Nearly two years ago I wrote an essay at the request of a few friends here on the forum entitled, “Three Months at Sea with a Stick of Arko,” where I got to share my findings and experimentation regarding traditional shaving aboard an ocean tug boat in Alaska. I was blown away with the warm reception the forum extended to me, and made many new friends as a result. Gents were interested to see how other factors/razors/soaps/aftershaves/etc. might affect the process, and even went so far as to send me new things to try out! I was amazed by all the wonderful comments and generous gifts, and vowed to get a new write-up after my next hitch out on the water. I must apologize, my friends, for such an abysmally long period of silence, but I ran into a bit of a stumbling point: every time I thought it was time to write something new I found something new or different to try! I made it my priority to experiment with absolutely everything I could and now, long overdue, I thought I could share my findings!
Three Months at Sea with a Stick of Arko II
The original essay focused on my initial experience of taking the plunge – if you’ll pardon the pun – of traditional shaving aboard a platform that would not often be described as hospitable. Being a devout follower of the cult of traditional shaving, I would be damned if I didn’t bring a full kit – we are not heathens, after all . I found that there were many challenges that I did not initially anticipate, and that some of my tried and true standbys were reduced to absolute rubbish in this new, dynamic and somewhat………bumpy environment.
It is perhaps a good time to describe the environment in which a fellow consistently finds himself in this job. Alaska is a beautiful and often harsh environment to work in. The Aleutian Chain and Bering Sea, where I am predominantly stationed, is widely known for its temperamental conditions. Don’t like the weather? Wait a few hours, it will change! Due to pressed schedules or simply getting caught out in the weather we often work in ten, fifteen and twenty-plus foot seas. In these sea-states, where you are located at the moment may differ – voluntarily or no – from where you’ll be in five seconds. The individual often must concentrate on just hanging on – let alone holding a blade to your throat. Add to this that you are often sharing a head (what us boaty types like to call a bathroom ) with several other guys. This results in you having very little space or time; removing much of what many love about traditional shaving. It’s possible, however, to take a different view of the hobby. Instead of bathing myself in the luxury and tranquility of shaving at home, I became a bit obsessed with attaining the ultimate balance of efficiency and comfort with every aspect of my kit.
The previous essay goes into greater depth, but one particular lesson warrants repeating. I cannot stress enough the importance of consistency – building up a base that you know works and expanding from there. My DE blades of choice are Personna Med-Preps and Reds and I know that these work for me. I initially thought it would be great fun to experiment with all those blade samplers I had been meaning to play with…………wrong. Blades are not something you want to play with on the job – it can be and usually is disastrous in the end! There are several variables to have absolutely no control over since you’re on a boat; one of the big ones is water. Our vessels have reverse osmosis water makers on them, but we also take on water from all sorts of different ports. I’m sure you can imagine that this makes building consistent shaving lather a bit of a chore. Creams work great, but I just love the personality of soaps. They all have their little quirks, but that’s what makes them so endearing – the challenge is finding soaps that will stand up to the constantly changing environment!
My first go at this entailed a fairly Spartan shave kit. I am a straight razor type of fellow, but due to the variables above I decided to bring my DE out to work. My initial shave kit consisted of a Simpson’s Wee Scot, Flare-Tip SuperSpeed with an assortment of blades, a few different soaps and creams and, of course, a stick of Arko. Through trials and tribulation I found what worked and what didn’t – often to my face’s great displeasure. I discovered the wonder and joy of shave sticks, the sheer awesomeness of the Wee Scot, and the overwhelming “meh” of using a DE razor. Now please, before I alienate many of my friends and fellow B&B members, allow me to say that DEs are great, efficient, capable tools and if they get your motor running than more power to you! I find them to be wonderful at getting the job done – I just love my straight razors more. Straights have so many subtleties to them it’s like catching up with a old friend each time a blade comes up in rotation. I simply missed my straights too much, so I decided that if it was too rough to shave, than to heck with it! I have not regretted the decision once, though some of my shipmates have questioned my sanity and occasional scruffiness .
Over the last year or so I’ve been able to play with a multitude of soaps, brushes, razors and aftershaves. In the following I have attempted to give my findings a bit of structure. If I get a bit dodgy here and there, please forgive me. If you haven’t guessed it yet I am a rather loquacious person and it is at times challenging to stay on topic .
