Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Yacht Club


Situated on Unqua Point in the Nassau Shores neighborhood of Massapequa, Long Island, the yacht club provided berthing for a variety of small recreational sailboats and motorboats that spent their summers plying the protected and shallow waters of the Great South Bay.  Only one of these vessels could properly be called a yacht, though.  This was a broad-beamed, gaff-rigged, bowsprited New Englander, conspicuous for her size and design, and somewhat out of her element on the South Shore of Long Island.  We saw her frequently at the dock, but seldom underway.  At the time, I hardly gave it a thought, but my parents wondered about this boat as we sailed our diminutive Justine up and down the channel between Unqua Point and Karras Creek.

This channel was the thoroughfare that skirted the mud flats east of Massapequa and south of Amityville and led to comparatively deeper and more open water.  From Karras Creek, where my parents kept the Justine, it was a fairly short and easy sail to the open bay, if the wind was right.  When the wind didn’t work, we paddled.  Eventually, when my father got tired of paddling, he invested in a small outboard motor.  I was a small child then.  My father did not appreciate my powers of observation when one day I remarked that while the new motor broke down routinely, the old paddles always worked just fine.

We sailed on the Great South Bay from Karras Creek in the mid-1960s.  In the 1970s, my parents traded in their sailboat for a slightly larger Justine, and they berthed the new boat first in Lindenhurst and later in Babylon.  Aboard these vessels in my formative years, we sailed the bay from Massapequa to Heckscher State Park.  In my teen years, I decided that the bay was too small for me and yearned to sail on the open Atlantic.  Eventually I did this, but aboard vessels somewhat larger and more durable than the twenty-feet-long Justine.  In all my transoceanic travels, though, the memories of my childhood voyages remained with me, and I have returned to the Great South Bay many times.

On one such occasion, two of my sons accompanied me to Massapequa, and we visited both Karras Creek and Unqua Point.  This outing took place on Saturday, June 2, 2005.  Not surprisingly, forty years after my initial voyages aboard the Justine, many things had changed.  Karras Creek, Unqua Point, and the Great South Bay were of course all still there, but the neighborhood had been revamped.  Karras Creek abutted the Riviera, a waterfront party house used for weddings and other special occasions.  Back in the day, this was a large but humble and down-to-earth affair.  It has since been gentrified into a five-star, world-class venue complete with brick driveways, Belgian block curbing, and lavish landscaping.  Down the street at Unqua Point, the yacht club was completely gone.  In its place stood the new Nassau Shores Bayfront Park, a publicly owned facility with playground equipment, expansive lawns, and benches facing the water.  In its simplicity of design and with its expansive views of the bay, this new park was quite impressive.

My sons were not very impressed, though, either with the new facilities or the family’s connection with the old facilities.  I looked at it all philosophically.  In four decades, places and people do change. Just as the old waterfront neighborhood in Massapequa had undergone a metamorphosis, so had I.  Indulging my sons’ patience for a while, then, I gazed at the Great South Bay from the new park and found plenty of food for thought.

This was the place where my lifelong love of the sea had started.  I was six years old when my parents bought the Justine.  The bay was different then.  The water was cleaner and there was less traffic on it.  The mud and sand bottom teemed with clams ripe for the picking.  People were friendlier.  When boats sailed past each other, their crews waved and called out greetings.  If someone’s boat got in trouble, folks on other boats would come by and help.  It was all very neighborly, a microcosm of the universal brotherhood of the sea.

Since that time so long ago, many tides have come and gone, and the salt water that filled the bay then has since travelled around the world many times.  The same seawater that carried the tiny Justine on her intracoastal cruises also carried the great cargo ships of my subsequent career on their more ambitious voyages.  It was a big leap from the Justine to the Rigel and the Waccamaw and the Comet, but everything big originates as something small, just as the oak tree starts life as an acorn.  Holding the Justine on a steady course as the wind filled her sails later became bringing the Waccamaw alongside an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean for underway replenishment and maneuvering the Comet through the fishing fleets in the Sea of Japan.  Studying the chart of the Great South Bay and navigating by landmarks aboard the Justine became navigating by the sun, moon, and stars first on the New Jersey Sun and then aboard a host of subsequent ships.  And recreational sailing under the tutelage of kindly parents became important employment, often with roughneck crewmen and demanding if basically good-natured Captains.  The happy innocence of childhood was thus replaced by the serious responsibilities of an often difficult profession.

