Monday, March 14, 2011

Christmas at Sea

The Comet sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany, on the 23rd of December.  She had spent twelve days sailing transatlantic, stopped for two days to unload cargo in Trondheim, Norway, had taken the next two days coming down to Bremerhaven, and then spent three days there working cargo and making repairs.  Now, two days before Christmas, a German pilot was bringing the ship down the Weser River to the North Sea.  The excitement of a busy port visit was concluded; soon the ship would once again be at sea and set apart from the world.

As much as I like Christmas, December has long been my least favorite month—not because of the cold weather, but for the crass commercialism that in our secularized society has come to pass for Christmas preparations.  But that is ashore, not aboard the Comet, and not at sea.  The Comet seemed a haven from the commercialization and secularization of Christmas.  A “ro-ro” ship, she carried vehicular cargo—automobiles, trucks, jeeps, tractor-trailers, motorcycles—that rolled on and rolled off the ship.  With four cargo decks connected by ramps and a garage door at the stern with another ramp that lowered to the pier, the Comet was essentially a transoceanic ferry, all five hundred feet of her.  She would convey us far from the madding crowds of holiday shoppers to a more sublime observance of Christmas.  Father Lehi tells us that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).  Aboard the Comet and upon God’s great ocean would lie the difference.

The Comet had sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, in early December.  She crossed the Atlantic in weather considered moderate for the time of year.  In due course, she entered the English Channel, paused briefly off Brixham on the south coast of England to take on a pilot, and continued through the Channel and across the North Sea to Trondheim.  All in all, a very peaceful voyage if a bit rough at times.  While the Comet next lay anchored in the placid Trondheim Fjord on the evening of December 17, the crew took turns going ashore and were pleasantly surprised to find a large but peaceful and quiet city.  There were no frenzied crowds thronging the shops, as the shops were all closed.  There were no traffic jams, either.  For that matter, there was no traffic; one could safely walk in the middle of the street.  A week before Christmas, and all was quiet save a few restaurants.

Early the next morning, the Comet shifted to a cargo pier in neighboring Hommelvik.  There she spent the day—if it can be called that—unloading cargo.  The sun rose at 10:00am, and it set about 2:30pm.  The ship arrived at the Hommelvik pier long before sunrise and remained for several hours after sunset.  During this brief interval of daylight, the temperature rose to a high of twelve degrees above zero.  Several Norwegian teenagers came along then.  They were dressed in sweaters—no coats—and they rode their bicycles onto the pier.  They watched the ship’s activities for a while, and then they pedaled away.  By 6:00pm, after a busy but peaceful day, the Comet had finished her cargo work.  She closed her hatches, took in her mooring lines, and set sail for Germany.

The Comet spent more time in the port of Bremerhaven.  There was more cargo to discharge, still more cargo to take aboard afterwards, and there were repairs to be made in the engine room.  With the repair work, the visit to Bremerhaven would take three days instead of the usual two.  No one in the crew complained about spending an extra day in Germany!

One of the items on my agenda in Bremerhaven was finding a Christmas present for Miss Patty.  She would not receive it until much later, of course, but since I was in Germany and it was Christmas, I wanted to find a suitable German Christmas present for her.  Even with my duties aboard ship, I had ample time to go ashore before the shops closed for the day and purchase something.  There were several of us who had the same idea.  One day after we had all gotten off duty, four or five of us rode a taxi for the short ride downtown.  One of the guys remarked that he wanted to go to “the hummel place.”  After negotiating the narrow streets of the old town, the driver let us out in front of a shop with windows filled with figurines.

Bremerhaven at Christmastime was a remarkable place.  Like Trondhein a few days earlier, Bremerhaven was an old city of stately architecture, narrow streets, and tasteful decoration for the holiday, except that here the shops were still open.  A modest number of people were out shopping or otherwise going about their business, and my shipboard colleagues and I joined them.  It was a peaceful and serene atmosphere on the streets of Bremerhaven.  Like Trondheim, there were no crowds, no traffic jams, and none of the noise and frenzy that are part of American Christmas shopping.  After a look around the neighborhood, we went into the shop with the figurines in the windows.  The atmosphere there was quiet and dignified.  There were no fast talking salesmen or hucksters swindling unsuspecting customers.  Instead, a dignified peace and quiet prevailed.  In this pleasant atmosphere I chose a set of three beer steins to bring home.  They were both artistic and quintessentially German.  Miss Patty would like them as display pieces.

At six the next morning, the Comet sailed.  The pilot gazed thoughtfully out the bridge window as he quietly gave the engine and rudder commands to guide the ship seaward.  Finally he turned to the mate and said almost philosophically, “Christmas at sea—ja?”  Yes, by Christmas Day the Comet would be clear of the English Channel and well out to sea.  We would not see our families, but we knew that when we accepted the assignment.  Holidays at sea came with the job.  The pilot in all likelihood would see his family on Christmas Day, even if he did have to work.  We wished each other well for the holiday as he left the ship at the mouth of the Weser.

In the evening of December 24, the Comet cleared the English Channel.  At the stroke of midnight when Christmas officially began, the ship was sailing southwestward on her transatlantic trek and was many miles out to sea, well clear of the European continent and completely set apart from the outside world—a good place to spend Christmas.  The ship glided easily across a peaceful North Atlantic.  A slight swell gave her a gentle rolling motion, just enough to let us know that we were in fact at sea.  An overcast sky shielded the sun and cast a wintry chill.  There were no other vessels in our vicinity; it appeared that we had the ocean to ourselves.  What better place to reread the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth and ponder upon the angel’s message, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 10-11).

In this quiet and serene setting, the crew of the Comet passed Christmas.  To all outward appearances, it seemed like just another day at sea, albeit an unusually mild one for that latitude at that time of year.  But it felt different.  After almost a month spent away from the preparations, we had the pleasure of spending Christmas Day itself in our own quiet space upon God’s great ocean.  It felt different because it was different—not just another day, but Christmas at sea.  Watchkeeping on the bridge and in the engine room continued as on any other day, of course, but all non-essential work was postponed.  It was a day of rest, like a Sunday, but more so.  The culinary highlight of the day came at dinner time.  The steward and his galley crew had prepared a feast of a dinner—turkey with all the trimmings.  No one went to bed hungry after that!

The calm weather and the peacefulness continued for the next several days as the Comet steamed southwestward.  On the 27th, the ship passed Santa Maria Island in the Azores and changed course to a more westerly heading.  On New Year’s Day, she passed Bermuda.  On January 3, the ship docked in Charleston, South Carolina, and the holiday hoopla that we had missed was all over.  A new year had begun, and on the next day, a new voyage would begin, too.  But for December, my least favorite month, the Lord had given us peace much as he had his Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27).  For a month, then, the peace of Christ had reigned as the spiritual displaced the secular.

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