ABOARD THE ARCO JUNEAU-
On a calm afternoon in the Gulf of Alaska last month, Capt. Greg Knowlton walked to the bow of the crude oil tanker Arco Juneau, under full steam and headed for the refineries at Cherry Point, Wash.
Behind him stretched a steel deck nearly three city blocks long and half a block wide, covering 35 million gallons 120,000 tons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil.
At the stern, a 26,000horsepower, steamturbine engine turned a propeller the size of a movie screen at one revolution per second, pushing the 142,500 tons of ship and cargo at 18 miles an hour.
Just to the right of the bow's tip, Knowlton stepped on a support rail, flung his head and shoulders over the edge and looked straight down. About 20 feet below the Pacific Ocean rolled by.
"You gotta see this," he said to a companion. "Watch your hat, now."
The bow plowed through the sea, the leading edge of the keel that knifed 52 feet into the Gulf. The Juneau muscled aside nearly 50,000 tons of green water, frothing and foaming white, rolling and crashing to either side of the bow. The tumult roared like a jet engine. Cool wind rushed up from the water's surface and hit Knowlton hard in the face.
He stayed like that for nearly a minute, riding the tip of a floating cocoon of raw energy. Refined, the Juneau's contents could run all the cars in Anchorage for three months. Dumped downtown, the oil would cover the nine square blocks between First and Ninth avenues and C and L streets to a depth of nearly six feet.
"This probably isn't the smartest thing to do, but I just wanted you to see this," he said, pulling his head back after a long time. He stood quiet for a few more seconds, letting the ocean roar.
"I've done this ever since I first came to sea, wander up to the bow and look over. It gives you a real sense of the power of what we're on here. Neat, huh?"
SEAFARERS FIRSTAround the clock, every day of the year, the Juneau and tankers like her steam the west coast of North and Central America, delivering oil to Washington state, California, Panama and Hawaii. The oil seldom stops.
But to people like Knowlton, the fact that the cargo is oil is secondary to their profession they are seafarers first, oilmen by happenstance.
"I only knew I wanted to go to sea," Knowlton said, remembering his younger days. "Arco hired me. If it'd been another company, like another oil company or a container line, I'd be with them."
The tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground March 24 and dumped 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound. Since then, seafarers who work on oil tankers have found themselves the object of new public attention.
The members of the U.S. Merchant Marine belong to a subculture of American life currently in the throes of change. The image of the globewise, freewheeling, harddrinking sailor is slowly fading. Their ranks keep shrinking, and so does their value to an increasingly some say overly automated maritime industry.
In the past decade, improving technology and growing demand for petroleum have changed the lives of American seamen, probably forever. Better cargomoving techniques and machinery mean tankers spend fewer than 24 hours in port. Shore leave in faroff and exotic lands is often just a memory.
Sailors still tell stories of rousing drunkenness ashore. But strict company rules on alcohol and drug use, initiated years before the oil spill, mean those stories are, more and more, just old timers' talk.
Automation allows ships to run with fewer crew members, and ship operators have cut staffing again and again during the past decade. Those cuts have gone too far, say some seafarers and their unions. Fewer hands on board mean longer hours for those left, and that means fatigue and a greater likelihood of accidents.
The tedium of days at sea, shrinking wages and a growing reluctance to leave home and family for months at a time have taken their toll on American mariners. Some in the industry say an Exxon Valdez disaster was long overdue, and won't be the last.
"You can push these guys until you can't push anymore," said John Pitts, chairman of the Atlantic Maritime Employees Union, representing Arco's lowerranking seamen. "Someone better start paying attention to what's really happening with the people on board these ships, or else you're going to have oil all over the goddamn ocean."
SOUTHWARD BOUNDHaze hung low and heavy over the Port of Valdez about noon on Aug. 10, a Thursday. Aboard the Juneau, tied to Berth 1 at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal, the crew's attention focused on the pumps sucking oily ballast water out of the vessel's 16 cargo tanks and dumping it into the treatment plant. They eyed gauges, measured water levels constantly, calculated and recalculated flow rates. All the attention was meant to ensure the vessel stayed balanced as she rose in the water.
