Like a sneaker wave grabs the unsuspecting and unaware, sucking them out into a rip tide, my career at sea begins. Phil and I meet while I’m a waitress at a place called the Abbey Galley on Newport’s bay-front. Every morning that they and their boats are in port, he and his commercial fishing buddies come in for coffee and gossip. They hang around drinking pot after pot of coffee, telling stories and talking boats and fish. Sometimes they have deckhands, and sometimes they don’t. Phil most often needs crew because, at sixty feet, his boat is larger than the others.
All the boats these guys own are wooden, and built sometime around the 1930s or 1940s. They need lots of love and care to keep them floating and looking as good as they do – and they are a sight. Floating on a placid bay, bows facing the wooden docks, they are the epitome of a quaint nautical life. The sight of a fleet of wooden fishing boats in port, all freshly varnished, oiled and painted, quiets my heart.
Anyway… Phil’s newest deckhand comes into the restaurant one morning. It’s love at first sight, at least for me. Steve’s a couple of years older – about twenty, and a student at Humboldt State University. He’s come up to make money during the summer salmon and tuna season to get him through his next term. Dark blonde hair with a full beard, he’s a bit taller than me, and handsome. I’m totally smitten.
We develop a pretty strong friendship, and I consider him my boyfriend, even though we’ve never slept together. He comes and goes on his fishing trips, and spends lots of his port time hanging around at my family’s home, riding his skateboard on our asphalt driveway.
Then, one day, Steve doesn’t show up. Doesn’t call… Not me, not Phil. Nobody knows where he is. Phil has a tuna trip coming up, and needs a deckhand.
Phil comes into the restaurant with his usual gang. They’re all commiserating about the lack of integrity of deckhands these days. How can Phil find anyone on such short notice? I come up with a pot of fresh coffee, and Phil turns to me. “Hey! Want to go fishing?”
The first word out of my undisciplined mouth is “Sure!”
By the look of him, he doesn’t expect a ‘yes’ from me. In fact, I’m thinking maybe it was like one of those jokes my brothers played on me as a child. The ones that set me up to make a complete fool of myself.
But, Phil recovers gracefully from his apparent astonishment.
“ Uh, Great! Do you think you can get the time off from work? I’m leaving day after tomorrow.”
Maybe he’s thinking he’ll call my bluff of calling his bluff.
I go into the kitchen where my boss is working and let her know I have an offer to go fishing. Yvonne, also my friend’s mother, a southern woman who, as the saying goes ‘wouldn’t say shit with a mouth full of it’ responds. “Absolutely, darlin’. We can take care of things around here. You go along and have a good trip.” As if maybe I’m going to play in the sandbox.
The trip will be two weeks long, and I am at a complete loss as to what supplies and clothing I might need. But I have my brothers and my father who help me out – well, a bit. They tell me to bring things like long johns and work gloves and work jeans and shirts. They don’t tell me what not to bring. Don’t bring a set of nice clothing; it will be destroyed. Don’t bring rings; you’ll have to cut them off. Don’t bring shampoo; there’s no shower on board.
I pack my bags with jaw dropping thoroughness. I bring a few pair of old jeans, a few pair of new jeans. I pack three sweatshirts – two crummy ones that I ‘borrow’ from my fisherman-brother, and one of my own. Bob is 6’4, I am 5’9’. I swim in his shirts. Half a dozen T-shirts pile on, then socks. Lots of socks. Long johns for the cool Pacific Northwest summer weather. Books. I choose The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, and The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. No reality for me out there. I bring shampoo and conditioner and tampons and all the other necessary toiletries. I even bring my own sheets. No way am I leaving that to my ex-boyfriend’s idea of clean. I’m thinking I’ll be working during the day, and Phil and I will sit around at night, telling sea stories or reading books. Maybe Sundays off. How wrong I was.