Excerpt from “The Gyre”

Excerpt from “The Gyre”

Every story of a sinking ship is the same. The water rushes in and the air squeezes out. People and rats scramble out if they can. The boat becomes heavier than water and seeking equilibrium, it falls until it can go no further.

Storms fatigue metal and sailors. They expose weakness in rivets and resolve. Normally rational and clear thinking beings make poor decisions after sleepless hours of being knocked around and feeling less and less important in nature’s machinations.

In Manilla, the weather was swampy and still. I stood with Mike at the gangway, sweat soaking through our bandanas and t-shirts. Mike was redheaded, the skin under his beard was always a shade of red. He was a little shorter than me, but a big shouldered six even. Me, a wiry six one, I called him ‘Little One’ or ‘Tiny’ in jest. He called me ‘The Scrawnage’ or ‘Pipe Cleaner’. We watched the activity of the port, cranes grinding along rails, swinging shipping containers off of ships and gently onto robotic trucks that moved them to the stacks. Steveadoors in small electric vehicles wove through the container stacks.

A steel door opened behind us and five well dressed inspectors walked out, the last of the three inspections from three branches of government. Each inspector carried a carton of Marlboros, with a hundred dollar bill slipped in.

Mr. Clark, the first mate, leaned on the hatch, watching the entourage leave. He smoked a cigarito. He was tall and lanky and wore a starched white button shirt that he was sweating through. I figured he loved inspections because it gave him a chance to yell at the crew to prepare for them and yell again when we were dinged for something. He nodded at us and slipped back inside.

Sadly, no teary, short-skirted lasses waved thier hankerchiefs, begging us to stay. Only the dock master, a short round man in khakis and a Hitler mustache, stood on the other side of the gangplank, yelling at us in broken English to get off his pier for the next ship. Greg, an older grey-bearded electrician, wandered over and yelled at him to go shutup and choke on the smokes we gave him earlier. Mike and I looked at each other and smiled. We couldn’t leave yet, undercrewed. The big Samoan cook, Tamikia and Honesto, a mate, both quit. Tamika called saying he got a found a job as a short order cook Honesto just disappeared after a two-hour shore leave. Shore leave benders and romance are a thing of the past. One thing I dislike about the job, tight schedules and maintenance keeps aboard ship most of the time. Only the very diligent and focused are able to cork a bottle on the infrequent shore leaves.

If only one quit, we probably would have left, but we were already under crewed and the Captain demanded replacements. The company found a couple Filipinos who showed up an hour later. Bayani and Ramil struted aboard cool and relaxed carrying their duffles and smoking menthols.

Mike and I cast off on our end, coordinating with the bridge via walkie-talkie. The harbor pilot navigated the Celaeno out of port and within an hour we were in open sea. We passed a group of four empty Chinese container ships anchored parallel to each other, lines running between them, a zombie fleet. Excess shipping capacity caused many ships to drop anchor and wait for a job, some even cruised the coasts, dead-head miles, bidding for work at each port.

Most container ships starting in southeast Asia skirt the east side of Japan and follow the currents, cutting a gentle arc along the Northern Pacific over to the West Coast and then perhaps down to the Panama Canal. Our route was a little unusual. First Hong Kong, then Manilla, then due east to Hawaii, then to the port of Los Angeles.

I was half-way through my second nine month contract and thinking it would be my last. Growing up in Massachusetts I worked summers on trawlers and charter boats but never planned for a career at sea. After college, I met a girl and we lived together for a couple years. I came home to empty drawers and a note. You can guess the rest: romantic despair, earthly resignation, searching. I quit my job at a medical lab and went to sea. I wouldn’t say that was a mistake, but I wouldn’t say I knew what I was doing either.

It’s harder than you think to get a job on a container ship. First, there’s excess shipping capacity and automation bleeding jobs. Second, there are exams, schooling and certifications, if you want to sign on with a reputable company. Because of my experience I was able to skirt the schooling and sign on with a slightly less reputable company. Once at sea I heard the stories: missing pay, lax safety, possible murders. But my time so far had been hard but fair.

