In 1999, during my sophomore year, I sent another 30 letters to tour companies in Alaska, asking for summer employment. To my surprise, I heard back from Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises, which ran a 50-passenger ship called Executive Explorer in the state’s Inside Passage, stopping in Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm Fjord, and a host of small ports.
I flew to Juneau in late May, unsure of what was in store. The pier where I was to meet the ship was crowded with boot-wearing fishermen resupplying a purse seiner. The air was cool and fresh, with a hint of diesel fumes and the muck of low tide. I watched from shore as a three-story catamaran, which looked like a wedding cake on pontoons, roared up to the channel-marker buoys and rode its own wake up to the pier. Its hull and beam were white, with blue lettering on the bow. The upper deck held top-end radar, sonar, and pressure-deployed life-raft canisters. This was all factual information I’d found in its marketing materials. The fact that this ship was coming for me, though, inspired awe.
When the ship was tied off, the captain yelled down from an open bridge window.
“Are you my new deckhand?”
“No. New server.”
“Well. The deckhand didn’t show, so you’re now my new deckhand.”
I had $89 to my name, so I didn’t yell back that I’d never been on a ship before. “Sounds good,” I said.
I boarded, was given a tour, and was taken to a small room under the waterline, where my bunk was one of five adhered to the wall. Once we got underway, the ship rocked with the waves and vibrated steadily from the twin Detroit Diesel engines. Thanks to that combination, my first night as a seafarer was spent heaving into a toilet. At 5:30 A.M., my alarm went off, and I headed out to start my shift. I would work eight hours on, eight hours off, for the next three months.
Twenty-nine rejections meant nothing if one job came of the effort. The lesson was clear: I could create my own adventure.
A nasty, chain-smoking U.S. Navy vet, who worked as an assistant engineer, spent a week showing me my duties. I was to tend to the outer decks, secure the ship and gangway for passengers in each port, and adjust the lines with the tides, which featured extreme swings of up to 24 feet over a single ebb and flow.
“Stay out of the bite of the line, you idiot,” he screamed as I tied off the ship in Haines. “If that line snaps, it will spring loose hard enough to cut you in half.”
He had dark black hair, a pitted face, and an emaciated overall look. He screamed all the time. He screamed while teaching me to do engine-room checks, chip and paint the decks, and secure the gangway.
On a more positive note were all the new things I saw. We sailed into desolate coves and isolated ports. Humpback whales breached next to us. I walked along rivers and found flopping salmon with teeth marks on their sides, put there by grizzly bears who’d been scared off only moments before. Standing on the bow, with my eyes shut and sea mist in my face, felt as much like prayer as anything I’d ever seen or done.
On my night rounds, I often saw the northern lights or heard the sounds of whales surfacing in the dark. While the world slept, I had this. My ego began to make me feel special for having these moments of solitude and grace.
As the summer wore on, my hands became ribboned with cuts from barnacle shards caked into the rope fibers, and I got accustomed to the insults of the assistant engineer, who often tipped over into psychotic rage when I did something wrong. He spent all his free time reading biker magazines and smoking in the dark next to the engines, a patron saint of hatred.
Meanwhile, day by day, I really began to appreciate the passengers. Whether they were recent retirees on a dream trip or industrial business owners leveled by the beauty of the wilds, it was humbling to share in their awakening wonder.