With her ballast off, the Juneau lay ready for oil. By radio, a controller from the Alyeska terminal called Chief Mate Ken Greig in the tanker's pump control room.
"Juneau, if you're ready, here we go."
Greig answered and, within seconds, Prudhoe Bay crude oil started flowing through four 15inch diameter pipes and into the Juneau's cargo tanks at a rate of 840,000 gallons an hour. The oil's temperature was 110 degrees; it made the pipes hot to the touch.
Greig watched the gauge levels begin to rise. "If everything goes right," he said, "we don't even see the stuff."
The Juneau took on oil all night, 35,365,512 gallons of it. By 6 a.m., the crew stood ready to cast off.
From the pump control room, activity moved to the bridge, 12 stories above water line. Third Mate Karen Devine put a fresh roll of paper in the course heading recorder. She spun the ship's wheel and watched the needle of the rudder angle indicator gauge sweep back and forth. On deck, Greig pointed and called to the AB's, ablebodied seamen, as they heaved tie up ropes back on deck.
Capt. Knowlton, Pilot John Cunningham and Devine stood watch on the bridge. The tugs Guardian and Biehl Trader helped pull the Juneau from the dock. They would stay with her through the Sound, a new state requirement since the oil spill.
The Juneau's destination: Washington state, then San Francisco Bay a week away.
Knowlton: "Hard left rudder."
Devine, relaying: "Hard left."
Helmsman, spinning the wheel: "Hard left rudder."
Knowlton, to the helmsman: "Midship steady."
Helmsman: "Midship steady."
Knowlton: "Half ahead."
Devine, at the engine controls: "Half ahead."
In a narrow room 120 feet in the air, Knowlton, Cunningham and Devine were maneuvering a structure the size of the Fifth Avenue MallJ.C. Penney department store complex.
The propeller, 27.5 feet across, sent salt water boiling up on both sides of the Juneau's stern. The salt water pushed aside fresh water that had lain on the surface, etching a dark wake across Port Valdez.
From the Juneau's bridge, the tank terminal grew small. The Hinchinbrook Entrance, where the Sound meets the Gulf of Alaska, was seven hours away.
The Juneau cruised at about 12 knots as she approached the Valdez Narrows, three miles long and threequarters of a mile wide. For a tanker, which needs nearly three miles to come to a complete stop, the Narrows are a tight corridor with no room for error. Time to slow up and steer steady. Pilot Cunningham took over from Knowlton, calling out compass points and engine speeds.
By regulation, Coast Guardtested pilots are responsible for steering large cargo vessels like the Juneau into or out of American ports. A pilot is expected to know the waters of his home port like a farmer knows his fields.
Ahead of the Juneau and already through the Narrows steamed the Liberianflagged tanker Seal Island, commanded by Italian officers with a Filipino crew. She was headed for St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, Cunningham said. Foreign ships carry American pilots all the way through the Sound, but Cunningham would disembark near Bligh Reef, just outside the Narrows.
"Give me a heading, TwoTwoFive," Cunningham called. The seaman at the helm repeated the course.
The Narrows opened into Valdez Arm, clogged with icebergs that Friday morning. Knowlton said it looked almost like the night of March 23, when he passed through just ahead of the Exxon Valdez.
As Cunningham watched out the bridge windows, Knowlton peered at one of the ship's three radar screens. Both men watched the ice, huge chunks at least 60 feet tall, with another twothirds of their bulk below the surface. A dozen or more lay in the tanker's path.
"We gotta get around this little ice cube here," Cunningham said.
Knowlton paused to look out the window. He smiled. "That "ice cube' might weigh 45 tons. You never know."
Cunningham radioed the Coast Guard Valdez Traffic Service radar center and told them he'd be steering out of the traffic lane to clear ice. The lanes, established by the Coast Guard, are supposed to keep passing tankers separated. The only tanker within miles was the Seal Island, though, and it lay far ahead and pointed south, too.
