Wednesday, July 25, 2012


July 25, 2012 – Mustering

Suddenly an alarm goes off. Loud and persistent. I grab my life jacket, slam into my shoes and head to the Muster Station on the A Deck. Josh and I meet in the hallway and clomp down the stairs together. By the time we’re out in the open air the entire crew is already gathered, suited and life jacketed. I feel like a snail. It’s the competitive nature in my soul that says, “I’ll make better time the next go round.”

It’s Saturday out at sea. It’s drill time.

I’d been told that on Saturdays, when not at dock, work goes until around noon, then lunch, later, around 3:00 they run through afternoon drills and then the guys get a break until Monday morning. I’d felt some apprehension; the kind of trepidation that comes when I don’t know exactly how to do something, where to go, or what’s required of me. I reassure my fearful self with the thought that that’s what drills are for, to prepare everyone for the event of a real emergency.

“There will be a drill at fifteen-thirty,” the third officer Dan had warned me and Josh earlier when we were leaving the mess room.

“Bring your life jacket,” the second engineer told me.

I’d been prepared. Just not rushed.

I’m clipping my life jacket and adjusting the straps when the chief officer pushes a button on his walkie-talkie, “Chief to bridge.”

“Bridge. Go ahead.”

“Crew is assembled.

“Very good,” the captain’s voice crackles through. He tells the chief to check all equipment and then to go on to the next set of drills.

We all check the lights on our life jackets, test the whistles. The guys help me first, leave Josh to figure things out on his own. Making their rounds, both the chief officer and the third come to verify that our lights work; that everything is safe and set.

“If they don’t work,” Dan says, testing Josh’s light for himself. “I have replacement parts.”

The chief reports the end of the check up to the bridge and the captain orders the next drill to begin.
Josh and I are steered up a flight of stairs along with the cadet and the new crew we’d picked up in Philadelphia. The emergency boat’s door gets unlatched and we clamber inside. The boat is tilted down towards the water and I adjust my body to the slant and squeeze into my assigned seat number 6. I slide my arms through the shoulder straps and clip the seatbelt tight.

“You’re the first one,” Domin, the second officer, tells me with a smile, motioning at my seatbelt. I beam with pride.
Once we’re all in and belted, we each get a turn to start the boat. When it’s my turn, Valerii, the second engineer, motions me over and I climb into the driver’s seat. He shows me how to start the engine, where the boat release handle and the throttle are, and how to manage the steering. I press a button, flick a switch and the engine cuts off.
My turn is over so I get down out of the seat, climb up to the door and then I’m out in the open air again.

Once everyone has had their turn we go back to the A Deck.

“Okay,” Dan tells me. “You can go if you’d like. The crew has to run through more drills, but since you don’t have any responsibilities as passengers it’s okay for you to go.”

“Is it okay if I stay and watch?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says.

“And I can take pictures?”

“Of course.”

I turn and tell Josh what I’d been told. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. But you can watch if you’re interested.”

He slips away as if into the night and I stick around. 

The crew splits up to go handle various tasks. I tag along with the second officer who is in charge of the medical team.

“The crew has to assemble in three minutes or less when an alarm goes off,” Domin tells me. I mark my mental time clock to move faster next time. Joe brings a stretcher. I stand with him, Jay the cook, and Domin. We watch from the landing as another team runs through a simulated fire drill.
The guys put on fire suits and bring out tanks. Jake sets up against the port side of the ship with a hose. On the starboard side another team is doing a similar drill, but I can’t see them from where I’m standing.

They run through the motions and when the “fire” is out the chief engineer reports the success of the operation to the bridge. The Filipinos joke as they move. They literally know the drill. Their laughter, their teasing, their jumping into the frames of my photographs are just the diversions they use to break the monotony of their lives. They’re playing up to me. They like that I’m interested. So they move over, motion me around, and make others get out of my way so I can see everything that’s happening. When a group moves into the CO2 tank room, I’m up on the stairs. One of the guys waves me down, directs me inside. They all wait until I find a spot to watch from before continuing with the lecture.

The second engineer explains how to flood rooms with CO2 in the case of a fire, gives instructions on how to proceed, who to call, what to watch out for. There are real dangers at sea. This is not an easy life. These guys flirt with death, with accident, with the perils of weather and water every day. They try to not take anything too seriously except for safety, of course.
“Battle stations!” is the next call. They have some small defenses against pirates or attacks. Water pressure, brooms?
Nadia, the cadet, is next to me. She has a camera too. We smile at each other.

I say something like, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s funny,” she says. And she laughs.

When everything has been put back in its place we all go to the conference room. Dan reads out instructions about the pirate areas near the Gulf of Aden. “Just read the important parts,” the chief officer tells him.

Half way through a paragraph about navigation the electrician Marius chimes in, “This is not important. Read something else.” Marius just came on in Philadelphia. He’s Romanian, the same as Dan the third officer. They’d served on another ship when Dan was a cadet. Dan told me that he was coming on board; that they were friends. These two joke, argue, talk like brothers, like best friends. Marius comes in like he’s always been on this ship. That’s just how it goes from contract to contract, ship to ship. All these guys gossip like geese. When I see Marius at the table he knows my name without being introduced, he knows what I do, where I’m from, talks to me like we’ve known each other as long as he and Dan.

“You make Texas BBQ tonight at the party?” he asks one day at lunch.

I shrug and turn up a hand. “Why not?”

The Filipinos are talking to each other in soft voices, laughing, goofing off while Dan keeps on reading. I’m not really paying attention either. When Dan finishes, chief officer Ihor reports the progress to the bridge and the captain dismisses us all.
The air gets even lighter. The boys are off work. They swarm out and go to rest up and to prepare for the party later that night. In addition to the regular festivities it’s also the captain’s birthday. Some of the crew gathers around one of the walkie-talkies and they sing Happy Birthday up to the captain.

Work is over and done. It’s the weekend, kids!

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