Monday, July 8, 2013

The Pier Head Jump

Once in a while, there is a great, big, mad rush to join a ship. Someone on a ship thousands of miles away gets sick, or he quits, or he dies, or something else happens. Then, the powers that be back in the home office must scramble to find a replacement and somehow get him to the ship. Usually this rush job comes after too many months of shore leave—in other words, unemployment—and the guy receiving the phone call accepts the assignment because he’s desperate to go back to sea. So on ten seconds’ notice, he packs his bags, leaves his family, joins a ship, and spends innumerable months traipsing across the world’s oceans because he’s deathly afraid that if he dares to take another vacation he won’t be able to get another ship again afterwards. So much for job security!

In the old days, a pier head jump was just that. A seaman would be recruited from a union hall, a park bench, or even from his own home, and sent by taxi to join a ship locally. If the ship was still at the pier, he just walked up the gangway. If the ship had already left, the new guy could jump off the pier onto a waiting tugboat, or possibly the pilot boat, and be delivered to the ship before it got too far away. Since the advent of the jet aircraft, however, the phrase has taken on a more figurative meaning.

Loosely speaking, I made something of a pier head jump many years ago. Overall, it fit this description pretty well, except that I did have some advance notice. That gave it the added measure of the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome. In the shipping business this is also known as the I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this-to-me situation. Among the seamen’s families it’s called the time-for-these-guys-to-take-up-different-work-ashore.

I picked up my new license as second mate at the Coast Guard office in Boston on Monday, March 29, 1982. That was such a happy occasion! Two days later, I called the crewing office in Bayonne, New Jersey, and told Mr. W. that I had passed the exams and gotten the license and was ready to return to sea. I had been home for three months since leaving the Victoria, and it was now time to go. When I had left the Victoria, it was with the understanding that I would spend two to three months working on the next license and then ship out again right after that was finished. Mr. W. remembered, took everything down, and promised to get back to me.

The following week I called Mr. W. again. Things were really slow, he told me. Wouldn’t I like to spend some more time at home? Well, I did have some work to do on the house, painting and carpentry and related items. So I stayed put a little longer, and then a little longer, and still a little longer. By the beginning of May, I was starting to feel desperate. Then the word came. Mr. W. had five ships that would soon need second mates. In the meantime, I could come into the office, get my medical checkup done, go to small arms school and refresher firefighting training, and then get ready to ship out. That sounded good, so I accepted the offer.

It felt great to get back on the payroll again. Unfortunately, it lasted only two weeks. Towards the end of May the five ships that needed second mates had somehow disappeared. With no realistic prospects for shipping out anytime soon, I returned to Nashua and took a janitorial job with General Floor Service, Incorporated, for the purely practical purpose of acquiring an income. Anything to fend off destitution, I thought. In retrospect, I wonder if this is what Isaiah meant by “the bread of adversity” (Isa. 30:20).

My new job started on June 1, the day after the Memorial Day weekend. I had a brand new license as second mate of steam and motor vessels of any gross tonnage on any ocean which I was very anxious to use, and there I was vacuuming carpets, waxing floors, and dumping garbage for a living! But it paid good hard cash which I desperately needed. And sure enough, a week after I started this new career, I received a phone call from the office in Bayonne.

This time it was Mr. A. The Waccamaw needed a new third mate. Was I interested? Of course I was! Then the stalling started. Mr. A. wasn’t sure about just when or where the other guy wanted to leave the ship, and the ship’s schedule was constantly changing, and he wanted to give me the job, but I might have to go on really short notice, and he didn’t know if I could do that because I lived so far away in New Hampshire, but he would keep in touch and let me know what developed, etc., etc., etc. I didn’t tell Mr. A. this, but I didn’t believe a single word of what he said. Remembering the five ships that needed second mates and then mysteriously disappeared, I told Mr. A. about my new job. I explained that my finances were such that I could not quit and go into Bayonne on a lark. I wanted to ship out again, yes, but I simply could not give up even a menial job unless he really and truly had a ship for me. Until that became absolutely certain, I needed to continue cleaning floors and emptying trash. In other words, Mr. A. needed to face reality and treat this situation seriously.

