Few points of etiquette exist aboard ship, but those that do are taken seriously. A breach of them by a well intentioned but unknowing visitor from shoreside would lead to a polite and friendly word to the wise. The same breach from someone associated with ships and the sea who should know better would be met with less friendly and possibly more vicious corrective action. On these matters merchant seamen are generally quite plainspoken and straightforward.
Three basic items of shipboard etiquette come to mind. First, no one is addressed as “Captain” except the man embarked in that capacity. Even if one or more of the mates holds a Master’s license, he is not addressed as “Captain,” even if he has sailed as such before. The same holds true among the engineers. Only the Chief Engineer is addressed as “Chief.” None of the other engineers, even if they hold the big license, is called “Chief.”
Second, the bridge and chartroom area of a ship is generally held as sacrosanct. No one who does not normally belong there enters without permission. Anyone else who may have business there requests permission to enter; he does not simply walk in unannounced. If, say, the steward or the purser came up to the bridge about some matter, he would poke his head through the door and ask the mate or the helmsman for “permission to come on the bridge.” This would be readily granted, of course, unless some critical situation necessitated that he wait. The asking is mostly a gesture of respect, and it is always appreciated.
Finally, there is a chair on the bridge for the Captain’s use, and he is the only one permitted to sit in it. Everyone else stands up. Some ships have a Captain’s chair on each bridge wing as well as on the bridge itself, but this is unusual. This chair is not a desk chair or a dining room chair, but a high-level cushioned seat, a throne of sorts, large enough to serve as a status symbol and high enough so that the Captain is at the same eye level that he would be at if he were standing. This way he can see clearly out the windows and be at the same height as the mate, pilot, and helmsman. It would not do if he had to look up at his subordinates.
The only exception to the rule that no one else occupies the Captain’s chair is the Captain’s wife when she visits the ship. I have seen this twice. Captain Aspiotis’ wife sat in her husband’s chair when she visited the Waccamaw in Napoli, Italy, and Captain Giaccardo’s wife did likewise on the Bartlett in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Otherwise, no one, not even the president of the company that owns the ship, may ever sit in the Captain’s chair.
The tanker Waccamaw sailed in and out of Norfolk, Virginia, for several months in 1982 and 1983. She carried oil for the Navy; therefore, the Navy dictated the ship’s movements. In Norfolk, she often docked at the Naval Supply Center piers. Frequently, personnel from the Navy came aboard to conduct business involving supply, engineering, and petroleum issues. A few times, though, high-level administrative officers visited the Waccamaw. Two of them even went to sea with the ship. These were not pleasant occasions.
Captain B proudly strode up the gangway one morning in a pristine dress blue uniform that glittered with gold braid, brass buttons, and multicolored ribbons. Once on board, he was met by a disheveled gangway watchman who welcomed him in the customary manner: “Who are you, man?”
Taken aback by this greeting from a unlicensed seaman in his torn and dirty dungarees, his untucked and unbuttoned oil-stained shirt, his filthy blackened hands, his long, dirty, and tangled hair, and his several-days unshaven face with a tobacco-stained grin, Captain B stood speechless. Evidently, this was not what he had expected. The disdainful expression on his face with the nose up in the air clearly indicated that Captain B was disgusted. At this happy moment, I emerged from an adjacent passageway and met Captain B.
On seeing the mate of the watch, Captain B recovered his composure. Greeting me with undisguised wrath, he voiced his extreme displeasure at the situation and demanded to be escorted up to Captain Rigobello’s quarters. His complaints included the appearance of the gangway watch, the absence of an officer there to meet him, the insulting manner in which he was asked to show identification, and the complete lack of spit-and-polish that would be found aboard a military ship. As he spewed this venom, I noticed that his linguistic style was not as immaculate as his dress uniform. I had work to do, but I had interrupted it and come to the gangway for the sole purpose of bringing this gentleman up to Captain Rigobello’s office. I knew that once there, his attitude would change.
And up to a point, it did. In his firm but polite way, Captain Rigobello explained what life in the Merchant Marine was like to Captain B. In other words, once Captain B stepped aboard the Waccamaw, he wasn’t in the Navy anymore. This calmed him down considerably, but enough vestiges of his military haughtiness remained, and these did not go unnoticed by the crew.
Following the completion of some repairs in the engine room, the Waccamaw put to sea for a day to conduct tests of the equipment, and also to hold emergency drills for crew training. Captain B came along for the ride. Exactly what work he had to do was never made clear. Most of the time he seemed to be doing nothing. At least he changed out of his dress uniform and into a less conspicuous but still amply decorated set of khakis. Still, while his interactions with the Captain and the Chief Engineer became cordial, they remained considerably less so with everyone else.
Merchant crews do not take kindly toward military arrogance, pomposity, and rank consciousness. Many of the Waccamaw’s crewmen resented Captain B’s attitude and behavior toward them, and a lot of ill-tempered grumbling ensued. “Who does this guy think he is? What right does he have to come on here and give orders? He’s not the boss!! Why’s he telling us to call him ‘Captain?’ He ain’t the Captain!! He ain’t got no Master’s license!! Man, we oughtta kick him over the side!! Let him swim back to Norfolk!!”
