Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Literature of the Sea

If I can no longer go to sea, at least I can still read about it. The genre of literature concerning the sea is a narrowly specialized one, and the books are often not easy to locate, but reading of mankind’s experiences aboard ships at sea is nonetheless a richly rewarding endeavor.

I suppose it all began in ancient Greece with Homer’s Odyssey. This prototype has been read, studied, analyzed, and dramatized since the beginning of literary time. Nothing written since has even come close to matching the Odyssey’s unique phantasmagorical blend of navigation and meteorology with the histrionics of humans and the caprices of the gods.

In more recent centuries, the source of most of my reading, the emphasis has shifted to empirical realism, both in fiction and nonfiction. Some well-acclaimed classics have emerged from this tradition, even in a young country like the United States. Two such masterpieces by American merchant seamen are Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

One of my favorite writers is the famous seaman-turned-author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born far from the sea in Poland and shipping out initially in the French Merchant Marine, he learned English as his third language while in his twenties. After retiring from the sea he composed many volumes of such elegant prose in English that the uninitiated would never guess that it was an acquired and not his native language. Such great books of his as Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, The Mirror of the Sea, The Arrow of Gold, Youth, Nostromo, and numerous other novels and short stories have been my companions for countless hours. Not a devoutly religious man, but nonetheless deeply philosophical and introspective, Conrad focused extensively on the human condition, bristled at the injustices and inequalities in life, wondered why it is the way it is, and suggested that it could be better. He posed many more questions than answers, and challenged his readers to contemplate some very serious issues. He wrote beautifully of the sea. He also wrote eloquently of the brotherhood of mankind, of
the subtle but invincible conviction that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts. . .which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.1
Conrad bequeathed to us twenty-six volumes of largely secular wisdom that nonetheless points unmistakably to a God who cannot but be displeased with much of his children’s conduct. Subtle yet clearly recognizable to any thinking person, the essentials of his thought were collected and anthologized in a lovely little volume titled Wisdom and Beauty from Conrad by Mother Harriet M. Capes, a Catholic nun and woman of God.

Captain Sir David William Bone (1874-1953), a Scot, was a younger contemporary of Conrad and an established, well-respected author in his own right. Writing while he was still sailing, he composed several works of both fiction and nonfiction. Unfortunately, his popularity as a writer has declined, and his books are now difficult to find. Nonetheless, his first work, The Brassbounder, remains a thoroughly enjoyable and very informative tale of the hard life aboard a sailing ship voyaging from Scotland to California and back. Three additional novels followed over the years, as well as two very interesting histories of the British Merchant Marine in the two World Wars. His final book, Landfall at Sunset, is a fascinating personal memoir published in 1952. It is the story of a man who saw the best and the worst of the world in his extensive travels in both peace and wartime, yet who never lost his appreciation for the simple beauties of life. I particularly like his description of an early morning arrival in my home area while assigned to the passenger liner Transylvania of the Anchor Line:
To come in from the eastward with the sun is a fine and dramatic entry under any circumstance, and it is nowhere more impressive than when Sandy Hook and the nebulous glimmer of the Port of New York appear ahead and the open Atlantic lies astern. The coastline of Long Island to starboard appears almost unreal in its fairy beauty: the bare sandy shore is but faintly visible, and the long chain of seaside lights not yet sufficiently defined to stand out barren as in the broad of day. Anon, the sun comes up and the blue haze that lingers over the Hook and the entrance to the Channel dissolves at the onset of his rays.2
As I read this I can practically see it, as if I were aboard the Transylvania myself. Wisdom and beauty from Bone, as it were.

Other career seamen of the same era also wrote their memoirs upon retirement. These men worked in an age when travelling overseas was more personal than it is today. Passengers sailed aboard named ships and spent many days in the company of the Masters, mates, and engineers who ran these vessels. Repeat customers often got to know their seamen-hosts quite well, and many of the Captains in particular developed a substantial following among their passengers. With no modern-day entertainment aboard ship, to pass the time people entertained each other and thereby got to know each other. This usually involved fine dining, lavish parties, extensive conversation, tours of the bridge and engine rooms, and so on, which engaged the ships’ officers socially with their passengers.

On retirement, then, Captain Bone and other well-known Masters of passenger ships had ready audiences when they penned their memoirs. These books became well-known in their time as well. One outstanding example is Captain of the Queens by Captain Harry Grattidge (1890-1979), who in a long career with the Cunard Line commanded both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. An example from across the Channel is J’ai commande Normandie by Commandant Pierre Thoreux (1890-?) of the French Line, or more properly, the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique. The most ambitious memoir writer of all was Captain Sir James Gordon Partridge Bisset (1883-1967) of the Cunard Line. In 1924 he composed Ship Ahoy!, a book of practical advice and nautical information for travellers. During his retirement in the late 1950s he penned three volumes of autobiography totaling nearly a thousand pages: Sail Ho!, Tramps and Ladies, and Commodore. Like Captain Grattidge, he also commanded both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth.

