Ship’s Papers

Square rigger regatta  credit BirnieTall ships in Regatta during Race Week

by Whitt Birnie

Ship’s Papers

With Ship’s Papers, those documents needed when moving a small ship from port to port, secure in hand, I opened the door to the harbour-master’s office. He sat looking up from behind a large desk. The small room had a wide, open window overlooking the wharfs, but I only had time for a quick peek at the memorabilia covering the walls before he brought me up short with “Yes, may I help you?” and a smile.

Now, port authorities can come in many humours and attitudes, and their power over a mariner’s life is far-reaching. Inhabitants ashore live protected behind legal barriers unavailable to sea captains – his vessel and papers, crew and cargo must be in proper order at every moment. It’s a make-it or break-it stop, so it’s with due respect that I approach these disciplinarians. “Yes, thank you,” I replied, quickly trying to sum him up by looking into his face and searching for that smile. He was a wee bit round, bright white teeth, and with a skin color of a warm tan that I’d frequently noticed on native island girls, but was surprised to see on him.  With my mind already drifting, I quickly added, “I’ve come for clearance.”

He wasn’t smiling now, and I felt a slight tang of worry. ‘What’s wrong,’ is what I was thinking, but I had enough smarts to say, “After our papers are in good order and when we’ve been cleared, for how long is the document valid?”  That probably convinced him I was serious and offering him the respect he deserved, and a different but quizzical smile returned.

“Before answering that,” he went on, leaning back in his chair and glancing out at the quay where vessels were bobbing in their moorings, “why are you leaving?”  He was looking at a framed picture on the desk, so I started scanning the wall of nautical memorabilia, and without really connecting to the moment, lost in some vague future plans, sputtered forth, “Oh, we had a month-long passage and we’d like to rest up on some deserted beach.”  That brought a jolly, rolling chuckle from him.

Getting up from behind the desk, and drawing himself up to full height, a very impressive, proud and strong individual, he placed his hand near the wall and said, “Come take a look at these.”  Foreign flags, prize ribbons, lines knotted in fancy decorative work, nameplate inscriptions, reproductions, buttons, scrimshaw; I grew light-headed as I felt history wash over me. Pointing to a signed photograph of the Star Flyer  he said, “Where have you been all your life, on a desert island?  These tall ships are arriving next week, by sail, no less. What is so pressing that you want to miss Race Week and the regatta?”

He was right.  I’d been living on remote islands most of my life, and I wasn’t attracted to crowds at all.  But this native harbour official, the ‘Port Captain’, with just a few words, had shaken my resolve to leave. I felt that wonderful no-man’s-land sensation of change, the warm blush that comes when you realize you’ve made a silly mistake, and want to correct it, when you’re awash with the consequences of tacking your ship, changing your course, overcoming inertia and indecision.  Here was a guy I’d never met before, but he was speaking with pride for his native island, and, in fact, extending an invitation.

There it was again, that deepest joy of traveling, receiving hospitality, that rush you feel hearing local people extend their welcome to a visiting stranger, the gesture of friendship abroad, the host wanting the visitor to feel at home, the relaxed people of the tropics, sharing something warmed by life in the sun. “You’ll always regret it if you leave now.”

I was more than giddy with embarrassment. “I thought it was mostly for the élite and their super yachts,”  I advanced hesitatingly, then went on;  “We’re doing this sail very simply, on small budget.”  But I knew I’d lost the argument, I was finished, he’d won.

Wagging his head slowly by now with laughter. “No problem. So much goes on here.  Yachties?  You might never even see them. There’s good crew ashore.  You’ve got the time, you’re staying. You’ll only get clearance in an emergency.  Is that okay with you?”

“Great!”   So I left the kind Port Captain’s office in an excellent mood, with no clearance, but with a big prize in store. The pictures of the tall ships you see here are thanks to him. I’d be extremely pleased to learn he found a spot for them in his office of nautical souvenirs.


18 thoughts on “Ship’s Papers”

  1. shrewdbanana said:

    Whitt, you have a great style of writing. (It makes me feel as if I’m adventuring along with you.)
    Thank you for extending this welcome to me and sharing your voyage 🙂


    • Wow, Anne, did I miss the boat; I just found this comment of yours. I think style belongs to published poets and writers like you. When I read your work, I get an emotional jolt. My adventuring ramblings must seen bland, but I do appreciate the encouragement. Give me time, if you have some to spare. 🙂


      • shrewdbanana said:

        Oh, no no no no no – you are not getting away with that. Whether you realise it or not, Whitt, you ARE a writer. I hope to catch up on the latest voyages soon – it’ been a little busy here lately. You take care, and thanks for the message! 🙂


        • Hi Anne. Thanks for nudging me, I always respond to positive intentions.. Hey, summertime stuff, I was lucky to be out swimming again this afternoon, gliding high over the coral heads beneath, just breathing easily on the surface, going the distance, and thought of how well you make your poems flow like water. If I had half your skills at writing, I’d use them on the sea, and later Typee. You are some shrewd banana lady. 🙂


          • ha ha! Just keep on writing Whitt – and it feels like I can take a few strokes next to you in the water, and see the coral below – you describe things so well.

