Sunday, October 1, 2017

Culture Shock

The freighter Mercury was sailing southeast in beautiful tropical weather several miles off the coast of Mexico in June of 1980.  She was  bound from San Diego to the Panama Canal with a load of military vehicles which were on their way to the Marine Corps base near Wilmington, North Carolina.  Because of the military nature of this cargo, the Mercury carried a military officer to superintend it on this voyage.  He was a Navy lieutenant in his mid-twenties, which made him a few years older than myself.  He had previously sailed aboard Navy ships and had become a fully qualified surface warfare officer of the unrestricted line.  His voyage aboard the Mercury, however, was his first experience of a civilian cargo vessel, and it astonished him.

Lieutenant Mike was an affable shipmate.  He seemed to blend in reasonably well with the Merchant Marine crew, and he displayed a healthy interest in the workings of the ship.  Some of our ways puzzled him, but he never criticized us or our methods.  This trait alone would have endeared him to the crew.  Above and beyond that, though, he was a genuinely friendly fellow and a good dining room companion.  He loved to eat, and he remarked over almost every meal, “This is even better than the Navy chow!”

One morning when I was on watch, the lieutenant came up to the bridge.  Opening the door slightly, he poked his head through the opening and politely requested “permission to come on the bridge.”   I of course bid him enter, and he came in and stood by me and chatted for a bit.  As we talked he looked around at everything with a somewhat confused expression on his face.

The Mercury had a very spacious bridge.  From where we stood, we could see everything, including out the large plate glass windows to the sea beyond and out the side doors to the also very spacious bridge wings.  The lieutenant took all of this in and realized that until he arrived, I had been all alone up there.  I was a very young third mate, all of 22 years old, and I was in charge of the ship’s movements with no one to assist or supervise me.  His astonishment at this situation soon became obvious,

In a stammering voice, the lieutenant asked me, “There’s no one else here?  There’s no helmsman?”

“It’s on automatic,” I started to reply.

But he continued as if this hadn’t registered.  “You do everything here?  You do your own radar plotting?  You do your own navigation?  You’re your own lookout?  What if something happens?  And the weather observations?  Do you do that, too?”  And so on and so forth.  He was clearly flabbergasted—and possibly terrified, too—at finding one solitary third mate on the bridge of a large cargo ship underway at sea.  This did not fit in with his Navy experience, where an army of crewmen swarmed a much smaller bridge.

I explained that this situation was perfectly normal.  We were in open water with good weather and no traffic.  Since they were not needed on the bridge, the three unlicensed seamen on my watch were working with the bosun on deck.  With my license, I was fully qualified as the mate of the watch and could do everything he asked about and more.  There really was no cause for concern.  I’m not sure that he believed me, though.

After a short interval, the lieutenant turned to go below.  He wished me well, but as he left he muttered uncomprehendingly to himself, “I don’t get this.  Only one man on the bridge?  I can’t understand these guys.  How do they do it?”  And so on and so forth as he disappeared down the stairs.

A few years later, when I was the second mate aboard the Waccamaw, something similar took place.  The ship was docked in Norfolk, Virginia, one weekend in October of 1982, and a large group of naval reservists came aboard for a tour.  These men held full-time civilian jobs and did part-time military work.  They were middle-aged in dress blue uniforms with numerous gold stripes on their sleeves.  To facilitate the sightseeing, the group split in half.  The chief mate led one tour, and I led the other.  We took them through the entire ship, from bow to stern and from bridge to engine room.  They followed closely, listened attentively, and asked intelligent questions.  A few times, though, they seemed confused by the answers they received.

Down in the pump room, one reserve commander asked several questions, and then exclaimed, “I don’t understand how you fellows can run a ship this size with such a small crew!”  He went on to explain that compared to a Navy ship, we had “so few officers” and “so few crewmen” that he just couldn’t see how we got the job done.  This led to some lively discussion, and it came out that several of the other reservists felt the same way.

