Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Fall

The Fall

Not a huge part of the trip, or anything wholly significant or insightful. Just a direct journal entry of an incident I remember well.

Where we’re docked (in Beardstown) there are abandoned barges lined up beside a great seawall. These barges serve as a dock for boats, then there is a long, tall flight of rusty metal stairs leading up and over the seawall to solid land. On the barge that the Niña is currently tied to, there is a great stack of very long, large logs, stripped of bark and branches and piled neatly together.
The mosquitoes are particularly bad here at night (which wasn’t a surprise - we were on the Mississippi, after all) but I don’t like having a phone conversation in the midst of other people, so I typically go someplace off the boat to get some privacy and so as not to disturb others. Since there was no good place for me to go without ascending the perilously rickety stairs, I stayed on the dock near the ship. In order not to get eaten alive by mosquitoes, though, I had to be in constant motion while I talked on the phone with my mom. At first I just walked all over between the barges, and when I tired of that I started hopping around on the stacked logs. Not considering how my flip-flopped feet would react to the smooth log surfaces, I got a little too daring and lost my footing. Thankfully, no bones were broken, but I managed to land on my phone and crack the casing. I also gashed my knee pretty good, to which the Captain later simply raised one eyebrow, but said nothing.

The End. 

That Insightful Part of the Trip

“So what are you running from?”
The Captain’s question caught me slightly off-guard, but I quickly learned that this was the running joke aboard both ships. Anybody willing to sign up as a volunteer for more than a week had to be running away from something, right? After giving the question a moment’s thought, I told Capt. Kyle that I was not running away from anything. Rather, a small part of me was probably trying to prove something. Even though it had taken the prompting of my grandpa to get the ball rolling, the whole trip was my silent declaration to the world that I was perfectly capable of jumping into something adventurous and somewhat dangerous, without anyone holding my hand - that life doesn't have to be completely dictated by one’s financial situation, as long as they’re smart about it (I was pretty broke when I boarded the ships, but the adventure came with free room and board, so it sounded like a win/win to me). I also wanted to overcome the fear of the world that had been instilled in me by my well-meaning father, who’d seen more of the ugly side of humanity than he ever really shared with us in detail, and whose primary goal was to protect his wife and daughters from said humanity. But I knew then what I still know now, which is that a person can face evil in their own hometown as easily as in a foreign port, and that anyone who claims to have faith in a loving Savior should not be allowing their life to be dictated by fear of the unknown. Which brings me to the biggest reason I had decided to be daring: It is OK to trust God completely with my life.

You see, I believe God knew that I needed to be in that place at that time, completely removed from all the comforts and securities I knew, yet still in a relatively secure position, where I could focus more clearly on Him without distraction. Without going into a lot of personal detail, being removed from all things familiar helped me to see my life very clearly. It helped me see all that God had been trying for quite a while to show me. All that being said, when I left the ships and returned home, I was a different person. I had been given the wisdom and strength I needed to end an unhealthy relationship, to change my life goals for the better, and to be there for those I loved in the midst of two family tragedies that came almost immediately after my return home. Now, not all of these happened at once, nor was I able to bear them without immense pain, but I bore them. With God’s help (and preparation), I bore them, which is sometimes all He asks of us. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


After almost a week of travel with few overnight stops and even fewer showers (and by fewer I mean none), we finally arrived in Beardstown, IL, where we would be putting all the masts and rigging back into place. It took two full days to get everything in order again. The first day was spent putting all the masts up - lifting them with a crane and securing them in place.

These photos were actually taken on my second voyage. In Beardstown, the ships were very short on crew and every hand was needed for the rebuilding process. It was also raining, and my camera was not waterproof. When I came back as the cook the following spring, there were plenty of strapping sailors to do all the hard work, and the other cook and I were told to simply keep our distance so we wouldn't get hurt (I'm still not sure how I feel about this statement, for the record)

That first day in Beardstown, though, we worked from sun-up to sunset. After almost a week of being underway with no showers, I took the first opportunity to escape to the only bathroom facility available to us on land, which I dubbed the "Sailor's Lounge."