Straight razors all have their own inherent traits specific to their origin, manufacturer, steel, grind/type, etc. This makes it next to impossible to really grade them for their performances. A good, sharp razor and a good strop will provide a good consistent shave – the variables are dependent on the individual’s preferences. If you like a certain type of blade it will perform well for you regardless of environment. There are, however, a few details that definitely stood out at sea.
I have never really had a strong preference for any specific grind of razor. Depending on my mood, I love them all. What I never particularly considered, until recently, was the razor’s point (toe/end/tip etc. for this essay, we’ll go with point ). I have always found the nature of a razor’s point to be one of aesthetics, mainly, and never really gave them much more thought than how they looked. Obviously a fellow wants to pay attention so as not to carelessly take a strip out of his neck, but it’s not a major consideration when selecting a blade from the stable. I found this to be a very dumb oversight on my part when on the water. Let me tell you, dear friends, save yourself some frustration and added pigment to your lather! If going out to sea, bring round pointed razors……….. A square or spike is great at home, but they’re neither as friendly nor as jovial on a boat. That is all I have to say about that.
It has been continually surprising how some soaps just seem to tower over some of their peers at sea when they both are great at home. For practicality I stuck to shave sticks; however I found that using these could be tumultuous. It can prove frustrating since they are cylinders and in rough weather have a tendency of rolling all over the place. Tins of soaps were soon incorporated into the mix, and different brushes followed with them. The first essay explained how Arko set the bar in every way: fast, efficient, easy, and provided a wonderful shave every dang time. While this may not be surprising to many of “the cult,” it did spark my interest to find out what soaps, if any, could meet Arko at the top of the podium.
Grading them was based solely on ease-of-use and the shave it provided. The category in which soaps are placed often depended on minute differences that may not have been even considered while at home. Some smell better than others; some have a consistency that I tend to prefer. All the niceties are welcomed while at sea, but latherability and shave quality are the most prized attributes.
During my time aboard I have now tested: Arko (of course), Valobra, La Toja, Irisch Moos, Pre de Provence, Provence Santé, Martin de Candre, Mitchell’s Wool Fat, Cella, Dr. Harris Almond, Trumper’s Coconut, Crabtree & Evelyn Nomad, SRD’s Vanilla Bourbon and West Indies Bay, and Queen Charlotte’s Vetiver, Basilica and Green Irish Tweed.
And the winner is:…………………………………ARKO! Try as I might I simply could not reach the same level of performance as Arko. So the grand champion – the lord high Puba – of the maritime shaving world is still Arko and its crown will remain for now. A few did come close, however, to toppling Arko from its lofty perch so I’d like to present to you the runners up!
First Runner Up must be shared between Cella and Provence Santé. From very different sides of the spectrum, they both perform remarkably within a wide set of parameters. Cella can often take a bit more time and water to achieve maximum potential, but it will provide a wonderful slick, cushy lather that is a pleasure to shave with. Provence Santé is almost its exact opposite when lathering. I find it takes much less hydration and it will yield a thick creamy lather which leaves you feeling sad when you are finished shaving. It is so pleasant that it’s almost sickening......
Second Runner Up will also have to go halfsies between Queen Charlotte Soaps and Dr. Harris. These guys were neck-in-neck with all those above, and are simply fantastic soaps. Dr. Harris is one of the best products out there, and it was always a pleasure to use. Queen Charlotte is quickly becoming among my all time favorites and I will not venture out to sea without at least one of them accompanying me! They are a joy to use upon all the senses – simply lathering them scrubs away the day’s stress and toil and puts one at peace. As the reader might guess, I love these soaps. The only reason they’re not at the front of the list is because they seem to be a bit finicky when it comes to “flat” water. Watermakers are pretty consistent, but at times they do produce water that the QCS soaps just don’t seem to get along with. I would add that I never had a bad shave with any of these; some are simply a little more reliable/unfailing than others.
I wish there was a way of ranking every last soap without becoming even more long winded than I already am. I had fun and learned from every one listed, and instead of rankings, I will share some points that really jumped out at me with some of them.
