I Kid You Not

A Sea Story by By Jeff Mudgett

As all good sailors know, “I kid you not,” is a poor substitute for the normal way a sea story is introduced in the bug infested bad light of the creaking fan driven stale air at the back end of the worn down pub of some backwater out-of-the-way port of call. The correct way is far earthier. But this is a gentleman’s publication and Tony, having heard me uncontrollably fib many a two martinis deep blue tale before, pleaded with me to avoid all blasphemy, heaven forbid the proper title. So make the best of the un-sailor-like description, and don’t hold it against an old shipmate.

Watching our politicians walking around sandy beaches trying for all the cameras to appear ready, willing and eager to help clean up the current mess down in the Gulf continues to bring me up short. Their antics resemble a house cat, locked outside and trying to make its way across a rain soaked backyard deck without getting its paws wet for the first time- comical, to say the least. Their directed actions also reminded me of an old sea story, which may or may not be relevant. I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

Thirty two years ago, a gangly green cadet walked up the impossibly steep gangway and stepped aboard the ARCO Juneau, completely unaware that his time aboard was going to yield him a number of valuable learning experiences. The ship was 883 foot long of 122,000 deadweight ton tanker plying the Alaska/Pacific Coast crude oil trade. Back and forth, back and forth from Alaska with crude, that’s all she did. As a matter of fact, the Juneau had carried the first load of North Slope crude out of Valdez. Hull painted black, she was a beauty to the kid, as the only other ship he’d ever been on was the fifty year old rust bucket Golden Bear. On the main deck, he took a deep breath and a minute to survey his surroundings, savoring that hum all working ships have and real sailors love. Damn, it was good to be aboard, he thought to himself.

Assuming the first man he saw with a radio in his hand was deck watch, the cadet hailed him and asked, “I was told by the front office to report to the Old Man, err, Captain. Where can I find him?”
“Don’t know,” the man who looked about thirty said and kept walking forward never bothering to look back while he talked. “He was up all last night in the fog, you might check his quarters,” he yelled pointing aft over the mass of cargo pipes to the huge, white house that dominated the main deck, “but I wouldn’t if I were you, he doesn’t take kindly to that kind of thing.”

The cadet would soon find out the Captain wasn’t the only eccentric aboard Juneau. The ship’s crew was an amazing collection of odds and ends- something just this side of the character list for a Mel Brooks movie. The credits: the Captain was a dual license genius from Kings Point and always by the book. The Chief Engineer, bless his soul, was the fire breathing curmudgeon of the fleet; the man who could fix anything, but positively hated all school ship cadets. Come to think of it, he hated just about everything. The cool as a cucumber Chief Mate was James Bond personified and a fellow Keelhauler of the cadet. The Errol Flynn like Second Mate was the closest thing to a real pirate the modern merchant marine had, especially with that sexy French girlfriend of his- her name was Dominique or something- picking him up on the berth at the end of each trip. That mate would soon become the cadet’s hero. Rounding them out was Kim Estes- the fleet’s first black third engineer and ex-Corp Commander of the California Maritime Academy- more importantly, the friend and ex teammate on the school’s basketball team of the youngster. Oh, and there was one other ‘character’ to make up this floating Housewives of New Jersey cast- Willie the didn’t-have-a -last-name bosun, who had to have been a full blooded Comanche Indian or something. He was as fierce as the fire was hot and drunk as the day was long. No one crossed Willie, no one with half a brain that is, unless it was the Captain and Willie figured he had the right. The exclamation point to this seagoing circus was of course, now, the too tall, too skinny and always too hungry cadet from Vallejo.

Less than one hour from his first having stepped onboard, things quickly began to unravel. Hungry, who could have guessed, he went looking for the galley to grab some of ARCO’s world renowned chow before standing the first honest to God sea watch of his career while departing Long Beach Harbor. Unaware of the ‘rules’ and too wet behind the ears to decipher the barely suppressed giggles coming from all around him, he took the first available chair at one of the two top tables. He would quickly come to learn the table reserved for cadets was around the corner. Savoring the deliciousness of the completely true stories about the food, the cadet hardly noticed one of the third mates scamper from the compartment, apparently afraid of shrapnel, or his ex-teammate trying to signal him by kicking his leg below the table. Ignoring what he thought was simple play, he instead did what he always did back then- kept eating.

The roar that then erupted directly behind him eclipsed that of the huge steam plant below, followed by, "What the f… is this piece of s… doing in my chair?” For anyone unfamiliar with going to sea, chairs, all of them on a ship, hold a very special place in marine lore and tradition. There are Captain’s chairs, Chief’s chairs, Cook’s chairs, Boson’s chairs, etc, etc. For you see, the chair is almost as important on the ship as is a paycheck. But, much to this young man’s chagrin, no one in that galley had warned him, not sufficiently anyway, of his seagoing sacrilege. The Academy curriculum had also failed to include proper seagoing chair etiquette in his education.

Despite the expletives and roar, the kid kept chewing away oblivious that the Chief was angry with the whereabouts of his posterior, until the next thing he knew he was being pulled over backward and slammed to the deck, ending up covered in food and drink, looking straight up into the eyes of the tiger-- the Chief Engineer’s drooling, reddened face! For it seems the cadet had selected his chair, the Chief’s chair, the one the man had earned the right to call his own by going to sea for forty years. No one sat in this chair except the Chief, certainly not the damned cadet; the lowest form of life there was.

