I decided on this vacation to be more spontaneous.
So, instead of luxuriating for a month in San Sebastian after three days in Barcelona, as planned, my wife and I boarded a 90-meter merchant vessel named “Helenic” that was off-loading a cargo of wood pulp in the Spanish port of Pasaia.
See you all in a few months, or years, if ever.
Turning 60 soon…what the Helenic?
You think I’m making this up? Well, I have pictures.
Our Netherlands-based hunk of girded steel is captained by Barbara Francke, one of the few women to reach such a sea-faring rank. Ronald, chief mate, estimates the ratio of men to women captains is “4,000 to 1.”
It would embarrass Captain Francke to call her a pioneer of her sport, but that’s what she is, a regular Billie Jean Queen Mary. And let me tell you she runs a tight ship.
My wife and arrived Monday morning at the port of Pasaia, where Captain Francke greeted us warmly before buzzing us through the security gate.
The captain’s log had us leaving Pasaia around 4 p.m. for a four-hour sail to the port of Bermeo. From there, we would pick up a load of gypsum before shoving off to Sweden.
After that it was anyone’s guess.
The crew only knows a few days in advance where the next assignment will come. I told second-in-command Ronald, also from the Netherlands, this was kind of like being a sportswriter.
Ronald worked the fast-food business for 10 years in Holland before deciding he needed a serious life change. I told him this new line of work met all the conditions.
And no, Ronald did NOT work for McDonalds (but of course that’s what I asked).
Here’s how our new life will go. We’ll work six weeks on and six weeks off—not a bad deal. Whenever possible, we’ll try to write home to the kids.
When leaving port, Captain Francke and chief mate Ronald maintain continuous navigation of the ship, rotating in six-hour shifts. There is no steering wheel in the main cabin, just a ridiculously small “joy stick” on the command board.
I grabbed the binoculars and peered out toward the Atlantic Ocean. The forecast called for calm waters for the leg to Bermeo, but it’s not always smooth sailing.
Captain Francke said ice bergs are still an issue farther North and dodging them can be tricky, even with radar, if the ocean is choppy.
The crew of the Helenic is only six—now eight counting us. We stopped by the kitchen to find the cook making fish-head soup with potatoes. Captain Francke asked me if I got sea-sick and I said “not since a wild bubble bath as a child.”
Ronald said it takes about a year to figure out if you’re cut out for this line of business. He got sick his first few times out but finally got his sea legs. Those who can't hack it go back to shore.
“There are two stages of sea sickness,” Ronald said. “First you feel like you're going to die. Then, you want to die.”
Before shoving off, of course, we had to inspect the vessel. We made the rounds with Captain Francke as she visually checked her ship. After unloading such a heavy load, ballast must be maintained by adding water to balance the ship’s weight.
We inspected the life boats which, thankfully, have never been used other than for fishing.
Then, it was down to the engine room to check with Dmitry, dressed neck-to-ankles in his blue work suit. Other than the ship’s cook, Dmitry is the most indispensable person on board. We descended the ladder below—“Mind your head!”—to find him loosening a giant bolt with a giant wrench. Dmitry is a Russian who, as he joked to me, “Was born on the White Sea but now lives near the Black Sea.”
Dmitry is responsible for keeping the engine running and runs the cleanest tool room I’ve seen operated by a mechanic.
Now I know what they mean by “ship shape.”
Back on deck, Captain Francke showed us the guest quarters we would be using on our voyage.
Soon, we would be off to sea except, at the last minute, WE CHICKENED OUT.
Everything about this story is true except for leaving port.
Sunday night, we did meet Captain Francke, Ronald and Dmitry at a bar in Old San Sebastian.
We struck up a nice conversation that turned into a couple of hours. Captain Francke invited us to visit her ship the next morning before it left port.
My wife and I were on board for that visit but not for what came next.
“If you want,” Captain Francke said, “you can even sail with us to Bermeo.”
It was not a joke. We were offered the chance to become part of the crew of the “Helenic.”
My wife and I looked at each other and seriously considered the opportunity. We returned to our apartment and checked out the logistics. It would have required a level of choreography we were not able to muster. From Bermeo, there was no sensible, or financially responsible, way back to San Sebastian. No direct bus, no train and no Uber.
The Helenic pushed off without us. The only boat ride we took Monday was a two-minute ferry ride across the port for lunch in the sleepy Basque town of Pasaia Donibane. The ferry driver seemed miserable as if, he too, would have rather been on the high seas.
Did we miss our golden moment, our chance to step out of the hum-drum of life?
Or, did we avoid being held at gunpoint in an international kidnapping plot?
Imagine falling for that old scam where a woman from the Netherlands poses as a ship captain to lure dumb Americans into some cargo-ship robbery scam?
What if part of it was being handed off to Somali pirates?
We know, of course, this was not the case. These were fine, decent, English-speaking non-Americans offering us the sea-faring chance of a lifetime.
And we didn’t take of it.
We missed the boat and part of me will always wonder “what if?”
That said, what if our guest bunk got drafty at night, or Captain Francke asked me to tie a Fisherman’s knot?
I’m a writer…what if I cut my finger on coil or, while working in the engine room, Dmitry accidentally slammed my hand with his ball-peen hammer?
Is scurvy still an issue?
What if I got sea sick?