Through no fault of their own, these men had been taught the Navy way of doing things and not the Merchant Marine way.  And there is a difference.  A commercial ship must operate efficiently and turn a profit in order to survive, while a military ship relies on the bottomless pit of government funding.  Also, the Navy sees a ship primarily as a floating gun platform, whereas in the Merchant Marine a ship is transportation.  These financial and operational dichotomies lead to two completely different ways of thinking and working. One might say that “never the twain shall meet,”[1] but they did in our fleet and usually with the result that the Navy men and the Merchant Marine fellows simply could not understand each other.  Each group looked at the world from its own point of view and found the other’s viewpoint incomprehensible.

One of our Church officials, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, recently made a similar observation:

Each of us has a personal lens through which we view the world.  Our lens gives its special tint to all we see.  It can suppress some features and emphasize others.  It can also reveal things otherwise invisible.[2]

My experiences as a merchant seaman crafted my personal lens many years ago.  My subsequent academic career as a college librarian and student of the humanities reinforced and enhanced this
personal lens  So, after all these years, I still view the world as if I were standing on the bridge wing of a cargo ship.  I like this view.  I see everything quite clearly from this vantage point.

Quite naturally, people do think in terms of what they know and understand, and of course this colors their view of everything outside their own corner of the world.  And when people are confronted with something radically different and completely alien to everything within their range of understanding, they typically respond with astonishment and often say the most outlandish things.

This is reflected in some of the remarks that people ashore have made to me about seafaring.  They’ve ranged from the bizarre—“Do you sleep in hammocks?” and “Do you have flush toilets?”—to the uncomprehending—“Oh, how exciting! You work on a cruise ship!”—to the demeaning—”How can you stand to live like that?!”—to the sadly inevitable and inappropriate jokes about shipwrecks.  While these remarks grow very tiresome very quickly, they do serve to illustrate the gulf that separates the merchant seamen from the laymen.

Captain Paul McHenry Washburn, the Master of the container ship Stella Lykes and a literary figure, asserted the opposite point of view:

But there are a lot of us who are here because this is where we fit in, and we don’t fit in anywhere else.  We seem to be out of step.  The square peg in the round hole.  I was out of place as a child, and now I am not looking forward to retirement.  I dread it.[3]

Furthermore, he added as he looked toward land from the Stella Lykes:

I would rather be here for the worst that could be here than over there for the best that could be there.  I’ve never felt comfortable or secure anywhere else.[4]
Admittedly, this is an extreme opinion that seems to border on solipsism.  After all, Captain Washburn did have a family ashore, and he cared for them all very much.  Nonetheless, his remarks do summarize the situation well.  The merchant fleet is a culture unto itself, separate and apart from life in any other profession, including the Navy.  A landsman, or for that matter a naval officer,  stepping aboard a cargo ship would experience culture shock just as much as a seaman going ashore and taking up a new occupation would.  Some things, like the proverbial oil and water, just don’t mix.

It is precisely for this reason that the seaman-turned-playwright Eugene O’Neill penned his famous lines:

It was a great mistake, my being born a man.  I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish.  As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death![5]

Another extreme position, this one not only borders on solipsism but also leans toward misanthropy.  Still, the author makes his point well, and I have thought similarly many times in social and business situations over the years.  In the end, I’ve just had to resign myself to the simple fact that going to sea has made me immutably different.  Thus, both Mr. O’Neill’s and Captain Washburn’s assessments are correct.

Yet there remains one further point which these gentlemen did not address.  In his trial before the Athenian court, Socrates asserted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[6]

Sea gulls and fish, with their inherently limited capabilities, cannot know how fortunate they are. Unable to think and reason, they cannot ponder the higher matters of life.  They cannot read and study the classics of literature and history and philosophy and theology or master the natural and applied sciences.  At first glance, their lives may look more attractive than that of the social outcast who can’t fit in anywhere except at sea, but the intellectual limitations of the sea gull and the fish would inevitably become intolerably crippling.  Humans, including merchant seamen, are created in the image of their Creator, and as such, they share in his characteristics, including intelligence, which enables them to learn, enrich themselves, and achieve so much more than animals.  What an honor this is, since the scriptures inform us that “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36).  Even the most socially misfit, solipsistic, and misanthropic merchant seaman shares intelligence, light, and truth with God.

Furthermore, with these divine qualities, there is no need to dread retirement.  I’m actually looking forward to it.  I anticipate a robust retirement filled with grandchildren, academic studies, church activities, and occasional cruise ship voyages!

