Steering the St. Marys at Sunrise
4 November 2023

You come up for watch at 0600.  It’s still dark.  You make a tea.  Yorkshire Gold.  Yorkshire Gold, the crack/cocaine of teas.  

At night all there is to see of the St. Marys River are navigation lights.  Flashing reds and greens and solid whites.  The rest is blackness.  It is this dark because you are sailing through an area of mostly wilderness.  A river system made up of tree-clad islands and densely forested shore.  There is no light pollution from nearby towns or cities.  There are no towns or cities nearby.  Just some cottages on the shore.  Most of them shutdown for winter.  

The navigation bridge is kept dark to better see outside.  You need to pause a while before you relieve your ship mate at the wheel.  Stare ahead. Wait and let your eyes adjust.  When you’re ready the wheelsman you’re relieving gives you a compass order which you repeat back to him.  You take the wheel in hand.  You are standing at the steering station.  A console, like a podium, set in the middle of the bridge.  Directly in front of you is a long panel of navigation equipment.  Radar, ECDIS, AIS, Radio, engine controls, fire alarms, all of the deck light switches, horn.  The ship’s bridge is 70 feet wide.  Windows span its width and sides so you can see anywhere but behind you.   You prefer to stand, not sit.  It’s easy to lose your bearings when steering on lights so you must concentrate, but, do not make the mistake of focusing on one light for too long.  That makes your eyes do funny things.  

The captain is sitting in a tall chair he has dragged in front of the ECDIS.  He is three feet to your right but you can only just make out his profile in the dim glow of the navigation equipment.  He yawns and you catch it from him and yawn too.  You are sailing short-handed which means you are working six hours off/six hours on.  You find it an impossible schedule to adjust to and you have only had three hours sleep.  

The wheel is small and plastic and light in your hands.  Unlike a sailing ships wheel it offers no resistance. All you need are little micro adjustments to port and starboard unless you are executing a big turn. From where you stand, 60 feet above the deck, on the stern of the ship, you can see the whole of the vessel before you, about 500’ of her, lit up by a string of combing lights that run the deck port and starboard and illuminate her fore to aft.  

You banter back and forth with the captain.  You discuss the often-prodigious drinking habits of chefs and how the last one was let go for a full-on mid-week vodka bender.  The captain had to administer a breathalyzer.

‘What did he blow,’ you ask.  

‘It was high,’ he said.  ‘I’d be dead if I blew that high.

‘We all like a beer,’ you say. ‘But there’s drinking and then there’s drinking.’

You think about the cook you sailed with when you were 18.  Nice guy.  Fifties. From Honolulu. He was drunk all the time.  Carried a Mickey of vodka in his breast pocket. He is probably dead now, you think. You’ve seen addiction. You know the signs. You have a friend who might be developing bad habits. You worry about him.

The captain tells you about someone he sailed with years back. Their ship ran aground and when this guy heard he had to do a piss test he threw his arms up in the air.  

‘Well I’m fucked!’  he said.  ‘I’ve had everything!’

You laugh. It’s good to laugh early in the morning.  It keeps you present. Wakes you up.

You make the big turn before rock cut.  Even with just 10 degrees rudder on her the ship gets going at quite a clip.

‘Keep ‘er in the middle,’ the captain says.  You put on plenty of starboard wheel to arrest her swing and get her settled.  Rock cut is narrow and there is no room for error.  20 feet on either side.  The ship wants to take off to port like a dog after a squirrel and you have to keep on with the counter wheel.  

That simile makes you think of your recently deceased dog who died when you were last at sea.  You think that at some point people you love will start to die too. Some will outlive you, of course, but it’s unlikely you’ll be first to the finish line.  

As you steer you fidget.  You switch your weight from foot to foot.  Stand up and down on tippy-toes.

Slowly, like the dimmer on a basement light, the world begins to be revealed.  At first, just shapes like charcoal etchings.  Then colours are introduced.  The clouds, gilded pink around their edges.  The faint brown line of land.  Gradually the water appears and the horizon splits sea and sky.  The sun takes a tentative peak over the thick boreal tree line to port as though checking the lay of the land.  It flashes momentarily red in your eyes.  Once confident, it rears up and ascends and the day is born and there are blues and oranges and dark greens and the river is revealed in full panorama. The islands and the trees, the waters shimmer. A loose V of geese flying south. It is as though an inventor has unveiled their new creation and they are proud of it.

As visibility improves your mind is freer to wander…

You think what a gloomy Gus you have become of late but Jesus Christ, who wouldn’t be?  Always this tig of war between light and dark in your head.

Sometimes, when you get on an internal tangent or lost in a reverie, you’ll fall off a degree or two and the captain or mate of the watch will have to reel you back and remind you of your helm order.  You’ve sailed with them a long time and they are used to your peccadillos.  They have been patient thus far.

You think of the bones of a poem that has been gathering dust in your notebook. You keep coming back to it. Something about dementia.  But then you think, why bother with the heavy lifting. Poems are hard.  They take so much time and you are impatient.  And you’ll never be a Berryman.  Hell, you’ll never even be a Bukowski.

You think of Olivia Manning, and then Colson Whitehead, both of whose novels you’ve recently read and enjoyed.  And of John Lennon, whose vocals have been recovered from a piece of wrecked tape and mended with AI.  You wonder if this is a good idea.

Perhaps you’ll write some of these thoughts down later. Maybe in the 2nd person to offer a sense of immediacy.

You think of the limbless in the Ukraine.  The homeless.  The dead.  And of that cunt in the Kremlin who started it all and how happy he must be with Hamas, now they have sparked a conflict capable of distracting the world from his ‘special military operation.’  And the helpless Palestinians, trapped between Israel and Hamas’ rockets.  And of the deep and terrifying well of antisemitism that has been uncorked internationally. And how it is you can call a people ‘colonizers’ when they have existed in a place for 5000 years.  

Are the Anishinaabe colonizers of these waters? This teeming land you are sailing through?  The Potawatomi?  The Iroquois?   

And that psalm,

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.’

‘What an amazing day,’ says the captain, wresting you back.  And so it is.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Water so flat the small islands you pass project their mirror image on its surface.  Crisp.  So bright it hurts to look outside.

The captain tells you to go hard over to get the ship turned around.  He begins to reverse in through the long gauntlet of buoys that mark the safe water to Bruce Mines.

At this point the wheel is at amidship and you just stand back and watch.  There is little for you to do when the ship is in reverse.  You think about your dog again.    And of Martin Amis’ advice to writers not to write about their animals as they tend towards the maudlin and the mawkish when they do.  

He is probably right, but really, fuck him.  

She was a good dog.  So happy.  So loving.  But, poor girl, nervous.  Much as you would like to, you don’t believe in a God, so it is strange for you to hope she’s at peace. To wish she’s somewhere warm, and that she wasn’t afraid in her final hours.