Sunday, July 29, 2012

The under cover reporter

The world got quiet, it was never quite day or quiet night. The night turned the color of sky turned the color of sea turned the color the ice.
-Josh Ritter, Another New World

Notes from sea, written in my crew cabin at the end of each fourteen hour day. 

Sunday was short and disorientating, I was alone on a plane, plunging into Juneau with a view of my tiny boat from way up high. I took a taxi to the boat. I walked up the gangway and felt nothing until I started seeing my friends waving from the windows. It feels a little like coming home to the strangest family on earth. Today I stayed in my crew room the whole afternoon and evening, dizzy and weirdly exhausted, my heart skittering around in my chest like something being thrown around in a dryer. Out on the bow we passed the Brother Islands which are full of rude, roaring sea lions. I saw none of them. I slept intermediately and ate toast for dinner but there was no butter to be found. My favorite deckhand worked the night shift, and since I couldn't sleep all the way through the night, he made me some tea and brought it to me in my bed. 

I was up today on Tuesday morning feeling calmer and level headed. We played on Reid glacier today, and there was this whole family that ran up the rocky side and went sliding down the ice on their backs, and it was fun to watch. The water around Reid Glacier is turquoise and milky with glacial silt. The whole place looks like a construction area, or Jupiter's moon. 

Later on I brought out the colored pencils and started drawing pictures with the little kids. I tried to draw a map of the Reid with pictures of all the wildflowers and tracks and marbled murelettes that we usually point out, but it didn't come out exactly how I'd imagined it.

 One of the kids has a father who is a very famous movie director in LA, he’s done a lot of animations and he started coloring glaciers with us. He drew a little sketch of a calving glacier and it was really good. It looked exactly like you’d think a movie director’s sketch would look like. We were all crowded around this little table. I found out later that he directed Puss in Boots and Shrek and a lot of other things. He is the nicest man, with two little boys and his wife on board. He has a very dry subtle sense of humor. 

After dinner this evening, his little boy was careening down the passageways the other day towards me. "Catch that kid!" Shouted the famous film director. I bent down and took the boy up in my arms. "Now, take all his clothes off and put him in the bath!"

There are a couple of crew members “down” which is nautical parlance for "not feeling good."  Whenever the deck hands get sick they fight it like dogs, refusing to lie down because they want to get back to work. Me, I don’t really have this problem. When I feel sick I want to lie down and die and I figure everyone else can deal without me. I wonder if I get sicker than most people or if I just have a bad work ethic.
One of the assistant engineers went into my room to check the head and saw my favorite deckhand in my room, and he saw the cup of tea he'd made for me, and his mind starts clicking away. He calls his girlfriend who is the first mate on our sister boat and tells her that me and the deckhand and I are doing things that we're not supposed to do. And she tells the deckhand's girlfriend who is also on that boat, and now everyone's in all sorts of trouble. The deckhand wants to tear the engineer into pieces. The engineer growls.  Meanwhile we float around on the same boat and point out whales to all our guets.  It's very Love Boat drama and I never thought there'd be so much rigamarole over drinking a cup of Orange tea after midnight. It didn't even have caffeine.  

As always, I feel a powerful sense of disassociation, "Depersonalization" I believe is its clinical term. As if I'm in the corner watching myself and all these interesting things happening and wondering how they're all going to play out, like theater. 

I am very grateful to have been in a relationship of sorts for eight months without a drop of drama, jealousy or pettiness or anything bad. It's so easy, as it should be. 


The crew were in such a terrible mood today! I’m thinking people have been on the boat too long and it’s starting to show. All the stewards are worked up because they have to uncloak the espresso machine which is a big pain in the butt. After our first week when the stews, who are overworked beyond understanding, were trying to make espresso drinks for seventy people, until finally the bar tender burst into tears and hid the thing beneath a black curtain. There it's stayed until we got a new hotel manager demanding to know why 15,000 dollars is hiding under a cloak. 

