He had a business card which read,
Patrick J. Kerns – Rogue Sailor of the Seven Seas
Kegs Drained, Sea Monsters Trained and Virgins Converted.
I met him in the summer of ’93, when I was a skinny and small 17 year old. Six of us teens signed aboard the Full-Rigged Sailing Ship Rose, a replica of an 1757 British Frigate that was taking part in a tall ships regatta on the Great Lakes. We were part of a non-profit sail training outfit for teens which operated two small brigantines out of Toronto harbour and we’d been given the opportunity to sail on this, a working tall ship. One with professional, paid crew. Grownups. We were all anxious, but excited to sail on a ship with a pedigree such as hers. We boarded early in the morning, our seabags slung over our shoulders. We were taken below deck where a small, wiry, moustached man stormed past us flinging his cup of coffee across the floor.
‘I’m not fuckin’ babysitting again!’ He shouted.
We looked nervously at one another and continued down into the accommodation area.
We were assigned bunks, called racks, in C pit. The racks were stacked three high. They were narrow, sliver berths with a curtain that pulled all the way around and could afford one some privacy. After our gear was stowed we mustered on deck where our gazes were inexorably drawn upward to a vast network of rope and running and standing rigging and masts at least twice the height of those we were used to. We were assigned watches. I was put on the 4 – 8 watch with Tony, the young third mate, a kind man who spoke with a laid back east coast drawl.
‘We’re gonna put you with Kerns one of our AB’s,’ he said, which is when I became aware of a shadow looming over me and a hulking presence. There he was, Patrick J. Kerns, all 6’4 and 290 pounds of him. He had kinky blonde, hair tied back in a knot. His face was tanned a deep crimson and diapered by a reddish beard. He must have been the largest man I’d ever met. He looked like a Viking, a mountain.
‘Hey there,’ he grunted at me and extended an enormous hand. He had a raspy, smokers voice.
We remained in port that first day and night. We fell in with the routine of shipboard life and we were assigned a number of cleaning tasks, likely given to assess our ability to take an order no matter how unsightly the job. One of the first tasks was to clean the marine heads (toilets). When I had finished, I approached Kerns and some of the other crew who were sitting around on the main deck drinking beer and enjoying the hot summer night.
‘Is there anything else I can do?’ I asked Kerns nervously, still uncertain of him and intimidated by his massive stature.
‘Yeah,’ Kerns rasped. ‘Go down to my rack. And wait there.’
Everyone guffawed. I’m grateful they did so. Had they not I mightn’t have known Kerns was joking. I might have jumped ship that very night, home still being within reach as it was.
We set sail the next day. We quickly proved our worth. We were knowledgeable as to the workings of a square rig vessel and had spent much of the previous day studying the rigging and the placement of its hundreds of ropes. We were all agile climbers and loved running up the ships hundred foot masts any chance we got. The pro crew realized quickly that we weren’t just a bunch of kids sent off to summer camp, we could carry out many of their responsibilities just as efficiently and could be of valuable assistance to an under-crewed ship. Soon, we were treated not as trainees, but as part of the crew.
The four hour watches were split into hourly sections of bow watch, boat check, helm and idle.
Kerns was my watch mate, so we would spend a lot of time together. He was 29. He came from Seattle. He’d gotten a scholarship to play college football in New Orleans. I don’t believe he finished.
Kerns was often tasked with waking me up. He would do so by grabbing my ankle and yanking me out of my ceiling berth. I would wake up in mid-flight, on my 12 feet journey down to the deck. He managed to do this in such a way that I was always startled but never hurt.
On bow watch at night, while most of the ships compliment slept, we’d stare out at the black lake and he would tell me about his travels and his exploits along the way. Both he and Tony liked to read and we spoke about books we liked. He used to recite a long poem that he knew by heart. Some hardboiled thing about a guy who carried a crumpled picture of Marilyn Monroe in his back pocket. I have no idea who wrote it, or even if perhaps Kerns himself did.
He knew sea shanties and he taught me many. One of which I have forgotten the verses, but recall the chorus.
‘O lord above.
Send down a dove.
With beaks as sharp as razors.
To slit the throats,
of them there blokes.
What serve bad beer to sailors.’
We spent long hours on stormy nights abreast the ships enormous wheel, where his firm and steady hand was a comfort in a strong blow when the wheel could have easily flung me over.
One night, the two of us were relieved of our watch and went down to sleep (by this point we youngins had been housed in the same quarters as the pro-crew). Each bunk was equipped with a reading light and one of the trainees had the curtain pulled tight around his, and unaware that the light projected a perfect silhouette, was spending some ‘quality time’ with himself and one of the many pornographic magazines that could be found in the crew quarters.
