The Green Flash of Sunset
In 1976, on my first voyage in tropical waters, I remember watching a particularly magnificent sunset one evening.
It was one of “those” sunsets where the hues of all colours change so subtly that the light in the sky appears to be a liquid kaleidoscope of wonder.
I think it was probably the first time I had ever taken the time to actually sit and take note of one of the most satisfying, and peaceful free shows on earth.
When I went into the crew bar later and was waxing lyrical about it, one of the old hands asked if I had seen the “green flash.”
I was immediately on my guard, because I assumed this was another in a long line of piss takes and wind ups that all junior crew members are subjected to at sea for at least the first couple of trips.
It is a long standing tradition that when you are on the receiving end you vow that you will not take part in as you get older, and yet when you are a more senior member of the crew you take childish delight in fooling the deck boys or cadets.
Although I have not sailed with a deck boy in 25 years or longer cadets and other first trippers are still fodder for the fun if the opportunity arises.
These are basically harmless pranks are not be confused with the lack of knowledge of the language on board. which you had to learn quickly.
I remember after three days of being on board my fist vessel and I was helping the AB on the fore spring, steam winch, situated just in front of the accommodation.
We were moving the vessel along the quay and the AB had let me on the controls of the winch. Simple really, pay out, haul in, and stop.
We were hauling in as we moved forward and the Captain shouted down from the bridge
“Fast heaving” so I speeded up.
The next thing the captain shouted down from the bridge was along the lines of “Get that brainless fucking idiot off the winch controls”
A couple of weeks later when I was painting the crane pedestal the Bosun slapped me around the back of the head and asked (if shouting into my face can be considered asking) if the name on the bow was the “MV fucking Butlins, because there were enough holidays in my paint work for it to be”
I didn’t know what a holiday was, in relation to paint work, as the biggest thing I had ever painted was an Airfix model, so rather than ask and appear stupid I decided to confirm my stupidity by guessing that it was the drippy bits where the paint runs, so I tried to tidy them up.
Half an hour later and another slap around the back of the head and the decrying of my entire family both living and ancestral and inquiries as to how much piss I was trying to take, I finally said that I had tried to sort the holidays, pointing to the area of less hanging drips.
After hearing the entire teaching staff and pupils of the deck boy school being credited to “not having one fucking brain cell between them” he showed me that the bits missed were “holidays” and the hanging drips were called curtains.
Whilst still questioning my ability to breath unaided, yet alone put on foot in front of the other at the same time as breathing, he proceeded over the next few weeks to give me extensive practical lessons in painting on board a ship the types of paint and uses and the methods of application as well as the preparation of surfaces.
It was during these painting lessons that he told me that in order for us to counterbalance the painting stage (a thick plank of wood using ropes to hold it in place to access difficult areas) I would need to go to the Bosun’s Mate and get a “long weight”.
Eager to learn I asked what it was and he explained that it was added to the wood of the staging and act as counter-balance to the person on the stage.
I found the Bosuns Mate at the paint store and told him that the Bosun had sent me to get a “long weight”
“Oh Aye” he says “Hang on there I will just go and get you one”
He came back about 30 minutes later and when he saw me said
“Oh sorry son I had to do a job for the Chief Mate and it slipped my mind. Wait here and in will go and get it”
About 10 minutes later the Bosun turned up and said
“How “long” have you got to “wait” before you realise it’s a piss take?”
About two weeks later I nearly fell for a variation on the theme which is a “long stand” apparently also required to reach an awkward place. I came back after five minutes and said he didn’t have one but has ordered some for the next port.
The trouble is that when you are constantly the butt of these wind ups, you end up thinking that everything you are asked to do is just a ploy to have a laugh at your expense and so when asked to something perfectly legitimate you end up in trouble for saying “Fuck off, it’s a wind up” As a deck boy this can lead to a slapped head or at the very least a serious bollocking.
One more sophisticated one I fell for was when we were replacing the anchor brake mechanism and needed to clean off the old brake drum.
There is a type of cleaning material provided to ships called “cotton waste” which it is basically finely shredded cotton.
It is amazingly absorbent and in those days was used a lot when doing most mopping up jobs.
I was happy to be helping dismantle the old brake machinery and in cleaning the drum ready for the new liner.
One of the ABs said that is was a bit more tricky than they thought and that we were going to need the finer grade of some 3/8ths waste on this.
