to seem distinguished in its own way.
The two men exchange stories of crews and ships and shipping companies. RICKMERS has more ships than just the DALIAN and when I signed my contract of passage I was originally to be on the RICKMERS HAMBURG, but got switched because of a change in itinerary. “I never had more trouble than with the HAMBURG,” the supercargo officer says. “There is always a problem with that ship. With the crew or with the captain or with the loads.”
I send up a silent prayer of thanks to the shipping gods for putting me on a friendlier and less high
“What do you do for an occupation?” the man in the pink shirt asks me.
“I’m a writer,” I say. Wondering if occupation has to mean there’s money involved or just a lot of work.
“Why does that not surprise me?” he says in response.
I let the question stay rhetorical, and the conversation moves away from me and back to sea tidings. After a while, my food long gone, I’m wondering how to make my escape when the Mess Room door cracks open and a dark headed guy dressed in an orange jumpsuit leans in. “Excuse me,” he says.
“Yes?” the pink shirted man asks.
“I was just looking for her,” he points his hand radio at me. “So I can orient her to the ship. But I can come back later.”
“I’m ready now,” I say, pushing my chair back from the table and standing. I start to pick up my plate to take it to the kitchen, but the supercargo officer stops me. “Just leave it,” he says.
I leave it as told, say “Excuse me,” to the men and step over the threshold through the door the guy is holding open for me.
“There will be test afterwards,” the supercargo officer calls after me.
“I’ll be sure to take notes,” I say over my shoulder.
“I’m the third officer,” my guide says. He’s young, beautiful, and Romanian, with a smile that’s not weighed down by the cares of this world. I fall slightly in love with him as one does with all young and beautiful souls. “We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up,” he tells me. “Because there are a lot of stairs.”
We go down a lot of stairs. The levels blur the first time through and I wish I were taking notes. The lower decks, the bottommost being called contrarily enough Upper Deck followed by the Poop Deck hold access to the Engine Room, the ship’s office and conference room, and other things like a recreation room, storage rooms and the crew’s laundry room that I lose track of as we pass from place to place. The A Deck has the Filipino working crew’s cabins. The B Deck holds the oilers and the bosun’s cabins. The C Deck houses the 2nd and 3rd officers, the engineer and the cadet, and has the officer’s laundry room. I’m on the D Deck with the captain, the chief engineer and the chief officer. Across the hall from the captain’s room there’s a lounge with a TV, a table with chairs, a few comfy chairs, a couch and shelves lined with books. One flight more and we’re on the Pilot Deck. Here the stairway seems to dead end. The third officer unlocks one door and we’re out in the fresh air on what I call the Pilot Deck’s deck. There’s walking space and good viewing points. I imagine I’ll be here a lot.
“The Blue Bar,” Third Officer says, walking to a room to the side of the Pilot Deck’s deck, “is where the crew makes parties. Usually on Saturday nights. The Filipinos love karaoke. I have bridge duty from eight to twelve and when they get loud I can hear them. Sometimes it’s really bad.” He makes a face, makes to cover his ears and grins.
Then we’re back inside, through another door, and up another short set of steps. “This is the bridge,” he tells me. There’s an important, special, almost sacred aura to the room. I feel like I need to whisper. We walk past the control center with its radar screens, knobs, switches, buttons, alarms, GPS systems, depth trackers, and the manual steering wheel. “You’re welcome to come up here anytime. We had passengers on a ship one time that we didn’t see for a week because they didn’t know they were allowed to come on bridge.”
“I know I have to announce myself when I come in,” I say. “But is there a special code or special words?”
He shakes his head. Smiles.
“I can just say, ‘hello?’”
“The captain is a very good guy. If you have any questions just ask. My first contract as third officer the captain and I didn’t get along,” he tells me leaning familiarly against the captain’s chair in front of the controls. “It made for a pretty bad time. This captain is a very good captain.”
I lower my voice and ask, “The man in the pink shirt is the captain?”
The third officer only has to think for a moment to remember the shirt. “Yes, the man in the pink shirt.”
I’m glad to have that knowledge. I hope I was sufficiently polite at lunch time when I didn’t know with whom I was sitting. I check my memory for anything I might have done. I think I’m good.
“The captain is also Romanian. My hometown in Romania is very small and actually the captain’s home is just a few streets over from mine.”
Small world, I think.
After the bridge tour the official orientation is over. The third officer whose name is Dan (I read it off his badge) gets me back to D Deck and with his duty done takes his leave.
In the Mess Room, my assigned spot at the table is taken by the supercargo officer. He notices me standing at odds nearby and pats the place next to him (which I know belongs to the Russian female cadet) and says, “For this meal you can sit here.” So I sit.
“We’re loading two F16s without wings this evening at seven o’clock. You can watch from the bridge deck if you’re interested,” he tells me.
