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  • Donna Hanson

The Orlop

orlop (plural orlops)

  1. (nautical) The platform over the hold of a ship that makes up the fourth or lowest deck, hence in full called orlop deck, especially of a warship.

Yesterday was my first day home after almost a month of traveling. As much as I love discovering new places and people, it's always good to return to things that need my attention: plants to water, laundry to wash, bills to pay, and bathrooms to clean.


I spent the day with a garden hose trying to breathe life back into sun-scorched peppers and zinnias. The first trip was to Iceland with my husband--an adventure of a lifetime though I hope it's not my last trip there as the landscape was so vastly different from anything I've seen, and its people kind beyond words. I was home for only one day before setting out on a two-day drive to the Meldahl Locks just east of Cincinnati, Ohio to join the crew of the LST 325, a WW2 landing ship, for the final leg of her tour down the Ohio River.


I may write about that journey later, but yesterday as I watered my garden I thought about the past couple of weeks and what I took away from the experience. I settled on a specific conversation I had with one of the senior engineers in the engine room as I stared at the lowest-most part of the ship and a perfectly maintained bilge.


The shear mass and grandeur of a WW2 era steel warship will stop you in your tracks. As deckhands tied off heavy lines, a crowd formed along the riverbank, mouths open and feet rooted in silence as though the entirety of Cincinnati stood at attention to welcome this grand lady. As visitors boarded, I noted the parts of the ship that caught their eye and found that most were inclined to focus on the obvious things: the 40MM cannon on the fantail, the large wooden wheel on the navigation bridge, and the brightly colored pennants hoisted high on the flag halyard. Each of these things serves a purpose, but it is that most lowly of places on the ship which has the power to ensure the ship's continued path or stop her dead in her tracks: the bilge. The bilge is the receptacle of castoffs: oil, fuel, dust and dirt and detritus, sea water, and every loose nut and warrant tool. It's the harbinger of ill alerting the crew that something's awry--a loose fitting, or that the hull has become compromised. It's both a warning and a final cry for attention before all is lost.


In 45 years of sailing, I don't think I've seen a clean, dry bilge outside of dry dock yet these brick red rust colored troughs were dry and clean of oil and debris, the result of years of care and attention to the lowest and the most lowly part of the ship. I thought that a grand metaphor. It's easy enough to do the minimum required to navigate life, but there's generally a cost. Something breaks. If we don't heed the warning signs, what's broken can stop us in our tracks. If we're lucky, we can make repairs and start again. It's a reminder to be mindful of and ensure the care of the small things be they in our homes, our relationships with ourselves and others, and our planet.


My thanks to the staff and crew of the LST 325 for welcoming me aboard, and for their kindness. Wishing you all fair winds and a clean bilge.




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