I Got Itchy Feet, So I’m on a Steamship

Moving back to your hometown is like kissing your sister. While the west coast of Florida is a great place where most people would love to live, there is a lot of wisdom behind Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.

“He had learned some of the things that every man must find out for himself, and he had found out about them as one has to find out–through error and through trial, through fantasy and illusion, through falsehood and his own damn foolishness, through being mistaken and wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful and believing and confused. Each thing he learned was so simple and obvious, once he grasped it, that he wondered why he had not always known it. And what had he learned? A philosopher would not think it much, perhaps, and yet in a simple human way it was a good deal.” —Thomas Wolfe

Okay, that’s me.  Apparently, I provided a great deal of entertainment in the local area for several years. It seems that I may have caused a bit of a ruckus now and again. I must stress at this point that I was never destructive or unkind, my only crimes were testosterone and party-fueled … It’s great to run into people I have not seen for 40 years and have what one would think should be a staid and traditional greeting—the handshake, only to have it turn into a chuckle fest, more often than not, at my expense.


So, But now, instead of sticking around my hometown, here I am aboard a steamship in the Great LakesThis ship is amazingShe is 1,008 feet long and 5 stories high.  She weighs in at about 35,000 tons (that’s 70,000,000 lbs).  She is powered by a combined 13,000 horsepower of diesel engines and carries 66,000 tons of coal in her belly, and that is 132,000,000 lbs.  From cruising speed to full stop is a mile—which involves a little advance planning. She is maneuvered precisely and docking is flawless. She burns 13,000 gallons of fuel per day, and when you say “Fill ‘er up” at the pumps, it costs about $300,000!

She carries a crew of 22 hard-working men and one lovely young woman, a 2nd mate, who is treated with the utmost respect. This is a crew of consummate professionals, working around the clock.  With the exception of the 2nd mate, who eats like a bird, the guys are serious about their food, and you do not want to get your hands or arms in the way at mealtime.  Food is probably the single most important factor in maintaining morale and attaining the energy level required to do the job.  It better be good, provided in sufficient quantities, and served often, or you could find yourself tossed over into 40-degree water. Nah, just kidding about the tossing—most everyone on the boat is mellow and easygoing. They all get along well for good reason—the ship is home two-thirds of the time.

forward deck (2)popeye (2)

Did I mention the crew also watches each other’s backs?  Any screw-up can result in the loss of a limb or worse. The sheer power and the size of the machinery on this boat are awesome. This is why you’ll only find me in the galley and not out on the deck or in the engine room.  I’m a klutz.

When the ship is in port the off-duty crew does their part in supporting the local taxi companies and titty bars. Rule is no booze on board AND you need to be sober by the time you board.  You may be “breathalyzed” and random drug tests have been known to happen. Plus, climbing that ladder hammered would be a bitch. The ship is only in port while loading and off- loading cargo, usually for 10-12 hours.

forward deck (1)

The weather is beautiful right now, but in the winter it’s colder than the breast of a sorceress.  Temperatures can drop to 20 degrees below zero (wind chill -50), which is nuts to me, being raised in Florida and only living mostly in the mild climates of the Caribbean and Central America. The ship is laid up when weather conditions on the Lakes and at the locks don’t allow safe passage.

For those that know me well, I know they are scratching their heads wondering how I ended up on this ship. You can thank Lance, a buddy of my son’s and mine, who works on this ship. After speaking with Lance, I was intrigued enough to apply for a Merchant Marine Credential with the Coast Guard, and a TWIC card with Homeland Security. This can sometimes take up to 2 months, but for some reason, I received my credentials in 2 weeks!  With old Lancey Pants’ (don’t ask) recommendation, I received a call on a Friday at 11:00 AM requesting my presence in Duluth, Minnesota by 21:30 (that’s 7:30 PM for laymen) to board the ship and get to work. You see, there was a bit of an emergency, due to a disagreement between the crew and the relief cook.  They wanted food, and she didn’t want to cook it.  Vincent, the regular chief cook was taking a month off after a 90-day stretch.