(The Sailor's Lounge) is pretty much a glorified garage with a bathroom and kitchenette. It has a main room with soda and snack machines, a folding table and chairs, a sink and fridge, and a bathroom with a shower head. Seriously, the toilet and the shower are practically overlapping each other. Someone was kind enough to rig up a curtain around the shower to keep the toilet from getting wet, but it's all one room just the same. I didn't care, though. The Lounge is free to all sailors, is open 24/7 and has plenty of hot water to go around. There is no ventilation, however, so I opted for the most room-temperature water I could tolerate to avoid creating a sauna effect. Even so, the tiny room became hot and I was sweating almost as soon as I turned the water off. I dried it away and dressed as quickly as possible, then burst out of the bathroom and into the relatively air-conditioned lounge area, feeling a little sticky but gloriously clean nonetheless. 
I'm sitting in here now at the folding table, happily opting for the heavily tobacco-scented lounge with full lighting rather than use a flashlight and be eaten alive by river insects. I just got done with my nightly hygiene routine, and never have I so appreciated having running water for little things such as face-washing and teeth-brushing. I feel so CLEAN! 
I also made use of the kitchen sink. Since there aren't any laundry facilities here, it was necessary to wash my only pair of jeans by hand with a little 409 surface cleaner and a mostly-empty bottle of V05 shampoo I found in the cabinets. I didn't use much of either product because, technically, they aren't mine. I felt kind of bad for using them at all, but I'm sure having clean jeans tomorrow will fend off my guilt significantly. 

My jeans drying in the breeze the next day. We were docked beside a seawall and there were lots of locals watching our progress from above, so the Captain had moved my unattractive laundry under the stern castle so they wouldn't be seen. I was afraid they wouldn't dry in time for me to wear them the next day (I was wearing shorts then, and it was kind of chilly - don't ask me what I was thinking when I only packed one pair of long pants). I didn't argue with the Captain, of course, but soon thereafter he moved them back out into the sun. "Everything's a mess anyway, what difference will a pair of pants make?" He'd said. 

The Pinta, as seen from the deck of the Niña, completely reassembled.

The mainmast of the Niña, recently reassembled.

I'm such a terrible person. Everybody else is at the bar down the road celebrating the fact that most of the hard work is done, and I'm sitting here being antisocial. I was invited to come, twice, to which I said I might come down later... 

...Which was a blatant lie. I had no intention of going anywhere but back to the ship and to bed once I was done writing in my journal. I had happily lived my life almost completely 'dry' up to that point and had no desire to experience whatever lay in wait for me at a local bar full of sailors. I was tired and a little cranky and just wanted to be alone. Thankfully, I was texting with a friend at the time who encouraged me to at least go and be social, if only for half an hour, so that I wouldn't come across as a prude. It wasn't like I had to drink, anyway, she said. I knew she was right, so with a heavy sigh and an unwilling heart, I packed away my journal and bathroom gear, dropped them off on the ships, and went to find everyone at "the bar with the flags," as it had been so aptly described to me. 
Now there's something you need to know about my first impression of Beardstown. The previous evening when we docked, before the organized chaos that would follow the next day, Ben and I had taken a walk around town to stretch our legs. During this little jaunt I counted at least 7 bars, a dilapidated antique shop, a mom and pop restaurant, and a Save-a-Lot. 

The distance to the nearest bar was only about 2 blocks, but I walked fast because it was dark and I was alone and the neighborhood had never seemed particularly nice even in the daylight hours. When I got to the corner of the town square (?) and saw no bar with flags, I decided to turn back (I made an effort, at least, right?). I was just turning in the direction of the river when my attention was caught by someone waving at me from a nearby window. I was startled to find that I'd walked right up to a smallish building with little triangular NASCAR flags strung along the gutters, and the person waving me inside with a big grin on his face was my Captain, cheerier than I think I've ever seen him. 