Well, Captain B did not swim back to Norfolk. After the sea trials of the engineering equipment were finished, I went up to the bridge to take the watch at 4:00pm. The Waccamaw was by this time in the traffic lanes and heading back to the pilot station at the Chesapeake Bay entrance. As I came on the bridge, I found Captain Rigobello, the third mate, and the helmsman all inside doing their work—and Captain B ensconced in the Captain’s chair on the starboard bridge wing! He was alone, and the very picture of relaxation with his feet up on the wooden bridge rail.
“Excuse me,” I said quietly to Captain Rigobello, “but what is he doing in that chair?”
“He is doing us a big favor,” came the reply. “He is staying out of our way!”
I found this response surprising. Captain Rigobello went on to explain: “I know, he is a nuisance. And he does not belong in that chair. But it is a small point. It makes him feel important to sit there, and it keeps him out of the way. So he is happy because he feels like a big shot, and we are happy because we are left alone to do our work. And when we gat back to Norfolk, he will leave us, and we will never have to see him again. Until then, let us leave him where he is, and it will keep the peace.”
Words of wisdom from a man who had spent 25 years at sea. Compared to commanding a large tanker in busy traffic lanes, someone sitting in a chair was indeed a “small point,” and conceding the chair did in fact “keep the peace.” Captain B stayed very quietly out of everyone’s way as the Waccamaw returned to Norfolk. On arrival, he departed the ship without any hostilities. We never saw him again, but the memory of this ill mannered man has remained.
Captain B stands as an unwitting example of one “puffed up in the vain things of the world” (Alma 5:37), one of those who “lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel” (Morm. 8:35). His resplendent military uniform was as ridiculously out of place aboard a grimy civilian oil tanker as the gangway watchman’s dirty rags would have been at a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting. His high handed arrogance—“the proud man’s contumely,”1 as Shakespeare artfully expressed it—endeared him to no one. Even his host, the Master of the vessel, wanted ultimately to get him out of the way. This he did graciously, returning good for evil by giving Captain B a front row seat as the Waccamaw returned to port.
On another occasion, Captain K joined the Waccamaw for an overnight jaunt from Norfolk. This time the ship would participate in the at sea refueling of several military vessels, and Captain K would observe. Not participate, though. Once again, it was very unclear what, if any, work he was there to do. Fortunately, I had little to do with him, although I heard several others of the crew complain viciously about him. My turn came early in the morning when the Waccamaw was at sea and preparing to rendezvous with the other vessels for the refueling.
As second mate, I stood the four to eight watch underway. Three unlicensed seamen were on duty with me. One steered the ship while the other two did chores on deck. About 6:00am, I was in the chartroom plotting the ship’s position on the navigational chart and calculating the distance and time to go to the rendezvous point. Additionally, as the mate of the watch, I had to monitor the traffic and make course and speed changes as needed. As I was thus engaged at the chart table, the door from the passageway opened and Captain K entered the chartroom. I turned and looked, and was startled speechless by what appeared before me.
Uninvited and without requesting permission, Captain K walked into the chartroom as if he owned the place and strode silently across to the coffee table. He was dressed in spit-shined black shoes, black socks, and a knee-length dark blue bathrobe. As he reached for the coffee pot, I could only stare and think, this guy must be joking! He picked up the coffee pot and a cup. On discovering that the pot was empty and that there was no coffee anywhere, he finally he turned to me and spoke. He acknowledged my presence not with a cheerful greeting but by emitting a crude stream of invective concerning the “failure of the watch to make the coffee.” Slamming the empty pot back down with a bang, Captain K stormed out of the chartroom and stomped down the passageway.
This episode lasted less than a minute, but it left a lasting impression. Focused as I was on my work, Captain K’s unwarranted intrusion and subsequent temper tantrum caught me completely by surprise. With more important matters on my mind, though, I went about my business not quite believing what I had just seen and heard.
On the bridge, the helmsman had heard it all, even if he had not actually seen it, and he felt no reluctance in speaking his mind on the incident. “What’s up wit dat guy, mate? He tink we be here to wait on him? Don’t he know we all got work to do? Dis ain’t no luxury liner! He be on da wrong ship if he wanna be waited on!”
I agreed with him, and so did the boss. In a quiet moment a little while later, Captain Rigobello mentioned to me that Captain K had complained to him about the “failure of the watch to make the coffee.” In response, he explained to our guest that of the four men on the deck watch, one was the second mate, who was in charge, only two were on the bridge, and all four had work to do and were busy doing it. They simply had no time to make coffee for someone else, and it wasn’t their job anyway. Furthermore, he continued, as a point of protocol, the man at the helm did not drink coffee while he was steering the ship, and the second mate was simply not a coffee drinker at all. So there was absolutely no reason for there to be any coffee in the chartroom at that hour. If Captain K wanted a cup of coffee, he could get one aft in the chow hall. Looking out at the sea, Captain Rigobello shook his head, heaved a sigh, and asked quietly, “What next?”
