I’m not sentimental about Christmas. At sea I learned to celebrate some, ignore others.
Some companies/captains decided crews of mixed nationalities made special occasions difficult to acknowledge. Not wanting to favour one over the other and had no celebrations. Others threw it the other way and we celebrated every religious festival or national holiday known to the entire crew.
Christmas, Eid, national independence days, birthdays you name it!
Morale and productivity differences were unmistakable, the improvement immeasurable. Marking special occasions improves seafaring life. Good captains celebrate for their crew’s morale.
It’s not hard to throw a party at sea. At dinner time simply add cans of Pepsi, lemonade, ice cream and maybe some non-alchoholic champagne on a ‘dry’ ship, beer on a ‘wet’ one and everyone was elated. If lucky the steward would find decorations, the mood changing from fatigue and frustration to a few hours of relative merriment with a touch of denial.
Some crewmembers would be visited by a sense of melancholy for not celebrating with loved ones; this is inevitable when working remotely.
Days like Christmas feel different at sea. You know people at home are having a different experience. But it’s lovely seeing people of different nationalities passing on good wishes to whomever it was who was celebrating. Sometimes it was I practicing a language I didn’t know; sometimes it was the other way around. Either way it broke the monotony and brought the crew closer and a better team environment was forged.
Any improvement in the working environment inadvertently brought more compassion and care for the animals too. I overheard people quietly wishing cattle and sheep a merry Christmas or ‘Eid Mubarak’. Obviously the animals didn’t understand, and I doubt they would have been thinking they were in a position to celebrate. But it was a reminder of humanity.
One day after dropping our pirate guards off in Djibouti we were ‘running the gauntlet’ through the last bit of the high risk pirate area, travelling through Bab el Mendeb, the tight entrance between Yemen and Eritrea heading north into the Red Sea.
We often got brief phone range there after leaving Australia. My phone rang; a friend in Australia wishing me a Merry Christmas.
Last week she reminded me of this call, and the fact that I was pleased to hear from her but stated: “We are currently surrounded by quite a bit of pirate activity can I call you back in a few days?”
How many workplaces elicit a response like that? It’s normal to seafarers, military personnel and maybe ‘first responders’, but most will never understand.
Christmas was usually just another day at work.
We rely on the crew to be extra eyes, pointing out livestock issues if they saw any that we missed. The stockmen and I couldn’t possibly assess 120,000 sheep, 20,000 cattle or a mixture of the two twice a day with certainty of seeing everything. The ratio of livestock to vet/ stockmen was generally a poor joke at best. Smaller ships carrying a few thousand cattle are an easier task, but usually reserved for short haul trips. On long haul, the fatigue of both animals and crew over time led to inevitable increased drain on everyone.
Due to cultural conditioning I often had to instill the confidence in general crew to tell ‘The Doctor’ that he/she had missed something. So many crewmembers appeared ‘downtrodden’ and timid by the supremacy attitude of their home countries or onboard hierarchy, that many stayed quiet.
I was grateful for any help, the animals benefited from their speaking up and I was proud of them for developing increased self-confidence. I worked with so many great people and it made my blood boil to see how some were treated.
I lost my cool one day and threw my hard hat straight at a ‘try hard’ tyrannical captain and told him he could relocate it forever up a dark orifice.
‘Doctors’ of any type are notorious for being a ‘pain in the ass’ to hierarchy when it comes to morals and integrity. I’ve been told pleasantly that I was no different. I was proud to hear that my moral compass was not suppressed by the bullying behaviour of some.
I would get covert messages of thanks from the downtrodden. To this day I still do. It was worthwhile and I would not, and will not hesitate to continue to speak up on their behalf.
One Christmas, we were crossing the Indian Ocean, it was stinking hot and I had nearly 20,000 cattle under my care. Whilst busily running from one deck to another performing/ managing a few surgeries in differing stages of sedation a crewmember approached me on deck 12 to tell me of a sick bull on deck 14. I had just started a procedure so it would be 30 minutes before I could attend. He said thank you Doc and left. I finished and ran up to deck 14, port quarter on the outside. That’s all I knew.
What I found was to be the saddest Christmas present I hope I ever receive.
There was a little bull, collapsed, head through the rails, unresponsive but still breathing.
I hadn’t recognised this crewmember, he had been wearing a yellow t-shirt over his head with only his eyes peeking through the head hole and the arms tied behind his head to protect him from fodder dust. Common Filipino crew PPE.
I assessed the bull and euthanised him immediately. He was unconscious so I didn’t take the 12 flights of stairs and 300-meter run to get a gun. I severed his carotid and jugular vessels with my knife, hooking the underside vessels with my fingers to within reach and he peacefully bled out and died. Oblivious and non-responsive to my actions.
What made this event ‘special’ was that although the crewmember was busy, fatigued and not on livestock duty he had had the sensitivity to provide this bull as much comfort as possible. He had upturned a trough to rest his head on so as not to be bent over a harsh kickplate, found a piece of plywood to shade him from the relentless heat and sought medical help.
I had never seen a crewmember do all this before; a glimmer of humanity in a sea of unnecessary sadness. I was moved to tears, wiped my face and got on with work.
48 hours later I worked out who ‘yellow shirt’ was. When I thought I had found him I asked if he had approached me about this bull, timidly he said yes. I confirmed it was the same one, he said yes and apologised that the bull had not survived. I explained that the bull was never going to have recovered and I was really grateful that he had gone out of his way during the frenzy of feeding to get him help.
I opened my sweat drenched pocket notebook and gave him $100. He looked stunned. He tried to give it back, I refused. He tried again, I refused. It was all the money I had with me.
I explained in all my years of sailing I had had much help from crewmembers but I had never seen one so considerate as to the obvious suffering and helplessness of this bull and to me that was the most valuable reminder of humanity I could be given. He had given me a sad yet inspiring Christmas present.
The bulls tag went into the RIP container and I had an over enthusiastic amount of reports of animals needing help once word of my gift spread. Many were far from emergencies, but good on them!
Wishing safe sailing and a Merry Christmas for all working at sea!
For Lynn Simpson’s full archive of shocking exposés into the livestock trades, click here.