Since long before the days of hand held radios and modern twin screw tugs, the deckhand has been responsible for the “first and last twenty feet” of the job. This means that he was relied upon to give direction to the tug using a small police whistle or use hand signals to safely guide the operator away from or into the berth since visibility was almost always impaired by the tow.
This critical skill frequently required an extended period of time on deck and it didn’t matter how cold, wet, wind-blown, or frozen the man was. He stayed on deck until he was released by a toot on the peanut whistle or a wave from the wheelhouse.
However, the deckhand who faithfully and admirably stood by his station and performed his duties could be somewhat less than noble. On occasion he could be found cursing a blue streak for all he’s worth if things were taking too long in his opinion, especially if he was freezing or soaked to the skin.
“That dock-shy sonofabitch, I could have had this thing to the dock last week”, or one of my favorites, “My little sister could do a better job getting this thing to the dock!”. No one can hold a candle to a sailor once he’s hit his stride and cursing a blue streak, it’s a thing of beauty.
There was precious little generosity granted when things were taking a little longer than normal. The wheelhouse was tasked with getting their charge to the dock safely and the deckhand needed to ensure that would happen. So if the conditions were a little more difficult than usual, the level of “bitchin’” was sure to rise. The epithets were hurled like a monkey’s fist on a heaving line away from and out of earshot of the wheelhouse. It was somewhat cathartic and made a difficult task a little less painful, but no matter the circumstances the deckhand was there until it was done.
There wasn’t any (acceptable) vocabulary to relay one’s discontent to the wheelhouse since a whistle or hand signal was all that was used. The job had to get done and if you weren’t properly dressed you could consider it a lesson for next time. We all learned to be keenly aware of “docking showers” since we’ve all suffered through that torrential downpour that occurs a mere 20 feet from the dock when there is no way in Hell you could leave the deck to get your rain gear. You tough it out and hope that the engine room is warm enough to dry you boots for the next watch.
In any case I hold the belief that it’s a deckhand’s God-given right to bitch on deck with one huge caveat; don’t let the wheelhouse hear it, ever. The idea that one might flash a signal at the wheelhouse other than what was required was grounds for a quick trip to the dock, adding one’s name to the bottom of the hiring list at the Union hall, and then maybe extracting that size 12 from one’s bottom end.
It behooves me to admit that I too was guilty of this behavior. When I was decking, I had occasion to stand alone in 20-degree weather with a 15-knot breeze off the dock for over 45 minutes one fine winter’s day. The old Rollins dock in Bayonne, NJ was falling down with exposed steel and splintered pilings, it wasn’t pretty and even less so when you had to land at the berth “in the blind”. The captain made multiple attempts to land under my direction. I gave him clear and proper whistle signals for what I knew was needed, and he was “blind” except for me. But over and again, he would back away from the berth just as I was close enough to get a line out and finally end my misery. And so, like many others before me I conjured all the foul thoughts and language I could muster and spewed that venom until the job was done. I had little sympathy for his predicament. I had safely guided him in such situations so many times before without a problem that his reluctance to let the barge get close enough was maddening. When at last we were moored, I came back aboard nearly frostbitten on my nose, feet, and hands. I spent an hour trying to warm up all the while cursing the man as my extremities thawed slowly in close proximity to the galley oil stove.
Some of the most creative and descriptive derogatory terms I’ve ever heard were from a damp, slightly chilled and weary tanker-man as he and I waited for the Mate to get us close enough to the dock to get a line out. I stood witness as he revealed his uncanny knack for tearing an approach down to its parts and passing his judgment on the wheelman’s lack of talent. Who knew a bargeman could wield such knowledge and expertise? Of course, it’s easy to criticize when you’re not at the wheel, or even a wheelhouse candidate. One of my favorite retorts was to tell the “resident docking master” that I’d be happy to relay his advice to the man at the wheel, or if he’d prefer, he could do it himself. That offer was never accepted.
Commiseration is such a perfect word. Barge captains, tanker-men and deckhands all share the misery of getting to the dock as Mother Nature rains down, blows, sleets, and snows upon them. It’s a perfect environment of shared discomfort, everyone is equally miserable. The scene is common throughout the industry, in any language, and any corner of the world. The wheelhouse always takes too long to get it done if you ask the man out in the weather.
The perspective changes, as it must, once you’re the man at the wheel. You know it’s likely the deckhand is cursing your lack of skill, style of dress, and even your taste in women. It’s entirely possible he’s calling your parent’s marital status into question as well. But as long as he’s turned and facing the dock when he does it, we can allow him his misery and let him vent. We did it ourselves not so long ago. We all remember our time on deck and we’d like to think that we’ll do a better job of keeping everyone happy and get things done quickly and safely now that it’s our turn at the wheel. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Either way, it isn’t about keeping everyone happy. It’s about doing the job safely without hurting anybody or anything.
So, it’ll take as long as it takes, feel free to bitch away boys, just let me know when you’ve got a line out.