Some of the guys are trying to break up with their girfriends but can’t do it because we have no way of communicating from the ship.  And this one guy who used to be a good friend wasn't talking to me or looking at me since I came back, and finally on the stairs down to the engine room I said what the fuck? And he admitted, a few days later, that he can’t talk to me anymore because he’s attracted to me, which really made my jaw drop because, as the famous film director’s son pointed out, I really look shapeless and terrible in this horrific uniform. The hotel manager of the whole fleet is onboard right now and every time I see him I growl because he  chose this uniform for us. 

Then one of the guests took a long hike to a glacier and had a few guests capsize in the glacial water. Everything turned out fine, but the guide and the supervisor, they went into the ship’s office and locked the door and you would have thought it was an international incident or a tri-state killing spree, the way they were dealing with it. I knocked on the door of the office just to get the damn chocolate to start doing Turn Down and they glared at me.

Just trying to do my job, sir. 

I’ve been spending more time on the easy dock with the deck staff slinging kayaks around. I really enjoy my time with the deck staff and being away from the guides and being in the sun. Or the rain, really it doesn’t matter what the weather is out there. It's nice to finally know where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing. I've found that if I show up and do those things, nobody really bothers me. 

Today the whole crew and passengers jumped off the boat on a polar bear plunge. Everyone was running and diving and gasping in the glacial water and I felt completely happy. 

I cleaned out the weeping, ingrown toenail of a steward and suggested she go to the doctor when we get to Juneau. "It feels painful, like this," she says, squeezing and unsqueezing her hands into fists. The pus is leaking into her sock. 


Today I took seven passengers on a jungle gym hike in the pouring rain. This is a hike that sent two passengers med-evac packing last year and I’ve done it now four times without so much as a twisted ankle. And they loved it. I had the famous film director and his wife and his older son. The son, who is sweet and polite and sincere and interested in the world, kept telling me it was the most adventurous adventure he’d ever been on. We took a lot of photos and saw man-eating size skunk weed and devil’s club nine feet tall and came back in head to toe mud. 
There he goes again, inventing conflict and pulling stress out of thin air. I pat myself on the back and whisper, “Today you took the famous guy and his family on a beautiful hike and everyone was safe and had a good time. You did a good job at what you were hired to do.”

I've studied people's swollen mouths and written details about their vomit, pulled out splinters, washed out eyes and cleaned out wounds. It's not enough. I want more. I want to be on an ambulance.

Later on I take a woman in a double kayak and paddle her out to the waterfall and then we played around with the kids on a paddle board. She's worked on many movies and written books and I was grateful to be out in a kayak, just me and her. 

One of our stewards woke up sick one day, was medivaced back in Seattle, and is so sick she can't return. And our dishwasher still hasn't been replaced. And Ema has that toe and she needs to be off her feet. So the stewards are understaffed and the deck and the guides do turn down, we fold people's beds down and leave them chocolate and we used to fold the toilet paper into little points, until someone realized what a stupid waste of time that is. I don't mind turn down, because I get to talk to my friend Scott for a whole half our as we gather up used towels and throw back sheets. 

The mighty turn down and the day stretches into thirteen hours or more.

There is more discrepancy about hours and paycheck which just burns me up.  
Too tired to write after seventeen hours of my feet. But the kids organized a dance party in the lounge and I did the worm backwards and they loved it. It totally floored them. At one point all of the guests were dancing and some of the crew. It was so much fun. Our boat is so small and so lovely. I saw our sister ship out in the distance as we steamed towards Juneau and I slammed myself against the window thinking it was the Wilderness Explorer with my friend Randall aboard, and it suddenly hit me how much I miss Randall and how I'd do just about anythig to see him, swim across to ocean to get to his boat. So I ran up to the bridge and asked captain Kendra is that boat was the Wex thinking I could get Randall on the radio, but it wasn't the Wex. It was the Wilderness Discoverer and I don't know anyone onboard except the deckhand's poor girlfriend who thinks I'm sleeping with her boyfriend which I'm not, of course, just enjoying the tea.  This was a good week, a very good week. 

