Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Team Elizabeth

Frankly, I'm amazed. The last two weeks went about as well as they could have conceivably gone. Turns out the paperwork isn't impossible, and I've actually learned the ins and outs of the Tan'erliq better than I'd thought. The days have passed with what I can only describe as efficiency and good vibes thanks in great part to my watch partner, a lifelong Alaskan mariner and fisherwoman who shares my name. She is hardworking, kind, and smart, and has been very supportive while I've struggled to keep my head above water. She has daughters my age and she seems to relate so well because of her life experiences. My captain has also been a great influence; he's never afraid to let me know where I stand, which is something that always helps me to stay focused on work, rather than wasting energy trying to navigate the murky social etiquette of finicky shipmates. I'd like to believe that my effort quieted the naysayers a bit; I'll win them over yet.

I've never been quite as immersed in work as I've been this hitch. I woke up this morning from a dream in which I was alone and adrift in a turbulent and icy sea, feeling acutely disconnected from myself and from the things that I used to hold dear. I don't relate to friends my age who are buying houses and getting married and having children - I can't see myself doing any of these things for a long time. I wonder how long this phase of my life will last, and what kind of person I'll be when I emerge on the other side. But I can't think so far into the future right now, there's no point - the only thing to do is enjoy living in the present moment, and grow at my own pace. It's still a new feeling for me.

So we have an 8 am escort on Wednesday, crew change day, which means I'll need to change out with a mate on another boat tonight or early tomorrow morning if I'm to make my flight out of Valdez at 1 pm tomorrow. I hope things go according to plan, because happy as I am here, my 4-week-turned-6-week hitch has been quite enough for me and I'm ready to go home. Since I stayed over extra as a favor, I'll get less than two weeks off at home. But I'm told that when I come back I will go to the Hunter, one of the invader-class conventionals, as regular chief mate which I'm sure I'll love. The conventionals here do some towing, some ship assists, and a lot of standing by in Outside Bay. Since the Tan'erliq and Nanuq are inspected vessels who do tanker escorts as well as stores runs and crew changes to the outports, life on the Hunter promises to be much quieter and I think I'll be able to gain experience in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Blue Light

I'm on the mid-watch once again, but since July I'd been on the six to twelve, and when I had my time off in the afternoon I usually took a nap. We're gaining five and a half minutes of light every evening so the bleak winter is already giving way to gold; but there's nothing I loved more than that gentle blue light filtering into my room, cool and serene and infinitely soothing in its quietude. As every year turns I look forward to sleeping in that light again. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Move On Up

Yesterday was my first official day as chief mate. The regular C/M on the crew opposite mine got injured at home and personnel asked me to stay on two extra weeks to fill in for him; I couldn't say no. A lot of friends here and back home are very happy for me, but I've come to find that there are some people here who are extremely disappointed - even angry - that I took this position so quickly. They feel there are others who have been here longer who deserve it more than I do. To my mind it's less about deserving and more about qualifications and timing. Few people here have much concept of what I've gone through to get where I am, and so I guess it could be easy to assume I haven't worked hard enough to deserve this. I can't say I'm surprised, but it is a bit of a shock to be resented so bitterly. 

The truth is that my choices and the path I've taken over the last few years are the reason I was given this opportunity, and I can't apologize for that - I won't, because it would be unfair to others who struggle to attain goals similar to mine. In the end, wonderful as it is, this is still simply a job and I'll do it proudly to the best of my abilities. I can't let someone else's reality become my reality; that just wouldn't make any sense. No one has the right to dictate your life and the ones who try are wasting their breath. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015


So I learned a new word today; at about ten this morning a nasty wind kicked up, blowing ice crystals off the snow-covered mountains from the north down across the bay at storm force speeds. My captain called this a williwaw, which I looked up and found defined as "a sudden violent squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast". That's definitely what I saw during today's wind storm. Apparently he used to hear this word a lot in Dutch Harbor to describe the winds that descend upon Unalaska bay, throwing around shipping containers and knocking over huge dock cranes. I heard of this very thing happening when 100-mph winds hit Dutch just a month before I came to Alaska for the first time five years ago. I wasn't so sure what I was getting myself into then!

