Sunday, July 23, 2006

Things I learned in Delaware

Home is the sailor, home from the sea; home from nine days living and working on a boat conducting archaeological survey work off New Castle, DE. These are some of the things I have learned.

Patience. Archaeological survey work can be very boring, especially on a boat. You can troll along for hours at three knots, working your search pattern, watching the sonar display, seeing nothing. Or you see something that might be a target, and make more runs over its position, and never see it again. Or you send divers down on targets that turn out to be nothing - just shapes in the mud, maybe a mussel colony, or a pile of bricks. Or you try to send the divers down but the buoy has dragged and you have to recover it, relocate the target, and deploy another one. Or the divers aren't ready to go in the water. Or you misjudge the wind and current and they go in anyway but they can't get on the line, and you have to go pick them up and do it again.

How not to misjudge the wind and current. I have learned more about seamanship in these nine days than I ever knew before. I have sailed through a Chesapeake Bay storm at night; I have fought strong winds and tidal rips in the often shallow and confined waters of the Delaware River; I have stood clear of large ocean-going vessels in accordance with the Law of Gross Tonnage, if not the Rules of the Road; I have shielded divers with my own hull from other vessels which may not be cognizant of the meaning of the signal hoist Alfa in the International Code of Signals ("I have a diver down; keep well clear at low speed"); I have cursed some of those same vessels for the dangerously stupid things they have done. (A crabber called Endangered Species was one of them; as I swung hard to starboard to avoid collision - a collision that would likely have sunk his fiberglass craft and only marred the paintwork of the steel-hulled vessel I was piloting - I growled, as I think did others, "Keep doing shit like that and you'll be an endangered species!") For all that I have learned about how to handle a line, a small boat, and a diver, I owe a great debt to David Howe and his marvelous little Roper.

How wonderfully absurd and dramatic and downright fun it is to leave port for your homeward voyage, your work brought to a successful conclusion, with an outbound cruise liner of some 50,000 tons overtaking you in the main channel while you and your 17-ton ex-shrimper dash for the secondary channel, "Victory At Sea" playing on the radio.

How to arc weld. How the sparks flash brilliantly green through the face shield, and how you ignore the ones that hit you. The frustration of the electrode sticking to the metal, and the exhilaration of holding it just right for the whole length of the weld. And the quiet satisfaction of looking at your work later, after it had been used and abused, and seeing that they bent it, but they didn't break it.

Why the Navy serves mid-rats. There is nothing quite like a ham sandwich at the helm at two in the morning when you've had two hours of sleep.

How it feels to live in rhythm with the tide. After fighting the current for the first few days, we surrendered to the river and did things its way. While the current ran, we ran sonar searches, or stayed alongside the dock. While the current was slack, we dove. And when we weren't searching, or diving, or planning the next day's searcing and diving, we moved in the ways of an old port city. We wandered the streets of the historic district, because that was all we could reach, we who were tied to the boat, and we found a little tavern, all dark wood and old muskets and paintings of the sea and ships, with a long polished bar and good food, and there we ate and drank and told sea stories ("arr, no shit, there we were") and recited obscene limericks.

More obscene limericks than I really wanted to.

How good a cold beer can taste at the end of a hard day's work on the river.

And I think perhaps the most important thing I learned was a little bit about what it means to be a shipmate. I left nine days ago raw, unproven, an unknown quantity. I returned today with the confidence of my captain and a farewell in which he shook my hand and called me "Shipmate." I can think of no higher praise on the seven seas.


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