Captain Sir Arthur Henry Rostron (1869-1940) commanded the passenger liner Carpathia of the Cunard Line, the vessel which rescued the survivors of the Titanic and delivered them to New York. His book, Home from the Sea, recounts his role in this tragic event, as well as his long career in passenger and cargo service in peacetime and his troop transport duties during the First World War. At the close of this career he made two noteworthy observations:
 Under a kind Providence I have sailed the seas for forty-six years.3
And furthermore:
The Brotherhood of the Sea strikes very deep into the hearts of all Seamen.4
These two themes, Providence and the brotherhood of the sea, are widely recognized in the literature of the sea, both in the competition between rival shipping lines and in the brutality of war at sea. Vice Admiral James Francis Calvert (1920-2009) recounted his feelings as a young officer during battle in his memoir Silent Running: My Years on a World War II Attack Submarine:
 I saw the first ship sinking, almost vertically. Dozens of men were scrambling down the sides of the ship, hanging onto lines, sliding, shouting, grasping at each other. Smoke was belching from the ship in several places. The red-and-white Japanese merchant colors fluttered from the stern.
I swung the scope around, and there—so close that I could see the facial expressions clearly—was a lifeboat crowded with seamen and soldiers. Some of them ducked behind the gunnel of the lifeboat when they saw the periscope.
I reflected on what I had just seen. I had a chance to see what horrible damage our warheads could do.
I felt a flash of pity and anguish for these men. They had had no warning of this devastating attack. They had had no chance to fight back.5
Captain Edward Latimer Beach (1918-2002), a colleague of Admiral Calvert and the author of several books on submarines, explained the feeling of “pity and anguish” very succinctly in his novel Dust on the Sea:
Even enemies must learn to recognize their ultimate brotherhood.6
A dozen years after the war, then-Commander Calvert skippered the submarine Skate on a peaceful military exploration of the Arctic Ocean. In his memoir of this expedition, Surface at the Pole: The Extraordinary Voyages of the USS Skate, he wrote introspectively of the role of Providence aboard a high-technology, state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered submarine:
The reason of man created the Skate, and only cool reason can make her work. But this is not enough. We who are in charge of this creature of reason must often lean upon our faith in a Presence beyond reason to find the strength of spirit and will to fulfill our duties.7
One of these duties was:
to see that religious services are held on board when the ship is underway on Sunday. As the one who must conduct these services, I have always found them to bring me much comfort and reward.8
Another lifelong seaman who derived “much comfort and reward” from religious faith was Captain Joshua Slocum (1844-1909). Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he pursued a long career aboard both British and American merchant ships and achieved fame by becoming the first person to sail a small boat around the world alone, something he did in his retirement between 1895 and 1898. On crossing the vast Pacific aboard his sailboat, the Spray, he wrote:
For one whole month my vessel held her course true. The Southern Cross I saw every night abeam. The sun came up every morning astern; every evening it went down ahead. I wished for no other compass to guide me, for these were true. If I doubted my reckoning after a long time at sea I verified it by reading the clock aloft made by the Great Architect, and it was right.
I was en rapport with my surroundings, and was carried along on a vast stream where I felt the buoyancy of His hand who made all the worlds.9
Captain Slocum had made many commercial transpacific voyages with entire crews for company. Regarding his complete solitude on this crossing, however, he simply stated:
I sailed alone with God.10
And evidently that was companionship enough.

Companionship of a different sort filled the memoir of Korvettenkapitan Peter Erich Cremer (1911-1992) who as Kapitanleutnant commanded the German submarine U-333 during the Battle of the Atlantic in the 1940s. He described in brutal detail the combat between his vessel and the British corvette Crocus on October 7, 1942, near Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Crocus machine-gunned, shelled, and twice rammed the U-333, inflicting tremendous damage and numerous casualties. After the heavily listing and flooding U-333 dived to escape her pursuer, the commander of the Crocus reported her as capsized and sunk with no survivors. This would not be the last word, though. In his book U-Boat Commander, Korvettenkapitan Cremer concluded his narration of the battle sequence with this pleasant surprise:
 Years later the Crocus’ skipper, the New Zealand Lieutenant-Commander J. F. Holm, sent me his own account of the action, which rounds off the picture.11
Lieutenant-Commander Holm wrote several paragraphs of battle narrative from the Crocus’ viewpoint. After repeating his former adversary’s side of the story, the German commander continued in more fraternal prose:
 After the war I learnt a great deal about my former opponent. This New Zealander was a splendid fellow: he had heard of the hard times in Germany and wanted to give a little help with food parcels, so he got in touch with my mother. Great was his surprise to find me among the living and he wrote to me on his own initiative:
‘Dear Sir, I hope you read English better than I German. After many attempts I got your address through the British Admiralty in London. I was more than surprised to learn that I did not sink U-333 and I am glad you managed to bring your heavily damaged boat back to the French base.’
Two men who had been at each other’s throats became friends. He came from a sea-going family from Wellington and was a captain in the merchant navy. His letter to me continued:
‘Until the end of the war I commanded the corvette Crocus. I am married and have four children. I agree with you: war is a nasty business. In fact it seems completely idiotic that in those days you and I had no other desire than to do away with each other. I consider you to be a fine fellow, as you do me.’12
Thus did two enemies “learn to recognize their ultimate brotherhood.” Beach, Conrad, and Rostron would be proud, as would Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, correspondent to the Romans, and counselor to the world:
 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love . . . Be of the same mind toward one another . . . live peaceably with all men . . . [and] Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers (Rom. 12:10, 16, 18 & 13:1).
The fraternity of the sea, under the watchful eye of the “Great Architect,” holds men together in a way that neither the competition of commerce nor the vicissitudes of war can overcome. The scripture of the sea, both historical and literary, bear this out as a small sampling demonstrates.

1 Joseph Conrad, preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, in Frank W. Cushwa, An Introduction to Conrad, New York: The Odyssey Press, 1933, p. 224. 
2 Captain Sir David William Bone, Landfall at Sunset: The Life of a Contented Sailor, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1955, p. 173. 
3 Captain Sir Arthur Henry Rostron, Home from the Sea, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1931, p. 5. 
4 Ibid. 
5 Vice Admiral James Francis Calvert, USN, Silent Running: My Years on a World War II Attack Submarine, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995, p. 69. 
6 Captain Edward Latimer Beach, USN, Dust on the Sea, New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1972, p. 345. 
7 Vice Admiral James Francis Calvert, USN, Surface at the Pole: The Extraordinary Voyages of the USS Skate, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1960, p. 82. 
8 Op. cit., p. 75 
9 Captain Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone around the World, New York: Sheridan House, 1976, pp. 145 & 148-149. This book was originally published in 1899 by The Century Company. 
10 Op. cit., p. 133. 
11 Korvettenkapitan Peter Erich Cremer and Fritz Brustat-Naval, U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic, tr. Lawrence Wilson, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1984, p. 99. The German battle narrative appears on pp. 96-99 and the New Zealand account on pp. 99-100. This book was originally published in German by Verlag Ullstein GmbH in Berlin in 1982; this translation was originally published in the United Kingdom by The Bodley Head, Lt., in 1984. 
12 Op. cit., pp. 102-103.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Ship Shrine

My daughter coined the phrase, but it’s really more of a display than a shrine. I had the idea several months ago of buying some inexpensive plastic frames for enlargements of a few of my favorite photographs of ships and children. Nothing fancy, just a few showpieces for old time’s sake. I selected the pictures, bought the frames, and set everything up on the dresser in Miss Karen’s old bedroom. I admired this little gallery every day. She saw it when she came home for Thanksgiving and laughingly called it my ship shrine.

Starting on the left and proceeding in chronological order, I have a picture of the ferry Orient at the dock in Orient Point, Long Island, in August of 1976. I was still a teenager then. After my first voyage aboard the State of Maine and before I returned to school, my parents and I took a road trip out to the East End of Long Island. We visited the lighthouse at Montauk Point and the state park at Orient Point. We also stopped to admire the old ferry loading passengers and automobiles for transport to Connecticut.