Irisch Moos and Mitchell’s Wool Fat were big surprises. This may not come as shocking to lots of gents about MWF which is notorious for being water sensitive, but Irisch Moos? Many know the Moos as 100% top-shelf and bulletproof to boot, so when a friend here on B&B sent me a stick of it to try I was pumped! (Thanks again, James!) It is now one of my favorites to use at home; it’s rich, dense and just straight up luxurious! I was puzzled to find, then, that it was quite unpredictable at sea. It simply felt like I was using different soaps every time I shaved with it. As you become familiar with individual soaps you get to know them – so to speak. You learn their little tricks and how they “like” to be used. Irisch Moos baffled me every time I used it onboard, but it is as reliable as they come at home. Who knew?
Martin De Candre and Trumper’s are also two fine examples of what all soaps should be. They are simply a pleasure to use, however they just seem to need some more time to really get them to their respective “sweet” spots. It was hard not placing them – especially the MdC; they just didn’t quite make it to the Putting Green when it came to time efficiency. It is little issues like this that make soaps so dang hard to truly rank, and what really makes them fun to use/experiment with. Going out to sea I always bring a staple-soap or two to cover my bases and then a few that I haven’t the foggiest about – it keeps things interesting .
As discussed above the Simpson Wee Scot was the miniature powerhouse of my kit for quite some time. It still baffles me how it can make so much lather from such a, well, wee base. It is a great brush and will always have a place with me; it can, however, be a hassle at times. It produces a perfectly sufficient amount of good shaving lather but the gent employing it must often be very careful of how much water he adds when face-lathering. Exceed its capacity by any amount and it can get very messy indeed! This is not a huge issue, but in the interest of advancing efficiency other brushes were brought in to the fold.
Selecting a brush for this type of application took a little more trial and error than I was expecting. I needed something small enough to easily fit into a small case to protect it, and subsequently a dopp kit. The size limit was set at a large plastic pill bottle. Joining the Wee Scot for a tugboat tryout were the Simpson’s Colonel XL2, Berkeley and Duke I – all in Best – as well as my first brush when “taking the plunge,” the Beaufort B4 in Pure. When it comes down to it any brush can suit your needs depending on your preferences. I am partial to Simpsons. All the above are tried and true performers, but a few were rejected straight away. The Colonel is a great brush and held in high esteem for good reason, it was simply too big for my face. The Beaufort will always have a place in my heart since it was my first brush and made it through those first months of straight razor shaving with me. It waded through countless evenings of horrendous – and often pink – lather and never abandoned me. It is, however, of the Pure grade and doesn’t hold a whole lot of water. Add the extra scritch and it stays home!
The Berkeley has performed admirably for me and it deserves its due recompense. It is a solid brush that a fellow cannot go astray with. The Duke, however, really took the cake. I used the Berkeley exclusively for almost eight months and was pleased. I couldn’t help but think, though, that it could still get better. Setting my sites on all the virtuous qualities of the Berkeley I began to research what brush – if any – could increase all the those desired traits. The results overwhelmingly pointed towards the Duke, being of similar overall dimensions but just a bit……“more.” This was the description given to me by friends here on B&B, so I went for it. Boy, let me tell you, while I am open to the possibility of finding a brush better suited for the maritime world, I believe I shall be dead and buried before it comes along. The Duke is a fantastic brush and perfectly suited to my face on a tugboat. The only brush that might beat it, for me, is the Duke II which I had to get when I got back from my first hitch with its little brother. I use it every day now while I am home! They are exactly what a shaving brush should be: Soft and scrubby, not huge, but not stubby. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I like Dukes . Admittedly, I have not ventured into the realm of the real virtuoso brushes, but these things are freakin’ great.
What a Gent uses for his aftershave is just as subjective and personal as soap or blade or brush. I have always had a particular affinity for Trumper’s Skinfood; it just makes my skin feel awesome. Originally I brought only Nivea Sensitive ASB out to work. Nivea is one of the best values running on the market and it works very well. It also lacks personality and consequently my interest. Like all the other aspects of the kit I needed to experiment and explore as many options as I could. My time on the water has now been graced with Nivea Sensitive ASB, Trumper’s Lime and Coral Skinfood, RazorRock King Louis Aftershave Wax (Gifted by a generous friend here on B&B for sea trials ), Pre de Provence, and last but not least, how can a sailor not try Captain’s Choice?
Much like shaving soaps, aftershaves are quite subjective to a wide range of variables: one’s mood, ambient temperature, skin moisture content, what kind of shave you had, how your left pinky toe feels – the list is endless! On a tugboat, the feeling that dominates all others is that of just wanting to relax. After two or three days of cargo operations in port all you want to do is get cleaned up and sleep. Everything is a rush – your shave is no exception – but the one place where you can truly just let it all go is your rack. It is there, lying in my bunk, where my aftershave is graded.
