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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hong Kong Harbor

  It was a dismal day as we entered the harbor at Hong Kong. I was 20 years old serving aboard the USS Blue Ridge. Seas were casting about before a squall. We had been held off outside the harbor on the previous day due to bad weather.
  As we were lowered in the “small boat”, which in this case was the “Captain’s Gig”, I had cast a questioning eye towards the bearded and grizzled coxswain. He only raised his bushy eyebrows at me, stood his deck and began to gauge the sea below. We crashed into the water and were banging dangerously into the ship when he called to “cast away”. The heavy metal hooks danced around our ducking heads as the twin inboard Chrysler engines growled their watery complaint into the maw of dark and foamy sea. We circled starboard and around to the front of the ship where the anchor chain dangled; a light gray hulking shadow against a leaden sky. Each link weighed sixty pounds. We were to connect the chain to a pad-eye at the bow of the 22 ft. gig we rode and tow it to the buoy that rocked and pitched with alarming violence in the misty harbor before us. The visible part of the dark charcoal colored buoy was about the size of a UPS delivery truck.
  We were all clad in the blue chambray and denim of sailors. We wore dark blue wool baseball caps with the Blue Ridge embroidered in gold on the front. As seamen we wore leather holsters attached to our belts like seafaring gunslingers. A buck knife and marlinspike rested in the holster slots for quick access. Everyone looked heavier than they were in the orange life vests that were required. Petty Officer Second Class Wrigney stood with me in the bow. He had the honor of rigging to the buoy. His job was to jump from the gig to the sea slippery metal buoy and attach the anchor chain we had released to the pad-eye there. I was too busy maintaining my station and watching for hazards in the angry water to be afraid. I would be releasing the chain from the gig as others pulled attached lines from two other boats to assist Wrigney in his task.
  In the distance stood the city of Hong Kong. As will happen in times like these my mind began to review visions of the past several hours. We had steamed into the harbor as a 747 was taking off from Hong Kong International. The runway ran horizontal to the right of the city proper along a mountain range. As the huge jet lifted off, she banked, showing us her silver back, powering toward the open sea. Skyscrapers of white concrete, glass and mirror stood sentinel over a bustling metropolis of grays and greens in this hazy world of foreign aromas. There was an ever-present odor of fish and something akin to mold. Flashing neon contrasted sharply with the dank surroundings. The mountainside behind the skyscrapers seemed to be plastered with thousands of unpainted wooden hovels barely clinging to a tenuous purchase on the rocky outcroppings.
  In the harbor, Chinese junks with sails that appeared to be made of bamboo and wood, plied the tossing waters; bobbing rubber ducks in an excited child’s bathtub. Huge ocean liners lay like beautiful arrogant women seemingly untouched in their hugeness by the tossing seas. Barges lumbered their way heavy-laden with barely a wake at their flat bow. Small ferries made you think of water trollies on a network of unseen rails, just beneath the surface, as they motored back and forth from ship to shore. As we had slowly cruised our way into the harbor, rickety vessels of all description and size, spilling over with wares and people of myriad costume, had drawn precariously alongside. A cacophony of shouting had ensued, “Hey Joe … you want good time?” “Watches for sale! Jewelry!” “You need a ride? You see ME at the dock. I show you veddy good time.”
  I was jerked back to reality as we were suddenly to the buoy and Petty Officer Wrigney crouched at the bow of the gig, legs bent at the knee, arms spread like a blocking basketball player, ready to dive for the swaying, bucking, barnacled monstrosity. As the bow of the gig reached its height, he released himself like some Neanderthal primate. The boat’s upward momentum seemed to eject him up onto the buoy where he grabbed hold of the metal handles that resembled bent rebar that were provided there. For the next few moments there was hectic maneuvering, pushing, pulling and great grunting. Our world swirled crazily in water all round. We were tossed and banged like so much flotsam. I felt a sharp pain when I slipped and struck my hip against the gunnels. Quickly I regained my footing and renewed pushing the heaving chain so Wrigney could attach it to the pad-eye. He slammed home the shackle pin as he held fast with his other hand. Wildly he launched himself back toward us and landed smack in the middle of one square foot of white fiberglass cabin before jumping on a slide into the teak decking of the gig. I pushed with all my might with a long wooden pole with hooked metal end called a bow hook against the tossing buoy. Once again the great motors growled their stubborn intention as we pulled port away from the clanging chain and mooring buoy. Above the fray we could hear the capstan “cank, cank cank” as it drew the slack from the chain and pulled the ship taut against its gargantuan aft anchor that already tugged at the deep bottom below.
  We were drenched through and through, water dripping from our faces, as we looked askance at one another, in a state of controlled shock. We cleared the area and suddenly, as if on cue, the tension seemed to dispel and we were slapping each other on the back and “high fiving”while crowing our pleasure and relief at the wind and sea for a job well done. We were comrades in an ancient dance as old as mariner tales from the days of canvas and wind. We were men of the sea and the deep mysteries of an Asian port lay teeming before us.







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