November 13, 2019

Life at Sea: Moments from My Seafaring

The life of any mariner at sea is completely different from life on land. For merchant vessels, it’s tough all year ‘round. Here are a few moments from my own seafaring—albeit a small fraction of the hardships and complexities that crewmembers on cargo ships experience.

To start, the weather is rarely ideal. While sailing through the doldrums of the equator, seafarers will face an intense humid heat that will cause them to have rivulets of sweat running down every part of their body. You would want to wear as little clothing as possible were it not for the burning sun beating down where even re-applying sunscreen every two hours will not prevent sunburns.

But then the ship might sail to the high northern or southern latitudes where the bitter cold (coupled with the strong winds and high humidity) makes it so that the crew needs to dress up with so many layers—that they look like astronauts—in order to go out on deck. And even then, the spray and moisture will find a way through the best protective clothing to freeze extremities and chill the core, making time creep by, so that every minute feels like hours, especially when nearing the end of a watch.

And that’s not to mention the violent storms and squalls that can form and turn a calm blue sea into a white roaring torrent of water—where waves the size of small buildings crash around the ship.

I remember when I was sailing across the Northern Pacific on a Clipper 70 sailboat, when we were caught in a very strong storm which became a force 12 on the Beaufort scale. Not only was most of the crew seasick, but we were all getting bruised from constantly getting tossed around due to the rocking and rolling of the ship. But up on deck, the conditions were even worse. The ship’s rigging was howling like a banshee and the sea spray from breaking waves not only felt like a thousand hot needles, but also made it almost impossible to see.

Despite all of this, even in the worst of the storm, there is a particular beauty.

As the boat was gently picked up by another monstrous wave, you could see the horizon, and with it, the roaring white-cap tipped waves—which looked like snow covered mountains—stretching as far as the eye could see. Then, a 45 ton sailboat would go careening down the wave, reaching speeds of over 30 knots, and throwing around so much spray that the sun would shine through—creating rainbows that would follow us at every turn. It simply felt like I was on a big surfboard.

And at night it became even more magical.

As the waves would crash around the boat, they would activate the bioluminescent plankton—making the turbulent water light up in a bright green, mesmerizing glow. And every time a wave would break onto the bow of the ship, the plankton would illuminate in an explosion of green sparks that looked like  someone tossing another log onto a bonfire. This spellbinding firework-show of a stormy ocean was at once both terrifying and wonderful, but its beauty was enough to give us the strength to be able to fight through the storm.

But the ocean does not have to be stormy to be stunning!

There are crowds of animals in this far away world—that are here to greet and entertain every day: the flying fish that we would cheer for as they tried to escape predators from below while avoiding being picked off by the birds above; also the clumsy brown-footed boobies trying to catch the same flying fish (without being swept by an errant wave) during their plunge for food;  and even the majestic and massive albatross that have a true mastery of the wind and waves. Their spellbinding motion would keep us transfixed for hours as they constantly sweep and swoop between the waves—all without a single beat of their wings!

And below the water, a similar show unfolds.

The dolphins seem to be intrigued by the passing ships and will follow them around while deftly jumping and twirling—in the air and underwater—without ever touching the hull. There are also the big gray blobs of the sunfish bobbing around at the surface of the water, as their fin flops around in the waves. All in stark contrast to the sharks that sometimes come by with their stiff and ominous fin peaking above the waves. And of course, you cannot forget the grandiose whales which are usually found as they come up for periodic exhalations, creating a geyser of water spray surrounded by rainbows as the sun shines through—particularly impressive they breach and throw their massive bodies almost completely out of the water in a dizzying dance.

But the most beautiful sights to behold at sea come from the cosmos.

The sunsets can be so bright that it looks as if the sky is on fire and the reflections on the water actually look like an impressionist painting. And the sunrises are the most wonderful respite to the dark and cold night, as the first hints of sunlight break over the horizon and start to warm a sailor’s body and soul. But even in the darkest and coldest nights there is joy—as the sky is filled with more stars than you would think is possible. Binary stars flicker and rapidly blink through every color of the rainbow while shooting stars streak overhead so often that it is difficult to keep count. You can even see the Milky Way so clearly that it is possible to make out the various colors and clouds of stars which make up our galaxy. It is very easy to get lost in this magnificent world, isolated from land, and illuminated only by the skies and the lights of the ship.

Overall the life of a sailor is one of the toughest on this planet, but the rewards associated with it are so great that it can be worth it.

A particularly fond memory of mine (oddly enough): after we had ripped a 90-foot tear in one of our sails. We needed the sail repaired as soon as possible, so we were trying to tape and sew the sail back together, below decks, in the bow of the ship.

Unfortunately, this ended up being a very tough place to do the job—every time the sailboat went over a big wave, the motion of the boat would cause you to go weightless and even the heavy sewing machine would get some air! On top of that, the boat was heeled over at 45 degrees! So here I was, dripping with sweat while tied down to the side of the ship to avoid falling, with the sewing machine tied up next to me, attempting to feed 90-feet of sail through the tiny opening of the sewing machine—all while trying to avoid sewing my hand into the sail!

But, I realized that there was nowhere else that I’d rather be!

My speaker was blasting 90’s hip hop, we had plenty of chocolate, and we  were singing and laughing our way through the night! After 48 hours of working nonstop in shifts, we had the sail fixed, and I remember feeling incredibly proud as we hoisted it back up, as it filled up with wind and carried us onto the finish line!

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