A radar operator acknowledged, and Cunningham directed the Juneau to the southwest, eventually guiding her out of the southbound tanker lane.
At 9:45 a.m., the Juneau was skirting the edge of the opposing lane and had avoided the ice. Five minutes later, the pilot boat Bering came alongside and Cunningham got off. The pickup point lies near Bligh Island, near the spot where the Exxon Valdez met the rocks last spring. The pickup is about a mile farther down the route than where it used to be, but that was before the Exxon Valdez ran aground.
Knowlton radioed the Coast Guard traffic center in Valdez: "OK, pilot's away, we're out of the ice and I'm going back to the traffic lane. ETA Naked Island, eleven hundred."
Knowlton then turned toward the coffee machine and twitched his eyebrows, Grouchostyle. "Time for a cup."
The Juneau coursed through the open waters of Prince William Sound, but the diligence on the bridge continued. A dense belt of fog lay east to west across the Sound's midsection. Third Mate Devine and Knowlton stared at their radars. On the screens they watched a small fishing boat cross their path a mile or so ahead.
They finally left the fog behind. The Entrance lay ahead. But the Liberian tanker in front of them veered to the right, in front of the Juneau. To the left steamed the Chevron Mississippi, heading into the Entrance.
Knowlton didn't like the idea of maneuvering between the two, even though he had at least two miles between himself and either tanker. "Let's just give 'em plenty of room," he said. "We think we know where's he's going, anyway," nodding toward the Liberian ship.
Eventually, the Liberian tanker moved farther right. Knowlton steered between it and the Chevron ship and steamed for open water.
"All you gotta do is be patient," he said. "Then, when it's time, make a decision and go with it."
"I LOVE IT'Greg Knowlton is 37 years old. He and his wife, Nancy, have three children: Andrea, 6, Ryan, 4, and Amy, 2. He's from Westbrook, Maine, near Portland. A lot of merchant mariners come from Maine; the "Maine Mafia," they call themselves. People from Maine have little choice of careers, he said fish, farm potatoes or go to sea.
Knowlton is a short man with black hair and a trim, black mustache. He's open and friendly, the kind of boss who asks more often than orders. Seaman's Bosun George Militello, foreman of the six seamen on board, said Knowlton is probably stricter than most captains, but he's so nice and understanding that it's not noticeable.
Knowlton has been with Arco Marine since 1974, and a ship's captain, or master, for four years. He hopes the job lasts for a long time. But he was nearly grown before he gave serious thought to going to sea.
"My father was a dentist, but I think he was a frustrated sailor," Knowlton said. "He sailed early, but went to school to be a dentist. So did my older brother. I figured I'd go to dentistry school, too.
"But my dad said to me one day, he said, "The sea. It's really neat!' So, that's what I did. Maine Maritime Academy. I never thought I'd be here before then. But, I love it. I have a lot of responsibility for my age, and it's interesting.
"This is an alternative lifestyle. When I go to work, I go to work. And when I'm home, I'm home all the time. I get all my evenings and weekends all at once.
"Sure, I miss my family a lot. They have a little "Daddy' book at home with pictures in it. Nancy thought it up. And they keep a chart they use with a little boat that the kids move around. Nancy knows when I set sail and how long it takes to get to ports, so the kids move the boat up and around the chart and know where I am.
"I love my job. It's what I chose. But, you know, if someone offered me a job on the beach making the same money I was here, I'd be gone."
WELLAPPOINTED SHIPThe Arco Juneau was built in 1974 at the Bethlehem Shipyard, in Sparrows Point, Md. She's a 120 class tanker, meaning she carries cargo up to 120,000 deadweight tons. She was the first tanker to take North Slope oil from the Alyeska terminal in 1977.
Sheets of steel 13|8inch thick, or about two fingers wide make up her hull. Liquid cargo tankers are basically steel bladders that bend and twist with the motion of the sea. Better to bend than to break.
