Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pictures of Ships and Family

Some pictures of the family visiting the waterfront on various occasions between 1955 and 2012.   I took all but one of these photographs.  I think they convey a sense of the family's attachment to the sea and the ships that sail on it.  Click on each picture for a larger view.

The picture that started it all.  My grandparents, Robert Burns and Julia Murphy, aboard the American Export Lines' Independence at Pier 84 in New York on Monday morning, October 31, 1966, just prior to departing on their final transatlantic voyage.
The next generation.  The four children with their Mommy and Nana watch from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan as the Queen Elizabeth 2 proceeds to sea.
Steven, Michael, James, and Miss Karen visit the schoolship State of Maine at the State Pier in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 1, 1999.
Steven and Michael with the cable ship Global Mariner also at the State Pier in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 5, 2001.
My three sons with the Cunard Line's Caronia at the Block Falcon Cruise Terminal in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 13, 2001.
The three boys pose with the Dutch freighter Schippersgracht at the State Pier in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 27, 2001.
Underway aboard the ferry Governor Herbert H. Lehman, the boys watch the outbound tanker Falcon and the inbound container ship Zim Mediterranean pass each other off St. George, Staten Island, New York, on a hazy August 23, 2002.
The next day, August 24, 2002, the three boys pose in the rain in front of the fabled United States at Pier 82 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Before my time.  My grandparents sailed from New York for Le Havre, France, aboard the United States on June 24, 1955.  My father took this photograph of them with my mother and older brother on sailing day.
Back to the younger generation.  Michael and Steven stand on the stone beach at Orient Point, Long Island, New York, on a cold April 26, 2003.  They have disembarked from the ferry Susan Anne after completing a voyage from New London, Connecticut.
The million dollar view.  Sunrise over Campobello Island, New Brunswick, seen from Eastport, Maine, on June 23, 2003.  The children arose very cheerfully at 3:15am in order to see this.  
A wedding aboard ship.  James poses in the Crow's Nest Lounge of the Holland America Line's  Nieuw Amsterdam in Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Sunday, February 5, 2012.  Behind him the container ship Melbourne Strait is departing.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Nautical Library

A political phenomenon of the late twentieth century is the presidential library. After the torch is passed to the new head of state, the one just retired builds a library. In theory a repository of presidential papers intended for use by scholars and historians, the imposing new edifice usually seems as much a monument to a still-living and still self-aggrandizing great man as it does a research facility. The exception to this, of course, is the Library of Congress. Bequeathed to the nation by President Thomas Jefferson, it enjoys universal recognition as one of the greatest, largest, and most diverse collections of research materials in the world. My home library is not as ambitious as this, however, nor does it commemorate my political glory. Instead, it houses a very modest general collection and two more extensive specialized collections.

The first of these specialty areas supported my career in the Merchant Marine. Professional volumes such as Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, Donn’s Meteorology, and Tate’s A Mariner’s Guide to the Rules of the Road line the shelves. While of little interest to a layman, these and other such tomes are critical components of a mate’s collection. I spent many intense hours with these and other volumes while studying for the various license exams. My favorite was George’s Stability and Trim for the Ship’s Officer. Filled with esoteric prose, complex technical diagrams, advanced mathematics, and applied physics—not exactly light reading—this book successfully saw me through the most difficult part of the chief mate’s exam, and for that I was very grateful. Subsequent to that, I consulted all these volumes regularly for license renewal exercises. To this day, I still refer to these resources, either to refresh my memory or to look up points of curiosity.

In addition to professional and technical books, I have several works on the history of seafaring, plus histories of famous ships. And as a library is not a collection of books only, I have an assortment of pictures—photographs, paintings, and pen-and-ink drawings—of all the ships that I sailed on, of the transatlantic liners that my grandparents sailed on, and of various historical vessels. A few of these are framed and on display; most are filed away for safekeeping, but hopefully, display at a later date. Then, there are my licenses. I keep these in a safe place, too, even though they’re no longer valid for sea service. I treasure them for the knowledge and the experience which they represent, and I admit to feeling somewhat sentimental about them. Finally, there is my sextant. I used this instrument many times aboard many ships to take sightings of the sun, moon, and stars, one of my favorite duties on long transoceanic voyages. Every so often someone asks if he may look at my sextant, and I’m always happy to show it off.

The second specialty area supports a more ongoing project in family history and genealogy. In addition to my interest in seafaring, I’ve long been collecting genealogical documentation and family-historical items. In the process of researching ancestors and relatives, I’ve amassed reams of documents that identify all the folks in the extended family. Who they are and how they’re related is the genealogy; where they lived and what they did is the family history. The two dovetail together naturally. The result is an ever-growing collection of official certificates, ecclesiastical records, written histories, newspaper articles, cemetery maps, and photographs. This assortment covers generations long deceased as well as the generation recently born. In what was perhaps an overindulgence with pen and camera, I’ve assembled dozens of photograph albums and almost as many notebooks depicting and detailing my children’s activities since their births. Some people may find this a bit much, but I like it. On a practical level, this collection always proves its worth. Whenever family members want to know when something took place and who was involved, they come to me as the authority on the matter. If I don’t have an event photographed or written down, then it didn’t happen!

This paper part of the family history and genealogical collection is organized into diverse volumes such as picture albums, binders, notebooks, and a few actual books, too, and this assortment occupies significant shelf space. But neither is this a collection of books only. Framed portraits of family members both living and deceased line the walls above the shelves and in several other rooms as well. Professional memorabilia and personal mementos from several of the deceased line the top shelf and fill several boxes. Once again, I admit to feeling sentimental about much of this material. One of my favorite items combines both seafaring and family history: a portrait of my grandparents in tuxedo and evening gown at the Captain’s party aboard the American Export Lines’ Independence at sea between New York and Casablanca in November of 1966.

In retrospect, I think their departure on this voyage aboard the Independence got me started in family history. I remember the day they left. Back then the passengers’ families were allowed to visit the ships prior to sailing. Armed with my first camera at the age of nine—a cheap kid’s toy that took very mediocre black-and-white photographs—I succeeded in getting on everyone’s nerves in a relentless picture-taking quest. Now, despite their dubious artistic value, these humble first attempts at family portraiture have become family heirlooms.

In addition to the genealogical, family-historical, and nautical materials, I have a modest humanities collection, chiefly in the areas of history, literature, and religion, as well as over fifty years of National Geographic. This includes many of the classics of our Western world, the scripture, both sacred and secular, bequeathed to us by our Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian heritage. These writings, from some of the best minds in history, enable us to acquire a broad spectrum of knowledge and wisdom and thereby raise our own minds to a higher level. Authors with names revered through the ages rank among our best friends and most interesting companions. Their ideas have shaped human history and thought for so long and to such an extent that it seems impossible to even imagine a world without them. These writers, while long dead, “whisper to us out of the dust” (2 Nephi 26:16) with “the words of them which have slumbered” (2 Nephi 27:6). Though dead, they continue to speak, as Professor Jastrow, a scholarly character in a contemporary classic describes:

There’s something personal and alive for me in this room.
These books speak to me. The authors are all my friends
and colleagues, though some of them crumbled to dust
fifteen centuries ago. I shall leave the villa with no regrets,
but it will hurt to leave these books behind.1

Just as, for example, Plato and Augustine and Shakespeare, though dead, continue to speak to all who will listen, so also do my kin, though dead, speak to me. Through what they wrote and what others wrote about them, through their vital records, their photographs, their memorabilia, and the inscriptions on their gravestones, I have come to know them. I often feel a special unity with them. Their spirits, I believe, guide me in my research, and they are my friends and colleagues as well as my family. I treasure the time that I spend with them in my little library.

