Sunday, February 26, 2012

Going Home to the Sea

The view took my breath away.  From the Crow’s Nest Lounge on the uppermost enclosed deck of the cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam, I beheld Port Everglades for the first time in 27 years.  Moored to the same wharf that my diminutive Bartlett had occupied in the mid-1980s, this flagship of the Holland America Line was the largest vessel on which I had ever set foot.  With a week-long voyage to the Caribbean islands ahead, I would have ample opportunity to explore this great ship.  For the moment, though, I studied Port Everglades.

Much had changed over the years.  There were new cruise ship terminals, new parking garages, new airport-style security checkpoints, and of course, new ships.  Much had also not changed.  The artificial basin that comprises the port looked the same.  So did the industrial landscape to the west, the high rises of downtown Fort Lauderdale, and the waterfront condominiums that flanked the harbor entrance.  But one landmark in all of this was missing.  Burt and Jack’s, a fancy restaurant owned by the actor Burt Reynolds that had occupied the point of land separating the basin from the intracoastal waterway, had been deemed a threat to national security and removed by the federal government.  Gone were the broad lawns and stands of palm trees and the parking lot full of Mercedes, Rolls-Royces, and Jaguars.  Their places were taken by bland concrete and a blander warehouse.

To the east, however, the great Atlantic Ocean—my ocean—remained the same.  A gentle onshore breeze came out of the east, as it almost always did.  In plain view just beyond the narrow barrier beach, the deep blue water capped by the lighter blue sky speckled with tufts of white altocumulus clouds beckoned the exiled son of the sea to come home.  I would, in a few hours’ time, when the Nieuw Amsterdam sailed.  But first, I needed to reacclimate myself.

Port Everglades was alive with activity.  In addition to the Nieuw Amsterdam, four other cruise vessels were loading passengers—the Westerdam, the Carnival Freedom, the Celebrity Solstice, and the Allure of the Seas.  Across the basin the tanker High Energy discharged petroleum ashore while the tanker Pula took in her lines, left her berth, and headed seaward escorted by police boats.  From the cargo docks along the intracoastal waterway the container ship Melbourne Strait emerged and passed through the inlet to the open sea.  The sight of all these vessels going about their business brought me back in time.

On October 12, 1984, I had reported aboard the oceanographic survey ship Bartlett at this very dock.  With a brand new chief mate’s license in a deteriorating employment situation, I was very fortunate to join ship as second mate.  I made several voyages from Port Everglades aboard the Bartlett.  She did survey work in the Caribbean and the Gulf, passed along the Keys and through the Bahamas to her operating areas, called at Key West, Florida, and Gulfport, Mississippi, and late one night rescued a shipwreck victim, a mysterious figure whose story did not quite add up.  Toward the end of February, 1985, the Bartlett was once again in Port Everglades, preparing to go into the nearby Tracor Shipyard for her annual overhaul.  When she was safely in the yard, I took a few days off and travelled north by air to visit family.  Not included in the itinerary were the medical checkup that diagnosed my cancer and the subsequent surgery and radiation treatment.  I never did return to the Bartlett.  And until James signed the family up for this voyage aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, I thought that I would never return to Port Everglades, either.

Like a child with a new toy, then, I merrily reminisced and enthusiastically pointed out all the sights of Port Everglades to my children from the upper deck of the Nieuw Amsterdam.  It was Sunday afternoon, February 5, 2012, but I had completely lost track of the time.  At length, Miss Patty came along and reminded me that we were not there to sightsee, but to attend our oldest son’s wedding.  Leaving the Crow’s Nest, then, the entire family went outdoors and up to the highest deck on the ship.  There, in a lovely ceremony under the canopy of the open sky and surrounded by merchant shipping at the edge of the great Atlantic, our son James married Miss Sarah Ruth Marchand.  Steven and Michael served as ushers, and Miss Karen as a bridesmaid.

If ships could speak, I mused, what tales they could tell!  As our son and his fiancé prepared to exchange vows aboard this Nieuw Amsterdam of the Holland America Line, I thought of my grandparents.  In June of 1957, shortly before my time, they had sailed from New York to Le Havre aboard an older Nieuw Amsterdam of the Holland America Line.  On other occasions they had also sailed aboard the Noordam, the Westerdam, and the Statendam.  Little could they have known that their great-grandson would work for Holland America, meet his fiancé there, sail aboard the Zuiderdam, and marry aboard the new Nieuw Amsterdam—a unique family history connection!  I trust that they were watching the day’s events from their celestial vantage point with smiles on their faces.

