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"And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day."
Christmas at Sea
Robert Lewis Stevenson
The way that the sound telegraphed through the steel hull, even the deaf cook who normally slept with his head under his pillow could tell that something very bad had happened. To the deckhand it felt like someone had shot a gun inside his tiny dark cabin. The banging ring was still in his head like a well-struck anvil, even above the scending and roaring background noise of a big sea-going tug at labor. Feet pounding on the companionway deck overhead led to the unwelcome and completely expected door jerking open. Flashlight in his face. I live like this?
"We lost the tow." a strained voice said above the thrashing into the ink.
He surfaced into grim awake, teeth already clenched in subconscious tension with the knowledge that this was going to be another tough one. Why couldn't they just go wake up that useless mate. "Why me?" He muttered silently.
Sleep had not been a very good escape that early Christmas morning anyway. The overburdened boat had been slamming and jerking South and until now periodically coming up short on the 2 ¾" steel tow wire, like a dog at the end of a chain. Shuddering, moaning and dropping, twisting, shouldering her way through the next huge sea. 7000 horses brought to their knees with the effort.
"We need you on deck." It was the mate. “…Now." He said as if he had only just thought about it. Then he was gone again. The deckhand fished around in the awkwardly moving gloom and found his glasses, flap eared cap, and beat up leather shoes. Otherwise he was ready, having been so tired that he'd not bothered to get undressed when he came off watch twenty minutes ago.
Dirty and disheveled he slipped through the galley where the cook passed him a cup of some indeterminable hot black liquid, shooting him a look that said "I'm glad I'm not you." The deckhand looked down into the cup, noting the slick, sniffed it and took a sip, wincing at the foul taste and asked the cook "What is it?"
The cook answered in his whispered nasal tone; "Instant de-caffienatedand a splash of 'thinner.'" His way of saying I.W.Harper, and continued "Merry Christmas!" The deckhand looked at him on his way out of the fiddly, tilted his head and jested sarcastically. "De-caffienated? …That'd be like takin' a shower with your foul weather gear on." He shouldered the heavy steel door open and backed out into the blowing cold.
Without the burden of the other dead tugs that had been on the tow wire dragging astern, and the twenty cylinder EMD main engines now idling while the crew assembled aft under the work lights in the lee of the tow winch on the half awash stern deck (full load of fuel in the aft tanks), she was fairly docile and the howl of the wind and smashing waves was uncovered by the quiet. The night now simply sounded sinister. Only a towing winch the size of a mini-van, powered by an aggressive diesel located in the aft fiddly and muffled through the stack, was at work, with the engineer pulling up what remained of the tow wire and broken 2" bar stock stud link chain pigtail. They were going to have to be vigilant tonight; there was a lot to look out for.
"Let's see... What'll you need?" He looked over at the mate who was putting tools in a plastic five gallon bucket, preparatory to calmly sending him on an apparent one way run. Talking to him was like doing battle with an unarmed man. Senseless. There had been so many nights like this. The deckhand'd inadvertently gotten good at this dance. Do your job without looking back. That's part of why he was here again, not out of some weird death wish… just upholding a reputation for doing these difficult things for a living, in a self-composed, even-tempered, professional manner. He fully understood the consequences of doing it any other way. As did all of the men assembled on the dark careening stern deck that night. At this point, no one had stars in their eyes.
He remembered a recent raucous dinner party where he and his wife had been seated next to a couple that they had just met. The fellow, a decent guy with clean and trimmed fingernails turned to him at one point in the conversation and asked, after which instantly became silence; "So, what is it you do?"
His mind spun…"Odd jobs." It was the only honest answer.
"The really odd ones." His wife interjected with an exaggerated roll of her eyes as she leaned around him into the guy and then stared at them both, mouth and eyes flat and tight, ending the issue before any further questions could light that particular fire. She'd heard all the stories and lived in abject fear of being left with the three kids. What her husband did with his life was his business… what he did to theirs, was hers.