I also treasure the hours I spend with the rising generation, recording the children’s activities, compiling their photographs, and organizing their school memorabilia. While many others of my age are building large-scale political and business empires for themselves, I prefer the cloistered life that my library affords. I often think of Prospero, the Shakespearean character who fell out of political favor and lamented not the loss of his office but the loss of his library:

Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough.2

As is mine today. In my youth the sea was my dukedom—and it was plenty large enough—but now my library suffices. While my library naturally contains material concerning my career in the Merchant Marine, which is now part of our family history, I see it not as a monument to myself like a presidential library, but as a monument to all the members of my family. It commemorates their lives by archiving their histories, displaying their portraits, and enabling the present and future generations to know those of the past. It is bequeathed to the family of the future, to my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren ad infinitum. My hope is that through this legacy the past generations, though dead, will speak to the future generations just as they have to me.

1 Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978, p. 198.
2 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, I:i:109-110.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fleeting Glimpses

On a rare Saturday off from work, I stood on a short stretch of sandy beach in Rockport, Massachusetts, and gazed eastward through a light mist and an intermittent rain at the great Atlantic Ocean. The horizon was only faintly visible; mostly it just blended with the overcast sky. It was neither a good day for a navigator taking celestial sightings and plotting sun lines nor for a summer tourist tanning in the sun or frolicking in the surf. Weatherwise, it was a bland day, no doubt a disappointment to many. I saw it differently, however. For any day that one can stand at the water’s edge and enjoy the privilege of looking upon the sea is very good day.

Normally, I work every weekend. It came as a very pleasant surprise, therefore, to unexpectedly be given a Saturday off. Wanting to make the most of this fortuitous opportunity, Miss Patty and I left the house early and drove away to the waterfront. We gazed upon the sea in Salem, Gloucester, and Rockport, and we visited the famous Fishermen’s Monument in Gloucester. It was a lovely day, far from the madding crowds of weekend shoppers, but it passed by much too quickly. Even though we spent hours at the seaside, this time was but a fleeting glimpse.

Life contains many such fleeting glimpses. Some of my favorites involving the sea take place aboard trains. Several times each year I ride Amtrak between Boston and New York in order to visit my parents. Aptly named the Shore Line, this stretch of railroad follows the coastline through Rhode Island and Connecticut into New York. It affords magnificent views of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound from a succession of vantage points. From East Greenwich, Mystic, New London, Niantic Beach, Rocky Neck, and Old Saybrook, I savor the sight of salt water, albeit briefly, as the trains hurry along toward their destinations. Rarely do they stop between stations. On one journey, though, I enjoyed a bonus as the train halted for several minutes at Niantic Beach because of track work. As the engineer awaited the signal to proceed, I watched the ferry John H sail placidly across the sound from Long Island to New London.

On Long Island, there are many waterfront sites where one can gaze upon either the open ocean or its estuaries. Family favorites include Captree, Fire Island, Point Lookout, Oyster Bay, and Port Jefferson. All beautiful locations, the times spent there are always much too short—mere fleeting glimpses. Once per summer we sail aboard the excursion boat Moon Chaser between Captree and the Fire Island Light, a round trip of an hour and a half. This also passes too quickly—another fleeting glimpse. Even a prolonged duration spent in the company of the sea is, in the end, too short. The week that the family spent aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam in February illustrates this perfectly. Everyone agreed that the voyage ended too quickly. Furthermore, accustomed as I had been to spending several months at a time aboard ship, seven days felt like nothing. It seemed that I had barely unpacked and settled in when it was time to disembark! Another fleeting glimpse.

All my life I have had an affinity for the sea. For me it is a creation of unsurpassable natural beauty, a place of peace and tranquility, and a source of inspiration. The sea possesses an intangible but unmistakable other-worldly quality that sets it apart from the secularized land masses. It seems more a part of the divine realm than the human one. When I gaze out to sea, whether from the deck of a ship or the edge of a continent, I feel that I am in a sense looking into eternity. But eternity is very large, and my time is very small and tightly scheduled. Sooner or later some compelling need calls me away from the sea. All I can achieve, then, are fleeting glimpses.

Most of my life I have had an affinity for family history and genealogy. Like the sea, these intimately interrelated subjects possess intangible but unmistakable other-worldly qualities that set them apart from our secularized society. Whether in a library, a municipal archive, a church office, a cemetery, or at home, genealogical and family-historical research opens windows into both the human past and the divine eternity. As the sea has a compelling quality that draws one in, so does this research. It is commonplace to completely forget the present while becoming engrossed in the events and personalities of the past and discovering new things that happened and new friends who lived many decades or even more than a century ago. But then, just as at the seashore, some urgent human need calls us rudely back to the present, and our fleeting glimpse into the higher realm is suddenly over.

Hunger, for example, is a compelling intruder. On one occasion Miss Patty and I were visiting the public library in Babylon, Long Island, and printing copies of microfilmed newspaper articles concerning my grandparents’ youth. Having gotten an early start, we spent all morning and part of the afternoon on this project, completely losing track of the time in the process. Suddenly feeling incredibly hungry, we looked at the clock and were astonished when we saw how late it had become! Still, for all those hours spent examining my grandparents’ formative years in an era now gone, we felt as though we had just scratched the surface, just glimpsed their youth wherein there must have been so much more that had gone unrecorded.

As wonderful as it has been to discover our ancestors and learn of their life experiences, there is an inherent frustration in the process, too: whatever we find in our research, it is never enough. While our grandparents’ lives are quite well documented, some gaps do remain. Of their parents, however, we know precious little. Going back in time, we have less and less information about each successive generation. The glimpses into the past become smaller and smaller until finally there are no more. In each case, though, whether we have full biographies or just names and dates of death, these views of past lives remain only glimpses. We always wish that we had more information and more photographs, as well as more time to do the research. Just like the view of the great Atlantic Ocean, the view of our ancestry is but a fleeting glimpse.

For that matter, life itself is a fleeting glimpse. In our family, the longest known lifespan is 97 years. In the history of the world, however, this is miniscule. It may sound like a long time, but it is still a finite window of opportunity. Just as the hours spent visiting the seashore and the hours spent researching family history are short and precious, so is life itself. Hence the need to use the time that we have wisely, for once used up it remains forever irretrievably gone.

Carpe diem, asserted the ancient Romans. Seize the day. Every day may be our last, and we would be wise to not waste the tremendous but limited opportunity of life on things of no value. Contemplating eternity and searching for eternal truth, whether at the oceanfront or the family history center, lead us to the things of ultimate value: to truth, light, knowledge, family, everlasting life—in short, the things of God. And when we have achieved this goal, it will not be just a fleeting glimpse but a permanent state.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The White Cross

One summer morning in Nashua, I took my four little children to a neighborhood playground.  Along the way we drove past the Edgewood Cemetery.  As the children gazed out the car windows, they spotted a bright white cross on a hill on the far side of the cemetery.  Their curiosity aroused, they asked if we could go in and see it up close.  Since we were on a fairly loose schedule that morning, I agreed and turned into the cemetery.

