Heeding the call of the sea

South Surrey author Gary Karlsen’s memoir recalls the merchant marine adventures of his youth

As South Surrey author Gary Karlsen explains it, having Norwegian blood also means having the sea in your blood.

It certainly did for three generations of his own family, who left their homes in Stavanger to serve in the merchant marine.

“In those days, young Norwegians didn’t have an education,” he said. “They came from small fishing towns. They were employed, but there was no future for them. The shipping industry was the only option.”

Much has changed since then in Norway, Karlsen said – the ship-building industry has morphed into huge technological industries, universal education is a given, and the seafaring traditions of his ancestral homeland have been channelled into a major involvement in the cruise industry, albeit on ships and in companies no longer bearing Norwegian names.

That’s why Karlsen’s lively, uninhibited memoir of his days at sea, No Ordinary Seaman, is “very much a historical piece,” he said.

Going into its second edition, the self-published, and vigorously self-promoted, work is attracting attention locally and internationally. It’s a good read, a memorial of a vanished time, and – that rarity in marine literature – a book about the life of merchant sailors.

Historically, Karlsen – now retired from a distinguished career in education, communications and broadcasting which included helping to establish B.C.’s Knowledge Network – was the last of his family to heed the call of the sea.

He heard it in 1965, as a 17-year-old, newly graduated from high school, watching deep-sea freighters in Vancouver Harbour and dreaming about where they went.

As the son of a Norwegian father and a Canadian mother, he was living a comfortable middle-class existence. Going to university in the fall was expected, but he had not yet found summer work to pay for tuition.

Almost by accident, Karlsen discovered that Norwegian deep-sea freighters were looking for crew members. With commendable enterprise, and some stretching of truth, he talked his way onto one of them, the M/S Havkatt.

University was put on hold then and there, replaced by a chance to realize a dream of working his way to Stavanger, where his grandfather lived and where he still has many relatives.

Understandably, while his family acceded to his wishes, it wasn’t without misgivings.

“My father was against it,” Karlsen said. “He thought I’d get drawn into the seafaring life that he used to know and would never have a chance to have a proper life and a family. He said ‘son – don’t waste your life away’.”

Karlesen learned what that was all about in two lengthy globe-spanning stints at sea over a 15-month period until early 1967, first on the M/S Havkatt, and then on the M/T Polycastle, an Norwegian oil tanker that took him, after a sojourn in Stavanger, from Germany back to North America.

His ‘creative non-fiction’ account – in which the incidents are true, but names have been changed – document the hard work of “dirty jobs, foul jobs and dangerous jobs” and the perils of battling terrifying storms at sea.

But also prominent in No Ordinary Seaman are the colourful characters he encountered – particularly close comrades, ‘Harbo’ and ‘Bosun’ who sailed with him on both voyages – and the often comedic chaos of life both on-board and off.

“What I didn’t put in the story were the days of sheer boredom,” Karlsen said, acknowledging that his book does bring to life the restlessness of the career sailor, alienated by circumstance from the continuity of life on-shore.

“It’s very much when you’re in port you want to be at sea, and when you’re at sea you want to be in port,” he said.

The overall effect of Karlsen’s book is not unlike enjoying a pleasant evening of yarns: the clashes with a crewmate he has re-named Utrygg (Norwegian for ‘troublesome’); the heavy drinking; the almost surreal encounters with prostitutes and wily merchants in exotic ports everywhere from the Middle East to Japan; the ‘hashish’ Karlsen thought he purchased – which turned out to be a less-attractive substitute; the cook’s scratchy 16mm porno film that continually breaks during attempts to project it; and the two Portuguese fishermen who must have thought their number was up when they saw Karlsen’s huge ship towering over their tiny vessel.

“I can still see their faces today,” Karlsen chuckled.

Indeed, while the writing process, which he started in earnest some 4½ years ago, presented technical challenges – he credits the help of his editor, creative writing instructor Sylvia Taylor with easing him over some of the rough spots – he had little trouble rediscovering the younger self he encountered in a diary he kept of the voyages.

“It was all still very clear to me.”

It’s hard not to see such a book as a rite-of-passage story, and Karlsen admits that, while he readily left the life at sea behind when he entered post-secondary education at UBC and met his future wife Joanne (the couple have two sons and five grandchildren), the experience was a life-changing one.

Even with his academic background – he has a masters degree in education – Karlsen believes that it could benefit more young people today to have their share of character-building adventures, as he did, before plunging into the world of post-secondary education.

He’s also wondered whether – in this context – No Ordinary Seaman could someday find a place in the Grade 12 reading curriculum (the book is already available through the Surrey Public Library and Fraser Valley Public Library systems, as well as for sale at bookstores).

And while Karlsen’s son has said he doesn’t want his daughter Avalon to read “grandpa’s” salty tales of the sea until after she’s graduated – at 16 she’s just a year younger than her grandfather was when he started his adventure – Karlsen said he doubts that there’s anything in the book a teenager couldn’t handle.

“I think she’ll be just fine,” he smiled.

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