Joy Moses Hall

Joy Moses Hall

Water, water, everywhere … And yet, the ship was on fire.

Surely, with an ocean of water around, no fire would stand a chance, even on a ship as wizened and wobbly as the USCGC Unimak!

Unimak was redeploying in this summer of 1981 from drug and fisheries enforcement to training Coast Guard Academy cadets en route from Spain to Connecticut. The vast Atlantic would play host to garbage bags for mooring drills and target practice. The bedazzled bearskin sky, even vaster than the ocean, would teach navigation by star power. It was slow going.

Alas, there was nothing to do but heave to with the crew; nothing to see but sky and sea; nothing to hear but wave and buccaneer, nothing to smell but engine fumes, which were vented directly to the savory mess deck. A few days in, savory aromas suddenly ebbed. Unimak had run out of edibles. Alas, there was nothing to eat but a store of canned beets.

(Though the crew despaired of proper chow, one day the scent of fresh-baked diesel bread arose, bringing tears to beet-stained eyes.)

Three days before port in Connecticut, when but 50 miles and 20 maneuvers separated ship from shore; when Unimakers were close enough to see seagulls and smell soil on the wind between the fumes: after midnight, the general quarters alarm sounded.

“All hands to battle stations. This is not a drill. Fire in engine number one. Repeat, this is not a drill, all hands to battle stations.”

Sailors stumbled to the main deck. Ensign Scavinni (his named change here), the ordinance officer, came charging out of the armory in his government-issued pajamas. Scavinni looked wild and wooly at the best of times. He was snide, he was foul, he drooled profanity you could gnaw on. He drank like a fish and fished like a piranha. He could spit tobacco juice into a teacup at 40 feet, then drink it for supper with his beets. He was a vintage sailor.

He’d obviously snapped. His hair, incandescent in the night-red lights of the ship, twisted over his head like short blond eels, slithering onto his face amid the nest of chinworms he called a beard. He brandished a glowing metal box, dripping with sparks, in an asbestos-gloved hand, as if trapped inside was a terrible firelizard. He cursed barriers out of his way, inventing obscenities as he went, then heaved the box into the floating abyss. It sizzled and hissed and sank in the mist. Scavinni, madman, ran back for more.

The water itself seemed to be on fire.

Every wave crown, every swish of water against the ship, gleamed with a blue-green glare.

The radiance was within the water. It was a glow of force by a lustrous protozoan, a monster dating back to the Triassic.

As Triassic-period landworlds saw the dawn of Terrible Lizards, the dinosaurs, so Triassic-period seaworlds saw the dawn of Terrible Tails, the dinoflagellates. The Unimak’s Atlantic was infested with modern dinoflagellates.

Close-up, a dinoflagellate is imposing: horns, a flagellum wrapped around its waist like an obi belt, and a hairy swimming tail. But from far away, it is a tiny, one-celled organism. And it is luminescent. It glows.

Dinoflagellates drift with the plankton, and twinkle with the stars, carrying a firefly enzyme that flashes when provoked by a wave, or a ship, or the attack of a predator. They straddle the realms of plant and animal, photosynthesizing oxygen and sugar from water and carbon dioxide, yet lurching and propelling with their tiny, ineffective flagella.

They shimmered the sea with bluish sparkles every bit as glittery as the stars above. If the ship hadn’t been on fire, the crew might have extolled the glistening conversation between sea and sky, the thin black line of horizon where neither spoke, the gentle jostle of brawny boat and blue blink, the flatness of ocean eternity mirroring the dome of unending heavens.

But the ship was on fire. Scavinni had long complained that the ordinance locker, loaded with small arms and big shells, should not be located in the warm embrace of the smokestack for the number one engine. Now, on the night of the fire, location was incendiary.

When Scavinni arrived on scene, sailors were eye to eye with an angry hive of nimble saltpeter terrorists. The paint inside the locker was peeling, a rope was smoldering, and hotshot bullets awaited only a suitable target.

But for the engine room fireteam, Unimak was headed from pitch and roll to smoke and charcoal.

But for Crazy Scavinni, Unimak was headed for dead, and damn the dinoflagellates.

That fire didn’t stand a chance against wild and wobbly and water.

The fire was here, the fire was there ... And then, the fire was gone.

The title is from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a doctorate in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge. Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook.

Contact Bobby Burns at and 329.9572.