Needless to say, I found this a little scary, but I threw on my best smile and squared my shoulder and ascended the cement steps toward the door. I distinctly remember walking into a slight haze and hearing general cheers from random crew members upon seeing me walk in. I'm still not sure how much of that was genuine or alcohol-induced, seeing as how everyone had already been there for about an hour by the time I showed up. Kyle immediately asked me what I'd like to drink, to which I said 'nothing, thanks' as politely as I could. Stevie was the next to offer me a drink, his smile huge and rather infectious as he reached for his fifth and newly opened BL Lime. This was a completely different Stevie from the one I'd known thus far, and I can't lie even now, but I rather liked it. According to my journal entry:

Stevie kind of resembles a shorter, gruffer version of Christian Bale (Note: this was before I'd seen the new Batman movie). According to Greg, neither Stevie's approval or even his attention are easily gained by new crew members. He struck me as the sort of young man born to be a leader in some capacity, and I concluded that he's been crewing on the Pinta for so long and has seen so many people come and go that he no longer bothers to get to know anybody unless they've been there for at least a month and appear to be staying even longer. 

Needless to say, hearing Stevie's welcome was like finding out I'd just passed a final exam in college. He and a few other crew members were playing pool, while others sat at the bar. Everyone seemed so relaxed and laid back, as if the weight of the world had just been lifted from their shoulders. I joined Captain Kyle at a high top table and watched the guys play pool, determined to only stay for about fifteen minutes or so, when Ben approached me with a small plastic cup in his hand (Classy, yes?). I hadn't noticed him break away from the pool game and go over to the bar, but apparently he'd done so and was bringing me a drink. Not knowing anything about social drinking, and having lived a relatively self-imposed sheltered life up to that point, I immediately began to worry that Ben was hitting on me. Looking a little sheepish, Ben explained that they didn’t have anything like that 'hard lemonade stuff' that I’d mentioned I liked (and until that point was the only alcohol I’d ever consumed), so he’d asked the barkeep to mix up something he hoped was similar. I smiled politely, thanked him, and then asked what I owed him for the drink. A look crossed his face that I still can’t quite describe. I’m not sure if he was offended or thought me silly, but he assured me I didn't owe him anything and then went back to playing pool with Stevie. Confused, I took a sip of the very strong lemonade he’d brought me, and knew I’d need to take it slow.  

Soon after that, Greg came and sat across from me and began talking about anything that came to his mind. I don’t recall what all he was talking about because there were large chunks of it that I couldn't understand. He was well on his way to being wasted, so I tried my best to follow along and not look uncomfortable. At one point he looked directly at me, or as directly as he could, and announced that I was a very pretty young woman and commended me for being daring enough to volunteer to be a crew member. He went on tell me that he was very drunk (in case I couldn't tell), and that he had the highest respect for me, so I had his full permission to punch him if he tried to make a pass at me. I honestly couldn't help but laugh at this announcement. I assured him that his permission wasn't necessary, but thanked him anyway. He smiled, then frowned and quickly retreated to the restroom. I don’t know how much longer I stay after that, but I didn't see Greg again until the next morning.

I was just about finished with my drink and thinking about heading back, when Ben brought me another. Maybe it was the alcohol, or the conversation I’d just had with Greg, but I gave Ben a slightly snarky look and asked if he was trying to get my drunk. To my shame, a look of shock crossed his face almost instantly and he assured me that that hadn't been his intention at all. He was still holding my new drink, as if he wasn't sure now whether he should give it to me. I didn't know how to recover, so I apologized and thanked him as graciously as I could, accepting the drink with a smile that I hope conveyed my sincerity. But the blunders didn't stop there. I asked what I owed him for THIS drink, insistent this time. Somehow in my mind, I thought paying for it would patch up the misunderstanding that had just occurred. Sadly, this had the opposite effect. Ben almost looked offended now, but graciously assured me that the drink was on him and I didn't have to pay. He went back to playing pool and I sipped my new drink while I watched them play. I was already feeling quite warm, which was a new sensation but one I understood to mean I’d had more alcohol than I was used to. I feigned interest in the game, but I was really keeping an eye on Ben. I didn't want him sneaking off to the bar to get me another drink. When I had about 1/3 of the cup left, I downed it and stood up, slinging my purse over my shoulder and announcing that I was heading back to the ships. Ben eyed me suspiciously and asked if I would like to be walked back. In truth, I would have liked that very much. The thought of walking alone at night in a creepy, unknown area frightened me a little. But I was still a little wary of Ben – he’d just bought me two drinks and was now offering to walk me back.

