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People who take to the sea

During my second and third years at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (1974-75), I spent twelve months at sea on various U.S. flag merchant ships.  I’ve written three stories about the Captain of the second of those ships – the SS Export Adventurer.  As important as he was to me at 19 years of age (and ever since), others also went out of their way to help during that year.

On my third ship, SS Washington of the of U.S. lines, we sailed from California to a number of destinations around the
Pacific. The second mate on that ship was half Japanese, half Korean, and very proud of his heritage. I remember him as a studious and meticulous person, who taught me more about navigation (the old fashioned way – by the sun and stars) than anybody on my other ships.

When we got to our first port, Subic Bay in the Philippines, I used all my accumulated savings (plus some borrowed money) to buy a new camera.  Since our pay was $8.25 per day, it was going to take a while before I got my head above water (40 years later, I still haven’t!)

Our next stop was Kobe, Japan.  When the second mate asked what my plans were, I had to confess that I didn’t have enough money to go ashore.  He found this very upsetting, as he wanted me to see some of the wonderful things in Japan.

The next morning, he presented me with today’s equivalent of $500 and a carefully written page of directions.    The page was divided down the middle.  On the left side were key statements in English, such as “Please take me to the Kobe train station”.  The statements were in the sequence I would need to get myself to a beautiful Buddhist monastery and several mountain villages, and back to the ship.   On the right side of the page, opposite each statement, was the Japanese translation.  All I had to do was point to the appropriate statement, such as when I was getting into a taxi, or when buying a train ticket, and whoever I was talking to could see the Japanese translation and would know what I needed.  It worked quite well – a good thing because I found very few in Japan who spoke English at that time.  I had a great time, and always appreciated what he did. 

The Storms

OK, here’s a sea story.  Its always mandatory to start a sea story with “This is no B.S”, so here it goes…   

My first ship was the SS Mormac Vega of Moore-McCormack lines.  After we finished loading in Baltimore in early 1974, we headed for South America; our first port of call was to be Santos, Brazil.  Although the Vega carried general cargo below decks, she’d been outfitted on the main deck to carry a triple stack of containers.  These are the back-end of 18-wheel trucks that are lifted off their chassis and stacked on the ship.  This process was then just an emerging trend in shipping, although it now dominates the cargo handling process.  On the first night out, passing Cape Hatteras, we encountered severe weather from the port (left) side.  The ship would heel hard to starboard, to the point where it was impossible to stand without holding something, and would barely recover to upright before heeling again.  During the course of the night, one of the stacks of containers broker free. About two-dozen washed overboard into the Atlantic (including one full of U.S. mail, as I recall) and the U.S. Coast Guard had to sink them with gunfire to protect the shipping lanes.  Another dozen were a twisted mess on the main deck. 

Knowing I had a camera (my prized little Nikkormat that Dad had given me for Christmas the year before), the second mate asked me to accompany him the next morning to take photos of the damaged containers.  At this point, I’d only been at sea for two weeks, and knew little of what to expect or how to react.  Because the ship was still heeling fairly hard to leeward, we decided to walk out on the weather side of the ship to get into position to photograph the damage.  About halfway forward, walking behind the second mate and looking at the containers, I heard a loud roar coming toward us.  An unexpectedly large wave was sweeping down the side of the ship, pushing a wall of blue water smashing into everything in its path.  The second mate jumped into an opening between two container stacks, leaving me alone on the main passage.  Next to me was a large round steel stanchion that held the side of the container stack. With only a split second to think, I turned my back on the wave, pressed myself onto the stanchion and wrapped my arms and legs around it.  I remember thinking two things very quickly; first, I needed to press my face into the stanchion or the water would smash me into it, and second, this was gonna hurt – a lot!  Like being swatted from behind with a king size mattress, the water slammed into me and drove the breath out of me. The next thing I remember it had swung me around the stanchion, and as it passed I was left with only my hands barely clasped to hold myself into position.  My camera was ruined.

Here’s an interesting thing about being washed overboard – chances are very slim you’ll be found.  We use to run man-overboard drills in reasonably calm weather.  We would throw a 50-gallon drum overboard (which presents a much larger profile than a human head bobbing in the water), and yell “man-overboard” to the bridge.  They would execute a special maneuver designed to turn the ship around and bring it back on the same track it had been, but in the opposite direction. This would take 6 to 10 minutes and the ship would cover several miles in the process. In the four drills I witnessed on four ships, we never found the barrel.

 Even if the ship itself wasn’t in danger, personal safety was always a consideration in heavy weather.  You’re always told “one hand for the ship and one hand for yourself”, meaning you always have to be prepared for the unexpected at sea. 

Years later, I told the story about our man-overboard drills to a Navy Admiral.  He proudly told me that in the Navy, they always found their man (or barrel).  That’s interesting and was not something I knew.  I don’t doubt it – that’s why we have the finest Navy in the world.  In defense of all merchant mariners, I will point out that a Navy ship generally turns on a dime (at least compared to the large, lumbering single-rudder single-propeller ships of the merchant fleet), is accompanied by a lot of other navy ships, and they usually have a couple of hundred sailors to line the railings on lookout, compared to the 25 to 50 on a merchant ship.  So if you’re going to fall off a ship, make sure it’s a U.S. Navy ship!

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