Indulging my sons’ patience just a little longer, I thought of what I had gained from going to sea.  The sea gave me tangible experiences and also taught me abstract qualities that in turn produced tangible results.  The sea taught me motivation, ambition, perseverance, and discipline.  It taught me to set priorities and distinguish between genuine needs and mere wants.   It taught me to do what must be done, to consider the next step, and to anticipate the likely consequences of decisions and actions.  It taught me to gauge other people and determine what qualities they possessed.  All this and more that I learned from the sea has accompanied me through life since.  The sea was one of the three things that shaped my character and made me the person that I am.  The other two influences were church and family, and while the three worked in harmony, I came of age at sea.

Like so many things in life, the yacht club had its moment in time and then passed into oblivion.  But the small inland sea beside which it stood remains, as does the larger sea that encircles the Earth.  The sea will continue long after I am gone, and it will teach future generations of young merchant seamen as it did me.  In some ways the sea was the best teacher I ever had.  And to think that it all started here, on the sheltered and shallow water of the Great South Bay!  This was indeed the cradle of my craft, and for that I will always be profoundly thankful.

Now let’s look at some photographs of the old waterfront neighborhood:


This is Karras Creek in Massapequa, Long Island, in the summer of 1967, in one of my very early attempts at photography.  The sailboat in the left foreground is the Justine.
A much better view of Karras Creek and the Justine in the summer of 1967 taken by my father.
Your truly at the helm of the Justine, underway on the Great South Bay in 1967.
Returning after many years and many voyages, we see Karras Creek on Saturday, June 2, 2005.
The entrance to the new park on the site of the old yacht club on the same day in 2005.  Steven and Michael pose by the sign.
Unqua Point and the Great South Bay on the same day with the same sons.  Usually a very pacific body of water, the bay was an excellent place to begin a career at sea.  Decades later, this small stretch of salt water holds a flood tide of memories.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Calculating Mecca


The freighter Rigel had left Norfolk on Tuesday. May 22, 1979, bound for ports in the Mediterranean.  Toward the end of the second full day at sea, one of the unlicensed crewmen called the bridge with an urgent request.  Speaking to James James, the second mate, he explained that he was a Muslim and needed to face in the direction of Mecca when he said his prayers.  So could the mate please provide him with the compass bearing of Mecca?  James James responded that he would be happy to do it, but he needed some time to work out the calculations, and so he asked the fellow to call back in fifteen or twenty minutes.

Seeing a teaching opportunity in this request, James James explained to Schnickelfritz, the cadet on his watch, what needed to be done.  They of course knew the latitude and longitude of the Rigel’s location, so they looked up the coordinates of Mecca, plugged this data into the great circle sailing formulas, and worked out both the direction of and the distance to Mecca.  James James did it the old fashioned way by using the trig tables in Bowditch and crunching the numbers with pencil and paper.  Schnickelfritz did it the new fashioned way with his calculator.  Both methods produced the same compass bearing and distance.  It proved to be a wonderful practice exercise in spherical trigonometry.  When the devout crewman who requested this information called the bridge again, he thanked James James profusely and expressed great appreciation for his efforts.

At the 8:00pm change of the watch, James James related this experience to me, one of the third mates.  All the mates and the cadet reasoned that as the Rigel crossed the Atlantic, the bearing of and distance to Mecca would necessarily change, and we foresaw the need to provide our Muslim shipmate with updated information.  Furthermore, as we would all eventually take the exams to upgrade our licenses, we saw this as an opportunity to increase our proficiency in the great circle sailings.  This was important material.  Praying toward Mecca notwithstanding, the great circle formulas figured into every transatlantic and transpacific voyage.  So it became the daily drill to practice for both future voyages and future license exams by calculating Mecca.

As it turned out, the request for the compass bearing of Mecca was a joke.  There was no Muslim crewman aboard the Rigel after all.  Some of the fellows below decks thought up this scheme to have some fun at James James’ expense.  They had their laugh, which was harmless, and they unwittingly provided a few young and ambitious officers with a useful study tool.  I certainly appreciated it, for by the time the Rigel reached Gibralter, I had become much more comfortable with the great circle sailings.  I subsequently used this newly developed expertise many times aboard several ships, and I had no difficulty with this material on the license exams for second mate and chief mate.  Many years later, I recall these formulas with fondness.  No doubt these calculations are all done by computers now.  I suppose that’s fast and accurate, but having gone to sea in the old school, I think I would find computerized navigation to be professionally and intellectually unsatisfying.  Sometimes the old ways really are the best ways.

