I’m doing an evening class at Liverpool University on writing novels and short stories. The idea of this piece was to describe a special place.
It is my home within my home, my sanctuary, my sacred place. Six feet long and two feet wide it is too small for my body to fit and yet it encloses me completely and gives me comfort. I cannot feel confined within its embrace, only secure, guarded and safe.
Six weeks at sea and a tall ship becomes a very small world. It becomes a tired world where nerves are stretched, fatigue is normal and you start to wonder if land is real or if you just imagined it.
Your fellows on board become more than brothers and sisters. They suffer with you, face danger with you, push through and rejoice with you and you love them for it. But sometimes, more and more the longer you’re out there, you need your own space. That space is your bunk, your berth.
It is warmth after hours in freezing cold rain, it is oblivion after hours of intense attention and it is mine in a world where everything is everyone’s. Sometimes nerves fray and fatigue speaks harsh words that are not meant. Sometimes all you can do is walk away, but your bunk always welcomes and always forgives and eight hours later it’s always better. Bunks heal wounds made by foolish words.
Whatever the wild ocean in its worst temper throws at us, in my bunk I feel safe. Pitching, rolling or heeled hard over, it makes no difference. No matter how the water rages on the other side of the inch and a half of curved steel plate that forms one side of my berth I rest easy.
When we are under sail the ship can heel hard. If she heels to starboard I sleep in the V that is my mattress and the lee cloth, the door to my world, a piece of canvass tied in place to stop me spilling out into the cabin. If she heels to port I sleep in the V that is my mattress and the hull.
And when the donkey is off and we’re heeled to port I can hear the water slipping past, the waves slapping and smashing. I can hear the moods, movements and music of the sea. It rocks the ship and the ship rocks me. Warm and safe in my cradle I drift into sleep easily and return to a place long since left.
But it is over too quick. Soon comes a rough, rope burned, salt stained hand, cold and wet to rouse me for my next watch. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, its partner is holding a mug of hot coffee. No snooze button, no choice. You’re a watch leader and you lead by example. You have to rouse your watch and be the first on deck. I pull the slip knots on my lee cloth and fall out into the dark, cold off centre world beyond, wondering if the deck will ever be level again or if life stretches out ahead on a 45% angle.
Disoriented, bleary eyed and confused I pull on my wet weather gear and head up through the decks. The adventure begins again. But before I go, I make sure my home is in good order, straight and neat, ready like an expectant lover waiting for her true love’s return. The knowledge that my lover’s embrace is waiting for me at the end of the watch keeps me going.
What will the next four hours bring? Cold, rain, discomfort, almost certainly. Sweat, exertion, exhaustion, very probably. Laughter, singing, hot coffee with too much sugar, guaranteed. Serious injury, man overboard, death, you certainly hope and pray not. You do everything to avoid it, you work hard to keep your people safe, but it happens. It wouldn’t be an adventure if you knew what came next.
In the midst of such chaos everyone needs a constant. Mine is six feet long and two feet wide. It is too small for my body to fit and yet it encloses me completely and gives me comfort.