"Whenever you're ready, Cap." The captains' way of letting him know there was an understanding of the severity of the job. In the spray filled dark, the deckhand shrugged into a gritty, ill fitting float vest which he privately regarded as a mild hindrance, growing up as he did on a vessel with not so much as a lifeline. He picked up the heavy bucket of tools, checked his flashlight one more time and without looking up said "OK" then walked aft across the rolling expanse of sloshing rusty steel deck toward the rail to get his eyes ready for the jump. The other deckhand, the cook, the engineer and the mate hung back in the lee of the winch, away from him, as anyone would from a man committed to such a cause. The captain staggered to the ladder and climbed to the boat deck and ambled to the aft steering station, head down to keep the mix of cold rain, blue diesel soot, and salt spray out of his face.
The other two tugs were still on radar and close aboard although you'd never know by looking out from the boat deck. Besides, the steering station had no radar screen and all eyes were boring holes into the black chaos to leeward hoping to catch a glimpse of the dim, battery powered running lights on one of them. Hopefully they were still attached to each other. And afloat. Año Nuevo lay a few miles to leeward of them and they must be in there somewhere, close to the beach.
They'd left Benicia in the north end of San Francisco Bay late Christmas Eve with the two dead YTBs in tow, like a troupe of oceanic elephants, strung out with ones' trunk tied to the other ones' tail. Against almost everyone's better judgment and a grinchy feeling in their guts they had turned south along the coast into what was anticipated to be a rough few days until the southerly blew through. They would just "jog" along until the seas flattened out then they'd put the hammer down and head for Fort Lauderdale, Florida by way of Panama. Yee-Haw. It was no mystery to the captain, who knew that time really is money and that every yard's a gain. He'd ordered enough turns from the engineer to allow the lash-up to stagger forward and keep things interesting until this. It's always fun and games until someone gets a poke in the eye.
Keeping her head to windward and driving the big, sea going tug backwards down the hill to find the lost tow is nobody's idea of fun; it took all the skill the captain had, and then some. He kept her slow astern for awhile and then suddenly there they were, way too close, bobbing corky like two giant black steel rubber ducks tethered together in the mad dark water. Full ahead. A little too late as well, thundering diesels and choking, blinding, blue, wet smoke as hundreds of tons of boats came together in an aquatic industrial bumper car tango, crashing and gyrating as they were grinding into each other, tire fenders squashed up into the air on jerking chains. As the cap rails screech together and touch on the down stroke twenty feet lower now, the deckhand steps up from where he was standing in the middle of the vast unprotected stern deck onto the low bulwarks between a couple of smashed fenders and heaves the bucket of tools up across the now starting to widen gap, and as someone who knows too well that there is no time like the present, he dives over the instantly wider and foaming dark liquid hole, follows up the ascending cold streaming metal hull grabbing tire fenders like a rock climber. As the two boats rip apart, grinding wet sparks, he disappears over the rail like mercury poured onto the other tug's deck. Slam! Safe!
"Shit." I hate this shit, he thought. Anyone with enough sense to get in out of a shower of croquet balls could see that spending Christmas laying face down in the dark on a wet steel deck after that leap of faith was a piss poor way to make a living. It was a little bit too close to the edge and he loved it, every instant… a stark revelation and he knew it.
OK, he thought, it's time to get to work. As though all the rest of this and what led to it was just some bizarre commute. He leaned up on the edge of the bulwarks and half turned to the stern of the receding tug, covering his eyes from the glare of the spot lights and waving downward in an angry, well understood gesture that got the result he wanted. The bright, intrusive spot lights went out almost immediately and he was alone now with only his thoughts and the unreal motion and his fading night vision to pester him. The men over there, in the relative safety of the tug, all dissipated into the dying light and although some waved back, he was too far into the problem at hand to respond. Tools were sloshing back and forth on the dark side deck. On hands and knees he collected the ones he could see, flashlight in teeth, and put them back in the bucket. The deckhand stood, leaned his shoulder against the house and slid his way obliquely down the gyrating deck to the door into the galley. It was the only door on the weather deck that had not been welded shut against the intrusion of the sea but had instead been caulked and fitted with a large hasp and padlock, the key for which, he suddenly realized, surely must be in the pocket of the mates’ vest, hanging on a hook, swinging back and forth, safe in the galley by the stove; dry and warm. Over there, where he could see the red running light of the tug standing by to windward.
"Shit." Quietly, almost under his breath, mind racing.