While Mr. A. thought about this, I continued working for General Floor Service. I did the after-hours shift, from 5:30pm to 1:30am five nights a week at the Digital Equipment Corporation’s two big buildings in Merrimack, New Hampshire. In all fairness, this job was enjoyable, at least up to a point. I did not have any serious responsibility; I simply did as I was told. I did not supervise anyone, so I did not need to deal with personnel problems. If someone came to work drunk, or didn’t come to work at all, or came to work and didn’t work, well, it wasn’t my problem! At the same time, though, I had no desire to make a career of the janitorial business. I really wanted to go back to sea. After all, that was my chosen profession.

After a couple of weeks, Mr. A. called back. He needed me to come into the office. When did he need me? “Well, you really should have been here yesterday,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but I can’t help you with that.” Privately I wondered, what is going on here? Why would anyone call and tell me today that he needs me yesterday? In the discussion that followed it came out that I had a choice of flying to Greece yesterday and joining the Waccamaw in Soudha Bay on the north coast of Crete, or flying to Italy and joining the ship in Augusta Bay on the east coast of Sicily a few days from now. The third possibility was that I would go to Soudha or maybe another location not yet known and join the ship there, either before or after she went to Augusta. Whatever the logistics, it started to seem definite that I would finally ship out soon. Given these choices, I opted for Augusta. I had been there before on the Rigel. I knew the place, and it was easier to get to than Soudha.

I gave my notice—very short notice, too—at General Floor Service. Not fully believing that I would soon return to sea, I stayed on the new job until the last minute. On Monday afternoon, June 21, I reported for my final shift. I finished at 1:30am Tuesday, the 22nd. After a few hours’ sleep, Miss Patty and I left Manchester, New Hampshire, at 6:45am on Bar Harbor Airlines. We arrived at New York LaGuardia at 8:25am. My parents met us there with a car.

Without any delay, I drove to Bayonne and checked in at the company offices. Miss Patty accompanied me. She had grown accustomed to having me home, and after six months she felt reluctant to see me go away again. But the Waccamaw would arrive in Augusta tomorrow morning, and I absolutely needed to leave tonight in order to join her. I spent my time in the office taking care of paperwork, airline tickets, and a brief interview with the Port Captain. The atmosphere there was of a rush job being done at a snail’s pace. A hurried phone call from the supervisor got the snails going: “This mate’s gotta fly out tonight to meet a ship!! We gotta get him processed right away!! He’s gonna need airline tickets!! Tell those guys in the travel section they can’t take a two-hour lunch today!!!”

Afterwards, we went back home to the family headquarters on Long Island. I was booked on a TWA flight that was scheduled to leave JFK for Rome at about 7:00pm. Happily, then, the family, including my grandfather, had part of the afternoon together before it became time to leave for the airport.

My father drove me into JFK along with my mother and Miss Patty. I had not thought of this before, but June 22 was the tourist season and everyone was traveling. The TWA building was a madhouse. I joined the mob to check in for my flight. Then a security agent approached me and asked where I was going. When I told him “Rome,” he said “Oh, you’re okay, then.” And he moved on to the next passenger. Looking around out of curiosity, I saw that this mob of people was really two check-in lines for two flights merged together. The other flight was bound for Israel. All the passengers going there were having their suitcases opened and searched right in the middle of the concourse. The floor of the terminal building was covered with opened and spilled luggage being sifted through by travellers and security guards on their hands and knees. The place was a mess!

With my check-in complete and a boarding pass in my hand, the four of us went upstairs to the waiting area by the gate through which I would soon leave. This spot was much calmer and quieter than the concourse downstairs. In those days, family members and friends could accompany travellers right up to the gate. Also, there were still large windows of clear glass in the waiting areas, so we could see the airplane when it arrived and parked at the gate. When the time came, we said our good-byes. My wife and parents watched as I walked down the corridor to the waiting 747. Then they went their way as I went mine. None of us had any idea when we would see each other again.

