Post written by Tom Briggs, shown above, edited by Will Van Dorp. Foto above by NMCB 3 Public Affairs.
When [Will] asked that I write something for the blog, I initially thought to discuss my recent trip to the upper reaches of the Euphrates River valley. But what I had seen disappointed the sailor in me: no dhows or fisherman in traditional dress. Rather, guys dressed in slacks and shirts, fishing with old fishing poles and hand cast nets from beat-up aluminum boats with outboard motors. Contemporary Sindbads really didn’t look or act all that different from US sport fisherman.
Therefore, I began to reflect on common ground between my Iraq “trip” and time spent sailing in New York Harbor. My trip was chaotic, violent and dreary. The way to escape this was to relive the peace that I’d found sailing in New York Harbor and the quality of friends that I’d made there. It shocked me that the only people to write me while I was away, other than my wife, were my sailing friends. Others that I’d known for years simply didn’t have the time or inclination to maintain contact.
I first set foot on Pioneer in February 2006. Despite having an iron (now mostly steel) hull, Pioneer is very much a traditional vessel: sixty odd feet on deck, one hundred feet overall, gaff-rigged, without winches and with only the minimal fittings necessary to operate for public sails. What draws me to her is not conventional beauty but longevity. A workboat meant for hauling cargo no more than twenty or thirty years, she survives and sails one hundred twenty-three years later.
I first sailed Pioneer in fifteen to twenty knots of wind, what Pioneer LOVES! I was on bow watch as Pioneer pounded through the waves, water shooting up through the hawse-holes, soaking me. I loved sailing from that moment on and I wanted to learn to be a better sailor and so gain acceptance by the volunteer crew. Not all of the volunteers were excellent sailors, not all of them loved the same traditional nautical things that I did, but they were kindred spirits. I can remember nights after sailing sitting in the bar arguing with the chief mate and another volunteer over how to tie a sheet bend and what its similarities are to a bowline. Who does that? What kind of freaks sit and argue in a bar about knots?
Toward the close of my second year aboard Pioneer, I received my deployment orders to Iraq. I considered this exciting news since I had volunteered for the deployment. But as departure grew closer, I got nervous and my friends from Pioneer were there for me. They took me out to restaurants all over the City and gave me a going-away party that I’ll always remember. And when I was deployed they wrote letters, sent packages and did everything that they could to remind me that there existed another world that I would go back to one day. I can’t say how much of a relief it was after working a twelve to fourteen hour watch in Iraq, to go back to my SWA (South West Asia) hut, tie knots, read letters and listen to sea shanties on my iPod. It sounds odd to me now, but my friends helped me keep my sanity then.
Three middle fotos by Will Van Dorp.
Welcome back, Tom. I offer the foto below: a scene of dhows, Iraqi tugs, and wooden date barges somewhere along the Shatt. It comes from a postcard given to me by Umm Majed, my Iraqi Arabic teacher, a woman with a 1001 stories that need to be heard.