Before I leave for work in the predawn hours, I often step out onto the porch and gaze upon the stars.  The constellation Orion stands out in the south.  Betelgeuse  shines on the east flank, Rigel on the west, and Sirius below.  I smile as I remember standing with my sextant on the bridge wing of the Rigel, taking sights of her heavenly namesake.  Thoughts of ships, voyages, and even sea gulls and fish crowd upon my mind, too.  But the great celestial majesty above me transcends these idle reminiscences.  Thus enlightened, my mind recalls in the great celestial language, Gloria Dei est intellegentia.

[1] Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Ballad of East and West,” in A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895, ed. Edmond Clarence Steckman, at
[2] Quoted in “Spiritual awareness” (sic), Church News, June 25, 2017, p. 16.
[3] Quoted in John McPhee, Looking for a Ship, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990, p. 157.
[4] Op. cit., p. 155-156.
[5] Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 153-154.
[6] Plato, The Apology of Socrates, tr. Benjamin Jowett, in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol. 1, 6th ed., New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992, p. 824.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Dawn's Early Light

The Rigel was steaming northward along the west coast of Italy early in the morning on Saturday, August 11, 1979.  She was bound for Napoli and would soon pass between the Italian mainland and the resort island of Capri.  After that, she would head for the pilot station, enter the harbor, and be docked by breakfast time.  A day of noise and commotion on the industrial waterfront was sure to follow.  For now, though, the peace and quiet and beauty of the Mediterranean prevailed.  The Sun showered soft light down upon the Rigel from over the Italian hills; altocumulus clouds billowed over Capri; and wisps of haze gave way to an azure sky that crowned the dark blue water.   

The 4:00 to 8:00 watch in the morning was my favorite watch.  It started in darkness and then became twilight gradually increasing in luminosity until the Sun rose and the day officially began.  The growing light always cast the sea and sky in the most beautiful colors, as if it were all a great work of art in progress.  When far enough out at sea, I would take several star sights during the twilight and plot the ship’s position.  Then, when the Sun emerged on the horizon, I would take an amplitude and use this to check the gyrocompass error.  Along the Italian coast this morning, I used compass bearings and radar ranges of prominent landmarks and lighthouses.  It was a wonderful job.  I always enjoyed my navigational work, and I loved the majestic beauty that surrounded me.

Whether at sea or ashore, the early morning has long been my favorite time of day.  The growing daylight breathes new life into the mostly still sleeping world. The quiet is undisturbed by human activity and pleasantly punctuated by the cheerful music of birds.  The air feels cool and clean and fresh.  The sea, the sky, the trees, and the buildings radiate soft and supernal colors.  Then the Sun rises.  Thus inaugurated, the new day brings a new beginning and new opportunities.  As the Psalmist notes, “joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). 

I have witnessed the sublime change from night to day countless times aboard several ships in various parts of the world, though mostly in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and the experience was always exhilarating and inspiring.  In the years since my sailing career, Miss Patty and I have taken the children to the seaside at dawn or shortly thereafter numerous times.  They’ve watched the new day begin  in Brooklyn, New York, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but their favorite location for daybreak was Eastport, Maine, where the Sun rose over neighboring Campobello Island at about 3:15am in late June.  They were awestruck by the combined effects of the summer solstice and the time zone boundary.

I also rise early when working on projects in the house and yard.  The cool, fresh air and the soft light of dawn are particularly conducive to such quiet jobs as painting and landscaping.  With the neighborhood at its tranquil best and the only sound that of the chirping birds, and with no interruptions from other people, I feel close to Nature and accomplish more than at any other time of day, even with my thoughts wandering back to the morning watch aboard the Rigel or the Waccamaw or the Bartlett.

My most memorable dawn experiences of recent years took place after the birth of our granddaughter, Miss Lydia Elizabeth.  In February and again in May of 2016, I traveled to Miss Lydia’s home in distant Alagoinhas, twelve degrees south of the equator in Brazil, and stayed for a week on both occasions.  When the baby slept past sunrise, so did her busy parents.  From long custom, however, I rose early.  Seizing the opportunity afforded by the still sleeping baby, I retired to the front porch with a book.  By the dawn’s early light and in the warm tropical air I read Saint Augustine’s Confessions in February and John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud in May.  As I read, the Sun rose over the Brazilian hills in the east, the neighbor’s rooster crowed occasionally, and two men with a horse-drawn cart came down the cobblestone street and collected the recycling.  Local color combined with astronomy and “the best books” (D&C 88:118) to create beautiful and memorable mornings.  Then Miss Lydia woke up and summoned everyone to her crib.

