Captain Robert W. McKnett commanded the tanker New Jersey Sun. Engaged in the coastwise oil trade, she was a great ship, in no small part because she was my first commercial assignment. To this day I can recite her statistics to anyone who would care to listen: 630 feet in length, 85 feet beam, 30 cargo oil tanks, 30,000 deadweight tons, sailing on regular runs between the Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast. I signed on as an apprentice; my job was to learn the craft of the sea. I learned many lessons aboard the New Jersey Sun—about the ship, about the sea, about people, and about life. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. My basic duty was quite simple: to do as many different things as possible and learn from these experiences.
One of the first jobs assigned to me was assisting with tank cleaning. The ship was moored at the Sun Oil refinery in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, and the crew was cleaning tanks in preparation for a shipyard overhaul. Much of the oily residue on the cargo tank interiors had been washed away with hot water at high pressure. After this had collected at the bottoms of the tanks and the excess water pumped out, it was time for the crew to go into the tanks and scoop out the remaining globs of sludge that could not be pumped out.
The New Jersey Sun had been carrying number six fuel oil: thick, heavy, and dirty industrial petroleum. It had to be heated just so it would become liquid enough to be pumped. In its unheated state, it was practically nonflammable. It emitted so little vapor that if someone threw a lighted match into a tank full of the stuff, the match would go out. As petroleum transport goes, number six was certainly a safe cargo to carry. But it was dirty. Removing the residue from the tank bottoms required a special wardrobe provided by the company: disposable coveralls, disposable hoods, disposable gloves, and heavy boots. After one shift of tank cleaning, all but the boots went in the garbage. The work simply ruined them. Even with this protection the stink of the oil got into one’s hair and skin, and repeated washings still wouldn’t get it out. Little wonder, then, that tank cleaning was no one’s favorite job, especially when done in twelve hour shifts around the clock. I took my turn at it and chalked it up as the filthiest work I’d ever done. But it was honest and important work, and among other things it taught me to never be reluctant to get my hands dirty in order to accomplish something worthwhile.
In time, the New Jersey Sun was finished with tank cleaning. She sailed from Marcus Hook to the Todd Shipyard in Galveston, Texas, and underwent her scheduled overhaul. While in the yard, I spent most of my time working with the deck crew. This involved strenuous physical labor but was also enjoyable. When the shipyard overhaul was complete, the New Jersey Sun put to sea again and resumed her routine of carrying oil from the Gulf to the Northeast. Before she sailed, however, there were several personnel changes, and it was then that Captain McKnett came aboard.
One of the most important skills for me to learn at sea was celestial navigation. This involved taking sights of the various heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets—and then, through a complex series of mathematical calculations, plotting the ship’s position. This subject intimidated me at first. I had studied it in a classroom ashore, but that bore little resemblance to actually doing it aboard ship.
I recall my first experiences with celestial navigation. Taking sights of the sun, working out the mathematics, and then plotting lines of position went well enough. Taking sights of the stars and working these out, however, presented some difficulty.
My first attempt at taking stars took place aboard the New Jersey Sun while on a northbound voyage. The ship was riding the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. We were out of sight of land, but really not that far from shore. There were plenty of electronic aids to navigation, and both the Captain and the mate knew exactly were the ship was. So my attempt at taking stars was certainly not critical to anyone’s safety. Nonetheless, I wanted to do it right. After all, I had to learn this material in order to pass the license exams one day.
In a concentrated fit of ambition, I diligently took sights of a half dozen stars. The conditions for this were excellent: bright pinpoints of white light against an almost black background, sufficient moonlight to illuminate the horizon, and a clear atmosphere with unlimited visibility. I took my sights, marked the exact time of each one, and then proceeded to work out the mathematics for all of them. I anticipated the finished product appearing neatly and accurately on the navigational chart. Well, my work was neither neat nor accurate. The six lines of position that my star sights yielded intersected not at one or even nearly at one point on the chart, but at six separate and widely spaced points. This meant that I had succeeded only in calculating the ship’s position as somewhere in an area of about 500 square miles. So much for my lofty ambitions and great expectations!
A minute or so after I had plotted this monumental failure, Captain McKnett came in the chartroom and found me dejectedly looking over my mess. I couldn’t understand how I could be so wrong, and searching for errors in the calculations was proving fruitless. The Captain looked at the plot on the chart and immediately understood my disappointment. Then he spoke.
“It’s okay to make mistakes,” Captain McKnett said, “but learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. That’s what you’re here for. Make your mistakes now and learn from them, so you won’t make the same mistakes later when you’re a third mate.” When I heard this I knew it was excellent advice, and I promised the Captain that I would do exactly as he said. I did not think of the scriptures at that moment, but an apt verse has come to mind since: “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good’ (D&C 122:7).
I left the New Jersey Sun not very long afterwards. I never saw Captain McKnett again, but I have never forgotten him. He was a kind hearted man, taking the time to show an interest in the uphill struggles of an insignificant apprentice who no doubt got in people’s way when they had important work to do. Since that occasion, I have often thought of the Captain’s sound advice. He spoke from many years of shipboard experience, of course, and in that time he had acquired a great deal of practical wisdom. His counsel to learn from mistakes and not repeat them, while of critical importance in many circumstances aboard ship, is also applicable in all other walks of life. With this thought in mind, I have quoted the Captain to my children numerous times.
The only advice I would add to Captain McKnett’s is that while it is a sound idea to learn from one’s mistakes, it is even better to learn from someone else’s mistakes. A brief look at the world around us reveals many people making many mistakes and often not learning from them but repeating them and even copying them from each other. This is precisely what I have wanted my children to avoid. Of course, my children made mistakes when they were growing up, but for the most part they learned from them and did not repeat them. Of equal importance, they observed the mistakes many of their peers made—and some of these were huge mistakes that resulted in physical injuries and irrevocable consequences—and they resolved on their own initiative not to duplicate these blunders. We can all do that much. Thus applied, the Captain McKnett Philosophy can prevent a lifetime of remorse.
The New Jersey Sun gave me experience, and it was for my good. In due time and with much practice aboard subsequent ships, I became fully proficient at all aspects of celestial navigation. I came to especially like taking stars. There was always a certain sense of satisfaction to be enjoyed upon the successful completion of a round of stars with the ship’s position neatly and accurately plotted on either a coastal chart or a plotting sheet. Heeding Captain McKnett’s counsel and learning from my initial mistakes enabled me to reap the reward promised to Nephi: “he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them” (1 Nephi 10:19). Celestial navigation, at first so mysterious to me, unfolded and became one of my favorite aspects of going to sea.