The Grand Celebration is a hulking monstrosity of steel and steam and tiny dirty portholes. The Bahamas Paradise website that coordinates the ship’s charter boasts of 10 dining options, including the Crow’s Nest Sports Bar and Admiral’s Steak and Seafood. There’s also a casino, deck pool, spa, and nightly entertainment—dancers and live bands, karaoke. The whole thing, they advertise, is a “Vegas-style extravaganza.”
Despite all the bars and amenities, though, there are no cocktails available for those who huddle in the aging vessel’s shadow smoking cigarettes these days. And some of them could really use a drink.
The pipefitters and other workers who have been staying aboard the Celebration for the past month arrived in pickup trucks and buses from states all around the country to repair the damage wrought in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover after an overpressurization led to explosions and damage in more than 30 homes and businesses this September. It’s tough work, and they wake up in the early morning every day to walk a quarter mile to their trucks and then fight traffic for up to two hours on their way to sites in the Merrimack Valley.
Many of them are pissed off and worn out.
In Lawrence and Andover, these men—they’re mostly guys—help with the arduous task of replacing aging and volatile cast-iron gas pipes with plastic replacements. Hours later, they return dusty and beaten to their floating home, which was secured by their employer, Columbia Gas, so as to not take up hotel space for people displaced by the disaster. Upon their every return to the ship, the temporary employees are screened by a metal detector, while their belongings are X-rayed for contraband like weapons and booze. This does not deter the more determined smugglers who, despite their best efforts, still usually have their booze taken away.
This is their routine for three weeks at a time, seven day a week. Then they go back home. Over the past month, I spent time with many of these workers at the bars they frequent around South Boston. A few crucial patterns emerged, the most important of which is the disregard that many feel toward their floatel.
By day, on the work site, jackhammers and backhoes screech and vibrate through lug sole boots. Most of the guys are used to that. By night, there’s what some find to be a much more unsettling sound—the unrelenting buzz of the ship’s generators, running full bore through the evening and rumbling through the sleeping quarters. The men sleep two to a room, in areas far smaller than the hotels that they typically stay at on sleepover assignments. One 30-year gas industry veteran from New Hampshire describes his space as akin to living in “state lockup if it was built above a sawmill.”
The scene is one reflecting corporate negligence. The circumstances that floated these thousand-plus workers into this dock are a perfect storm of greed and incompetence. As energy companies like Columbia Gas continue to cut pensions and benefits for their workers year after year and Gov. Charlie Baker has people like Department of Public Utilities Chair Angela O’Connor—a founding president of the New England Power Generators Association trade association—on the case.
With all that in the background, I asked members of a crew from New Jersey hanging out at the Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall last week if I should become a pipefitter. They say no, and I remind them that they have been bragging about making close to 50 bucks an hour.
“Yeah,” one replies, “but you have to live on a boat with these assholes.”
Some tell me that people refer to their wives as “winter widows,” since their husbands work such brutal hours—sometimes up to 80 a week which, compounded by out-of-state assignments, leave little time for family.
Overall, these cruise ship tenants seem exhausted, both physically and emotionally. There are perks, and decent pay, but there are also sleepless nights and more work the next morning. Not to mention what they call a shitty breakfast buffet.
The bittersweetness reminds me of the reviews I found online, from people who had traveled on the vessel to the Bahamas. Despite the paradise around them, the comments they left ranged from “just OK” to descriptions of an all-out “nightmare.”
Either way, for work or leisure, the situation hardly calls for celebration.