84 CHRISTMAS, Part One
December 25, 2008
“David, this is your wakeup call.” It was 3:30 AM and time for my watch. I pulled back the curtain screening my bunk and whispered into the darkness of the salon, “Merry Christmas, Kevin.” On deck it was very dark with no moon but a full sky of stars. The ship was under full sail to the royals, with only a few kites not set, gently swaying to the swell, barely moving in the light breeze.
We had much to do and set right to work. My first task was to help Nadja and Jackie get the barbeque grills out of the hold to roast the suckling pig that lay in the cooler for Christmas dinner. Both large and small grills were soon unlashed and on deck but the charcoal was a different story. “I think its behind the shit tank,” Nadja said in her German accent without a hint of irony at her crude language, but it was nowhere in sight and we had to move a large pile of coiled lines, several cargo nets, and a spare toilet to get down to the right level. “Do you remember us loading more than one bag in Lunenburg? Nadja asked, and I reassured her that we had. Jackie lay on her stomach digging while I held my flashlight (why am I always the only one with a light?). “Is this our equivalent to all the Christmas Eves our parents spent assembling toys with directions half-translated from the Japanese?” I asked, but there was no response. Finally the gray bags were unearthed and we could re-pile the nets and lines. By the time the grills were set up and lashed against the swell, it was time for me to go on helm.
Standing at the helm I was startled to see a ship a mile off our Starboard beam, steaming the opposite direction with its two white masthead lights and green running light clearly visible. It was the first ship that I have seen in days in these relatively empty waters. The course was south by west, half west, or 197 degrees. On this ship, courses are always given in compass points, as is traditional, but I usually translate them into degrees since I find the outer degree scale on the compass easier to read. Although the ship was barely moving, we still had steerageway, and a half turn and some patience with her slow response was all it took to keep her on course. I found the stars covered and uncovered by the windward luffs of the square sails a clearer indication of which way the ship was turning than the compass.
With fairly easy steering, I was free to scan the horizon and the stars and to think my own thoughts. So far from land the stars were brilliant. The big dipper and North Star were clearly visible behind me, and I could identify Orion’s belt. I wished I could identify the winter hexagon of stars that Ed Pols described in his eloquent poem in which he contemplated his own death.
I thought inevitably of Barbara, as I usually do in such reflective moments. She should be home asleep in bed by now, hopefully after and elegant Christmas Eve dinner at Henry and Marty’s. Missing her was like a stab to my heart and I wished, as I so often do, that I could be with her, for the night, to celebrate Christmas in our traditional way, and to join her for Christmas dinner with David and Gayle. My eyes began to mist and I had to force my mind back to the compass and onto other things.
Scanning through the stars I thought I saw a blinking light near the horizon, but I had to look carefully because stars often blink as they are covered and uncovered by the web of the sip’s rigging. Watching carefully, I saw that it was indeed a blinking light on an airplane slowly crossing above me. Alone on the quarterdeck in the darkness it was somehow reassuring that there were other people out there. My mind went back to a time when I was alone on watch on Don Stover’s cutter Mouette on a dark night in the middle of the Cabot Straights between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, as cold and lonely a piece of water as I have sailed. We saw no ships at all during that crossing, but there was a steady stream of the flashing lights of airliners flying the great circle route to Europe.
Being on helm was also reassuring, watching the compass, turning the wheel three or four spokes when we started to get off course, watching the stars while I waited for a response, and remembering to turn the wheel back when we were back on course, I was generally able to keep within two or three degrees of the assigned course. I was almost disappointed when I saw a silent dark figure approaching to relieve me. Since she has been the one to relieve me the last few days I said, “Merry Christmas Marie,” but it was Jackie. I have yet to develop the ability to distinguish all of the members of my new watch in the dark, now more difficult with so many similar female forms to distinguish. The generator was just firing up, signaling the start of a new day. “Damn, I forgot to wake Geoff for the engine room. Could you wake him?” Jackie asked. “Sure,” I said.
When I did the log entry for my hour on helm I read the taffrail log—a device hung on the stern rail connected to a line towing a propeller through the water that measures our distance through the water by registering the number of revolutions of the propeller on its dials—and discovered that during the hour we had sailed a mile and a half. At this rate it will take a while to get to Senegal.
I went below to wake Geoff and found Nadja and Veronica finishing playing Santa, distributing small items that people had contributed into socks that everyone had been instructed to hang by their bunks. When I woke Geoff I got a grumpy response that he wasn’t on duty this morning. “Merry Christmas anyway,” I said and left.
After a few more small tasks it was time to go on lookout and I climbed up on the foc’sl to relieve Mary, who stood on the very bow and seemed a little sad when I spoke to her briefly. We all are away from people we love today, I thought to myself and fought my own thoughts of those I was missing, from my parents to Barbara and my brother, with only partial success. I was able to enjoy a beautiful starry night and an empty horizon. Around seven the tiniest crescent of a very new moon rose, with a star just above it, reminding me of the crescent and star design on the flags of several Arab countries. This crescent was quickly chased by the glow of pre-dawn, and I was surprised at the rare sight of the darkened disk of the unlit moon alongside the incandescent crescent. Soon my relief came, the deck was abuzz with people. My watch was dismissed with the usual magic words of “Watch below,” and I went below to find a most sumptuous breakfast of homemade bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, and special pancakes with real Vermont maple syrup thanks to a care package from Susie’s parents. Then it was time to hit my bunk for a few hours of sleep.