The company sent both Ema and I to the doctors. They burned her toenail off and they explained to me that Depersonalization is a sign of severe anxiety. I don't mind it so much. I feel like I'm watching myself, like a reporter. I feel like an undercover reporter. 


Kelsie said...

Oh hang in there!! Sounds like a wonderful, awful adventure. I worked up in Alaska for a summer at a fishing cannery. It's weird to feel unhappy in the most beautiful place on earth, but I wouldn't have traded that adventure for anything. I'm headed up to Juneau in September to run in the Klondike Relay in Skagway. Any chance you'll be up there still? I know, complete random stranger here :)

Cassandra said...

Maybe if it was ALL THE TIME then I'd be worried about severe anxiety, but I'm no doctor/psychowhatever but occasional depersonalization seems healthy to me. Don't we all have periods of our lives like that? Sometimes it's just to keep us sane!

Capt. Rob Earle said...

What you are going through is normal. My first job on a boat was as a CSR (steward) on the Spirit of '98 (now Safari Legacy). I was miserable for the first couple of months. I had a little pocket calendar where I kept a running tab of the days left in my rotation. I also kept a running "two-week notice" tab, marking the days two weeks before each port call so I knew what days I could give notice without either leaving too early or staying one day longer than necessary. At some point that first season something clicked and by the end of the year that calendar just sat, unconsulted, in the bottom of my sea bag. I stopped counting days 'til my next vacation, stopped obsessing about what I was missing on shore, stopped measuring problems by the size of the ship instead of the size of the world. I can't guarantee this will happen to you, shipboard life is not for everyone. I can say that my first year working on ships in Alaska was both one of the best and one of the worst of my life and, 17 years and hundreds of thousands of sea miles later, it is still special to me. I still have friends from that season, abut half of whom never set foot on a boat again.

Here is my advice for maintaining your sanity your fist season:

1) Never pass up the opportunity for a nap. Sleep is the single healthiest thing available to you.

2) Maintain your relationships with your "land friends." In my day it was postcards, the interwebs make it a lot easier now. Do not make plans with your boat friends that eat up a whole rotation off. When the two groups mix, avoiding talking boat the whole time.

3) Do not hook up with that tempting deckhand or anyone else. Yeah, yeah, yeah, some old boat type always has a story about this wonderful relationship that started on the boat and grew into a decades-long marriage and huge family. There are fifty stories of relationships that crashed and burned to go with it, many of them about people who later regretted dumping someone on shore to hook up with a shipmate. I am absolutely right about this and anyone that tells you different is wrong!

4) Think about what's next and bring along some books about it. Buying a house? Hiking across Costa Rica? Getting married? Going to med school? Planning what's next helps keep what's happening right now in perspective and actually helps you enjoy it more. If you really have no plan for what's next load up on Carl Hiassen, David Sedaris, and Sarah Vowell. For the gods' sake stop it with the John Muir or anything meditative about whales, or kayaking, or kayaking amongst whales.

Sorry about the long comment but I've been enjoying your blog a lot and I encourage you to keep going. Thanks for your brutal yet spot-on honesty and for bringing back some not always pleasant but always powerful memories.

Sarah said...

Whoa! Unnecessary drama! Bummer! Hope next week is better....and that you feel more in control of what is happening and not so much of an observer!

Annica Nord said...

I was kayaking in Glacier Bay for a week and we passed your boat one day. I think we were leaving Tarr Inlet. I think Ben posted to your facebook. I recognized your boat and we stopped by but you were still on vacation. Its a beautiful boat and Glacier Bay is an amazing place. I love reading about your life on the boat and what you see in the bay.

I absolutely love your blog and your writing.