1084 The education of a seafarer

No Ordinary Seaman: A Memoir
by Gary H. Karlsen

Victoria: First Choice Books, 2018
$22.95 / 9781775266907

Reviewed by Eric W. Sager

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There are many paths into adulthood. One way is to leave home and go to sea. It is an old path, followed by many young men (and women too) through the ages, but less often in the present century and the previous one. Gary Karlsen admits that he was an anomaly – a teenager from a middle-class Canadian family who went to sea instead of going directly to university as did many of his peers. One day in 1965 he went down to the docks in Vancouver, walked up the gangway of a Norwegian freighter, somehow got to the skipper’s office, and was hired as a deckhand. He hoped to make it to Norway to visit his relatives there. But the Havkatt did not go there. Gary quickly learned a basic truth of seafaring: whatever you expect to find at sea, you may find less than you expected. You will also find more than you ever dreamed of.

Deckhand Karlsen scraping the hold on Havkatt, September 1965

The young Karlsen made a few wise decisions: he kept a journal of his daily life at sea, and he took a camera with him. The result is that today he lets us witness the ordinary details of life and work in the ship. We eavesdrop on conversations around the six tables in the mess, where meals are served in strict punctuality. We watch and listen as the deckhands perform their many tasks: rubbing black grease on steel cables, cleaning the passageways and “heads” (toilets) with mop and bucket, splicing rope, scraping rust off the walls of the mast house, painting the hatches with lead paint, learning to master the wheel and the navigation instruments on the bridge. We get to see the ship and its spaces from many angles, from within the holds and the engine room to the bird’s eye view from the wheelhouse. We learn that a remarkable amount of the sailor’s time is spent out of sight of the sea, stuck in the holds at the boring tasks of removing rust, scraping and painting.

Havkatt anchored in Vancouver’s outer harbour, 1965
Havkatt crossing the Pacific Ocean with grain, Vancouver to Tokyo, September 1965

We follow Gary and his shipmates through the streets of Tokyo, Yokohama and other port cities, in pursuit of drink, food and girls (in that order). We learn many things: the Norwegian sailors’ cure for a hangover; how to escape through the toilets of a gay bar in Tokyo when the other drinkers become “real pests”; how to get back to your ship when you are lost and there are no taxis; how to deal with the world’s most self-important apparatchiks (U.S. immigration officers, of course).

Go to sea and landward cultures confront you everywhere. They confront Gary Karlsen in many places, as he goes from the Havkatt to a tanker, the Polycastle. He takes us to Greenwich Village, Cristobal, Freeport, San Francisco, Stavanger, Algeria, Port Said, Durban, Bahrain, and many more places. And within the ship, that confined but potent vessel of human relationships, Gary confronts the real worlds of human sociology and psychology, in all their diversity and mystery. He learns to navigate his way around the shipboard community and its fluid hierarchy, and to emerge with enduring friendships.

MT Polycastle at Port Said, Egypt
Ordinary Seaman Karlsen
Gary Karlsen of Surrey, BC

The ship is a hazardous workplace, and there are many risks. There are the obvious ones, such as the infections so easily contracted in port. And risks less obvious to those who have never been to sea, some more serious than others: the peril of the Pacific typhoon; the health risk from ingesting toxic rust particles (no hazmat rules here!); the risk of injury caused by bar-room brawls; the risk of fines for under-age drinking in certain puritanical jurisdictions; the gruesome threat of fried cockroaches in your breakfast; the terror before the ghost of the dead Second Engineer climbing over the rails in the fog; the sure fate of getting dunked at the Court of King Neptune (the ceremony of crossing the equator); the danger of being conned by street traders who will sell you camel dung as hashish.

Karlsen knows how to spin a yarn, and he knows how to write dialogue, including Norwegian-accented English. He was, and is, an astute observer of the world around him. He is a congenial guide, and readers who pick up this book will surely follow his journey to its end. The book is beautifully produced, and a credit to both author and publisher. Gary Karlsen returned to land and earned his university degrees, following the fascinating learning experience that he shares with us — his rigorous and comprehensive education in the world of the seafarer.

Karlsen’s No Ordinary Seaman Voyages

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Eric Sager

Eric Sager was a member of the History Department at the University of Victoria from 1983 to 2016. He has done research on the history of the English peace movement, the sailing ships and seafarers of Atlantic Canada, unemployment in Canada, families in Canada, and economic inequality. His books include Seafaring Labour (1989), Maritime Capital (1990), and Ships and Memories (1993). His most recent book is Inequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). His book The Professor and the Plumber: Conversations About Equality and Inequality will be published later in 2021.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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