Like many, I’m drawn to water. I love to do a DiCapprio and stand at the bow of the ship and try to feel the ocean’s depth, width, the sunken treasures at the bottom and strange creatures swimming all around. I took comfort in contemplating the dark deep and its creatures quintillions: the glowing plankton, shrimp, jellyfish, squid, mackerel and shark, all swirling beneath the steel plating.

The first night out of Manilla, I worked my way to the hull beneath the water line. I put my hand on the cool red-painted steel and felt the gentle sloughing of the flowing ocean on the other side. No double hull on the Celaeno. When seas were up I felt the gentle flexing of metal and the turbulence on the other side. That night I laid in my bunk and listened to the whales, humpbacks I think, sing their deep and sorrowful notes. My life on hold, but holding onto my future. My fate decided for the next few months, I was at ease amongst the crew of men. The only woman in my head washing away, fewer intrusive memories, images graying.

We were three days out of Manilla and I was eating eggs and french toast when the first mate, Mr. Clark, walked in and told us a tropical storm, named Lu was upgraded to a cyclone. I quickly finished eating, grabbed my coffee and headed out on deck. For a few minutes before my shift I watched seagulls fly by. Usually they would circle and investigate the ship, but not today. The sea changed overnight. The wind gusts were light, but seven-foot swells gently rocked the ship.

I started the day removing paint from a section of wall on the super structure. There was never a shortage of painting to do, like scrubbing the deck on wood ships. The salt and weather eat away everything. The Captain gave us updates over the intercom throughout the day as the storm gained strength.

Mid afternoon Mr. Clark ordered us to secure the ship. We systematically went through each hold and hallway, checking all the container stacks, tugging the strapping and chains, taking out any slack. We closed the watertight doors, locking them. We even battened down the hatches. In a storm, make your ship do its best impression of a submarine.

After my shift ended I climbed up the six stories of switch-back metal stairs up to the bridge and stood on the walkway outside. Inside, in the darkening skies I saw the Captain staring over a glowing radar display. I looked over the ship, admiring the patchwork of containers, brick red, blue white tan and grey. I wondered where they would all end up and what treasures they held. Once emptied, they would circulate back onto a different container ship, the red blood cells of trade and transport.


Chapter 2


As night dropped its black cloth, the ship rolled in the growing seas. Bands of dark clouds slid over us and the wind picked up. The captain altered course to avoid the storm the day before, but it was moving too fast and intensifying. Soon we would turn into the waves and ride it out.

The ALN Celaeno was an older container ship, her keel laid in 1973, a capacity of five thousand eight hundred standard containers. The biggest new ships, the Triple-E’s, hold eighteen thousand. The bigger ships can go where they want in any conditions. Comparatively smaller ships must to turn into the waves and be more careful. In the big storms there are crosswinds, flinging waves from different directions. When two waves meet, the height and trough double. At the bottom of a trough there are walls of water higher than the ship on both sides. But then the ship rides up the face, the tip of the wave explodes over the bow and disperses. The ship pivots and goes down again, over and over.

Around midnight the captain turned into the storm. The swells were reaching thirty feet and crashing over the bow. Most of us not on duty were in the rec room seeking distraction. I was there trying to concentrate on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and feel its weight while my stomach dropped with each wave. Mike, from Scotland and Isagani from Manilla, played Mario Kart. Mike swore and stamped his foot each time Isagani, zipped past him, laughing. Ramil, from Singapore and Maxim from Russia were watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Owen, a Canadian and another big guy, with a round friendly face, pulled meat, cheese and various condiments out of the fridge in the small galley in the back and stuffed them under his arm for a sandwich. He distracted himself with food during storms. Rain hit the windows in sheets, sounding like nails thrown at the glass.

