Who among us has not slipped down to the wharves, and imagined ourselves as crew on an out-bound ship? Is there anything more romantic? I certainly think not. In this narrative for our contest, Wendy Joseph reminisces about her first love, the one who never betrays and always invites. Enjoy her story, and I do hope you will play the video at the end, which captures the spirit of this unending love affair.
By Wendy Joseph
The seagoing trade grabbed me for a bunch of reasons, lack of money being the principal one. But it started with a jolt of something I don’t call love or attachment or anything gooey sounding. How do you deal with something that goes bing! and caroms around your insides till you either explode, punch somebody out, leap to your death trying to fly, or something else equally foolish?
Wisdom, common sense, reason, practicality—these are not my strong traits. I do something because I like it, and if I don’t want to do it the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse couldn’t make me, so there. If the magic takes over I have no retaliatory battery to come to my defense, nor do I want one. Sail with your dreams! Fly! Achieve the impossible; go for it! I’ve done this all my life and have turned into a committee of failure. A warning to those who dream: You’re going to be broke, disappointed, and miserable. But I know it won’t stop you. It didn’t stop me.
Summer, 1999. I boarded the World War II freighter S.S. Lane Victory, which a bunch of crusty old salts had pulled out of mothballs, refurbished, gotten up steam and sailed again. My father and uncle had helped refit her. Both WWII Merchant Marine vets, their stories filled my childhood with the terribleness of war. Some guys can’t talk about it. You couldn’t shut my dad up. A hell of a storyteller, he orated every detail of the Murmansk Run, and what it was like to be torpedoed and cast adrift on the equator with no water and sharks circling around.
I volunteered for the Lane after my father died, and on the first voyage, a day cruise out of Los Angeles with eight hundred passengers, went up to the bridge. Here was the wheel, a fine old fashioned real wood wagon type wheel, with spokes, the way a proper wheel should be. Modern ships have wimpy little plastic wheels with no spokes. I took the wheel, and as I turned it and met the course we were on, magic happened. I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living.
Sixteen years later, after a rough and uneven career at sea, I visited the Lane Victory again. She was in need of new boilers and wasn’t sailing any more. Most of the old guys were gone, crossed the bar into Fishermen’s Green, where there’s bottles of rum on every tree and the captain makes tea for the crew. The wheelhouse was quiet, the wheel secured so visiting kids couldn’t mess with it and damage something. I stepped to the helm and took the wheel.
This was still my place. I wanted to stay home and not have the hassles of long boring voyages with no shore leave or family or my cats to treasure. I was done with serious ocean going seafaring.
But I belong behind the wheel of a ship.