Yes It Was Real Russian Vodka With Real Russians

04 May

Well some of it was. Some of it was vodka from the 24 hour supermarket close to the quay.

Alongside Ocean Terminal in Greenock, my little green ship with the rainbows on her hull is doing a crew change. Off go the campaigners from our last stint (sorry can’t remember what that was now – Atlantic Oil I think) and on come an influx of Scandinavians for a trip into Norwegian waters. Then, oh oh, engine problems. Engine problems of a serious nature. The ship is forty years old and our problem requires that a retired engineer from the company that built her engine is flown to Scotland to help.

I have long had a penchant for tall, fair Nordic types and you can imagine my dismay when, en-masse, the Scandinavian contingent decamped to their home countries and the future of the campaign was cast into doubt. Boo hoo. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t simply hoping to spend the next however-long ogling my shipmates but, hey, it’d been a long trip and a girl can look can’t she? Remember I said that.

During the two weeks of our lay-up a lot happened. We made friends with people at the Faslane Peace Camp and I spent a good deal of time ferrying peace-campers across the loch to the ship so that they could use our showers and washing machines. We filmed Marines filming us filming them. Children from the local area came along the quay every evening to spit at us. Some tried to stick knives into the rigid-inflatable boats that we carried on deck. Mounted police officers came along to chase the kids away – and they would stay away – until the next evening. And I got bumped up from 2nd Mate to 1st Mate. In my past seafaring life, I’d gone from deckhand to 1st Mate fairly quickly but when I went to work for Greenpeace, I’d been ashore for a while so going in as 2nd Mate made sense. When the moment came to step up a rank, I took it very seriously. I didn’t want to let anyone down, least of all an organisation that I really believed in.

Fast forward. Our engine problems fixed, the new crew settled in, the Norwegian campaign still on and our Scandinavians have returned. I’ve been a good girl, working hard and staying aboard night after night. I didn’t drink in those days as a result of seeing too many lives flushed down the toilet through alcohol but, it’s our last night in port and I thought I’d relax and have a beer with my dinner. Oh silly me to think that one beer was enough of a celebration.

Crew meetings and crew briefings are an important part of a Greenpeace ship’s routine and on that night a briefing took place to explain what we would be hoping to achieve and how we’d do it. Drilling rigs and climbers and rigid-inflatables all got a mention. Questions were asked and answered and then – it was party time! And believe me, Greenpeace knows how to party. Firstly, the main campaigner, a gregarious and charming Russian called Dima revealed his duty-free vodka. Numerous Norwegian and Swedish activists followed suit. Then, our British crew, not to be outdone, did a quick tour of Tesco and came back with a trolley-full of vodka (country of origin unknown).

Remember I said ‘remember I said that’? Well, at this point a rather nice Norwegian chappie called Michael had noticed that there was a spare bunk in my cabin. Neither daft, nor backwards in coming forwards, Michael had weighed up the pros and cons of living in a multi-berth cabin on the lower deck (known as The Bronx) or sharing a large, airy berth on the fo’c’sle deck with the mate. The Bronx, Mate’s cabin … Trust me it’s the cabin that won. When he said, ‘Do you mind if I move in with you,’ I didn’t know where to look. Ahem, tough lady sailor went red and said, ‘Er, no, that’s fine.’  Suffice to say, I was a bit shy about going to bed that night – or maybe it was the beer.

Vodka had been flowing around the messroom for a while when I noticed that Sacha, our Russian Chief Engineer and Dima were hosting a Russian drinking game.

‘Ha ha!’ I thought. ‘I’ll have some of that, enough with the goody two shoes image!’ I approached the two of them and said ‘Can I play?’

‘Yes of course,’ said Sacha and handed me a water tumbler which was about the only unused glass left aboard the ship. I held it out towards his vodka bottle. Sacha, who had sailed with me for over a year at this point, knew that I didn’t drink so – he filled the glass almost to the top. Then he handed me a potato and a slice of bread.

‘Drink vodka in one, bite potato, eat bread,’ he said.

I did that twice. Obviously, combined with my earlier beer, this had an effect on me because whilst sitting on a sofa chatting with my pal Mucky Dave, another engineer, I noticed that Sacha and Dima were corralling a bunch of drunken, growling fools under the large, round mess-room table. Apparently they were all being ‘tigers under the table.’ Now this intrigued me. What did this involve? And how could I become a growling ‘tiger under the table?’ I asked Sacha.

‘First you must drink more vodka,’ said the wicked man, knowing that I had no tolerance for booze. Stupidly, I downed another tumbler-full. Instant realisation hit me. I knew that very shortly I was so going to regret that last slug. Instead of getting under the table, I returned to the sofa with Mucky Dave. 20 minutes later the first waves of a vodka-too-far hit me. ‘Time for bed,’ I thought.

I remember my new cabin mate bending over my bunk later that night saying, ‘drink lots of water.’

‘I have,’ I groaned from under my duvet. My devil-may-care, I’m gonna be a party girl persona had come to a grinding halt. By half-past-ten I was in bed. Some party animal.

At 0700 when my alarm went off, Michael poked his head from under his duvet.

‘You’re not really going to get up?’ he asked.

‘I have to,’ I wailed wishing that I didn’t have to. Wishing that I was at home. Wishing that I was dead. But, I had a new Bosun to settle in and there was an emergency muster scheduled for later that morning. New crew members had to know where their muster points were, what their duties were in an emergency and how to get into lifejackets or survival suits. It was my job to ensure this all went to plan. I crawled from my bunk, I staggered down the stairs, I lay down on a couch in the messroom. Every few minutes the new Bosun came to give me an update on what he had the deck crew doing.

‘Well done,’ I told him. ‘You’re doing great,’ I said. ‘Please go away, you’re making my head hurt,’ I never revealed. And he kept coming back. Eventually I dragged my sorry carcass up to the wheelhouse to find the Captain and discuss the forth-coming drill. Tip-toeing in so that my footfalls didn’t make my head pound, I balanced gingerly on a seat. The Captain, Jon, took one look at me and burst out laughing.

‘The problem with you, Lol, is that you don’t do this often enough,’ he said when he’d regained control of himself. I rested my head on my arms and moaned.

‘What you need is a coke,’ Jon said and disappeared all the way down to the mess to get one. ‘Here you are,’ he handed me an ice-cold can straight from the fridge. ‘Drink this,’ he offered the can. ‘And then go back to bed. I’ll handle the drill.’

Gratitude poured from me as I negotiated the stairs. Bursting into my cabin, I remembered my new roomie. I looked across at his bunk to see him peering at me through bloodshot eyes. ‘You’re back then?’ he asked before covering his head and going back to sleep.

It has been sixteen years since that night. I never did find out how to become a tiger under the table. And I’ve never been able to look at a glass of vodka without a rolling, greasy, sick-feeling in my stomach since then.

1 Comment

Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Shedward Seawards


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One response to “Yes It Was Real Russian Vodka With Real Russians

  1. jules mcgowanJules

    May 4, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Oh, yuk! I have similar feelings about Metaxa, the Greek brandy. :((


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