Flat on his back, choking and unable to talk, the cadet could hardly breathe. One hand went to his own neck trying to dislodge the piece of meat stuck in his throat while the other attempted vainly to block the Chief’s well placed boot kicks. Seconds from his certain demise, the Captain stepped in, administered first aid, and saved the kid from being keelhauled his first day on a real ship, by explaining to his Chief that it was an ignorant cadet who had been used as the butt end of a bad joke by his engineering staff. At that explanation, the Chief grumbled something incoherent, kicked the kid one last time and ordered the now once again breathing punk away with a sweep of his broad hand. He then sat down and began eating; staring down his crew until in no time at all he was the only one left sitting at his table. None had the courage to join him at the engineering table for dinner either.
Saved, but still hungry, the kid went to get another plate of food but was interrupted by the Captain who said, “There’s a storm brewing off Conception, the seas outside are going to be rough and as a safety precaution I’m going to need you to stand a steering engine room watch after departure. First, give me your papers from the office, drop your stuff off at your quarters and then head on down to steering a little early to familiarize yourself with the compartment, we’ll be getting underway in about an hour.”

“Yes sir.” No one else but the cadet said sir on the ship to the Captain. “Ok,” “Yep,” or a head nod was sufficient.

The Captain’s reasoning was that if a steering failure occurred at the wheelhouse, the mechanical steering in the aft station could be used to direct the ship to safety. All the one standing watch was required to do was wear headphones and, should an emergency ensue, turn a small circular stainless steel wheel to the numbers ordered- something even a green cadet could do. So, coke, ham sandwich and Alistair Maclean novel in hand, off the cadet went, convinced of his sudden importance. Most steering engine room watches last one, maybe two hours at the most.

This one was just a wee bit longer. The first four hours went by pretty fast; not bad at all really. Exiting the harbor, and then transiting the channel, it was warm and cozy and for the first time since he’d stepped aboard the tanker, no one was yelling at him. But all that warm and cuddly slowly began to change. The conditions outside gradually grew worse and worse. The now painfully loud, humid, bulkhead to bulkhead steel compartment jumped and lurched, eventually making avoiding falling down and getting banged up the most important consideration for the next twelve, yes twelve hours. After a while, it was pure torture.

To make a longer story shorter, it turns out the bridgewatch had forgotten to call down and relieve the kid once Conception was rounded. The Captain, having assumed they had, took him for in his rack, sound asleep. It wasn’t until they missed him at breakfast, already knowing how much he ate, that they grew concerned with the boy having fallen overboard. So just before they executed the first authentic Williamson turn of their careers, the proverbial light went off in the Captain’s head and he sent the Second back to drag the cadet up from below decks. The laughter around that mess deck table at lunch the next day could be heard for leagues, all enjoying the discomfort of the goofy cadet. Two faces were the most unforgettable: the Chief Mate’s, ashamed of his schoolmate, looking at him like he was an idiot for not having simply picked up the phone and asking what was going on and the Captain’s, who instead looked at the boy as if he were the model for honor, discipline and toughness. Do any of us have a snowball’s chance in hell of figuring this life out?

Tired of hearing the Captain ramble on about the idiot from his school and the fine example of duty he had exhibited, the Chief Mate instead scheduled the boy to work tank cleaning with the Bosun. As the Juneau was equipped with automatic crude oil tank cleaning equipment, it’s still a mystery why four deck hands, the third mate and cadet were ordered down into that cavernous, black, smelly depth, but this is, after all, just a sea story. “I kid you not,” that tank with ventilators howling and its two small portals of sunlight eighty feet above their heads was Dante’s Inferno. And the bottom was a two foot thick, foul, gooey, grimy mass that would have made a cockroach sick. Decked out in safety gear, all climbed down and tiptoed over girders while they listened to that third mate lecture them about tank cleaning, who it quickly became apparent to all knew nothing about the subject. Under those conditions, they did the best they could, or worst depending upon who was supervising, scrapping the muck up with shovels into five galleon buckets. After two hours they had managed to collect about three or four buckets of the what had to be tons of the stuff-- and all without, heaven forbid, getting any of it on them! They looked just like that same house cat on the wet deck.

Meanwhile, that old pro Bosun, fed up with the crew and the mate’s foolish lectures, decided enough was enough and screamed out in what must have been as close to a Comanche death shrill as any living person had ever heard …and lived to talk about. Echo ringing throughout the tank, he slid down the ladder, ran down the girder, cuffed the cadet alongside the back of the head, stood straight and tall not three feet from where the kid was standing and proceeded to swan dive the four or so feet directly onto and into the muck below, landing with a world class belly flop that all there can still hear in their bones. He then stood up, still screaming, wiped the muck on his face as if it were war- paint and pointed, rather sinisterly one might add, down to his feet. His meaning was very clear. All immediately scampered down next to him- third mate included and shoveled as hard as they possibly could. Legend has it the tank was cleaned in less time than any before it, or ever since.

P.S. That kicking third engineer and still best friend Kim Estes, is up next month for an Emmy for his work as a supporting actor in the television series House. Go Keema!

Having kept a journal while working, I’ve hundreds of stories about going to sea. If you enjoyed this one, let Tony know you’d like more. Or better yet, click on the website below and watch the video so that my publisher knows my material is being appreciated. One click on your part means the world to me. Thanks.