One of Jim’s adventures aboard the barkentine Gazela
It was in 1984 that I first laid eyes on Gazela, lying alongside, below the ramparts of Quebec City. Smallest of the Class A ships, she sat at the end of a line of ten or eleven big square riggers, and was not particularly well attended by the crowds of this tall ship event. Initial attractions being shallow, I was drawn to her by the lack of any visible line at her gangway. Setting foot on her work worn planks quickly rewarded my preference, for without a crowd pushing me along I had time to meet some of the crew and savor this great old ship’s textured character.
The impression of Gazela remained with me over the years and as my career took me from little brigantines to super yachts and race boats, I looked for her in ASTA guides and picture books. Then, one day, through a series of chances, I found myself in Philadelphia, with a fresh haircut and new shorts, boarding the ship late at night, joining as mate for the 1995 Newfoundland trip. John Hodge, the second mate, showed me to a dark, airless cabin outside of the engine room and left me to settle in. Excited as I was to be returning to square rig, throwing the light switch dispelled illusion, revealing forgotten aspects of old boats: I found an open foam mattress with some small amount of dirt and woodchips on it. The cabin had probably been a tool chest until late that afternoon, I surmised, and smiled to myself about the money I had wasted on new shorts.
The next day was busy with introductions, loading stores and getting to know the ship and her systems. We made a false start, turned back by low transmission oil pressure, and getting repairs made took an extra day. While waiting, we retreated from the sweltering Delaware Valley heat to the Khyber Pass, a bar nearby, where I was made welcome by Naomi Kaminsky, Jim Mahoney, Deb Peretz, Bob Zang and John Hodge, among others. The crew was full of interesting characters, young and old; some had been involved for years and others had only recently discovered the ship. Naomi and Bob were watch leaders and I stood watch with each of them at different points in the summer. Naomi was armed with a folksy charm and usually a list of some sort that served her well in keeping her watch organized. Bob was a retired, grizzled submariner, very prompt and correct on duty but fun loving when off.
Finally fleeing Philly’s heat, we sailed into the cool, pale waters of the coastal Atlantic and soon began a wideranging tour of the Canadian Maritime provinces. The summer schedule took us to quiet ports and remote areas, providing the adventures that one goes to sea for: wide horizons on passage between places and some glorious sprees ashore. We dodged wooden fishing boats in fog; saw a bay full of whales spouting; ran through Petite Passage at high speed in the Bay of Fundy; watched giant sunfish basking; felt the temperature plummet as we met the Labrador current; shared the anguish of depleting our coffee stores; and relished our days tending to the sails and spars of a thoroughbred square rigger underway. Of all these memories, however, the story I have to relate here involves nothing more wonderfully romantic than refueling.
Gazela was moored alongside in Saint John, New Brunswick, rising and falling almost forty feet with the world’s largest tidal range. The weekend offered us some unusual challenges. At high tide, for the most part, all was business as usual: the mooring lines led neatly to their bollards, one could see the traffic, and people could easily traverse the nearly horizontal gangway. I was on deck at high tide as some new crew came aboard from Philadelphia. Naomi greeted them and, list in hand, assigned them to watches and bunks. She brought a heavy set man in his fifties aft to where Bob Zang was showing some members of my watch the proper method for rolling and stowing a fire hose.
“Jim, Zang,” (everyone referred to Bob fondly as Zang) “this is Commander ____. He is going to be in your watch.”
Bob got up from a kneeling position and shook hands with the newcomer. “Welcome.”
“I understand that you are a Navy man, Bob,” the Commander began.
“That’s right,” Bob answered in a gravelly voice, weathered by the vapor trails left behind thousands of cigarettes. “I was a signal man in submarines.”
“I’m a tin can sailor myself – finished as a commander,” returned our new watch mate impressively. “I thought I would sail on a tall ship because it is the one thing I never did in my career.”
Naomi and Bob exchanged a quick, covert glance and Bob sniffed quietly. I could tell that our new arrival’s answer had just got up his nose. I stepped forward and shook hands, explaining that we were on watch until dinner and then had galley clean up. But for this one cold note, it was a pleasant evening made more so by the reunions of old friends in the crew.
A falling tide was when things got tricky. From two hours after high until an hour before low, the deck watch would run from one mooring bit to the next, to the next, quickly paying out enough line to keep the ship from hanging up on the wharf as millions of muddy gallons sucked out of Saint John harbor. If any line fouled it would have to be chopped. Our aluminum mesh gangway, following the tide, would slowly tip from horizontal to a perilous thirtydegree angle, reminiscent of an enormous cheese grater. The gangway was removed at the end of tours each day and boarding during low tide was accomplished from either a long integral ladder in the wharf, or via the more familiar path across the course yard, according to taste.
It was during a low tide, as the gangway became impassable for tours, that Bob came to sit with me on the aft rail.
“Ehhevidently the Commander would like to have a word with you.” He had a pleasing way of
softly drawling out “evidently” as a preamble to many of his gravelly statements.
“What does he want?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered absently.
I found the Commander in the galley and he spent five minutes disclosing his current level of discontent to me. Things weren’t good. “I’ve been on board for twentyfour hours and all I have done is give deck tours and scrub pots!”
