Sunrise at Sea

During the night at sea, most ships are routinely quiet other than the watchstanders on the bridge and the engineers in the engine room. The passengers, if any, and the crew who are off duty, sleep on, seemingly unaware of the cacophony of sounds that have, in their constancy, become a part of the background, ignored unless some change occurs. When one pump has for some reason to be secured and replaced by a backup, sleeping eyes open, ears cock as much as human ears can, and there is a collective withholding of breath until within moments the new sound is identified and recognized as a friendly sound that can be allowed to continue as a part of the quiet noise that engulfs the vessel as it plods relentlessly through the sea, leaving little more than a temporary trail of phosphorescence behind.

As the early morning hours progress, there are disturbing sounds that begin, first slowly, and then with increasing frequency. The cook, unlocking the door to the galley and firing up the stoves, the mess cooks wiping down the tables and benches, banging away on the decks with brooms or mops, occasionally dropping a dish or a bowl, or even a fistful of eating utensils as they are being prepared to be set for the crews breakfast.

But then there is the smell, if there is a good cook, first of bread baking from loaves of dough that had been readied the night before and left to proof under a damp cloth during the night, then, of bacon or ham sizzling in their fats.

The odor of fresh coffee joins the drifting aromas it blends with the fresh baked bread or rolls, spreading their combined odor throughout the ship, even permeating into the air of the berthing area, which is directly beneath or adjacent to the galley. Early risers slip quietly out of their bunks, quickly shower at what might be the only time of the day when they are able to stand in the ship’s small shower without close company, drying off and dressing in the sailors standard dungaree trousers and chambray shirts. Then they enter the mess room and draw their first cup of coffee, one of many in what will almost always be a long day. Most will take their cup and any rolls that they might acquire out to one of the open weather decks to watch for the Sunrise and examine the sea to determine what kind of day is in store for them.

There is something sexually religious about the smell of salt sea spray combined with fresh coffee and newly baked bread at the moment of sunrise. I do not know what words will explain it adequately but it gives a warm fuzzy feeling to the two or three shipmates who would gather at the rail at the start of the day to watch the star’s light weaken and blend into the fading night’s sky leaving only the brightest for the navigator to use to fix the ship’s location. Often the same few will still gather in the sheltered lee of the deckhouse out of the wind and spray, if there is any, and await the first glimpse of the bright orb breaking the horizon.

In the movies, the sea often is portrayed as an angry succession of waves and windblown spray challenging the safety and wellbeing of the men, and today the women, who choose to sail for their livelihood. The sea may be that way at times but for the majority of the days it is neither angry nor vengeful.

There are many more calm days in the mid-Pacific than there are storm-tossed days, at least in my experience. Even in mild weather, there will usually be waves and often swells from a distant storm half the world away that will cause the ship to tilt gently from side to side rolling in a rhythmic motion that almost all professional seamen find relaxing and comforting.

As the predawn light brightens the few who gathered all know what is about to happen and are aware of the direction of the impending Sunrise. The first burst of color is from rays from the Sun lighting up the underside of the clouds and refracted by any moisture in the air, much like a flattened rainbow. As soon as one sees one array of colors they change, pastels brightening and deepening and then passing on out of view, As the moment arrives, those standing at the rail stop the sailor’s chatter that has been helping to pass the time and a momentary silence envelopes the group.

Regardless of how many times one has seen this scene the actual first rays of the Sun are a surprise and often seem to cause a short few seconds when even the breathing stops. This is an experience that can be described, but seldom adequately. If ever the expression “you have to be there to understand it” was to have a meaning, this is it. Words on paper simply cannot do the job well enough. Pictures are better but still fall short, as photos despite the magical properties of modern cameras are unable to capture and combine the smells of the sea, the coffee and the fresh bread, with the gentle rolling of the ship and are only able to convey the visual micro-moment they capture on the film. Artists come closer with their pigments and the texture of their strokes on the canvass. But still, being there is the most amazing experience, something that despite the years I can still summon to the senses and reconstitute the experience.

Soon enough the Sun rises completely above the sharply defined horizon, free of being obstructed by buildings and distant hills. Conversation resumes as if it had never paused, and the group begins to drift away, having savored the moment and with luck preserved the sight, the smell and the motion for the memories that will inhabit the future.

Sunrise at sea is a mystical rebirth of life and dreams. Sunsets can also be impressive, but the suspense is not there since you can project the course of the sinking Sun and even mentally calculate exactly when its last rays will disappear into the twilight.

Sunset is somewhat sad as it marks the end of another day, one that can never be repeated and often gives us pause to tabulate our accomplishments, or at times, failures. It is only offset by the realization that in an hour or so the cosmos will open up and the real meaning of Carl Sagan’s oft repeated expression, “billions and billions” explodes across the darkening dome above our heads and the puny nature of our existence falls like a hooded cloak on the lonely seaman.

What a wonderful adventure the sailor lives on his steel ship as it ploughs an unmarked path across the trackless seas. The landlubber has to climb high onto the forbidding mountain to have any hope of a similar breathtaking view.

At least our science and knowledge have given us some idea of what we are seeing. Can you imagine what the sailor in the days of iron men and wooden ships must have thought as he stared in wonderment at the night sky? Imagine seeing the dragons and monsters from what we now know are points of light that we have discovered are themselves created by even further billions of stars, points whose light reaching us at the starry night began a journey in a day long before the earth had cooled enough for life to establish its still tenuous toehold.

And Yes, I’d do it all again once more

© 2014, Charlie Jensen, All Rights Reserved

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