The Juneau is 883 feet long. Walk from the Sears lawn and garden department, through the Mall, to the Carrs produce section that's how long she is. She sits nearly 52 feet deep in the water when loaded. The steamturbine engine runs on bunker fuel, a thick, sticky, smelly refined crude, and she gets 84 gallons to the mile.
The Juneau is one of the smallest of Arco Marine's 10 tankers. The 25member crew lives in a sixfloor structure near the stern called the house. The lower floors are the cabins, lounges and mess halls. The chart room, radio room and wheel house are on top.
Every crew member has his or her own room with a bed, desk and sink. Everything is bolted down. The rooms are about the size of a doctor's examination room, a plain cream color, with linoleum floors. There is a ceiling light and a desk lamp. One porthole lets in sunlight; the porthole glass is sealed and can be covered from the inside by a heavy metal cover, hinged at the top and bolted tight at the bottom. Seamen double up to share showers and toilets. Officers have their own baths with showers.
The captain's quarters are spacious, with an office, a sitting room and a bedroom. Knowlton's flute usually lies on the sofa back, ready when he's in the mood to play.
The food is good and plentiful, prepared in a singleman, stainless steel galley between separate officers' and seamen's mess halls. The menus are basic American: broiled chicken, pizza, steak smothered in onions and mushrooms. Mess workers keep refrigerators stocked with lunch meats and ice cream bars for snackers. Both the officers' and crews' lounges have televisions and video players and shelves lined with paperbacks. The Juneau has a closet turned into a video library with about 500 titles: "Casablanca," "The Shining," "The Presidio."
NO 9TO5 JOBFriday morning, a day into the voyage, Chief Mate Greig stood alone, in the dark, at the very bottom of the Juneau. From the deck, 72 feet above him, only the beam of his flashlight showed.
Greig stood inside the starboard ballast tank, one of six ballast tanks around the ship that hold sea water to stabilize the vessel when it is not carrying oil. He looked for faulty valves. In Valdez, one of them had sprouted a leak and created problems for the pumpman.
On three sides of him, in separate cargo holds, the oil was 105 degrees and still radiating heat. On the fourth side, the hull held back a 50foot wall of ocean. The tank felt hot and grimy.
Over twoway radio, Greig talked with Bosun Militello on deck.
"OK, heading forward. Everything's all right here," Greig radioed from the bottom.
"Roger that," Militello said. The bosun's voice came out of Greig's radio, bounced up the walls of the tank and echoed eerily.
Greig climbed out of the tank, drenched with sweat. He would spend most of the trip to Cherry Point at the bottoms of tanks, with the engineers, fixing things.
Greig is 35, married and has a 2yearold son. He is tall, lanky, with curly red hair and a red beard and mustache. He's a native of Syracuse, N.Y., and retains his "New Yawk" accent. But the family lives in Bellingham, Wash., now.
"I just knew I'd never want a desk job," he said. "My folks, they didn't have much money, and I had a younger brother and sister. I knew they wouldn't have the money to be sending anyone to college. So, at first, I thought I'd like to try forestry school. Yeah, like trees and outdoors and stuff. Then my dad found out about the maritime college."
Greig said the summer he spent as a cadet aboard an Exxon tanker settled his mind to chase a career as a sea officer.
"I saw these guys working and thought, "These guys are professionals, y'know? Doing this job, it means something. This is a career, or could be.' I guess that's what got me."
Chief mates are second in command to the captains, and they probably put in more hours than anyone else on board. Salaries in excess of $65,000 a year are common. In return, they are responsible for crew work assignments, loading and unloading cargo and, along with the second and third mates, standing two fourhour watches every 24 hours.
Greig has been at sea for 13 years. He takes a matteroffact attitude toward the long hours of his job.
"One time, I was up 15 hours on deck in the snow. I was a zombie. I finally got done, got to bed and two and a half hours later I had to take my watch. Now that's when you're talking fatigue factor. But that's when the second and third mates stand in for you, 'cause they know how long you've been up.
