September 28th, 2017 came and I felt a bit of uneasiness. While I enjoy walking in a new woods or on a new path or trying a new café in a small town, setting out on a 60 year old ship to an unknown hurricane hit island was a bit unnerving! I had called home prior to this and felt I had the ‘no, you’re not crazy’ backing of family and I knew that Jesus had got me into ‘this mess’ so He would be with me on this next part! With each leg of my deployment, I was getting so far from home, now almost 3000 miles!
This is Carol McKinney. She was my reason for agreeing to go to Puerto Rico (PR). “We got this girl!” was a favorite phrase of ours. She was my Log Chief on the Chief and I was going to ‘assist’ her in PR with setting up a Branch Office. As she is a world traveler, I likely wouldn’t have went without her but I still had some misgivings…..Tug boats that had been ordered from New York arrived and at noon, after watching preparations from crew all morning with tossing off the thick ropes that had held us in dock, there was no turning back as the tugs pushed and guided the ship away from the pier. A few people needed medicine for motion sickness but I only chewed Ginger gum, which helped. FEMA people were the only passengers allowed, other than the crew, so there was an IT person, Allecia (our facilities manager), our FEMA Corp team (5 young people serving this mission), Carol and me, and a crew of 69. The previous Log Chief I was assisting stayed in Florida to take care of the office we set up there.
Here is Allecia, Carol and I. Thankfully, the ship email did work while we were sailing the 2 1/2 days. I was reminded of when I had sailed on a smaller fishing vessel with my church youth group in 1976 – sailing from Seattle, up through the NW Passage of Alaska. Looking all around, from horizon to horizon, one just sees water. The sunsets were awesome!
The first night, as Allecia and I were standing on the back deck, I saw a blinking light in the distance. We thought it may be a ship. We thought it may be our imagination. We called a crew member outside with us and he said, “That would be Cuba!” Oh dear, that was way too close to Cuba!!! Geography was never my strong suit! He said we were following the coastline about 20 nautical miles out and would be for many more hours. The next morning, we ventured up on the Bridge and watched the electronic guidance equipment and saw our ship passing by the island of Cuba and then on to the Dominican Republic.
As there were not many people staying on the ship, I was able to ‘move up’ to the Cabin Deck for the voyage. This was one more deck up from the Officer’s Mess which was our ‘office’ and was on the 5th deck. Yes, it was now 5 decks to run down to eat but only one deck to use the restroom – as there are not public restrooms on this ship. One has to go back to one’s room. On the right, is my usual room when the ship is billeting FEMA and other relief agencies (not on the voyage). I shared the 4 man room with two other gals – one was Allecia and the other was a tough sweet young gal with the Federal Protection Services so was armed! The work days were very long in Key West (and would be in San Juan also) so after 14-15 hours, I would roll into my bottom bunk, snuggle into all my covers and fall fast sleep. However, being up on the Cabin deck was nice (and alone!) and I could watch the ocean pass by. It was a bit quieter, away from the engine noises. I had my own bathroom too! This room would also host a few cocktail hours – shh don’t tell anyone:)
The office area deck had the office on one end and the ship crew having coffee on the opposite end. While they were always very proper and polite while talking with us, their coffee time was their normal ‘salty’ selves. I had certainly heard the words before but not so many in one sentence! The terms ‘salty talk’ and ‘swearing like a sailor’ now had true context!
Captain Rick Smith was certainly the captain of his domain. He spent most of the past 20 years on the ship and commanded it well. His smile was genuine but one also knew if he wasn’t happy! This added to my nervousness when working with him sometimes. The ship lingo of port and starboard sides, mess hall, gangway and quarter deck were all new to me! I was tired and it certainly showed one day when I needed to talk to him. I pressed the button on the radio and said “Captain, your location?” He replied “On the pier.” I panicked, turned to the closest person and said, “Where is the pier?” After their laughing stopped they pointed to the pier and said, “You know, the pier, where the cars drive!” That was stress!
I was able to ‘drive’ the ship using the real steering wheel as they took it off of ‘auto pilot’. Here is the captain (in the white jump suit) and we are on the Bridge on the top level. The view was spectacular! (picture on the right)
These pictures were while we were still docked but I was able to visit the Bridge several times during the voyage. AND I did get to steer under the guidance of Greg from Sweden! I watched dials and other equipment and turned the ship 5 degrees to the right, brought it center again and then turned it 5 degrees to the left. He said I would need to turn it at least 40 degrees before people on the boat would notice and tip over!
On October 1st, the ship arrived in port at San Juan Puerto Rico and a new adventure started! Our tasks n the ship were similar with receiving lists of relief workers that needed lodging on the ship. I then sat outside on the pier and registered them when they showed up tired and hungry. One group was over 100 guys so that was a hot, humid and long night! There were gals too that slept on the ship. My view was an old warehouse in front of me and the big ‘ol ship behind me. I missed the open sea. The view from our Office during the day wasn’t too great either – just other big cargo ships and old damaged buildings.
We were warned this area was not safe so we needed to always be in pairs and not to venture out at night. Eventually we had armed gaurds at the ramp leading to into the ship where I sat. People were jogging on the pier but were military or law enforcement training and keeping in shape. Under the red umbrella was my spot in the evening.
There were a few incidents that involved Security, port authorities and another that necessitated an ambulance (not for me!) but all in all, it was quite a safe and enjoyable time! The ship that docked right by us, The Kennedy, was funded by Ted Kennedy and housed many Secret Service anticipating visits from dignitaries. We did have a fire drill as people would be lazy and not take their pass card when they left and the captain was not convinced the cards were accurate that were left in the box. He took his watch over us souls on the ship very seriously!!!So, one morning, after the drill siren shrieked, we all took our cards and went outside. One card was left in the box. The person was not outside. One of the mates was tasked with having to go and search for this person on the ship. In a real fire, this mate, at 24 years old, would possibly lose his life in a fire if someone did not follow processes and mistakenly not take their card. It was eye opening how life and death ship life can be! Of note, lint from dryers are the main cause of ship fires!
I’ll miss that ol ship from New York – the T.S. Empire State- but it sure was nice to get off of it after 4 weeks! Carol and I drove from San Juan, through the mountains to the southern part of the island to Ponce, which would be my home for a few more months. It had now been 6 weeks since I’d been home!
My next blog will cover Ponce, setting up the Branch Office, meeting the locals, dealing with Spanish, and also how my husband was doing back stateside! Thanks for taking this journey with me!