“The sea was angry that day my friends. Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” George Costanza
Two massive storm systems were set to converge in the North Atlantic and we planned to Indiana Jones it, and slide through the narrowing gap before they collided and all hell broke loose. We had prepared for weather and secured the ship accordingly, but after four days of being slammed around we were getting pretty tired of it. All of us bore war wounds in the shape of bruises and ill-temper and we wore the tell-tale black circles of the sleepless around our eyes.
We were sailing a 250’ barquentine back up to Nova Scotia after a winter spent cruising around the windward islands in the Caribbean. Everyone was keen to get back to Canada, myself in particular, as I had a ticket to see Leonard Cohen play at a small theater in Halifax. The wind blew a sustained 55 knots with gusts well over hurricane force, and it did not let up. All the sails were furled away tightly and we rode it out bare pole laboring along with the old diesel engine at six knots. The swells grew and grew, some as high as 25 feet. They came at us broadside. We rolled over slow as we rode the face of each wave but when we crested the ship would snap back violently like the killing arm of a mouse trap and the rigging and steel hull would shudder horribly. One afternoon as I lay in my bunk (or tried to) I felt the aspect of the ship change. The captain had called it. We weren’t going to make it through. Instead we ducked and ran and beat it back to Bermuda for cover. The pubs of St. George were full of sailors who had made a similar decision. Our sous chef got smashed and was arrested for trying to steal a Jaegermeister flag from a bar. I missed Leonard Cohen. So it goes.
Winds on the lakes are just as violent though storm systems seldom last as long but unlike the ocean weather comes on quick and shit can go south in a hurry. The waves, not having the elbow room they do deep sea, can’t achieve the same towering heights, but they are relentless and batter ships pneumatically instead. Freighters, being as long as they are, like skyscrapers, are made to flex. They would snap in two were there not any give.Looking down the length of a ship can be alarming when you see them work, corkscrewing back and forth, in bad weather.
We have had numerous weather delays in the last two weeks. A few days ago we sat out some pretty snotty stuff (snotty or shitty being the preferred nautical nomenclature for inclement) at anchor down at the south end of Lake Huron with half a dozen other ships. The engineering cadet pulled the snow blower out to give her a tune up. He is a congenial kid, a red head, who is always smiling. A smile goes a long way out here, especially when most guys, me included, walk around with the sour puss mugs of those whose cornflakes are perennially pissed in.
‘Getting her ready, are you?’ I said.
‘Good. I heard they’re forecasting snow up in the Soo,’ I added.
There is a mail boat in Detroit that has been delivering mail to passing ships since 1874. Gone are the days of written correspondence with loved ones so nowadays guys mostly use it to order stuff from Amazon. I have, in the past, ordered books, jeans, work gear, skateboards, toothpaste, probiotics and nail clippers. Our young deckhand is attempting to rival Imelda Marcos’ collection judging by the amount of shoes he receives on a weekly basis. The mate just ordered fixtures for his new kitchen. One guy a few years back ordered six winter tires for his truck. The mail boat, named the JW Westcott, comes alongside us amidship and we lower down a bucket on a rope to haul up the booty. A few years back the mailboat capsized in the prop wash of a ship killing the two people on board so now the transaction is effected at a much-reduced speed.
Passing beneath the Ambassador Bridge (the suspension bridge that spans the Detroit River from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario) we were readying to receive the mailboat when the coast guard hailed us on the radio.
M_______ THIS IS THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD. WE HAVE RECEIVED WORD OF A POSSIBLE BRIDGE JUMPER FROM THE AMBASSADOR BRIDGE. PLEASE BE ADVISED AND MAINTAIN A VIGILANT WATCH
The mood turned somber in the wheelhouse.
‘Shit. Could you even survive that?’
‘Depends how you hit the water I guess.’
‘Does that mean they’ve jumped or they’re about to jump?’
‘I have heard people surviving jumps from the Golden Gate bridge.’
‘I once jumped from a 120foot cliff.’
‘Shit. 120feet! I jumped from 60feet once. So did my buddy and he broke his collar bone.’
‘How high is the bridge?’
The captain scanned the dark river with a spotlight and our eyesall followed its beam.
M_________ THIS IS THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD. PLEASE BE ADVISED OF A BRIDGE JUMPER IN A BLACK HOODIE
‘A black hoodie,’ said the captain. ‘We will never see him.’
Leonard Cohen is gone. So is a guy in a black hoodie who jumped off the Ambassador Bridge. In the crew mess the 2ndengineer asks the cadet how he got on with the snow blower. He beams and gives him the thumbs up.
‘She’s good to go,’ he says.
Meanwhile on a horizon both figurative and literal, enormous clouds writhe like creatures in mortal agony. Yes, bad weather is here, so best batten down the hatches. But there’s worse in the post, let me tell you my bully, bully boys. There is worse yet to come.