More typically, during the spring and summer months, I watch the dawn and the sunrise from the parking lot where I now work.  It’s not the same as being at sea, but it is very pleasant to see the dawn develop into full daylight as the Sun rises from behind the trees that rim the sea of pavement that is not yet filled with parked cars.  A sublime start to a pedestrian workday.  As I watch this daily miracle, I am physically present but mentally absent.  In my mind’s eye I see myself aboard ship again, noting the time of sunrise and calculating the gyrocompass error, undisturbed by others and surrounded as always by the majestic beauty of the sea and sky.  I think of the Master and Chief Engineer of the universe and remember his assertion, “He that seeketh me early shall find me” (D&C 88:83).

Now for some dawn photography.  I only wish that I had taken more pictures than I did!

Two views of Capri on the port side of the Rigel as she sails toward Napoli early in the morning of Saturday, August 11, 1979.  Note the early morning mist and the towering altocumulus clouds.
The Rigel as seen from the Wilkes early in the morning of Monday, October 27, 1980.  The Wilkes was docked at the Moon Engineering Company berth in Norfolk, Virginia.  The Rigel was heading up the Elizabeth river to a shipyard closer to downtown Norfolk.  Despite the blurriness, we can see from the waterline just how light the Rigel is in preparation for her overhaul.
Looking east from Eastport, Maine, shortly after 3:00am on Monday, June 23, 2003.  The Sun is about to rise over Campobello Island in New Brunswick, and the dawn's early light is reflected on the calm surface of Passamaquoddy Bay.  A magnificently beautiful location, the picture scarcely does it justice.
Two views of the front porch of Miss Lydia's house on Rua H in Alagoinhas, Bahia, Brazil.  Here in the warm tropical dawn I sought to improve my mind by reading two of the world's classics while waiting for the new baby to wake up for the day.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sentimental Journey

In the earliest years of my seafaring career, the great city of Philadelphia and its environs loomed large on my itinerary.  I first arrived there as a cadet on the old State of Maine on Friday, June 11, 1976.  She spent three days docked at Penn’s Landing, a recently constructed center city waterfront tourist venue.  I wondered if this was really the site where William Penn had landed in 1682, but I never researched this point.  Next, on Tuesday, May 3, 1977, I traveled on Amtrak and then a local commuter train to Marcus Hook, seventeen miles downstream from Philadelphia, and there I joined the tanker New Jersey Sun as an apprentice.  She sailed for points south on Monday, May 9.  Finally, for three weeks in August of 1978, I sailed around Philadelphia and its suburbs on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers as a deckhand aboard the oil barge Interstate 50.

In all these travels, my association with the Philadelphia area lay primarily with industrial facilities.  I was on intimate terms with the Sun Oil and BP refineries in Marcus Hook, the Gulf docks at Point Breeze, the Interstate tug and barge headquarters and repair shop at City Dock, the Pennsylvania Railroad coal pier (which also sported oil piping) in South Philly, and the big oil storage facilities across the Delaware in Eagle Point and Delair, New Jersey.  In the little free time that I had, I visited a friend at Villanova University and dined at Sweeney’s in South Philly.  When not underway on the water, I walked and rode trains.  By these methods, I came to know the “guts of the city,” as we called them, quite well.  I loved Philadelphia!

But I saw only a small part of the cleaner and more sublime side of the city.  One of the oldest and most important settlements in the United States, Philadelphia stands out as one of the historical, cultural, educational, and religious capitals of the country.  It is home to famous historical sites dating to the colonial era; major museums, libraries, and learned societies; world renowned colleges and universities; and a denominationally diverse collection of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and temples.  Three of these structures commanded my attention on a recent return to this city of my vagabond youth.

