On Taking the Stairs, the Certainty of Death and Dreams of a Bottomless Cup of Tea
15 May 2024

There are five decks (storeys) in the aft house of the ship, or the accommodation, as we sailors call the space on board where we do all our living.  Between the main deck and the navigation bridge there are four decks connected by 55 stairs and eight landings.  In the 30-year history of this vessel, I am willing to bet that no one has taken them, up or down, as fast as me.  On night watches, when most of the crew are asleep and the risk of collision with another person is slim, when we’re on the open lake and the steering is locked down and in auto, I’ll make a game of it while I go about my duties. I’ll imagine some emergency, or a mad man at my heels. Descending, my feet a blur, I’ll virtually fly down.  I’ll take the turns pivoting on one arm that’s anchored to the handrail and hurl myself around the corners at speeds that would make the company’s health and safety specialist choke on her skinny latte. Ascending, I’ll use my upper body as much as my legs.  The stairs are just an arm span wide so I can brachiate like a gibbon, propel myself up and upwards, take stairs three and four at a time.  I don’t think that at 48 I’m a little old for this.  Rather, I am proud that at 48 I’m still spry enough to pull it off.

Believe it or not, I like discipline. I am fastidiously punctual.  Pathologically so.  A man of habit you could say, as the ADHD among us often are. I like structure and routine.  Chaos rattles me; freaks me out.  The sea life suits me for this reason. At any time of day, when on a ship, I can tell you exactly what I will be doing, even in my leisure time.   I find it important to set rules for myself.   For example, I don’t allow myself to smoke a cigarette until I’ve either run 10kms, worked out or written.  On shore, I am mostly an evening smoker if at all, but out here, the want is greater, and as I get closer to going home, I find myself exercising earlier and earlier just so I can have a smoke.  I don’t eat sweets ashore, but I drink beer, and at sea I don’t drink beer,but I’ll eat sweets.  I think I like structure because it provides a balance to my disordered and often frantic internal disquisitions.

I come from a long line of tea drinkers so it’s no surprise that I love tea, and, in the absence of beer, I drink gallons of it at sea.  My preference is Yorkshire Gold.  A strong ‘builder’s tea’ as my British mother would call it.  Left to steep for more than a couple of minutes it possesses paint stripping qualities.  Usually by the end of a rotation my own supplies will have dwindled, and I’ll be forced back to the company-supplied Tetley.  I have my first two teas in immediate succession at 0340 when I report for watch but must stagger the rest judiciously throughout my waking hours, as too many, too close together will elicit projectile diarrhea.  It’s a fucking tightrope daily.

In the last week there was a significant crew change and 35% of the 20 strong crew switched out.  Our old captain is back.  I have often written of him in the past.  67 and a legend in this fleet and on the Great Lakes at large. He is a no-nonsense, get ‘er done, come hell or highwater sort.    He will make a dock effortlessly in winds that would send most captains to scurrying to anchor and he’ll depart in weather when others would not.  A student of the old school in possession of superlative nautical knowledge and skill.  He is also a man of strong beliefs, many of which I disagree with utterly.  Despite witnessing what I consider strong evidence of it on the lakes, he is not just a climate change skeptic; he is a flat-out denier and he’ll get spitting mad about it when he tells you.  

‘It’s all smoke and mirrors. Just another thing cooked up by those commie-lefties in Ottawa…and the scientists and academics all trying to make a buck,’ he tells me.  ‘In the nineties they were telling us we were all gonna freeze to death, and now we’re gonna cook.’  

To him, and much to his amusement and/or frustration, I am a ‘believer’ or a ‘city-ot’ (city + idiot), a pejorative contraction increasingly popular among many of the crew that refers to someone from the city, or more accurately, a blanket term to describe someone who worries about the environment, advocates gun control, and has compassion for refugees and animals.  

Last week, in Lorain, Ohio I stood on deck in the early morning and spotted cargo while the four deck hands busied themselves about me.  I called gates on the radio for the mate up forward in the control room.  We were unloading sand at a dock just a short stretch up the Black River.  Sand is a rare cargo for us.  (Like stone and gravel, sand is used widely in the construction industry and there are many docks throughout the Great Lakes where we deliver it to.)It is a fast discharge, and it slips silently through our holds like a mighty velvet scarf.   As the morning grew lighter cottonwoods, willows and sycamores became visible on the shoreline.  The wreck of an old ferry sat cockeyed and molting rust among the tall cattails in the marshy shallows astern of us.  An old iron rail bridge haloed our bows, a great blue heron stood still as a statue in its shadow in the posture of the plastic flamingos that one sees on suburban lawns.  A walleye derby was getting underway and before sunrise the river began to fill with fishing boats.  Many millions of dollars’ worth of sleek silver and black decal-ed vessels, piloted by sleepy-eyed men in camouflage gear.  

‘Why do fishermen need camouflage gear?’ I wondered as I sipped tea from my travel mug and quietly thought about my death.

For as long as I can remember I have been terrified of dying; not of the pain I might incur in the moment but at the thought of oblivion, the nothingness after. There are times in bed, I will be teetering on the verge of sleep, about to pitch face first into that abyss, when I’ll be wrenched awake by the cold knowledge of my mortality and the fleetingness of this life.  By the thought of 

‘Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…’ 

as Larkin, another thanatophobe, wrote in his poem ‘Aubade’. A near death experience five years ago quelled these fears for a time, but they are back and heightened in periods of especial anxiety.

I sometimes joke that books ruined me.  Growing up in a house full of books I had my pick of the shelves from as early as I can remember.  Did books give me this depressive personality? My multiple neuroses? Because they revealed the world and all its cruelty at much too young an age.  

‘So it goes’ is the leitmotif in Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated novel Slaughterhouse Five. He uses the phrase repeatedly throughout its pages.  I have too, over the years and in my many writings. Not just in homage but because it really does.  It goes and goes and goes, until it doesn’t.  Until we don’t. 

And I guess that is the point.  

Meanwhile, another rotation on the ship draws to a close and last week, in Lorain, Ohio I stood on deck in the early morning and spotted cargo while the four deck hands wrangled hoses and flipped hatch lids with the gantry crane. I stood among my ship mates and watched another cargo leave the ship.  I saw the pile ashore grow bigger and bigger beneath our unloading boom.  It sat among a sea of stone and gravel piles.  With their arched backs and cresting tips, they looked like mansion-sized ocean waves, frozen immemorial in Vesuvian repose.  Four seagulls sat atop the one nearest the ship, the outline of their tender profiles cast perfect by the rising sun.  

I stood there, so painfully mortal, and as I sipped Tetley from my travel mug, I thought about what I will do in my time home and fantasized about a bottomless cup of tea.