Once again the most desired characteristic is that of just plain working whatever the situation. No little tricks, no thingamajigs, no waiting until your face has that exact feeling (whatever that may be) to really bring its full potential out. I am finicky and as with soaps, there are aftershaves that I love at home, but just don’t work at sea. I hate to leave them home, but I always enjoy reacquainting myself with them err my return!
Trumper’s Skinfood will always have a special place in my heart. There is just something about it that speaks to my soul. It is soothing, cooling, and leaves your face feeling fresh and smooth. Lime and Coral both worked quite wonderfully on the boat, but I will caution any sailors out there and say that you may want to leave the Coral at home. While I love the smell of roses, one might experience some odd looks if you smell like them on an ocean tugboat……….. Moving on!
King Louis Aftershave Wax has been tricky to place. It is superb with a nice, light lavender scent and highly recommended to anybody who might be interested in it. It was a solid and consistent performer at sea, and is an intriguing combination of one of the most pleasant aftershaves I have ever used and at the same one of the most annoying. Allow me to explain: after applying any aftershave I have always felt like it either evaporates, leaving the skin with whatever effects it may have produced, or that it would sort of be absorbed into the skin. The “wax” doesn’t really do either. My experience has been that it absorbs slightly, but mostly stays atop the skin and stays there – almost like a coating. This can either be very good or very bad, depending on mood. I found that this was often a most welcome and extremely pleasant feeling, but there were other times where it aggravated me to no end.
It has been a bit of conundrum for me. I first thought that this was a result of misapplication or using too much or too little, but with every varying method I have employed the feeling has been the same. It is important to note that the sensation it produces is in no way unpleasant, far from it! It lends itself to the feeling of comfort. There are times, however, where I do not want to be comforted; rather, I want to be refreshed. King Louis is a product of outstanding quality and a great addition to any gent’s stable, it simply puzzles me, and that is all part of the fun!
Pre de Provence proved to be quite a disappointment. I enjoy their shaving soap and while it can be a bit perfumy, I cannot say I’ve had a bad shave with it. The aftershave felt like a lotion and smelled much more herbal. It did not work badly, per say, just not particularly well for my face and the smell did nothing for me. Just not a good fit I guess.
Last up to the plate is Captain’s Choice Bay Rum. I have always loved the Bay Rum scent, but have had a devil of a time finding one that didn’t include the perfume effect that many tend to have. A while ago I figured that I would be remiss if I didn’t least try one called “Captain’s Choice,” and ordered a sample. Upon first application, I knew I had found something special. The smell is great and does not overpower, it burns a bit, burns a bit more then leaves your face feeling tight, toned, and fresh. In short, this stuff is bloody fantastic. Without delay I ordered a bottle for my upcoming hitch and was eager to test it out in my ever-changing maritime environment.
Dear friends, I admit that I almost didn’t want to do it in case my newfound love didn’t measure up at sea. What if it turned out to be just, “meh?” I liked it so much that I didn’t want to have to leave it behind, so you can imagine my apprehension. Oh, the dread and apprehension! I am very pleased to say that it not only held up its end of the bargain while onboard, it downright flourished. After a long day in subzero temperatures, with a wind burnt face and heavy heart, this little bottle of magic rejuvenated, reinvigorated, and replenished my tired face time after time. Skinfood soothes one’s cares away, RR aftershave wax puts a warm blanket on them, Captain’s Choice burns them all with hellfire then massages their ashes leaving you feeling at peace. In short, this stuff is bloody fantastic.
I am now constantly on the hunt for new things to try and experiment with. Since my latest round of experiments I’ve acquired a few Razor Rock soaps (Huzzah!), and a bottle of Captain’s Choice Lime. So far I have been using them at home with very pleasant results and greatly look forward to sharing the results of their sea-trials with you. I do hope you will forgive me for the very, very long delay in deliverance of this essay and the loquaciousness found therein. We really do have a great community here, and I am proud to be a B&B member. If you’ve made it this and the next Ice Age hasn’t set in on us, pat yourself on the back and allow me to say thank you. This a wonderful obsess—I mean hobby we have here, and it is places like this and friends like us that make it so!