Tits on the Fo’c’sle
‘I’m dragged out of a warm bunk, sent out on deck to moor up with ropes that won’t bend because they’re frozen and it’s dark and I can’t feel my fingers and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you know what? I bet when we go to the pub someone will say to me “Oh, so you’re a sailor. Do you like your job?” Hah!’ Sam blew across the top of her mug of coffee before taking a sip. It was a pointless gesture – the coffee was already cold. It had arrived cold.
Huddled against the bulwarks to avoid the wicked blade of the January wind, Sam and I faced each other across the fo’c’sle. Two indistinct shapes in the early morning dark, we barely resembled human women with our layers of old sweaters, woolly hats and ratty, cargo dusted coats but my sister, St Francis, picked us out against the backscatter from the lights on the canal banks. She too was cold. She too would rather have been in her bed but she had an advantage over Sam and me. Her mooring station was aft, right by the back door into the accommodation. Right next to the galley. St F could go inside and get warm. Bless her for thinking of us up front. Bless her for bringing us a hot drink. Or at least, a drink that was hot when she started out on the seventy metre journey to the bow.
‘Just inside the locks,’ our captain had said. The berth that we had been assigned was just inside the locks. He lied. Or, if I’m feeling generous, he was mistaken. Either way, Sam, St F and I spent two freezing hours out on deck waiting to tie up. We didn’t dare to leave our stations because we didn’t know where we were going. You could bet a pound to a bent hat pin that should Sam or I have headed aft for a warm up or a pee, the berth would mystically appear right in front of us. On a tatty old tramp coaster we didn’t have the luxury of a VHF radio to communicate with the bridge. Colin, the captain, could come out on the bridge wing and shout instructions at us but he wasn’t leaving the relative warmth of the wheelhouse to let us know what was happening. Bastard.
Back in the locks, all had been brightly lit and busy. Ships, barges, rope men and three tired, bleary-eyed women forcing heavy, iced ropes around the bitts to secure their ship to the quay. There had been the usual ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ among the rope men when we had entered the locks but Belgium, even as far back as the late eighties, had been a more enlightened place than England and so we didn’t have to endure the usual obscene gestures or innuendo-laden comments that our countrymen inflicted on us when they saw a female deck crew. Or maybe we just didn’t know the Belgian for ‘Ooh look, there’s tits on the fo’c’sle!’
Ten minutes the other side of the locks. On the seaward side with the freshening wind and the peak and trough of the swell, the pilot had clambered up from the deck of his cutter to guide our ship into harbour. It wasn’t a long climb, our ship wasn’t that large but he looked nervous. He swung his leg over the gunwale, ascertained that I was the mate and looked around at Sam and St F.
‘Is the captain also a woman?’ he asked.
Once, I was warm. Toasty warm. Laid under my duvet, half on my front with one leg drawn up to counteract the rolling of the ship, I may have been dreaming but if I was, the images broke and skittered away when the knock came and my cabin door opened.
‘Lorraine, it’s time to get up,’ said the captain. ‘We’re picking up the pilot in five minutes.’