Now keep in mind, I'd only known Ben for about a week at this point. Knowing him as well as I do now, I know I could have trusted him with my life at that moment. However, one week of familiarity is not much to go on, and my father raised an overly cautious daughter, so my instincts were warring – walk back alone or walk back with Ben who, gentleman or not, seemed to my mind to be hitting on me. I decided to go back alone. If Ben was ever offended by this, he never said. 

That was not the first incident where men bought me drinks while I was sailing that time. Unfortunately, I always assumed I was being hit on (which was bad, in my mind) and in each instance tried to be polite, have my drink, and then flee. It wasn't until I was back at home a month later that my older brother explained to me what had been going on. While there’s a chance I was being flirted with by crew members (I was the only young woman between both ships, after all), the most likely case is that they were all simply being polite. When one is new to a social group, he said, it is customary to buy that new person drinks for the first few outings. This is meant to make them feel welcome and grafted in, so to speak. With this knowledge in hand, on my second voyage I bought the first round for everyone, which brought instant acceptance from the crew members I didn't know and secured my status with the ones I did.

For that first trip, though, I made several awkward social blunders before I started trusting that none of the men I was living with had any ill intentions towards me. Even if they had, I was never overly worried about it. Captain Kyle made it quite clear from the beginning that one of the main rules on board was 'hands-off', and that he’d have no problem pitching someone overboard for breaking said rule. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Journal Entry of 8-27-09

Last night I discovered another passenger aboard the ship. There is a space between my bunk and the Head, a sort of walkway that leads to a small storage area and is closed with a canvas curtain. I decided to investigate this area and see how well it would serve as a changing room for me in the event that someone was using the Head and Ben happened to be sitting in his bunk (which he was, at the time, typing away on his laptop). I had to move forward a bit into the darkness in order to reach the ceiling light that nestled between the deck beams. Searching in the dark, I found it and switched it on and found myself face-to-face with a surprise. A few inches from the light and, therefore, much to close to my person, was a cockroach. It was sitting quite comfortably in all it's 1 1/2" glory (not including the antennae) and hardly moved when the light came on. It almost seemed to look lazily in my direction with indignation, as though it had every right to be there and I was the intruder. 
Now, there are moments in my life when I succumb completely and unwillingly to my female nature, deferring to men to solve my problems. Don't judge me. 
I backed slowly away from the intruder and turned around. Ben was the only person below with me, completely absorbed by his laptop screen. I knew he'd have to do.
"Ben!" I'd meant to whisper (so the cockroach wouldn't hear me? Psh), but it came out more like a hiss, and Ben jumped a little at the sudden sound in the otherwise quiet Hold. "Ben, there's a cockroach!"
"Really?" His interest seemed a little too enthusiastic for my taste, but he was putting aside his laptop to come see, which was good enough for me. I didn't care if he shared in my disgust, so long as he helped me solve the problem. He approached the little bugger and eyed it curiously. Meanwhile, I was taking off my flip flop and handing it to him. "Here, kill it."
Ben hesitated. "I think we should put it off the ship humanely."

Now, I feel its necessary to pause here and say that that and several other instances to follow would prove to make me feel like a somewhat terrible person. As a Bible-believing Christian, you'd think I would have a little more respect for all God's creatures. Ben valued all life, including the creepy crawly varieties, and was loath to even swat a fly, while I was happy to kill any harmful or even annoying insect that crossed my path. Since this episode, I no longer kill insects just because they are insects. Only if I find them cavorting around my bed or where I prepare my food, and as long as they're not the poisonous, biting, or disease-carrying kind, I opt to let them outside instead.
In THIS instance, however...