Once aboard the aircraft I found my way to my assigned seat, on the aisle but in the interior cluster of seats, not next to a window, and in the smoking section. I had been hoping to sleep as the plane crossed the Atlantic. As the other passengers came aboard, though, I began to realize that sleep would be unlikely. The level of jovial conversation and raucous laughter among all these people who were obviously going away on vacation rose to a dull roar and remained there except for during taxiing and takeoff. A carnival atmosphere prevailed. Dinner and duty-free shopping only added to the festivity. I became convinced that I was the only passenger who was there for work and not frivolity! Somehow I did doze off for a little while, but by the time the aircraft landed in Rome, I felt exhausted.

In the early daylight hours of Wednesday, June 23, the 747 landed at the big airport near Rome. On disembarking I felt very disconcerted. I was accustomed to crossing the Atlantic in ten days, not in less than ten hours! To be in another country with a different language, culture, monetary system, and time zone after a mere overnight journey was just too much! In a daze, then, I walked through the airport, fully able to read all the directional signs in Italian. I needed first to present my passport to a customs official, and then find my connecting flight to Catania on Alitalia. It seemed simple enough, and as I awakened more it became even simpler. I realized then that there were directional signs in English as well as Italian!

In the Alitalia terminal I met three unlicensed seamen who were also going to the Waccamaw. One was an engine room mechanic, loud and outspoken about everything; another was a steward’s utilityman from Puerto Rico who spoke little English; the third was an able seaman, Glenn Best, an older black gentleman who would turn out to be one of the finest men I ever sailed with. He was intelligent and industrious, and also calm and level-headed in all situations. We had all been on the TWA 747 from New York but did not know it. No one in Bayonne had said anything about traveling companions. In mid-morning we boarded an Alitalia DC-9 for the 45-minute flight to Sicily. This time I had a window seat, and the scenic highlight of the journey was circling the famous Monte Etna before landing on the plains of Catania.

At the small airfield near Catania we collected our luggage, went through an informal customs inspection, and engaged a taxi driver to bring us to Augusta. This was an exciting ride, dodging the chaotic Sicilian traffic amid the Sicilian hills. We anticipated that our taxi driver would deliver us directly to the Waccamaw at the oil docks across the bay from the medieval city of Augusta. Cresting the last hill on the outskirts of town at about 1:30pm, we beheld a panoramic view of the city and the entire bay before us. As the taxi started rushing downhill, our driver, in a moment of exhilaration, took both his hands off the steering wheel, spread his arms wide, and exclaimed, “Ahghooostah!!!” It was indeed a beautiful view, but one thing was missing. The Waccamaw was not in port.

We looked vainly in every direction including out to sea, but the Waccamaw simply was not there. We had come all this way for nothing! On arrival at the oil docks the taxi driver asked the dock workers about the ship. Some animated discussion in rude Sicilian followed. Finally, he said he would bring us to the harbor master’s office in the city. There were people there who could fix things up.

We rode along the shoreline around the north side of the bay, through the old city gate and winding narrow streets to the harbor master’s office on the waterfront. Making inquires in bad Italian and not much better English, we were asked to wait a few minutes while the man in charge looked into things. The outspoken engine room mechanic in our group had become quite agitated, perhaps almost panic-stricken, by the Waccamaw’s absence, and it showed in this interval. Glenn and I tried to calm him down, but to little avail. After what seemed like a long wait, someone came out and spoke with us. He explained that the Waccamaw had indeed been due in port that morning, but some unscheduled operational requirements had delayed her. Instead, the ship would arrive at the pilot station at 9:00am tomorrow. This man seemed puzzled and surprised that we had been sent so early to meet the ship. Didn’t the support staff in Bayonne know where the ship was? Wasn’t the home office was in daily communication with the fleet?

With little to do but wait for our ship to come in, we retired to a nearby waterfront café. The other three fellows went indoors. I lounged outside in the warm Mediterranean sunshine with all our luggage, including my sextant in its mahogany box. As the lone licensed officer in the group, I felt responsible for handling this situation wisely, and I did not want any luggage to disappear while everyone was eating and drinking. After a while Glenn Best came outside and relieved me. After some refreshment, three of us took a walk around the town while the engine room fellow minded the luggage. It was siesta time and the city was fairly quiet. Most of the shops were closed, but we found a money changer who was open. When we told him we were waiting for the Waccamaw, he jumped up from his table, danced gleefully around the room in circles, and shouted excitedly, “Wacaamaw!! Waccamaw!! Waccamaw!!” It was quite a sight.

