Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > This is Rhodes, Go Away!

This is Rhodes, Go Away!

“You pay me to show up. If you want me to work, that’s extra.”

So quoted a friend of mine once as a summary of his life dealing with an entrenched union. At the time, he was a young supervisor at a big industrial site where that union ruled by Divine Right. Today, the place is long-since closed and derelict. The thousands of union employees and their families are gone: the best ones, who carried all the deadbeats on their backs, and the freeloaders, like the guy quoted above.

Dawn Near Rhodes

One morning off the Greek island of Rhodes, I may have found the lost freeloaders, or at least their kindred spirits.

This was my first visit to Rhodes, aboard a delightful Oceania cruise ship. It was a Friday morning and we’d been standing off Rhodes Town harbor since before dawn, waiting for the Greek government harbor employees to allow us in. Their official work day begins at 9:30 and ends at 2:30. But, even with a bonus offered for actually arriving at 9:30, no one answered our radio hail until 10:10. And, just for future reference, don’t bother calling any Greek government office after 2:00; you won’t get an answer. Ever.

The radio response from the Harbor Master’s office informed our Captain that “the winds were too high” and it was not safe for the tugs to go out. But, the Skipper’s trusty calendar informed him that this was also the day before a long holiday weekend for Greek government employees (I can’t bring myself to call them ‘workers’, but a some of them must be. I guess).

Rhodes Town, Harbor & Medieval Battlements

Wind was barely 8 knots, with short, infrequent bumps up to 12, not at all unsafe for professional sailors and harbor tugs. Our Captain, a tall, lean Croat in his late 40’s, with salt and pepper gray hair, craggy features and a life spent at sea, was furious. His six hundred passengers were nearly all on deck, I and my bride among them, and eager to experience the beauty and history of this storied island.

The port staff, those who had even bothered to show up that morning, were just as eager to shirk their duties and be off for a 33% longer weekend of play.

Several messages went back and forth, with the port stonewalling and persisting in their claim of what was obviously not true. After about an hour’s delay, our Captain informed the home office that he would take the ship in and alongside the pier without tugs. His decision was a tribute to his own ship-handling skill, his dedication to his passengers, and his disdain for the Greek bureaucrat lotus eaters. My kind of guy!

Our Captain Easing Us Alongside the Pier

Long before that Friday, I had driven aircraft carriers for a living and been fairly good at it. So, I had some basis for appreciating our Skipper’s call. The challenge was to get our ship in through the narrow breakwater opening, then turn it almost 180° and edge it sideways a hundred feet or so to tie up. There were two big problems: a rusty hulk anchored dead center in the small harbor (must have belonged to the Harbor Master’s brother-in-law), and the breeze blowing our ship toward that corroded hunk of metal as we tried to turn end for end.

Thank Heaven for the invention of bow and stern thrusters! Our ship had both. These were propellers mounted in line with the ship’s keel that could push us sideways or turn us in a circle while sitting still—in very skilled hands. The cheers that went up from every passenger on deck as we headed in that sunny morning were resounding. We all would experience Rhodes, despite the best efforts at dereliction by its Harbor staff.

Two other cruise ships also standing off Rhodes Town harbor that morning sailed off for parts unknown upon receipt of the “Go Away, we’re busy leaving early!” message. Apparently their captains were not as skilled and dedicated as ours, or they didn’t have thrusters. Of the six large merchant vessels also standing off, all dropped anchor for four days until the long weekend was done. This was likely the best they could do, given that once alongside, they would have had to rely on government crane operators (who never even showed up at all that day) to get their cargos ashore.

A View from Inside the Harbor

But not us. Our skipper personally took us in with masterful flair and never a wrong move, or even one that took two tries. As we turned about inside the harbor, part of the big, anchored hulk disappeared under our stern, but we still had more than 20 feet of clearance (which is quite snug in a breeze).

We Made it Ashore and Had This Celebratory Treat at a Bar in Town.

As we continued to turn, the wind put a different pressure on the ship depending on the angle. The Captain was a virtuoso at tweaking his thrusters perfectly to match. Then, he put us alongside the pier and waited until the astonished government dockmen finally showed up to receive our hawsers. But, they did that only after one of our ship’s younger officers was lowered over the side in a Bosun’s Chair to chase them down.

I learned later from a tour guide that all the guides and bus drivers had been told early that morning no ships would make it to berth. When his cell phone had rung to inform him otherwise, he’d already been playing backgammon for a couple hours with a friend, commiserating over strong Greek coffee about a another day’s pay lost to the government port operation’s failure to operate.

Instead, he got paid and well-tipped. He also got a chance to tell a stream of good, well-worn and fatalistic jokes the Greeks have about the millstone of government bureaucracy around the necks of everyone who pays taxes.

I bought the Captain a fine bottle of wine to show my appreciation for saving the day when few others would have stood fast and done their job despite the challenges.

Today, amidst the talk of Greek fiscal foolishness, likely national default and potential collapse of the Euro as a result, I’m reminded of the profound difference in work ethic displayed on that Friday morning in Rhodes Town harbor. It’s not surprising at all that what I saw then has led to this. It couldn’t really be otherwise, could it? Lotus-eaters are like that.

At least ’til Lotusland falls down around their ears.

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