On Tuesday, May 16, 2017, Miss Patty and I traveled on Amtrak to Philadelphia.  She was on her way to business meetings; I was on vacation.  On arrival at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s magnificent 30th Street Station, we took a taxi to the Sheraton Hotel on North 17th Street, our headquarters for the next two days.  From this location, everything I wanted to visit lay within reasonable walking distance.

On Wednesday morning, I set out.  My first important stop was Penn’s Landing, where my initial introduction to Philadelphia had taken place 41 years ago.  The old State of Maine was long gone, of course, her berth now occupied by the sailing ship Gazela.  Otherwise, little had changed.  The Delaware River stretched out placidly before me, and I thought of the many transits I had made of this great river aboard the Interstate 50.  I had passed by Penn’s Landing and passed under the adjacent Benjamin Franklin Bridge numerous times.  As the Interstate 50 plowed along, I painted her decks, fittings, and superstructure, often with the music from the hit film Saturday Night Fever blaring from the radio.  I was a teenager then.  Life was good, and it seemed to stretch out endlessly before me.  Little did I realize just how quickly it would all go by.  For some of us, it would go by much too quickly and be over much too soon.

From Penn’s Landing I walked a half-mile south to my next destination, a building that I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.  This was the Gloria Dei Church, locally known as the Old Swedes’ Church.  A colonial structure dating to 1698, it originally served a Swedish Lutheran congregation.  Today it is Episcopalian.  While this structure’s colonial and denominational history is very interesting, I had come primarily for its maritime significance.  Situated across Delaware Avenue from the Delaware River and the old break-bulk cargo ship piers, Old Swedes’ seemed an appropriate place to honor those “that go down to the sea in ships” (Ps. 107:23).  It was precisely for this purpose that I had come to visit.

Entering through the red-painted front door—red is the ecclesiastical color of welcome—I found that I had this small and cozy church entirely to myself.  Sitting momentarily in the rearmost pew, I looked around to get my bearings and noticed several memorial plaques on the walls.  I had come to see one of these in particular, and there it was.  On the back wall, under the balcony, and on the right-hand side of the church, was the large bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of the cargo ship Poet and her crew.  With a feeling of reverence, I approached it and read the main inscription:

In Memory of The 34 Men of The
U S Flag Merchant Vessel
Lost At Sea  October 25, 1980
Approximate Position
38 to 39 N Lat  63 to 66 W Long

The Serenity Prayer followed, and the next panel listed the crewmen’s names, ages, and hometowns.  One of these, Mark S. Henthorne, was a former school acquaintance of mine. I had known him slightly in Maine and aboard the old State of Maine.  He sailed as third assistant engineer aboard the Poet.  He left the girl he had planned to marry behind.  Very sad.

Another officer, Leroy A. Warren, may have known my grandparents.  As a young mate he had sailed aboard the American Export Lines’ passenger ships Constitution and Independence in the 1950s and 1960s.  My grandparents made ten voyages aboard these vessels between 1956 and 1968.  It’s possible that they may have sailed with and met this man on one or more of these voyages.  Aboard the Poet, he sailed as Master.  He left a wife and several children behind.  Also very sad.

I studied the memorial plaque carefully and took several photographs of it.  I noticed the ages of the crewmen and realized that 29 of the 34 were younger when they perished than I am now.  A very disturbing statistic.  I also recalled that I had read the book about the Poet[1] and had written something myself[2] about the loss of this ship and its crew.  Sitting down again in the pew in front of the plaque, I spent several minutes in quiet contemplation.

This time passed quickly.  When I thought that I should leave and continue about the day’s activities, I found that I could not go.  At least, not yet.  An intangible but clearly discernible spiritual presence, for lack of a better description, seized upon my mind and bid me stay a little longer.  At first I dismissed this as imagination.  I had seen what I had come to see and done what I had come to do.  What was left?  But the feeling intensified.  I felt compelled to remain a while longer, and so I did.  More time for quiet meditation, and an opportunity to pray for the repose of these men’s souls and for solace for their families.  The old Roman incantation that I had learned in my youth came to mind:

Requien aeternam dona eis, O Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In pace requiescant.  Amen.