‘Hey kid!’ Kerns barked. ‘You’re not leaving much to the imagination.’
There was a fumbling of pages and comportment and general dignity and we heard from behind the curtian a timid,
‘Um, ah. I’m just reading.’
‘Sure you are kid. Sure you are.’
Like most sailors, Kerns loved a drink. And he loved women and generally shoreleave was spent in the pursuit of both. He smoked filterless camel cigarettes. He was a charming, funny guy and I think women liked him. Kerns, like many of the other crew would take us out in port and sneak us beers, not an easy prospect in the United States.
We spent some time in Detroit preparing for deck tours where the general public would be allowed aboard to tour the vessel. In the preceding days we were placed in a remote industrial area. Kerns went to town and got steaming drunk with a few other crew members. We were all lounging in the sun on the shore when they staggered back into our midst. Some of the boys began provoking Kerns, baiting him like a bear. He took a few haphazard swings at them and went to use a portaloo that had been provided for us.
For the life of me I can’t recall whose idea it was but someone grabbed a length of rope and tied it round the cubicle. A bunch of guys began rocking it back and forth. You could hear Kerns’ shouts as he hammered on the plastic door. I don’t know if it was intended or if everyone was too drunk to control it, but the portaloo toppled over with a resounding crash. I could hear the contents sluicing around inside as well as Kerns, incandescent with rage, pounding on the sides of it. Someone quickly slipped the knot and wisely sped off and the door burst open and out popped a bellowing Kerns, looking, dyed blue as he was with the toilet chemical, like a giant piss and shit covered smurf in a jack in the box. The crew scattered and he ran after all of us like a crazed, teetering bull, swinging wildly at anybody who got within range.
John, one of the volunteer crew and a fireman who also happened to live in Detroit, invited the crew round to his place for a BBQ one night. He wore aviator sunglasses, had a 1970’s haircut and like the rest of the crew (including Keith of coffee mug fame) proved to be a stand up dude. There was a keg of beer.
With us that night, was Richard Shrub, a British trainee, referred to by all, as ‘Shrub’. He, like everyone, proceeded to get shitfaced. He was in his late teens, a nervous, chainsmoking (we all smoked) bespectacled lad. Unlike me and my lot he had failed to acclimate to life aboard a square rigger. Apparently his father had some sort of relationship with the Captain and had sent him ‘to sea’ to toughen him up. The drunker he got the more his misery proliferated and soon he was heard to slur,
‘That’s it. I’m getting out of here!’ He made a b-line for the back fence, which it looked like he was going to leap over. Instead, he ran straight into it and collapsed on the ground. Some of the crew picked him up and dusted him off and gave him another drink. Over the next hours, we would periodically catch a glimpse of him running for the fence, head down, like he was about to make a rugby tackle. Then a cry would ring out,
‘Shrubs making a break for it!’ And someone would have to catch and subdue him. This was not necessarily out of affection, but for his own safety, as the neighbourhood we were in would not have been ameliorating to a skinny, white British kid, drunk off his face.
Kerns had been holding court near a bonfire, and after three or four escape attempts he placed his deck chair over a prostrate Shrub and sat down in it, effectively locking him in place. In this manner, the party continued until the deck chair buckled under Kerns’ 300 pound weight and Shrub was almost crushed.
Our skipper took an immediate and obvious dislike to Kerns. I remember one morning him being berated by the captain for some drunken indiscretion/insurrection. Kerns was a good foot and a half taller than the skipper who was literally hopping mad. Jumping up and down and waving an imperious finger in Kerns’ face as he yelled at him.
Kerns was a knowledgable sailor and a good teacher. He was versed in marlinespike seamanship and fond of his trades rich history. Generally, on ships like the Rose men of his size are excused from going up in the rig, but not Kerns, he would be right up on the highest yard with us.
In the beginning the crew would make fun of us kids for being ‘fresh water sailors’ but on one black night in Lake Huron as we were rounding the tip of Michigans Upper Peninsula we were slammed with a Great Lakes special. One of the vicious summer squalls common in that part of the world. A number of us went up 75 feet into the rig to take in the main topsail. We hurriedly squared the canvas away and no sooner had the last man stepped off the yard and back onto the ratlines, then there was a rending crack, and the yard snapped in two.
No one made fun of the lakes after that.