            And thanks for reminding me to take time out and just enjoy what life has to offer – oh, yes you did that, even if you didn’t know it. See, I told you – you are good! 🙂

            Best wishes,


            • Hi Anne; I regret waiting so long to thank you for your kind words of encouragement. I’ll only feel good if writing finally becomes second nature. You write some mighty powerful seaside stories yourself. And since we should all learn from others, I’ll take the advice and remember to share some survival skills before leaving anyone alone in the lagoon again. Hope some warm spring weather finds you outdoors and happy soon. Congrats on the honours.


            • Thank you so much Whitt – only just seen your kind words here. I’m doing NaPoWriMo and it’s taken over my life this month! 🙂
              Glad to say it’s finally warming up here a little, weather-wise!

              Hi Anne ; I was cooling my heels in the Port Captain’s office yesterday seeking departure papers again, and I thought of you writing papers for your exams and creative writing project and wondering when you would post some poetry – maybe next month?? I’m even worse; on Outbound, I’ve let the sun set on my photography, only to find myself searching in the dark for story ideas which happen at night. Fun getting wrapped up in a blog, huh. The weather has been very fickle this year, hot when it’s usually cool, windy when it should be calm, etc. and vice-versa; I no longer doubt that the climate has begun to extract revenge. So I’m anchored near a pass through the coral, listening to the swell pound on the reef, stowing goods, ready to leap into the breeze and currents, to work the vessel upwind for as long as the sea is gentle and permissive, hungry to discover clear horizons, see stunning sea-life and find what nature still has to reveal. Thank you for coming by with enthusiasm so often to make encouraging remarks and share stimulating ideas. A month or two may pass before I get hooked by the net again; I’ll try to net or hook some dinner instead. ‘Till later, Anne.


  2. I agree, a sailor and a writer. Dang that is my kind of man. But I read “we” so say Hi to the Mrs. lol
    I really enjoyed it.


    • Well, you’re exaggerating, but it’s a real joy to read you. Now since you’re the adventurous type, why not find a skipper looking for Venus to sail you to Bali. We’re not that rare! It’ll be like one of those “Roads not taken” you cite on your site; Independence at it’s best; thanks again for the poem.


  3. Hello, I cannot find a ‘post comment’ click in the ‘about’ section so I will post this here and at the same time endorse the above blogger’s comments that you are indeed a writer. I especially rate the following piece from you as deeply inspiring. In fact, I would rate it right up there with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gandhi……… “Many of life’s most interesting developments ashore also occur due to tacking, or change, because with it come new opportunities. The new skills learned always bring you closer to your goals, so when you come back to your favorites, what were once barriers have since disappeared”…. Thanks and you are right, coping with change, even unexpected change, brings new opportunities even when you do not immediately know it.


    • Thank you for the very kind compliment. I’m going to disappoint you though, you’ve set the ‘writing’ bar far too high for me. Writing is too much of a struggle for me to really enjoy and be good at it.

      It must be tough for you to keep having to battle with sad memories. Try to keep watch for new opportunities; the headwinds are bound to change.


      • Hello. Thanks for your kind comments about my writing. I am confidant peace will come eventually – the writing certainly helps. I look forward to your new photos when you post them.


  4. I could say this a thousand times and it would still be true. You have the most beautiful blog on this big blue marble 🙂


    • Figuring a sailor like you must be wacky to tempt fate with a username like yours, Stormy, I checked Google Images, and man was I surprised. Bad weather is something to avoid, but if that’s you in the pictures, I should reconsider. In any case, thanks for the sarcasm. Don’t get me wrong; just joking.


  5. Hi Whitt, thanks for your comments today. Of course, I want to comment on your blog from time to time, but there isn’t always a comment box. So I’ll write something here. The various blues of your sea photography remind me what a beautiful place the Pacific is. I miss it, and envy every single person who can see the sea every day. It’s great to look at your photos of the same spot, one turquoise, another mauve. Thanks for the lift.


    • Hi Trish, Thanks for making such a useful comment. Those gradations of turquoise, between blues and greens, are some of most attractive characteristics of the French Polynesian lagoons. Many people remember those colors more than anything else from visits because the tones soothe, relax and calm the observer. And they vary with the slightest change in water depth or time of day or even the strength of wind rippling the surface of the lagoon. The only other natural phenomena which come close in variety are those often missed, surprisingly short, few minutes at dawn and dusk when the sky displays a even wider range of color. You make a good point, that many people miss the sea because of its colors, its size and distance, its activity and strength, its association with holiday fun and sunny beaches. Personally, I couldn’t be happy without having it close at hand. As a consequence, I keep my “ship’s papers” in good order. I’ll remember your wish for more seascapes and try to post an entertaining selection. Thanks for the hint.


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