Monday, July 4, 2011

The Alumnus

As the Waccamaw rested alongside the pier in Norfolk at the conclusion of her shipyard overhaul, new crewmen started to report on board.  Among these fresh faces came the new cargo mate, Thomas Cassidy.  He filled a position that was unique to the ships that carried out the underway replenishment of the naval fleet.  Tom held a chief mate’s license, but came aboard to serve in a specialized capacity.  Sailing as neither third mate nor second mate nor chief mate, his duties as cargo mate revolved entirely around the cargo oil that filled the Waccamaw’s hull and which would be transferred to naval vessels at sea.

Soon after Tom reported on board, I thought that there was something different about him.  He had sailed in our fleet only for a short while, but it was obvious that he had long experience with tankers and that he knew them very well.  Still, there seemed to be more.  When he mentioned that he had previously sailed with Sun Oil, it all made sense.

Tom Cassidy was an alumnus of Sun Oil.  He had sailed on all the tankers in the Sun fleet and had worked his way up through the ranks from ordinary seaman to chief mate.  He knew many of the men with whom I had sailed during my stint aboard the New Jersey Sun, including Captain Taylor and Captain McKnett and Slim Cushman.  He had accrued a great deal of seniority at Sun by virtue of his having worked there for so long, but unfortunately, it was not long enough.  When the layoffs came, he was let go.  It was then that he went to Bayonne looking for work.  When the office folks there saw the extensive tanker experience on his resume, they hired him right away.

Tom was a good shipmate and a very competent tankerman.  Sun had trained him well, and it showed.  For these reasons we were all happy to have him with us.  I was happy to sail with him for another reason, though.  He brought back happy memories of my teenage sojourn aboard the New Jersey Sun.  In fact, he was the second such reminder of Sun Oil during my time aboard the Waccamaw.  The first took place on November 18 and 19, 1982, when the Waccamaw had gone to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.  Anchored a short distance outside the harbor and clearly visible from the Waccamaw as she arrived and departed was none other than the New Jersey Sun herself!  The sight of this grande dame of the Atlantic stirred my sentimental side.  I did not realize it then, but that was the last time I would ever see this great ship, for her days were numbered.

In my brief time with the company, Sun Oil operated seven ships.  The twins New Jersey Sun and Delaware Sun entered service new in 1953.  In 1983, when Tom Cassidy joined the Waccamaw, these two ships were thirty years old and reaching the ends of their lives.  Late in that year, the New Jersey was sold as scrap metal and sailed to the ship breaking yard in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.  The Delaware followed her in 1985.  Two of the remaining ships in the Sun fleet that I had known were also scrapped in the 1980s.  The Eastern Sun was killed in Kaohsiung in 1984 at age 29, and the Pennsylvania Sun followed her in 1986 at age 26.  Four ships gone in four years.

In this same time frame two new and larger ships were built for the Sun fleet.  These were the New York Sun and the Philadelphia Sun which entered service in 1980 and 1981, respectively.  A third tanker, the Tropic Sun, arrived second-hand from Gulf in 1982.  It would seem that there were still jobs for seamen, but with the new ships came increased automation, reduced manning scales, a slump in the petroleum industry, charters to other operators, and therefore, layoffs.

Three of the vessels dating from my time with Sun survived longer.  The Western Sun, built in 1954, sailed until 1990 when she was broken up in Alang, India.  The Texas Sun, built in 1960, lasted until 1995 and then went to her death in Alang.  Lastly, the America Sun, built in 1968 as the largest of the seven and the pride of the Sun fleet, served the company until 1989 when she was sold to another operator.  She died in 1993 in Alang.

Of the new ships, the New York and the Philadelphia were sold off in 1997.  Ten years later, aged 26 and 27, they also died in Alang.  The Tropic, already an older vessel when Sun bought her, died in Alang in 1995.1

Tom Cassidy was an alumnus of this once-great fleet.  During both his and my time with Sun, the conventional wisdom held that a good employee would always have a job there.  If one did his work diligently, stayed out of trouble ashore, and didn’t run into anything at sea, then he would always have a job at Sun.  After all, the country needed oil, and someone had to deliver it.  Thus there was job security.  But this changed as ships were sold and scrapped.

