“They don’t call it Marble Hell for nuthin”, the captain says as we line the ship up for a tie-up at Marblehead stone dock in Ohio. From the wheel I can see white water breaking over the pier where the load rig is situated; at the end of a long conveyer belt that runs limestone straight from the mine. It juts nearly a kilometer out onto the lake like a roller coaster track that ends abruptly over the water. It stands high on long, iron legs affixed to a main dock and two dolphins (dolphins are installed to provide a fixed structure where it would be impractical or too expensive to extend the shore) that are linked by catwalks. The dock is situated at the western end of Lake Erie. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and waves can increase in size at an alarming rate in any kind of blow. Despite its relatively small size it’s sandy bottom is littered with the wrecks of thousands of ships that were caught out when Erie’s fickle mood changed. There is no harbour here in Marblehead. Not even a break wall. It is entirely exposed to the elements and if there has been a strong breeze, especially any kind of easterly, the waves pile up and pommel the load rig and any ship unfortunate enough to be tied up there.
The captain makes the approach slow. Because of the swell we are making almost as much way sideways as we are forwards. Eventually we get a wire on. And then another and another and soon we are as secure as we can hope to be in such conditions. From up in the wheelhouse we see water surge between the main pier and the dolphins, its power magnified as it is forced through the narrow gap between them. The ship rides up and then comes down and a big jet of spray shoots up between the shipside and the pier. Our captain is old school and only swears when it is warranted.
“Fuckin’ Marble Hell,” I hear him mumble under his breath.
Most Great Lakes sailors have a Marblehead story. A captain I sailed with a few years back told me he had to abandon a load as the weather worsened. The deckhands went ashore to let go the wires but the ship was being pushed off so forcefully he was unable to hold the ship up on the wall to get the boys back aboard and he had to depart without them. Nowadays deckhands will often take their wallets, passports and phones with them, in case of just such an occurrence.
When I was a deckhand, I landed here on a dark night in the middle of winter. It had been blowing for a few days prior and though the weather had calmed the entire load rig was coated in a thick layer of clear ice. I had to baby step around and when it came time to pull the wires out, I could gain no purchase on the slick ground. I slipped and fell backwards and accidentally let go of the heavy wire, the eye of which caught the end of my steel toe boot and with the weight of it, began pulling me toward the water. I slid 15 feet, frantically trying to free myself. When I came to the end of the pier, my leg tipped over the edge and the wire slipped off. I lay there on the icy ground, winded, my heart-racing, until the mate shouted down,
“Get the fuck up and get that wire on!”
Tonight Marble Head lives up to its reputation well enough but it could be much worse. I spend eight hours stood at the aft winch controls monitoring the wires and tensioning them when necessary. We put out thick soft lines to absorb most of the strain and in best position are only able to sit about 12 feet off the dock as we struggle against the momentum of the lake. The soft lines squeal, creak and strain and are pulled taut to half of their six-inch diameter. The ship rises and falls, rises and falls, bucking furiously against its restraints like an irascible and enormous tethered animal desperately trying to free itself. Once and a while another geyser of water will shoot up between the ships side and the wall. The dock is continually swept clean by the water and some of the heaving lines which had been coiled up neatly after tie-up are swept away. Despite the seas it is a hot, pleasant night and from where we are situated, I can stare out at the large white houses that line the shore. Their heavily manicured lawns run straight down to the water and people sit comfortably out on deckchairs and entrenched in cozy porches to observe our travails. One deckhand remains on the pier the whole night as we are unable to get him back on board safely. Alex, the 12-4 wheelsman, puts together a small package to help occupy the sailors time. A pack of cigarettes and some cookies wrapped in cling film. He throws it to him where he is huddled on the catwalk. Alex doesn’t hesitate. An expert toss if I ever saw one. Into the wind and across a twenty-foot gap! The tidy package lands in the deckhands lap.
“Jesus Christ,” I tell him. “I wish I could do things in life with half the confidence you just threw that with.”
The following morning the seas have died down and we are able to continue the load without having to stand permanently at the ready by the winches. Hundreds of swallows descend on us and gorge themselves on the mayflies that the ship is covered with. I catch a handful of the dopey insects and throw them up in the air for the hungry, patrolling birds who swoop and grab them greedily mid-flight. After doing this a few times I realize it was a mistake as the swallows recognize me and for the rest of the watch, any time I step out onto the open deck I am dive-bombed by dozens of them. They zip by, their tiny, sharp beaks passing perilously close to my eyes, careening like stars around a dizzy cartoon characters head.
