I woke from fitful sleep and dreams of a world gone wrong where people were always yelling at me. I was slow to rise, as is rote at this late date in the sailing season, when I’m all banged up, wore out and ready for this ship to lay-up so we can finally call it a day and go home already. I did not turn the lights on, preferring instead to get ready in the dim crepuscular light the window cast from outside, where even at 0730, the sun was still not up, the soft edges of the near dark being preferable to my sluggish senses than the hard lines my cabins fluorescents threw.
I peed, brushed my teeth and put on layers of clothes over the long johns I had slept in. I stood at my cabin door a moment, took a breath, grasped the handle and turned it.
I only cracked the door. Bright light from the corridor streamed in through the narrow fissure and shocked my eyes. I waited a moment for them to adjust and then I scanned that space from floor to ceiling.
It was as I suspected. A piece of duct tape stretched out at face level, attached on either side of the door’s frame. I opened the door all the way and took a cursory look around. I ducked beneath the boobytrap and stepped into the hallway. Wasn’t it obvious I would see it? Unless the perpetrator had banked on my still being befuddled by sleep. Weak, I thought as I removed it and scrunched the tape into a ball. I tossed it into my wastepaper basket and then I headed up to the navigation bridge to begin my watch.
There is a war being fought on the MV M_____. A war waged with booby traps, duct tape, dish soap and condiments. Tit for tat incursions that have escalated swiftly from the rather benign attaching of binder clips to my watch mates hoodie, to him emptying the tea from my teabags and filling them with cayenne pepper. In return I rimmed his coffee cup with dish soap and rigged a trip wire on his cabin door.
Practical jokes are a good way to break up the monotony out here and have been a main stay on most ships I’ve worked on. With the exception of the time a few years back when I was awoken from a pleasant sun nap on deck by a one-liter water bottle slugged full bore, point blank and with extreme prejudice at my nuts, actual bodily injury is, as a rule, avoided. Though general discomfort is actively courted and the stress that fear of reprisals can elicit is celebrated by all but the imminent victim. Every object, from a toothbrush to a coffee mug, could be loaded. Any food tainted. Except for very serious conflicts, we are generally safe in our cabins, but once we leave them it is open season.
I could write a book on all the pranks I’ve played and have been played on me. I could call it ‘The Greatest I Gave and the Greatest I Ever Got Got’. Here are two from the past.
(This did not take place at sea but remains one of my favourites nonetheless) My roommate, another Maltese half-breed like me (or halfy as we are known on the rock itself) was due to fly to the UK and rather then eat the inflight meal, she prepared herself a small, packed lunch for her journey the following day. It contained a hard-boiled egg. I admonished her for this.
‘No one wants to see or smell you eating a hard-boiled egg,’ I told her. ‘Especially in close quarters on a plane. It’s gross. I mean, I love them,but as far as I’m concerned eating a hard-boiled is like going to the bathroom, something to be done in private.’ She rolled her eyes at me. ‘Whatever’ she said and went to bed. At which point I replaced her hard-boiled egg with a normal egg from the fridge…
It was a hot day in Halifax Harbour and I was working as first mate on a hundred-foot schooner there. The captain informed me that I was looking quite sun burned. I thought this peculiar, as given my Maltese heritage, I don’t tend to burn easily, and certainly not so late in the summer. Nonetheless, I took his advice, sought out my sunscreen and began applying it. I had rubbed it into most of my face when I began to realize something was wrong. I smelled my fingers.
The Horror. The Horror.
It was the dreaded devil’s condiment…
I ran screaming to the galley where I near scoured the skin from my face as I scrubbed it for most of an hour.
The person behind this fiendishly clever prank was a quiet and diligent deckhand, a red head from Dartmouth, who had kept her cunning well hidden for most of the season. To this day she remains one of my most worthy antagonists. Mayonnaise is my kryptonite and has been used on other occasions to best me. I hate that shit like Hitler.
Some months ago – in the spirit of aiding new crew members familiarization with the vessel – small whiteboards were attached to our doors on which we were to write our names so there would be no confusion when waking people. This lasted all of a day before the names began to be erased and replaced with cocks. A new mate aboard went down to wake up the deck hands for tie-up. Later on the bridge he confided,
‘I had no idea whose door was whose! They all had cocks on them.’
No one knew who the phantom cock-drawer was though we all had our suspicions. Today, we’ve all but given up and he remains at large, though it would seem he has an accomplice now. Perhaps more than one.
‘For god sakes guys,’ said the first mate in frustration. ‘There’s a woman on board!’
‘She thinks its hilarious,’ said John the 4-8 wheelsman (and possibly the cock-artiste himself, though he strenuously denies such allegations.). The fact is, what began as an annoyance has become quite amusing due to the quality and imagination behind some of these drawings.
-There is a cock bursting from a mans stomach in the style of the movie Alien.
-A cock with antlers wishing a merry Christmas.
-A cock ejaculating fireworks and bidding a happy new year.
-A grandfather clock with a cock for a pendulum.
-A Godzilla cock, or ‘Cock-zilla’ laying waste to a city.
-A laker with a cock for an unloading boom called the ‘SS Pecker’.
-And perhaps my favourite, a cock astride an atom bomb waving a cowboy hat in homage to Slim Pickens’ character in that iconic scene from Dr. Strangelove.
Even the stone-faced American Coast Guard Officer who performed a random check of my cabin cracked a sly smile when he saw the monstrous cock on my door, and those guys keep their cards close to their chest!
The expression goes ‘Boys will be boys,’ but I think it should be
‘people cooped up in small places for extended periods of time will find different ways in which to amuse themselves, preferably at the expense of other people cooped up in that same small space’,
though I’ll admit it does not have the same ring.
We are on the final stretch here. Two more cargoes and the ship will be done for another season. The turbo on the generator blew yesterday and we spent 12 hours at anchor as it was replaced. The sea ice was all broken up off Drummond Island where we dropped the hook and it closed in and mosaic-ed around us.
It is that time of year when things begin to go wrong more often than not. The crew are tired. Phoning it in. One crew member who got off last week said to me before he left,
‘Dude, I checked out a week ago.’
The weather had at least declared a cease fire on us in the days after Christmas but yesterday hostilities began anew with a fresh salvo of snow and the mercury plummeting.
Later, we sailed a storm route, hugging the northern shore of Lake Superior to avoid the worst of the weather. On my morning watch the ship rolled gently side to side and it was still dark and the moon hung low on the horizon as we approached Thunder Bay. Some atmospheric effect rendered the moon’s normally smooth outline uneven, ruffle-edged, as though it too had put on extra layers to keep out the inhospitable cold. There was a halo of light around it on the otherwise dark horizon, and sea smoke was visible, rising up before it, like cobras to a fakir, in thrall to its old, unearthly magic.
Earlier, I had woken up and gone through the usual motions. As ever, I cracked my cabin door and checked it for booby traps. I stepped outside. I took another look around. There was a new sign on my door informing any passersby that
‘I ♥ Boys’.
Dated, I thought, and frankly, lazy. I closed the door. Peanut butter on the door handle and now all over my hand. Classic.
‘An oldie but a goodie’ as my mother would say. The sign had been a diversion.
‘Well played my old nemesis’, I thought, ‘well played’.
As I took the stairs up to the navigation bridge my mind teemed with delicious malfeasance and what fresh mischief I could possibly next bring to this already busy battlefield.