The Southbound trip- the Reposition, as it's called, when the ship goes back to her home harbor- is when the whole season snapped into place for me. We went everywhere, from Glacier Bay to Gloomy Knob, Lamplough and Bay of Pillars to the ice fields of La Conte and the Salish Sea. The crew gathered closer, and we spent more time with each other, any time we could, but especially late at night, after the ship was asleep. We had a dance party in the galley as the ship rolled through the huge waves of Dixon Crossing, we filmed a movie- all of us- we were let lose in Ketchikan and Petersburg to spend time with each other out of uniform, away from work and the passengers.
We got by on less sleep and more vitamins, B-12s and adrenal pills, nicotine vapor sucked from electronic cigarettes. The energy was somehow both manic and sustained- we kept it up the whole trip, bouncing around the ship like bunnies, prone to loud, tearful fits of laughter, never flagging. The rumors of gale warnings and big seas for our open crossings kept us fueled by excitement, the miles rolling beneath us bolstered us, each one taking us closer to home.
Professionally, the ship ran like clockwork, like the swiss rail system. The deckhands, engineers, mates, stewards, guides- everyone had the place on lockdown. Even when we lost an engine and crawled through British Columbia at 3.9 knots, even when half of the occupants onboard got taken by a fever, even when we rerouted to Petersburg, throwing off our whole meticulously planned schedule, because a man had a terrible infection which was preventing him from breathing- nobody on the outside would have realized that anything was wrong. We worked diligently, and cheerfully, and collectively we ran with whatever needing running with.
At the beginning of the two week trip, we dropped anchor in Pavlov Harbor for a whole day, meaning kayak trips and leading hikes in the rain from 8 till 6. My trip came home after crew dinner. Someone had saved me a plate and I ate it on the fantail with Conner, both of us standing up, still wearing our drenched clothes, listening to the engines firing up. We were going to cruise all night which was good- everyone slept well while we were underway.
It took me one minute and forty seven seconds to eat my dinner. I was in a hurry because in just a few minutes I was to give a presentation, one that I was always excited to give: Expedition Photography. I loved this presentation because I created it out of photos all shot in Southeast Alaska, and over the course of the season it had evolved into a photography workshop in the field and a workshop around the boat. I'd co-led the workshops with National Geographic photographers we'd had as special guests onboard, and they all had good things to say about it. But the best part was how excited the passengers would be afterwards, always asking questions and wanting all the buttons to be explained on their cameras. I'd catch people for days afterwards, crouching down on the bow, trying to get a shot of whales framed by the holes cut into the sides of the boat, just as I'd instructed them to.
I had just enough time- if I hurried- to change costumes and be presentable. I ran down to my room, peeled off the wet guiding clothes, buttoned my uniform and tucked it into the dress pants, switched the extra tuffs for the nice shoes, dried my hair with a towel. Then, still at a run, through the watertight doors that have to be unbolted and then sealed shut behind you, up two flights of stairs to lounge.
The lounge was full of people drinking cocktails and playing card games as I prepared it for the presentation, pulling down the screen and closing all the blinds. Just as I hooked up the computer and was about to begin, the Captain radioed me to get down to a guest's cabin immediately.
There in the room, lying propped up in his bed, was a man with severe dyspnea, gasping for breath, his skin pale and feverish. In an instant I switched modes, had the trauma kit and the oxygen brought to his room. I uncoiled the tubes and cracked the tank, watched as relief spreads through his whole body and his blood oxygen saturation soared back up. I took his history, his pulse, listened to the wheezing in his lungs, struggled to find a blood pressure. He needed to get to a hospital, that much was obvious. Just how we would get there from here was a matter for the captain.
Someone asked if I could still give the presentation- everybody was still sitting up there, waiting to see it.
It felt like a movie; I pulled the stethoscope from around my neck, peeled off blue exam gloves and reached for the microphone. I was soaring on adrenaline, proud of myself for having done right by my instructors and used my medical training correctively. I did no harm! I crowed to myself, first rule of EMTs! I actually helped
somebody who was very sick. The presentation went perfectly, the questions finished up one minute before dinner, dinner was called, and my day was essentially over.
The days flew by like this. Not always so dramatic, but all full of tasks that felt meaningful and fun and if they weren't, it was just more to talk about late at night as we painted our toenails in the laundry room. Mornings on the water, afternoons on the glacier, evenings on the bow watching humpbacks bubble net feeding only yards from the bow. I took hundreds of photos, led each hike and paddle without incident or accident or injury. In the later part of the trip, a flu ran through the crew and the passengers. It was a nasty flu which presented with red runny eyes and a deep, rattling cough. I went to their rooms, took temperatures, doled out medicine, lay cold cloths onto foreheads. One woman was so sick that I checked in on her every two hours, although I could really only offer Theraflu and tea. A few days later, when she was feeling better and able to walk around the ship, she and her husband beckoned me into their room, where she handed me a necklace of beautiful, multi-colored pearls as a thank you.
I wrote honestly about how much I struggled with everything at the beginning of the season, so I know you'll believe me when I say that I got very good at my job. I took great pride and delight in it.
Tuesday, two days after we arrive home. The ship is docked in the port of Seattle, next to the quiet, empty Wilderness Explorer and great steel crabbing boats and fishing vessels of Deadliest Catch fame. The guests are gone, the crew party is over, the laborious tasks of washing and packing and putting all the expedition gear into storage is gone. Down on the main deck, someone is hammering iron covers over the ships windows, preparing it for its rough journey down south to Baja.
I'm sitting on the sun deck, the last minute of my last hour of employment with this company, listening as the guy reads my end of season review in third person.
, he reads. Melina did not show much effort
onboard. If she had showed more effort
, she would have been a more complete
It goes something like that.
The guy has considered me worthless since the beginning. Back then, when I didn't know my port from starboard, I very nearly let him convince me that I was. But, due to a great many people, friends and strangers and crew members and their tireless encouragement, and their own candid stories of struggle and perserverence, I stayed on. Gradually, I grew much, much stronger and much better at my job. I took interest, then entertainment, then pure curiosity in the outright condesension of the guy. I took notes- today he walked out of the room as I was speaking. Today was my mid-season review, he stood up when it was my turn to talk- "I'm distracted-" he said, and walked out.
This shitty end of season review is no surprise, nothing I hadn't seen coming.
He continues reading about my lack of effort, my needed extra direction, my need to channel my creativity into something more 'relevant
.' My mind is half listening, half wandering. I think, very calmly, very collectively, about what reaction I should have when he was finished.
There are two stories being told here. And in this version of the story I'm worthless and stupid and I just don't believe it.
I don't believe it, and I don't care.
The second the guy is done reading I pick up the pen, sign my name and stand up. "Do you want to chat about any of this?" He asks, obviously confused, expecting a fight. I say no. Because there is no point, absolutely no point in spending one more instant with this person, someone who seemed to find no value in everything I take pride in. Signing that document means nothing to me. It is not an admittance to laziness, not a resignation, neither defeat nor triumph. It is nothing.
And then I leave. I put my bag over my shoulder and run down the gangway to the other side of the dock, to the bar for a final beer with my crew mates, the best of the fleet, my treasure. The sun hovers low to the West and the windows of the boats bobbing at the dock glint gold, sparkling, like an entire city lit up at night.