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The atmosphere at sea

Ishmel said:

“Whenever it is a damp November in my soul … I quietly take to the ship. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree — some time or other — cherish very nearly the same feeling towards the sea with me.

“I did not mean to infer that I go as a passenger,” Ishmel explained. “When I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor. I always go as a sailor because of the wholesome exercise and pure air on the forecastle. As in this world, headwinds are more prevalent than winds from astern.”

“For the most part, the captain on the quarterdeck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors.”

By the time I sailed, things had reversed. Ship captains had apparently grown weary of breathing second atmospheres passed from ordinary seamen such as me. They moved the bridge to the boat’s bow to better enjoy the pureness of the sea’s breezes.

Capt. Walter “Wally” Watkins sure enjoyed them. He first shipped out in 1968. In 1989, he assumed command of his first vessel — the E.M. Ford. During his career, Wally sailed as master of five of the seven Cement plant vessels. He finished his career as fleet captain and skipper of the Alpena.

“The best part of sailing is the sunrises and sunsets you experience out in the middle of a lake. The clear skies at night and the stars are awesome on a clear night with no lights. The main rivers are a sight to see that not many can experience,” Capt. Watkins said.

Notice he made no mention of “atmospheres at second hand,” having been able to breath the fresh air at the ship’s bow. That’s only fair.

Wally Watkins and other skippers carry the weight of responsibility for both cargo and crew. They guide their vessels not only in the freshness of summertime but into fall and winter and storms.

“Moving a structure two football fields long and a basketball court wide is stressful — you have to be focused all the time,” Capt. Watkins said. The storms you get caught in can be very violent. Experience helps you understand the weather and how to proceed.

And it’s not just the weather that keeps changing.

The newest bulk carriers are again configured as they were in Ishmel’s time — with the skipper up high on a quarterdeck aft — once again experiencing second atmospheres.

Capt. Pat Hart is the skipper of the 135-foot Tugboat Albert. Albert is mated to the barge Margaret — affectionately known as Marge. Marge holds 100,000 gallons of light oil — diesel fuel and/or gasoline.

Albert and Marge are a newer breed of bulk carrier, like the bulk cement-carrying barges Integrity and Innovation — pushed by tugboats G.L Ostrander and Samuel de Champlain — that transport loads of cement from Alpena to ports all over the lakes.

These tug and barge combinations are well over 500 feet long and carry up to 18,000 tons, pushed by as much as 7,200 horsepower with crew complements of a skipper and only seven or eight sailors. Their equipment is state-of-the-art. Some vessels now have dynamic positioning systems allowing their positions to be maintained by computers.

Contrast these vessels with the Paul H.Townsend, the ship I sailed on and that Capt. Watkins once skippered. The Townsend was 431 feet in length, carried a load of not quite 9,000 tons, with an engine that made 1,700 horsepower — but required a crew of 24.

Recently, the Townsend was scrapped. Things have changed.

But the atmosphere remains the same:

“This new ship here is fitted according to the reported increase of knowledge among mankind. Namely, she is cumbered end to end, with bells and trumpets and clocks and wires — it has been told to me — that can call voices out of the air of the waters to con the ship while her crew sleeps.

“But sleep Thou lightly.”

“It has not yet been told to me the Sea is not the Sea.” — Rudyard Kipling

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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