He said that only the second engineer keeps it down the engine room for specialist jobs so nip down and see him and say we need 175 grams of 3/8ths waste. Watch out he doesn’t try to fob you off with any of the ordinary stuff as that’s what he does and thinks we don’t know, so stand your ground and insist you get the good stuff or you will only have to go back and get it.
Lulled by the technical sounding nature of the task we were about to complete I made my way to the engine room control room, (the domain of the Second Engineer who was not known for his sense of humour), and asked for “175 grams of 3/8ths waste”.
He walked over to the normal sack of cotton waste pulled out a handful and smiling shoved it into my hand and said
“There you that will do it”.
“Oh No”, says I, “They told me you would try and take the piss by giving me the normal stuff and that you try and keep the good stuff for your own special jobs. I want the 3/8ths special and I am not to let you take the piss so I am not leaving till I get it”
Have you ever seen pictures of the few moments before a volcano erupts?
That’s what his face was like before he let forth an incredible intricate and foul series of expletives mostly related to what was going to be torn from my body and where the tattered flesh was going to end up being shoved. There was also some abusive references to that bunch of piss taking idle bastards on deck, wasting time sending morons like me on stupid errands.
I took the waste I had and made like Houdini by disappearing sharpish although when I related the story back to the ABs between their thigh slapping hoots of laughter they seemed impressed that I had escaped intact.
Some months later I was there when the new deck boy was about to be sent to the engine room for a “bucket of steam” so we could defrost the winches. I admit to the smallest twinge of sympathetic guilt that passed in a nano second when he looked at me and asked,
“They are taking mick aren’t they?”
I replied, poker faced and all innocence and light,
“No, its straight up mate, last time we did it we needed about three buckets it was so icy”
and so off he went to bathe in the glow of the second engineers fury.
I ‘had’ nearly fallen for the same trick a few months earlier, but at the last minute I remembered a conversation in the crew bar about the same subject.
When asked to go and get a bucket of steam I grabbed the bucket and set off towards the engine room and the detoured around to the poop deck and put my feet up and had a couple of cigarettes and caught a it of sunshine.
About an hour later I wandered back up the deck with my empty bucket and when asked “Where the fuck have you been for the last hour?”
I replied that every time I got to the top of the engine room the steam had gone,so I had to go back and get some more but I just couldn’t get it to stay in the bucket.
I didn’t get sent on any more daft errands after that one, and luckily I had already be warned never to agree to be shown the golden rivet.
Ladies (or gentlemen) if you ever visit a ship and an seafarer tells you that every ship has one golden rivet and asks if you would like to see it, the prudent thing to do is politely decline.
It will involve having to bend over some obstacle down near the bottom of the ship and then lean into a barely accessible entrance, and while you are bent over…. …..well I think I can allow your imagination can take over from there.
So you can understand my nonchalant air of disbelief about the green flash and despite most of the men insisting it was true, there were 5 of us who had never seen it or even heard of it or had heard of it buitb thought it was a wind up.
Suffice to say that I studiously ignored every sunset for the next few weeks to prevent being caught out as a sucker although I will admit to keeping half an eye open waiting for the big green flash.
That changed after one of the old hands (strange to think he would have been as old as I am now) said that I shouldn’t give up as it was genuine phenomenon, but not to expect something like a green flash bulb going off, as it is much more subtle than that and doesn’t happen every sunset.
I began to pay more attention and was soon rewarded for my efforts.
I have to say I didn’t realise what I had seen was actually what I was supposed to be looking for to start with, as to call it a flash is a fairly large exaggeration.
It is only occasional and is more of a localised, sometimes very small, green tinge just at the moment the sun’s last arc dips over the horizon.
It can often manifest itself as a green spot right at the top of the sun as it drops out of view and sometimes a green band and sometimes nothing.
I would suggest the best place to see it is if you can be looking west over unbroken expanse of water to the clear cloudless horizon, which it has to be said is great thing to do whenever you get the chance regardless of a green flash.
I am guessing that because it is not a blatantly obvious “flash” with a “big impact” and most people don’t get the chance to watch the sun sink to a western seascape horizon, it is not often spoken of or looked for.
Keep looking when you get a chance but think more along the lines of a small, localised, momentary glow rather than flash.
Love and Peace