Refugees (From a Burning Ship)
7 July 2023

I got picked up by the cops for hitchhiking in Algonac, Michigan one morning seven years ago. I was working as a cook on an old wood schooner that was on a summer jaunt around the Great Lakes. I jumped ship the night before and grabbed a motel room to escape the heat and the clouds of mosquitoes that had descended in Biblical swarms. The cops were rude. Aggressively officious. Until they heard my accent.

‘I’m Canadian,’ I said. They must have thought I was Mexican or some other brand of ‘illegal’, what with my grubby tall ship clothes and my deep tan.

‘We’re still gonna need to see your passport son,’ said one of the cops. ‘Doncha know hitchhiking is illegal in the US?’

They drove me back to the ship. My passport was in the ship’s safe under the captain’s bunk. I had to wake him up to get it.

A close family friend has Alzheimer’s. A man I have known all my life. In the last few years I have seen a lot of him and he has always been keen to tell me stories about his childhood in Valletta, the capital of Malta, and he is a very good raconteur. His recall is impressive but sometimes his eyes cloud over and a look of confusion creases his brow and he’ll forget where he was and stop or he’ll begin the story all over again. I wonder if he feels an urgency now. Like he needs to get these tales out before he loses them forever.

When I was a kid I remember riding with my mum in our white Volvo station wagon. We stopped at an intersection next to which there was the wreckage of an old apartment block that had been knocked down

‘I always think that’s so sad,’ said my mum. ‘All those memories in thin air.’

I liked that notion then. I still like it. The insinuation being, I suppose, that our memories have some kind of spirit life. Without us. Beyond us. And yes, how sad. To think of all the lives lived within those walls. All that emotion and experience. Memories, now lonely ghosts with no home to haunt.

My mood always sours in my last week aboard. I’m getting older and I feel at times, less disposed to this life. I’m tired and it doesn’t help that I’ve thrown my back out (something that happens quite frequently now and makes me wonder what all the bloody exercise I do is for). The mood across the fleet seems changed too. The crew of the C______ (the ship that burned) have been spread out across the remaining ships in the fleet in an effort to keep everyone earning, but people are worried about what lies ahead. Valued hands are leaving the company. Among them a 12-year veteran named Al. Al is a friendly giant, however, when pushed he can go off like Vesuvius. Maddened by what seems to be the willful obtuseness that has become the lingua franca among the desk-pushers and higher-ups that run this outfit he has joined another fleet. To be a good shipmate and a good seaman are separate qualities. Al possesses ample reserves of both virtues and I have to question what future a company has, that would let a sailor of his caliber go.

I like clothes but I arrive on the ship with only one set of street clothes. What I am wearing. I will not put them on again until it is my time to step off the ship at crew change. I hang them all on one hanger, on the wall at the foot of my bunk. In the summer it is skateboard friendly wear. This month it’s a denim shirt, tan Vans chinos and a red adidas zip up. On the floor below, a pair of black Chucks. A sort of scare crow effigy of my city self. For the rest of my rotation i will wear work clothes, workout clothes and track pants. I have narcissistic tendencies but theyare tempered out here where I have little use for a mirror. Nonetheless, after a few weeks I start to think of real clothes and when I’ll next be be able to put some on.

Last night as the sun fell we were strafed by violent thunder squalls. A full moon rose orange above the thick boreal tree line as we threaded our way through the network of small islands that phalanx the route to Serpent Harbour. There I was on deck for tie-up. A middle-aged sailor in a sour mood nursing his buggered back. The air was thick with moisture and mosquitoes the size of CGI pterosaurs from one of the Jurassic Park flicks harassed my every step. It smelled like a campfire that has been doused in haste and I thought, looking at the dense woods around us,

soon enough we’re all going to be refugees from a burning ship.

And then I thought about that time I got picked up by the cops in Algonac, Michigan. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the mosquitoes.