The Orient was quite a sight. An old landing craft from the Second World War, she had been repainted in civilian colors and now sported a gray hull with white superstructure. Her age showed in her battered bow, her rusty shell plating, and her squat, box-like hull. She was not a graceful looking vessel, but with the bright afternoon sun shining on her port side, she was quite attractive in a difficult-to-describe sort of way. Little did I realize that this chance encounter with the aged Orient would prove to be a harbinger of voyages to be made with children yet to be born. When I stood on the adjacent beach and took her photograph I was unmarried and childless, still just a kid myself, and unable to even imagine the many voyages I would make aboard the Orient’s successors with my family in the years ahead. The picture I took of her has since become one of my favorites, and it holds first place in the ship shrine.

Next come two photographs of the tanker New Jersey Sun in drydock at the Todd Shipyard in Galveston, Texas, in May of 1977. Then follows a portrait of the tug Charger docked in Newark, New Jersey, in July of 1978. These pictures represent many happy memories of my formative adolescent years when I was learning the craft of the sea and working toward my license. Those were the good old days!

Next in line is the cable carrier Furman departing Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and passing the Portsmouth Light in New Castle on Saturday, March 15, 1986. This picture represents a turning point. My seagoing career was drawing to a close, but the proverbial new day was dawning. The following year the first of our four children was born. Henceforth in my photography the ships would share the limelight with the children.

And so the next picture shows Miss Patty with a very young James and an even younger Miss Karen standing on the beach at Orient Point watching the new ferry John H arrive. It was Friday, August 17, 1990. The same place where I had looked upon the old Orient now became the younger generation’s viewing platform, and over the years all the children have enjoyed many happy hours both on the beach at Orient Point and aboard the ferries between Long Island and Connecticut.

They travelled elsewhere, too, though. Accordingly, the next photograph in line shows the whole family—all four children with their Mommy and their Nana—in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, watching the transatlantic liner Queen Elizabeth 2 depart from New York on a voyage to Southampton, England. That was a special day, Monday, August 19, 1996. Besides providing an exciting time for the children, it brought back memories for my mother and me, memories of watching my grandparents sail from New York for Europe in the 1960s when I was a small child myself.

The next photograph portrays James diligently scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars aboard the ferry Delaware on her namesake bay enroute from Lewes, Delaware, to North Cape May, New Jersey, on Tuesday, August 18, 1998. Finally, the lineup of pictures concludes with another favorite—all the children assembled with Captain Steve Pond in the wheelhouse of the ferry Champlain enroute from Port Kent, New York, to Burlington, Vermont, on Monday, July 2, 2001.

On two small shelves higher up and next to the mirror on Miss Karen’s dresser, I have two additional pictures. One shows James, Miss Karen, and Steven on Sunday afternoon, June 20, 1993, all dressed up in the vintage American Export Lines souvenir tee shirts that my grandmother had long ago brought home for my brother and me. The second is a photograph taken of a painting aboard the cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam. This depicts the Holland-America Line’s earlier Nieuw Amsterdam passing the lightship Ambrose on her way outbound from New York. I had become enraptured by this painting during our voyage aboard the new Nieuw Amsterdam following James’ wedding in February of 2012, and I regretted that I could not bring it home with me! This little copy seems the next best thing.

Not part of Miss Karen’s ship shrine but nonetheless relevant are three professionally done portraits that I did bring home from the Nieuw Amsterdam. The first of these portrays the newly married couple, James and Sarah, radiating happiness on their shipboard honeymoon. The second shows our younger sons, Steven and Michael, also looking very happy, and perhaps even a bit mischievous despite being dressed in their formal attire. The third is a family portrait. In commemoration of the wedding, Miss Patty and I posed together with all the children and our new daughter-in-law in the grand atrium of the Nieuw Amsterdam. The ship’s photographer created a family heirloom appropriate to the occasion. All three photographs are now framed and displayed together in Miss Patty’s sewing room in what we may perhaps call a wedding shrine.

There remains one more to examine. In my family history room I have another portrait taken by another photographer aboard another ship. While enroute from New York to ports in the Mediterranean aboard the Independence in November of 1966, my grandparents, Robert Burns and Julia Murphy, posed for the cameraman in their evening attire at the Captain’s cocktail party. An exceptionally good likeness of them, this heirloom holds a place of honor in my family archives. I look at it often.

I look at the portraits from the Nieuw Amsterdam and the snapshots in the ship shrine often, too. But I think this collection is not so much a shrine to ships; rather, it is a mini-archive of our family history. Ships have played important roles in our family’s history, serving as transportation for business meetings, vacations, family reunions, and sometimes just plain joyriding. Also, for many years they provided a career and livelihood for me. But while they serve the family’s needs, these vessels are not part of the family. Like other inanimate objects, they are discarded when no longer useful or profitable. Inevitably, they end their careers in a scrapyard. Occasionally a famous ship may be preserved as a museum piece, such as the Queen Mary in California or the Cutty Sark in England, but this is rare. Most of the time the old ships are refashioned into razor blades and automobile parts.

The family, however, always maintains its integrity. As the Proclamation on the Family tells us,
The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.1
When I consider the five generations of my family that I have known in this life—my great-grandmother, my grandparents, my parents, my wife and myself, and our children—this sounds like a great idea! When I consider the extended family that I have known here and the deceased family members for whom I have done research and temple ordinances, this great idea seems even better. But of all these folks, the four for whom I admit to having a special soft spot are my own children. I realize that they’re all adults now, but they’ll always be children, even babies, to me.

Unlike discarded merchant ships, my children will never end their careers in a scrapyard and be transformed into something else. They will remain my children and I will remain their father. The ships I sailed on in my youth provided me with a livelihood, but my children have given me far more. This includes both happy and sad memories, both restful and sleepless nights, both great responsibility and great pleasure, both worry and relief, but above all an abiding and transcendent feeling of satisfaction that is difficult to describe.

As I look at the photograph of the aged ferry Orient in the ship shrine and think of the many voyages that I made on that route over the years with my children, I feel the sense of satisfaction that comes from having given them life and raised them from infancy to adulthood. President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed it very simply and succinctly when he told Mike Wallace:
Look, when all is said and done, you as a parent have no greater responsibility in this world than the bringing up of your children in the right way, and you will have no greater satisfaction as the years pass than to see those children growing in integrity and honesty and making something of their lives, adding to society because they are part of it.2
This is true. As important as ships have been in my life, my children are infinitely more important. The photographs of my favorite ships on Miss Karen’s dresser may comprise a ship shrine, as she calls it, but these vessels’ significance is eclipsed by my children and also by my grandparents and new daughter-in-law. Thus, it is not really a ship shrine but a family shrine.

