The Waterfront

He had been on the waterfront for as long as he could remember. Although retired from the workforce now he would often find himself down on the waterfront fondly remembering his younger years and not so younger years. He was not doing anything in particular…he was just there. Old Bill, as he was known in his favorite waterfront haunts was taking in the many sights, sounds, and smells of this wondrous place. He would smell the whisps of steam coming from the wire reinforced rubber hose connections leading from the steam risers on the pier to the ship, the creosote from the older pilings of the pier. The salt air and the exposed sea growth captured his imagination. The exhaust ventilation of the ships’ bakeries filling the air with the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread. Up near the bow of each ship the odors coming from the paint locker bombarded his senses sparking memories from days long ago.  The sound of the Bos’ns call as some dignitary was being piped aboard and the sounds of the Petty Officers telling their charges on deck to “get the lead out if you want liberty today”. These sounds were always so familiar to Old Bill. A smile would appear on his ragged old leathery face as he recalled the days that he was aboard a US Navy Ship. The waterfront reminded him of a lover…as much as you would try to tame her, keep her calm, embrace her, she would always find new ways to amaze you and keep you on your toes.

Old Bill would gaze at the ships tied up snuggly to their respective berths. He gazed steadily at the US Navy ships with mooring lines doubled and diamond frapped with rat guards affixed properly. These were signs of pride in one’s trade, pride in your ship, pride in your Division, and pride in self. He would see Military Sealift Command ships and other Merchant ships that were flagged from various countries around the world. The Sailors were walking down the piers always intent on a mission of sorts. Some of the sailors were on early liberty from their US Navy ship looking for that next familiar bar for a cold beer and some companionship of course. The merchant sailors were basically looking for the same things…a sailor is a sailor you know!

The advantages the merchantman had over the Navy sailor was more cash to throw around and not as many restrictions. Of course, the merchant sailor still had to make it back to his vessel before sailing time or take the risk of being fired. Then, it would be back to the Union Hall, under his own expense to look for another job, another ship to sail. The merchant ships tended to stay in port for shorter periods of time as the more time spent in port the less money the company who owned that ship would be making that particular month. Many port calls for the merchantmen were only twenty-four hours in length. The merchantman would tie his vessel up and, in many cases, the only crewmen remaining on board would be the third mate, Chief Mate, or Cargo Bos’n…and Ship’s Master of course with a sprinkling of Service personnel to prepare meals. These sailors would be in charge of ensuring the cargo was offloaded and signed for by the proper individuals ashore. A cargo gang of stevedore’s would come aboard and take charge of discharging cargo destined for that particular port. The merchant sailor not involved in this tasking would check the sailing board at the gangway on his way ashore. He and his shipmate would then decide what they wanted to do first…shop, eat, sightsee, or just relax with an old bar maid they had met on a previous journey to this port. As with any sailor, more often than not that first bar nearest the pier would be the immediate stop!

The US Navy Sailor came from many different backgrounds to be sure. Each of them had a different story to tell. In most cases they were a close-knit group of men. Their ship may be pulling in after performing maneuvers of various kinds in order to stay sharp and keep their ship in top condition. There would be the sailor coming from combat duty and his intent would be on one thing only…forgetting much of what they had just endured. Whether it be Naval Gunfire Support off the coast of whatever country the United States found itself involved in hostilities with or possibly amphibious operations…delivering a Battalion Landing Team and their equipment ashore to combat the enemy on his ground.

So, these were the many types of sailors that Old Bill had occasion to observe. He would also find himself looking at men involved with Ship Repair and overhauls of various lengths. In the case of the US Navy Ship, strict protocols were in place and followed. The repair work was being supported and managed by the local Ship Repair Facility or in some ports a Shipyard. The vast majority of the work was coordinated by Ship Superintendents working out of small portable buildings located on the pier of the respective ship that they were assigned for repair. Local Contractors as well as in house ship repair personnel would be involved in all of the myriad repairs taking place in a US Navy ship overhaul or repair availability. One could find repairs going on from the top of the yardarms to the insides of the boilers in the case of steam powered vessels, or the various main propulsion diesel engines what would drive this Navy ship throughout her career. These repair periods were always hectic and schedule driven. Schedules were set in stone in most cases. The US Navy operated on Schedules and it seemed difficult to deviate from these schedules.

The Military Sealift Command Ships and Merchant vessels had their repair schedules as well, these were Voyage Repairs and were managed by a Port Engineer and the Chief Engineer of the Ship undergoing repairs. Most of these repairs were conducted by civilian contractors. The ships’ Chief Engineer called the shots on these voyage repairs. He managed the budget for repair and if he saw something that needed to be done, he would contact the Port Engineer, negotiate man-hours and pricing. The local Contractors liked doing business in this way as much of the strict protocols and endless paperwork involved with US Navy Ship Repair could be put aside. The QA, or quality assurance, would be accomplished by the ships engineers and witnessed by a representative of the ABS…known as the American Bureau of Shipping. In many cases ABS assigned personnel were retired US coast Guard personnel and well experienced in this work.

As Old Bill was gazing around at the repair personnel going aboard the moored ships, he was remembering the years that he was involved with ship repair both as a Contractor and a US Government Civil servant. He at first found it difficult shifting gears from his Active Duty days in the US Navy to those days as a Contractor involved with the repair of pumps, boilers, geared turbines, and various other operating gear that kept that ship afloat. He found himself poring over various technical manuals to grasp this knowledge. Old Bill was thankful to the people at his company who became his mentors. When he reached an age where he was physically unable to perform the duties required of him as a Contractor he was lucky enough to find work at the local Ship Repair facility. This change of duties required shifting gears again.

Old Bill came into work one day at the Ship Repair Facility, he was over sixty-five now and had accumulated a small next egg for himself and his wife of forty years. He felt a bit tired and decided He had had enough of the waterfront. He talked to his supervisor and requested a retirement date.

Little did Old Bill know this wasn’t actually the end of the waterfront…there was more to come.

Old Bill was smiling and mumbling to himself about these memories of the waterfront. He gazed up at the mainmast and the yardarms of the ship nearest him with a wistful knowledge and whispered to himself “not too shabby for a life on the Waterfront”. He noticed that the sun was well over the yardarm by now and knew that soon Old Steve would be opening for the early bird customers. “guess that I had better get my butt in gear and head on down the street”.

It goes without saying that we know where Old Bill was headed for the late afternoon and early evening hours!

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