I was not in favor of this idea, but I told him he could do whatever he wanted as long as he didn't let the roach anywhere near my bunk, so he went and got a cup from the Galley to catch it. I had stepped far away while this went on because I knew if I saw it crawling around I might lose what little dinner I'd eaten, not to mention any sleep I'd get in the next couple of days. Then I heard Ben make a very strange, almost sad sound. Sort of like a moan. He turned and looked at me sadly. "My plan just went horrible awry." I stepped closer and immediately understood. The roach had attempted to make a break for it - toward my bunk!! - and in his attempt to stop it Ben had accidentally squashed the little bugger's hindquarters. I offered my sandal again. "You'd better put him out of his misery."
He did this regretfully and then carried the remains up top to toss them overboard. I followed him up and went directly to my favorite spider-slaying Captain, relating the incident to him in full. He found it very curious, since they hadn't had any cockroaches on board for quite some time. They'd been in Honduras earlier that year and had seen plenty of them then, but they'd bug-bombed the ship before reentering the States and hadn't seen anything other than spiders and flies since. He also assured me that they had roach traps hidden all over the place, just in case, so the one I'd found had probably been a very lucky escapee (not THAT lucky, I guess).
Just the same, he dug around in the sheboygan and produced a huge aerosol can of industrial strength bug killer. Weapon in hand, I went below and created a barrier around my bunk, the ceiling beams near the light fixture, and anywhere else I thought a roach might dwell or protrude from. Ben seemed unimpressed with my generous use of poison but graciously said nothing. 

I no longer TOUCH such poisons, for the record. Organic repellents are better. Critters can live, just not anywhere near where I sleep.

Ben and I told Vic about the cockroach, and he just laughed.
"Oh, that's just James," he said, "we play cards on Thursdays."
"Well, Vic, I hate to tell you this, but...James is dead."
Vic proceeded to fake a little devastation, including a couple dredged-up tears.

Needless to say, I didn't sleep well last night. I can deal with most critters easily enough when I'm awake, but the thought of them being anywhere near me while I'm trying to sleep...*shudder*

The next morning I awoke to find ANOTHER cockroach on the floor near the ladder, still in the throes of death. I was both horrified and relieved. Horrified that it had crawled into the poison and still managed to crawl a good four feet before dying, and relieved that it had crawled toward the ladder and NOT my bunk. I was needed on deck just then, but when I came back down it was gone. Later that day, Ben approached me. "I took care of James' wife for you." He said with a slight "I hope you're happy" tone. I just smiled and thanked him.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Kingdom for a Salad

After 2 ½ days on board the Niña, my stomach started to rebel. The ship traveled smoothly enough and I was sleeping just fine, but for the last several years I had practically been a vegetarian. My food regimen consisted mainly of organic varieties of salads, meats(rarely) and cheeses(always!). Rare was the occasion when I indulged in anything processed or made with bleached flour, and I tried to drink my weight in water most days. Since my arrival on the Niña, we’d been given doughnuts, chicken nuggets deep-fried from frozen, Rice-a-roni and Pasta-roni, processed ham and cheese on white bread and eggs (my favorite!). Not to mention the several bags of chips and Chex mix available to us at all hours. Water and soda cost per bottle or can, but milk was free and I’m pretty sure I drank a lot of it those first few days, mainly because I didn't or couldn't eat.
Given the level of respect and seniority Miss Ellie seemed to have aboard the ships, I think I had been expecting the food to be a little different. More wholesome, perhaps. A stupid assumption, really. Looking back now, I don't know how or why I came to this conclusion before I boarded. I came to see the necessity of quick and easy meals more on my second trip than the first one because I actually became the cook aboard the Niña my second time around. More on that later.
This time, though, I had to make the sudden switch from my regular diet to 99% processed foods, and my digestive system was not happy. I like to be healthy, but I’m not a food snob and a person's gotta eat! So I made do without verbal complaint. I was so happy to be there that a little change in my diet was a small price to pay. That and I worked it off pretty quickly on deck. But I opted for milk instead of food on several occasions simply because I didn't think my stomach could handle anymore GMO's. After a couple weeks, mealtime was mealtime and I ate whatever there was and had no problems. It just took some adjusting.
It was actually Ben who said something about it. Apparently the temp crew members aboard the Niña would often complain about the food to the crew aboard the Pinta. That made me sad for Miss Ellie. It was certainly not her cooking that was bad, just the quality of the food itself. To her credit, though, she always had food ready when the crew had time to eat, it was always cooked correctly (not over or under), and she had the portion sizes compared to the number of people on board down to a science. If there were ever any leftovers, it was because somebody chose not to eat, and we would see said uneaten dinner scrambled with the eggs the next morning. Vic even told me that Miss Ellie had been known to dice up leftover pizza and scramble it with the eggs the next morning. Ever since the first time it happened, the crew of both ships had always tried to finish all the pizza anytime they ordered out. But occasionally there’d be leftovers, and they always showed up again in the morning, familiar but completely different. I was warned that I might be trying some of her famous pizza eggs before I left the ship in a month.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Asian Jumping Carp

