Tugboats

December 2009     San Francisco

Arriving back in San Francisco last summer, I took a break from the medical work.  I found a company involved in local shipping, maritime logistics and tugboat operations, and started over at the bottom.  As usual, the bottom involved long hours, odd scheduling and repetitive menial tasks.  But the pay was very good and I figured that this work would lead to bigger and better things.  At the very least, it uncovered another American subculture:  the antisocially-employed maritime man.

The setting and location were great:  a dozen different working boats and a great big warehouse full of tools and heavy machinery in downtown San Francisco. The place smelled of diesel fuel and machine oil, seaweed and welding fumes.  There was a wonderful lack of throw-pillows and fashion magazines.

My first night, I muddled my way into the engineering section of the warehouse to start the sandblaster.  I came across a sallow old man in blue coveralls who unfortunately looked much like Bill Wyman, the elderly drummer of the Rolling Stones.  I think he may have been deposited on our dock by the tides decades ago.  Too late, I noticed the one sticker on his battered old hard hat.  Small print, all caps, front and center: “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME.”  The two-foot long crescent wrench in his hand further encouraged me to keep walking and ask someone else. I never did see that mortician speak or smile, but I hoped to squeeze a story out of him someday.

The next night I worked with Frankie “The Rat Whisperer.”  It is not so much the neck and knuckle tattoos that separated him from the others, no, that was commonplace.  It was his marksmanship. Frankie brought a pellet rifle to the workplace to stalk the vermin that share our wharf.  That night, he picked off thirty-eight rats, and pinned them all spread-eagle to a pegboard in the shop.   Frankie opted to not shoot any of the resident raccoons, possibly out of respect for their own complete disregard for our presence.  At night, massive schools of sardines swarmed under the dock lights, bigger fish and swimming birds snacked on them, and sea lions  erupted now and then to capture the striped bass.

It did not take long for this lifestyle to wear me out.  It was not so much the 0430 showtime at the dock, it was more the physical risk and the social drought that working on a tugboat involved. The captain that I worked for might use fifty words in a 12-hour shift, most of which were “Hey!” and “Fuck!”

There was not much conversation generally, and I did not tell any of them where I had been or what industry I came from.  Usually I just said “I’ve been away for awhile.”  Eventually it occurred to me that around the docks, that meant I had just got out of prison.  No wonder there were few follow-up questions.

The work was dangerous – dark and slippery decks, rolling on the waves of the foggy Bay.   There were a lot of trip hazards and pinch points, hot exhaust manifolds, greasy decks, tow-lines under high tension, and sometimes high winds and rain.  I noticed one guy with a crippled arm, another on his second disability for a lower back strain, one deckhand who was coming back after two broken ankles after falling off an upper deck, and some missing fingers here and there.  I got blunt advice on this topic:  “Don’t put your fingers where you wouldn’t put your dick.”  Thanks, dude.

Some of the guys were interesting, and the sights while out on the water were amazing.  More than once we pulled up alongside a moving ship in the middle of the night, to extract a well-armed Coast Guard tactical team from a rope ladder hanging down the hull.  Those were always random searches of oil tankers arriving from Muslim countries, now how about that?  Other guys were not as interesting, just counting the hours on the clock each day.  One captain named Dave, he probably won that prize.  We had taken an American crewman back to a ship anchored nearby, and on the way back, I mentioned that the crewman actually lived in Thailand now.  Dave looked perplexed and said “Thailand? Who the fuck would want to live there?  Ain’t that place like Mexico?!?  Shit…”

The work was scenic but uninteresting, and my time here would be limited.  I came mighty close to sinking a whole tugboat one night while crossing the Bay (they handle a lot differently than other boats, I quickly learned.)  Another night I actually did fall off a slippery barge while climbing up onto it.  Fortunately, I fell squarely down onto the deck of the tugboat below, not into the cold water or across a moving winch.

The last straw was after a four-hour transit up the Bay, crawling along at eight knots, loaded with pallets of gear and food for a ship at anchor.  I got a firm talking-to afterwards for reading the newspaper during that crossing, instead of….instead of what?  Tightening all the screws I could find?  The next day, I actually did tighten all the screws, collected a paycheck full of overtime and got the hell out of there.  It was good while it lasted, but I sure do not miss it.

Photos:  http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/sredir?uname=chrisgilsenan&target=ALBUM&id=5479149607086291233&authkey=Gv1sRgCJbthaCL08_XqwE&feat=email

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