We are almost home. Tomorrow I’ll kiss my wife and hold onto her like it is the end of the world. The ship has taken on an irregular roll to its motions. We’ve been so long on smooth waters that everyone has had to relearn how to move and hold onto things. It isn’t the heavy lurching from side to side we experienced at the start of our journey some 90 days ago. Each swing from port to starboard and back was punctuated by teeth-rattling impacts of the bow into unforgiving water. I shake my head at the memory and continue carefully picking my way up the ladderwell. No, this is a steady plod north in seas whipped up by the less intense April winds out of the Arctic.
I find myself on the bridge in the mid-afternoon sunlight. I haven’t been up here in the daytime in a while. The mood between the four personnel on duty is somber and quiet. The lookout is bundled up so that his face is nearly covered. His hood is pulled down to the eyebrows, and his balaclava is wrapped right under his lower lip; not even his ears show. The rest are in various states of winter wear. The only allowance for the cold I have made is a watch cover (ski cap). Not wanting to be the one to break the silence, I step out onto the starboard bridge wing and look east toward the invisible Washington coast.
Broken cloud cover, wandering rain bands, and white-capping waves surround us. The wind howls around the bridge, and the eddies it creates buffet me even though I keep out of its direct path. I survey the ocean, trying to read the waves, wind, and swells. It is the deep slate blue of an old chalkboard. Its surface has the hard edges and texture of a rough-cut obsidian block. The white caps are fewer than I expected; apparently, the current isn’t moving against the wind. The caps that do show are quickly torn free of their waves in hissing sheets of mist that skim the surface.
Each time the bow climbs a wave and splashes down into the next, there is a frothing boom-whoosh-hiss. The water breaks around us, and the wind steals away the churning foam. The waves, consistently 12 feet or better, are striking on the port bow, trying to drive us off course and into the cliffs to the east. The gales dive the spray up the steep sides of the ship and wash it over her decks. Everything on that side of the cutter is coated in a wet, gritty salt patina. Deck force will wash her down on Monday – a cold, damp, and tiresome job. I shiver a little, thinking on it. Better them than me.
Moving aft along the starboard bridge wing, I work my way around to the back of the pilot house. It is a methodical process, keeping three points of contact, like a mountaineer. Once there, I climb up the short ladder to the flying bridge, which is little more than a platform with a shrouded pulpit and some railings. Up here, I am directly exposed to the wind. Everything has suddenly become a handhold. I face northwest into the roaring cold, and it bites at me like an animal, the salt in the air cutting my skin like sand. The sun is hiding behind heavy rainfall at the moment, which has cast the rest of the sky in a pale, almost yellow-white, a color I’d typically associate with pre-dawn.
God only knows what time it is. Must be a lot of moisture in the air. Looking east, multiple rainbows are moving as slowly as the aurora borealis through the broken clouds and rain. Some are as close as a half-mile; others are on the horizon. The wind picks up, and I bend my knees to lean back into it. As I turn my head, I hear it whistling and hissing around individual bolts and rivets in the equipment. Old Glory and the Coast Guard Ensign snap and pop on their halyards high overhead on the yardarms. The flags stand out straight and are nearly stiff. God, it is cold up here. I am acclimated to the equatorial weather, and my blood has gone thin in the process.
Another gust hits as we crest a 15-foot wave. The ship heels hard to starboard, easily 30 degrees. I lose my balance in the roll, and the wind nearly blows me clear off the top of the pilot house. A quick hand snags the oversized binoculars mounted to the post at my right. I ignore the loud pop in my shoulder as my weight snaps the arm out straight, and I dangle there like bait on a line. I glance “down” at my boots and my vision tunnels.
That is a long fall into what is very probably frigid water.
I start to flex my arm to pull myself upright. Tendons in my hand and elbow shift rather uncomfortably, and I decide that hanging here is the better option. Hopefully, the rail would have caught me or, at the very least, knocked me unconscious before I went over the side. No one would have heard or seen me hit the water. I have no desire to die out here. Jesus, why are we still heaved over to starboard? Why haven’t we started to swing back to port? Time stretches with the tendons and ligaments in my shoulder.
An eternity later, the bow slams down, and we swing back into the wind. My boots hit the top of the pilot house with a wet slap. When the cutter comes upright, I take the opportunity to recover and start climbing back down before another wave tries to toss me into the sea. I pause on the ladder to admire the sun as it passes the mid-afternoon point and starts to set. Starting down, I spot a bright orange mane being whipped out of its bun. In all the blues, grays, and whites of the ship and surrounding sea, the OOD’s [Officer of the Deck] hair stands out rather starkly. She’s got a hand on the rail and looks a little startled. I guess the wave caught her off guard as well. I shout down to see if she’s ok and, in return, get a mild ass chewing for being a damn fool and climbing up here. I guess she had come out to call me down and saw what had happened. Slightly abashed, I finish my descent and carefully return to the pilot house.
In the relative protection inside, I stand and watch the endless march of the sea as we slide ever northward. We won’t round the sea buoy at the straights of Juan De Fuca until sometime in the early morning. The straights are the first and last leg of all our voyages. I retrieve my coffee mug from the rail and look toward the darkening sunset. Squall lines and rain bands hang like curtains between us and the light. They make dazzling light shows of orange, grey, blue, yellow, and white. Far ahead, they slide across our path, making distance difficult to judge and the horizon a vague, hazy suggestion. I drain the last of my warm coffee and grimace at the grounds I feel sliding across my tongue; must have been the dregs of the pot. My stomach growls, and I realize I can’t remember the last thing I ate. I think I had breakfast yesterday, so it’s been… I glance at the ship’s clock. 37 hours? I head below to see if there are any leftovers.
Hours later, having feasted on an oatmeal power bar and some peanut butter toast, I take a break from the poker game to go outside to watch the last few minutes of sunlight. I am half taken aback by what I see.
Twice a year in Georgia, at least in the area I grew up in, many farmers burned the fields they had laid fallow for the winter or harvested in the summer. This was especially true if it had rained recently. Often whole sections of fields would be burning at a time. Late in the afternoons, around 1900, when the sun was low, the sky would take on a wan yellow-orange from all the particulate matter, ash, and smoke in the air. The entire sunset would be that color from horizon to horizon. If there were any clouds to hide the sun, usually a bright pink ball, you could only pick them out when it passed behind them, their edges utterly indistinct from the sky. The light simply faded from that pale color to black. It only darkened, never changing hue.
Right now, the sun is the color of burning potassium, somewhere between red and pink, neon bright. The sky looks as though those fields are on fire again. The clouds barely stand out as slightly blue-stained patches. The temperature has fallen considerably, and my watch cover is no longer enough to ward off the chill. Facing west, I watch the last moments of the day. As the sun slips below the waves, the sky shifts colors from smoke-stained yellow to burning red-pink, then rapidly fades to twilight. The darkness closes in faster than it should. Rain starts to sting my skin like needles kept in ice. It is still winter this far north, never mind the calendars. I sip my coffee and find it as cold as the air that has rendered my fingers numb. I just poured it, damn it.
Hell with it; didn’t want to be out here anyway. A few of my shipmates are standing with me. They are struggling to relight their cigarettes and cigars. There is nowhere to stand to escape the damp and withering spray coming over the rails. I nod to them and head back inside. I have a pot to win back. Assuming I can warm my fingers enough to hold the cards.
Damn, it’s cold.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
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