"There's less and less guys, and the company still wants the same turnaround, the same ships and the same load rates. How you gonna get around that? Put better equipment on the ships and you can do with less men. But what do you do in emergencies? When you need the hands to fight a fire? I dunno what the tradeoff is.
"But, if you're gonna be chief mate, you gotta expect some of that. Hey, don't get me wrong. I like my job. It's demanding, sure. Physically, mentally. Sure, I could go ashore and make, say, $28,000 a year. But I couldn't have the house we have now. I couldn't send my kids to college."
REASON TO SAILSummers are smooth, but winters can be monstrous. Crew members all know of days when the sea rocked the ship violently, rolling so bad they had to tie themselves into their bunks. Knowlton keeps pictures of a day when a 40foot wave washed over and submerged the tanker deck. Times like those, he said, they all remind themselves oil floats.
But on Saturday evening, puffy clouds hung high, and the sky beneath shone pure, light blue. The water shimmered like crystal, smooth and soft. A glass sea.
The ship pointed southeast, and the sun set off her right rear corner. The ball peeked below a dark gray cloud bank and glowed orange hot. Orange slivers shimmered off the indigo water, narrow at the horizon, growing wider until they hit the hull at the water line.
The light was so pure, the small details of the piping on deck stood out sharply. The shadows had razor edges.
When the sun set, a threequarter moon took flight into the southern sky, laying a line of sparkling white ripples on the water.
Only faint moonlight illuminated the inside of the bridge. Lights are kept off, the easier to see in the dark. Third mate Devine stood watch. She is a 26yearold midwesterner graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, Long Island, N.Y., three years ago.
In the dark, Devine leaned against a window sill and laid her chin on her forearms. These were the times she had come to sea for.
"I guess I'm the enthusiastic kid on board here," she said, watching the near blackness. "I still feel some of the romanticism about going to sea, y'know? Seeing different places, the ocean and how beautiful it is. I'm still real excited about it."
The only sound came from the low rumbling of the ship's engine. The Pacific rolled the Juneau gently back and forth.
After a long silence, Devine whispered: "This makes it all worth it."
NOT LIKE THE OLD DAYSBy early Sunday, the journey had settled firmly into routine. Everything ran by the clock mates and seamen stood their watches, 12 o'clock to 4, 4 to 8 and 8 to 12. Breakfast, 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; dinner, 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The cook usually placed some leftovers on the kitchen counter for the evening. After dinner, some watched movies, others read in their cabins.
It is the kind of life that leads to the excesses seafarers are infamous for, according to psychologists and sociologists who have studied the merchant marine. Alienation from society, a tendency to overwork, alcohol and drug abuse have all been part of life at sea.
Sunday evening, Ordinary Seaman Tim Murray, Pumpman Don Woodward and Chief Steward Ed Gehm sat around a mess table, drinking coffee and talking.
"You get to know people out here," Gehm said, and he pointed to Woodward. "Like him. Him, I know when he's on board even if I don't see him come on, 'cause he orders hotcakes every morning for breakfast. Two hotcakes."
"Yeah, that's right. Hotcakes. This is the only place where I eat hotcakes," said Woodward. His voice is thickly northeastern, long vowels and barely audible R's. "I don't eat breakfast at home. But I will here. 'Cause it's mealtime. You get to see people. Good God, this is the only place sometimes you get to socialize with everyone. Where you know they'll be there."
Woodward is a grayblond bearded man from Maine. He's 45, stocky, wrinkled, with leather hands from pulling thick, rough rope all his adult life. He'd been to sea once before, but went home to be a teacher and principal at a rural Maine school for seven years. But $13,000 a year and his wife's bank teller salary wasn't enough to support the couple and their four daughters. He came back to sea eight years ago.
"Now, it seems, the camaraderie is nonexistent, almost," Woodward went on. The others nodded as he talked. "Twenty years ago, guys played cards or just sat around talking. You had guys sleeping three or four to a room and you got to see people. But nowadays, you finish work and go to your cabin, listen to your radio. That's no way to live."