Following the wedding ceremony Holland America hosted a reception one deck below in the Crow’s Nest lounge.  Elsewhere on the ship, passengers were boarding and the crew was preparing to go to sea.  At 4:30pm emergency drills were held, and promptly at 5:00pm the Nieuw Amsterdam quietly took in her lines and eased away from the dock.  Gathered on the promenade deck, the entire family watched in fascination as the great ship left the port behind and sailed through the inlet and out to sea.  As she did so, I called my parents on Long Island on the cell phone.  For the first time in the family’s history, three generations were able to converse by telephone while two of them were at sea.

The Nieuw Amsterdam sailed eastward from Port Everglades into the Atlantic and then through the northwestern Bahamas overnight.  The next day she steered southeast past Eleuthera, Cat Island, and San Salvador.  Her first port of call would be Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday.  Then on Wednesday and Thursday she would visit San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Philipsburg, St. Maarten.  Friday and Saturday would be spent entirely at sea, and early next Sunday she would return to Fort Lauderdale.  A tourist itinerary, to be supplemented by fancy dining and entertainment aboard ship.  My principal interests aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, however, were threefold: my son’s wedding, the ocean, and the ship itself.  Tourism took a lower priority, although I have always found the history and geography of the Caribbean fascinating.  With James and Sarah married and the ship now at sea, I turned my attention to the ship and the sea.

It felt so good—so ineffably good—to go to sea again aboard a merchant ship.  The sights and sounds and sensations of a ship at sea were marvelous beyond description.  The east wind driving the low swells, the rippled surface of the water, the endless circle of the horizon, the sun and clouds by day, the moon and stars by night, the swishing of the water alongside the steel hull, the churning of the propeller wash, the gentle rolling of the ship, the soft vibration of the decks—all of these and more combined to produce the supernal experience of once again being at sea.  The exiled son of the sea had come home and was partaking of “the magic monotony of existence between sky and water”1 that only the most eloquent of writers with experience at sea can begin to articulate.

I spent many hours of every day and night simply looking at the sea and sky.  It had been many years, and I felt that I needed to make up for lost time.  As I had done on watch long ago, I analyzed the weather conditions and the sea state and concluded that the semi-permanent Azores high pressure system was producing the east-southeasterly wind which in turn was the driving force behind the waves and the swell pattern into which the Nieuw Amsterdam was heading.  A very gentle combined pitching and rolling motion resulted, just enough to let everyone know that we really were at sea.  I watched as the sun gradually dropped from the sky to the distant western horizon and colored in pastels the towering cumuliform clouds that are so typical of the lower latitudes.  In the predawn hours I gazed at the stars and tried to pick out my old navigational favorites through the intermittent cloud cover.  The nearly full moon illuminated the horizon sufficiently to facilitate an accurate star plot, although in this technological age a loran-c fix would be just as good and require a lot less effort.  That’s very practical, of course.  Still, few things in life can offer the sense of satisfaction that comes from working out a round of stars and plotting perfectly intersecting lines of position on a chart.

I made frequent visits to the Nieuw Amsterdam’s library.  This was an ideal spot to sit down and write letters describing the voyage to the folks at family headquarters.  I also consulted the National Geographic book of atlases.  Not having traversed these waters in a while, I felt the need to refamiliarize myself with the neighborhood.  Memories of vessels and voyages long past came to mind as I studied the shipping lanes through the Bahama and Virgin Islands.  James and Steven looked on several times as I pointed out where I had gone before and where we were going now.  In addition, a flat screen monitor mounted on a nearby bulkhead provided continuous updates of navigational and meteorological information.  I consulted it often.

