Saturday, July 30, 2011

Picking Up the Pilot

A hymn seldom sung in our corner of the Church is “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.”  Written by Edward Hopper in the nineteenth century, it reflects in part the fears of those using the dominant mode of transportation of the era:

Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass came from thee:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
‘Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on thy breast,
May I hear thee say to me,
“Fear not; I will pilot thee.”1

In this age of travel by automobile and airplane, does the average passenger understand what a pilot is and does?  Probably not, because while the vast majority of the world’s international commerce is still carried by sea, this operation is far removed from both the sellers and the buyers of the goods that are shipped.  But as long as there are merchant ships plying the oceans, there will be pilots to bring them in and out of port.

Let us observe a pilot bringing the Queen Elizabeth into port:

The pilot, Captain Robert Ahrens of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association, boarded the Elizabeth at about 7 a.m. while the ship was still at sea.  He had arrived by motor launch from the Association’s pilot boat and had come aboard by climbing up a rope ladder to one of the shell doors.  Now he stood at a center window in the wheelhouse where he had a broad view of the waters ahead and of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the distance.  He was providing the compass headings which allowed Chief Quartermaster Bell to steer the safest course up the Ambrose Channel, through the Narrows into New York’s Upper Bay, and finally into the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan Island.

“Steer three-four-six,” said the harbor pilot, and the number was repeated by the Chief Quartermaster, who simultaneously turned the large ship slightly to starboard.  The pilot’s directions laid down the true compass heading the liner was to follow until another figure was called out.  In a few minutes he ordered, “Steer zero-zero-two,” and the Quartermaster again brought her to starboard.  Thus the Sandy Hook pilot held the Queen Elizabeth to the Ambrose Channel and guided her directly through the Narrows.

Captain Ahrens also directed the ship’s speed.  At one point he called out, “Half Ahead!” His command was followed by a ringing of bells as the quartermasters operated the telegraphs and signaled the Elizabeth’s engine rooms, more than ten decks below, to reduce revolutions on her four propellers from 100 to 80 per minute.  This slowed her from 17 to 13 knots.2

While this does not seem terribly complicated, terrible complications would result if the Queen Elizabeth or any other vessel entering port were not held to the straight and narrow line of deep water.  A very large part of piloting involves knowing where the dangers are as well as where the safe water is.  Acquiring the necessary knowledge and expertise requires work and takes time:

Captain Ahrens and other Sandy Hook pilots work at one of the most ancient occupations connected with the sea.  Since men have sailed to foreign lands they have needed pilots in the unknown and dangerous waters at the mouth of a safe harbor.  “A shift in the wind before a reef without a pilot,” says a history of the profession, “and the spices of India could lie deep at the mouth of the harbor.  A storm off the coast of Dover without a pilot could bereave the most prominent houses of England.”

The fact that Captain Ahrens could pilot the Queen Elizabeth indicated he had risen to the top of his profession.  To learn his trade he first had to serve seven years as an apprentice.  Meanwhile he had to pass stringent examinations.  He knew by heart every detail of the New York and New Jersey harbor waters, including the bottom surface, rocks, reefs, shoals, buoys, and currents.  With such facts in his head, he was then allowed to progress slowly from the smallest vessels entering the harbor to the largest.3

            In every seaport in the world, pilots direct merchant ships into and out of their harbors at all hours of the day and night.  Naturally, this system requires the ship’s officers to place a great deal of trust in the pilot, who is often a man they’ve never met before.  Very rarely does anything go wrong, however.  Over the long history of commerce by sea, piloting has evolved into a tried and true method of ensuring that the freight, the mails, and the passengers depart and arrive safely.  So much is this the norm that the great seaman and author Joseph Conrad described a pilot as “trustworthiness personified.”4

Edward Hopper uses pilotage as a metaphor for the Gospel and the various hazards to navigation as metaphors for the many pitfalls of life.  He has points that hold true even in this age of diversified transportation.  Many of the dangers that confront people on their journey through life are concealed by a harmless appearance, or worse, are made enticing by an attractive appearance.  These are the rocks and reefs that can rip open a ship’s hull.  Just as the pilot must know exactly where these dangers are situated in a harbor entrance, so must we know where similar dangers lie in wait ashore.  Just as every merchant ship must pick up a pilot when entering and leaving port, so must we take on a pilot to safely guide us through life.  The pilot we need is the Lord Jesus Christ, and his sailing directions are contained in the scriptures and the teachings of the Church.

The Lord made this point very clear in both ancient and modern times.  “Man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).  Of all the written and spoken material contained in the world’s numerous libraries, this Word of the Lord constitutes the single most important directions for the safe passage of mankind along the voyage of life.  Whether the Word is ancient or modern, inscribed on stone tablets, printed in book form, or spoken in General Conference makes no difference: “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1: 38).  And we must continuously learn it: “study my word which hath gone forth among the children of men, and also study my word which shall come forth among the children of men” (D&C 11:22).

These sailing directions include but are not limited to such precepts as the word of wisdom, the law of tithing, the law of chastity, baptismal covenants, the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, and the Temple ordinances.  These and other principles chart the course all people need to follow to lead good, clean, and morally upright Christian lives.  These teachings are updated from time to time by additional pronouncements from the Prophet and other leaders of the Church, all of whom are “trustworthiness personified.”  This is typically done at General Conference, but on can be done on other occasions as well.  This is accomplished in much the same way a pilot updates his directions for compass headings and engine speeds.  To ignore a pilot’s direction would lead to extensive property damage, bodily injury, and possibly loss of life.  To ignore ecclesiastical direction would lead to moral degeneracy and a fall from grace with the risk of eternal consequences.  In extreme cases this could possibly involve estrangement from one’s eternal family, and eternity is a long time to spend alone.

Happily, however, “it is easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss” (Alma 37:44), and the Lord is the best and most trustworthy harbor pilot in the world.

1 Edward Hopper, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” in Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake
2 Leonard A. Stevens, The Elizabeth: Passage of a Queen, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, p. 11-12.
3 Op. cit., p. 13-14.
4 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971, p.1.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Unframed Picture

While we were sightseeing in Quebec City, we visited the Rue du Tresor, the narrow pedestrian street where the local artists displayed and sold their works.  As I’ve never been artistically inclined, very little of this material interested me.  My sons felt likewise.  They liked trains and wanted only to hurry across town to the Gare du Palais to watch the Montreal express.  But the girls wanted to examine the art works and chat with the artists, and so we had to compromise.  My sons and I would watch the train leave for Montreal, but after it had gone we must rejoin the girls in the artists’ neighborhood.