Along narrow winding roads and over gently rolling terrain, we proceeded slowly and reverently through the necropolis.  On the far north side we ascended the hill and stopped at the edge of the property near the white cross.  I got out with the four children and we walked the short distance to the stone.  Steven and Michael, the younger of the four, asked what it said, and I read the inscription to them.  The deceased was someone whom we had not known.  He was Scott Alan Brehm, and he lived from March 22, 1971, to April 6, 1995.  Lower down, near the base of the cross, was inscribed “Forever Young.”

Standing about four feet high and the only stone situated between two large pine trees, this white cross was obviously well attended.  A circle of pine bark formed the base of a garden around it.  Neatly arranged flowers of every color surrounded it, and there were no weeds.  Looking toward the south, the white cross commanded a view of the entire cemetery.  A universally recognized symbol of the Christian faith, it was easily visible from all quarters.

To the right of and in line with the white cross but on the other side of one of the pine trees stood a dark gray stone.  This marked the grave of someone we had known.  Herman Guiterman, described as a “Beloved Husband, Father, and Physician,” lived from April 2, 1938, to June 7, 1995.  The founder of Nashua Pediatrics, he had taken very good care of all our children.  James and Karen remembered him well; Steven and Michael less so.  The sight of his grave stone intrigued them.  Like the white cross, it stood near the top of the hill and beheld a view of the entire cemetery.  Also, atop the family name it bore the Star of David, a universally recognized symbol of the Jewish faith.

The home of these two graves, the Edgewood Cemetery, is an oasis of peace and quiet in a busy and noisy city.  Just outside its front gate lies the traffic-saturated intersection of Broad and Amherst Streets where the din of motor vehicles resounds all day and half the night.  Inside the gate beneath the pines and poplars this commotion seems very distant.  On the hill where the white cross stands the traffic jam is inaudible and, for that matter, mostly invisible.  Standing on this hill and taking in the view, one feels spiritually at ease.  The cemetery serves as a harbor of refuge from the secular world, a place of faith, hope, rest, and quiet contemplation.  One can feel the thinness of the veil that separates oneself from the deceased, and one can feel a closeness to them.  Since my first visit with the children all those years ago, I’ve gotten in the habit of visiting the Edgewood Cemetery a few times every summer.  I like it there.

On another hill far away there stands another white cross.  Overlooking the small seaport and village of Twillingate on the north coast of Newfoundland, this towering white cross was erected in 2003 by the Salvation Army as a monument to all the merchant seamen and fishermen from Twillingate who had been lost at sea.  From the cross’ base at the top of this high hill, one enjoys a magnificent view of the village, the harbor, the open sea, and the rugged countryside that rolls down from the sky to the waterfront.  Not a typical seaside resort, Twillingate and neighboring Crow Head are cold, foggy, overcast, and wet in the summer.  Nonetheless, the natural beauty of a place settled by man but not spoiled by him recommends it to anyone with a love of the sea.  The large hill where the tall white cross stands is a spiritual harbor of refuge, an oasis of peace and quiet, faith and hope, stillness and contemplation.  At the base of the hill to one side lies a small cemetery.  Hidden from view from the street, it is accessible only by a narrow dirt road.  A dirt trail leads up the hill to the white cross.  As spiritual havens, these two spots complement each other very well. 

Not an easy place to reach, Twillingate is very literally “far from the madding crowd”[1] of the commotion-saturated secular world.  From the white cross on the hill it seems that the very edge of the Earth must be nearby.  Indeed, as one looks at the sea from this elevation, the thinness of the veil and the closeness to the deceased become obvious.  We visited the white cross and the cemetery in Twillingate on Wednesday and Thursday, June 23 and 24, 2004, while on a week-long family vacation in Newfoundland.  All of us felt the presence of the Spirit there.  Between this pleasant sensation of spiritual repose and the magnificent views in all directions, it was only with great reluctance that we came back down to the village to get dinner.

Just as Moses had come down from Mount Sinai only to face the problems of the secular world, I expected that we would feel a similar letdown.  But as all of Newfoundland is an island of peacefulness geographically removed from the commotion of the secular mainstream, we experienced no such disappointment.  Instead, the sensation of spiritual repose lingered with us, although less intensely than on the hill.

The deceased, of course, do not share this concern.  They repose quietly in hallowed ground and in a spiritual realm.  They never need to step down from the Mount and experience reentry into the material world.  In praying for the dead, believers of nearly all denominations ask that they be blessed with peace, rest, and light in the afterlife.  We would like these gifts for ourselves, too, for we know that this world is not always peaceful, restful, or bathed in light.  No matter how long we linger at the white cross in Twillingate or at the white cross and the Star of David in Nashua, we know that we must eventually return to secular society and leave the peace, rest, and light of these hallowed grounds behind.

An old Roman supplication for the dead expresses the heartfelt wish of the living for them:

            Eternal rest grant unto them, Oh Lord,           Requiem aeternam dona eis, O Domine,
            and let perpetual light shine upon them.         et lux perpetua luceat eis.
            May they rest in peace.  Amen.                       Requiescant in pace.  Amen.

These beautiful verses also remind us that eventually we ourselves want to share in these eternal blessings, that we want to join our brethren on the other side of the veil.  At the appropriate time we will inevitably do this.  Until then, however, we may visit them in the places of their earthly abode, and on their behalf perform the ordinance work in the House of the Lord.

There are no white crosses on any of the temples, but a few of the older buildings have suns, moons, and stars in their stonework to symbolize the heavenly realms.  From a navigational viewpoint this is beautiful imagery, as a mate aboard ship would use the sun, the moon, and numerous stars to fix his vessel’s position on the trackless sea.  There are no Stars of David on the temples[2], either, yet this is also an apt symbol as one Jewish scholar explains:

Through the Jewish people’s long and often difficult history, we have
come to the realization that our only hope is to place our trust in God.
The six points of the Star of David symbolize God’s rule over the
universe in all six directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down.[3]          

On many transoceanic voyages I navigated by the great celestial lights, and in doing so I recognized “God’s rule” in every direction.  From Polaris over the North Pole to the near-diametrically opposite Southern Cross, every celestial body is both subject to and symbolic of “God’s rule over the universe.”  Infallible as navigational aids, they form myriad parts of the immense universe.  The seaman who follows them faithfully always stays on course.

The Southern Cross has long been one of my favorite constellations.  Comprised of four stars and situated almost but not quite over the South Pole, it appears very distinctly as a bright white cross in the sky looking down upon the Earth.  If a single star can represent “God’s rule over the universe” for the Jewish people, then how much more can four stars in a cruciform constellation represent this for Christians?  In this celestial white cross, then, I see four Stars of David, symbolic both individually and collectively of the Lord’s rule in all directions over all his creation, and also symbolically combining the truths of both the Jewish and Christian faiths.

It is one of the terrible tragedies of history that these two great religious traditions, both of which recognize a Prince of Peace and whose teachings seek after peace, rest, and light, have all too often been mired in animosity and violence in their relationship with each other.  But there is hope for the future.

The Southern Cross shines down on the temples in one half of the Earth.  Atop each temple stands a depiction of the angel Moroni summoning the diverse peoples of the world to the House of their Lord.  At night this statue of Moroni is bathed in a soft white light which produces an aura of peacefulness as people gather and rest from their worldly labors.  As these good people come to the temples and participate in the ordinances for both themselves and their dead, the Southern Cross with its four Stars of David shines down upon them, verifying, as it were, the summons of Moroni to ensure permanently the blessings of peace, eternal rest, and perpetual light for all of God’s children.         