When Tom Cassidy joined us on the Waccamaw, the conventional wisdom there held forth even more generously.  Even those employees who didn’t do their work diligently and who couldn’t stay out of trouble ashore would always have a job.  After all, this was the government, and the government never laid people off or went out of business.  But here the conventional wisdom was slow in catching up to real life.  Seagoing employment was getting scarce everywhere.  Captain Rigobello, who had seen it all before, summed it up succinctly: “We are all very lucky to have a job here.”  He was right.  But this changed, too.

As Tom had learned the hard way, and as I would soon learn, anything and everything that we have in this world can be taken away from us.  Our livelihoods, our professions, our careers can all seem safe and secure one day and be gone the next morning.  In a world that often defines people by the work they do and the professional status they achieve, one’s employment can be a terrible thing to lose for psychological reasons, in addition to the obvious financial hardships.  To go from working as a licensed officer aboard a merchant ship to accepting the dregs of shoreside jobs is a bitter pill to swallow.  A supportive family can ease the pain and make the situation more bearable, as many seamen with good families can attest.  Still, to the newly unemployed seaman, sleeping in an abandoned automobile and digging discarded food out of a dumpster can loom as frightening possibilities on life’s horizon.  Some of the guys really end up like this.  To generate at least some revenue, they loitered in public places like the Granby Mall in downtown Norfolk.  Equipped with signs that read, “unemployed merchant seaman—please help,” they begged alms like mendicants.  

Men very often treasure their careers.  Many merchant seamen whom I knew treasured their careers.  They loved their work; they loved their ships; they loved to sail.  When all this was taken away from them, what were they to do next?  The lucky ones like Tom Cassidy found other seagoing jobs.  But his luck would eventually run out when his new employer initiated cutbacks, too.  Eventually, almost everyone ended up ashore in an element that often felt alien and in employment that was usually a letdown.

Perhaps the Lord foresaw the demise of the American Merchant Marine when he taught his disciples:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also (Matt. 6:19-21).

While “rust” can certainly be applied literally aboard ship, it is easy to see the metaphorical value of “moth and rust” in this situation.  Substitute, for example, corrupt business practices, political expediency, union busting, hostile labor relations, outsourcing, etc., and the resultant scourge of people losing their employment becomes readily apparent.  If one’s treasure is aboard ship and one’s heart is there with the treasure, one will inevitably suffer heartbreak when the ship is taken away.

A ship is a tangible thing.  Built of solid steel to withstand the rigors of the sea, it invites us to place our faith and trust in its size and strength.  Religion, however, is abstract, but it also invites our faith and trust.  The secular world would advise us to entrust ourselves to the tangible, concrete, and substantive thing.  The Lord, however, calls upon us to do the opposite.  He counsels us to place our faith in something that seems completely abstract and ethereal, but also something that he solidifies and that lasts forever: “Build upon my rock, which is my gospel” (D&C 11:34).  The fact of the matter is that the gospel was there long before all the merchant fleets in the world were built, and it will still be there long after the last ship has been sent to the junkyard.  In this sense, then, the gospel is as solid as a rock.

Just as the Sun Oil ships were all sold off and scrapped, most of the vessels in our fleet were disposed of similarly.  A few of them, such as the Vandenberg and the Comet and the Furman, went into long term layup, but that’s usually just a stepping stone on the way to the scrap metal heap.  Only the Vandenberg was given a new lease on life.  She was sunk as an artificial reef and fish haven several miles off Key West, Florida, in 2009.2 Either way, all these ships are long gone now, as is the promise of job security that they once offered.  Tom Cassidy, the alumnus of Sun Oil, did well to find a new position aboard the Waccamaw.  In the end, though, this merely postponed the inevitable and final job loss.

The gospel, however, is still in business, and it always will be.  Unlike a berth aboard ship, our knowledge and testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ can never be taken away from us by anyone else.  The gospel is available to everyone and offers more security than any employer ever could.  The Lord himself is in command, and he invites us to build not just our careers but our entire lives on his gospel, his rock.  “I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel.  He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall” (D&C 50:44).  Unlike a shipping company divesting itself of its fleet and its crews, the Lord will always have ample berths for all the alumni of the sea.

1 Ship data from  This website, constructed and maintained by former Sun Oil seamen, is dedicated to the history of the Sun tanker, tugboat, and barge fleet, and bears the name of the employee newsletter, Fleet Sheet.  This newsletter ceased publication in 1998, when the last vestiges of the Sun fleet ceased to exist.
2 See Stephen Harrigan, “From Relics to Reefs,” National Geographic, February, 2011, p. 84-103, photos by David Guttenfelder. 

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