1 In Gordon B. Hinckley, Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 1: 1995-1999, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2005, pp. 32-33. This Proclamation was included in an address made at the General Relief Society Meeting on September 23, 1995.
2 Op. cit., p. 486. This statement is an excerpt from an interview of President Hinckley by Mike Wallace on the television program 60 Minutes on December 18, 1995.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Merchant Marine Memorial

In some of the most well-known verses of the Old Testament, the Psalmist tells us that:
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof (Ps. 107:24-25).
I have often remarked on the beauty of the sea and attributed it to the genius of a Creator-God who orders and controls not only this small world but the entire universe as well. But it would be remiss to leave unexamined the physical laws of nature that govern the daily conduct of the oceans. This includes the tides and currents, salinity and density, heating and cooling, ice and evaporation. Many outside forces influence the behavior of the sea, including the Sun and Moon, land masses and bottom contours, and perhaps most ironically, the air.

It is a curious capability of gas that it can be used to move much denser, heavier, and stronger liquids and solids. Compressed and controlled by engineers, steam propels railroad locomotives and cargo ships. Combustible fuel vapors mixed with oxygen propel automobiles and airplanes. Such ethereal substances as evaporated water and the air we breathe have more power than they would seem. Properly harnessed, they move our industrialized world.

Left to its own devices, the air moves the natural world, too. The Psalmist was right. Blowing unrestrained across the surface of the sea, it disturbs the water and raises waves. The more the wind blows, the more disturbed the water becomes. From the slight puff that generates a ripple to the hurricane that creates monster waves, the ethereal air is a majestic and awe-inspiring force of nature. Its energy comes from the differences in temperature and pressure between adjacent air masses. These inequalities come ultimately from the uneven heating of the Earth by the Sun. The inherent beauty of the sea notwithstanding, these facts of science sometimes lead to unpleasant consequences for seamen.

When heavy weather strikes a ship at sea, the voyage becomes uncomfortable. Seamen grow accustomed to this and take it in stride; passengers often become terrified. In consultation with his mates, the Master studies weather reports and decides on a course, speed, and routing in order to ensure the safety of the ship and all on board. Most of the time the ship rides out the storm and everything turns out well in the end. In extreme situations, however, it does not always end so well. Ships are destroyed, lives are lost, and families are forever altered. The same sea that has been their source of livelihood then becomes their source of anguish. Often, the survivors memorialize their dead in bronze and stone. Monuments to merchant seamen who perished at sea abound, although typically they stand in out-of-the-way places. One collection of such monuments is the Merchant Marine Memorial in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

Located across the street from the western end of the Cape Cod Canal and on the grounds of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the Merchant Marine Memorial occupies a triangular plot of land and faces the water. Visitors walk on a semicircular flagstone path through the grass and study the inscriptions in the stones and on the bronze tablets. The main buildings of the Academy stand beyond the Memorial. Consequently, there is little pedestrian traffic near the Memorial, and the atmosphere is one of quiet reverence. Looking around from this spot, one sees the placid water of the Cape Cod Canal and its approaches, a peaceful and tranquil setting.

On Tuesday, August 9, 2011, I visited the Merchant Marine Memorial with my son Steven, then 20 years old. He was quiet and contemplative as we studied the inscriptions on the various stone and bronze tablets. He asked a few questions, which I was pleased to answer. Mostly, though, we both studied the monuments and read the inscriptions.

The centerpiece of the Merchant Marine Memorial was a statue of a merchant seaman wearing a pea coat and carrying a duffle bag. The inscription in the stone base of this statue read in part:
This monument is dedicated to the officers and men who
sailed the ships of the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.
A cluster of neatly arranged and well-tended flowers had been planted in front of the stone directly beneath the inscription. These brightly colored blossoms complemented the gray of the statue and its base very well and symbolized the ongoing regeneration of life.

At a distance to the left of this statue stood a gray wooden frame supporting a ship’s bell. Attached to the frame above the bell was a bronze plaque that read:
This bell is dedicated to the memory of those who were
lost at sea when the SS Pan Oceanic Faith went down in the North Pacific on 9 October 1967.
Below these lines were inscribed the names of six graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who perished in this tragedy. Two were from the class of 1965, and four from the class of 1967. All of them were very young, in their early twenties, and thus only slightly older than Steven. Their ship, the Panoceanic Faith, was enroute from San Francisco to Japan in a major storm with a load of fertilizer when she suffered an engine room breakdown and started taking sea water in her cargo holds because of leaking hatch covers. Five members of her 41-man crew survived the ship’s loss. Thirty-six men perished.2 This information, especially the ages of the young men listed on the plaque, made a significant impression on Steven.

Next, we came to an inclined stone with a bronze plaque mounted on it. This was the one we had purposely travelled to Buzzards Bay to see. This monument honored the dead of the coal carrier Marine Electric. An especially sobering sight for me, it read in part:

Crossing the Bar

This plaque is dedicated to the officers and crew members
of the S/S Marine Electric who lost their lives in the line
of duty on 12 February 1983.
There followed a list of the 31 names of the deceased. Out of a total crew of 34 men, only three had survived.

Twenty-eight years earlier, in the late evening of Thursday, February 10, 1983, the Marine Electric had sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, with a full load of coal on her final voyage. Heading northeast into an intense winter storm on her way to Somerset, Massachusetts, the aged Marine Electric was overcome by the elements. Waves rushed repeatedly over her bow and onto her main deck, and the water drained into her cargo holds through leaking hatch covers. This flooding caused the ship to lose stability and buoyancy, and finally to capsize and sink.3

Eight hours after the Marine Electric’s departure from Norfolk, the Waccamaw sailed into the same storm. Commanded by Captain Derric F. Linardich with myself as second mate, the Waccamaw proceeded only as far as the pilot station. Upon seeing the full fury of the weather on the open Atlantic, Captain Linardich returned the ship to port to wait things out. Thus the Waccamaw remained safe and secure in Norfolk as the Marine Electric sailed to her doom.4

The juxtaposition of these two ships in the same storm at nearly the same time has long disturbed me. One proceeded to sea and was lost with most of her crew; the other returned to port and survived with all of her crew. Some very serious food for thought.

