Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Iron Giants

On my way into work yesterday morning I spotted the Coastguard Icebreaker Healy cruising into Juneau with a tugboat escort. I really like icebreakers. Actually, I really like working boats of any kind. Seeing a working boat makes me feel like a little boy seeing a fire engine and I’m not sure why. I can’t help it. I’ll go down to the docks to get a close look, walk the length of the boat, and if they’re offering tours, I’ll go on board. I get giddy with excitement, wide-eyed with awe. It’s a mystery to me how a big piece of metal floating in water can affect me this way, but it does.

The Healy looks like an office building going for a ride in a gigantic office-building-sized red row-boat. The main structure of the Healy, the office building part, has a few sparse rows of tiny square windows. It is not a boat meant to go fast or divert air in any elegant way. Could that be why I like them so much? The lack of pretense in working boats? The Healy certainly makes no attempts to be anything other than a boat that can smash its way through ice as efficiently as possible.

The Glacier
Last fall I crewed a couple of ferry runs on a 140 foot WWII era landing craft called The Glacier. Our run was Juneau – Hoonah – Tennakee – Hoonah – Juneau and we carried only vehicles, no passengers. From a distance, if unloaded, The Glacier looks like an upside-down Vietnamese hat, with a sloping stern and the sharp angle of the drop bow. The bulk of the boat is deck space which we could load up with 7 cars and a back-hoe. The cabin is on the stern and contains a large kitchen, a dining area, three bunkrooms, and the wheelhouse. We were crewing in 8 hour shifts with two three person crews. Each week we alternated the shifts and the cooking duties.

I’d never been on the water at night before, and The Glacier was a dark boat. On the 11pm – 7am shift we sat in the wheel house with all of the lights out and the radar turned down low in an attempt to keep our night vision. Every hour I’d walk around to check the vehicles, make sure everything was looking good, and try and wake myself with the fresh air. The broad flat bow of The Glacier made it feel like we were a wall trying to force our way forward, so we rarely went faster than 8 knots (9.2 MPH).

On my second or third run the captain I was crewing with showed me his favorite spot on the boat. It was about four in the morning and I was having problems keeping my eyes open. He took me out the side door and around to the back of the wheelhouse. He told me to lean against the exhaust stacks. It was a cool night with the feeling of prenatal rain in the air. The water was calm and while there was a breeze, it wasn’t enough to kick up more than a light chop. Jerry went back to the wheelhouse and I stood watching the water break around us. The exhaust stack’s warm metal seeped into my back and the crisp breeze chilled my face. Along the edges of our wake phosphoresces glowed faintly, a dim answer to the pattern of moonlight streaking the mountains and water farther out.

There was a period of time that I seriously considered becoming an able bodied seaman, looked up schools, certifications, job postings. But like most of the other irons I put in the fire, that one eventually got pulled out and propped in some corner, soon forgotten. Who knows?  Maybe someday.

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