Gehm blew a cloud of Marlboro Light smoke into the air. "You know what kind of person gets a job like this, though? I think you gotta be a loner to begin with. I think a lotta these guys are loners."
Murray agreed. "Yeah, I'm kinda like that. I mean, when I'm on shore, I don't like being around crowds. I mean, I'm not a weirdo or anything like that. Not antisocial or anything. But, I just like doing things on my own, y'know?"
"Y'know, this job has really changed," Woodward added. "OK, you wanna talk drinking. Let's get that out. Sure, seamen drink. But no more than people on shore. And, like today, you got young, family men with responsibilities, and you can lose your job if you get caught. Even in society on the beach, there's not that much more drinking anymore, anyway."
Indeed, industry figures show a marked decline in alcoholism and drug abuse among seafarers eight cases reported in 1987 versus 131 cases reported in 1970.
The adventure of going to sea and seeing the world is mostly gone for American seafarers, especially for those working for an oil company. Seafarers trade job security and regular stints at sea for boredom and little relief time during the voyage.
Ships lay in port usually no more than a day. Companies like Arco used to have relief crews in major ports who would take over loading or unloading duties from the seagoing crews and give them time to play. But all companies dropped them in the last decade, choosing instead to make the seagoing crews do the port work. In addition, the crew must still keep its roundtheclock watches. So seafarers say it's rarely worth the time and money to go ashore during port calls anymore.
The changes in lifestyle have made some seafarers rethink their careers. Second Mate John Mileo, for one. He's 33, a 1978 graduate of the King's Point academy. An upstate New Yorker, he and his wife, Annette, have a 6yearold girl and an 18monthold son.
Mileo's been with ARCO 11 years, but he's not sure how much longer it will last.
"Hey, I've got no regrets. At 29 years old, I was going to Brazil, Argentina, Korea, Japan, Scotland, all over. I got into it for the adventure, sure. Like a lotta people.
"But, y'know, I tell these new guys, like Karen or these cadets, I'll tell 'em, "Don't give up your options. You like it out here, that's great. You got enthusiasm? Good.' But, I tell 'em this is a dinosaur industry. I mean, what's going to be out here for them in 10 years?"
Uncertainty about the future kept the men talking in the mess hall late into the evening. Going to sea used to be a lot more fun, they said. But, with the changes now, who would still choose the sea?
Don Woodward, the pumpman, lowered his eyes and said: "There will always be someone for this type of job. There will always be someone who wants someplace to go, someone with no family, someone who just wants to drift.
"If you want to just drift through life, this is the place to be."
MONTHS APARTElizabeth Hayden is the kind of spouse a seafarer wants. She and Jim Hayden, the Juneau's first engineer, have been married for 18 years, "But, I guess it's only nine," she said, "figuring he's been home only half the time."
Elizabeth jokes about the fact that mariners live most of their lives away from life on the beach family, friends, social activities. For some seafarers and their spouses, the price is too high. But the Haydens have stayed together.
In August, Elizabeth rode aboard the Juneau, with her husband. The company allows officers to bring spouses on trips occasionally, to let them see what their work life is like.
The Hayden family lives in Camden, Maine. Jim had already gone to sea when he and Elizabeth met. She taught school, and kept her job until Jimmy was born 11 years ago. Debbie came three years later. Elizabeth has stayed home ever since.
"The girls I know who are married to seamen don't work 9to5 jobs because you want to be around when he comes home and have absolutely nothing getting in the way," Elizabeth said. "When we first met, he'd be gone four months or five, sometimes half the year. That's when he saw the world. Being with Arco now is the best thing for us, though. Two months out, two months at home. I wouldn't want him gone any longer.
"It's all the kids have ever known. Debbie, after about 55 days, she'll say, "Well, isn't it about time for Dad to come home.' It's like she's got an internal clock.
"Some things are still hard. At home, when things break down, or certain bills come that you weren't expecting, those kinds of things you want to talk over with the other person, you know? But, when he calls home when he's in port, the last thing you want is to bring up problems over the phone.