Never having been on a ship before and knowing nothing about it, I said, “Sure.” I arrived in Duluth and taxied to Superior Wisconsin just as the ship was docking.  Holy shitoli.  Booms were swinging out over the dock, lowering crew members to extend huge cables to secure the ship. Everyone on deck was working like a well-oiled machine. I was standing there dumbfounded and looking like a doofus. I saw openings in the side of the ship, and thought that was where I boarded. After a few minutes, I was approached by Ray (great guy), who offered to send my bags up in a big steel cage. He told me to use the steps to board.  I looked and there was this long steel contraption being lowered.  I’m thinking—steps my ass, that’s a 40-foot ladder. But, it had hand rails, so that was a plus.

Finally, aboard this ship, I’m immediately shown to the galley where the delivery of the week’s food provisions are being checked in. The relief cook pretty much told me to kiss her ass (which I would have considered, had it been nicer) and went out the door and down the steps. Everyone was very busy. I was directed to my cabin—room, whatever, and I plopped down in a recliner. My mind was racing thinking “what the hell have I done?” when I heard a knock at my door. In walks a distinguished gentleman.  He said his name was Al. It took me a second to get out of the recliner, and by that time I figured out he was the captain. He was very mellow and friendly, and he welcomed me aboard.  Then, he gave me a rundown of how things work.

Breakfast between 7:00AM and 8:00AM. Homemade cookies and something for 10:00AM coffee break. Lunch between 11:00AM and 12:00PM. Dinner between 4:00PM and 5:00PM. Late night sandwich bar and dinners to pop in the microwave. I think maybe he gave me credit for a lot more common sense than I possess. I started scoping out the galley. It was as well-equipped as some restaurant kitchens serving 100 people at a time. I just didn’t know where everything was and what should be served. I had an outline of sample meals and an idea of how many entrees and side dishes should be served.

These guys are not eating crappy food. The budget is $44.00 per day, per person.

Having a restaurant and catering background, I went to work the next morning at 5:30, and pretty much failed miserably at breakfast but I guess the food tasted okay.  Then lunch was spent looking for food and taking inventory of what was available.  Finally dinner—same deal.  Now, everybody on board was pretty patient and appreciative, but they probably could have eaten shredded cardboard at that point and have been happy.

After dinner, Justin, who is the backup in the galley told me that the galley stove and flat top grill are cleaned every night.  He was really helpful helping me find stuff and guiding me in the right direction.  But once again lacking any common sense I used water to clean this stuff (too much apparently) and had a really loud POP and threw the breakers in the galley and below in engineering.  Sparks were flying—480 volts worth.  I was used to using gas appliances.  John from engineering came up the next morning and told me that I probably shouldn’t do that so that I don’t end up being a very large well-done piece of bacon.

Next day things went a bit better, but not much.  One of the things I was serving for dinner was a 30 lb. roast.  I figured I would treat it like a large prime rib, searing it at 500 degrees for an hour, turning off the oven, and then not disturbing it in the oven for 2 hours.  When I opened the oven, I had a 30 lb. lump of what looked like charcoal.  I guess those ovens run a little differently than gas.  I burned the crap out of dinner.  I regrouped and made something else on the fly . I covered the burnt half of a cow with foil and hid it in the fridge.  Next morning I trimmed off the charcoal and slow-roasted it and it was perfection.  Happy accident.

This kept on—I was working 12-15 hours a day trying to keep my head above water so that the crew didn’t know how totally screwed I was. This is a job that should take a maximum of 10 hours a day, with breaks between meals. Food was pretty good I guess. Nobody complained.

The plan was for me to help with the staffing emergency and then be trained by the regular chief cook, Vincent when he returned from his month-long break. I sort of gave him a heads-up that he wasn’t going to be happy when he checked out his kitchen. Total cluster—between the previous relief cook and me.  To his credit, he was and is a gentleman and a true professional.  He could have been pretty nasty, but he showed the utmost restraint.  Yes, he was pissed.  But he was pretty good to me.

This guy is the epitome of cool.  He’s culinary school-trained and from Charlotte, NC.  He pulls this off effortlessly. The cooking, baking, all on schedule, without breaking a sweat.

Anyway—one more thing to strike from the bucket list.  I’m sitting at home right now and hanging out with my Ridgeback Colt, his cat, and is cliché as it sounds, Jack the blue and gold macaw on my shoulder sharing a beer.  He’s yelling bad things.  “Fuuuuck”, and “Shut up” when I chastise him. I just got a call to be on another ship in 8 days. Life is good.


Bert Woodson

Bert Woodson currently lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast in Cortez, with his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Colt, and Colt’s kitty Woof. (Yes, he named him.)

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