We were supposed to take fuel this afternoon but there was no way we were going to deal with lines and fuel hoses in 50-knot winds so instead we were put on an Alaskan tanker undocking as a fourth boat, using all available power to get the ship off the berth. I'm in the wheelhouse in the dark now and the squalls are still coming. It's gone from northerly to easterly and is now blowing out of the south and southeast, and the barometer has dropped sharply since this morning. I'm hoping that it calms down soon, because the sound of the wind is unnerving as it rocks us against the barge where we are tied up at the container terminal and makes the stacks hum like a pipe organ. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Off The Ground

I feel like this is the first time since getting off the boat that I've been able to think clearly, been able to breathe. Some days it feels like my life is being held together with zip ties, nothing solid or certain or remotely comprehensible. I totally underestimated how difficult it was going to be to cull my belongings, a mountain of minutiae that I haven't been able to rustle up since at least college, never quite having had enough emotional space, or the luxury of time. What's throwing me the most is the birthday cards from my parents that I've kept over the years, holiday cards and notes full of well-wishes from old family friends or relatives who are no longer alive; pictures of me as a child with my grandparents; a note to my mother from my father; my first tiny tooth in a tiny box among the accumulated shadows of a lifetime up to this day. What do I do with things like that? I'm afraid I don't know. But all of the junk I've kept, that I have no idea why I kept - that's been easy to toss. You could supply a small country with the boxes full of God-knows-what that I dropped off at the Goodwill last weekend. So it will continue until I have a living space that contains only what is useful. Unnecessary clutter stifles creativity.

And now I'm on a plane headed to the Bay Area to celebrate Russian Christmas and see my parents, brothers, and best friend. It felt good when the plane left the ground; like an invisible hand closing around my rib cage, lifting me straight into the sky, into something new. I didn't know how I'd like the idea of this quick excursion south, but I'm thinking it will probably be a good thing.

The weeks of my last hitch, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, were helpful; I've been struggling to get on top of the Valdez routine, and I was also expected to start taking on training chief mate responsibilities as well. It was a reality check for me, as it ended with a rather painful and very beneficial eval from a captain I trust and respect. Armed with a clearer view of where my energies need to be directed, I think I can go back and start my next hitch with a little more enthusiasm for the opportunities that wait for me in Valdez. Working in Alaska has made me so happy; truly I have nothing to be afraid of.

I wrote down a few thoughts here and there last month, and I wanted to post them but couldn't bring myself to step up and talk to the outside world. I'll share them here soon.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Two Moon Bay

I can't believe it's the first of December already. Tonight we're heading out to Port Fidalgo to anchor up in a charming spot called Two Moon Bay (right next to Snug Corner Cove, no joke) where we will help to facilitate a barge crew change out in the sound in the early hours of tomorrow morning. 

The snow is finally starting to stick - it's been dry and unseasonably warm in Valdez so far. I've been looking forward to snow this whole time, with nothing to show for it! But I know it will not disappoint - talk to me again in a few months when I'm shoveling drifts of snow off the deck every day. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


The call came yesterday morning. I was on the Stalwart, waiting for an inbound tanker and getting ready to do my last ship line job before switching over to the Tan'erliq on crew change day - the port captain called the boat and I was summoned to the wheelhouse to take the call. I don't even remember what he said; something like we've completed processing paperwork for the new chief mate position, and you've been awarded it! I almost fell down. The captain was five feet away from me so I had to hold my breath to keep from squealing like a teenager but I allowed for a couple ecstatic hop-skips before calmly replying into the phone an appropriate "wow! That's fantastic, thank you!" And then I got back to my day, heart light and brain struggling to focus on the moment at hand. I wrote an email to the office asking for confirmation, because I was convinced I hadn't heard correctly. But it's been confirmed; I've been promoted to chief mate. It'll be a few days before I know what boat I'll go to next, but until then I'm happily settled in as second mate on the mighty Tan'erliq (that's pronounced Ten-AR-lik, in case you've wondered) and I love the people I work with, so I'm in no hurry and looking forward to whatever happens next.