Later in the year, in September, we were all back in school when the Rose returned to Toronto for a weekend before sailing out the seaway and back to Bridgeport, Connecticut, her home port. All of us who’d sailed on her went down to welcome them in. My mother came along. Kerns pumped my hand and slapped my back so hard I almost vomited. I remember my mum standing by, waiting to get a tour of the ship. Kerns had me in a head lock and said to her as he rubbed my head,
‘So you’re the one responsible for this kid?’ My mum laughed nervously, but I think what was clear to her was the esteem that these grown men held for me and the others. I think this must have made her proud, to see how her kid had comported himself in such an arduous environment. Kerns and the entire crew were all so decorous and respectful of her and the other parents. I will always be so grateful to them for that.
That night Kerns came back to my parents house with the other young alumnus’s where we could all drink with him, being underage as we were. He could have gone to a bar with the rest of the adult crew in hunt of tail, but he chose to stay and hang out with us and I think we were aware then, of how nice a gesture that was.
I look back on the Rose as easily one of the most formative experiences of my life. It was a place where I learned the value of hard work and the respect and satisfaction which that can grant you. As we prepared to leave the ship in Chicago, the first mate, a quiet, gruff man approached us and he said,
‘What can we possibly do to get you guys to stay?’
I wonder if I had known then, that those weeks I spent aboard the Rose, would be among the best weeks of my life. Would I have been so quick to leave the ship in Chicago and return to my duties on the small brigantines which I did. In those weeks the boundaries of my world had shifted, broadened, and the brigantines were suddenly too small. The Great Lakes were not big enough to hold me. The world was out there, and it was accessible.
For the next few years me and Kerns would run into each other at various tall ship events. We would greet each other like long lost friends. He would shake my hand so hard it would hurt after and if he’d had a drink or two he’d give me a bear hug so tight it left me dizzy.
I would receive postcards from him. Each written in his singular, block-capitalled scrawl.
Workin’ cook on this hunk of rust.
I received a facebook message some time ago from one of that seasons crew.
‘Did you hear about Kerns?’ It read. I instantly felt a lump in my throat.
‘No I havent,’ I wrote.
‘He passed away last year in Seattle. We’re not sure how.’
Patrick Kerns, the rogue sailor of the seven seas was gone. How could that be?
I hadn’t heard from him in easily ten years. My life went on. I grew up. I moved to the UK. Went to university. Lived. I hadn’t talked to him but I’d thought of him often. I could not and still can’t imagine a world without his massive, gentle presence.
I don’t know how he died. He lived hard thats for sure. Was it hepatitis? I remembered he told me he had it. The kind you get from unsanitary work conditions. A dodgy Philippino cook he said.
He was the worst influence on me, in the best possible way. The kind of guy who young callow youths like I was, need to meet at the age I was lucky enough to do so. He and the rest of that crew: Tony, Eric, Pat, Wendy, Matt the Hat, Jim, Rich, Keith, Dutch, Dennis and Captain Bailey; they all deserve their own stories. They were such positive and real role-models to me, a naive kid who was only really trying, as I still am, to be liked. Because we worked like adults, we were treated as such, and afforded their fealty, as when the chairman of the sail-training organization we were involved with discovered the tales of our rampant drinking and shenanigans and threatened to send us home, they all leapt to our defence and personally had a hand in our remaining aboard.
I am writing this from a flat that overlooks the Grand Harbour in Malta, but this minuscule hagiography has been brewing a while. From where I sit I can see tugboats and ferries and the normal everyday trade common in an international harbour. I am a year older than Kerns would have been when he died. For better or worse, I have become, at least for now, a professional mariner as he was. A drifter. One happy to flit from place to place. Not in it for the money, but for the experience, for the quality of people you meet along the way.
I know from a postcard he sent me that he joined a Green Peace vessel here in Malta. He likely would have boarded it in the very harbour I look out on now. I am glad that he thought of me when he was here. That he looked around at the formidable medeival fortifications built to repel one of the most monumental sieges in history, and he remembered my connection to the island and took the time to write a postcard and tell me. I don’t believe I was unique in these correspondances. I think he was the last of an old school that still did such things before the cell phone and the pervasive text message. But his correspondences were unique to me, and I will treasure them always.
The last time I saw him face to face, I was 20 and sailing with a family on a topsail schooner down to the Caribbean. He was on the Tolemour, a barquentine, which was an alternative to jail for troubled inner city kids. A tough job, but if anyone was up for it would’ve been Kerns. Our vessels were aligned in our southward journey. Maybe it was Virginia but it was a warm, bright day in autumn and I was sitting in the grass dockside splicing up some rope when a shadow came over me. I looked up and there he was, off on his way into town in his white chinos, white shirt and a black ribbon tying his ponytail back, looking every inch the Jack Tar.
‘You comin’?’ he asked me.
‘Nah Kerns, not today,’ I said. I paused my work and watched as he lumbered off towards the nearest bar.
Ah Kerns! So big he could eclipse the fuckin’ sun.