In time, the intensity of the feeling that I must stay diminished.  A happier thought, that I was visiting with old friends, took its place.  This seemed strange at first, for I had known only one of these men, and just slightly at that.  But then I remembered Joseph Conrad’s famous lines, and I realized that I shared “the strong bond of the sea”[3] and the “fellowship of the craft”[4] with these seamen.  That explained everything.  With a sense of accomplishment, then, I rose to leave the Old Swedes’ Church.  I felt confident that these seamen were not “lost at sea” but were truly in God’s hands.  He was taking good care of them in “a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care and sorrow” (Alma 40:12).

After nearly an hour in the Old Swedes’ Church, I returned to the center city area where I ate lunch and did some sightseeing.  This was very interesting, but another more sublime experience awaited me.

In the afternoon, with the Poet and her crew still on my mind, I visited two more churches: the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and dating to 1846, and the Philadelphia Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, built in 2015.  Situated across Vine Street from one another, these magnificent and beautiful buildings complemented each other very well architecturally.

I entered the cathedral initially to admire its artistic grandeur.  But then a staff member met me near the front door and explained that while I was welcome to visit, an ordination rehearsal was taking place.  Two young men would be ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, she informed me, and they with several seminarians and older priests were preparing for the ceremony.  Watching them rehearse for this important event was a fascinating experience.  It led me to consider the tremendous personal sacrifices these young fellows would make in order to fully dedicate themselves to doing the Lord’s work for both the living and the dead.  I found this very inspiring and worthy of my utmost respect.

Similar thoughts filled my mind across the way at the Philadelphia Temple.  Men and women with careers and families sacrificed much of their personal time in order to participate in ordinances of salvation for the living and the dead and assist them in their progression into the presence of God.  This, too, I found inspiring and deserving of the greatest respect.

In both of these sacred spaces, I thought of the crew of the Poet and others who have left this life prematurely.  I appreciated deeply the opportunity I had to visit their memorial plaque in the Old Swedes’ Church and to pray for the safety of their souls.  And I hoped that in the Philadelphia Temple the ordinances for their continued spiritual sanctification would be done someday soon.

In the meantime, as John Henry Newman prayed, “in His mercy may He give [them] safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!”[5]   

Following are some photographs from my visit to Philadelphia:

The sailing ship Gazela moored at Penn's Landing, the site that hosted the State of Maine in June of 1976.  In the background stands the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church and churchyard, a half-mile south of Penn's Landing.

Three views of the memorial plaque honoring the Poet and her crew inside the Old Swedes' Church.  A very sublime sight.
A pen-and-ink rendering of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  From a brochure provided by the cathedral staff.
The Philadelphia Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  From a brochure produced for the temple's dedication.

[1] Robert J. Pessek, The Poet Vanishes: An American Voyage, Allston, Massachusetts: 1st Books Library, 2000; biographical information on Captain Leroy Warren from p. 75-77 & 101-102; information on Mark Henthorne from p. 207-208.  Also, Mark’s surname is misspelled on the plaque.
[2] Included in my essay “The Dead.”
[3] Joseph Conrad, “Youth,” in Tales of Land and Sea, Garden City, NY: Hanover House: 1916, p. 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Sermon 20: Wisdom and Innocence,” in The Newman Reader, at

Sunday, April 16, 2017

At Sea, At Sky

A ship embarked on a voyage across water is correctly said to be “at sea.”  An airplane embarked on a voyage through air is said to be “in flight.”  This inconsistency puzzles me.  It seems that an airplane underway should be described as “at sky,” for the airplane is truly in the sky just as much as the ship is in the sea.  I think of this now because of a journey that I made recently aboard a small aircraft which was simultaneously at sea and at sky.

At 12:14pm on Friday, March 17, 2017, with my son James at the controls, Miss Patty and I took off from Boire Field in Nashua, New Hampshire, aboard a Cessna Skyhawk and proceeded toward Biddeford, Maine.  It was a bright, sunny, and clear Saint Patrick’s Day, truly a beautiful day for flying.  I had not travelled in a small aircraft since the early 1980s, so this was a special occasion.

