So here’s a good workboat theme: the many smells of a nearly forty-year-old Invader-class tug. We can start with the rust, in many places crunchy underfoot where the scale has been building up for decades beneath the linoleum. The smell of decaying iron mixes with sweat and salt and varnish; throw some brass polish in the mix, of course. Diesel fuel and diesel exhaust; the stinky sulfuric h2s fumes that get coughed up from the fuel tanks through vents leading up to the deck; the head and its ever-sticky flapper valve offering no barrier between you and the blackwater tank in the engine room below. Then there is the smell that gets into you, that seeps into your clothes, the smell that accompanies you home in your sea bag: it’s hard to describe, because it’s not one particular thing, but a combination of, say, generations of tobacco and fried food and that rusty-greasy smell. Grease – oh! the horror. Lithium grease is like nothing I’ve smelled anywhere in the world. It’s a chemical smell, pungent and acrid, but there is something animal about it too, as if the devil smeared himself in crude oil and then died. And it doesn’t stay out on deck – if someone tracks it into the house, it’s all over, because that stuff will get on everything. And it never washes out, no sir.
But I wanted to bring up this whole thing because another smell has been assaulting my olfactory senses on the trip back to Jax; one of our regular deck hands got injured (nothing serious) in San Juan so a new guy was pulled straight out of the union hall in nearby Santurce and brought in as a short-notice replacement. A Puerto Rican with a heavy accent and an earnest manner, he emerged one day from the shower in a cloud of cologne. I was in the galley across the way talking with the cook and smelled it before I even saw the guy coming – the air hung so thick with Acqua di Gio that I could almost taste it. The cook and I fell into a fit of silent giggles – the situation was just so absurd, first because there is no one here to impress, and second because what’s he going to do? Mask the pervasive tugboat stink? I wanted to tell him, just get used to it man. Plus, it’s a terrible waste of nice cologne.