[1] Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1970, p. 489.
[2] Interestingly, there is a Star of David on the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
[3] Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “Star of David,” at

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Visiting the Royal Navy

The training ship State of Maine reposed quietly alongside the dock of the venerable Holland-America Line in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on Monday, June 5, 1978. To all outward appearances, the ship seemed fairly quiet, but this was deceiving. She had been scheduled to sail that morning, but instead showed one of the vicissitudes of her age. A superheater tube in one of the boilers had ruptured, and this event, while repairable, decreed that the old ship would go nowhere until the next day. The repair work—shutting down and draining a boiler, cutting out the damaged section of pipe, welding new pipe in place, refilling and relighting the boiler, and pressure testing the new pipe and weld connections—kept the engine room crew busy for many hours. Good job training for those pursuing an engineering license, and a day off in Rotterdam for those of us pursuing a mate’s license.

Several of us wandered along the docks that afternoon until we happened upon the destroyer Sheffield of the British Royal Navy. Some of the Brits saw us admiring their ship, and they invited us aboard for a tour. Naturally, we accepted.

A dozen or so young British seamen greeted us at the head of the gangway and enthusiastically welcomed us aboard. They were about our ages, and they chatted excitedly, asking us what ship we were on, where we came from, and telling us about themselves. From our accents, of course, they recognized us as Americans. Then they wanted to show us around. Receiving official permission from the officer of the deck, they led us through every nook and cranny of the Sheffield, including the bridge, engine room, living quarters, recreational facilities, and to our great surprise, the combat operations center. Another officer gave his keys to one of our tour guides, and he unlocked a door worthy of a bank vault and led us into an inside room filled with radar screens, computer consoles, tracking charts, and communications gear. Several men were in there working, and they all paused to greet us and welcome us into their special world. Despite the sign on the bank vault door which told us that this room was top secret with absolutely no visitors permitted inside, we were ushered in without hesitation, and everyone there was very hospitable toward us.

The Sheffield was a very impressive ship. Built in the early 1970s by Vickers in Great Britain, she was 410 feet long, 47 feet wide, and powered by gas turbine engines capable of producing 30 knots—half the size and twice the speed of the old State of Maine! Everything on the Sheffield was state-of-the-art, and it showed. Her crew took and obvious pride in her, and their enthusiasm for their ship was unmistakable. We envied them. Sailing as we were aboard a tired old vessel that was constantly plagued with breakdowns, we practically drooled at the sight of everything that was shiny and sophisticated aboard this modern ship of the line. Most appealing to me were the almost deck-to-overhead bridge windows, the aircraft-style control console, the sparkling-new radar sets, and the compact yet fully stocked chartroom where every conceivable navigational need could easily be met. And it was all so spotlessly clean that it glistened. A very impressive ship indeed.

After a thoroughly enjoyable time aboard this lovely ship we thanked our hosts and returned ashore. The excitement of this impromptu visit aboard the Sheffield remained with us, so that returning to the old State of Maine later in the day seemed a letdown. But return we did, and with all the repair work completed, she sailed for Portsmouth, England, at 10:00am the next day.

Portsmouth was a quick stop. The State of Maine arrived at 9:00am and sailed again at 8:00pm. She moored at the Royal Naval Dockyard for the purpose of loading historical artifacts for transport to Maine. It had been announced that no one would be allowed ashore in this interval, but our English hosts quickly changed that. They invited all who were interested to take a guided tour of one of their national icons, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory. No one with any interest in history, let alone any specialized interest in historic ships, could refuse such an invitation. So ashore we went. We had the honor of visiting the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world, the ship that had led the British fleet under Admiral Nelson’s command against the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar in October of 1805. Our hosts showed us the entire ship from stem to stern and explained everything in considerable detail. Most significantly—and even reverently—they showed us the well preserved and still bloodstained wooden planks on which Admiral Nelson lay bleeding after receiving his mortal sniper wound, as well as the equally carefully preserved bed on which he subsequently died. Another very impressive ship, but in a very different way.

Our hosts took the subject of the Battle of Trafalgar very seriously. Its favorable outcome saved Britain from the threat of foreign invasion, a legitimate concern in a part of the world where countries have routinely invaded and conquered each other for many centuries. It cost approximately 5,000 human lives—English, Spanish, and French combined. Plenty of food for thought there. I did not realize it at the time, but in three days I had visited two British warships, one famous from a past war, and the other to become famous in a future war.

Four short years later, the British became entangled in the Falkland Islands War with Argentina. The Sheffield, among other vessels, participated. On Tuesday, May 4, 1982, an Exocet missile fired from an Argentine aircraft struck the Sheffield amidships on her starboard side, breached the hull above the waterline, and started an enormous fire. Twenty British seamen perished. The ship burned ferociously and was abandoned by the survivors. A ruined but still floating hulk, the Sheffield was taken in tow toward South Georgia by the destroyer Yarmouth. While underway, however, the hull flooded, and the ship sank on Monday, May 10.1 The Sheffield was the first of six British ships to be sunk in the Falkland Islands War, and the first British ship to be lost in combat since 1945.2

By this time, I was no longer sailing on the State of Maine, but was safely at home. I had left the Victoria in December of 1981 and gone on a working vacation. During the winter months I painted rooms in our recently purchased house in Nashua and studied for the second mate’s exams. I received my new license as second mate on Monday, March 29, and was ready to return to sea. The job market being poor, however, my vacation became extended. On the day the Sheffield was attacked, I was at home waiting for a ship. On the day she sank, I was undergoing a medical checkup at company headquarters. Finally, I joined the Waccamaw as third mate on Thursday, June 24. While I was sweating blood about getting a job and going back to sea, others were shedding blood in a war at sea. More food for thought.

And I did think about it. The destruction of the Sheffield came as a shock. Of course, I knew that the British and the Argentines had gone to war, that ships and airplanes would be lost, and that soldiers and seamen would be killed. But these facts were war in the abstract. When a ship that I had known became a casualty of even such a faraway war, it was no longer abstract but suddenly very personal. I had seen and visited and walked on the Sheffield. I had met several members of her crew, had accepted their kind hospitality and spoken with them and enjoyed their company. I felt grateful to them for their friendliness toward me and my colleagues from the State of Maine. I felt horrified at the thought of any of them coming to grief in a war. I wondered if any of the ones whom I had met were still on the ship when she was attacked, but there was no way of knowing. Despite my own preoccupations about getting a job and going back to sea, I could not shake off these thoughts. The shock of the Sheffield’s violent demise remained with me.

This is what we call the brotherhood of the sea. Despite differences in nationality, culture, language, politics, and religion, the sea serves as a tie that binds to those who follow it professionally. This is widely recognized, even among enemies in wartime. I had a love of the sea and the ships that sailed it in common with the fellows on the Sheffield. After the conclusion of the Falkland Islands War, an Argentine naval officer described the common bond that he felt with his British enemies. Previously he had expressed jubilation at the destruction of the Sheffield. Given time to reconsider, however, he came to regret this glee. As the Englishman to whom he expressed his remorse related the conversation,

For it had betrayed his principles as a navy man. Even though the British at the time were his enemies, he said, no sailor should ever take the kind of delight that he had taken in the foundering of another ship. No one should so ardently wish a vessel of any navy, or indeed any ship, ever to be sunk in the ocean. “I am a good sailor,” he kept saying. “There is no pleasure to be taken over a thing like this. There is a brotherhood of the sea.”3

A similar sentiment displayed itself in one of Great Britain’s earlier and larger wars with a different enemy. Two seamen, one British and one German, were buried at sea in a funeral service held aboard the British corvette Compass Rose in 1941. As the British Captain Ericson conducted the service,

the gentle words affected him: as he read, he thought of the dead, and of the young seaman who was Compass Rose’s first casualty. He found that sad: and the German captain, standing free of escort a yard from him, found his own role sad also. . . .  Close by him, he heard and felt the German captain tremble.4

After the bodies of the deceased had slipped overboard, Captain Ericson

put on his cap, and saluted. The German captain, watching him, did the same. When they faced each other, Ericson saw tears glittering in the pale eyes.

