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A Christmas sea story: Lessons from the past, present and future

Dec 2, 2019 12:01 PM

I was a senior at the California Maritime Academy and one of only 10 cadets in my class who were chosen to go on a commercial ship for their senior cruise. The week before Christmas, the company’s Seattle office called to let me know that I’d be joining the ship there on Christmas Eve. My holiday spirit dropped like a lead balloon. That would mean missing all sorts of highly anticipated activities, including Christmas dinner at home, a New Year’s Eve party at a high school buddy’s house, and a long-planned family trip to visit my cousin in Idaho. Once on board I sulked for days, complaining to anyone willing to listen to my plight.

One evening, in my stateroom after watch, I was reading Tom Robbins’ book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Just before turning off my reading light, I nearly jumped out of my skin. The figure of a man had appeared a few feet in front of me. He had short hair and wore a khaki shirt and trousers, and something about him seemed almost ethereal. He said, “Cadet Sweeney, your complaints have been heard by Neptune, the king of the oceans. At his request, three spirits will visit you, their purpose to show you a past, present and future mariner’s Christmas at sea.” Figuring that my mind was playing tricks on me because I was tired, I shut off the light and fell asleep.

Awakened by a young guy dressed in old-time sailor’s garb, complete with wide-brimmed hat and V-neck long-sleeve shirt, he said, “I’m the spirit of past Christmases at sea — follow me.” I found myself in the messroom of an old steam schooner, where there were two mariners finishing their Christmas dinner of pickled salmon and beans. One of the men, tall and thin with some missing front teeth and a long scar on his forehead, said, “Andy Furuseth’s doing great things, John. He got them senators to outlaw us sailors getting thrown in the hoosegow for quitting, and if it weren’t for him the bucko mates would still be beating yah deck types with belaying pins.” The other guy nodded, rubbing his wrist with a gnarled hand that was missing the ends of two middle fingers, remembering all too well the broken bones received from a cudgeling he got as a young mariner on a schooner barque. He replied, “All true, Bill, and I’ve heard the latest is that he’s getting La Follette to push for a law making it illegal for companies to short us on food, give us damp ratty staterooms and chisel us out of our pay. God bless him.”

I found myself back in my room, the spirit of past Christmases at sea gone. A few seconds later, a man dressed in coveralls appeared and said, “I’m the spirit of Christmas at sea in the present. Let’s go.” To my great surprise, we were immediately transported to the ship I was sailing on at that time, but back to Christmas Day. Like watching a movie I was in, I saw myself sullenly getting out of bed on Christmas morning in my nice warm stateroom, complete with an attached head and full-size bed — unappreciative of the personal flashlight the skipper had given each of the crew as a present. The steward department had made a Christmas feast complete with turkey, ham, shrimp cocktail, all the fixings, plus apple and pumpkin pie. I sat alone at a table, eating that fantastic meal and looking glum. The first engineer and third engineer were at the table next to mine, enjoying all of that good food with gusto and having a discussion about how great Christmas at sea was now that they had a union contract guaranteeing them “holiday pay.”

The scene vanished, and in the blink of an eye I found myself in my bunk again. Thinking about what I’d been shown so far, I was convinced that I had been acting immaturely since joining my ship. Compared to those two old-timers on the steam schooner, I had it easy. My thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a third spirit, a woman dressed in a captain’s uniform, complete with epaulets with four stripes. She motioned me up and said, “Let’s be on our way.” We found ourselves off of an area that looked like the Middle East, coming up on the stern of a cargo ship registered in Vanuatu. It was filled with U.S. military jeeps, rations, medical supplies and ammunition. Sensing my thoughts, the spirit said, “In the future, there is basically no U.S. merchant marine anymore. The laws that protected you were overturned by your enemies.”

On the bridge of the ship, devoid of Christmas decorations due to the international crew, I watched as the Eastern European captain talked with someone on the satellite phone. After hanging up, he gave the helmsman an order to “bring the rudder over starboard 20 degrees and come to a reciprocal course. The company agrees that we do not need to put our ship at risk by taking her into a war zone for the U.S. military.” Handing a piece of paper to the Filipino second mate, he said, “Lay out the courses to this port, Ramon. We’ll dump the cargo there.”

Shocked at what I was seeing, I asked the spirit if this future scene was set in stone, or if it could be avoided. She answered, “It all depends on you mariners. Only by your actions can the course of the future be changed.” I then found myself back in my bed on board, just as there was a knock on the door for my 0320 wake-up call. Bounding out of bed, I realized that I had a new perspective. I resolved to stop complaining about being at sea during Christmas, and to always appreciate the many hardships and sacrifices others had endured on behalf of the U.S. merchant marine, our country and mariners such as myself. For the rest of my life, I would do all I could to stop the forces aligned against the U.S. merchant marine, and to prevent the subterfuge employed by our foes to try and destroy the Jones Act and other laws enacted to help ensure our country’s maritime and economic security. I’ve thanked Neptune many times for his intervention, and have been true to my word ever since — and will continue to be so until my dying breath.

Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays and smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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