The Nieuw Amsterdam had many such state-of-the-art features.  Built in Italy, she entered service in 2010.  She was 936 feet long and 106 feet wide; carried 2,106 passengers and 929 crew; measured 86,700 gross tons; was powered by six diesel generators, four producing 16,000 horsepower and two producing 11,000 horsepower; was driven by two azipod electric-drive propeller units, each with an output of 17.6 megawatts; had a maximum speed of 23 knots; and carried three bow thrusters for maneuverability when docking and undocking.  Her port of registry was Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  Her Master was Captain Edward van Zaane, and her Chief Engineer was Pieter Kesteloo, both of the Netherlands.2

Additionally, the Nieuw Amsterdam was a floating art museum.  Gracing the landings in the midships stairway were magnificent original paintings of historically significant Holland America Line vessels.  My favorite depicted the earlier Nieuw Amsterdam, on which my grandparents had sailed, at sea eastbound from New York and passing on her starboard side the lightship Ambrose.  I practically fell in love with this painting and wished that I could take it home with me!  One deck down hung an equally impressive port quarter view of the old Nieuw Amsterdam entering port.  In the Crow’s Nest, the brass bell from this ship was prominently displayed behind a plate glass window.  Nearby stood a ten-foot-long scale model of this earlier Nieuw Amsterdam.  In her era, 1938 to 1973, she had been the flagship of the Dutch Merchant Marine.

The landings in the forward and aft stairways were decorated with varied artwork of a colonial theme.  This included pen-and-ink drawings of the Dutch settlements in Lower Manhattan, a painting of Captain Henry Hudson’s famous ship Halve Maen,3 and a portrait of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant.  As history has always been one of my favorite subjects, I appreciated these displays of historical material.  Much of it focused on New York.  It was all very attractively and graciously presented, yet I wondered if the Dutch were subtly reminding the English, “We were there first!” 

Lining the bulkheads in all the passageways leading to the passengers’ staterooms were vintage black and white photographs of all the Holland America Line ships over the years.  Some were portrayed at sea and others in various ports.  Most notable was New York, where the Manhattan skyline in its various stages of development loomed large behind vessels underway on the Hudson River.  A few of the most recent of these photographs showed ships passing the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  Whether we like it or not, this is history now, too.  The Dutch, with a long and not always easy history of their own, demonstrated a profound respect for both countries’ heritage in this extensive gallery.

The history continued in the ports that we visited.  Miss Patty and I learned a lot about both Grand Turk and St. Maarten on the cultural and historical tours.  My favorite port of call, however, was San Juan. 

Steeped in both natural beauty and colonial history, San Juan, like Port Everglades, brought back memories for me.  I had been there before in November of 1982, when I was embarked on the tanker Waccamaw as second mate.  This ship docked briefly in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, on a few occasions.  During one of these intervals a few of us drove to San Juan in a borrowed automobile and spent the midnight hours wandering through the streets of the old colonial city.  I saw San Juan in the dark, never in daylight.  Even so, it was clearly a beautiful city, and I have long wanted to return to it in the daytime.

The Nieuw Amsterdam docked in downtown San Juan at 1:00pm after passing the famous El Morro fortress that has for five centuries guarded the harbor entrance.  With Miss Patty I again wandered the narrow blue cobblestone streets of the colonial city.  Reaching El Morro, we gazed upon the beautiful north coast of the island where the sun-lightened blue sea turns white as the surf crashes ashore on the narrow strip of sand and rock that borders both the old and new cities of San Juan.  Multicolored Spanish architecture melds into white stucco high rise as one looks eastward along the shore.  It was truly a magnificent sight to behold, and one that I had only previously beheld from the bridge of the Waccamaw several miles offshore.  From El Morro we walked through the old city back to the piers.  Along the way we passed through neighborhoods filled with beautiful Spanish Mediterranean style buildings painted in vivid Caribbean hues.  My favorite stood opposite a small park on the aptly named Calle Cristo: the Catedral San Juan Bautista, a colonial outpost of Roman Christianity and the spiritual center of the old city.  With its white arched façade and its front steps intersecting the slope of the street, the cathedral stood out as the architectural magnum opus of the city.  I remembered it fondly from the nocturnal meanderings of my youth.  I had sat on those front steps in the middle of the night.  I had been awake and busy for far too many hours.  Nonetheless, I stayed awake to see this beautiful city and then returned to the Waccamaw and went to work again.

This time, though, Miss Patty and I returned to the Nieuw Amsterdam.  Enroute back to Port Everglades, she had one further stop to make, at Little San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.  Situated between Eleuthera and Cat Island, Little San Salvador is the site of Holland America’s  resort called Half Moon Cay, so named in honor of Henry Hudson’s ship.  The cruise ships anchor a short distance offshore there, and the passengers go ashore by tender.  By the time the Nieuw Amsterdam arrived, early on Saturday morning, the weather had changed.  A thirty knot wind blew from the southwest onto the island, and this generated large waves that made the tendering operation much too dangerous.  Speaking over the public address system, Captain van Zaane explained the situation and announced his decision to cancel the visit to Half Moon Cay.  Instead, the ship would continue through the Bahamas toward Port Everglades at reduced speed and arrive as scheduled early Sunday morning.