September 26th, 2009

I awoke suddenly when the Captain rapped on the beam above my bunk. It was 5:45 a.m. and still dark outside, but that was due more to the coming rain than the early hour. Captain Kyle is always up before the rest of us making coffee in the galley. He has his own sleeping quarters next to the engine room, so his sleeping habits are entirely unknown to me. Vic, on the other hand, sometimes snores and murmurs incoherently in his sleep. Miss Ellie is silent no matter what she's doing, which I find a little unnerving at times. I can see Ben’s bunk from mine, which is weird. But he sleeps soundlessly and keeps mostly to himself.

A week on board cured me of all these little things, and I found I was able to adjust quite easily to the cramped quarters. I actually came to prefer it over the prospect of the closed, separate quarters of the Pinta. The camaraderie that developed between me and my crew mates was unarguably the most memorable thing about my trip aboard the Niña.

But a moment ago I was talking about coffee. This subject must not be breezed over, by any means. We were all of us coffee drinkers on that ship, especially Kyle, and the understanding that no one was expected to be able to function without it was highly appreciated by all. +10 to the Captians character, from my personal perspective (which must, of course, be added to the points he earned for his hatred of spiders).

Coffee: Take one every few hours as needed for alertness, pain, therapy, or social encounters.

Today was the first day we began to see the Asian Jumping Carp I’d heard so much about. There were not many, just a few here and there. They were not at all what I’d expected them to be. For reasons I can’t explain, when someone told me about the invasive species hurdling its way up river, an image popped into my mind of mandarin ducks. Like I said, I don’t know why. Maybe I associated ‘Asian’ with ‘Mandarin’? Who knows? At any rate, I rather expected these fish to be very colorful. Was I ever mistaken! Each time they jumped out of the water there was a flash of what I can only describe as grey mucus. Their eyes were huge black holes, as were their mouths (I came to see this later), and their hideousness seemed to always equal their size.

Sadly, I was not able to get any decent photos or videos of these fish, but a simple Google search will show you all you'll ever want to see of them. Ever.
According to the reports, a privately-owned lake had been filled with these invasive carp several years ago. One spring it flooded over into a neighboring river and from there the carp made their way North, destroying large portions of native aquatic life in their path. Some reports said that these fish took over 95% of some parts of the Mississippi. I’m not sure how accurate that statistic is, but it gives you an idea of how dangerous these carp were, and still are, to our native waterways and lakes. All that being said, I understood then why the river authorities had hastily built an electric fence across the river to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan. And this, unfortunately, was why our ships had been stuck in Riverdale, IL for over a week, along with countless other boats, tows and barges making their way up or downstream. Any metal in the water would attract the electric current and most likely cause a fire or electrocution on board a ship. Though the Niña and Pinta are made of wood, they have metal cones fitted to the hull to calculate depth, which made crossing over the live barrier extremely dangerous. We did eventually cross it, but not for another day or so after we left the Chicago area. More on that later.