The Waccamaw successfully carried out her part in the underway refueling exercise and returned to Norfolk with no additional trouble. At the pier, Captain K, like Captain B before him, left the ship peacefully. Also like Captain B, we never saw Captain K again, but the memory of his trespass and temper tantrum has remained.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “he is proud, knowing nothing” (1 Tim. 6:4). Captain K certainly knew nothing about the duties of the deck watch aboard a merchant ship and it showed. Proudly expecting busy crewmen to cater to his whims and then complaining when they could not, he proved that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased” (Matt. 23:12), although Captain Rigobello would handle the abasing in a tactful way. Less politely, someone might have told him that “small things make base men proud.”2 A pot of coffee seemed pretty small compared to the safe navigation of the ship.
Then there was Captain Dietz. He was also a Navy man, but that’s where the resemblance ended. Captain Dietz held an important administrative post at the Norfolk Naval Base, and he had extensive experience with the ships of our fleet. He understood the differences between the Navy and the Merchant Marine, and he maintained a high level of respect for the merchant crews and the work they did. He visited the ships periodically for meetings with the Captains and Chief Engineers, and one morning in Norfolk he came aboard the Waccamaw.
Captain Dietz’ official business lay almost entirely in meetings with Captain Rigobello, and to a lesser extent with the Chief Engineer. But as a seaman, he was interested in the whole ship and the crew who manned her, not just in the paperwork part of the job. An upbeat and cheerful man by nature, he roamed about the ship looking things over and stopping to chat with everyone on board. He had a bright smile, a warm handshake, and a friendly greeting for everyone in the crew, regardless of their rank or the condition of their clothing. In this way, Captain Dietz made friends wherever he went on the Waccamaw. Everyone liked him.
At lunchtime, Captain Rigobello and Captain Dietz came into the chow hall together. Several other officers including myself were already present and eating. A group of us regularly sat at a long table with assigned seats. The Captain and Chief Engineer always occupied the seats at the head and foot of the table; the chief mate, second mate, cargo mate, and first assistant engineer occupied the remaining seats. Today there were one or two vacancies, though.
Captain Rigobello led the way with Captain Dietz behind him. When they reached the table, Captain Rigobello motioned for Captain Dietz to sit in the chair at the head of the table, and then he started to take the empty chief mate’s chair for himself. Captain Dietz immediately realized what his host was doing and protested, “Oh, no. I can’t take your place here. You’re the Captain, not me. I can sit in another seat.”
Captain Rigobello insisted, “But you are our guest today, so you take the best seat. I’ll sit here next to you”
Captain Dietz replied, “But it’s still your ship, so you should sit here. I can take the other seat.”
Captain Rigobello responded, “This is a special occasion. You are not with us every day, so you sit there. I’ll be all right here.”
And then he sat down, leaving Captain Dietz with no option but to take the seat at the head of the table. He did this under protest, though: “You are too kind to me, but thank you all the same.”
An exceptionally enjoyable luncheon followed. Captain Dietz engaged all the mates and engineers in conversation and shared jokes and sea stories. While these pleasantries were going on, I thought of the chair debate between the two Captains and was reminded of the scriptural injunction to take the lowest place: “But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher” (Luke 13:10). A gracious and humble guest, Captain Dietz did indeed seek the lower place, and Captain Rigobello, a gracious and humble host, called him up higher. In this way both men showed respect for the other’s professional standing.
For that matter, Captain Dietz showed respect for everyone aboard the Waccamaw. Throughout his visit to the ship he spoke politely and courteously with all on board, both licensed and unlicensed. He treated them as his equals. When the messman in the dining room brought his lunch, Captain Dietz looked up at him, smiled broadly, and thanked him warmly. A simple courtesy, but one that revealed a true officer and gentleman.
An old proverb holds that comparisons can be odious; still, we cannot help but make them. Unlike his predecessors, Captain Dietz did not show up flamboyantly overdressed, did not spew a stream of invective about the condition of the gangway watch, did not barge uninvited and in his bathrobe into the chartroom, did not throw a hissy fit over something as trivial as an empty coffee pot, and did not so alienate the crew that he had to put into a corner to keep him out of the way. Arrogance was simply not his style; civility was. He had no delusions of superior importance; he viewed everyone, regardless of rank, as important. All three visitors’ behavior and attitude and the resultant feelings which the crew held toward them proved the point that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23: 12).
The Waccamaw’s crew appreciated the professional respect, courtesy, and friendliness which Captain Dietz displayed toward them. No one complained about calling him “Captain,” even though he did not hold a Master’s license and was not the Captain of a merchant ship. It was simply recognized as his military title, and that was all. By extending the hospitality of the ship and the honor of the best seat in the dining room to him, Captain Rigobello led the mates and engineers in exalting Captain Dietz to the level of a Master in the Merchant Marine, a very high honor indeed from a group of merchant seamen.
1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i:71.
2 William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 2, IV:i:106