James taxied to the end of runway 32, and we took off into the wind to the northeast.  Once airborne, he banked the plane as it continued to ascend and turned sharply to the east.  At about 1,500 feet of altitude and in turbulent air, we passed over the northern part of Nashua.  I looked at our neighborhood below with some trepidation as the little airplane lurched through the turbulence.  I sincerely hoped that Saint Patrick was watching over us on his special day!  James knew exactly what to do, though, and the ride became more comfortable as he ascended into calmer air.  At a cruising altitude of about 3,500 feet, we flew east-northeastward towards Portsmouth and then into Maine.

Looking southward and seeing Portsmouth and its environs from the air was a special treat, and it brought back many happy memories.  I had been assigned aboard the Furman here in 1985 and 1986.  She spent a lot of time slowly loading subsea telecommunications cable at the Simplex Wire and Cable Company dock in Newington.  She also sailed up and down the Piscataqua River many times to shift berths and go on engineering trials.  In later years, when I was no longer sailing, we often brought the children to Portsmouth.  They played in Prescott Park, hiked across the Memorial Bridge, visited the lighthouse at Fort Constitution, and explored the grounds of Fort McClary.  They also saw ships there.  They toured the historic Bluenose II and the not-so-historic State of Maine at the State Pier.  They also admired the submarine Albacore, the cable carrier Global Mariner, and the cargo ships Atlantic Erie, Alexandria, Rays, and Nel.

Continuing toward Biddeford, James piloted the little aircraft overland and parallel to the coastline.  The great Atlantic Ocean stretched infinitely to the somewhat hazy horizon.  At its edge lay the beaches—Wells, Long Sands, and the Footbridge—that we had frequented with the children when they were little.  The lighthouses stood there, too, including the old family favorites that James promised to visit more closely on the return flight to Nashua.

Descending next for the approach to the small municipal airfield in Biddeford, James maneuvered the airplane through more low level turbulence and landed in a strong crosswind from the northeast on runway 24, one hour after our departure from Nashua.   After parking and securing the Cessna, we met James’ maternal grandmother who was waiting for us with an automobile.  A family reunion and luncheon at a nearby restaurant followed.

At 3:15pm it was time to leave again.  James took off on runway 60 heading east-northeast this time, still contending with the strong northwesterly crosswind.  Once aloft, as the small airplane was again buffeted by the low level turbulence, James turned the craft to starboard and headed seaward. Most of the haze had by this time disappeared, and the view of the Maine coastline and the open Atlantic was magnificent.  To port lay the sandy crescent of Old Orchard Beach capped by the rocky peninsula of Cape Elizabeth.  To starboard lay the assortment of rocky headlands interspersed with short sandy beaches that stretches back down to Portsmouth.  Just offshore a scattering of small rocky islands punctuated the coast.  Several of these islands sported lighthouses, and as he had promised, James turned southwestward over the Atlantic and set a course for sightseeing.

The first waypoint was Wood Island Light, just a few minutes’ flight from the Biddeford airfield.  Flying high enough to avoid the turbulence but low enough to see the lighthouses clearly, James next took the aircraft offshore and out to sea around Goat Island.  The coastal communities of Biddeford Pool and Fortunes Rocks passed by on the starboard side.  The broad, blue Atlantic stretched out infinitely to port.  This was my favorite part of the flight, and I enjoyed the ineffable feeling of simultaneously being at sea and at sky gazing down upon the sea.  It was sublime, supernal, and serene, despite the continuous hum of the motor.  After passing Goat Island to starboard, James continued southwestward toward Boon Island.  Kennebunk, Wells, and Ogunquit came into view on the starboard side.  The great, blue Atlantic remained omnipresent to port.

The time seemed to slow down as I stared at the open Atlantic on this leg of the flight.  I could have looked at it all afternoon and been very content.  But then, suddenly it seemed, we reached Boon Island.  James turned to port, rounded Boon, and headed next for the Nubble.  Long one of the family’s favorite spots, we had visited Nubble Light often when James and his siblings were younger, and from that vantage point had sighted the Boon Island Light on the horizon several  miles distant.  Seeing both lights from the air was a new experience, a broader and more breathtaking perspective.  At the Nubble, James turned the aircraft once again to port and followed the sea to the Isles of Shoals on the Maine-New Hampshire border.