I can’t say much about the several days that followed. I remember my state of mind shifting from elation to depression on a moment’s notice, all of which I learned to cope with and let slide about undetected by the people around me. I was new and shy, and I used that to my advantage. I was loving the adventure, but also worrying myself sick over my grandpa. My sense of responsibility told me I was being selfish and juvenile, coming out and sailing with a bunch of strangers while I should have been at home caring for my grandpa. Meanwhile, my heart reassured me that this had been my his idea in the first place, that he had wanted me to go and bring back lots of stories and details about my trip. In the end, that’s exactly what I did. It just took me a little while to get my sea legs. 

For the time being, I was busy falling into the routine of life aboard the Niña. After I mastered the art of steering the ship, I learned to read the different buoys, signs and lights that we saw along the river. Red and green buoys or signs mark the width of the channel on either side. If you’re traveling south like we were, the green markers remain on your right, or starboard, side. Red on the left, or port side. It is the opposite when you’re traveling North.

Now, because I’m a genius, I asked the Captain “why not just stay in the center where it’s deepest?”

To his credit, Captain Kyle merely smiled and said “Because the center is not always the deepest.”

I felt like an idiot, but there was nothing in Kyle's tone supporting the fact. He was merely answering the innocent question of someone who’s never sailed a day in her life. What I came to learn was that the current created a channel that ran through different parts of the river depending on the bends, dips and speed of flow. Sometimes the channel ran through the center, nice and wide and easy to navigate. Sometimes it veered far to one side as it rounded a corner, which meant we had to veer with it. In these cases, the markers on one side would be buoys in the middle of the river and the markers on the other side would be signs on the shore. On that trip, we often spent hours swinging back and forth around countless rushing bends in the river. Without the markers it would be hopeless because you can’t see how deep the water is from above. Not on the Mississippi, anyway. Even with a depth finder, there’s no way to know if the riverbed is going to rise up suddenly beneath you, unless it is already too late. The markers tell you how far to one side you can go before you’re in danger of running aground, which came in handy whenever we had to share the river with another boat. Passing etiquette says that the bigger boat has the right of way. 

With the exception of the barges traveling up and down the river, we were pretty much always the biggest boats. This was definitely not the case during my second trip, which was spent mostly on the Great Lakes and the East coast. 

My Grandpa and I standing on the deck of the Niña, 
shortly before he convinced me to volunteer as a crew member.

Me steering the ship. This is actually a photo that was taken during my second voyage, and the only difference between navigating a river and a larger body of water were the tools we used. On the rivers, I focused on the GPS and depth finder to my right (not pictured). Out on the ocean and the Great Lakes, it was necessary to use the compass (shown here encased in what is called a binnacle).

A rather sketchy photo of barges being pushed passed us by a tow. This one only had twelve barges, but there were times when we counted as many as 24. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Something Crazy

Given the cliff-hanger I left you with, I suppose it would only be fair to tell you that no one was hurt that day. The dingy did get a bit crushed between the Pinta and the dock, but just as the little inflatable boat became pinned, Stevie literally jumped backwards out of the boat and onto the dock, where he rolled a bit to get back to his feet and took off running toward the shore. Luckily for all, the dingy was extremely durable and took the hit well. We all heard something snap and feared the worst, but when the Pinta bounced back and drifted gently into the channel, the dingy was still floating. What was more impressive, though, was that as soon as the Pinta had cleared out, Stevie jumped back into the dingy and steered her over to the stern of the ship, where she was hauled up out of the water and onto the Poop deck to be inspected.
And so, all was well. Once the excitement was over, things slowed down significantly between both ships, but not for me. There wasn't much to see on that part of the river, but I have to admit I was still feeling a rush from the mere adventure of it all. I stood at the bow and felt the wind rushing gently against my face and felt so excited I could hardly breathe. This was me, doing something crazy! I was away from all the comforts and safety nets of home and finally in a place where there were no strings, no one to worry about pleasing, no schedule to fret over other than the one given to me by the Captain, which was the same one everyone followed.  I felt like I could truly be myself here on this old wooden ship, surrounded by people whose expectations were high but fair, spelled out clearly but still with some leeway, who treated me like an equal. Not that I didn't get this treatment at home; quite the contrary. But there was something different about being aboard the Niña that is hard to describe. Even to this day, the proper words elude me. It was the feeling that struck me upon first visiting the ships with my mom and grandpa. As we set off down the Calumet River, it enveloped me once more.
I wonder now how I must have seemed to the others on board, standing at the bow all shivers of giddiness, as though we were putting out to sea instead of chugging slowly down a muddy river south of Chicago.
After a few hours of passing under low bridges and going through locks, the Captain called me over to try my hand at steering the ship. The prospect was both thrilling and terrifying, but I accepted the task with all the calm demeanor I could muster. It turned out to be fairly simple. Neither ship had a steering wheel like most people would expect. Steering wheels actually came along quite a while after Columbus’ time. The Niña and Pinta are both steered using tillers, which are directly connected to the rudder. The tiller is a long wooden pole that is pushed right or left in order to steer the ship port or starboard, respectively.  Captain Kyle seemed to think I did fairly well at the helm. We traveled all day and well into the evening before we stopped at a small marina somewhere along the Illinois River. The next morning we would cross over the fish barrier.

