Thanksgiving at sea requires battening, the rest is gravy

Given the holiday that just passed, I thought I’d let you in on what Thanksgiving Day looked like while aboard ship.

I don’t know why, but it seemed that whenever I was assigned to a ship, that ship was always at sea on Thanksgiving Day.

Note: For a more “entertaining” description of said situation, one could always ask my wife about it and, then, settle in for a rather bracing discourse on the subject of my absence.

That said, I also discovered two common threads regarding this fact on each of those ships. One was that everyone would’ve rather spent the holiday at home, and the second was that Thanksgiving always seemed to occur in late November.

We couldn’t do much about either.

At sea, that day was like every other. Watches had to be stood. Drills needed to be held. Instruments needed to be set and retrieved.

There were other constants. Being November, weather forecasts frequently had terms like “gale-force,” “severe,” and “storm warning” in them. The unspoken “Mariners are advised to run and hide,” was redundant. Thus, Thanksgiving Day could turn into a bit of a roller-coaster ride.

Still, we’d knock off early, run an afternoon movie, and open up the radio room for messages home while the cooks would spend the day preparing an evening meal that was always a bit on the lavish side.

There were, however, several differences between Thanksgiving dinner at home and the same dinner at sea.

In the galley, the stoves had low rails around the cooking areas to prevent pots and pans from sliding around. Too, the oven doors had locks. Nothing could ruin a Thanksgiving dinner faster than having a half-roasted turkey rolling around on deck. Further, most kitchens lack overhead rails for the cook to grab whenever the kitchen suddenly tilted 20 or so degrees.

In the wardroom, each table leg had a small bracket about four inches above the deck. These allowed the outside front leg of a chair to be hooked to the table, thus providing the chair’s occupant a relatively stable eating position. Alternatively, there were small eyebolts attached to the underside of the chairs and to the deck under the chair. We could then attach a short length of line with clips at each end to hold the chairs in position. These, often, came in handy.

To keep condiments in place, there was a small wooden box in the center of the table with cutouts for the variously sized jars of steak sauce, Tabasco, ketchup, salt, pepper, relish or whatever else might be needed for the meal. If the day was especially rough, the table cloth and place mats would be dampened to prevent plates and saucers from sliding around as the ship pitched or rolled. Care would also be taken to not fill glasses or cups to the brim in order to ensure sloshing was kept to a minimum.

Even with all of this, there were still times when you had to hook your leg around the table leg and eating became “one hand for the plate (to keep it in front of you and not your neighbor) and one hand for the fork.”

On the bridge, we’d always try to pick a course that would give us the best ride in the prevailing wind and sea conditions. This was usually obtained when we could keep the seas approaching us at an angle of 10- 30 degrees off of dead astern. From this angle, the swells would lift the stern and pass under us with a minimum of roll.

The bottom line, though, was that I’ve never been on a ship wherein the cooks did not outdo themselves on Thanksgiving. The meal was always delicious, the courses many, and the food plentiful. In short, you never left the table hungry.

Thanksgiving also marked the point where we knew our time at sea was almost over. Even though we were still thousands of miles away, we knew we’d soon be turning for home. Our work was done, we’d had a safe and successful season, and we’d just celebrated a great holiday.

There was no better feeling after that except seeing Cape Flattery appear on the horizon and, shortly thereafter, turning into the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to:

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