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A small postscript to my Sailboat Story

The Sailboat was in some ways a perfect environment. For most of the two weeks I had plenty of time to read and write. Contrary to my usual life situation, there was little to draw me away from the task of writing as I had no particular interest in socializing with two of the other people present. The conversations I overheard provided fine stimulus to my writing.


Life aboard the MV Rheinbridge

Journal entries in italics, otherwise these are memories



Chief Officer Ernesto Escobar, Second in Command

I wish to thank Captain and Master of the Rhein Bridge Ozren Pajkuric and Chief Officer Ernesto Escobar (shown in this photo) for sharing with me their ship-board home and their thoughts. These two men spoke freely about their political views, their homes and families, and countless other things over the eight days I was aboard the Rhein Bridge. When I told them I was a writer they asked if I would send them a copy of what I had to say about my experiences on their ship. This story is written for them and all of the men on the ship, not only so they can read it, but so that my American friends can learn about them.


In addition, I thank the several other officers I had frequent opportunity to converse with, and the many crew members who were invariably gracious; sometimes quite literally “to a fault.”  I could have had more conversation with them had I been more forward. All acted as though my presence was not just welcome, but somehow a special honor. I don’t know if this is because I am American, or because they had saved my life, or because their parents and culture had raised them well. This story is written for them and also their families. The questions friends have asked since I came home remind me of how much misconception we Americans have of the “big bad world” out there.


I offer my apologies up front. No one appreciates seeing their spoken words placed on a page. Even a direct quote can be a misrepresentation if the tone and inflection are missing. Feelings and intended meanings, groped for among the words of a second language, are easily misconstrued, and I’m sure I did it many times. As we shared conversations our goal was to learn more about each other’s country, from this rare opportunity of a personal view. In recording this experience I hope to represent accurately their intended meanings and feelings. I am certain in many cases I have fallen short of this and apologize in advance. I have no desire to injure by misrepresentation any of the good men aboard this ship.


The italicized words are directly from my journal written on board the Rheinbridge. The remainder was written in the weeks immediately following my return home.


My Story


Day 1

Aboard the Rheinbridge

August 23, 2005



My view as I came topside from the sailboat cabin.

I want to tell you all about the layout of the ship – the part people live in and elsewhere. And the engine room. The food. The navigation systems. Doing laundry. The party. Where the ship is registered, who owns it, how it is managed.  And I will, but mostly I need to tell you about the people; where they are from and why, and what we talked about and why. How long they are on these voyages. Their families.


I will try to keep it chronological…




It was raining lightly the morning the sailboat rendezvoused with The Rhein Bridge. Though apparently named for a bridge over a European river, the people who work on this ship pronounce its name as though it were a weather term, rather than a river. (For readers familiar with the Northwest, it rhymes with Bainbridge, an island in the Puget Sound.)


I freely admit it; my first impressions were larger than life. I’d have guessed the ship was a mile long, instead of the actual 800 meters (or was it 800 feet?). Regardless, the sudden and total change in my environment left me reeling. First, the movement stopped, and so did the sound. Or to be more precise, the lurching movement and the sound of whistling rigging and smashing waves.


This is one of the drawings from my journal

 In an instant, size and scale changed and measurable distances grew from a few feet to hundreds of feet. From a place where my presence was openly resented to…total strangers, dark-skinned foreign men, grasped my hands and arms and pulled me aboard. Concern and curiosity welcomed me. This was serious business and a dangerous situation, but they had been asked to help, and so they were.


They spoke English to me, but the hand and body language they used was of people who know that these are the essential fundamental communication devices we all rely on in an emergency. I was told to follow; their hands turned me in the right direction. With touching concern, they helped me through doorways that were hatches to be stepped up and over; up one little ladder – their hand tightening over mine say “hold on tight”; to a tall ladder of metal bars – their faces say “yes, up here, be careful”; and out through a hole, a hatch in the floor. I am standing on a floor, a deck, but within the ship; I cannot see outside.


The essence was their business-like concern. The compassion of people who are confident of their skills: professionals. I knew I was safe with these men.


The departing sailboat can be seen faintly though the windshield
in the center of the picture.

