If a Ship Slips Through the Piers at Muskegon, Michigan in the Dead of Night Unseen, Does It Make a Sound?
28 April 2024

The ship had already been operational for a month when I joined her at a stone dock on the St. Clair River.  There is no time of transition when you return to work on a ship. No period of grace to unpack and acclimate. It was my watch when I arrived, so I dropped my sea bag in my cabin, said hello to the 4-8 wheelsman whom I was there to relieve, took off my civilian clothes, donned my work ones and got straight into the business of unloading stone from the vessel.  

Time passes.  The trade remains the same.  Life aboard does too.  The usual mélange of bitching, tedium, trash-talk and toil. In the ten days I’ve been back our trip list has read as follows:

Port Inland, Michigan-Serpent Harbour, Ontario – Stone
Meldrum Bay, Ontario – Muskegon, Michigan – Stone
Port Inland, Michigan – Windsor, Ontario – Stone
Sandusky, Ohio – Sault Sainte-Marie, Ontario – Coke (coke is a fuel derived from coal used in steel production).  

All docks so familiar that any of the deck crew could – with closed eyes – direct you where to place each mooring wire.

I find the crew roster mostly unchanged too, with the exception of the captain and a few other positions.  The captain joins us from another vessel in the fleet.  He is in his mid-thirties and of boisterous good humour.  He’s a veteran of the cruise ship industry and with the exception of Antarctica has sailed extensively around each continent, a rarity in the lake fleets where few have any salt water – or ‘deep sea’ as it’s known in nautical parlance – experience.

Another ship in our fleet burned at the beginning of the season which means there is more crew to spread over five ships.  Now, on board the M_____ we have ample bums in seats which makes work, i.e. clean ups (the hosing and shoveling out of the deck, the holds, the boom tray and the tunnel; all integral parts of a self-unloaders day to day) that little bit easier.    It also means there is little chance of gaining any extra time and it has meant layoffs for a few.

As ever the machinations of the office and its higher ups remain baffling; tone deaf declarations and decisions, penny-pinching on seemingly essential parts and a near preternatural disregard for crew morale make me wonder if perhaps a deliberate unravelling is not afoot.  

The days, thus far, have been windy.  Largely inclement.  Most watches rain smatters the wheelhouse windows while the lakes surface is busied with white caps. The temperature hovers roundabout 15 by day. The nights down to zero.  Southbound on Lake Michigan we sailed through a brief flurry of snow.

The only fly in the ointment on my return was to discover my bunk side reading lamp missing. And – when I eventually located it – broken.  I can’t express just how commensurate a reading lamp is to my quality of life, but it is the first thing I look to when entering a room in which I’ll be sleeping.  

‘Did you find your reading light?’ said Denver, the-not-particularly-concerned-to-my-plight first mate over breakfast a couple of days later.

‘I did…but it’s broken.’

‘You can probably take it apart and figure out what’s wrong,’ said the captain.  ‘Lamps aren’t sophisticated.’

‘Nick’s not mechanically inclined,’ said Denver, apprising the captain of my skills. ‘In fact, he’s mechanically declined.’

But it seems everyone, including myself, underestimated my powers of repair because I did in fact manage to fix it.  Turned out it was the lightbulb.

And now we are bound across Superior to Thunder Bay for a load of grain and oats from Saskatchewan which may or may not be waiting for us on arrival.  The satellite TV receiver is not working which makes falling asleep troublesome for me and has incensed the hockey fans aboard as the playoffs season has begun.

‘I’m going to start a diary,’ said one of the mates sarcastically. 

‘Dear Diary: Day 3 with no TV.  I jerked off ten times today…’

Last week at four in the morning, we slipped through the piers at Muskegon, Michigan.  It was a dark night and on the lake there was a strong set from the north which made entering the narrow channel difficult. To the south the full moon laid down a rippling silver causeway across the water.  Muskegon is similar to many of the towns up and down Lake Michigan’s east coast.  A popular holiday destination with long sandy beaches and a Main Street with quaint mom and pop shops. There are gift stores, diners, burger shacks and bars that bustle in the summer.  Normally, when we sail in through the piers, whatever the season, the boardwalk is full of locals and tourists alike who come to gawk but at that time the waters edge was empty; no one bade us welcome with salutatory waves or the signature up and down of arm that begs a blast of our horn. I was at the wheel and it was as though we were doing something clandestine, entering a town as everybody slept safe in their beds in houses not a stones throw from the ship’s bridge.  Most peculiar, I thought, was that for all the rumble of our main engine and generators and the constant rattle the cavitation of our propellor causes in shallow water, I had the feeling that we were sailing in perfect silence, almost ghost-like, through the town, and for a moment I felt like a voyeur gazing at all those darkened windows.

In my time off this winter I immersed myself in histories. I dipped a toe in Solzhenitsyn’s daunting tome the Gulag Archipelago and Max Hasting’s Viet Nam: An Epic History of a Tragic War.  I waded through the murky horror of Joan Didion’s Salvador.  And I plunged into the entirety of George Orwell’s non-fiction oeuvre, most notably the Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalunya and his collected essays.  This was, on the whole, not cheerful reading – made more depressing when I realized how little we have learned or changed in the nearly hundred years since Orwell was writing – so it is a relief to be at sea where I read fiction exclusively and escape to mostly imagined worlds.  

Unfortunately my shipping out coincided with the kicking-off of Donald Trump’s hush-money trial and my newsfeed is bombarded by him.  If last month’s reading has taught me anything it is that the ideologically malleable admire a strongman; a fist-shaker and a flag waver.  They relish scapegoats and spectacle.  In short, moron’s love a fascist.  When you work in a male-dominated arena as I do, you can be confronted with a great deal of machismo and bravura, or dick-swinging as it is euphemistically called. What stands out to me in a leader out here, and in general; what is the real measure of a man and a shipmate, in my opinion, is integrity, humility, intelligence, a willingness to be accountable when necessary, a mind for problem solving and the ability to act rationally and calmly in a pinch.  Donald Trump possesses none of these qualities. I am truly frightened at what havoc four years with him at the helm might wreak on these stormy geopolitical seas, in this, the most perilous time in history since the end of World War II; when Putin is busy with his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and the re-Stalin-ization of Russia, Xi Jingping is crouched prone in the bushes by Taiwan, the Middle East is set to explode and yet 50% of Americans are ready to vote a man into office who will haplessly facilitate it all.  It puts me to mind of Yeats’ ‘gyres’ (in Yeats’ philosophy, gyres represent cycles of time that spiral outwards, each cycle marking a different epoch or era in human history. )

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

More alarmingly Einstein’s words of warning were recalled to me by a recent Netflix documentary on the Cold War.

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Didn’t Jesus say that it’s easier for a fat, rich man to shit through the eye of a needle than it is for him to enter the kingdom of heaven (sic)? 
Wouldst we could discover were that true.

Yes, another year.  Another sailing season begins.  Thank God we’re not in the business of making history on the M______.  There’s no grandstanding here; we’re just paying the bills. Before too long, no one will remember our ship once came this way. Much less  care that any of her crew were ever here at all.