Friday, June 26, 2009

The Life of a Sailor - The One Left Behind

This is the first piece in what I will call my "Life of a Sailor" series, which I hope will provide insight into our bizarre world. Fun travel pieces will also continue.

Grant shipped out a few weeks ago unexpectedly. He went to the union hall for a union meeting, and a great job fell in his lap. This has happened to him a few times in the past, but he still worries more than I do about finding work! So I drove around with him to his doctors appointments and on his errands for a few last minute items, then I bundled him up into his old Volvo at 6:30 am and sent him out to sea. I am left behind.

Most people assume that because I ship out as well, it is easier on me than the other wives and girlfriends. This job has one of the highest divorce rates for any industry. It's also hard for the young guys to keep a girlfriend through even one tour of duty. But though I have enough empathy, understanding, and love not to leave my man because of the stress of him (and me) being away for long periods of time, I often think our situation is harder and more stressful than the classic case where the loved one is left behind.

When one of us leaves, we have no idea when we will see each other again. Let me explain. We belong to different unions, as he is an engineer and I am a deck officer. His rotations are 90 days, and mine are 120 days, so presuming we get a job on the exact same day (never going to happen), our schedule is already off by one month. We are allowed to take a trip off for up to 30 days (or one round trip), so some of our work is as relief officers for short tours of one month. Frankly, one month is not enough to pay the bills, so after our trip we have to go straight back to the hall to try for another job. (This process is often called "Looking for a Ship", and John McPhee's book by the same title is an excellent read.) Often what happens is that one of us will get a job right before the other one is finishing her rotation. This has happened many times, sometimes so close that we are literally two ships passing in the night, hours away from our homeport but one is arriving, and one is heading out to sea. One year, between us shipping out and having to go to school for continuing education, Grant and I saw each other a total of six weeks! Six weeks, of which it was a day here, and a day there adding up to that six weeks. And we don't get daily phone or private e-mail contact like other couples who travel for work! When you have a traditional landlubber significant other, you know that they will be there when you come home from sea. That is not true for us.

The other part that makes it difficult for me, and probably Grant, is that our job is very dangerous. I know this first hand. I myself had to give first aid to a man hit by a mooring line which ultimately cracked his hip and broke his wrist and arm in five places. I thought I was holding a dying man with a broken back in my arms on the cold, wet deck of a ship in Alaska, with mooring lines parting all around us. Luckily I was able to get the two of us to a safe place while I screamed in the radio for an ambulance, and he gave me what he thought were his last words to pass on to his only daughter. I have also heard of major accidents in the engine room. I have been in storms so bad I was physically thrown out of my bunk and across the room....over and over again. Grant has had a fire onboard (nope, no firefighters on board. We are the firefighters, police, security, and medical personnel in addition to our "regular" jobs). Everybody has sea stories, and I frankly would prefer not to gain any more.

Sometimes when the ship comes back to our homeport, we get to see each other. We get to come home for a few hours, sleep, get up at 0600, and go back to work. We would never miss a chance to be together, but it is an emotional rollercoaster. The time is too short, we know the other has to leave but don't want to believe it, and again, we don't know when we will see each other next. This last time I picked up my man, I finally realized what it feels like for me. He feels like a ghost. Here, then gone, like he was never there in the first place.

The short of it is that when Grant and I kiss each other goodbye, we don't know for how long.

Cheers, and here are some pictures for you :)

Grant's home for the next three months. At least he got rid of his roommate (me)!

His ship. (Through the magic of Iphoto, I have erased the name of the ship and company logo from the bow)

The bustling Port of Tacoma. To the untrained eye, this looks like a bewildering array of industry. But if you look close (click to enlarge) you start to see that there are two bulk carriers at anchor awaiting their berths, a loaded barge at anchor, numerous sailboats and private yachts, four container ship terminals, a log and pulp terminal, bulk liquid cargo storage, a tugboat, and a railroad to carry the cargo out to the hinterland. This is a major part of what the global economy looks like.

A closer look. I'll buy a pabst for whoever tells me first, in the comments section, how many ships and where they are in this picture.


  1. I don't know about the ships, but I have to tell you, I loved your post! Your patience and endurance as a couple is amazing. Long-distance relationships are always hard, but you two, even with so many added hardships along the way, make it happen!

  2. Thank you for the kind words. I must admit, we have had our, ahem, "moments", so maybe are not as patient as we should be : )


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