Now he is walking a half step in front of me, his left hand is extended back to me again, for mine to grasp, and I do. We are inside the ship. He leads me through halls lined with pipes and doorways that seal with a half dozen twisting handles on each door. Everything is metal; enclosed, smallish spaces. I could not retreat if I wanted to -- we have made so many turns down and through white painted metal passageways. Leading the procession ahead of us, others from my rescue party are opening doors. There is a roar and blast of heat; I am in a different place. Here the many pipes don’t just lie up neatly against the walls. In a moment I am suspended on a catwalk in what can be no other than the engine room. It is cavernous, bright white with paint and lights, but the loud roaring defines everything. Far below me, against a background of more white painted metal I see a row of pale green machines that look freshly painted, and men dressed in white coveralls. I hear, though do not see, hissing steam from pipes. I see, but do not hear, the rattling of the wire that holds the insulation on some of these pipes. Can the roaring really be coming from those pretty green machines?


On the Bridge

See the sailboat going away?

 Just to the right of the wiper blade.

In another moment I am in a tiny elevator and now the ship has changed again. A room, a spacious office with computers on desktops and pictures on the wall. Three, four more steps up a stairway, and I am standing on the bridge. I’ve seen movies. I know what the bridge of a ship looks like. It is full of windows and you can see everywhere at once. I – a sick woman from a sick sailboat; a nobody lifted from a heartless cradle in the center of a cold expanse of nowhere -- I am now standing…on The Bridge of this magnificent and powerful ship.


I, in my Heidi-layers of clothes with very dirty hair and unspeakable hands. And a handsome man, the very model of a modern Major-General, as Gilbert and Sullivan have already described him for me, smiles like a friend and offers his hand.


Then he offers his tall captains chair. He suggests a cup of tea and I nod. As a young man speeds away to fulfill this request, I call after him “with sugar?” I know it’s ok for me to ask for this. I know my request will not offend any of these men.


The captain says he knows what it is like to be out in a small boat – the motion, the noise. In a single glance, without actually even asking me, he assumes my sickness will disappear with the sailboat. (It is gone from view in minutes.) A cabin has been prepared for me when I am ready.


My cabin is the most beautiful room I have ever seen. It is large, with a double bed, 2 big white pillows, a fluffy white comforter, white sheets! A white towel and a bar of soap! All have been placed here for me. A telephone on a desk, a table, a small orange plastic upholstered couch. A PRIVATE  BATHROOM! The toilet flushes. It is a REAL toilet! I am in tears with the joy of it all. It is so beautiful.


From this moment on, and for days afterward, Shirley McLain’s song from Sweet Charity ran through my brain, “I landed, slam!  Right in a pot of jam! If my friends could see me now!”


First meal --Lunch

Two hours later, freshly showered, I am sitting at a dining table and my life aboard this ship has begun.  I am going to Panama. Without blinking an eye, the Captain tells me we will arrive September 1, at 4 AM.  Is this a joke? Can any ship travel with this much precision?

Captain and Master of the MV Rheinbridge

The also sails as a hobby. He has a small sailboat he takes out on the Adriatic Sea.


Introduction to Captain Pajkuric

The Captain and Master of this vessel, Mr. Ozren Pajkuric, is Croatian. I felt honored to be able to make a good impression on him by knowing where Croatia is. With partial credit to Walt Disney for imprinting forever the name of a certain breed of dog onto my brain, I also remembered the name of the region that is his home: The Dalmatian Coast.


Hey, I have a degree in Geography. When I graduated from PSU in 1980, I joked that I now qualified for employment as a world traveler, should such a career exist. I have in fact been blessed with lots of opportunities for travel, though none of them paid jobs. And while I can’t remember a person’s name until I have embarrassed myself a dozen times, I am a whiz with geographic names. In a very definitive way, I had now redeemed my sheepskin for something truly valuable: the captain’s appreciation for my apparently rare knowledge of Croatia’s location.


Like all of the officers on this ship, the captain is married and has a family. With two grown daughters in college, the captain’s wife is also a stay-at-home-mom, like myself, for the same reasons I am, but more so. Ozren is at sea four months at a time, with two months off between contracts. It would seem that he and Joe earn comparable salaries, which means a stay-at-home wife is a luxury they can afford. Ozren expressed that though his wife might have preferred her own career, this was a joint decision. When your husband spends this much time away from home, a wife does double duty for the children when he’s gone, and she wants to be at home when he is home. One daughter is studying for a career in the tourist industry; the Dalmatian Coast, once governed by Italy, is still a major tourist destination. Another daughter goes to college somewhat more than an hour’s drive away from home, and has an apartment in this other city. I can’t remember her career plans, but they could be the same as any young person’s in America. Ozren’s father was a mariner also, captaining the very different freighters of another era, but it would seem that neither of his daughters wants a marine career.