They were waiting for him to get the light plant lit, the foredeck winch running and the tons of chain bridle back up on deck so they could get a fresh tow wire shackled into the pigtail and begin to claw their way offshore again. Time was shorter than his temper.
"Shit." That's where the key is, warm and dry.
An eight-pound hammer on a short handle was the alternate choice tonight as he had neglected to ask the mate for the key. Naturally it was his own damn fault. Unthinkable. Bang! The padlock wangs into the deck and sluices overboard through the cascading scuppers. Breaking and entering. A furtive glance to windward. The steel door swings open with another crash as the unattended boat fell sideways and slammed into a hole, broadside, which sent thick spray into the open threshold and the tug rolled back to windward in the trough. He jumped in after the tool bucket, yanked the door closed behind him and dogged it.
The companionway was darker than the inside of a cow and the quiet was eerie, fine hairs prickled his nape and forearms, the sound of a dead ship, no breath, no pulse. Tow wire to the third tug scraping in the shoe on the rail between the norman pins aft, seventy feet away. The now slack chain bridle clanking with the crash of every wave on the bow shell plates forward, another seventy feet in the other direction. A bulkhead groans from the strain. Something left loose fetches up in a locker. Nobody home.
Today he can't really tell anyone how he got it all together. He doesn't know, it's like a blank page in his mind; like running fast in the fog on auto pilot. Getting across onto the dead tug was minor compared to what he was then faced with and what would come next. In the little orange spot of light from the slowly weakening flashlight in his teeth, he found his way down through the dark to the center of motion to the relative calm of the engine room, grabbed some cables from a rack and jumped the main batteries over to the air compressor. Flipping the breakers with the hammer handle he still held in his hand, he got a wrench and opened the big fuel shut-offs at the manifold, cracked open the raw water valves and pulled the whistling air start valves on the two big 8v92 generators, shattering the near silence with stuttering detonation. He then found his way to the panel and switched the power to the wheelhouse radios, deck lights and hydraulic pumps that ran the massive winches.
As a reflex of abundant years of night watches, he checked the soundings in the bilge, this time noting the thick steel plate bolted through the shaft coupling and welded against the hull framing to keep the propeller from turning and causing any extra drag or wearing out the stern bearings and gearbox while under tow…and the welded steel brace to hold the rudder amidships in what had turned out to be a vain attempt to keep the string of boats in a line. If he had those off, there would be no problem to start the main engine and go looking for a port to shelter in. Tahiti, where he'd spent a formative period in his youth fell to mind…oh well.
Thoughts of the tropics and his own situation made him chuckle inside as he was reminded of the time that a couple of buddies were regaling the group at a party back home after a particularly harrowing ninja-repo/delivery of a 180' tuna clipper from Honolulu to San Diego. In the dark they had to sneak aboard a ship, known to be sabotaged, and get underway and out of sight before the "owners" found out that the bank had hired a couple of professionals to bring the boat home. In the engine room by the light of flashlights one of them quickly determined that the governor on the massive main engine had been purposely mal-adjusted in order to render the engine useless, thereby preventing anyone from moving the vessel. Within minutes he had it scattered all over in the dark, reassembled and adjusted correctly, ready to start the engine.
His partner had opened all the correct valves to provide fuel and air to start it, and was working on the raw water valve. Having difficulty moving the handle on the huge through-hull valve, he called into the dark for a "big wrench."
“Doesn't matter. I'm gonna use it for a hammer!" Came the hoarse reply. Figuring that after he gave him the "hammer" the water would start to flow, he ran back over to the business end of the engine to save that little bit of time and pulled the start valve with which the main whistled, hacked, coughed and started with a roar. So much for the element of surprise now. They had to get going and yesterday would not be soon enough.
The other guy was still having trouble with the stubborn valve and called for a cheater and a hand in prying it open. He slipped the pipe over the wrench handle and both of them put a foot against the inside of the ship's skin and pulled till the gristle popped in their arms. Bang! The valve and through hull fitting came torn off the hull and they ended up in the pitch dark on the diamond plate deck on their backs scrambling to get out of the torrent of invisible warm black Pacific water rushing in through he 8" round rent. Fifteen minutes on the job and we are already sinking. At the dock. This won't look good on the resume. They dropped the cooling water suction line into the bilges to do double duty as a bilge pump and ran on deck to "cut 'er loose.” A great way to start a voyage of 2000 miles of open sea…holed. Obviously they had made it by dint of their wits and so would we, he thought.
