By Gillian Kendall

Gold Solas Award Winner in the Cruise Travel category

Holidays have been weird the last couple of years. Masks, distancing, vaccines or the lack thereof have all made the season a lot less bright. And forget merry: the 2021 season of light could be darkly depressing.

But despite the general angst in America and Covid-concerns worldwide, I’m spending this December with a bunch of people who put the “sea” back in “season” and break through incredible obstacles to enjoy the “holiday routine” — I’m a civilian instructor on a US Coast Guard icebreaker.

At Thanksgiving, I came aboard the USCG Cutter Polar Star in Hawaii to join her journey to Antarctica. In Hawaii, I met the massive (13,160-ton), red-hulled icebreaker that would be my home for the next three months. As a uniformed officer guided me through the multi-level metal maze of passageways that led to my berthing, I spotted something weird on the walls – it looked like, and was, striped candy canes. About every ten feet, a single cane or a pair, sometimes arranged in a heart shape, were taped to the metal, so few and far between that I guessed they were leftovers from last year. But my guide assured me that they had just appeared, and that some people had even been eating them.

That little attempt at festivity seemed pitiful to me. I felt sorry for the person who had spent time taping up the candy along these gloomy passageways, and even sorrier for the individuals who had been so desperate for sweetness that they’d eaten the decorations. I wondered if, after a few months on the ship, I’d be eating them too.

I love my job, teaching Vincennes University English classes to Coasties. But being at sea in cramped quarters and rough weather through the Christmas season can take its toll on my mental health. We may call each other “sea family,” but I miss my actual family, as does every single other person aboard. It’s true, we’re all in the same boat…

My first ordeal/celebration was to get through Thanksgiving in the wardroom (officers’ dining room). I’d hoped that by joining the ship on the Friday after turkey-day I could avoid a celebratory dinner with strangers, but the ship’s chef (Culinary Specialist First Class Cindy Friend) had decided to put off the feast until the ship was underway. On Saturday afternoon in a gleaming, rocking kitchen about the size of a living room, Friend and her team of 12 cooks made roast turkey, ham, and every conceivable side dish and dessert.

Cooking aboard a working icebreaker has special challenges. Every workspace is equipped with handles at waist-level, so cooks have something to grab when the ship starts rolling. Pots on the stovetop are tethered into place with strings, so they can’t fall over. Sometimes the ship lists too long to port or starboard at the wrong moment, and a sheet cake or tray of brownies comes out lopsided, thin and burnt at one end, thick and gooey at the other. But Thanksgiving dinner was a Goldilocks meal: everything was juuust right.

Despite my nervousness about summoning small talk with my new cadre of Coast Guard buddies – none of whom I’d have anything in common with – Thanksgiving dinner was as good as any I’ve eaten. Serotonin-sated, I joined in the conversation and even enjoyed it.

If food matters to morale on an average day, it’s even more essential at holidays. To make the long journey less arduous and austere, Friend caters to individual food requests. If anyone on board is craving a particular festive dish or drink (other than alcohol, forbidden on US military vessels), they have only to ask. “If someone wants something that will remind them of home, make them feel a little less homesick or more like they’re with family, we’ll make it,” Friend says. “Or if they want to make it, we’ll support them, let them use everything we’ve got.”

For Christmas, Friend says, “We’ll do prime rib, and senior [her senior chief to whom she reports] wants a ham. We’re deciding between mashed potatoes and au gratin. For dessert, cookies, cupcakes, pies—whatever people want. If anyone has a special thing they want for a holiday, if we can make it, we say yes. Or if they want to make it they can; we’ll do whatever we can to help support that.”

“We try to make it as fun for them as we can. We’ll be decorating cookies, and anyone can help with that. The crew does stocking stuffing and we have a fancy Christmas meal, and we set out appetizers at midnight on New Year’s Eve.”

For me, this is the third Christmas (and New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day, not that I’m complaining or anything) that I’ll spending at sea, so I’m kind of used to it (as is my partner). Also, at 61, I probably have lower expectations for holiday joy than the twenty-somethings, some of whom are away from their families for the first time.

The last two winters, I was on board smaller cutters operating in the Caribbean and the East Pacific, which were on national-security missions. On those ships, I occasionally had to cancel class because the crew was chasing down a speedboat smuggling cocaine, or rescuing migrants drifting through the ocean without power or food. Those experiences made for great “narrative” papers in composition class, but my students were tired a lot. This time, on the U.S.’s sole heavy ice-breaker, the mission isn’t secret (at least not the parts I know about!), and so far the hours are a lot more regular. The students still stand watches at odd hours, but they get good food and decent sleep, and they seem excited about where we’re headed, even if it is hard work to get there.