The shipping business by its very nature involves risk. One of the prime sources of risk is the weather. While the science of meteorology is a fascinating subject, the practical concern is what the weather will do to one’s ship. Wind blowing unrestrained over thousands of square miles of ocean yields an easily predictable result: big waves. Taken on the beam, large waves cause heavy rolling, which is uncomfortable for the crew and often dangerous for the ship and cargo. Taken head on, these same waves cause heavy pitching, also uncomfortable but usually not so dangerous. In extreme circumstances, a ship can pound. If a ship is going too fast into a heavy sea, the entire bow can ride up the crest of a wave, hang in the air as the wave passes along the hull, and the crash down into the trough when the crest of the wave passes astern. Pounding is a very violent action that can severely damage or even destroy a ship. It is often easily avoided just by slowing down.

Less extreme and fairly common in rough weather is taking water on the main deck. As the bow of the ship rides each wave, it naturally rises with the crest and falls as it enters the trough. As the bow comes down into each successive wave, spray is often generated when the steel hull and the rising wall of water meet. Both the forward motion of the ship and the wind cause the spray to fly over the bow, and then it lands on the deck and superstructure. If the sea is rough enough, solid water can also come over the bow and land on deck. When the bow rides up the crest of the next wave, this water drains off the deck and overboard. Ships are designed for this condition, and it’s usually not problematic.

If the hatch covers leak, though, such weather becomes seriously problematic. Built and installed to keep sea water out of the cargo holds, hatch covers protect the ship and the cargo from damage brought on by flooding.  If the hatch covers become excessively worn and no longer watertight, then water coming over the bow and on deck will enter and eventually flood the forward cargo holds. Left unchecked, this condition will inevitably reduce the ship’s buoyancy and submerge the hull lower in the water. Furthermore, water flooding a cargo hold will gravitate to one side of the ship and shift the vessel’s center of gravity. Additional water entering the hold will add to this off-center weight and ultimately ruin the vessel’s stability. In the end, the ship will capsize and sink. This is what happened to the Marine Electric on February 12, 1983.

By comparison, the Waccamaw, as a tanker, had a different main deck configuration. Instead of hatch covers she had tank tops, which were watertight, oil tight, and vapor tight. But she also had a half-load of oil and some very heavy deck equipment for conducting the underway replenishment of military vessels. These factors would most certainly raise her center of gravity and thereby reduce her stability, but not fatally. Still, had she proceeded, it would have been an extremely rough ride.

I explained these points in brief and simple terms to Steven as we stood in front of the monument. Some of them he had heard previously. We both understood that such a forensic analysis, while professionally objective and logically sound, is nonetheless not wholly satisfactory.

The tragedy of the Panoceanic Faith and the cataclysm of the Second World War, both memorialized in Buzzards Bay, occurred long before I went to sea. This gives them a certain distance from me, both historically and physically. The case of the Marine Electric, however, was neither historically nor all that physically distant. While the objective facts of the matter explain what happened and why, a more subjective and perhaps philosophical contemplation yields introspection.

Something could have been different. Had the Captain decided otherwise, the Waccamaw would have continued to sea. One can speculate as to what likely would have taken place next. For example, would the underway replenishment exercises really have been carried out in such violent weather? I sincerely hope not. Would the Waccamaw have received and responded to the Marine Electric’s distress calls? Would the Waccamaw have been placed in serious danger herself? In short, what would have happened had the Waccamaw proceeded to sea that day? We’ll never know the answers to these hypothetical questions, but I still wonder.

The basic facts remain, though. Because of one man’s decision, the Waccamaw returned to port. Thus, she and her crew were never endangered despite being exposed to same violent storm as and only eight hours behind the Marine Electric. I was safe while 31 other seamen were dying. In this sense my life was spared. I believe this gives me an increased moral obligation to live it wisely and well.

Steven and I spent some very contemplative moments at the Merchant Marine Memorial. I don’t know how long we were there; the time seemed to stand still. It was a quiet and peaceful day, one given to reverence, respect, and quiet prayer for those lost at sea. It was also an occasion for personal introspection. I have sailed through many storms aboard many ships, and I always returned home safely afterwards. And despite carrying many military cargoes, I have never gone to war. For these blessings my family and I are very grateful. For those less fortunate we “mourn with those that mourn,” (Mosiah 18:9) and pray that in the end
They that have been scattered shall be gathered.
And all they who have mourned shall be comforted
(D&C 101:13-14).
Until the day when we are all no longer scattered but gathered together in our eternal home with our Heavenly Father, we commend our lost brethren of the sea to his good care and pray that they may rest in peace.

1 This is an error set in bronze. The correct name of the ship is Panoceanic Faith.
2 Summary of events from News of the ship's loss, rescue efforts, and retrieval of bodies was also reported in the major newspapers of the era. I consulted several issues of The New York Times of October, 1967. 
3 The full story of the Marine Electric tragedy is told in Robert Frump's excellent book Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the American Merchant Marine, New York: Doubleday, 2001. Also, I discussed the Marine Electric previously in my essay "The Dead." 
4 I discussed Captain Linardich and this event previously in my essays "The Dead" and "The Memory of a Man." I note this point in the interest of avoiding unnecessary repetition in the text.

Monday, November 11, 2013

When My Ship Comes in

Some folks find this a bit strange, but I like to watch the comings and goings of commercial ships. Other people watch ball games; I prefer ships. I’ve always wanted more out of life than what sports could offer, and I’ve often turned to the sea in order to reach for the higher things of life. Living inland, it’s not always possible to spontaneously visit the waterfront. With the new technologies of the internet and harbor webcams, though, watching, if not actual visiting, has become easy and convenient. Thus on Sunday morning, October 27, 2013, I turned on my computer to watch my ship come in.

Peering into the darkness at 5:30am, I beheld the docks, the basin, and the inlet of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The adjacent satellite image of the port was dotted with markers identifying the vessels already moored. The passenger ships Allure of the Seas, Carnival Freedom, and Royal Princess had arrived early and occupied the largest berths. Two Dutch freighters, the Dijksgracht and the Spiegelgracht, appeared at the cargo docks. And three tankers, the OSG Navigator, the Hellas Endurance, and the Overseas Houston, filled out the picture at the petroleum piers. Still at sea about five miles from the inlet stood the star of the morning’s show, the Nieuw Amsterdam. She was the one I had logged on to watch.