On our return a while later, the unexpected happened.  I wanted only to reunite the family and then leave the Rue du Tresor before any of us could spend money there, and so I made every effort to move the family along.  Then a painting caught my eye.  What an unlikely occurrence!  Of the thousand and more pictures on display in this street, all of them jammed together to maximize use of the limited space, one picture in this overcrowded mass of color stood out and caught and held my attention.  It was a picture of a ship.

Specifically, it was a painting of the schooner Bluenose II, a modern-day replica of the famous fishing vessel Bluenose whose likeness has for many years graced the reverse side of the Canadian dime.  We once had the pleasure of going aboard and touring the Bluenose II when she was docked in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, not far from the pier that had housed the Furman.  This painting portrayed the Bluenose II not in Portsmouth but under sail on the Saint Lawrence River with the Chateau Frontenac sitting high on the hill above and behind her.  Two historic national institutions portrayed in minute detail with the deep blue water as a base and the lighter blue sky as a canopy, with the rising riverbank and secondary city buildings filling out the remainder of the scene—it was a very colorful and dramatic masterpiece, a truly magnificent work of art.  I could not stop staring at it.  I actually thought of buying it, but quickly dismissed the impulse.  We were on a tight budget, after all, and I had not included the purchasing of art works in my financial plans.

Then Miss Patty caught me looking at this painting.  She insisted that we buy it since I liked it so much.  I objected to the expense, even though it was offered at a bargain price.  It cost ten dollars in Canadian money, which at the time equaled seven dollars in American money.  Surely we could spare that, Miss Patty implored.  She would even skip dinner that night and breakfast the next morning to pay for it.  I appreciated the nobility of her self-sacrifice, but still hesitated.  Finally, she exercised her prerogative as the smarter of the two of us and overrode my objections and hesitations.  We bought the painting.

Since this picture had such a compelling quality, I naturally wanted to get it professionally framed and then hang it up on permanent display after we had brought it home.  The framing would cost much more than the picture itself, of course, and so I thought that I would slowly set some money aside for it.  I found it difficult to justify spending more money on myself, though.  It just didn’t feel right.  Spending money on the children didn’t bother me, nor did spending money on something for the whole family.  Besides that, there were more pressing expenses, important needs as opposed to mere wants.  There were car repairs, property tax increases, record gasoline prices, medical bills, my oldest son’s mission, my younger sons’ Eagle projects, and the house needed a new roof.  All legitimate expenses, they elbowed picture framing onto the back burner and held it there.

I put my painting of the Bluenose II away in a safe place where it would lie flat and be protected from dust.  On several occasions I took it out to admire it.  Each time I did this I made a tentative plan to get it framed as soon as a few more pressing expenses were taken care of.  Then I noticed a pattern emerging.  With four children to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medicate, there were always additional pressing expenses coming along to replace the ones just taken care of.  Every expense involving children’s needs or general family benefit was more important than framing the Bluenose II.  To move this comparatively insignificant mere want up on the priority list ahead of the children’s needs or ahead of something not essential but at least beneficial to the whole family seemed unconscionably selfish.  Framing the Bluenose II would just have to wait.

And it did.  Five years passed, and the picture remained in its safe place, unframed.  My oldest son started at Brigham Young University, served a mission, and returned to BYU.  My daughter studied two years at BYU and then went on a mission.  My younger sons completed their projects and became Eagle Scouts.  Our two cars, both fifteen years old and needing repairs, have kept going.  Both have gone over 100,000 miles; one has gone over 200,000 miles.  Also, the new roof was installed.  It came with a 30 year guarantee; I should never have to worry about it again.

With my medical history, I’m fortunate to have children at all.  Therefore, it is a blessing for me to be able to sacrifice framing the Bluenose II—and numerous other things as well—for the greater good of meeting their needs and teaching them values.  We believe that “sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.”1  It’s true.  These blessings have included four children learning financial responsibility, material preparedness, the value of education, the importance of attaining Eagle rank and serving a mission, and the necessity of meeting others’ needs before indulging one’s own wants.  On the subject of people’s sacrifices the Lord has promised us, “I will cause them to bring forth as a very fruitful tree which is planted in a goodly land, by a pure stream, that yieldeth much precious fruit” (D&C 97:9).  The benefits to my family are that precious fruit.

The unframed picture of the Bluenose II, a beautiful painting of a beautiful and famous ship, stands as but one small example of the many sacrifices that conscientious parents must make for the benefit of their children.  It calls to mind the Lord’s admonition to those who bear responsibility for others: “if any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).  It has been an honor to be both head of the family and servant to the family for all these years.

1 William W. Phelps, “Praise to the Man,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.

Friday, July 22, 2011

One Brief Shining Moment

One kilometer.  An automobile at highway speed would cover this distance in less than a minute.  Happily, a ship on the water takes far more time and does an infinitely more graceful job.  Such was the case aboard the ferry Alphonse-Desjardins between LĂ©vis and Quebec City.  Miss Patty and the children and I had travelled to Quebec in order to research her French-Canadian genealogy.  This project brought us to churches, cemeteries, and archives in the small agricultural villages on the South Shore of the Saint Lawrence River.  Afterwards, we went into the city to sightsee.  As we had not taken a voyage aboard a ferry anywhere in a long time, we opted to leave the car in Levis and sail to Quebec City.  Admittedly, bridges have spanned the Saint Lawrence for many years, but there’s nothing that can beat going what some would call the old fashioned way.

The two cities lie on opposite shores of the Saint Lawrence just about a kilometer apart from each other.  A fleet of two vessels, the Alphonse-Desjardins and her sister, the Lomer-Gouin, crosses the stream at half hour intervals daily.  Each voyage takes about ten minutes.  This time involves undocking, maneuvering away from the quay, crossing the river, aligning the ship with the next dock, and mooring.  These are not the voyages on which speed records are set, nor are they intended to be, nor do the passengers want them to be.  For while the obvious objective is to go someplace, a less obvious but equally important objective to enjoy, however briefly, a shining moment of Je-ne-sais-pas-quoi.

