I’m cheating on this blog. Most of it has already been written for months.
I am repeatedly asked why I’m on my own now instead of working in the shipyard. Apart from my penchant for doing jobs suitable for much younger men, I can assure you that wriggling around in bilges and lockers is not ideal for Rubenesque old bilge apes like me. I’ve got to get ‘Seafire’, my own prune barge, ready for the deep blue sea.
I guess that having a white muzzle has its advantages, like finally having the patience to endure finicky tasks, and having the same thing go wrong seventeen different ways and remembering even worse jobs in the past. Then your greasy glasses, which weren’t doing you much good anyway, drop into the bilge and you blow your old back out trying to retrieve them, and life clearly can’t go on and on like this.You know that nothing is forever, including yourself, and it’s time to savour the warmth of the fire before it becomes a heap of dying embers, then ash.
Some folks asked me why I kept on working in the yard. So now I don’t. The same people ask me why I’m not there any more! I used to call myself ‘Shipyard Fred’. Now I’m just a wharf rat…but one with still a dream or two, or ten. I’d prefer to finish life as a lump of shark shit instead of ending up sitting in a corner being spoon-fed and having my diapers changed. No one is going to stand around the edge of a
six-foot hole telling each other what a hard worker I was. Bugger that!
The following is something I wrote for the Fisher Poets Gathering in February of this year. People liked it. I hope you do.
Shipyard Summer Romance
It is hard to find the romance of the sea in anything, while working in a shipyard.
Most days I don’t have it as bad as the guys
Who purge dripping filth from hulls left too long unattended
They scrape the bearded muck then the caked bottom paint away
So they can replace it with fresh poison which fills the air and your brain with a putrid tang.
My wages aren’t quite as meagre as the rest of the crew’s
Because I have the lofty honour of working inside the hulls
Where the slurping black bilge muck defies you to reach on down for dropped tools
If you can wriggle your hand that far; and get it out again.
Each job may require painful contortions inside the bowels of a vessel,
Size of the boat has nothing to do with it, big ones have places just as tight
Every bolt rusted solid with no room to heave on a wrench
There’s a tangle of circuitry you’ll rip apart if you’re not careful.
Wiring, now there’s a joy!
You spend half the job trying to figure out what the hell the last man
Was thinking before you eventually rip out all the old stuff and start over again
Coming up with a bitter joke about the ‘Home-Prairie Frigger-Rigger Manual of Marine Wiring.’
You also curse the landlubber marine designers who, themselves, have clearly never been to sea,
Let alone ever turned a wrench.
Sewage jobs seem to show up on the hottest days of the year.
You battle with a clogged toilet pump tucked well beneath the sole plates
Surgical gloves ruptured, you don’t give a damn, you just want to get the job done
Gagging on the stench of someone else’s rancid DNA
While they implore with toe-tapping anxiety that they’d really like to make the next tide
As if you’re squirming there, with their organic discharges running down your arm, just to pass the time.
Of the few cash tips you make in the summer, none are ever from the crapper jobs.
There is work that comes back, no matter how careful you were the first time.
The boss looks at his watch and wordlessly makes it clear that you’re costing him revenue,
We’ll talk about the lost time later, just get it done, stay late if you have to, jobs are heaping up.
You emerge from a locker gulping for a breath of air, your body chaffed, bruised, scratched and
bleeding, massaging knots out of contorted muscles before going back down for more
Fibreglass slivers under broken, blackened fingernails, bloody knuckles
Only God understands what grows in pink fungal splendour in the locker where you struggle and gasp
Knowing you’ll probably only wriggle back out of this hell hole if you stay sweat-wet.
Engines and gearboxes, more bliss!
Outboard motors than will not run despite everything appearing perfect
The pull-start poltergeist turns out to be the customer’s son.
He put diesel in the two-stroke tank
Now four carburetors need to be removed, stripped, cleared, reassembled, reinstalled and tuned,
Magically in the next hour and a half.
An ancient stubborn diesel engine worn beyond reasonable hope
Hard to start, water in the oil, a crack in the block, stripped bolts,
Yet you spread its greasy guts across the bench after hearing the poor-broke-sailor lament
Sung ever better than your own version.
The only parts you could find are somewhere on their way from Scandinavia on a slow boat
Hopefully you can patch things up for this guy to make it through to season’s end
Meanwhile you fumble a transmission together with pieces from two other busted ones
It’s for a tired old working boat and Chum season is only a few days long, so you do the best you can.