The Nieuw Amsterdam was returning to the United States from Europe. She had spent the summer and early autumn in the Mediterranean, carrying sightseers to such exotic ports as Barcelona, Palermo, Marseilles, Tunis, and Napoli—places I had visited in my vagabond youth—as well as Istanbul, Corfu, Piraeus, Dubrovnik, and Monte Carlo—places I had missed. Now, after a transatlantic voyage of ten days’ duration from Cadiz with a stop in the Azores, the Nieuw Amsterdam was returning to Fort Lauderdale, her base of operations for the upcoming winter months.1 This was a special arrival, one not to be missed!

I watched the video on the computer screen intently. At 5:55am, having taken on a pilot at the sea buoy, the Nieuw Amsterdam entered the inlet. She came in slowly and gracefully, and at 6:00am was fully inside the basin. By 6:05am, using her twin azipod propellers and triple bow thrusters, she was gradually backing toward her berth. At 6:17am, the Nieuw Amsterdam was still backing down when her fleet mate Eurodam entered the inlet. Arriving from Canada with an intermediate stop in Port Canaveral, the Eurodam had hugged the Florida coast overnight and followed her sister to the pilot station and into port. At 6:20am the Eurodam was clear of the inlet, and two tugs and a pilot boat then started out to meet the incoming container ship CSAV Rupanco. At 6:21am the Nieuw Amsterdam was in position and being made fast at the same berth where my family and I had boarded her a year and a half ago. The Eurodam was by this time backing toward a berth diagonally opposite the Nieuw Amsterdam. At 6:36am she, too, was in position and being secured to the pier.

After spending the day discharging passengers, taking on food, fuel, and supplies, cleaning staterooms, and then embarking new passengers, the Nieuw Amsterdam and the other cruise ships would sail again, this time for Caribbean ports. Lots of folks in diverse locations, myself included, would watch these departures on their computers in the late afternoon. It would not the same as actually sailing, but an enjoyable and inexpensive substitute.

But for now, my ship had come in. Long used metaphorically to refer to some great fortune coming one’s way, the expression “when my ship comes in” expressed people’s dreams of doing better financially in an age when the general population was more aware of commercial shipping than it is today. Cargo ships had carried the riches of the Orient and the gold and silver of the Americas to Europe. When they arrived safely after these long and hazardous voyages, their owners became very wealthy men. It was a bonanza! But as in most businesses, these voyages made a few folks rich at the expense of many who did the grunt labor while living in squalor and risking their lives aboard primitive vessels sailing on largely uncharted seas. For most people, then, “when my ship comes in” remained more of a pipe dream than anything that would realistically happen.

Ships do come in and go out again, however. I’ve seen plenty of them come and go over the years. Whether for an hour or for many months, a ship becomes part of one’s life for a time and then is gone. When a passenger disembarks or a crewman is discharged, the ship on which he sailed recedes into his past. One’s association with it is thus only temporary. Another ship may take its place, but the new voyage or assignment will one day end, too, and the cycle repeats itself. Ships simply come and go, as does nearly everything else in life. Money, jobs, houses, vacations, holidays, and material possessions all come and go. Few things in life are truly permanent.

In my family, however, our ship has come in four times, or perhaps more accurately, four separate ships have come in. Taking the metaphor on a different course, these four ships are the James, the Steven, the Michael, and the flagship Miss Karen Elizabeth. These are my four children. They arrived at intervals over a period of six years, and like real ships they have come and gone from the family home many times. One has married, appropriately aboard a ship, and will in time be operating his own fleet. The others are well underway, too. But for all their departures from home to attend school, go scouting, visit grandparents, travel to college, and so on, they always were, are now, and always will be my children. The immutable laws of biology, the natural bonds of parent-child affection, and the temple ordinances of parent-child sealing work together to ensure that my children forever remain my children. They cannot be unborn or unsealed. God himself cannot change this, nor would he even want to, having authored the biology, the affection, and the ordinances that eternally bind us together.

Like a far-flung fleet of ships, our children have grown up and left home for distant places. They chart their own courses through life now, but they remain in contact with home via mail, email, telephone calls, text messaging, and now Skype, too. In an era when such telecommunication is available, the bonds between us command its use, for people who love each other naturally crave each other’s companionship despite distances.

The scriptures inform us of
the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fulness of times, for the redemption of the dead, and the sealing of the children to their parents (D&C 138:48).
I think the redemption work for the dead is fairly well-known, but I suspect that the eternal parent-child connection may sometimes be overlooked in this age of high-powered, dual-career couples and professional day-care institutions. Miss Patty and I were very fortunate to have raised our children ourselves. It seemed like the natural thing to do, given our feelings for them. In this way the bonds between us were nurtured as well as sealed over the years. Now, distances notwithstanding, these bonds remain strong and ineradicable, family unity as our Creator intended it to be.

The commercial fleet in Port Everglades sailed again late Sunday afternoon and evening. My ship the Nieuw Amsterdam had come in, stayed about eleven hours, and then left again. As much as I may call her “my ship” for having made one voyage with her, she really isn’t. Owned by a major corporation, registered in a foreign country, and operated by other seamen, the Nieuw Amsterdam is not mine at all, and never has been nor ever will be. Like many ships before her, she came into my life and will eventually go out of it again. But the James, the Steven, the Michael, and the Miss Karen Elizabeth all came into my life to remain permanently and to be mine forever. They are the grandest fleet that any merchant seaman could ever want to sail with.

1 Voyage information for the Nieuw Amsterdam and the fourteen other ships of the Holland America Line comes from the company’s Cruise Atlas 2013-2014. This booklet contains full itineraries, maps, deck plans, photographs, and—alas!—prices.

Monday, October 7, 2013

More Days on the Water

One day spent with Michael on the water in Boston was just not enough. It would not get me through the summer. Happily, more days on the water were soon forthcoming.

On a visit with my parents on Long Island at the end of July, my father decided that we should ride down to the barrier beaches and go for a sail aboard the Moon Chaser. Our family had done this several times over the years, and everyone always enjoyed it. Primarily a night time party boat, the Moon Chaser sedately ventured forth two afternoons per week on sightseeing voyages from the Captree fishing boat basin. She followed the channels of the Great South Bay past Sexton Island and the Farm Shoals and then ran along the north side of Fire Island toward Ocean Beach and Point o’ Woods. The highlight of this scenic voyage was the famous Fire Island Light, one of the most historically and navigationally important landmarks along the American East Coast. And so we spent a bright and sunny Wednesday afternoon, the last day of July of 2013, embarked on the sober Moon Chaser, enjoying the sublime beauty, peace, and quiet of the waterways along the South Shore of Long Island.