For the crew’s benefit on special days, “the command” authorizes some free time and allocates funds to morale-boosters. (Note: “the command” is a loose term that I gather includes the highest-level officers on board, and possibly those entities ranked above them, arranged in upward ascension from the West Coast to Washington, DC, to Heaven).

Also, “morale officer” is a thing. Santa Claus may not be real, but “morale” is an actual assigned collateral duty taken, on the Polar Star, by Lieutenant Junior Grade Mia Miller. She’s new to the job but was on the ship the previous year and took part in many morale events up in the Arctic winter, when the crew was a lot less cheerful about the mission.

“Last year we had a rave, a dance party in the Arctic in the dark winter, with glow sticks, a DJ, blacklights; it was a good time,” she says. She means it.

My first morale event on the Polar Star was also my first time ever to see karaoke; to my surprise about fifty shipmates (many of whom had been working since dawn or earlier) showed up as well. At dusk, in the double helicopter hangar – the helicopter being absent from this patrol – Miller and assistants closed the massive rolling doors, set up the new sound system, and let anyone not on watch get funky with tunes of their choosing. Miller and another female officer kicked off the show with a rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” followed by a dozen or so enlisted people performing country ballads, millennials’ love songs, and rap classics. The sweet-faced chaplain, it turned out, could rock a Bonnie Raitt song as well as a hymn.

I watched most of the show while standing up leaning against the bulkhead, swaying slightly as the ship rocked through the waves. Most of the singing was just passable, but I was impressed by the openness and high spirits of so many people who hadn’t had a drink (or any other inhibition-inhibitor) for at least two weeks.

How does she get people to loosen up without taking a drink? “It’s a tight crew,” Miller says. “We wouldn’t do that [perform karaoke and dance] with strangers. But when you’re out for months with the same people, well, if you’re going to have fun with anyone it’s going to be with those people.”

How does the morale officer keep up morale for the hundred-plus young people who are away from their families at Christmas? “We call it the holiday season,” she says drily. “It’s a non-denominational winter solstice celebration.” That established, she continues, “One thing we do is have [crew member’s] families send gift packages to their members ahead of time. We have them all in storage, and we’ll deliver them to the individuals on December 24th, which just happens to be Christmas Eve. And there are “care packages” and hand-written cards from “Grandmother Pauline,” the relative of one crew member, who writes holiday messages to all. “We’ll have cards and stockings,” she says, “and I had cozies made.” Cozies, it turns out, are those insulating cloths that people use to keep a grip on their cold bottles of, uh, soda.

Miller doesn’t know who put the candy-canes on the walls and all, shrugging, “There are some sneaky elves on board.” But she will admit to a few efforts to keep spirits high throughout the holiday season, which she refers to as a “non-denominational winter solstice celebration.”

“On the 24th we have a dinner party, and the ugly sweater contest, cookie decorating, and cocoa – and the next day we have a ‘day off'” – Mia makes air quotes around the term, indicating the irony of calling it a “day off” when people are still standing 4-hour watches 24/7, and when a mechanical “casualty” requires immediate attention from any number of people. Still, a day off in air quotes is better than nothing. “This will be good in Antarctica. It’ll be cold outside. We like to jack everybody up on sugar and see what happens.”

Also coinciding coincidentally with Christmas Eve will be a “solstice-adjacent” sermon by the ship’s Chaplain. On the first Sunday in December, I’d been aboard for less than 72 hours, but I made it to “Divine Services” held in the crew’s lounge/movie theater/video-game room. And that day, although it didn’t seem super Christmassy aboard this working military vessel, Chaplain told us it was Advent, the beginning of the Christmas season, a time to start welcoming the prospect of comfort and joy.

Yeah, right, let’s put the ‘advent’ back in ‘adventure,’ I thought cynically, but within minutes, the chaplain was asking us to consider what we could give to other people that week, and reminding us that in offering kindness or love to other people, we are honoring the divine, and my eyes were wet with more than morning seaspray. Yes, this journey may be well outside my holiday comfort zone, but I’m not on board this ship to drink champagne or shop myself silly. I’m here to go somewhere I’ve never been (Antarctica) and do things I’ve never done, with people I’ve yet to befriend. This, it seems to me, is not just the best kind of travel, but the best kind of Christmas, too.
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Gillian Kendall is an American-Australian writer who has visited seven continents and lived in five countries. The author of four books, she does all sorts of writing: travel and nonfiction journalism, as well as fiction, essays, and memoir. Her first travel book, MR DING?S CHICKEN FEET, was a NEW YORK TIMES Book of the Year; subsequently she edited the collection SOMETHING TO DECLARE: GOOD LESBIAN TRAVEL WRITING. She lives in Northern California.