He staggered up the dark companionways to the wheelhouse and flipped on the VHF radio."OK, I'm here."
"What kept ya? We haven't got all year!" Yelled the mate from what sounded like a million miles away. Very funny. It was a week till the New Year. "Come back, you're comin' in stupid." thought the deckhand, but he kept it to himself knowing he'd have six more weeks of living with this guy. Keep it light.
Without answering he dropped the mic. It jounced on its tightly coiled, snake-like cord, then he went down and out to the foredeck to see what he could do. Ten minutes had passed and they were close enough to the coast to smell it. The already nasty seas were beginning to lump up in the shallows and get really ugly. And uncomfortable. Several tons of 2" stud link chain bridle hung useless over the bow, down into the water. The job now was to quickly get this up until a line could be attached to the last link and passed to the waiting crew on the other tug so as to remake the tow. From the fo'c's'l he dragged out a couple of 6" mooring lines, a few feet at a time, as they outweighed him and then some. Then he went back and dragged out a spool of ¾" yellow "poly" to use as stops, and a couple of wire slings. An axe and a bucket of miscellaneous shackles rounded out the shopping list. The deckhand chopped a couple of lengths of the poly and readied the large loops of wire to use as slings to reach through the chain. He went over the bow bulwarks in the dark and climbed down to the roiling water with these slings, down to the fenders and bridle below the puddin' to reach as low as possible and get a hold on the tow chain with the combination of the sling and a mooring line. The pitching tug put him crotch deep under water, soaking his arms on the first wave as he bent double. Reaching down, he held his face high and away. He hung on with an iron vise-like grip, and on the rise passed the sling through the chain, on the next rise tied the mooring line on, laboriously following the rabbit around the tree and back down the hole. Having done that, he climbed, soggy, back up, bellying over the high bow bulwarks and flopping onto the wet deck. He staggered up onto his feet, went over and turned on the bow winch, threw a few turns around the big revolving gypsy head and tailed on as the mooring line dragged the grinding chain in a bight back up over the rail. He cut another piece of the poly and stopped the chain to the stanchion and slacked the mooring line, carefully letting the stopper take the weight. One bight at a time, climb down, tie on, climb up, tail on, stopper. Do it again, numb with exhaustion, do it again, where is the end, do it again, and again, and again, and again, finally the end showed. He bent a mooring line on to it a few links up from the end, leaving that last link free to attach a shackle to the waiting tug. To the mooring line he bent a couple of light heaving lines and coiled them in two free running hanks, ready to pass it to the men waiting nearby, 600 yards away on the stern of the idling tug; one minute looking up at him from below and the next looking down twenty or twenty five feet to where he struggled on the foredeck. They too had their work cut out for them. In the meantime they had brought up the broken pigtail, got it off the tow wire, and prepared the shackle for the bridle.
With the pink glow of dawn under the low clouds on the horizon, giving a desultory wave of his soaking wet sleeve, the deckhand let the captain know he was ready to try to pass the line to the men on deck. He knew in his heart that they wouldn't risk trying to get him back on board even if the operation went well. Why risk it twice?
Of course it did go well, they re-made the tow connection with some effort, and of course they made no attempt to get him back to the other boat, promising over the VHF radio to head directly into the shelter of Monterey Bay before trying that one again.
Enough for one night, get some rest. He went back up into the wheelhouse and lay down, steaming from exertion, wet, on the settee in the relative quiet of the dead tug and closed his salt-reddened eyes, the slamming world finally easing away, sounds drifting further and further to a pin point in his mind, like a TV screen going blank... until suddenly he was wide awake. The banging sound cascaded back into him like a hot slap on the cheek. He jerked, numb, to his feet and ran, squinting from the daylight, to the little porthole set in the aft bulkhead of the wheelhouse and took in the scene behind the dead tug.
He spoke low into the mic, no call sign, no introduction, no hint of the tightness in his chest, no doubt he'd be heard. "We lost the 2nd tow."
"Piece o' cake, it's light out." Came the response.