Reflections of a Mariner’s wife

To marry a man who has a love affair with ships and the sea basically means a mariner’s wife independently runs their home making decisions, raises a family alone and then, for two to three months a year, enjoys the constant company of her husband home on leave.

Long distance marriages are different from ‘day to day’ relationships of shore bound people but include, I believe, Armed Forces marriages, Police marriages, long distance truckers etc and what we accept as normal is anathema to neighbours and friends.
Before the advent of satellite communications with ships, decisions had to be made as wisely as possible as there could be a long time between phone calls or other contact. Decisions of what to pass on to the ship when a husband can do very little except perhaps worry after the event has occurred and resolved itself means a wife has different stresses from one who may leave a problem until a husband returns from work at the end of the day.
Fortunately the few times I have asked for help the approachable shore staff of different companies has meant that I was never really ‘alone’.

The bonus then is that a mariner’s wife is often able to join her husband deep sea and mutual support strengthens the relationship.  To be able to walk away from a home and know that the  family will make responsible decisions gives peace of mind and the ability to enjoy married life.

One ship we joined had been damaged in a storm losing both gangways and access was only by the pilot’s ladder. Temperatures were –14C in a Korean winter, the ship at anchor off shore. I left the barge first leaving my husband to sort out our luggage, his quiet words of encouragement were quite clear – take one step at a time. I wondered at the time what he thought I might do, race up the side of the ship like Spiderman?  I remembered a Pilot had once told me that it was easier to push with the feet rather than pull with arms and applied his logic even though it wasn’t one of the easiest things I’ve done in this world.  Smiling Filipino faces greeted me at the top of the climb and I made a mental note that maybe I would try abseiling one day, climbing 35’ up the side of an empty tanker was never on my agenda but now I’ve done that there are other things I can do.
My fellow countryman AJ Hackett invented commercial bungy jumping so I may just attempt that another time.  On holidays around Queenstown (NZ) Vince and I have already enjoyed the thrill of jet boating at speeds of up to 75km/h in shallow waters of the Shotover River with a minimum 10cm depth, travelled by helicopter through narrow ravines and then white-water rafted for two and a half hours through turbulent and calm waters in an adventure the tour operators called the Triple Challenge, but none offered the anticipation of the first climb up a pilot’s ladder in very cold conditions.

During a voyage the constant muffled throbbing of the engines pulsate the decks and bulkheads in a comforting way, probably more so for the Engineers who seem to notice whenever there’s a different beat well before any alarms go off.  One of the pleasures for me is to see the swirl of water as the props turn, particularly when engines first start, so many different colours in the whirlpool, tugs working away to push/pull/guide where and when necessary.

The sea really does change often; when it is as calm as a millpond it could be easy to overlook how it can also be vicious and unrelenting in storm conditions.  Phosphorescence is quite mystical and rather hypnotic, the luminous green algae are so pretty at night but can apparently cause people to decide to swim amongst it although I haven’t actually heard of anyone doing so. This does explain the mystery of people missing at sea.  The sea at night can be calm and dark as black velvet with barely a ripple disturbing the surface, a truly wonderful sight. Stars are like diamonds, so clear away from land and commercial light, millions more easily seen and also a spectacular sight.

Sunrises can rarely be appreciated ashore as at sea; the distant horizon is outlined by a reddish glow in the sky which rapidly changes colour from pastel pinks and blues to an orange-ish pink, then warm pink with peach coloured hues until suddenly the enormous scarlet ball appears over the horizon throwing her rays over the sea.  The pale sky is streaked with misty pink and soft orange banners and another day begins.  Sunrises in these circumstances are simply a peaceful and beautiful sight, which I would like everyone to share.
Sunsets can also be awesome, some more so than others.  The Indian Ocean has shown me the ‘green flash’ similar to the gas stove flame, which briefly appears as the sun seems to disappear below the horizon. This emerald coloured sight is a splendid show of nature – blink and it would be missed.

One of the prettiest sights is the schools of dolphins that often appear early mornings and late afternoons.  The largest number I’ve seen were on a trip down the east coast of the North Island, NZ, up to thirty in a group was a welcoming sight to me with thoughts of Pelorus Jack who used to guide ships between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and Opo, who played with children at Oponui, northern New Zealand.

The strangest behaviour was off the Indonesian coast one evening; the dolphins were quite lethargic and seemed to keep going from side to side of the ship. I wondered aloud just what they were trying to tell us, we’d follow them to the other side of the ship and again there was a slow rising up of their eyes, then they’d go back to the other side of the ship again. As that was a particularly dark night with no moon we did not venture far on deck, next morning it was apparent that local pirates had been on board and stolen stuff which was rather unnerving to me as they are ruthless in the quest for modern bounty and they could well have attacked us the previous night, had we got in their way. Normally all I’d have to do was bang a large spanner on the side of the ship and dolphins would appear with their lovely smiles, we think they’re smiling. The crew would have let me have some of their precious fish they’d caught at anchor, easy food for the dolphins.

