On Night Shift, The Life of a Sailor, Tattoos, and San Diego
04/21/2011 59 °F
I’m forty miles out to sea, heading north along the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. It’s a bit snuffy out here. There are 4 to 6 foot waves hitting off of our port bow, gives us a long diagonal roll (forward to aft) followed by a sharper sway (side to side) to compensate. It’s been gradually building since we rounded the southern tip of the peninsula, also known as “the cape”, “land’s end“, and Cabo San Lucas.
Last night we were able to see how well we lashed down all of the loose objects on board. It was a good first test, and we passed. As seas build, the violent movement of the ship increases exponentially. We’ll see how things go when there are eight foot seas.
In the night, we discovered a leak on our forward port, and a mysterious creaking noise coming from the forecastle. There isn’t much we can do about the leak now, except sop up the trickle of water with towels, and keep our eye on it.
The chief engineer and I explored the bilges underneath the forecastle to discover where the creaking noise was coming from. To crawl in the bilges in a heaving ship isn’t easy. It’s a cramped space, with no place to comfortably put a foot down, and plenty of hard, sharp edges to hit one’s head upon. We discovered the sound was from an aluminum deck plate, creaking with the bend of metal in the swells. It was nothing to worry about.
I’m working the night shift. My shift runs from 8 pm to 6 am, and for me it’s a fun shift to work. I volunteered for it, actually. The other deckhands we have are relative new comers and a bit green (literally). The most seasoned one has only been here just over a month, and the other two have just arrived. I’ve been here six months, which doesn’t sound like a long time, but believe me, it is. I’ve been on this ship continuously longer than everyone else on board. Since October, I’ve been living the life of a sailor onboard this ship. It’s a good life; it’s more like a working vacation for me. It has allowed me to explore some amazing desert islands and to live more amazing ocean experiences than I would have otherwise. I’ve swam with whale sharks. I’ve kissed a gray whale. I’ve swam in bioluminescence. I’ve climbed some amazing desert mountains few people take the time to admire.
The night shift is fun. There are three of us working in the night. One of the mates drives the vessel, an engineer is around to help out and to take control if there is something wrong with our engines or steering. I’m walking the decks to make sure everything is secured, make engine rounds, and look for trouble. I take it sincerely, I’m the first line of defense if there is anything wrong (such as the leak in the forward lounge), and there is no place I’d rather be.
I enjoy navigating the decks of a heaving ship in the salt spray, wind and dark. It makes me feel alive, and its fun to rely on your own athletic ability and know how in adverse conditions. I love the life of a sailor. I love the history, the ocean, and the unknown. There is something addicting about the ocean that calls to certain people. It satisfies the wanderlust in me, and makes me happy. I’m experiencing a part of the world (and life), that very few people have ever experienced. I’m going to be proud to say I’ve sailed from the Baja peninsula all the way up the west coast of North America to Alaska.
I’ll have earned my sparrow. There is a tradition of tattooing among sailors, with different symbols standing for different feats.
The sparrow indicates having sailed 5000 miles. A swallow indicates every 5000 miles sailed. So two swallows would be 10000 miles. I think I’ll have earned two swallows by the end of this voyage. Sailors get swallows because they always know the way home. I’m not sure I know the way home anymore…
I want to get an anchor tattoo on my right forearm, ala Popeye style. To earn it, I’ll have to sail on the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve also could put a compass rose or two stars, so I always know where I’m going. I like the idea of putting crosses on the bottom of my feet to ward off sharks…
The following is a list of Traditional sailor decoration and meanings.
Sailors got their ears pierced because it helps improve eyesight (I think it’s an acupuncture site).
A black pearl earring for survivors of a sinking ship.
Golden earrings were used as a means of ensuring they were buried properly should they die at sea or in a foreign port.
In modern times a brass earring denoted a survivor of a ship sinking.
One left ear piercing for crossing each of the Equator, Artic Circle, and Antarctic Circle.
Earrings were thought to keep spirits from entering through the ear, but that's not a purely sailor thing.
A sparrow for every 5000 thousand nautical miles traveled,
A sailor would get a swallow tattoo for every 5000 miles he had sailed.
A swallow because it will always find its way home.
A rooster and pig on the ankles are to prevent a sailor from drowning.
The pig and the rooster are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck.
A tattoo of a pig on the left knee and a rooster (cock) on the right foot signified "Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
Tattoos of pigs and chickens were to make sure they always had their ham and eggs so that they never go hungry.
A turtle standing on its back legs (shellback) for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
A tattoo of King Neptune if you crossed the Equator.
Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a boson’s mate.
Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees for the Mediterranean cruises in WWII.
Many US sailors have a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
The words HOLD and FAST were tattooed on the knuckles to help hold line.
Hold Fast across the knuckles to keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
Anchor tattoo for sailing the Atlantic.
Full rigged ship for sailing around Cape Horn.
Dragon Tattoo for a sailor who had sailed into port in China
A Golden Dragon was for sailors who had crossed the International Date Line.
Rope around the wrist for being a dockhand.
Two stars to ensure always knowing the way.
The anchor usually noted that the sailor was in the merchant marine.
Guns or crossed cannon for military naval service.
Harpoons for the fishing fleet.
Crosses on the soles of one's feet to ward off hungry sharks.
A nautical star, or compass rose was to always find your way home.
A dagger through a rose signified a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
Many sailors also got pornographic images so that they would always have them with them.
I found this list using a basic search engine. I think it is an interesting list. In fact, I read it aloud to the crew sitting around me in the dining room. To be sure, there are a lot of tattoos onboard this boat, though most of them aren’t nautical tats. I’ve yet to get a tattoo, but I’m making my mind up on the matter as I write this. :-D
So far my favorite scenes on this voyage have been right at dawn. There was a carpet of very low clouds stretching all the way to the horizon. The sea was relatively flat and calm rising and falling in the swell like the breathing of a slumbering child. The sun broke over the horizon, showed itself for a minute and disappeared above the clouds. It was very peaceful. I sipped my tea, leaned on the rail, and thought about where I was and what I was doing with my life. I had to smile.
This marks the end of the first leg of this journey. We docked in San Diego, California to clear customs, take on fuel, stores, and water. I haven’t spent a lot of time in San Diego, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to. I was tired from working all night, and was basically staying up so I could clear customs.
Coming into a big port by way of water is a great way to get a look at a city. We were cruising at roughly 8 mph, which compared to the speed of a car on the freeway, is crawling. I leaned on the rail and watched the cityscape open before me. Low clouds hung over the downtown buildings, and reflected off the water of the channel. It was peaceful, and perfect scenery for my tired eyes.
Tired as I was, it was good to see the city. The sea gets monotonous at times, especially when you are so far away from land. There isn’t much to see, but water and sky, with the occasional bird or mammal. To see land lubbers going about their daily life is interesting to us seafaring folk. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like to drive a car again…
So Long from the coast of California, heading to points north.