At maritime college, they teach us what to do in emergencies, how to prepare for flooding, fire, man-over-board.
They don’t teach us how to deal with the aftermath. It’s possible to put on a facade of calm, to exude confidence, but no-one ever teaches us how to deal with the nightmares that come afterwards. How do you run a ship with a crew that can’t sleep?
It’s always the minor details from each incident that stick with me, blurring together until I’m not sure which emergency I’m facing this time.
The pounding of my pulse in my ears, the intense focus as the adrenaline floods my system is always the same. The fire extinguisher floating among the debris, the oily stench of the smoke pouring out of the engine room vents, the numbness of my fingers holding the cabbage leaf over the bilge pump valve, the sensation of the cat winding against my legs as I lean into CPR, the shape of the blood spreading in the water, the burning sensation as the frayed rope end whips across my face, the stab of terror as my foot slips from the footrope, the painful intensity as the lightning strikes the water, the pimple on the cheek of the young soldier with the rifle, the sour smell of alcohol and bile, the scraping of the rough hand against my thigh, and every time the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I try to decide what to do.
As a teenager, a captain told me that there are only three things a person can do in a crisis: the best thing is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing is nothing.
They don’t teach us why they made those wrong decisions, why they froze, why they panicked.
At college, they teach us about people who did the wrong thing. Don’t be like them. They don’t teach us why they made those wrong decisions, why they froze, why they panicked. They tell us, “Don’t do this,” as if that’s enough.
My shipmates say that I keep my head in a crisis. They told me that, when the rogue wave hit, the first words out of my mouth were, “Aw, crap, not again.” They see the person they need to see, but they don’t see me. They can’t see me, because they only see the mask.
They see someone who’s experienced, who keeps their head, who gives clear instructions, who knows what they’re doing. They don’t see the nightmares, the doubts, the fears.
I sit in college, looking across the library at the young people coming into the industry. They know their checklists, they can recite the correct steps to follow in a drill, but there are some things we can’t learn in a classroom: how an individual will react in a crisis is one of those things.
As I look at those enthusiastic faces, I hope they never have to find out.