I nodded mutely.
“Worse yet, no one has been to ask me what I hope to get out of my ‘tall ship experience!’”
Being used to the “can do” navy men of Bob’s generation, this sounded uncommonly peevish to me.
“Everything gets better once we get out to sea,” I mollified.
“Weekends are always a bit dull in port, but it’s the ship’s work.”
Returning aft, I saw Bob and recounted the conversation, a little amazed that an old seaman would need such handholding. Bob smiled and said that the Commander had many a good yarn, but he wasn’t so sure about him. “I caught him in a whopper this morning – he says it was
his boys that saved the crew of the Thresher.”
“Yeah, only…no one got out of the Thresher,” he said a little sadly.
Monday morning finally came and we were making preparations for leaving harbor. Close to the bottom of the tide, Captain Mark Crutcher climbed the slippery rungs to the wharf for phone calls and last items of ship’s business. One of his calls was to Irving Oil, our sponsor, who had a big refinery in Saint John, and offered Gazela free fuel as part of her appearance fee. Half an hour later a head leaned over the edge of the wharf, some thirtyodd feet above the deck, shouting down, “You folks looking for fuel?”
I was on watch and answered affirmatively, so the man descended the ladder followed by a fuel nozzle on an industrial red hose. Jeff Huffenberger, the engineer, opened the tank fills. John, the second mate, ran “Bravo” up the mizzenmast and we were in business bunkering. The fuel man held the nozzle in gloved hands, making small talk with Jeff as he filled the first tank, until the Captain reappeared. Concerned about pollution, he checked up on precautions taken against overflow and spillage. Jeff explained that he knew how much was needed in each tank and would only take on a smaller amount.
“Can we preset the meter to stop at our tank limits?” the Captain asked.
“We don’t have a meter on this truck,” the fuel man replied.
“No meter? Hunnh. We had better monitor the tanks themselves, then, Jeff.” Jeff agreed and went below to watch his tank levels. The Captain, having exerted his influence, went below to plan our next passage.
The fuel man asked Bob Zang to man the nozzle while he climbed up to the truck and got the operator to slow the pump. Taking the nozzle, Bob growled out, “Holy smokes! This is hot!”
The fuel man, now on the ladder, threw down a rag and his gloves.
“Here. It comes out at 160° Fahrenheit,” and disappeared up on to the wharf.
Bob looked up at me. “I can’t ever remember getting hot diesel.”
We mulled it over and another crewmember ventured a thought: “He said it comes out at 160°
Fahrenheit. Do you think he means from the refinery?”
“I suppose so,” Bob answered.
“Does that mean because it’s fresh?”
Bob hesitated. “Ehh – fresh bread I’ve had. Fresh fuel is a new one to me, but uh, ehhevidently we must have a new batch. The refinery is just down the road.” Several of the crew had gathered around us by now, pooling around action as often happens. They nodded as they contemplated Bob’s words and the rare occasion of receiving brand new fuel.
“I wonder if it will burn nicer?” someone asked.
Jeff came on deck as the fuel man returned. The nozzle was carefully shifted to the second tank, and was eventually ready for the third. I was curious and about to ask more questions regarding the heat of the fuel, when the Commander came on deck, sea bag over his shoulder, and approached the ladder.
“So long, fellas,” he said. “I have a plane to catch, some business difficulties to address at home. Hopefully I will see you on another leg, but if not, I can finally say I have been on a tall ship.”
“That and probably a lot more,” Bob croaked quietly down to the hose.
Shaking hands all around, we parted well and watched him struggle up the ladder, knowing that it was unlikely that we would ever set sail with the Commander.
At last, bunkering was complete; almost everything to do with fresh fuel a thing of the past. The paperwork was signed and the fuel man asked me to guide the nozzle off the deck as he reeled in the hose at the truck. The winding began and about ten feet up the nozzle spun around once, releasing a single dark drop that fell to the deck, leaving a stark, inky stain. A shiver went through me as I looked on the solitary black spot and I ran up to the wharf with the anxious feeling that we had done something wrong.
“What are you pumping from this truck?” I asked a little sharply of the fuel man.
“Is that bunker-C?”
“Er, yes,” he answered defensively. “Someone ordered up fuel for a ship and RFO6 is what we put in ships here.”
It all made sense: big ships take truckloads of fuel, hence no meters. And bunkerC: the heaviest of fuels turns to tar if it is not preheated to 160° Fahrenheit for pumping. Fuel can be many things in a refinery town.
Irving Oil helped us pump and rinse the tanks as Fundy’s waters surged into the harbor once more. Filled with number 2 diesel this time, by high water slack we got underway and sought freedom from these cycles of tidal fortune. Initially we fretted, speculating about heavy fuel residue in the tanks and if it would stop our propulsion at some critical moment. Jeff dutifully mothered his engines and changed their filters every few hours, at one point removing a fourteen pound used cartridge.
Through a usual mix of care and good luck we returned without incident to Philadelphia. Subsequently, we laughed at the irony of how much worry there had been over the fuel quality when the propeller fell off a month later.