“Thank you, Captain,” said the German. “I appreciate all you have done.” He held out his hand awkwardly. “I would like—” 

Ericson shook his hand without saying anything. He was shy of his emotion, and of the thirty-odd members of Compass Rose’s crew watching them. 

The German captain said suddenly: “Comrades of the sea. . . .”5

How sad that that such comrades should be called upon by their governments to shoot at each other on the normally pristine and peaceful sea. More often than not, the casualties of these wars have been young men and often teenagers. With most of their natural lifespans still ahead of them, it seems almost a crime against Nature itself to cut them down with metal globs flung across or through vast stretches of water. But a realist voice reminds us:

Brotherhood or not, the Atlantic seabed is littered with the wrecks of many thousands of ships and the long-decayed skeletons of many millions of men. War has been a constant feature of the ocean’s experience, and wars have been fought on its surface ever since there has been iron with which to fight them.6

I was fortunate; I sailed in peacetime. Over the years there were peaceful visits to several ships of various nationalities. The Danish sailing vessel Danmark, the Russian sailing ship Kruzenshtern, the British oil tanker Lucellum, the Greek passenger ship Ellinis, the American aircraft carrier America, and the American container ship San Pedro come quickly to mind. I was welcomed as a guest aboard these ships as well as aboard the other ships of my own employer’s fleet because we were “comrades of the sea.” Whatever differences there were between us, there was the overarching commonality of men, ships, and the sea. This can be difficult to explain to a layman’s satisfaction, but it was undeniably there.

When the Sheffield was attacked and twenty of her crew killed, I felt their loss. While I had known the ship but not necessarily the men, it made no difference. The Sheffield, like every other vessel, carried her own persona, and that was enough. I did not need to know the seamen individually in order to grieve for them. The brotherhood of the sea transmuted the unvarnished news of their deaths into a genuine and personal sorrow. Their loss, coupled with the destruction of their ship which I had visited and gotten to know four years earlier, made a geographically distant war feel very close to home.

Yet war was the very purpose for which the Sheffield had been built. Likewise, Lord Nelson’s Victory had served this same master, as had innumerable others through the centuries and millennia. War has indeed been a “constant feature” not only of the sea, but of human life. I wonder, though. If Cain had not killed Abel (Gen. 4:8), if that first mortal combat had not taken place, would humans never have gone to war with each other but lived in peace instead? Had that been so, there never would have been any need for navies, only merchant fleets and fishermen—peaceful pursuits.

In his masterpiece novel of the Second World War, the great seaman and author Herman Wouk described a naval officer looking toward Heaven in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor:

Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world.7

No doubt “this madness” is part of the “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). The dichotomy of war and peace thus seems inherent to the human condition, but not necessarily immutable. For it is an opposition that I’m certain almost all of us would be very happy to live without, and there are far better things that God’s children can find to do. The “comrades of the sea” can certainly attest to that.

1 Summary of events from
2 Statistics from
3 Simon Winchester, Atlantic, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2010, p. 211.
4 Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, p. 274. While officially a novel, this book is in reality the author’s wartime memoir thinly veiled as fiction.
5 Ibid.
6 Winchester, loc. cit.
7 Herman Wouk, The Winds of War, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971, p. 887.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Signing of the Paperwork

The freighter Rigel swung on the hook in the anchorage of La Maddalena on a warm and sunny Tuesday, June 12, 1979. Situated just off the north shore of Sardegna and adjacent to the Strait of Bonifacio which separates Sardegna from Corsica, the small archipelago of La Maddalena served as an American military station for many years. The Rigel used the secluded anchorage there on several occasions to transfer cargo to other ships. On this particular day, she was sending pallets of food and supplies by both helicopter and boat to the Navy freighter San Diego.

This operation filled several hours from late morning to mid-afternoon. No one could go ashore, but no one really minded. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was gorgeous, and sailboats laden with pretty Italian girls came along to see what was going on. Besides, the Rigel was due in Napoli for an extended visit the next morning, and the crew would have a good time then. When the lengthy cargo transfer at La Maddalena was completed, the Rigel closed her hatches, weighed her anchor, and set a course eastward. Just as the watch was settling into what was expected to be a routine overnight crossing of the Tyrrhenian Sea toward Napoli, the supply officer burst onto the bridge in a panic.

“We have to go back!! We forgot something very important!!” He exclaimed in a rush to Captain Viera. He held a jumbled sheaf of paperwork in his hands, and he held it out supplicatingly to the Captain. More explanation followed. The bottom line was that a signature was missing. The head honcho in La Maddalena had neglected to sign a critically important item of paperwork, and the Rigel absolutely must return to the anchorage so he could do this. The way the supply officer described things, it sounded like the entire American military establishment would cease to function without this one signature! His explanations were confirmed by the shoreside military authorities over the radio. Like it or not, the ship had to go back.

And so Captain Viera gave the order and the Rigel reversed her course to return to the anchorage. The engineers were instructed to stand by for maneuvering, and the anchor detail was sent back up to the bow. Word of what was happening spread around the ship quickly. There was no end to the incredulity at the notion of going to all this trouble for a mere signature. Captain Viera expressed no such opinion; the look on his face said it well enough. A very disciplined man, he rarely showed emotion in front of his subordinates. He simply did what had to be done.

After a short while, the Rigel slowed as she approached the entrance to the anchorage. A small Navy launch emerged from behind one of the islands and headed for the ship. The Rigel stopped without anchoring as the launch came alongside. A visibly shaken figure stepped forth from the launch and awkwardly climbed the pilot ladder to the Rigel’s main deck. The supply officer met him as he clambered on board, and a hurried signing of paper took place. Then the man retreated back down the pilot ladder, and finally the launch whisked him off again to La Maddalena. The crisis was now resolved! With all this accomplished, Captain Viera for the second time turned the Rigel around, and the bridge watch for the second time set a course across the Tyrrhenian Sea for Napoli.

When the excitement had settled down, several men in the crew gave themselves over to philosophical discussions of what was important in life and what wasn’t. Inspired by the time, effort, and expense invested by the Rigel to acquire one signature, these fellows asked the obvious question. Just how important could this one signature really be? Was it really worth all the time, effort, and expense invested in getting it? Aren’t there much more important things in life than a scrawl on a sheet of paper? Of course there are, but some signatures really are important. The signatures of the Coast Guard officials on the Merchant Marine licenses are critically important; without them the licenses are worthless and not valid for employment. The signatures of the shipmasters in the seamen’s sea service books are also critically important; without them the records are invalid for qualifying to take the next level of license exams. But licenses and jobs were not at stake in La Maddalena. It was really nothing more than a bureaucratic obsession run amok.

For those of us who were young and impressionable at the time, the signing of the paperwork was an opportunity to “learn wisdom in [our] youth” (Alma 37:35) by observing the actions and decisions of others. Everything in life has an importance greater than or lesser than everything else in life. Simply put, everything is relative. On this informal scale, we all concurred that one signature on paperwork that would soon be relegated to the dustbin of bureaucracy was not worth the ink expended on it, let alone the time, effort, and expense of recalling the Rigel for it.

