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.