Cruise ships. Those words elicit a firestorm of opinion in many Alaskans. Some see the potential economic benefit and decide that’s enough reason to roll out the red carpet. Some worry about the impact the ships have on the health of our waters. Others have a hard time feeling like their home is an amusement park for visitors. I heard a rumor about when a midsize ship stopped in Elfin Cove a few years ago, only to find some fish guts dumped on their deck. Again, it’s a rumor. Luckily most people allow for a little nuance in their world. Petersburg only gets the midsize ships; the largest ones we’re able to get carry somewhere around 200 passengers. The more common ones carry 40-100 passengers, then the crew. I can’t imagine our town being eclipsed by one of the larger ships that would double our town’s population for the day. I know other communities make it work somehow, most notably Skagway and Ketchikan, but physical limitations mean we’ll never have to deal with that option.
I know this affects my perspective. I’ve also been doing contract labor with one of the companies the last four years. Through that I’ve been able to have conversations with deckhands, stewards, chefs, captains and engineers who make the season happen. I also meet folks from the ships who come into the bookstore, looking for a distraction, a gift, or a “How to Bartend” instruction manual.
Each crew member has their own story. One used to work with schooners in Boston, spending his time navigating east-coast river systems. I asked him what he thought about Alaska after the couple months he’d been here. He laughed. “This has been the wettest, coldest summer I’ve ever experienced. But I’m not complaining.” Then I heard the similar refrain, that one about how the wilderness wins you over in the end.
One deckhand started working for the boat as a steward, cleaning rooms and serving meals to guests. She had six months to kill before starting law school, and knew about the opportunity from a cousin who worked on the ship. “When will I get to do this again? I’m going to have to be a grown up soon. I’ll make this last as long as possible.” She came back as a deckhand to do a quick contract, and did homework for her first year of law school on the side. “You know, I figured, 12 hour shifts, that leaves eight hours of sleeping then four hours for homework.” She spent her day off in Glacier Bay preparing for an exam with a killer study view.
Many who gravitate to the boating world enjoy their quiet time. So being on a boat for weeks on end and surrounded by 50-100 people may not always be a compatible combination. But people find a way to enjoy their time. They find quiet in the nooks and crannies of the boat, escape in books and whatever DVD’s are on board, and generally find ways to make their own entertainment.
An example: With this particular company, it was rare for the boats to actually be in the same place at the exact same time. So when they found themselves sharing a harbor one night, the chief mate came over with a few others to catch up with their coworkers. But they had an ulterior motive. A suspicious deckhand, knowing that the other boat’s chief mate usually had a trick up his sleeve, searched the skiff. And found a sign. “FOR SALE BY OWNER” the sign said, with a fully comprehensive ‘list’ like:
“Hold on to your merkins, she bops along at 10 1/2 kts when she’s runnin’ downhill!”
“At home in the ocean… rolls like a pig in the mud!”
He took the sign before they had a chance to affix it to the hull, instead it got put up in the crew lounge for the next year.
There isn’t an epic prank every day. Sometimes you just have to work through the week. Recently it was raining. Again. So we pulled out a project that involved tying a line for something on the rescue boat. They prepared the knot kit and manual, cut off lengths of line and got started.
“Marlinspike is a fancy way of saying macrame for men,” the senior deckhand said, laughing as he looked for the guide he needed. “I rocked Girl Scout camp friendship bracelets, so I was basically born for this,” joked the future-maritime-lawyer, current-deckhand, as she started her knots from muscle memory.
We worked for a few hours, chatting with the stewards and officers who wandered in and out. Eventually dinner was ready, so everyone settled around us to eat their food. As I wrapped up my project I took a second to look around the room.
What brings these folks together is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s a family affair, with generations working together to give people the vacation of a lifetime. Others spend most of the year away from their family to provide a good living, or are drawn to the opportunity to work in a place others only get to vacation. Some have worked boats all their lives, and for others this job marked their first time off land. Together these companies facilitate the Alaskan experience for thousands of people every year, and they’re just getting started.
• Chelsea Tremblay lives and writes in Petersburg.