A desperate power-boater comes through the door, as usual, two minutes ahead of closing time
He has to be in Vancouver for the morning and he’ll make it worth your while,
Yeah right; you’ve never heard that before!
Laying across the hot engine, bolt heads poking into your guts you wonder
How and why the hell he left the last dock with a pump leaking that badly.
You don’t have the correct parts of course
So you stay on another half-hour trying to persuade Mr. Yuppie-yachter that it’s alright
“Run home on only one engine, that’s why it’s there, backup so you can make it to your meeting.”
Turns out he doesn’t really need to, afraid to try the crossing only one 400 hp engine. he’ll wait; Liar!
Another evening shot to hell now, you’ll order parts in on the morning floatplane.
You go back to your own boat, your home,
The reason you live like the transient scum dock-hermit whom certain folks think you are
No point trying to explain your dream to beach huggers.
Too weary to put in a couple of hours on your own long list of work to do
You open a beer and fry up some supper
A proper diet and your dreams pushed back another day
Smiling you recall a time when you longed for a life ashore.
You had hoped to sail your old prune barge south this fall, finish her refit down there somewhere
At the helm there’s a framed picture of a palm-fringed, azure green tropical anchorage
But you know you’re in for yet another long dark, wet, arthritic winter
You know that soon the e-mails will start coming in from friends already south of thirty-eight.
You fear you’ll never pay the bills as you crawl into the cold, lonely bunk for another weary night
Knowing that old Nelson was right, ‘Ships and men rot in port.’
Around the marina, dock-warriors on their plastic clone boats
Party into the night, music blaring, drunken laugher, giggling children maraud the docks
You toss and writhe, jealous of their apparent pleasure,
Angry at their obvious decadent leisure
Numbly you wonder if you know how to have fun anymore.
For a few minutes you fall into the dark bliss of sleep
Then there’s a tentative knocking on the hull
The boat shifts slightly under someone’s weight on the cap rail
Probably looking for a mechanic you think
You lay unmoving until finally they go away
Now you’re awake for hours embraced by your regrets and worries
Then it occurs to you that maybe the caller
Was that gorgeous woman on the boat two docks down wanting to borrow some sugar…
Yeah right! Well, even old bilge apes can indulge in fantasies, OK!
In the morning, pot-bellied men in flowered shirts mop the dew from their shining white decks
You trudge back up the dock, stepping around fresh poodle piles, to another day in the yard
Pausing for a moment to savour the perfect summer morning
Wondering why you don’t just untie your own boat and bugger off
No goodbyes, no final paycheque, just gone
But you know you don’t steer a steady course looking back at your wake
So you stay on to pay off the bills.
Your attention turns to the spectre of a gleaming bright phallus with huge propellers
The crew has brought it up on the ways during the night flood tide.
There was a noble time when this yard’s machinery sculpted wood here
At the hands of those who knew and loved the shape of boats
The air was filled with the staccato beat of caulking hammers,
The song of band saws, a tangy aroma of yellow cedar dust and pine tar
As dedicated men built boats right here to go to sea, and to war.
That was a long time ago
Hard to believe now in the choking muck of ground rust and fibreglass
Grating nasal scream of grinders and other machinery,
Barbie the trophy wife stands up on her swim grind trying to give orders
Manoeuvring constantly so you have a view up her short skirt
You’re a sailor who’s certainly no prude but you keep your eyes averted
And wonder why on earth she blatantly flirts
With this grotty old bilge ape in tattered coveralls covered in dirt
Her cell phone buzzes and chirps all day
She reiterates that her old man is a very fussy fellow
While you think that ‘He can’t be if he’s hooked up with you lady.’
Barbie invites you to come aboard for beer later
But the chance to decline her invitation leaves you feeling better
Smiling thinly you get to work knowing there’ll be no pleasing anyone on this job,
So just get ‘er done and be gone
You tunelessly breathe an old shanty you know
About how every turn of the screw brings me closer to you.
It goes on through the year
Too rarely you get to work on a real boat that smells of fish
Or rust and grease and diesel and work
The summer spins by as dizzy as a barnacle on a propeller
The gods put you here, you’ll see it through
But it seems a long way from steering a course across the heaving belly of the open ocean
Where life actually makes sense.
You’ve always loved the sea and boats
You have a place in your heart for those who share this passion and understand why you hang on
They know how the summer wind is warm and steady and calls you to cut her loose and just sail away,
No further explanation needed about why you’re working in the yard