Hard Learnin‘
3 July 2023

hawsepipe: noun Nautical. 1. an iron or steel pipe in the stem of a vessel through which the anchor chain passes.

hawsepiper: an informal maritime term to refer to a ship’s officer who began his or her career as an unlicensed seaman and did not attend a traditional maritime college or academy to earn their officer’s license.

The captain was telling me about Charlie who he sailed with back in the day. Charlie was always broke.

‘I don’t know what the hell he spent his money on but come pay day it would already be gone…Just no sense when it came to money. He had a new snow mobile and washer/dryer set that he was paying off monthly at some insane rate of interest…’

Apparently, at one time Charlie appeared particularly anxious. He was an islander (from Newfoundland) and in his late 30s. He had a medium build and, like many of the guys out here that age, the beginnings of a gut. Charlie was due off the ship soon, and as always he had no money. His daughters fifth birthday was coming up and he wanted to get her a wading pool which cost 500 bucks from Canadian Tire. He asked around the crew for a loaner but was refused on account of everyone knew what he was like and he probably owed them money already.

The crew couldn’t help but notice him moping around the ship and despite the drinking and the swearing sailor’s hearts aren’t stone. The money was really for Charlie’s daughter after all and, financial irresponsibility aside, Charlie was a hard-worker and well-liked. There was a crew pow wow.

Two days before the scheduled crew change, the captain found Charlie in the ship’s mess.

‘I tell you what,’ said the captain. ‘The crew will all pool together and give you your 500 bucks, but there’s a condition.’

Charlie perked up. ‘What’s that, Cap?’

‘You have to shave every hair off your body. And I mean every hair. Even your eyebrows. And there will be an inspection.’ Charlie had a thick mane of black hair that was not confined to his scalp, but he didn’t hesitate.

‘I’ll do it,’ he said.

The captain told me this story yesterday as we sailed eastwards across Lake Superior into a nicotine yellow sky, hazy with the smoke from forest fires. It took place some years back on a different ship in the fleet. The story was related to him second hand by the other ship’s captain (his relief) as he had been home on holidays. Sailor’s are good story tellers and this captain is no exception and the third person can often become the first if it suits the situation or the narrative. The captain grew up on fishing boats but showed great aptitude at school for maths and sciences. He got into U of T on a full scholarship to study physics but he didn’t take to the big city so in his second year he switched to a Maritime college in Owen Sound, a small town at the bottom of Georgian Bay.

Just the other night I was standing watch with a visiting first mate, who is here to get some learning on a different ship, with different systems, while the ship he sails on is in for repairs. He’s a tall man with an impeccably maintained beard.

‘Did you go to school or did you hawsepipe it?’ I asked him.

‘Hawsepipe.’ He said.

It turns out he did fifteen years out west with BC Ferries, a pretty cushy gig in the Canadian maritime world. He is from Nova Scotia and he wanted to move back east so he took this job on the lakes to get himself a little closer.

‘What do deckhands do on the ferries?’ I asked him.
‘Drink coffee and bitch that they aren’t getting paid enough,’ he said.

It should be noted here, that sailor’s are champions in the art of complaint. It doesn’t matter what the ship or its function is, they will always have some beef or other. I am no slouch myself but I must defer to some of the true masters of the form who I’ve sailed with. Men, where every word uttered is one of grievance. Where even their tone of voice has altered to register persistent displeasure. With this outfit the complaints are generally directed at the office, which, to be fair, provides occasion a-plenty to bitch and are the reason the company is hemorrhaging sailors like rats from a sinking ship.

Hawse pipers are older than the average graduate from maritime college who can be as young as their early twenties. I have never sailed with a hawse piper I didn’t like and who I did not find good at their job. Personality goes a long way when you live in close quarters with others and those who are disagreeable are often weeded out whatever their skill. That, or they change. Whereas in the case of graduates, for every wunderkind (and I’m lucky to have sailed with a few)there are always those that are slow to learn and some who just don’t work out. This can be attributed to a number of factors, chief among them are age and naïveté, after all, you can’t buy experience. It’s also tough to be wet behind the ears and walk into a position of responsibility and be able to delegate, sometimes to people twice your age.

While there are maritime colleges across Canada, you must visit a transport Canada office to write any exams. There is one in North Toronto. A pyramid-shaped, red brick that was built in the 70s. Inside it’s enormous atrium you can see each of the seven floors and the stairs and elevators leading up to them and yet through which it is almost impossible to navigate or find your way to any one floor correctly. It is like being stuck in an Escher painting where even the security guards look confused. My roommate, himself a marine engineer told me,

‘that place is what bureaucracy would look like if it had an architectural form.’

Engineers go to college too but what they do there remains shrouded in mystery. It is said they invoke ancient gods and recite incantations in strange tongues. I have heard that animal sacrifice might be involved and burning an image of Thomas Newcomen is necessary before one can be initiated into the dark rites of the engine room.

I am not a quick learner. Any mechanical or technical knowledge is hard won and took a long, long time to seep in. While my brain might be a Petrie dish full of poems and useless information I am just not naturally adept in practical matters. This is widely known. The other day I was attempting to unblock the sink on the ship’s bridge. I was beneath it trying to remove the trap when the captain came in and saw me lying there with my head buried in the cupboard and various tools scattered about my person.

‘Uh-oh, Nick’s got tools. This can’t end well,’ he said and left.

But let’s get back to the beginning…

Obviously, the captain’s story didn’t end there. The next day, in the early afternoon and before a freshening northerly wind, Charlie presented himself on deck. He was buck ass naked, quite hairless and somehow, even with all the whoops and hollers from the crew, entirely without shame. He was bleeding profusely from multiple places where, as the razor had dulled, he’d gouged himself. Two white stripes stood out on his tanned forehead where eyebrows used to be. The captain and crew looked him over. They were satisfied.

‘Well Charlie,’ the captain said sternly. ‘Have you learned something from all this?’

‘I sure have cap,’ said Charlie.

‘Next time I’ll shave my balls first.’