Back in New Hampshire, Miss Patty had been so impressed with what Michael and I had told her about the Eagle that she now wanted to see this grand ship herself. On Sunday afternoon, August 4, 2013, then, Miss Patty and I travelled to Portsmouth where the Eagle was docked for the weekend and was once again open for public tours.

What we came upon at the State Pier at first dismayed us: no place to park, a two-hour-long wait in line, no place to sit down, and a security guard who all but told us to get lost. This was vastly different from the Eagle’s dockside arrangements in Boston! Well, Miss Patty found a place to sit down while I parked the car elsewhere and walked back. Then the Coast Guard intervened. After a brief word about Miss Patty’s walking difficulty, and also after seeing her using a cane, a Coast Guard Auxiliary officer called for a golf cart. This vehicle sidestepped the two-hour-long line and delivered us to the Eagle’s gangway. There, two Coast Guard Academy students welcomed us and assisted Miss Patty onto the ship. Once aboard, we walked the decks slowly and carefully. Additional Coast Guard personnel stood by and answered questions, offered explanations, assisted at the stairways and on the forecastle deck, and distributed souvenir portraits of the vessel. As there was only a loose schedule, we took our time so Miss Patty could see everything—the masts, the rigging, the woodwork, the navigation bridge, the helm, the fantail, the signal flags, and so forth. This was a very special occasion for her, visiting a famous, beautiful, and historically significant ship from her native country. I enjoyed it as well, visiting the Eagle for the second time and in a different seaport.

Despite my initial misgivings, the visit turned out exceptionally well. I must give credit to the Coast Guard personnel whom we encountered that day. Whether commissioned, enlisted, auxiliary, or students, these ladies and gentlemen extended the most professional hospitality and courtesy to us. They represented their ship, their service, and their government very well indeed.

Returning to the commercial side of shipping, I again went to visit my parents on Monday, September 16, 2013. Disembarking from Amtrak’s Shore Line in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I walked to the nearby ferry dock and awaited the arrival of the next boat to Long Island.

The Park City is one of three diesel powered vessels operated by the archaically named Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, which has been crossing Long Island Sound since 1883. She entered the harbor quietly and maneuvered alongside the dock adroitly. In fifteen minutes she discharged all her Connecticut-bound vehicles and passengers and took on the Long Island-bound traffic. At 12:00 noon she eased away from the dock and then transited the channel, passed between the twin breakwaters, and set out again upon the Sound. Her voyage to Port Jefferson would take an hour and fifteen minutes and cover fifteen nautical miles.

I stood alone facing forward on a promenade deck one level down from the bridge as the Park City crossed the Sound. I had last travelled this route some twenty years earlier, in August of 1993, with Miss Patty and the children. That had been an experiment, a possible alternative to our usual New London to Orient Point crossing. It proved impractical, though, largely because of the difficult drive through Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport. Taking the train to Bridgeport this morning instead made the journey to the ferry much more pleasant. Prior to this experiment in 1993, I had last sailed through this area in 1978 aboard the tug Charger. I thought of those voyages as I gazed upon the Sound. In the distance in mid-Sound stood the Stratford Shoal Light, an important navigational aid that dated to the 1870s, and still an important waypoint a century and more later on the Charger’s and Park City’s voyages.

As the Park City drew nearer to the Stratford Shoal Light, her running mate Grand Republic did likewise from the opposite shore. The two vessels passed port to port at an ample distance, both from each other and from the Stratford Shoal. The sky, which had been overcast in Bridgeport, was now changing shades. A bank of gray stratocumulus clouds remained over Long Island; intermittent off-white cumulus highlighted the increasing blue sky over the water; and blue punctuated by streaks of pure white cirrus reigned over Connecticut. As I witnessed this gradual metamorphosis I contemplated a verse in the Psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). To one trained in Latin, though, the nuances of Saint Jerome’s
Vulgata convey the thought even more artfully: “Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei, et opus manus eius adnuntiat firmamentum” (Ps. 18:2).1 Whether applied to the stars and moon by night, to the sun’s daily transit, or less typically to meteorological conditions, this thought captures the essence of the various faces of the sky. While theologians debate fine points of doctrine, the sky over the sea—the firmamentum to the ancients—speaks silently to the navigator and asserts both unequivocally and incontrovertibly that a Supreme Being, a Creator-God, is truly in charge of the universe.

As the Stratford Shoal Light and the Grand Republic receded into the distance, the Park City approached the twin sand spits and breakwaters that form the entrance to Port Jefferson Harbor. The stratocumulus blanket over Long Island was by this time opening up and allowing bright sunshine to illuminate the seascape. Brilliant blue water delineated by white sandy beaches and dotted with the white hulls of anchored sailboats filled the estuary. It was a melancholy sight, though. The ferry’s arrival in this beautiful natural harbor, a million dollar view from the mansions on the surrounding green hills, signaled the end of my voyage. The Park City eased up to the dock in the center of town. Across the wharf from her rested the third ship of the fleet, the P. T. Barnum, securely moored and undergoing maintenance work on her main vehicle deck.

I disembarked with mixed feelings. I was very happy to have made the voyage, but very sorry that it had to end. I could have stayed on the ferry and crossed and re-crossed the Sound all day! But I needed to be practical. It was now time to walk to the Port Jefferson station and get the next train for Mineola.

Two days later, I visited the waterfront again, this time on the West Side of Manhattan. On Wednesday, September 18, a bright sunny day with a completely cloudless blue sky, I went to Pier 66 at the foot of West 26th Street to see the lightship Frying Pan. Now part of a dockside restaurant, this historic vessel had for many years guarded the Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear, North Carolina. Located about 175 miles southwest of the better-known Cape Hatteras, Cape Fear and the Frying Pan Shoals lie near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, on which are situated the seaports of Wilmington and Southport. I had called at Wilmington once when posted aboard the Mercury in 1980. So long ago! I was young then, but the lightship was already old and retired. Since sold by the government to private interests, she reposed quietly in the early morning sunlight at her new home.

The Frying Pan shared the pier with the historic fireboat John J. Harvey and an Erie-Lackawanna Railroad caboose. This is not really so incongruous. In this neighborhood’s heyday of commercial shipping, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad used Piers 63 and 66, the Erie-Lackawanna used Pier 68,2 and railroad tracks interlaced the cobblestone streets that lined the waterfront. After the railroads and the shipping lines went bankrupt and the transportation industry shifted to containerization, these piers and many others fell into disuse and neglect. For about 25 years they stood as urban blight, dangerous and dilapidated structures lining the Hudson River. In the mid 1990s this situation began to change. Today, these newly renovated and refurbished piers form part of the Hudson River Park, a landscaped promenade paved in flagstone and brick with magnificent views of the river and recreational facilities for families with children.