Just after this announcement, the captain and a third man come in and take their spots. Joe brings the captain a plate filled with rice and vegetables. The captain explains that he doesn’t eat meat to help some health issues he had. Suddenly I don’t feel so awful about being a vegetarian, worrying about picking meat out of dishes, or sending back uneaten food. If the captain can do it on his own ship, surely I can too.
“Ma’am? Pork, ma’am?” Joe asks.
“Just vegetables?” I query.
“Pork chops?” Joe asks.
“Just vegetables,” the supercargo officer tells him firmly.
Not much later, Joe brings me a plate of vegetables. “Just vegetables,” he says.
I can tell the third man is straight Texas. He’s big, has that American tone of voice that edges on
loud, and is wearing a Texas Longhorn orange polo. I’m in that shy mode where I want to be noticed and disappear into invisibility at the same time. So it’s to my benefit that the men talk amongst themselves in such a way that I feel nicely ignored. Though they, at times, ask me a question or take the time to explain something (like men so often love to do with the girls in their company) just often enough to make me feel included.
“Do you understand what he’s talking about?” the Texan asks me, singling me out when the captain pauses for a breath. They’re talking about diesel fuel and consumption or something along those lines and I’m following just fine.
“I do,” I say politely, he’s not entirely convinced and there’s a small diversion of talk to bring me up to speed in his mind. I learn a lot this way; both by listening and by being explained to. Who was it that said, “People will tell you anything if you listen long enough”?
“How to explain you,” the captain says (not just to me) many times over the course of the days. He’s a filing cabinet of stories and he enjoys telling them. The men talk until their plates are clean. The Texan finally says, “Well, Captain, should we get back to work?”
The supercargo officer looks up at the clock. “Oh, yes, it’s almost seven o’clock. We should go.”
And they do.
Feeling brave, I try to find my way back to the Pilot Deck’s deck so I can watch the planes getting loaded. I get to the right floor but can’t remember which door to use. They’re all locked. I can’t even find my way back up to the bridge. This suddenly doesn’t seem familiar. Was it only hours ago I was shown the way? There were just too may doors, too many halls, too many floors.
I go back to my floor and stare at the ship’s schematics map on the hallway wall. I can’t see where the stairs connect from the pilot deck to the bridge. I can’t be this stupid.
“Hey,” I say, trying to look like I’ve always known how to read schematics and that standing in front of them in hallways is normal behavior.
“Hello, how are you doing?” he asks.
“I’m good. I’m just exploring,” I tell him. “But I can’t remember how to get to the deck or to the bridge.”
“You want to go to bridge?” he asks. I find out later he’s Croatian, but in this moment all I see is that he’s tall, has a twinkle in his eyes, and a quick smile that makes me believe I’ll be on the inside of all his jokes. I feel an immediate rapport with him. Like we’ve been friends for a long time or he’s a distant brother of mine. It’s a little like filial love too. “I’ll show you.” He turns on his sandaled heels and leads the way.
We go up to the same spot where I’d just gotten thwarted by locked doors. “At port we have to keep doors locked,” he explains. “For security.”
“Oh, I see.”
We walk up the stairs and stand side by side looking over the bridge. It still has that holy of holies feel.
“And to get to the deck below?”
“Ah.” The chief engineer (whose name—Josko--I read off the Officers chart in the Mess Room a few days later) takes me back down and to the other door I’d tried but hadn’t had the courage to unlock. I’ve lived by the rules so long I sometimes wonder what I miss by not turning locks or walking past signs or being quick enough to ask for answers. Now that I’m without internet I’m learning to get information the old school way. By asking. It’s kind of fun. “On Saturdays the crew makes a party in the Blue Bar,” the chief engineer tells me. “They really like to make their parties. They have BBQ and like to eat and sing karaoke. You can come if you want.”
We turn away from the Blue Bar and lean against the railing. Down, a few decks below us, is a square swimming pool. “The captain and I are on more permanent contracts with this ship,” the chief engineer says. “We trade with another captain and chief engineer instead of going from ship to ship. So we want to fix up things. We’ll repaint the pool and make it look much better and fill it back up to use.”
“Being able to stay on the same ship makes a difference in how you feel about things, I bet.”
“Yes,” he nods. We stand for a few moments reflecting on how ownership or responsibility makes one more apt to take care of things. Or at least that’s what I’m reflecting on. Josko breaks the brief silence to say, “If you’d like to see the engine room I can show you that in the next day or so.”
I watch until it’s all over and the sun is setting behind me. Then I step over the threshold from outside to in, pulling the door closed and locking it behind me.
Back in my room, I draw the curtains over my windows and glance around, think back over all I’ve seen. This ship is no submarine. She’s no RED OCTOBER, and I’m glad because that means I’ll get to stand on the outside deck with the wind in my face and the sun warming my skin and the sea undulating to all the points of the horizon as often as I like while I’m here.