The Guts of It
11 October 2020

The engine room is like North Korea, I have no idea what goes on in there, and if I visit, I’m afraid I won’t make it out.  Many minutes of my life have been lost trying to navigate its Escher-like catwalks and stairs, searching for an engineer, a storage locker or a tool.  At its centre, the main engine, the enormous, roaring heart of the ship.  Our propulsion and our power are generated here.  The whole aft end of the ship shakes when it starts up.  You can feel it thrum below your feet.  This is where our drinking water, taken straight from the lake, is purified; our sewage is treated here.  Every pipe and wire on the 700’ length of the ship originates or ends in the engine room.  

A few days ago I was crawling in the dark on my hands and knees through the inmost guts of this ship.  The first mate was performing his yearly inspection of the ballast tanks, and I volunteered to assist.  The ballast tanks are located between the cargo holds and the ships side, running length wise up the vessel.  Each hold has two tanks bolstering it.  When we are without cargo, they are filled with water for stability purposes.  This is known as travelling ‘in ballast.’  These are not the water tanks you might see on a rooftop in the tropics.  They are enormous multi-level spaces, narrow but deep.  

The tanks are accessed from manholes on the deck.  Before descending we dropped a sniffer down which came back with apositive oxygen reading.  There are four levels with a grate at each end which opens and a ladder that leads down, like the descending levels of a platform video game.  The levels are as long as the cargo hold they conjoin.  Levels one and three are similar.  Frames are located every twenty feet and there is a holein each, large enough for a man to step through sideways.  Level two is below the waterline.  It was cold down there and there was a fine layer of sediment on every surface from our taking ballast in the shallow spots where we unload.  It was loud.  The sound of the ship through the water is not a peaceful susurration. It is a turbulent noise.  A constant crescendo of ascending and descending noise as the water rushes beneath the hull, combined with the percussive pounding of waves on the hull.  There was no natural light there.  Just the jaundiced glare of our headlamps, which grew feebler as their lenses muddied.  I tried to wipe my lens clean with my finger, forgetting that it too was caked in mud and only made it worse.  On this level we had to crawl.  Slip through the small apertures in the frame right down on the ground.  Pull ourselves along in the mud like the blind, albino amphibians that ooze in subterranean caverns.  I numbered each frame as I passed through with my muddied finger for the purposes of the mate’s survey.  There was a smell of oxidation and algae.  At one point I found myself ahead of the mate and I turned off my lamp to experience the amniotic oblivion of utter darkness.  

There have been times where people have equated my being well read with intelligence, this is a mistake and I realized myself when I was younger, that I was not going to set the world on fire with my smarts or my technical prowess.  I am no natural sailor as I don’t easily assimilate things of a mechanical nature or those that pertain to the physical sciences, so much so that I’m sure some colleagues have wondered if perhaps there wasn’t some cognitive deficit at play.   The way I became noticed on ships was by working hard, being enthusiastic and agreeable and by volunteering for the jobs no one else wanted to do.  Therefore, this was not my first rodeo.   I have slithered through many a ship’s darkest recesses. I remember one tank I surveyed many years ago.  The way through each frame was so tight I had to turn my head and inhale to squeeze through.  

I get a peculiar thrill from places like this, just as I do from the supernatural.  They both frighten and fascinate me.  As a child I always felt safer when there were walls tight around me.  I had a raised bed which I preferred to sleep beneath rather than on.  Even today a side of my bed must be against at least one wall.  Perhaps it is some atavistic instinct, as our early ancestors sought out caves and many species of animal will burrow or seek out confined spaces in which to rest and rear their broods. To hide from those creatures that would do them harm.

A while back a buddy of mine who lives on a large estate in Malta, asked me and another pal to help survey the wells on his property.  He had mounted a small winch on a scaffold, and I brought round some of my rope rigging and a bosun’s chair with which to drop ourselves down in.  We lowered candles down before, to check there was adequate oxygen, having been chastened by the cautionary tale of my uncle’s, who in doing a similar survey, discovered at the bottom of the well that there was not sufficient air with which to draw even one breath.  He scrambled back up a flimsy ladder and only just cleared the lip of the well.  He was alone and had he not made it there would have been no one to hear his strangled cries.

My friend’s property is old.  It is surrounded by a high wall and inside there is a sumptuous garden and an impressive rococo fountain.  There are vegetable patches and at one time or another a donkey, chickens and dogs have wandered the grounds.  Of course there is the fantastic villa itself, as well as a number of smaller out buildings.  

We surveyed three of the wells that he knew of.  The first was the smallest.  It was shaped like a bell and had smoothe limestone walls that sloped elegantly towards the ceiling.  It was the middle of a hot, Maltese summer and the water was deep and cool and we could not touch the bottom with our toes so we swam instead.  There was plenty of natural light that streamed in from the well head and other small apertures and frogs swamalong with us in the pellucid water.

The second well was larger, deeper down and L-shaped.  The light was poor, and we used a flashlight in a Ziploc bag to light its furthest corners.  The water was waist-deep.  The upper walls made of the large limestone bricks common on the island.  There was an arched ceiling, unnecessarily ornate for a space it was unlikely more than a few pair of eyes had ever glimpsed.