Three years later the view from another ship in the Mediterranean made this little affair seem all the more ridiculous.

On July 6 and 7, 1982, the Waccamaw and numerous other American ships stood off the coast of Lebanon. This time the weather was overcast, the scenery was drab, and there were no sailboats with pretty girls. The war between the Lebanese and the Israelis was reaching its climax with Israeli troops and ammunition wreaking havoc on Beirut. Many buildings in the city were being destroyed. Many innocent civilians, including defenseless women and children, were being killed. The United States Navy and Marine Corps were standing by a few miles offshore of Beirut, waiting to land and intervene in the combat, should the government find such action necessary.

A small armada supported this contingency. There were naval combatants, troop carriers, and several supply ships and tankers. Of these last, the Waccamaw, the Neosho, the Caloosahatchee, and the Seattle were uncomfortably fully loaded with oil and within sight and therefore weapons range of Beirut. Several amphibious attack vessels, fully loaded with Marines, took turns coming alongside the Waccamaw and the other tankers to refuel. These were sober moments. Looking across the water at the Marines, we wondered what would happen to them. We also wondered what would happen to ourselves. Hopefully nothing. Still, one well aimed missile from someone seeking to escalate the conflict by causing trouble with the Americans, or even one errant missile homing in on the wrong target, could have easily resulted in a cataclysmic destruction of shipping and horrific loss of life. Even Captain Aspiotis’ perennially cheerful and optimistic outlook was dampened by this thought.

On Thursday, the 8th of July, the Waccamaw was detached from this assignment. Her work with the Beirut fleet concluded after only two days, she headed west toward Napoli, her crew heaving a collective sigh of relief. The other tankers remained in the area, as the war continued unabated, and the Navy and Marines continued to stand by. News accounts from European radio stations kept us informed on the progress of the war. While none of this news was good—it was mostly a litany of death and destruction—at least no American intervention took place. It could have been worse, then.

In quiet moments later on, I began to view these two occasions in relation to each other. This juxtaposition of the Rigel at La Maddalena and the Waccamaw off Beirut yielded an opposition, that of the frivolous and the momentous. One was a triumph of trivia over reason, the other a time of momentous stillness; one a comic farce, the other a potential disaster; one a signature, the other a war. Father Lehi advised his son that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) and these two occasions contrast sufficiently to prove his point. Saint Augustine also recognized the principle of opposition and saw it as natural to the human condition:

The soul. . .takes greater delight if things that it loves are found or restored to it than if it had always possessed them. The storm tosses seafarers about, and threatens them with shipwreck: they all grow pale at their coming death. Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly, just as they had feared exceedingly.

Perhaps Saint Augustine used this example because he himself had sailed on the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa. Whatever his motivation, I appreciate his articulation of the principle of opposition in terms congruent with my chosen profession. In the case of the Waccamaw off Beirut, the threat was not from any force of nature, but from a strictly human storm. And it was not really an explicit threat, but more an implicit understanding of what could happen—based on knowledge of what sometimes has happened—to neutrals in a war zone. Hence the feeling of apprehension among the crew while there, and the feeling of relief when sailing away afterwards.

One comparison invites another. As important as a signature may be on a Merchant Marine license or a record of sea service for the purpose of career advancement, this pales alongside the killing of innocent civilians by an invading army. To those of us aboard ship who were young and ambitious and anxious about upgrading our licenses, the war in Lebanon became a clarion call to look at the world view. We were fortunate to be able to sweat blood over license exams instead of shedding blood in an armed conflict. There were worse fates than not making it to Master or Chief Engineer!

The battle in Beirut took place thirty years ago, and the paper chase at La Maddalena three years before that. With twenty-twenty hindsight, I see these two occasions as painless ways to gain life experience, to learn from the mistakes of others, and to acquire wisdom at someone else’s expense. It’s not always that easy; life experience, wisdom, and understanding often come at a terrible price. Later in life I would pay a higher price, but in the Mediterranean those two summers it was easy for me to watch and learn and heed the scriptural admonition to “Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5, 7).

1 St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, 8:3:7, in The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960, p. 185. 2

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Friends and Enemies

The freighter Victoria lay quietly alongside Pier Q in North Charleston, South Carolina. It was late in an October evening in 1981, and most of the crew had gone ashore. No work, except for routine watch keeping, was being done. All was peaceful and quiet. A few of us were watching the TV news in the lounge. After a while, the chief mate came along and sat down, too. With no cargo to carry, the Victoria was spending the latter half of October in port, and the extended inactivity was starting to get tiresome.

Suddenly, one of the deck seamen burst through the door. Clearly agitated and panting heavily, he gasped out, “Mate! Mate! You gotta come right away! There’s a big fight down below and someone’s gonna get killed!!” In an instant the chief mate jumped up and ran after him into the unlicensed crew’s quarters.

By the time the mate reached the scene, the intensity of the altercation had lessened. A few other men had already intervened and disarmed the principal assailant, but the arrival of an authority figure brought the entire incident to an immediate conclusion. The combatants, both reeking of alcohol, were packed off to bed, and peace was restored. In the quiet aftermath, the mate wanted to know what exactly had happened.

It was really quite simple. The two men involved in the brawl had gone ashore to have a good time, and they returned to the ship after several hours and too many drinks. They had always been good friends, but some small disagreement had escalated to the point of violence. One of them grabbed a fire axe from an emergency station, and swinging it wildly, chased the other all around the ship. His aim being poor, the fire axe never met its intended target and clanged against doorways, bulkheads, and handrails instead. This racket woke up the few men on board who were sleeping. Rushing out into the passageway, three or four of them subdued the axe-wielder while one went for the chief mate.

After a sound night’s sleep and nothing more to drink, the two fellows who had gone to war against each other were friends again. Neither one of them remembered very much of the previous evening’s combat; in fact, neither remembered the initial point of disagreement that had started the battle. A fresh new day had dawned upon them. They ate their breakfast, did their work, and got along just fine. All was forgiven and forgotten.

A popular song by the rock group War bears the title and asks the rhetorical question, “Why can’t we be friends?” A lot of food for thought resides in this simple inquiry. If two men can still be friends after a potentially fatal axe fight, why can’t the rest of us be friends? Or if we can’t actually be friends, can we at least not be mortal enemies? In a world whose history has too often been saturated with bloody violence, these questions suggest far preferable alternatives. I think most people would readily agree to a program for peace. Unfortunately, there are always some who refuse to control their mouths or their actions, and then the trouble starts. Heads of governments through the millennia have had this problem, and brutal wars causing millions of innocents to suffer have resulted. There must be a better way!

In the first of the two brutal wars between Germany and the Western Allies, one Captain and his crew proved that there is a better way. This was Kapitan Felix Graf von Luckner,1 who held both a Master’s license in the German Merchant Marine and a commission in the Imperial German Navy. During the war he commanded the sailing ship Seeadler,2 a naval vessel disguised as a neutral merchant ship. Her mission was to seek out and destroy Allied merchant shipping without inflicting casualties.3

To this end the Seeadler was fitted out with extensive dormitory and dining accommodations. The German Navy provided these facilities for the housing and feeding of Allied merchant seamen captured by Captain von Luckner and his crew. The strategy called for the Seeadler to break through the British blockade of the North Sea by presenting herself as a Norwegian cargo ship. Once out on the open Atlantic, she would carry out her attacks on enemy ships through a combination of disguise, deception, and the threat of force.