As the ferry eases away from the land, its gentle motion through the water becomes discernible in a subtle and peaceful way.  It is a relief to have broken the chains that hold one to the ground.  In mid-river, a slight breeze courses downstream.  On a warm and humid day, this cool and gentle air feels heavenly.  Combined with the slight undulation of the hull in the river and the faint vibration of the deck plates, the effect is peaceful and soothing in an other-worldly way.  Time seems to stand still as one surrenders oneself to the enjoyment of these simple but magnificent sensations.  One sees that the ship is approaching the opposite shore, but the gentle motion and the cool breeze are so soothing that one wants—even half expects—them to last forever.  Unfortunately, they do not.  As the ferry slows to make the dock, she comes into the lee of the land and the heavenly breeze is lost.  Soon after, the gentle motion ceases, and one is forced down from a state of bliss to contact with the pedestrian earth again.

Such moments of communion with a higher ethereal plane come every so often in life.  Typically, they take place in the temple, but they can happen elsewhere, too.  Often, they occur on or near the sea or one of its tributary waterways.  This should not be surprising, for many people find solace in the sea, a soothing sense of peacefulness not ordinarily found on land.  The French would call it the quality of Je-ne-sais-pas-quoi, the quality of I-don’t-know-what, that ineffable something that one knows is there but finds difficult to define.  We may also call it the still small voice, the Spirit of the Lord speaking to our souls but not in any human language.  When the Lord addresses us in this way, these are precious moments.  Unfortunately, they cannot last forever.  But fortunately, they do come, even if only rarely and briefly, and we can remember them always. 

For one brief shining moment on the Saint Lawrence River, the Spirit of the Lord spoke peacefully unto my soul.


From the Temple to the Sea and Children of the Lord were two completed manuscripts I had ready.  Since they are now complete, I have some random essays that I'll be posting next.  These are in no particular order, nor do they lead to a final conclusion the way a book would.  I hope you enjoy them.  The first one will be published later this evening.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More pictures of ships....

More pictures of some of the ships on which I sailed and also some vintage photographs of historic vessels.  I took several of these pictures myself.  Those from other sources are so noted.  Click on the photos for a larger view.
The Henry Ludlow of the Babylon and Oak Island Ferry Service on the South Shore of Long Island, New York.  My grandfather, Robert Burns, served as Master of this vessel.  The date of this picture is probably 1912 or 1913; photographer unknown.

The Bay State and the old State of Maine moored together at Penno's Landing in St. George, Bermuda, from June 17-20, 1976.  

The tanker New Jersey Sun in the floating drydock at the Todd Shipyard on Pelican Island in Galveston, Texas, on May 28, 1978.  
The range instrumentation vessel General Hoyt S. Vandenberg at her base in Port Canaveral, Florida, in early February of 1980.  All this impressive steelwork now reposes at the bottom of the Strait of Florida as an artificial reef and fish haven.
A stern shot of the tanker Waccamaw in the floating drydock of the Old Dominion Metro Machine Corporation in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 2, 1983.  Miss Patty took the grand tour of the Waccamaw while the ship was being sandblasted. 
My three sons:  Steven, James, and Michael, on the starboard bridge wing of the new State of Maine in Portland, Maine, on July 3, 2002.

My grandfather took this picture of the lightship Ambrose at 3:30pm on September 17, 1953.  He and my grandmother were returning to New York from Europe aboard the Mauretania of the Cunard Line.  This is one of my favorite photographs.
The lightship Nantucket awaiting overhaul in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, on August 19, 2009.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Lightship

As one walks alongside the East River in Lower Manhattan, the lightship Ambrose1 comes into view.  After a long and honorable career of sentinel duty outside the entrance to New York Harbor, she now reposes quietly as a museum piece at the South Street Seaport.  On her decks and in her compartments, mute placards and friendly tour guides tell her story to all who come aboard.  A small vessel with minimal space for her crew, she makes an impression on her visitors.  She had been a working vessel, a service vessel, not a luxury liner or a yacht, and this shows in the extreme simplicity of her accommodations.  In fact, the initial view of her from the street reveals a hull that seems very small and confining, perhaps even fragile-looking, for extended service on the open ocean.  Nonetheless, the Ambrose is an attractive vessel with a colorful and eye-catching paint scheme.  One cannot miss her.

Ships have always fascinated me, of course, but lightships especially so.  They are a very different type of vessel.  They are not merchant ships.  They are not naval ships.  They do not carry cargo, make long voyages, or conduct military maneuvers.  They do not live lives of their own, so to speak.  Instead, they exist solely to serve other ships.  They remain anchored at their assigned stations as other vessels come and go.  At night they display their distinctive light signals, in effect serving as floating lighthouses.  In the daytime their bright red hulls with their names painted in huge white letters on them stand out as identifying beacons to passing ships.  They were designed to be clearly visible, and they are.   

For centuries, lightships have kept station at important waypoints and next to danger areas along the world’s shipping lanes.  Famous lightships have included the Goodwins warning of the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel, the Borkum Riff guarding the traffic lanes in the North Sea, and the Ambrose marking the entrance to the Ambrose Channel leading into New York.  In these and in many other important locations, lightships have long warned of dangers, identified channels, and literally lit the way for passing merchantmen.  Embarked on lifelong service projects, lightships have been the “light that shineth in darkness” (John 1:5) for those sailing across the blackness of the sea.

The Ambrose is a good case in point.  In the very early 1900s, a shipping channel leading from the Narrows, the waterway between Brooklyn and Staten Island, to the naturally deep water of the open Atlantic was dredged to a depth of 40 feet with a width of 2000 feet.  At the time, these dimensions were enormous.  As the size of merchant ships and the volume of traffic increased, however, these dimensions were able to accommodate the growth.  A lightship was anchored at the seaward end of the new channel to indicate the location of the deep water for arriving vessels.  Both the channel and the lightship derive their name from John Wolfe Ambrose, a prominent businessman who convinced a skeptical Congress to make the necessary financial investments in the improvement of New York Harbor.  This improvement included several dredging projects, of which the largest bears Mr. Ambrose’s name and stands as his memorial.2 

From the time of the light station’s establishment, a lightship was anchored there almost continuously.  On the occasions when the Ambrose needed to return to port for her annual drydocking, a relief vessel took her place temporarily.  Otherwise, the Ambrose remained at anchor at her station where she served the navigational needs of other vessels by flashing her characteristic light signal at night and displaying her distinctive bright red hull with white letters by day.