I had to laugh at this.  Of course, I fully understood and respected the Captain’s decision.  The amusing part was that during my years at sea I had sailed through and between and past the Bahamas many times on several ships, but I had never stopped and gone ashore there!  The Vandenberg, the Mercury, the Waccamaw, the Comet, the Bartlett—all these ships had carried me within sight of the Bahama Islands, but none of them had stopped there; they had all been going elsewhere.  After that, I had been eagerly looking forward to finally going ashore and actually setting foot on one of the Bahamas, only to have it cancelled at the last minute!  And so I gazed longingly at Little San Salvador Island as the Nieuw Amsterdam sailed away on a northwesterly course and left it far astern.  Miss Patty made it the family joke.  She claimed that with my history I had jinxed our visit to Half Moon Cay!

In the predawn hours of Sunday morning I watched from the Crow’s Nest Lounge as the Nieuw Amsterdam approached the Florida coast.  The lights of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood shone clearly in the darkness, and I searched diligently for the entrance to the inlet that leads into Port Everglades.  At 5:15am the pilot boat came alongside to port.  A minute later, with the pilot safely delivered on board, the launch scurried away, soon to deliver another pilot to another inbound ship.  The sky lightened as the Nieuw Amsterdam eased through the inlet and then slowly backed into position alongside the wharf.  By 6:00am, it was all finished. 

It had been a voyage of accomplishment.  Our little family—Miss Patty, myself, James, Karen, Steven, and Michael—had enjoyed a wonderful week-long reunion.  We had seen James and Sarah marry, both of them radiantly happy, and we had met her family.  In this way our family had grown.  And I had gone back to sea with my family.  This enabled them to see me in my element, and they came to understand, up to a point, why I liked it so much.  Miss Patty maintained that I was “obsessed with the ship and the ocean.”  That gives me two obsessions now: seafaring and family history.  The Nieuw Amsterdam combined them very nicely on this voyage.  But now it was time to reluctantly go ashore.

Numerous poets have written about the seaman’s return from the sea.  Two of them even shared the famous line, “Home is the sailor, home from the sea,”4 which one of Great Britain’s most revered merchant seaman later used as the title of his memoirs.5  Well, I have been “home from the sea” for a long time.  Aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, however, I felt as if I had truly come home after a long absence.  As soon as I stepped aboard, I felt a sense of having returned.  In fact, it all made me feel at home—the collection of merchant ships in Port Everglades; the transit outbound through the inlet with the leaving of a continent behind; the voyage through the Bahamas and on the open Atlantic; the arrivals and departures at the ports of call, especially the visit to San Juan.  Most of all, though, I felt at home on the open decks of the Nieuw Amsterdam in the very early morning hours when the stars peeked through the scattered clouds and the moonlight reflected on the rippled surface of the water.  Simply put, a seaman is at home at sea.

But he is not alone there.  I had my family with me this time, but beyond that, the night sky over the open ocean always exudes a spirituality that is unmistakable.  The Master and Chief Engineer of the universe stands watch over the sea and makes his presence known through the sight, sound, and feel of the sea and sky.  How can anyone look at this, I mused, and not believe in God?  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,”6 as one devout poet exclaimed.  The supernal creative genius of a Supreme Being stands as self-evident when viewed from the deck of a ship at sea, a view that is always uplifting, edifying, and inspirational.

In one of my favorite verses of scripture, Nephi asserted after a long voyage, “he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep” (2 Nephi 4:20).  I would make the same assertion after a short voyage.  I came ashore from the Nieuw Amsterdam preserved and also improved by the voyage, and very thankful for the privilege of having returned, however briefly, to the sea where I belong.

1 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1920, p. 6.
2 Information from Holland America Line.
3 In English, Half Moon.
4 Robert Louis Stevenson, “Requiem,” in The Harvard Classics, v. 42, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910, p. 1261-1262; and A. E. Housman, “R.L.S.,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970, p. 901.
5 Captain Sir Arthur Rostron, Home from the Sea, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1931.
6 Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., “God’s Grandeur,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., v.2, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986, p.1581.