Sailors and Fishermen, Feeling the Consequences of Hurricane Sandy

31 10 2012

I’m talking with you from new ground today, sweeties. I’ve been back in Alaska for a few hours now, camped out in the Juneau Airport’s Glacier Lounge. Starting at 3:30 this morning, it’s been a long travel day with a handful of challenges, but I’ll be in Sitka before midnight.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the snowflakes swirl on the breeze outside. They’re not sticking. Other than the speaker above me blaring what my dad would call “shitkicker music,” the bar’s quiet.  Chef/bartender Mike befriended me early on, bringing a glass of water designed to ward off scurvy (slices of lime, lemon, AND orange), frequent hot water refills for my peppermint tea, and a couple free cookies “because you have to have cookies with tea.” The first raven of the trip just glided by the window, and I smiled.

Being back in Alaska outside our fishing season is a rare gift. I’m up here to go to Whalefest, an annual symposium celebrating the humpback whales that make Sitka Sound their seasonal home.  I’ve always wanted to attend, but learning that author Seth Kantner (Ordinary Wolves, Shopping for Porcupine) was this year’s keynote speaker sealed the deal. Still, however much I wanted to hop a plane for a weekend visit, this wouldn’t have been possible without Joel’s parents donating their airline miles towards a birthday ticket. I’m thankful.

I spent last week working on an essay to read at this Friday’s maritime-themed Monthly Grind. “Working on” sounds deceptively productive. A personal piece that I hoped would ring true for fellow ocean-goers, I wondered what draws so many of us to the sea that can so easily devour us. Mostly, I stared at my computer screen and thought about fear, loss, and grief. (You know, the usual light-hearted stuff you can count on me for.)

On Friday night, I admitted on Facebook what a struggle this essay was proving to be. Immediately, several Hooked friends responded with encouragement. Be patient, don’t beat yourself up, take a walk. Fisher Poet Pat Dixon advised, “Write what comes. See where that leads… trust the process. …or maybe that’s all bullshit and you need a shot of tequila. Let us know what you decide.”

Since quitting drinking some years back, that only left me one option. And miracle of miracles, it worked. The words did come, and suddenly a finished draft smiled at me serenely. I was there for you all along.

But as I celebrated the arrival of words, the East Coast recoiled from an arrival of a different sort. Hurricane Sandy raged up the Eastern seaboard. Wind, water, fire; the elements joined forces to leave a trail of staggering damage and fatalities. The first of these that I learned about was the 180-foot HMS Bounty. For the second time in as many months, I marveled at the courage and skill of our Coast Guard. They plucked fourteen survivors from life rafts roiling in 20-foot seas.

Fourteen survivors… And the body of Claudene Christian, Bounty crew member for six months. Captain Robin Waldridge remains missing.

For fellow blogger/seafaring writer Chris Wallace, this was more than a tragic news story. Chris, her husband, and daughter are a family of sailors; as crew aboard the Schooner Zodiac, the West Coast’s largest wooden schooner, they’re well-acquainted with the Bounty.  We embrace different means of going to sea, yet I suspect we share similar reactions of relief, confidence, and calm on the water – just as Sandy drove both Chris and I to the same uneasy soul-searching. “I am overwhelmed with sadness,” she wrote on Monday, “and have spent the day pondering why people like us are drawn to this life.”

Just as sailors stand with each other in times of tragedy, so do fishermen.  Trollers and crabbers in the Pacific Northwest followed their New England kin through the storm, engaged in real-time Facebook conversations with fishermen riding out the storm. “It’s really bad here,” wrote one New Jersey captain. “I don’t know if any of us are going to have a boat left.”

