Sea — April 2002
By Capt. Bill Pike
|Why it’s cool to sometimes do absolutely nothing.|
I once worked as a wheelsman on Great Lakes ore carriers. It was a fun job mostly, and one I had a knack for. My teacher was a guy named Johnny, an old-timer who could safely shepherd a ship through every kind of hellacious condition known to man, from voracious river currents to storms of Biblical proportion.
At the start of my training, I stood on an overturned wooden box directly behind Johnny, so I could look straight over his right ear as he worked and closely observe how the bow of the 858-foot Roger Blough moved in response to the big wooden wheel in his hands. Later Johnny stood behind me—without the box because he was an exceptionally tall Ojibwa Indian—encouraging and advising me, all the while calmly puffing on an old briar pipe.
I learned a lot from Johnny and owed him big-time when the two of us finally parted company. Not only had he initiated me into the mysteries of "wheeling" a ship, teaching me all sorts of stuff that would come in handy in the future, but he’d also introduced me to one of the most practical virtues a navigator or boat handler can possess: patience.
The first time I got within squinting distance of the lock system at Sault Ste. Marie as wheelsman of the Blough, I immediately began to feel sick, scared, and more messed up than an overripe five-gallon bucket of chicken chum. Why? Among other things, the vision of the locks I was working with was wholly illusory, primarily because distance was conspiring with low-lying mists to make the opening in the vast, step-like edifice appear way too small to accept a ship of the Blough’s size. It sounds silly, I know, but from where I stood behind the big wheel, the lock walls of the first chamber looked barely wide enough for a canoe, let alone a laker with a whopping 85-foot beam.
I broke out in a clammy sweat. Then came a fast case of the hives as Johnny headed off someplace to retrieve a packet of Granger pipe tobacco, leaving me in the wheelhouse with my illusory perceptions and the skipper and the mate, who were over by the chadburn (engine telegraph) palavering about current events as portrayed in the newspapers we’d picked up in Detroit from the J.W. Wescott mail boat. Neither of these worthies, by the way, appeared to be at all concerned about getting the ship stuck in the approaching lock chamber like a plug in a jug, or at the very least gouging the hell out of our steel plating on the chamber’s abrasive concrete walls.
Patience was my only recourse. In due time Johnny returned with his Granger, the skipper and the mate fell to exercising the hawk-like focus that characterized their on-the-job selves, and the chamber ahead, along with the rest of the lock complex, began to grow miraculously. In fact, as the Blough’s huge bow passed through the gates, the needle’s eye I’d been dreading to thread did not threaten the ship in the least, although there was little extra elbowroom within the lock walls.
The wisdom inherent in this experience penetrated my young mind at some level, cranking up a process I’m still working on today: the ability to simply and patiently wait and see. Although I’ve polished the technique for years, perfection eludes. Even the coolest of cucumbers, it seems, can be convinced of the efficacy of doing nothing at the intellectual level, but gut-level impulses often obtrude, pushing a person to do something, even if it’s not right.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.