While this job sounds simple enough, it was not without its risks.  In heavy fog on June 24, 1960, the lightship Relief, substituting for the Ambrose during her annual overhaul, was flashing her light signal and sounding her foghorn when the freighter Green Bay collided with her.  The lightship sank; the freighter remained afloat.  Most importantly, the lightship’s crewmen were all rescued.3

Later in the 1960s, although not because of this accident, the Coast Guard undertook to replace most of the lightships with fixed light towers.  These structures were built on steel piles driven into the seabed.  Equipped with lights, foghorns, helicopter decks, and crew accommodations, these structures would last longer than lightships and cost less to operate and maintain.  Furthermore, they would not swing on an anchor chain but stand immovable, thus making them more accurate navigational markers than the lightships.  But they would serve the same purpose.  Like the lightships, these new light towers existed solely to serve others.

Once again, the job sounds simple but it had its risks.  Following its construction, the new Ambrose Light Tower was placed in service with a six-man crew on August 23, 1967.4  It was designed and built to withstand a hurricane, but in October of 1996, the tanker Aegeo collided with the tower and damaged it beyond repair.5  There were no human casualties, however, because the tower had been automated and its crew reassigned on March 15, 1988.6

After removing the wreckage of the tower, the Coast Guard built a new structure, also fully automated and unmanned.  Performing the same function, this new tower served until November 3, 2007, when the tanker Axel Spirit collided with it and damaged it beyond repair.  The following summer this second tower’s remains were dismantled and removed.  Deciding against yet another rebuilding, the Coast Guard replaced the Ambrose Light with a large buoy.7

Whether the method was towers or ships or a buoy, the Ambrose Light has for over a century diligently and at great risk to itself served the needs of others.  And this is just one light.  In their day, many lightships were positioned along both American coasts as well as in Canadian and European waters.  Merchant ships, fishing boats, and naval vessels all depended on them.  Since the conversion to towers was implemented, only a few lightships remain on station.

These good vessels have come to different ends.  Some were scrapped.  Some were sunk.  Others live on.  Like the Ambrose in New York, the Chesapeake serves as a floating museum in Baltimore.  The Frying Pan works as a party boat, moored to a pier on the West Side of Manhattan.  One Nantucket operates as a floating hotel in Boston.  Another Nantucket is moored to a pier in Oyster Bay, Long Island, waiting to be refurbished as an exhibit in a waterfront park.8

These lightships were a lot like some people.  They all had different identifying characteristics such as names and distinctive light signals.  They lived to serve others, and they did a lot of good in their lives.  Most of the good they did never became widely known, though, and often times the good they did was really the prevention of something bad.  For example, a merchant ship seeing the Ambrose Light knew where the channel was and therefore steered the correct course and did not run aground.  Like the lightships, the dangers and the waypoints near which the vessels stood guard were all different, too.  Shoals, reefs, rocks, channel entrances, traffic separation lanes, and junction points have always been of critical importance to the safe movement of ships.  Their location must be made known or property damage, injury, and loss of life will inevitably result.  For centuries, lightships, and more recently their replacement towers, have selflessly served in this important capacity.  And some of them, both lightships and light towers, have gone to their deaths while serving.

In the long history of Christianity, many people have served their fellowmen as faithfully as the Ambrose and others like her have served their fellow ships.  The life of the Savior as it is described in the New Testament stands as a shining example of service to others.  During his time here on Earth, our Lord healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the bereaved, taught his doctrine, and invited all to come into the safe haven of his Gospel.  He called ordinary people to come unto him, learn his teachings, follow his example, and carry on his work.  His disciples did not need to be politically influential or militarily powerful; they needed only to be converted and have a willingness to serve.  Like the Ambrose, these good people rarely made the history books or the headlines.  Whether they were laymen or clergymen or members of religious societies, the vast majority of them led unremarkable lives and sought no earthly rewards.  Despite the unfortunate divisions in Christianity, most of its adherents have long had much more in common than not.  These common characteristics have included a love of the Lord and a desire to do his work, with some disciples even sacrificing their lives in the process.

It is much the same today, although with the ordinances of the temple restored to the Earth, there is even more opportunity to serve both the living and the dead.  Like the Ambrose, the temple serves as a beacon, but to those on both sides of the veil.  Once again, the work is done largely by ordinary people who simply love the Lord and want to help others come unto him.  One need not be rich and famous in order to carry out the Lord’s work in the temple.  On the contrary, one needs only a sincere testimony of the importance of the temple ordinances and a demonstrated willingness to live one’s life in a manner befitting a temple-attending Latter-day Saint.  This is a high standard, but one which all people are capable of attaining.  Likewise, the crewmen of the Ambrose needed to meet certain standards in order to perform their service.  They enabled the safe passages for seamen on both their outbound and homebound voyages with visual and sound signals.  Similarly, temple personnel mark the safe way for all people on their homebound journeys to their eternal home and reunion with their Heavenly Father.  The temple was built for this very purpose.  Like the Ambrose, it exists to serve others.  Perhaps more accurately, the temple gives us the opportunity to serve others.

King Benjamin said it so well: “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).  The Lord himself said it even more succinctly: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16).  Whether serving at a light station or serving in the temple, we must be “steadfast and immovable” and “always abounding in good works” (Mosiah 5:15) in order to bring everyone, the children of the sea and the children of the Lord, safely home.