I have seen and done many things friends at home would never consider – nine of us crammed in separate rickshaws heading a gold hunt in Dumai (Indonesia) where I wanted to buy some cheaper gold to wear just in case pirates boarded any ships I was on.  Jet boats or slow old launches transporting crews of many ships ashore means time spent with mariners from all nationalities who accept me totally for myself – when we get ashore we’re just as likely to have to climb over local fishing boats and up steel ladders with missing rungs, barely connected to concrete walls.

The Mate asked me to go shopping with him in Singapore, his expectant wife had ticked baby products which were unavailable in India, or at a huge cost perhaps if they were sent from the UK.  This was their first child and I was happy to help Joe choose just the right things. Next problem I thought would be transferring the shopping from the barge to the ship, 5kms off shore. No problems to Joe, he had a stores crane which was put over the side, all of our shopping easily raised on board.

The 1st Engineer and I had already previously gone ashore in Sydney to look for a wedding present for one of the officers. Vince had warned Mohan that he would become Passepartout, Mohan laughed although he had no clue about Around The World in 80 Days. We were close to Centrepoint, a tower vaguely similar to the one we’d gone up in Seattle – actually nothing like it all other than they were both towers with shops at the bottom and revolving restaurants near the top.  A crowd of runners were registering for the race up the internal stairs, first prize for a man and a woman was a trip to the USA.

We noticed a couple of Asian men buying their registration numbers, taking photos of each other. Then shortly afterwards they were entering the lift with us, took themselves to the finish line and more photos of each other. No racing for them at all, just the photos for their families and friends at home. They followed us to the viewing platform for spectacular views of a beautiful city, more photos. We left them to go shopping, laughing about what we’d just seen.

I have watched submarines and various foreign warships cruising the Persian Gulf, noticed the ship being ‘buzzed’ by military helicopters in the same area close to Rydah, Saudi Arabia, seen countless different types of merchant ships and oil rigs under tow, wondered how many of the fishing vessels we’ve seen miles from land stay afloat with their rusty hulls looking very weak. One time I went to the bridge to report a small launch with a ladder across its cabin with crew shouting something or other in a foreign language.  The Mate smiled and simply said ‘No, prostitutes’. Oh.

At the bow and watching numerous flying fish leaping many feet ahead of the ships bow, the suggestion that maybe I would also if I had 100,000 tonnes bearing down on me made me smile.

A little bird was on board with us for a couple of days after leaving Thailand and I was told not to feed it; poor thing, I inadvertently frightened it off the ship and saw the struggle it had to keep up with the ship against a strong wind. Then it was caught by a gust of wind that threw the bird back on deck where it lay stunned for a couple of minutes before warily picking itself up and strutting off midships. Safe and well, left soon afterwards.

A turtle caught our attention as it swam directly toward our ship.  We were days from land; on the horizon were about twenty Asian fishing boats so the turtle was the smart one to escape their nets and head the opposite way. As it was rather large then it deserved to live for many more years.

There is an art to packing a suitcase with all necessities for five or six months when the only known destination is the initial port to join the ship.  Tankers wait for the chartering department to find cargo orders so there can be no set route, in that time all seasons will probably be experienced and shops can be few and far between.

Time away on a ship means events happen at home and nothing can be done;  I felt terrible when my father broke his leg and depended on others for help instead of me.  Weddings, births and funerals do not wait although I will always be grateful I was able to get home before my great uncle died – he kept asking for me and died the day after I got home from the USA.

I was inconsolable the day I realised my grandmother would not be there when I went home from one ship, she had died before I left but nothing prepared me for the fact she wasn’t there for me months later.

Armed policemen and soldiers on board within various waters of the Persian Gulf are a fact of life; instructions issued not to offend Islamic law include all alcohol, magazines which may offend with our acceptable advertisements such as Elle’s underwear range but totally unacceptable there. Cameras,recording equipment and video’s/DVD’s all go into the ships bond and sealed until the ship leaves the area. We all signed our own bond sheet, countersigned by the captain.

An unannounced search one evening off Saudi was in fact not an unpleasant experience although my heart was beating furiously hoping the man would not find glamour shots I’d had taken for Vince’s birthday. In our eyes they are tastefully done, for the time the man was searching our cabin I imagined being dragged off the ship and stoned. The man apologised for disturbing us when he arrived around 2200, he was polite and not intimidating as the uniform portrayed.

Bumboats turn up at many ports particularly around Asia, loaded with fruits of all kinds. Our men would send down old paint tins and other stuff considered junk, the hawkers seem pleased but we have the beautiful fresh fruit in exchange.

Many nationalities live together in a way that possibly would not be contemplated ashore, news from home are shared by all whether it is good or bad news. The ability of people to work and live together is almost inexplicable and all part of people who love the life at sea.

I have learnt many things about other countries and met some particularly fine people, have had unexpected experiences, taken numerous photo’s, and, to the family’s dismay, told them they have Mum’s Home Video to watch when we arrive home.  Most importantly I have learnt much about myself when far away from what I consider so vital at home, reinforced the saying “How important is it?” and the big one “Worse things happen at sea”.

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