He and I had many conversations; we were each anxious to compare the details of life in the other’s home country.


Other Croatians

The other two people around the European officer’s dining table were Chief Engineer Boris Rados and First Engineer Ivica Pavletic. You are probably pretty impressed that I can remember how to spell these names. I did actually learn the Captain’s name while on board the ship, but I got these two names off the ship’s roster. I knew them as Chief and First Engineer. They are REAL engineers too. They actually run a real engine: that one I saw on the way in.


Layout of the Mess

The Filipino officers shared the other round table in the Officer’s mess. This is for convenience. The cook prepares a menu for each nationality and the tables are spread accordingly. “Meals are for relaxation and [native language] conversation.” Ozren explains that there are no firm rules here. Younger officers often eat with the younger crew, rather than with the “old men.” And visa versa. A wide doorway connects the Crew’s mess. As near as I can tell, the major difference is the shape of the tables; crew members sit at rectangular tables.


The nearby kitchen is large, full of stainless steel, and well appointed -- as any commercial kitchen might be. It includes recycling bins for plastics, cans, paper, glass, and food waste, and a conveniently located grinder the size of two bushel baskets and connected to a chute, for those food scraps that get sent overboard when the ship is out on the high seas. As I learned from the garbage pollution notices posted on the sailboat, everything that is tossed must be ground to a size of less than one square inch. I don’t know if these are international laws, or a variety of local jurisdiction laws. For some reason I felt confident these people obeyed the law, though I myself broke it at one point. If they did break the law, I would never have known. Anything we tossed overboard would have soon been behind us in our foaming wake.


In the kitchen with Eulogio, the Cook; Cadet Thomas; and the Messman, Jose

They have been at sea a week, yet there is fresh fruit and lettuce. The center of each of these two round tables rotates; With a little railing round it, the movable portion holds condiments and shared items, a pitcher of ice water, cold sliced meats, cheeses and spreads, the freshly baked rolls. “This is a Japanese ship” says the captain – as though that explains everything I see. He is happy to be captaining a Japanese ship which he considers to be of better than average quality.


At the adjacent round table is Emmanuel, the young Second Officer who was responsible for hoisting me aboard and leading me to the bridge. After the Captain and two engineers, he and all the others on board, with two other exceptions, are from the Philippines. The exceptions are two young cadets, officers in training, from the Seychelles. There are only 24 people on this ship (now 25, with me).


After lunch I returned to my cabin and spent the rest of the day writing Advice to Would-be Sailors, and catching up my journal for these past 24 hours.



Day 2

August 24



I had lost weight on the sailboat -- ten or fifteen pounds at least. Though I was still a little shaky from my stressful sailboat ordeal, that adrenaline soon blended into the adrenaline of excitement with my new surroundings. In the morning of my second day I asked Third Officer Aniceto Elicanal for a tour of the ship. He said he would take me after he completed his mid-day watch. After lunch Aniceto led me down from the 6th floor bridge to the First Cabin Deck, also called the Public Deck.

On the bridge, facing the elevator                          

Names & Language

But let me interrupt this tour to first say something about names and language. When the captain first introduced himself, it was unclear what he said his name was. While his English is near perfect, my ears are not well-tuned to receive foreign accents. All the officers and crew have a remarkable command of this language that is used in apparently all international air and sea transport. My lack of a good ear made communication a little difficult, but hand-waving is something I AM good at, so I think we usually muddled through ok. Past experience tells me it is best not to know for sure. I sincerely hope I did not do irreparable damage to the American image I left with these good people. But more on that later.


My hand-waving skills don’t apply to understanding names and it was a few days before I found the ship’s roster. In the meantime I think it was Aniceto I asked, “how I should address the captain?” He said we call him “suhar.” My poor feeble ears. Finally I got it. Sir. Why don’t they just say it that way? Maybe because they say it right and we don’t? I don’t know.