1 Technically, “Ambrose” is the name of the light station, not the lightship.  This lightship’s official designation is LV 87/WAL 512.  In a decades-long career, the same light vessel could serve at several different light stations and would have the appropriate station’s name painted on her hull during her time of service there.  Practically, however, the ships came to be known by the names of the stations at which they served, and the name of the light station was informally transferred to the lightship itself.
2 Author unknown, “Ambrose Channel,” original publication unknown, 1921, at
3 Milton Bracker, “Ambrose Lightship Sunk in Fog,” The New York Times, June 25, 1960, p. 1 & 9.
4 Homer Bigart, “Ambrose Lightship Blinks Her Last Lonely Signal,” The New York Times, August 24, 1967, p. 1 & 75.
5 Sue Clark, “Ambrose Light Tower Destroyed in Collision,” December 6, 2007, at http://lighthouse–
6 Dennis Hevesi, “Men Leave But the Light Shines On,” The New York Times, March 16, 1988, at
7 Sue Clark, op. cit., and Associated Press, “Staten Island: Ship Damages Light Tower,” The New York Times, November 5, 2007, at
8 On May 10 and 11, 2010, this Nantucket was towed to a shipyard in East Boston, Massachusetts, where she is to be refurbished.  See

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Second Mate

The patchy fog dispersed gradually as the cargo ship Mercury passed through the Golden Gate and set out on the great Pacific Ocean one fine spring morning.  Following an enjoyable but lengthy port visit, it felt good to be at sea again.  After dropping off the pilot, the ship passed out of sight of land and then turned southwards toward the next destination.  The sun shone brilliantly from a bright blue sky upon a rippled sea; it was a beautiful first day of the voyage on God’s great ocean.

            Whether aboard the Mercury or any other ship, the drill was the same—ocean voyages interspersed with port visits.  After several months of this schedule came a period of vacation.  Then it was time to go back to sea, aboard another ship in a different part of the world with different ports of call, thousands of miles from home, and away from family and friends for another interval of many months.  What a life!  People would sometimes ask, “How do you do this?  How can you stand this vagabond existence?  How can you stay away from your family for so long?”  These were, of course, legitimate questions.  But the well-meaning folks who asked them had never gone to sea.  They had not led the life, so they would not understand, and no amount of explaining could change this.  But somehow, the need to at least try to get them to understand always remained.  If only one could find the right words!

For me, that morning aboard the Mercury said it all, but not in words. The rippled dark blue water, the lighter blue of the sky punctuated by lily white tufts of altocumulus, the clear cool breeze from the southwest—these basic elements comprise the grandest and most sublime beauty on the Earth for a seaman.  Some folks ashore spend fortunes to live in beachfront houses so they can be on the edge of the ocean; a seaman resides in the middle of it.  He is surrounded by what someone in a beach house can by comparison only glimpse.  Furthermore, the beach house remains stationary.  The Mercury, all six hundred feet of her, plowed gently through the sea, rolling almost lazily in the swells.  It was a comfortable motion, for some of us even more comfortable than no motion at all.  It had a soothing quality to it, a balm that would rock me to sleep at night and ever so gently wake me up again in the morning.

Standing on the bridge of the Mercury, about the height of a ten-story building above the surface of the sea, I could gaze upon the movement of the ship on the water, and on the movement of the water on itself.  The patterns of the waves and the swells often became mesmerizing.  It could reasonably be compared to staring at a great work of art, except that in this case the art was in constant motion.  Add the sky conditions to this and the picture becomes complete.  Add the wind and the gentle vibrations of the deck plates beneath one’s feet, and picture is felt as well as seen.  This sensation is in Hamlet’s words, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”1 for a seaman, for there is nothing in the world that can surpass the beauty of a beautiful day at sea.

The sea has many moods, so to speak, from as calm as a millpond to raging violence and everything between these two extremes.  But this does not diminish its beauty.  What we call bad weather is not really bad.  It may make for an extremely uncomfortable voyage, but the sea is not actually doing anything wrong; it simply follows the laws of nature.  And a violent sea is truly a sight to behold.  The energy it expends—the force and power and sheer brute strength displayed by a long series of towering and crashing waves is both an awesome and fearsome sight.  One cannot sail through a storm at sea without developing a serious respect for the forces of nature.  Such had certainly been the case aboard the Wilkes in the far reaches of the North Atlantic.

            The weather and concerns about it form only a part of the seagoing profession, albeit a very important part.  One of the duties of a mate at sea is the taking of weather observations for transmission to shoreside meteorological centers.  Other duties include voyage planning, navigation, maneuvering in traffic, anchoring, mooring, and so on.  My favorite position aboard any ship was second mate, the one responsible for most of the navigational work.  People would often ask, “When you can see nothing but water, how do you know where you’re going and which way to go?”  It’s actually fairly simple.  It all starts with planning the voyage, laying down course lines on charts and plotting sheets and calculating distances, speeds, and times of arrival at waypoints and at the destination.  Plotting a coastal run is very simple and straightforward; plotting a transoceanic voyage can be more involved.  A great circle route between the United States and Europe, for example, requires the use of several mathematical formulas that combine geometry with spherical trigonometry.  The second mate typically does this work on his own with little or no supervision from the Captain.  It’s assumed that since the second mate passed the license exams he knows what he’s doing.  I loved this work and never minded doing it alone.

Determining the ship’s location on the trackless expanse of water becomes the next step once past sight of land.  In my time we had loran along both North American coastlines, radar ranging off any coast, and eventually the satellite system came into general usage.  The main navigational bulwark, however, was still celestial.  The science and art of celestial navigation requires sightings of the heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets—taken from the ship and followed by a lengthy series of calculations.  The end result, if all goes well, is a “fix,” the location of the vessel on the ocean.  In clear weather with good visibility and a distinct horizon, a celestial fix can be extremely accurate.  As the meteorological conditions deteriorate, however, so does the navigational accuracy.

Nonetheless, I loved celestial navigation.  Through it I came to appreciate the order of the universe and the majestic beauty of the star-filled night sky.  Many times aboard many ships did I walk out onto the bridge wing, sextant in hand, and gaze reverentially upon the myriad stars.  I would usually select Polaris as the first star to shoot, and then take four or five others as well, perhaps Arcturus or Betelgeuse or Regulus.  They always served me faithfully, and I always felt a spiritual presence, for lack of a better term, when I was taking stars.  I felt this when shooting the sun in broad daylight, too, but for some reason it was always strongest with the stars at night.

All of these celestial bodies move with such scientific precision that their motions can be predicted and applied to accurately determine a vessel’s position at sea within a quarter-mile.  Additionally, these celestial movements are used to determine compass error within a fraction of a degree and times of tides accurate to the minute.  These heavenly bodies have no intelligence of their own.  They do not speak; they merely move.  Yet for all their seeming simplicity, these movements are clearly orchestrated.  The precise and reliable path of the sun, for example, rising from one horizon, crossing the meridian, and dropping down to the opposite horizon, stands as a mute witness to the creative genius of a Supreme Being.  Standing on the bridge wing of a ship at sea, one comes to know through the silent witness of the stars on a clear night that the Spirit of the Lord really does stand watch over the deep. The heavens themselves build one’s testimony.

