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,” 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
 Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Ballad of East and West,” in A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895, ed. Edmond Clarence Steckman, at www.bartleby.com.
 Quoted in “Spiritual awareness” (sic), Church News, June 25, 2017, p. 16.
 Quoted in John McPhee, Looking for a Ship, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990, p. 157.
 Op. cit., p. 155-156.
 Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 153-154.
 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.