At any time, when I am at sea, you could hold a gun to my head and ask what day of the week it is and I would have just a one in seven chance of survival. When you work 24/7 with no days off for the entirety of your rotation, the days and their names lose the unique hallmarks that make them individual. There are no Monday blues here. None of the burgeoning excitement that Wednesday brings. There’s no thank God it’s Friday feeling. No weekend state of mind. Every day is a Tuesday. Tuesday, the day which has no feel. It is possible even, when underway and out of sight of land, to stare at the endless expanse of water and get the impression that we aren’t even moving at all which only exacerbates the relentless ennui that can easily overcome one not prepared or used to such work.
Birthdays come and go and are either ignored or acknowledged with a smile and a ‘Happy Birthday’ greeting when you wake. Big Al celebrated his 45th out here last week.
“Are you going to bake me a cake?” He asked our chef, a loveable curmudgeon in his sixties.
“Stick a candle in that extra piece of chicken,” he deadpanned. For him, any declaration shorn of expletives is about as polite a birthday greeting as you could hope to get.
Al is from Sarnia and whenever we pass beneath the Bluewater Bridge during daylight and evening hours, his mother will come down and stand at the railing below the bridge to wave to her son. Even if he is sleeping, as us rotational shift workers do during the day, he will wake up, shuffle up to the wheelhouse and offer a salute with the ship’s horn. One long, and two short blasts. Then he’ll go out onto the bridge wing and wave at his mum as we slide, swiftly by at ten knots. Al has the build of a Viking and can present a gruff exterior, and to those not in the know ashore, a wave from him could appear like an act of aggression. It is not, and once he is done; he will come inside and go back down to bed.
On his birthday, we passed beneath the bridge and not only his mum, but a whole gang of relations and friends were there. They had banners and balloons and as we sailed by at 2100, Al gave them an extra-long and loud salute that reverberated off of the buildings of downtown Sarnia and from the Blue Water Bridge’s tall abutment, beneath which they were all stood. When he came back inside he seemed pleased to have seen some of his loved ones, however fleetingly, and a smile was etched on his usually impassive face.
“Man, even my girlfriend was there. She hasn’t come down in like ten years.”
It is only relatively recently that internet and mobile phone service have become available on ships. On my first deep sea trips, we were entirely cut off from the world. I remember the first emails I sent from a ship were billed per character and our messages had to be reduced to the barest of exchange. Even vowels were redacted. I often thought about the world then, and what could be going on in it. I worried about returning to a land that had been blitzed by some kind of cosmic disaster or nuclear event. It bothered me that I might be oblivious to global happenings. For example, I entirely missed the death of John Updike, and was surprised when I eventually found out, that he had been dead for two years. A fact that had escaped me as I wallowed in the North Atlantic, becalmed somewhere in the gulf stream off Bermuda. Now my phone is often in hand and I am immersed in news. Steeped in it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed. I don’t know which is better.
We take our load of stone from Marble Head to Boblo Island, a small, affluent community located in the Amherstburg Channel in Southern Ontario. This is a special load. No ship has ever deposited cargo here. We make our approach as the sun is setting. There is a sense of excitement among the crew as for most of us tying up at a new place is a rarity. As the evening light dims families come down to the river side to watch the big ship arrive. A news van is parked nearby to snap some pictures. There is no pier here for us to tie up on so we slide the bow into the muddy bank just behind a small promontory that sticks out into the fast-flowing river and offers us respite from the strong current . We send out the wires, which, in the absence of bollards, are secured to trees with lifting straps. Once secure, our boom swings out and the gravel is unloaded in tidy pyramids the size of houses onto flat soil that has been flattened, turned and tidied for just this occasion.
I spend much of my sea-time trying to analyze my dreams. As ever they run the spectrum from the portentous to the banal:
-I dreamed I got a haircut which I could not pay for.
-I dreamed of a cat who behaved as a dog.
– I dreamed that I met Kris Kristofferson and he called me a pussy.
I also ponder social interactions that occurred years ago and as ever, the cruel, temporal nature of existence is never far from my thoughts. Such petty indulgences these, I know, but we don’t choose the mind or the lot we’re dealt and this is the one I’ve been lumbered with. Even so I believe it is important, for men especially, not to take themselves too seriously. I am helped in this by T.L, a Newfoundlander and our head of cargo maintenance, who is never short of some rough-hewn piece of pearly wisdom to dispense. I was wringing out a mop up in the wheelhouse while he and Denver,the third mate, were standing nearby. T.L nodded in my direction, and in his thick, Newfie accent said to Denver,
“He ain’t much of a man…
(there was a long pause as they observed my work)
But he’s some boy.”