After I left the sea I studied the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Arguing from reason, this great philosopher proved the existence of God in five different ways.  One of these ways, the Argument by Design, matched my experiences aboard ship:

We see that things that lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.  Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end.  Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.  Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.2

            In the scriptures, the Lord himself concurred with and elaborated upon this line of reasoning.  In a magnificent revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, he explained:

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets.  And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years—all these are one year with God, but not with man.  The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.  Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power (D&C 88:44-45, 47).

To think that I had seen God!  This would explain the spiritual presence that I had always felt.  Another, perhaps more familiar, scriptural passage would sometimes come to mind during star sessions:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?  and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalms 8:3-4).

Well, we know what man is, since we know that he was created in the image and likeness of God himself.  Nonetheless, the magnitude and order of the universe, together with the mathematical infallibility of the calculations based on it to accurately locate a small ship on a large ocean, give the navigator pause.  Only a being of the highest intelligence—a Supreme Being—could have created this universe.  It leads one, as a mere created creature, to feel very small.

Similar thoughts come to mind in the areas where land and sea meet.  One of the benefits of the business was the opportunity to see many of the unique places on the Earth.  The White Cliffs of Dover, the Rock of Gibraltar, and the swath cut through the jungle by the Panama Canal all speak to us in a way similar to that of the night sky over the open ocean.  The beauty of the Earth lies all around us, of course, but it is made especially manifest in unique areas such as these, where the very rock formations themselves bear mute testimony of the supernal intelligence that created them. Some of these places have a mystical quality about them, too, that bears the same mute testimony in a more gentle way. 

My favorite example of this is the Inland Sea of Japan, truly one of the garden spots of the Earth, and upon which I sailed aboard the Comet.  In the early morning, as the daylight entered upon the world from the east, the water took on a silvery gray color as it merged with the mist in the distance ahead of the ship.  Small hilly islands, covered with foliage of indistinct shades of green, emerged from the silver-gray mist as the ship approached.  There was no sound save the slight slushing of the ship through the water, and even that was subdued.  The silence was surreal.  The islands receded into the mist again as the ship left them astern.  More emerged from the mist up ahead.  Still silent, the silvery gray sea and mist punctuated by the partly visible small green islands had an ethereal, other-worldly quality.  It began to feel like the Comet had left her normal realm and was trespassing upon hallowed ground, so strong did the spiritual atmosphere become.  The mist seemed to be veiling the entrance to Heaven itself, but no matter how far through this mist the ship sailed, the heavenly entryway proved elusive.  I half expected to see “the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter” (D&C 137:2), but did not.  A glimpse of proximity, then, but no more just yet.

This voyage across the Inland Sea was a magnificent experience, a voyage I felt both privileged and thankful to have made.  One of our Church hymns, which I learned years afterwards, almost says it all about this and other mystic sights that leave one speechless:

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
[For the beauty of the sea,]

For the beauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Sun and moon and stars of light,

Lord of all, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.3

Obviously, the ships I sailed on did not spend all their time in the most beautiful places on the planet.  “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).  The opposites of these magnificent places were some of the industrial facilities where the ships moored.  These areas were often downright ugly, but seeing them always prompted a greater appreciation of the world’s more attractive areas.

This principle of “an opposition in all things” extended to people as well.  The crew of a cargo ship was typically a motley assortment; every crew contained both the best and the worst of the human race.  Essentially, though, there were two kinds of people aboard every ship.  There were those whose minds operated only at the level of the gutter, who reveled in filth and smut and wanted nothing better or of a higher order out of life.  They lived only to satisfy their base carnal instincts; beyond that, they merely idled away their time.  Then there were those who wanted much more out of life.  They routinely sought the uplifting and edifying things in life.  They pursued learning and sought professional advancement.  They engaged in wholesome recreational activities ashore, read books at sea, and wrote home to their families often.  A world of difference existed between these two types of crewmen, and one of the differences was belief in God.

Typically, the gutter-level type had no real interest in religion.  If one of them expressed a belief in God, it usually came out during an alcohol-saturated conversation, and the theology—if it could be called that—was mostly a twisted, self-serving justification of behavior blatantly contradictory to moral precepts.  On the other hand, the higher-minded type of crewman had at least a rudimentary but sincere belief in God.  He recognized his limited understanding of the subject, but knew innately that there was a God who created the world and who expected his children to behave decently toward each other.  These were basically good men.  Then there were some who were very devout, who read the Bible, and who led exemplary lives.  These were good men, too, and they were well respected by the majority of their shipmates.

We know that “The glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and that God has given intelligence to everyone.  With this intelligence, we are free to either wallow in the gutter or rise to something better.  We can waste our intelligence, or we can use it to enrich our lives and become better people.  I recall an example of this choice from my teenage years aboard the old State of Maine.

It was the first transatlantic voyage for many of us, and the first port of call would be Rotterdam.  Two fellows were discussing what they wanted to do on arrival there.  One crudely expressed his desire to gain extensive carnal knowledge of the young ladies in the Netherlands.  The other retorted, “If that’s all you want to do, why bother going to Europe?  There are better things to pursue there.”  And he went on to point out some of these better things, many of which were intellectual in nature and required the use of intelligence: the languages, the history, the cathedrals, the museums, the food, the cities, the countryside; in short, the many fascinating cultures of the great European continent.  By comparison, the fleshpots of a seaport town were nothing but a degrading waste of time, a useless sacrifice of a golden opportunity to do something better.  Humans, created in the image and likeness of their Creator, owed it to both themselves and their Creator to do something better.

In every seaport that I visited, there were ample opportunities to do something better.  The world that we have been given has so much good to offer, both ashore and at sea, that it sometimes seems that the difficultly lies in choosing which good things to pursue with our limited amount of time.  One of the benefits of a long voyage is the narrowing of options.  Aboard the Mercury that fine spring day, surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Pacific, there was navigational work to do, the heavenly bodies to observe, good books to read, good food to eat, letters to write home, and the next landfall to anticipate.