That first night was a little rough. Thus far, I had been under the impression that our cook, Miss Ellie, didn't like me very much. As I mentioned before, I felt very much in the way of the Captain and Vic during the start of the voyage, and hadn't yet warmed up to Ben, so I assumed my being the only other female on board might endear me to Miss Ellie. Sadly, this was not the case. Other than our initial meeting, she didn't speak to me at all. Not when I bid her goodnight or when I said good morning the next day. I wondered if perhaps, due to her age, she might have some hearing troubles. Maybe I was speaking too softly. Or maybe she just didn't like me.
So after all the excitement and the long journey that followed, a lot of learning times mixed with times of extreme boredom, the feeling of being cut off from everything I knew finally began to catch up with me. Even though it was late, I called my mom that evening after we docked and talked with her for a bit. Then my little brother called and I talked with him for a bit. Then I called my grandpa – the one who had been the biggest supporter of this whole adventure, who’d encouraged me to do it even before I breathed a word about wanting to; who I’d been helping my mom care for since he was diagnosed with cancer, and who would pass away that following January. I talked with him for only a few minutes, because he went to bed early those days.
By the time I crawled into my bunk I was so overcome with different emotions, as well as worries about being away from my grandpa that I could not help but cry. It did not last long, though. Sleep took over sooner than I thought possible, and when I woke the next morning to the sound of the engine kicking on and the smell of coffee, I remembered why I was there and could not wish to be anywhere else.

That morning, as I was fixing myself some coffee and wondering at Miss Ellie’s apparent dislike of me, she finally spoke. She asked me how I’d slept, if I needed anything for my coffee, and made sure I knew there were doughnuts on the counter if I was hungry. This sudden conversation took me by surprised but pleased me nonetheless. We chatted for a few minutes before I made my way up top, and I felt significantly better about that whole aspect of things.
I found I had little trouble coping with the various inconveniences and discomforts of ship life. The critters, however, would prove to be a trial for the duration. Specifically the spiders, but there was also a little stowaway that caused quite a stir, which I’ll explain later.

The spiders seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as the sun went down, and they were nastier and larger than I would have preferred. They came out of the woodwork and started spinning webs right as it got dark so that if you weren't careful, you’d walk right into one and get a face full of web. I was told they didn't usually venture down the hatch and into the hold, but this did little to comfort me. However, not wanting everyone to think I was some sort of baby for fearing spiders, I didn't let on that it bothered me. I didn't have to worry, though. We were all sitting down to dinner as I was being warned about the spiders, and Captain Kyle shuddered audibly. “I hate spiders.”

I would later become used to the sound of footsteps on deck during the very late night hours or the wee hours of the morning, and hear the hissing sounds of a can of industrial strength insecticide being sprayed at webs and spiders all over the ship. I never actually saw him doing it, but Vic informed me that it was the Captains ritual sometimes to wake in the night and go on a spider hunt. This made me happy to no end.
We traveled about 50 miles that day and stopped in a town called Ottawa around 6 pm  We had about 80 miles to travel the next day, though, so it was early to bed and very early to rise the next morning.