"Then, he comes home and it's like Christmas and you don't want to break bad news or anything like that. It takes him a couple of weeks just to wind down after getting home. So, it seems like I keep a lot of stuff inside. Sometimes things never get handled until right before he's getting ready to leave again. It gets frustrating sometimes.
"And, if anything, he'll bend over backward not to be the disciplinarian with the kids. You know, they see him so seldom, and he doesn't want to be the bad guy when he's home."
Being away from home never gets easy. Christop Rowe, 39, is the ship's radio operator and electronics technician. He is the ship's voice and emergency contact for folks ashore. Sometimes, he's the bearer of bad news from home.
"It's never easy when you get those messages about problems at home," Rowe said one evening over coffee. "The messages to call home because a relative has died, or to call the wife because it's an emergency. You hate to see those things, but that's life at sea."
Some sociologists think the separation from shore life helps form a common seafarers' attitude that they have little control over their lives. Every mariner has his or her own variation on the theme roll with the waves, take the good with the bad, wait it out. They deal with their lives as they deal with the sea.
"You gotta live with these people 24 hours a day, and sometimes you get people who like to throw their weight around or just don't get along," said Oliver Babajko, an ablebodied seaman. "You just be quiet and take it. Most people learn to bend with it. Go along with the tide, most of the time."
Babajko lives in his home country of Yugoslavia with his wife, Damirka, daughter Andrea, 12, and son, Erik, 6. He makes about $33,000 a year, excellent support for his family, but with pay cuts over the past six years, it's only 14 percent more than he made when he first went to sea nine years ago.
And, every time, leaving home gets harder on Damirka and Andrea.
"It's time to be home," Babajko said. "Maybe one more trip. Maybe one more ship."
IN AND OUT OF THE FOGMonday, the Juneau and her crew approached the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entrance to Puget Sound. Signs of civilization were everywhere. Fishing boats, pleasure sails; tankers, container ships and barges veering toward the northwest, setting a course for the arcing Great Circle routes to the Orient.
As they approached the Strait, Knowlton remembered a passage from the United States Coast Pilot mariner's guide to coastal waters:
"In few parts of the world is the vigilance of the mariner more called upon than when entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific in fog . . . it is at its worst from about July through October . . . Here, visibilities drop to less than 0.75 miles on about 55 days annually . . . (The fog) gives the appearance of a wall . . . "
That afternoon, the Juneau sailed into the wall. Fog lay thick enough to partially obscure the ship's bow, two city blocks from the bridge. The usual precautions were observed: man at the wheel, a watch on the bridge wing, fog horn blowing, master conning the vessel, constant monitoring on the radar.
The glowing green screens showed dozens of white dots ahead of the Juneau fishing boats with nets and lines out. Knowlton would have to steer around them.
"That's the rule," he said. "They can't pick up nets or pull lines easily to get out of the way. They can't move. We can."
Eventually, the Juneau popped out of the fog, only to face more small fishing and pleasure boats at the entrance to Port Angeles the 200foot Yellow Fin, threequarters of a mile to port; another 200footer crossing the Juneau's path; three 50footers to starboard; 18foot sailboats sprinkled about.
At Port Angeles, Puget Sound Pilot Charlie Johnson came aboard. He would guide them the last five hours to Cherry Point, near the northwest tip of Washington state. On the bow rail, 20 seagulls perched as the Juneau steamed up Rosario Strait, past evergreencovered islands, the Lummi Indian reservation where the locals fished the reef and more pleasure boats. The Strait looked like glass.
Cherry Point is nothing but oil refineries Arco, Intalco, CalGas, British Petroleum. The closest town is Blaine, a $16 taxi ride to the north. Bellingham, to the south, is bigger, but it costs $30.
Rather than head into town, most crew members settle for their "prison phone call," as Chief Mate Greig calls it a call home on one of the pay phones on the dock.
After all, in 14 hours, they will be back at sea again.
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