When the Rigel was making this voyage back in 1979, few of us in the West gave much thought to the holy city of Mecca or to the Islamic faith and its adherents.  Furthermore, none of us could have foreseen the bad press that Islam would receive in recent years, or the vituperation that would be cast upon Muslims generally.  It’s very sad when an entire population is blamed for the crimes of a tiny minority.  Popular misconceptions notwithstanding, Islam has a number of uplifting characteristics.

As a belief system, Islam is a large and complex subject with a long and sometimes stellar and sometimes checkered history.  For Muslims who take their religion seriously, Islam is a way of life, a rigorous faith with high moral standards that seeks to uplift its members and bring them closer to God.  In these respects, Islam is not unlike Christianity and Judaism.

A well-composed and ideologically neutral capsule summary of Islam[1] includes a discussion of the faith’s moral precepts.  Some of these are fairly well-known, such as the prohibitions on eating pork and drinking alcohol, the period of fasting during Ramadan, and the five-times-daily call to prayer.  Above and beyond these outward practices, however, Islam requires its members more broadly to lead lives filled with charity, humility, modesty, and reverence; to acquire and value an education; to contribute to the relief of the sick and the poor; to ensure the rights of women and children; to respect the religious beliefs of Christians and Jews; and in general to extend love, kindness, and forgiveness to all people.

My personal experience with Islam has been minimal.  Three of my children, however, have enjoyed some very positive contact with it.  A few examples stand out.

As a teenager, my daughter attended the Academy of Notre Dame, an all-girls Catholic high school in Tyngsborough, Massachusetts.  One of her classmates, Salwa, came from a devout Muslim family.  Salwa was an excellent student who took her schoolwork seriously, got along well with everyone, and never caused any trouble.  She graduated as the valedictorian of her class and received a full scholarship to Boston University.  The latest report indicated that she is now married and studying toward a doctorate at Harvard.

My youngest son visited Israel during Holy Week and Passover in March of 2014.  In Jerusalem on Good Friday, he mingled with Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all of them visiting the holy sites and getting along very peacefully with one another.  Later, when my son was leaving Israel and entering Jordan, there was a mix-up concerning his visa at the border.  Without being asked, a Muslim fellow-traveller intervened and spoke to the border guard on my son’s behalf.  In a few minutes, the visa problem was resolved, and there were no further difficulties.

My oldest son and his wife visited the United Arab Emirates in November of 2014.  They found the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi spotlessly clean and their streets crime-free.  They saw that every train on the subway had a special car reserved for women and children, not as discrimination against women, but as a courtesy that provided greater comfort and privacy for them.  My son and daughter-in-law also visited the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  Comparing it favorably to an LDS temple, they found a strong spiritual presence there and noted that proper dress, reverent behavior, and subdued speech were required of all visitors.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews all believe in a God who has certain expectations of his people, who has set specific moral precepts for them, and who seeks to raise them up to his standards. One of my favorite authors, Rabbi Harold Kushner, makes this point well.  In discussing human frailty, he asserts that when we reach “the limits of our own power, we need to turn to a Power greater than ourselves,”[2] and that “the worship of a God beyond ourselves can help us grow.”[3]  Such spiritual growth is important because “there are standards by which God summons us to live.”[4]  In short, “our behavior matters to God.”[5]  All three Abrahamic religions teach this, and it stands true for everyone everywhere, regardless of denominational affiliation.

These thoughts run a long way from the Rigel’s transatlantic voyage of 1979.  A request that started as a joke first became a training exercise for the license exams and then a springboard for considering the merits of a major religious tradition.  But life is like that, especially life at sea.  Very often when cargo ships leave port, their crews have only a vague idea of where they’re going.  Along the way, schedules change, itineraries are revised, and ships are rerouted.  A ship, like life, can take us just about anywhere.  But of all the voyages we make and of all the ports we visit, the most important ones are those that bring us closer to God 


[1] Two good and readily available sources are https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam and https://www.britannica.com/topics/Islam.
[2] Rabbi Dr. Harold Kushner, Who Needs God, New York: Summit Books, 1989, p. 59.
[3] Op. cit., p. 54.
[4] Op. cit., p. 79.
[5] Op. cit., p. 79.

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 www.bartleby.com.
[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
S. S.  POET
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 www.newmanreader.org.