Once again, I looked out to port and imbibed the view of the wide, blue Atlantic.  It was tremendous, but unfortunately we would fly over it for only a few more minutes.  We came upon the Isles of Shoals all too quickly, and James circled around them so we could see the small white lighthouse on White Island.  This beautiful little archipelago lies only about seven miles offshore.  The time was not slowing down now; it suddenly seemed to be going by much too fast!  After a very brief further interval of blissfully looking down at my Atlantic, the little aircraft came over Hampton Beach in New Hampshire.  My view of the wide-open ocean was then replaced by a view of the densely built up seaside resorts of Hampton and Seabrook.  From this point westward, we flew overland back to Nashua.

My mind remained at sea, however.  Today’s flight over water reminded me of two previous journeys that I had made, one long ago and one fairly recently. 

The first of these two flights took place aboard The Portlander, a small Bar Harbor Airlines Beechcraft 99, on Friday, December 16, 1977.   Enroute from Bangor, Maine, to Boston, it flew just offshore and paralleled the coastline from Penobscot Bay to Winthrop Neck near Logan Airport on a clear and sunny afternoon with excellent visibility.  The views of both the snow-covered New England coast and the cold, blue Atlantic Ocean were magnificent beyond description.  I’ve made many airline flights over the years, and this one ranks high on my list of favorites.

The second flight took place aboard a Tam Airlines 767 enroute from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to New York.  In the very early morning of Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016, I opened the window shade next to my seat on the port side of the aircraft and gazed contentedly down at the western Atlantic between 20 and 30 degrees of north latitude.  I had sailed on this stretch of ocean many times aboard several ships, and it felt good to be back.  I would have been perfectly happy to sit quietly and look at the Atlantic Ocean for the rest of the flight to New York, but this was not to be.  After a little while a cabin attendant came to my seat and asked me to please lower the shade.  It was letting too much light into the darkened interior of the airplane, she explained, and the cabin crew wanted the passengers to sleep as long as possible before they served breakfast.  I lowered the shade as requested.  As I did so, however, I glanced around and felt bad for the other passengers.  Very few of them had window seats, and I supposed that even fewer had any interest in looking at the great Atlantic Ocean.  And here, after all my voyages, I felt like a plank owner of the Atlantic!

As our homeward flight drew to its conclusion, James descended to about 1,500 feet and passed directly over his old school in Hudson, the Presentation of Mary Academy.  Then he brought the little Cessna back across the Merrimack River and over downtown Nashua.  At 4:15pm he landed on runway 32 at Boire Field, and our journey was complete.

In two hours of flight, we had seen the beauty of the sea and the sky, two of the primordial elements of the Earth.  The aerial voyage brought to mind the words of the psalmist:

                        They that go down to the sea in ships,
                        that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord,
                        and his wonders in the deep (Ps. 107:23-24).

This applies to airmen as much as to seamen, for both traverse the vast stretches of sea and sky in their voyaging.  Whether on a ship looking out at the sea and up at the sky, or on an airplane and looking out at the sky and down at the sea, these magnificent elements speak to the human soul and touch the human heart.  The psalmist further asserts, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), and more recent revelation informs us that, “The elements are the tabernacle of God” (D&C 93:35).  Whether at sea or at sky, then, the opportunity to experience Divinity and commune with Deity is at limitless as the elements themselves.

A few photographs from our journey:

Portsmouth Harbor.  The Piscataqua River separates Kittery, Maine, on the left, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the right.  Several local landmarks are clearly visible:  the Navy Yard, the three bridges, Albacore Park, Prescott Park, Fort McClary, Fort Constitution, and downtown Portsmouth.

Boon Island, about six miles offshore from Cape Neddick and Nubble Light.  This is a very isolated spot, despite its proximity to the mainland.

The Atlantic Ocean.  This view is to the southeast from a point between Boon Island and the Isles of Shoals.  As I looked out on the wide expanse of the blue sea, I also observed the wing of our aircraft, and I marveled at the fairly recently discovered principle of physics that enables air to support the weight of the airplane, and its passengers, cargo, fuel, etc.

A few of the Isles of Shoals.  Depending on how one counts them, there are about ten islands in the cluster, which is bisected by the Maine-New Hampshire border.  They are easily accessible by ferry from Portsmouth.  This places them far enough from the madding crowd without being too isolated.  They look like a great location for my retirement home!