The Celaeno entered a trough with it the familiar sinking feeling, but the sinking didn’t end, it accelerated down and down. My mind flashed that we would float off our chairs and sink forever into the cold blackness. A new roar on the starboard side cut through the background noise rain and wind and the ship began to shake. I looked around and saw silent wide-eyed terror in everyone.

“Rogue!” gasped Greg.

The falling stopped and reversed with a snap. Every loose object, including us, tumbled. The ship rolled back and to starboard. I twisted body, looking for a hold but flipped backwards along with the chair.

Screaming men, groaning metal cut through the white noise explosion. The ship spun and tilted. Mike and Isagani were able to hold on to the bolted down table and TV shelf. The rest of us tumbled back towards the inner wall along with DVD’s, TV, Playstation, potted plants, pot plants, magazines, books chairs and couches. The microwave flew off the counter, the cord catching for a moment before ripping out of the socket. It hit Owen’s shin as he tried to find footing at the back of the kitchen. He yelped in pain and crumpled against the wall holding his shin while deflecting objects with his other hand. The ship continued to roll. Ramil’s legs hit he doorway and he helicoptered into the hallway smashing against the steel wall.

The water hit the rec room, forty feet above the water line. It broke the thick glass of the three portholes and shot into room. I was pressed against the wall and for a few seconds immersed. I swam against against the flow, frantic for air, not sure which way was up. Luckily both doors on either end of the rec room were open and the water flowed out into the hallway. I scrambled out of the pooled water in the corner of the rec room, choking and crawling on the walls and floor of the tilted room.

The Celeano’s roll slowed. It hung forever listing around forty-five degrees. I focused on the roll of the ship. If she continued, we’d be dead quick.

“She’s comin’ back!” yelled Mike. Though we continued to roll back and forth, the trend was good. Another big wave hit and the ship rolled again, but the Celaeno held her ground and rolled back at a glacier pace.

As soon as we could get our footing we headed out, soaked and disoriented. The emergency Klaxon went off.

“Thanks for the warning,” muttered Greg.

“Maxim! Mike! get Owen to the infirmary,” croaked Greg while coughing, “The rest of you to damage control stations!”

I had no idea where my damage control station was or what I should do when I got there. So I followed Greg.

“I’m feeling her list and I don’t hear the engines.” he said as we stumbled through rotating halls.

I felt the list, but hadn’t thought about the engines. Though we were rolling back and forth, the Celano tended toward starboard. And we no longer plowed through the waves, but were spun and tossed. The engines silent. A sudden fear shot through me again.

Rogue waves were one of the few things a ship of our size had to worry about. Pirates, sharks and cannibals do not strike fear into modern sailors like rogues. Rogue waves, long dismissed as tall tales in the same category as the Kraken, are a proven phenomenon. Ships disappear inexplicably all the time, most are thought to have hit a rogue. Most wrecks don’t make the news, which suits the shipping companies. They make a claim, the insurance pays out and they send out another ship and crew. Newer ships are designed to survive them, but the Celaeno was built when Rogues were in the same category as sea monsters.

Greg and I made our way down from the superstructure which held all the crew quarters towards the stern and the engine room. As we decended a boom and a rattling vibration hit us. The lights went out.

“Uh oh,” said Greg.

After a few seconds emergency lights came on, or some of them did, dead batteries in the rest. Along the way we grabbed some flashlights and fire extinguishers from a locker. Water sloshed around us and down dripped down the stairwells and flowed whichever direction the ship happened to be tilting.

As we climbed down further into the ship a blue haze wafted towards us and a harsh, metallic, oily smell. My nose and throat burned and I started coughing. I pulled a bandana from my pocket and covered my mouth, which helped a little.

A couple levels down we saw indications of stress in the metal on the starboard side. We heard water rush in when we rolled to starboard. Further down we found the edge of a separation in the seams where rivets popped. We watched water sloshing in with each roll of the ship.

“Can we plug this?” I said.

“Maybe. Most of it looks to be above the water line. But first we find that fire.”

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