This plan worked well. From January to July of 1917, the Seeadler prevailed against fifteen Allied ships, twelve in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific. Fourteen of these vessels were sunk; one was used to transport prisoners to a Brazilian port when the Seeadler’s dormitory had reached capacity.4 In each attack, the Germans took the enemy crew aboard and then sunk their ship when they were certain that no one was left on board. Once on the Seeadler, the Allied prisoners were treated as and called guests. They enjoyed fine dining and recreational activities with their German hosts, and they were not restricted to their quarters but could roam the ship at will. In this atmosphere wartime enemies became friends.

Eventually, one thing did go wrong, however. During an attack on the British freighter Horngarth in the South Atlantic on March 11, 1917, the Seeadler fired a shot at the Harngath’s radio shack. The objective was to prevent the transmission of a message calling for help by destroying the apparatus. At the time the shot was fired, the radio shack was empty, and therefore no casualties were expected. The shell which was fired did the intended damage to the radio equipment, but also ruptured a steam line. The resulting discharge of high pressure steam and hot water injured four British seamen. All of them were subsequently taken aboard the Seeadler and given medical treatment. One, unfortunately, died from his injuries.5

This sole fatality in the Seeadler’s entire campaign was Douglas Page, age 16. The Germans held a funeral service for him at sea with full military honors, his body reposing under the Union Jack prior to burial. Afterwards, Captain von Luckner wrote to the boy’s family in Great Britain, telling them in English that:

It is an old German custom to honour the dead of our enemies, & we are now standing on the pall of this young knight.  He is not our enemy any more, he is now our friend & is at present where our forefathers are gathered, where all are brothers.  God has his future destined.  God has called him to his side, he is now happy because he is looking into the face of Jesus Christ.6

To this day, Douglas’ family believes that he was “treated very well by the Germans.”7

Several months later, in August of 1917, the Germans reached the end of their mission when the Seeadler was shipwrecked in the South Pacific.8 Subsequently, they were obliged to surrender to the British. The Captain and most of his crew spent the remainder of the war as prisoners in New Zealand; the rest were interned in Chile. Repatriated to Germany after the armistice, Captain von Luckner became an international hero because of the peaceful manner in which he conducted his wartime campaign at sea. Among other laudations, he was called to the Vatican where he received a decoration from the Pope, who described him as “a great humanitarian.”9

Captain von Luckner’s military campaign aboard the Seeadler demonstrated that the citizens of belligerent nations can become friends instead of remaining enemies even in the midst of a major world conflict. In a postwar memoir directed primarily to an American audience, he wrote from practical experience of a lofty vision:

As a sailor who has sailed under many flags and whose friends and pals are the citizens of many countries and many climes, it is my dream that one day we shall all speak the same language and have so many common interests that terrible wars will no longer occur.10

These wars, and for that matter all forms of human conflict, will become obsolete when all the governments and all the peoples of the world consistently heed the scriptural instruction, “Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another” (D&C 136:23). When instead of speaking evil, all nations and individuals greet each other with the Lord’s gentle valediction, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” (John 14:27), the time will have arrived when “terrible wars will no longer occur.”

The two men aboard the Victoria who became friends again the morning after a midnight fire axe fight and the wartime captors and prisoners who became friends aboard the Seeadler demonstrate that it is possible to overcome both personal and political enmity. Once enmity is removed and replaced with a less hostile and more positive outlook on others, there should be no reason why we can’t all be friends.

1 The hereditary title Graf, meaning “Count” in English, identifies Captain von Luckner as a member of the old German aristocracy. Since he was also a career merchant seaman who held a Master’s license and commanded a ship, and for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to him here by the respectful English language Merchant Marine title “Captain.”
2 In English, Sea Eagle.
3 The information in the narrative is drawn from two sources: Lowell Thomas, Count Luckner, the Sea Devil, Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1927; and Oliver E. Allen, The Windjammers, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, Inc., 1978. Specific points are cited below.
4 Allen, op. cit., p. 133-134.
5 Allen, op. cit. p. 133.
6 Images of Captain von Luckner’s correspondence and other memorabilia located at This is the website of the Felix Graf von Luckner Gesellschaft (Felix Count von Luckner Society) of Halle, Germany, established to preserve his history and legacy.
7 Ibid.
8 Allen, op. cit., p. 134.
9 Thomas, op. cit., p. 4.
10 Thomas, op. cit., p. 308.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Memory of a Man

While my voyage aboard the cruise liner Nieuw Amsterdam brought back many happy memories for me, it also rekindled the very sad memory of one former shipmate in particular. He was a very bright and ambitious young man who seemed to have a good future and a good career ahead of him. Seeming to have a good future and actually having it are two different things, however. As the future is unknown to all but God, we humans cannot take it for granted. With little or even no advance notice, anything can take everything away from us. Such was the case with my former colleague.

Captain Derric F. Linardich joined the Waccamaw as relief Master in Norfolk, Virginia, during the first week of January, 1983. He came aboard to relieve Captain Rigobello, who was going on vacation until about mid-March. Captain Linardich was in his early thirties and recently married. He stood almost six feet tall with medium brown hair and inquisitive brown eyes. He came from Riverhead, Long Island, and was a graduate of the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx. After receiving his original license as third mate, he remained aboard ship for long periods with minimal vacations in order to accumulate the sea time required for each upgrade. In this way he worked his way up through the licensed ranks quickly. He passed the exams for Master before he turned thirty. After a few more stints as chief mate, he was selected for relief jobs as Master. I believe his assignment to the Waccamaw was the second of these.

With Captain Linardich in command, the Waccamaw sailed from Norfolk for points south at noon on Sunday, January 9, 1983. It was a fairly routine voyage; the ship carried out her customary duties of refueling Navy vessels at sea. Enroute to one such rendezvous, she sailed westward past San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, January 14, but did not stop there. She visited Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, January 18, and again a week later on January 25 and 26. Aside from these brief port visits, the Waccamaw spent most of her time sailing from one rendezvous point to another and delivering fuel and supplies to military vessels at each rendezvous. Among others, she serviced the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and the guided missile frigate Oliver Hazard Perry.1 At the time, these were both new and well-known vessels. The meetings with all these ships took place in various locations quite distant from land, but in the general areas north and south of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On several occasions the Waccamaw transited the Virgin Passage, the waterway separating Puerto Rico and the Virgins. Captain Linardich always called this “Hole in the Wall.” He would typically say to me, “I need you to lay out a course to Hole in the Wall,” and away we would go.

Captain Linardich used some memorable turns of speech. Often when someone told him something business-related that he needed to know, he would incline his head slightly and respond, “Interesting.” This was his way of acknowledging even the most unexpected or bizarre information; everything was “interesting.” Another stock phrase of his was “It’s easy money.” Every task, even the most involved and unusual, was “easy money.” One night when the Waccamaw was proceeding along on station waiting for a Navy ship to come alongside for replenishment, Captain Linardich stood on the port bridge wing tossing glow sticks overboard at about one minute intervals. These would serve as a floating guideline for the approaching ship. Turning to me with a shrug he said, “People think I’m nuts, but it really is easy money. Sometimes I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!”

Some people did in fact think Captain Linardich was nuts. He had a reputation among some for being unreasonable and difficult to work with. Admittedly, he expected a high level of competence and professionalism from the mates and engineers. From the unlicensed crew he exacted less, but then, they carried less responsibility. I had no real difficulty with him. On a few occasions I did not completely agree with some things that he said and did, but he was the boss, and I figured that it was up to me to get along with him. I made it my business to do so, and we got along all right. More important in a shipmaster, though, his professional capabilities were excellent.