Damaged vessels, harbors, and processing plants, coupled with lost sea time, have a crippling impact on an already-uncertain industry like commercial fishing. Industry outreach program “The Faces of California Fishing” immediately promised East Coast fishermen, “We’ve got your back.” They began organizing, anxious to create a relief fund for fleet members impacted by Sandy. Regardless of the differences and distance between our various fisheries, this generous community spirit is the backbone of our profession. I’ll post donation info as soon as it’s available. Meanwhile, follow The Faces of California Fishing for relief fund updates.

It’s about time for me to continue on to Sitka, friends. I keep circling back ‘round to my and Chris’s original reflection. Why are so many of us drawn to this nautical life? Not only drawn to; we’re mad for the sea, loyal beyond all reason and sense. I haven’t been able to articulate my own reasons yet. How about you?

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14 responses

31 10 2012
Patrick Dixon

Tele: Glad the process worked – even without the Cuervo. I hope you post the piece here…or get it published! It’s a good question. There are probably as many answers as there are seafarers. You remind me of the first day of my second year fishing as a deckhand, running out of the river in the dusk of early morning with my taciturn Norwegian skipper, I came into the cabin after stowing the lines, my nostrils filled with the salt air of the river mouth (something I never had growing up in Indiana), and sat on my stool next to him. He was already nursing a cup of black coffee, and we hadn’t spoken as we untied and headed downriver. I took a deep breath and said, “This gets in your blood, doesn’t it?” His head snapped around and he just looked at me. Then nodded, and looked back out at the black river ahead of us. In the tight little cabin filled with the noise and vibration of the diesel under our feet, there wasn’t much else to say. Thanks.

31 10 2012
Rhonda

You are an inspiration, a poet, and a truth sayer.

1 11 2012
wendywelch

I’ve wondered about this too, and Studs Terkel has a great interview with a seagoer in WORKING. You probably know it already, but if not, it might interest you to read.

1 11 2012
Kari Neumeyer

I’d like to know more about these ravens.

10 11 2012
Tele

Oh, be careful, Kari… I’ve got OODLES of corvid video from Sitka that I’ve resisted sharing just yet. Give me an opening and Hooked will go to ravens like Rhymes with Safari goes to your sweet German Shepherds!

1 11 2012
Karla Richardson

Together, we survive!

1 11 2012
Cami Ostman (@camiostman)

Great post, friend.

1 11 2012
Lynn

Tele,

Thanks for a beautiful post and a wonderful blog, which I am just now discovering.

In answer to your question, for myself – and this is also true for certain friends whom I have discussed this at length with – we are mad for the sea because it gives us something that nothing else in our lives ever has: a measure of peace. Speaking from personal experience, there is something about being out and surrounded by all that water that makes the part of me that is always restless and unquiet go still, and never fails to bring respite from pain. Nothing else in my experience even comes close; at sea, I am whole. I am free. I am home.

2 11 2012
Patrick Dixon

Very well said, Lynn. I would add that even on the rough days, there is an immediacy to being on the water that requires you to pay attention to the ‘now’ that is rarely equalled elsewhere in life. And the organic nature of being at sea – and all the wonderful surprises the water offers – keeps you coming back or longing for it when you’re on dry land too long.

3 11 2012
Karla Richardson

Tele, ditto for what Lynn & Patrick said. Having been on dry land myself now for 12 years (who is counting), the sea calls. Every day. My soul is restless. I can feel the Saint Jude pulling me to the harbor, “come, let’s go for a ride.” It is an irresistable call. I miss the water so much, it makes me cry sometimes. Only there, am I ever completely at peace. Only there, free of pain. For me, too, the ocean is home.

2 11 2012
Dawn

Tele, I’m so glad you found your muse and were able to get your essay written! I am saddened to the core about the devastation from Sandy. And I am continually amazed at the power of the human spirit in times like this.

4 11 2012
patriciasands

Some things just are.

5 11 2012
(FL) Girl with a New Life

What a thought-provoking post, Tele. Maybe we are all looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves, and what could be bigger than the ocean?

12 11 2012
Cap’n J Visits the Oregon Coast « Hooked

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