For mariners, there's no place like home
- A number of our members can relate to this story.I think it is special that seafarers are mentioned in the media. All too frequently, out of sight - out of mind.Phelps______________________________________________For mariners, there's no place like homeHolidays with loved ones are rare, appreciatedBy
The chance timing of a crew change two oceans away resulted in the ultimate holiday bonus for an ex-shipmate of mine: He was home for a holiday with his family for the first time in years.
Merchant mariners the world over are routinely at sea and away from their families during events generally considered to be the most important in people's lives. Besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, deaths and even the births of their children often slip by in the wake of their work.
The same merchant seaman and his wife were home from the hospital with their first child for just two hours when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. He was the navigator on a search-and-rescue vessel in Florida then and didn't see his tired wife and their newborn child again for a week.
The hardship of separation from family and friends is as old as the trade of seafaring, for both those gone to sea and those left at home. While voyages are now shorter than those of a century ago, they are still long enough to isolate a sailor from the joys, and the obligations, of his deepest relationships. As a young sailor in the Navy, I was without social or marital demands and found my ship's 10-month-long deployments an ideal excuse for forgetting birthdays and anniversaries and other niceties of adult social and familial responsibility.
By the time I was aboard a civilian coastal tug on the West Coast years later, I was acutely aware of missed holidays and cringed at perpetually postponed dinner dates with a young woman who was then my girlfriend and is now my wife. I was used to it, but she was not.
Even time in port is brief now. The old break-bulk freighters stayed in port a week or more as stevedores man-handled their piece-meal cargoes. Today's ships, with modular cargoes and super-mechanized loading and discharging apparatus, can be in and out of port in 24 hours. This gives passage-weary crews no time for rest or to make a phone call from some windy phone booth at the head of a pier.
The ability to communicate with those ashore from the isolated bubble of a vessel at sea has steadily improved during the last 25 years. Before satellite phones were common, we used the marine radio to stay in touch with the important people in our lives. This was our only link to the world beyond our vision and we were glad to have it, but marine radios have certain disadvantages.
Unlike a telephone, only one person can talk at a time using a radio. This may sound simple enough, but the necessary pause where the two parties say, "over" takes getting used to.
I used the marine radio to call my mother once. I was aboard the tug in worsening weather five miles off the northern California coast and she was in New Hampshire. She thought it was a distress call at first, and neither one of us felt particularly reconnected at the end of that brief communication. It is impossible to have a normal, flowing conversation over the radio unless both parties have had a lot of practice, and don't mind an audience.
Ironically, you are never alone when on a VHF radio. As you and your loved one describe how much you miss each other, or you try to diagnose the problem with the family car from the Gulf of Alaska, other sailors are listening. They are waiting for you to finish your own awkward, stilted transmission so that they can put their own calls in to the marine operator.
High-tech phones, now universally available, are a huge improvement on the old open-line of loneliness.
While voice communication has improved dramatically since pre-radio seafaring, contact remains distant and touch remains impossible. Until a sailor can come home after standing his watch, the feeling of isolation and the hardship of inaccessibility will remain a part of the trade.
In some ways, I envy my old friend and shipmate. He followed the job of navigation we shared in the Navy into the 21st century. He travels the world, loves his work and makes a good living. But the modern professional mariner's life still comes with the age-old trade-off of separation far from the people that share the same table on Thanksgiving.
For sailors, soldiers, airmen and many others routinely taken by their work to distant shores, simply being home for a holiday is enough to be thankful for.
Nicholas Brown is a freelance journalist, boat carpenter and Navy veteran.