Sunday, October 16, 2016

Turbulent Seas

"I had never been on the ocean before, much less in a storm. This was my first ship. It was our third day out of the Sea-Land docks at their Port Elizabeth Terminal in New Jersey, and my third day of looking green and feeling sick as a dog. I was not used to an environment that rolled and pitched like this, making every movement a study in balance. I had already broken the big toe on my right foot by dropping an acetylene tank on it as I wrestled against the bucking of the ship to move it into place on orders of the First Engineer. The ocean had become so rough that one night we had to secure ourselves into our bunks; I did this by lacing rope back and forth through the bed frame from my mid-chest down to my thighs. This way, if the movement of the ship tried to eject me while I was sleeping, the rope would act as preventative webbing and keep me from flying out of my top bunk onto the steel deck. This being an old vintage World War Two Liberty ship our quarters were at the fantail; officers slept at midship, as did the galley crew, both closer to the mess hall. The weather got so bad the captain restricted us from using the deck to make our way from our quarters to the mess hall, and commanded that we traverse the shaft alley instead.
"The shaft alley was a cramped passageway that allowed seamen access to the propeller shaft in order to check oil levels and temperature gauges to see if all was well, and for maintenance and repair. It led from the engine room aft, to a ladder that led upwards into our quarters. Because of the severity of the weather we now had to use this cramped and circuitous route each and every mealtime. One evening as I lay nauseous and moaning in my bed, I decided I had to try to eat something. I stood up unsteadily, left my foc'sle and instead of climbing down into the shaft alley I confusedly stepped out onto the deck instead. The air was instantly refreshing; I felt immediately exhilarated. To hell with the shaft alley, I thought; I can make it. I grabbed the deck railing with one hand and stretched the other toward the bulkhead for balance and slowly made my way toward midship and the hatch that led to the mess hall. Holdiing on for dear life, the waves undulating wildly and dashing water onto the deck and across my feet with every roll of the ship, I inched my way forward. Just as I was reaching to open the hatch, the ship rolled violently starboard, slamming me up against the deck railing at hip height. I knew I was about to go overboard. All I could see as I looked down was the outstretched arms of the ocean reaching for me." ("The Rail," Chapter Twenty-Two, "Turbulent Seas").

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