Idle Hands
27 November 2021

Frankie was running low on smokes and he was worried about it. He’d packed enough for the five-day steam from Halifax to Norfolk but had failed to consider random US customs kerfuffle’s, one of which had put us at anchor ten miles off the Virginia coast for an unspecified period of time. 

“You got any spare smokes buddy,’ he asked me. He wore thick wire-framed glasses behind which his eyes darted busily to and fro. ‘I’m down to my last fuckin’ few.”

I had seen the Ziploc bag of cheap reservation cigarettes he had brought on board and was amazed he could’ve got through them already. There must’ve been hundreds in there. 

“I smoke rollies. Sorry.” I said. 

Frankie was an electrician. He had been contracted to do the wiring on the small cruise ship I was a deckhand on. We were in the final stages of a refit and bound for drydock in Virginia before a season cruising around the Caribbean.Frankie was in his mid-fifties. He was not a tall man but what he lacked in height he made up for with a waistline so expansive it near-equaled his altitude. He was constantly licking his chapped red lips on top of which sat a soggy grey moustache that turned down at each end and gave him a walrus-like appearance. His skin was the colour of tallow and and as he was perpetually sweaty, it glistened like it too.

Since we dropped the hook early that morning, he had worked his way through the smokers in the crew one by one.

“Hey man, you got any smokes I can buy?”

“Sorry Frankie. Can’t spare any,” was the general response until he came to the other electrician who had, for days, been crammed alongside his rotund colleague in some of the ship’s most confined spaces running wire.

“Hey buddy. You got any smokes you can spare?”

“Fuck you, Frankie,” he said. “I’ve been eating your damp farts for the last week. I’m not giving you shit!”

We’d left Halifax close to midnight on January 3rd, 2008. It was -20˚C and we had to beat the frozen mooring lines off the bollards with sledgehammers and aluminum baseball bats, and once they were off, we could barely pull them through the fairleads they were so stiff. 

We pounded into a strong southerly all the way down south. The vessel did not ride well in a head sea. She pitched wildly in the cold, black North Atlantic as though in seas four times as large. The galley was located all the way forward and the chef discovered to his horror that the range of motion up there was so great the eggs pretty much flipped themselves on the flat top. I found that if I stood at the bottom of the forward stairwell and timed it right, I could leap the whole flight of 10 steps in one go. If I didn’t time it right, I got a face full of ship instead. Frankie didn’t take well to the weather and his skin went from white to grey until he finally retired to his bunk and stayed there for the duration of the voyage. The temperature increased hourly and by the time we made Norfolk our mooring lines had finally thawed and it was an unseasonably warm 26˚. 

Frankie recovered and grew more and more agitated as we lay waiting at anchor. He came and joined a few of the crew who were smoking and lounging in the sun amidships. We were enjoying some rare R and R at anchor after the drubbing of the previous days. 

“Any word on when we’re getting underway?”

“Nothing yet Frankie.”

“Fuckin’ American immigration! It’s my fuckin’ last smoke,” he said and waved the cigarette at us before puffing desperately on it. Frankie had a great passion for the F-word. Sometimes he would use it as an adjective, noun, adverb and verb all in one sentence. 

“Fuck. Fuck it. I’m gonna have to fuckin’ swim for it,” he said.The truth was there were plenty of cigarettes on board but we were enjoying watching Frankie squirm too much to let on and he likely knew this. Schadenfreude is a common remedy to ship-board ennui.

“You’ll never make it. It’s ten miles.”

“They’ll think you’re a whale and harpoon you.”

“No they won’t. Beluga’s are protected!”

“Let him go.”

“Fuck you guys! Don’t you know I’ll fuckin’ do it!” he said lifting his shirt and pulling it over his head.

“Ah christ!” Put it away Frankie!”

Suddenly I was confronted with so much loose white flesh that I was, for a moment, speechless.

There is a restlessness that overtakes the crew of a ship at rest. Deepsea guys have the stomach for it. They’re used to long ocean crossings, followed by days and weeks spent at anchor waiting for cargo. I liked that life alright but sailors on self-unloaders, with never more than 24 hours between ports, start to get antsy after a day or so, something I had time to consider this past week as rudder damage in the Detroit River put us in Sarnia for repairs. We were in a period of protracted limbo for much of the time as until they pulled the rudder and opened her up it was not known the extent of the damage and whether or not we crew would be staying or sent home. Despite there being a bar not 200feet from the ship, what little drinking that was done was done in moderation and it is testimonial to the temperance and maturity (though age has nothing to do with it) of this crew that after six days tied up in Sarnia not one person ended up in jail or hospital. It would not have played out the same with some of the other crews I have sailed with. 

You’ve heard what they say about you know who and the work he makes for idle hands right? What they often fail to tell you is just how fun that work is too. Perhaps that’s what was missing this time, as a collective malaise seemed to descend over the ship like a low hanging cloud. There was a sense of relief when the engines finally fired up and we nosed out of our slip and into the swift current of the St. Clair River late on Wednesday night. 

Up north the temperature has taken a dive to well into the minuses and it seems it will stay there now. Last night I stood on the stern and spotted us into Port Inland, Michigan as a 35knot wind flayed my skin with snow and blew the ship sideways. Just two more cargoes and my rotation will be up and another season on the lakes will be under my belt. These hands no longer idle, these fingers one to ten, now near froze to the bone. 

Ah, but Idle hands and the wonderful mischief they can make. When we finally made it into Norfolk, didn’t we just drink that town dry.

Frankie never did go for that swim all those years ago in Virginia. But he made to. Put on a great show for the crew, waddling up the deck like a plump uncooked turkey. His arms flailed as he effed and blinded and lurched up to the bow. Our cheers and whistles followed him all the way.