The third well was the largest.  In fact to call it a well is misleading, it was more like an underground reservoir.  It did not have a traditional well head, instead we accessed it from beneath an upturned flag stone in the courtyard.  Literally a hole in the ground.  I went down first.  I had to cross my arms at my chest to squeeze through the entrance.  The shaft was about 8feet deep and millipedes and small white scorpions retreated into cracks in the brick inches form my nose as I passed.  When I cleared the shaft, I became aware that I was in a large space from the change in tone of the winch’s mosquito whine.  It became distant and echoey.  My anemic flashlight only illuminated a small bubble around me.  I could see a wall behind and all around the roots of trees hung from the ceiling like stalactites.  I looked up and could see my friends faces and the rope from which I dangled all framed in a perfect square of light20feet above me.  The air was musty.  It smelled of soil and decay.  When I finally touched bottom, the water was knee-deep.  My feet unsettled the silty well-bed and there arose the egg-fart smell of methane.  My friends followed along with a surfboard on which we placed candles to better light our way.  We could see three walls, the one behind and the two flanking which were about thirty feet apart.  It was cool down there.  We could see nothing ahead and we walked slowly, pushing the surfboard gently so as not to distort the candle’s flame.  It seemed like we walked many yards when finally we came to the end.  The wallonly revealed itself seconds before the surfboard nosed up to it, the radius of light we travelled in being so confined.  The well was likely 300 to 400 years old, but we could still make out the crescent-shaped scarring on the soft limestone walls that had been made by the tools that had dug it.  Much of the water was rainwater, run off from the surrounding roads my friend said.  Only good for the garden.

As we turned to go back, there was a microsecond where I experienced a sudden, electric jolt of the purest terror which immediately disappeared when I saw the distant shaft of daylight cascading down from the vaulted ceiling and the bosun’s chair that dangled there, waiting to convey us, one at a time, back up and into the world of light.

In writing about these dark places I have been trying to make sense of the scattershot thoughts I have entered into my notebook.  Usually these jottings fall together, but these have refused to do so.  

From My Notebook:

Confined spaces:
-Catacombs.  The ones I saw as a kid in Mdina and in Rome.
-Kid trapped in a well in Texas
-Subterranean altars/ossuaries
-Odysseus and Calypso’s incarceration of him
-Orpheus and his descent
-Jesus, just the man.  His tomb and the stone that was rolled away
-The early desert monks and their quiet ecstasies
-St. John of the Cross and his dark night of the soul
-Robert the Bruce and the spider
-Saddam/Bin Laden
-Jose Saramango’s novel Blindness.  Good read but fuck me, would it have killed him to use a paragraph!
-Kids in Thailand/stuck in the cave

Sometimes the grasp exceeds the reach, and in trying to write of dark places, instead I find myself stuck within my own, depressed by my inability to make it work. Sure that I am no good, a cipher, a charlatan.

I recently read the words of the Chinese poet Li Bai which I encountered in American writer and Buddhist Gretel Ehrlich’s book about her spiritual quest to some of China’s sacred mountains.  

‘The road to Shu is hard.  It is like climbing to the stars.  There are many false summits along the way and at the top, there is only emptiness.  The beginning and the end are the same.’

This resonated with me. Put my piddling grievances in perspective. We are after all only sparks that flare briefly in an endless night. And hey, no one said it was all going to be shits and giggles.  

Me and the mate finished our survey those days ago and we made our way back up to the deck.  We spelunked and splashed along each level of starboard ballast tank three.  Towards the end, natural light coming from the manhole was able to impress itself on our situation, enough that we could turn off our headlamps.  Soon we climbed to the top of the ladder and up onto the open deck where the deckhands, our spotters, had been waiting.  It was raining and the wind was up.  It felt good on my flushed face.  I had not noticed how tired the air was down there until I took a big lungful of the fresh stuff.  My pupil’s dilated, overwhelmed by the light, even if it was only the drizzle and drear of a grey October morning on the lakes.  I’ll take that any day over the dark there was before, and the darkness there’ll be after.

Today, as we were upbound in the Welland Canal, I ran on deck, back and forth, back and forth as I do every afternoon.  I saw the chief engineer approaching and he caught my attention with a wave.  He is a stocky Newfoundlander, a little older than me.  He is not the clean overalls kind of chief you find on some of these boats.  He gets his hands dirty and is always fixing something as this ship is a demanding taskmaster.  On his left hand, between his thumb and forefingerhe has a faded tattoo of a big cat.  He was wearing a Metallica-Ride the Lightning t-shirt.

I am not a mechanically-minded man.  I am no good with my hands.  For all I know engines run on pixie dust and prayer circles.  I envy engineers and other people like the chief who have the ability to take apart something and put it back together.  To figure things out.  To assemble, to build.  Though once and a while I can put together a nice sentence, I will never be that guy.  

The chief was looking for the sniffer we had used when doing our inspection of the tanks.  There are ‘muckers’ on board and they needed to use it.  These are the who men go down in the same ballast tanks and hose and shovel the mud out.  It was tough enough just crawling through those spaces, I couldn’t imagine doing so while dragging an inch and a half diameter hose with me.  

I hadn’t put the sniffer away, the deck hands had and just that morning they’d gone home for their leave, as had the first mate, but with a bit of detective work we found it.  

A few weeks ago, up on the bridge, I solicited the chief and the second mate’s advice on home insurance. They asked me what I was insuring.

‘Books.’  I said.  ‘At least $12,000 worth.’  It had occurred to me that my ever-growing pile of them was becoming quite an investment, if you consider that a paperback goes for on average $25, and a hardback goes for $50.    

The chief looked me up and down.

‘You and I,’ he said.  ‘We lead very different lives.’