On Thursday, January 20, while underway in the Caribbean the Waccamaw experienced a mechanical malfunction with her steering motors. These were corrected by the engine room personnel, and the ship was able to continue on her voyage and meet all of her commitments for refueling the military vessels in the area. On the completion of all these assignments, then, she returned to Norfolk on Saturday, February 5.

On Monday morning, February 7, the Waccamaw again sailed from Norfolk. She did not go far, though. The problem in the steering motors reasserted itself, and the ship returned to port that afternoon. The next two days were spent making repairs to the steering gear. Finally on Friday, February 11, the Waccamaw once again left Norfolk and was scheduled to conduct several at sea refuelings of military vessels in the following week. After that, she would prepare for her annual shipyard overhaul.

As she left Norfolk that morning, the Waccamaw headed eastward into the teeth of the winter storm which that night would cause the loss of the coal carrier Marine Electric and most of her crew. Because of the weather, Captain Linardich had been authorized by his superiors to proceed or not at his discretion. Accordingly, when the Waccamaw reached the pilot station at the Chesapeake Bay entrance and he saw the maelstrom in front of us, he decided that the ship would immediately return to port. On hearing the terrible news about the Marine Electric the next day, the entire crew came to fully appreciate the wisdom of Captain Linardich’s decision and respect the soundness of his judgment.

That was the last time I went to sea with Captain Linardich. In the month that followed, the Waccamaw remained in Norfolk. In preparation for the shipyard overhaul, she pumped all her oil ashore, unloaded her dry cargo, underwent two weeks of tank cleaning followed by tank inspections, and took on water ballast for stability purposes. Also, several of her crew, including both Captain Linardich and myself, participated in two days of basic small arms training at the Norfolk Naval Base. This was done periodically for the purpose of training merchant crews to protect themselves and their military cargos in the event of a terrorist attack. Finally, the powers that be decided that the Waccamaw would be sent to the Old Dominion Metro Machine yard across the Elizabeth River from downtown Norfolk for her overhaul.

On Monday morning, March 14, Captain Rigobello returned from vacation. He rejoined the Waccamaw at the supply piers, and that afternoon rode the ship up the river to the yard. On Tuesday, March 15, he officially took over as Master. Captain Linardich then departed the Waccamaw and returned to the company headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey. On Wednesday he was scheduled to relieve Captain Viera aboard the freighter Sirius there so that he could take his vacation.

While I never sailed with Captain Linardich again, I did see him briefly once in the Bayonne headquarters in the spring of 1986. He was working in an administrative capacity there for a few months. Knowing that I had been seriously sick, he inquired about my health. We had little time to talk, though, as he was heading off to a meeting. That was the last time that I ever saw him. Later on aboard the Hayes, I learned that he had holed up in a low-rent apartment in Bayonne while he worked in the office, and that he had subsequently resigned from the company and gone on to greener pastures. At that point, I did not expect to see him or hear about him any further.

A year later, I also left for greener pastures. The employment situation for American merchant seamen had been deteriorating for some time, and by the spring of 1987 there was little to nothing left. I eventually took up a second career as a college librarian. In this capacity my contact with the Merchant Marine became nearly nil. I heard from a couple of former shipmates for a while; otherwise, most of my information came from the newspapers. It was from these two sources that I finally heard about Captain Linardich again, and the news was not good.

Captain Linardich accepted a seagoing position with the Kuwait Oil Tanker Company. An opportunity for American seamen had opened up there because of a political turn of events. During the war between Iran and Iraq, Kuwaiti merchant ships became endangered. Iran intended to target the Kuwaiti fleet because it supported Iraq in the war. In order to prevent attacks on these ships, the United States “reflagged” them in 1987, so that they would sail as American vessels with American crews. The thinking was that no one would attack a neutral American ship, and no one did. The war ended in August of 1988, but the eleven Kuwaiti merchant ships continued to sail under the American flag.2

In 1990, Captain Linardich was sailing as Master of the tanker Surf City. She was a petroleum transporter of 80,000 tons, 760 feet long and 144 feet wide, and she had been built in 1981 by Mitsubishi in Nagasaki, Japan. She carried a crew of 25 and a cargo of diesel fuel and naptha.3 On Thursday, February 22, 1990, the Surf City was passing between the United Arab Emirates and the Iranian Island of Abu Musa while on a voyage from Kuwait to Italy. Some repair work was in progress on one of the starboard cargo tanks. The Captain and his chief mate, Steven McHugh of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, were on deck in the vicinity of this tank. Suddenly an internal explosion took place, and the ship was engulfed in flames and smoke. Captain Linardich and the chief mate were both killed by the explosion. The other 23 crewmen were rescued by the USS Simpson, a guided missile frigate which had been patrolling the shipping lanes.4

The Surf City did not sink. She remained afloat and was repaired and returned to service. In 1991 she was sold to a new owner and operator and renamed.5 There would be no such second chance at life for Derric Linardich and Steven McHugh. They had finished all their worldly voyages before reaching the age of 40.

My voyage aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam took place long after I had passed age 40. As this magnificent vessel approached San Juan, I recalled a dinner conversation I’d had with Captain Linardich aboard the more earthy Waccamaw 29 years earlier. Sailing westward past San Juan in the late afternoon of Friday, January 14, 1983, the Waccamaw offered a beautiful view of the north coast of Puerto Rico, including both the old and new cities of San Juan. As I had spent a long night meandering through the fabled streets of this grand colonial city the preceding November, I facetiously suggested that the Waccamaw make an unscheduled stop there so that we could all go sightseeing.

To my surprise, this innocuous remark elicited an a scornful response. “What do you want to go there for?” Captain Linardich asked. “It’s nothing but a ghetto! There’s nothing to see there. The whole place is all ghettos and slums. There are no sights to see there.” And that was the end of the conversation.

The Nieuw Amsterdam afforded nearly the same view when she arrived and afterwards departed from San Juan on Wednesday, February 8, 2012. The sight of the famous fortress of El Morro, the brightly painted pastel buildings basking in the Caribbean sun, the storied blue cobblestone streets of the old city, the magnificent cathedral named in honor of Saint John the Baptist—all of these and the breathtaking beauty they held made me think again of my former shipmate. Admittedly, there is poverty in San Juan and elsewhere in Puerto Rico. To casually dismiss the whole place as “ghettos and slums,” though, was drastically erroneous. But perhaps it was just another of his memorable turns of speech.

These turns of speech hold in them the memory of a man, as do the ships he sailed on and the places he visited. Captain Linardich was a career merchant seaman who, like many of us, was more comfortable aboard a ship at sea than in some pedestrian employment ashore. His sudden demise should stand as a warning to all of us: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is” (Mark 13:33). Whether we are at sea or ashore on leave, our time will inevitably come, and we will not want to be found unprepared for the final grand voyage.

As I gazed upon the great waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean from the Nieuw Amsterdam, I thought of the late Captain Derric F. Linardich and silently prayed, in pace requiescat.

1 When I was in my late teens, I had the privilege of watching the launching of the USS Oliver Hazard Perry at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, on Saturday, September 25, 1976.
2 Associated Press, “Tanker Explodes and Burns,” The Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1990, available at
3 Particulars from
4 Associated Press, op. cit., and Boston Globe, Feb 23, 1990, p. 1-2.
5 Information from