Along the way, dolphins swam with the ship.  They gathered at the bow and rode the high pressure wave of water that every ship pushes ahead of itself as it plows its way through the ocean.  Propelled by this irresistible force, the frolicking dolphins leaped up out of the sea and then splashed back into it, jumping over and diving beneath each other in criss-crossing paths.  They always put on a splendid show, sometimes for hours on end.  They were happy creatures, these dolphins.  They spent their lives riding the waves of God’s great oceans, and I felt privileged to ride the waves with them.

1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i:63-64.
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, tr. English Dominican Fathers, New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947, v. 1, p. 14.
3 Folliott S. Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, p. 92.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Dead

The Waccamaw sat quietly alongside one of the supply piers at the naval base in Norfolk.  There was very little activity on board.  Many of the men had gone ashore, and the mood among those who remained aboard was introspective and philosophical.  With good reason, too.  The Waccamaw had sailed from this same pier the day before, but on seeing the violent state of the weather on the open ocean had turned around and returned to port.  Since then, however, news of the most tragic sort was received concerning the fate of another ship that had not turned around when confronted with this storm.  This other ship was the 605 foot long coal carrier Marine Electric.

Operated by Marine Transport Lines, the Marine Electric had sailed from Norfolk with a full load of coal and a crew of 34 shortly before midnight on Thursday, February 10, 1983.  She dropped off the pilot at the Chesapeake Bay entrance at about 2:00am on Friday, February 11, and once clear of the traffic lanes, set a course to the northeast toward her destination of Somerset, Massachusetts.  The weather conditions into which the Marine Electric sailed were poor and rapidly deteriorating.1

The Waccamaw sailed several hours later, between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning of Friday, February 11.  Captain Derric F. Linardich, substituting for Captain Rigobello who was on vacation, commanded the ship for this voyage.  Scheduled to remain at sea for a week, the Waccamaw would be conducting underway refueling of several Navy ships in the western Atlantic.  Then she would return to Norfolk for tank cleaning and a shipyard overhaul.  Fully cognizant of the sea conditions and the weather forecast, the powers that be in Norfolk had authorized Captain Linardich to proceed to sea or not according to his assessment of the sea state upon arrival at the pilot station at the Chesapeake Bay entrance.

The weather in Norfolk and on the Chesapeake Bay that morning involved a low overcast, a strong, cold wind from the northeast, a short, choppy sea, and intermittent precipitation.  The Waccamaw sailed into the teeth of this fury as she headed eastward toward the Atlantic.  On arrival at the pilot station where the Chesapeake met the open ocean, the weather conditions became more intense.  The Atlantic was very rough with high winds and heavy seas.  Even allowing for the time of year, the sea conditions were much more violent than usual.  Captain Linardich studied the scene before him as the Waccamaw sailed past the Cape Henry Lighthouse toward the head of the traffic lanes where she would drop off the pilot.  He had serious reservations about continuing to sea, and he shared his concerns with the pilot and with me, his second mate.  We could say what we thought, but the decision to proceed or turn back was the Captain’s and no one else’s.  With a very serious expression on his face, Captain Linardich stared into the storm as if transfixed by it.  Then he announced his decision.  The Waccamaw would make a u-turn around the CBJ (Chesapeake Bay Junction) buoy at the head of the traffic lanes and return to Norfolk.  The old ship would sit this one out.  The same pilot remained on board and brought the ship on a reverse course through the lower Chesapeake.  Two hours later, the Waccamaw came back alongside her pier and was made fast.

Later that afternoon with most of the crew ashore, Captain Linardich lamented to me over dinner about the ship’s inability to “keep her commitments” to the Navy in such weather.  The mission missed had not been a critical one, though.  Furthermore, the Waccamaw had not been carrying a full load of oil, and a half-full-half-empty hull would guarantee a rough ride at best in that weather.  Carrying out an underway refueling with smaller and lighter military vessels in such sea conditions would have been extremely difficult and dangerous—unnecessarily so, in fact, since it was an exercise and not a fuel shortage emergency.  So his decision to opt out of the mission and return to port had been a sound one.  No one could fault him for choosing safety over unnecessary risk.

With the ship safely moored and the decks quiet, I slept for a while before taking over the watch from midnight to 8:00am on Saturday, February 12.  The weather continued to howl over the Atlantic.  Secure and warm in port, though, I scarcely gave it a thought until much later in the day when the first news reports came in.

On her voyage north, the Marine Electric plowed into an intensifying weather system.  Wave heights and wind speeds increased, but the ship sailed steadily on—just another rough night on the Atlantic.  But then something unexpected happened.  During the night of Saturday, February 12, when I was safely in port and on watch aboard the Waccamaw, the Marine Electric started taking on water as the waves crashed over her foredeck.  Seawater accumulated in her cargo holds, eventually causing the ship to capsize and sink.2  Unable to successfully launch lifeboats, most of the crew ended up in the water.3  Distress calls had been sent out over the radio, but by the time assistance arrived, all but three of the thirty-four crewmen had perished. In forty-five degree water, twenty foot waves, twenty-eight degree air, and forty knot winds, these men had almost no hope of survival.4  That three of them did in fact survive was incredible.

These news reports came in piecemeal and were sketchy at first, but in time they became more clear and accurate.  Aboard the Waccamaw, the reports of what had happened to the Marine Electric were horrifying, and all the more so because the Waccamaw had followed her into the same storm but had turned around and come back to port!  Many of us were simply stunned by this news.  What could anyone say?  The bottom line of the tragedy spoke for itself and needed no commentary.  A merchant ship had sunk with horrendous loss of life.  That we had been in the neighborhood, so to speak, only compounded the grief.

In general, merchant seamen do not like to talk about shipwrecks.  The loss of the Marine Electric was discussed only minimally aboard the Waccamaw.  I did not mention it in letters or telephone calls home.  I vaguely remember telling my wife about it in private some time afterwards.  Despite this reticence, however, events such as these are never forgotten.  The circumstances of the Waccamaw’s departure and immediate return to port because of the storm highlight and even personalize to a degree the loss of the Marine Electric and her crew, even though I did not know any of them.  This is the brotherhood of the sea.

In the Marine Board of Investigation that convened to ascertain the cause of this tragedy, it was revealed that the Marine Electric had been allowed to sail in an unseaworthy condition on numerous voyages.  The old ship was plagued with leaky hatch covers, cracked deck plates, inoperable watertight doors, and makeshift repairs, among other faults.5  In this sense, then, the ship was an accident waiting to happen.  Litigation and regulatory reform resulted from the disaster, and in the end much good was achieved in the updating and improvement of safety standards aboard American merchant ships.6  But at what a price in human life!