When I awoke Christmas preparations were in full swing. The suckling pig on the grill was getting crisp and brown, and the pile of presents—wrapped in everything from rare formal wrapping paper, to plastic bags, to Arabic newspapers, to old sailcloth—was growing ever larger. Lunch was a simple affair; everyone was waiting for dinner.
The Bracken brothers, Sam and 2nd mate Paul, baste the pig.
At two o’clock the orders were given to clew up the courses and brace the foremast yards around so the square sails on that mast were all aback. This made the ship hove to, with the sails on one mast pushing the ship forward and the sails on the other mast pushing it backwards—essentially parking the ship, not that we were doing much more than drifting in the near calm anyway. A swim call was called and much of the crew donned their suits and went over the side to enjoy the novelty of swimming from a sailing ship on Christmas Day at sea off the coast of Africa. I wasn’t quite warm enough to be motivated to swim. I noticed Kevin aloft on shark watch. I had to admit, as one used to white Christmases, that swimming and Christmas were an odd combination and a tempting proposition.
At 3 o’clock the orders were given to re-trim the yards and re-set the courses to put the ship aback on her plodding course. I was still in my work clothes and went below to change into something more decent, but before I could do so, an “All hands muster” was called. It was time to distribute presents. Weronica and Marie and the Christmas Tree.
Everyone gathered on the main deck in a circle around the hatch, which held the tree and mound of presents. To impose some order on the process, the Captain invoked the custom of having the youngest two in the crew pass out the presents to everyone else. This fell to 18-year-old Nick and 19-year-old Jackie, and they cheerfully did as they were bid,
Sam and Susie admire his new suspenders.
Jackie picks up another present while others unwrap theirs.
distributing presents while the Captain oversaw the process from his lofty perch sitting on the edge of the quarterdeck.
The presents were, for the most part, tokens: clever gags, candy, wine, and other small things. Lyndsey probably took the prize for most spectacular gift, with a wildly colored headdress of some sort.
Nadja and Mike share a moment.
Lyndsey models her headdress. [Continued in Part Two.]
84 CHRISTMAS, Part Two
For gifts I gave mostly candy and wine to those I felt closest to, and a bottle of Coca Cola to Bruce–a non-materialist and minimalist who brought little, has bought almost nothing, doesn’t drink, and consumes Coke as his only indulgence. I gave gifts to two newly-joined crewmembers who I figured didn’t know many people and therefore were less likely to receive gifts, not wanting them to be left out. Kolin, the Bosun, was thrilled to receive a lost jar of tar.
After he presided over the opening of presents, the Captain–as is his custom–retreated to the sidelines. He and Lyndsey hung out alone on the quarterdeck next to the unattended wheel.
Kolin thrilled with the return of lost tar.
Christmas dinner was a sumptuous affair, served on deck. It consisted of roast pig, roast potatoes, squash, and red cabbage. Geoff had stocked up with two cases of beer in Gomera, and he came around distributing cans as his contribution to the merriment. I enjoyed mine with dinner. Others had wine with Lyndsey and the Captain share a quiet moment. dinner.
Dessert was—if possible–even more lavish, with apple and pumpkin pie, a Yule log cake or bush noel, and even more cookies and candy. I felt filled to the gills. The weather added to the festive air, being sunny, warm, and calm, so for much of the day the helm was left unattended and the ship drifted on its own, more or less on course.
After dinner things became less formal and scripted. Mary in her pirate finery.
People changed into more casual clothes and helped with the dinner cleanup, dishes, and
Bill, W.T. and Gary share a drink.
galley cleanup. I joined Gary, Bill, and W.T. for a drink in the salon, but only one since I was still technically on watch though there was little to do. It was nice to sit and relax with people.
In the evening the musicians among the crew began to play guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and a few sang. A rowdy bunch retired to the foc’sle for some serious drinking.
At sunset a little zepher of a breeze came up and the ship began to move, ever-so-slowly. Nadja assigned me to lookout duty on the foc’sle, where I could hear and see glimpses of what was going on, but wasn’t part of it. I was content with this, needing some relative solitude after the intensity of the day.
When Jackie came to relieve me after an hour I could see in her face that she was reluctant to leave the party. “If you are having a good time, go back to the party,” I told her, “I’m good for another hour up here.”
“Really?” she asked, disbelieving her ears. “Sure,” I said, “Merry Christmas,” and she was gone without further hesitation. In fact I wanted to be alone. The intense feelings of missing Barbara that I had been fighting to keep at bay all day were beginning to overwhelm me and I felt very low and lonely. I didn’t want to party, and didn’t want to diminish anyone else’s party, so it was best for me to be alone.
That is except for when one very drunk young crewman–for reasons that escape me–climbed out of the escape hatch from the foc’sle. I grabbed his arm and pulled him out as he teetered in danger of falling back into the foc’sle behind him. Once liberated, he staggered away who-knows-where.
I wanted to be alone to think of Barbara, to think of where she might be and what she might be doing, to experience my feelings of missing her and let go of my tears unseen. I tried to console myself with thinking of when I will see her in Miami, but that won’t be for another two months, so I was only partly successful. I reflected on the joys and melancholy of the day and enjoyed the sunset.