Outbound for Sea by Michael Kmetz
The North African sun, still and glaring from a cloudless sky, beat down mercilessly on the little launch and its occupants. The puny engine struggled against a gentle current as it lazily cut its way through the anchorage at Suez.
Just a week earlier I was sitting in a Tampa office building interviewing for this job, which was starting to feel like a dream. But there I was, flung to the other side of the world with my shipping documents and a little duffle bag, preparing to sign aboard my first ship.
The days before arriving in Egypt were a flurry of activity, seeing doctors for inoculations and a series of thorough physicals. So much was done in a short span of time that it all seemed like a great blur, actions which had taken place in a cloud traveling at light speed. The SS Gulf Trader was returning from East Africa in ballast and was anchored somewhere just outside the canal awaiting formation of the northbound convoy to the Mediterranean Sea. She had completed discharging cargo in Sudan and was scheduled to be at a lay berth Texas in a week or so, where she would be cleaned before loading wheat for Bangladesh.
My eyes struggled to find her in the anchorage, dotted with vessels of all different types and sizes from all over the world. The tonnage amassed in this relatively small area was impressive, a tangible example of mankind’s capabilities and intelligence when determined to transform ideas into living machines.
We slipped quietly in between these sleeping giants, as if to not awaken them. In contrast to my awe and interest in this strange place, the two other onsigners with me were lost in deep conversation, to the point where it seemed they were not aware of anything around them. Both were engineering officers, engaged in dull small talk of company policies and the negative effects it had on their machinery. Occasionally they would open up a spot in the conversation, letting me in on what they meant by certain criticisms and jokes, though I understood none of it. As their dialogue rolled on, so did my scanning of the anchorage for my new home. My thoughts began to swirl around a central theme of nervous fear – imagining all the different ways one could get in trouble as a green officer on their first ship. Very few of these imagined scenarios (if any) were plausible, but convincing myself of this fact at the time was nearly impossible. Drifting in and out of this self created and untenable debate with my own imagination and cursing the flesh broiling sun, I was barely able to summon up the will to be there.
As the launch slowed and its engine quieted, my attention focused on a ship perhaps half a mile ahead of us, at rest near some containerships in a less populated section of the anchorage. Contrary to the glorified paintings in museums of proud vessels pressing doggedly through the high seas, the ship before me was simply unremarkable. Her blocky white house looked almost too big, perched atop a rusting red hull behind four neatly stowed pedestal cranes. Atop the raised fo’c’s’le deck, a puny foremast with a sunbaked anchor ball wearily announced her status. The closer we got, the more apparent her flaws became. Aside from the bridge, every deck was dotted with portholes weeping rust like sad old eyes. Topping her off was a red, white and blue stack from which a thin trail of smoke gently streamed. Despite her sad appearance, she was very much alive and waiting.
We made our approach down her starboard side and slowed to allow the seaman on watch to lower the accommodation ladder to the water’s edge. As we slid gently along her beam, her four 25-ton cranes cast intermittent shadows upon the little boat, allowing me to examine her a little more clearly.
As a “handy size” bulk carrier, she was considered small and thus versatile enough to transit any waters or canals in the world. At that moment, and from up close, she looked to me like a floating titan.
After some jockeying by the launch captain, we were positioned alongside and ready to transfer personnel and belongings across. Glancing up, I was greeted by strange faces staring down at me from the main deck and bridge wing. My knees felt weak. Grabbing the rails, my adventure began one step at a time until my boots struck the hard steel of her deck. Looking towards the stern I could see the winches of the aft mooring station, which would be my main area of responsibility during arrivals and departures, waiting silently for our first of many future encounters. Looking forward, the Number 4 crane was already released from her cradle and hoisting our luggage aboard.
Heading to the Master’s office to sign on, a huge grin spread across my face, thinking about where I was and where this journey would take me in the coming months. The realization that I was now well outside the city limits of my comfort zone raced like thunder across the great plains. My heart raced! The thrill of adventure renewed a spirit the likes of which I had never known existed within me – and I felt at that moment like pieces of myself missing since birth had been reunited.
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