Back at the café, someone from the harbor master’s office met us with a taxi. We were to be lodged in a fancy hotel on one of the hills just north of the city, and the taxi would deliver us. The next day, the taxi would return for us and bring us to the ship. What great service! And even better, it was free! The taxi, the hotel, and the meals would all be billed to our employer through the harbor master’s office.

So away we went in an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz taxi—an unprecedented luxury—out through the old medieval gate and into the Sicilian hills. I felt quite relaxed about everything by now. Someone else had taken responsibility for our plight, and we were being housed and fed instead of being left to languish on a wharf. Then the one embarrassing and unpleasant moment of the day took place. Our steward’s utilityman from Puerto Rico who spoke little English started antagonizing the taxi driver in Spanish, which he understood, although he replied in Italian, which our crewmate understood. The rest of us didn’t know enough of either language to follow the conversation, but the tones of voice became increasingly obnoxious. Finally, the driver had enough. Banging his fists against the steering wheel, he shouted in fairly good English, “Dat’s enough!! No more!! I no wanta understand no more!! You got it?!” At this outburst our crewmate had the good sense to sit back and shut up, for which the rest of us were grateful.

At the hotel the steward’s utilityman and the engine room mechanic shared one room while Glenn Best and I shared another. They went their way and we went ours. Glenn and I took dinner together, a big buffet in the hotel dining room. This was very pleasant. He was good company and we got along very well. He was old enough to be my father, yet with my license I could be his boss. These social disparities evaporated in an atmosphere of mutual respect and courtesy, though. If only life could always be this way!

Being by this time overtired but well-fed, I slept very soundly that night. Promptly at six o’clock the next morning, I awoke to racket of a cat fight outside our hotel room window. These were not women, but real cats viciously screeching and howling at each other. It was Thursday, June 24, and the new day was announcing itself. At breakfast, a hotel clerk informed us that our taxi driver would come for us at 10:30am. He took us directly from the hotel to the oil docks. We watched as the Waccamaw arrived, behind schedule again, at 12:00 noon. It felt really good to finally see her! At 6:00pm the Rigel, also behind schedule, arrived and tied up directly across the pier from the Waccamaw.

I relieved the outgoing third mate and got to work promptly that afternoon. At ten o’clock the next morning, Friday the 25th, the Waccamaw sailed from Augusta bound initially for Port Said, Egypt. While this itinerary would change within 24 hours, the impressions made by my recent experiences would not.

The scriptures tell us, “We have learned by sad experience” (D&C 121:39). Three months of delays, empty promises, stalling, should-have-been-here-yesterday, and hurry-up-and-wait before finally getting a ship are not readily forgotten. I initially agreed to stay on the Waccamaw for six months, but I remained for thirteen, three as third mate and ten as second mate, until July 22, 1983. During this time she sailed the Mediterranean, transatlantic, coastwise, and the Caribbean, and underwent a shipyard overhaul in Norfolk. Like many mates before me, I feared never shipping out again if I took a vacation. After more than a year, though, I really needed a break. I could have returned to the Mediterranean with the Waccamaw, but having had enough for a while, I opted to finally go on vacation instead. This time vacation worked out much better. After three months ashore and no delays, I shipped out again aboard the Comet on October 28.

1 comment:

  1. Nice story, David! I have Been a merchant seaman since I was 16. Right now I work on the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway. We haul cars and people up-and-down the inside passage from Bellingham Washington out to Dutch Harbor Alaska. Last night I had a dream and in the dream the term "pierhead jump" came up, and I decided to finally look up the definition of it. Your description of it is has I figured. But, I did enjoy your story! It was nicely written, and reminded me of my earlier days plying the Mediterranean and crossing the Atlantic on the Ogden Merrimack.