Unfortunately, the loss of the Marine Electric was not the only tragedy to befall the Merchant Marine in my time.  Three years earlier, on October 24, 1980, the 522 foot long cargo ship Poet, operated by the Hawaiian Eugenia Corp., departed Philadelphia bound for Port Said, Egypt, with a load of corn.  After she dropped off her pilot near Cape Henlopen, at the entrance of the Delaware Bay, the Poet was never seen nor heard from again.  She simply disappeared without a trace somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean.  Her entire crew of 34 perished with her.7  A former school acquaintance of mine, Mark S. Henthorne, was the third assistant engineer aboard the Poet.8  I believe he was 24 years old when he was lost with the ship.  Despite an extensive search for survivors and debris along her intended route by the Coast Guard, nothing was ever found.9  At the time of the Poet’s sailing and disappearing, I was berthed in comparative comfort and safety aboard the survey ship Wilkes, which was undergoing repair work in Norfolk.

After the loss of the Poet, it was revealed that she, too, had a very poor maintenance record and that she had also made numerous voyages in an unseaworthy condition.  But with no tangible evidence, it could not be established in a Marine Board of Investigation that this was the cause of the Poet’s demise.10  In the case of the Marine Electric, however, the deteriorated physical condition of the ship was demonstrated to be the cause of her loss.  Her sinking was a preventable accident, caused by ill-fitting and leaking hatch covers that enabled seawater coming over the bow to drain into the cargo holds.11  The Waccamaw, which by comparison was very well maintained, would not have experienced this problem if she had continued to sea.  But such forensic analysis does not change the bottom line facts.  In the two shipwrecks of the Poet and the Marine Electric, 65 merchant seamen perished.  Their families suffered grievous loses.

The Merchant Marine as an institution suffered grievous loses, too.  Despite the seamen’s natural reluctance to discuss such events in casual conversation, these deaths were felt.  Everyone knew someone or knew someone else who knew someone who was lost.  All these men, whether they were personally known to each other or not, were involved with the sea and formed a part of the brotherhood of the sea.  Their loss was therefore a loss to all.

Perhaps the English metaphysical poet and Anglican clergyman John Donne said it best:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.  Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.12

In this broader sense, then, it is not only fellow seamen who are diminished by the loss of life aboard the Poet and the Marine Electric, but all humanity.  Happily, however, using a literary analogy, the author sees a bright conclusion to the tragedy of death:

All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.  God employs several translators; but God’s hand is in every translation.13

It is easy to see the Christian belief in the brotherhood of mankind above and beyond the brotherhood of the sea in these lines.  For this reason, Dr. Donne argues, when the bell tolls for the dead at a funeral or a memorial service, it really tolls for those still living who are diminished by the other’s death:

Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.14

Because we are brothers and sisters and because we are involved with mankind, we want to bring all of our fellows to a knowledge of the Lord and his gospel.  For he has told us;

I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the father but by me (John 14:6).

Furthermore, we want to give all of our fellows, both the living and the “translated,” the opportunity to receive the fullness of this knowledge and reach their maximum potential even above and beyond the “better language” that Dr. Donne envisioned.  This we do in the temple.  The Lord has entrusted to us the opportunity and the obligation to carry out his work in the temple in order to facilitate bringing all his people, both the living and the dead, back to him.  With the tragic loss of the Poet and the Marine Electric, there are now 65 “translated” merchant seamen who stand in need of having their temple ordinances done for them.  Though they are dead, it is not too late; their spirits live on and wait.  Their last voyage remains yet unfinished.

After the sinkings of these two ships, funerals and memorial services were held in various locations.  Some of these were religious, some secular.  One in particular for the crew of the Marine Electric stands out.  This took place at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.  As the name of each deceased crewman was spoken, a ship’s bell tolled once.15  It tolled for the dead, of course, and it tolled for the living as well who were diminished by the deaths of the men for whom they grieved.

I would like to think that this bell also tolled for every temple-attending Latter-day Saint, not as a call to mourning but as a call to action.  So many millions of people have lived and died on this Earth who need to have their temple work done for them.  Now, two ships have been lost and 65 men have perished at sea.  They, too, need to have their temple work done.  The tolling of the bell is the summons.  It is calling us to the temple so that we may turn tragedy into triumph.

1 Robert Frump, Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine, New York: Doubleday, 2001, pp. 20-22.
2 Frump, op. cit., p. 34-37, 55.
3 Frump, op. cit., p. 48, 54-55, and Associated Press, “3 Crewmen Survive Loss of Coal Vessel; Fate of 8 Uncertain,” The New York Times, Feb. 13, 1983, at
4 Frump, op. cit., p. 23, 55, and Associated Press, op. cit.
5 Frump, op. cit., p. 172-173, 177-179, 211-218; Associated Press, “Doomed Ship’s Crewman Tells An Inquiry of Holes in Hatches,” The New York Times, Feb. 17, 1983, and “Crewmen Testify about Surviving Ship’s Sinking, The New York Times, Feb. 20, 1983, both at
6 Frump, op. cit., p. 315-318, 326-327, 341.
7 Author unknown, “Remembering the Poet, 26 Years Later,” Seafarers Log, Dec., 2006, at  This is the newsletter of the Seafarers International Union.
8 Robert J. Pessek, The Poet Vanishes: An American Voyage, n.p., 1st Books Library, 2000, p. xi, and U.S. Coast Guard, “Marine Casualty Report: SS Poet: Disappearance in the Atlantic Ocean after Departure from Cape Henlopen, Delaware on 24 October 1980 with Loss of Life,” at  This is the report of the Marine Board of Investigation.
9 “Remembering the Poet,” loc. cit., and United Press International, “Planes Seek Missing Ship with 33 Americans Aboard,” The New York Times, Nov. 11, 1980, at
10 Frump, op. cit., p. 171-172, 197-198, and “Marine Casualty Report,” loc. cit.
11 Frump, op. cit., p. 299-300.
12 John Donne, “Meditation XVII,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1, New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962, p. 795.
13 Ibid.
15 Frump, op cit., p.206.