Pier 66 with the historic Frying Pan and John J. Harvey preserves the seafaring character of the area. Just to the south, Pier 64 offers shaded benches, picnic tables, and fishing. Pier 63, actually more of a wharf that parallels the river, continues the park setting of Pier 64, as does Pier 62, which has a merry-go-round for children. Next come the famous Chelsea Piers, 61, 60, and 59, all of uniform size and shape, which form the new Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex. Featuring indoor sports facilities, a golf driving range, theatres, restaurants, ballrooms, small boat berths, and more, these piers were a century ago the heart of New York’s commercial waterfront. Of particular interest to me was a large historical display of vintage black-and-white photographs that lined a waterside promenade. Explanatory captions accompanied the pictures. Additionally, a plaque honoring the accomplishments of Mayor George McClellan summarized the neighborhood’s history.

One of these accomplishments was the Chelsea Piers Project. Opening for business in 1910 after several years of construction, the Chelsea Piers became the main western terminus of the transatlantic passenger and cargo trade. Designed to be architectural showpieces, they served as magnificent gateways to New York. Used by the Cunard and White Star Lines among others, they hosted such luminaries as the Mauretania, the Lusitania, the Carpathia, and the Olympic, and were the intended destination of the Titanic. In later years, when the passenger fleets moved uptown to larger facilities, the Chelsea Piers continued to serve medium-sized break bulk cargo ships. As late as 1970 they were still used by United States Lines.1 Their careers thus lasted about 65 years. Then followed the 25 years of disuse, deterioration, and eventual rebirth.

I appreciated this display of the Chelsea Piers’ history, as well as the entire neighborhood’s rehabilitation and reuse. The views across the sun-bathed Hudson to New Jersey and south to Staten Island were breathtaking. The beauty of the new park and renovated piers felt inspirational. While adjacent to the teeming streets of midtown Manhattan, they nonetheless formed a world set apart from the city, an oasis of peaceful and quiet repose.

Before returning home, I had one more spot to visit. Walking north alongside the river to West 35th Street, I came to Pier 76, one of the largest of the old West Side piers. Unlike the others, Pier 76 had not been transformed into a park, restaurant, or sports complex. Instead, signboards indicated that it was used by the police. Towed cars were brought there and stored inside the big warehouse. Also, the mounted police units kept their horses there. To most outward appearances, though, it looked pretty much as it had in the old days with its imposing blue fa├žade and oversized garage doors facing both the waterfront and the street. Clearly, this structure was intended to handle big shiploads of cargo! The most impressive feature of all, though, was a name that had never been removed. Set into the big blue walls and stretching over the tops of several garage doors high above the street were enormous white letters that after all these years still proudly spelled out “United States Lines.”

This great name was truly a sight to behold, a proud reminder of the glory days of the United States Merchant Marine, an era when American products were exported in American ships from New York to countries around the world. United States Lines was and remains an iconic name in maritime history. A vast fleet of ships that carried passengers, freight, and mail across the oceans and between continents made up United States Lines. My grandparents had sailed with this company in 1955, taking the fabled United States to Europe and returning aboard the less famous but still significant America. Finding the company’s name still emblazoned across the front of a pier that its ships had frequented was an event to savor!

Another event to savor took place the following day. In the afternoon of Thursday, September 19, my parents and I again drove down to the barrier beaches. We stopped briefly at Oak Beach and Captree to admire the Fire Island Inlet, but the highlight of the outing was visiting Fire Island itself.

The great Atlantic Ocean stretched out endlessly before us. Its dark blue water contrasted sharply with the light blue sky in the bright sunlight. The horizon where the sea and sky met was clear and distinct, a perfect meteorological condition for celestial navigation. Lines of position taken from the sun on this horizon would yield a fix accurate within a tenth of a mile. There were probably mates aboard ships at sea taking sun sights as I thought of this. One such vessel was just visible on the horizon. Years ago I, too, had sailed past Fire Island on the way to and from New York. From the State of Maine and the Comet I had looked shoreward, just as I now stood on the beach and gazed seaward. The Atlantic was lovely, dark, and deep.4 Its beauty beckoned me as it had beckoned others before me. My grandparents had sailed past Fire Island numerous times aboard several ships on their voyages to and from Europe. As had so many folks. The commercial fleets of Cunard, White Star, American Export, United States Lines, and many others that had called at the West Side piers had sailed past Fire Island on their transatlantic journeys as well, and their navigators had used the both the sun and the nearby Fire Island Lighthouse to fix their positions. Once again, the past and the present showed an interesting way of intersecting on the eternal sea.

Fittingly, I spent my last day of vacation on the water with Michael, my youngest son. As we had done in late July, we again boarded a ferry at Long Wharf in Boston for a voyage to the Boston Harbor Islands. It was another bright and sunny but windy day, Saturday the 21st of September. We stood at the bow rail and felt the rush of salt air and water as we sailed aboard the Island Expedition to Georges Island. We spent the afternoon exploring historic Fort Warren, built in the middle 1800s to defend Boston Harbor, and enjoying the magnificent panorama of blue water, green islands, and the storied Boston Light. The irony was unmistakable—a sublime and peaceful scene viewed from the ramparts of a structure built for battle. I thought of the old Roman proverb: si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war. Ironic and sad, but repeatedly proven true. We returned to the city in the late afternoon aboard the Island Adventure. This voyage took us under the Long Island Bridge and past the outbound tanker Maritime Anita, a vessel of particularly impressive dimensions when viewed alongside from a diminutive ferry boat. Across the harbor in East Boston, the lightship Nantucket still rested at her refitting berth, emblematic of another beautiful day on the water.

One of the great blessings of my life has been to spend many beautiful days on the water. Whether at the shoreline or actually aboard a ship at sea, the effect is the same. There is something about the sea that soothes the soul, brings peace, and invites one back again and again. People sometimes carp about getting too much of a good thing, but I think it’s impossible to have too many beautiful days on the water!

1 I say this with all due respect to the magnificent English of King James’ translators. The main difference is that the two languages have different nuances and therefore express the same thought in their own unique ways. Neither one makes the other wrong; on the contrary, both versions contain supernal truth and beauty of expression. The difference in the numbering of the Psalms stems from differences in Catholic and Protestant approaches to the scriptures. It’s a small point, but one nonetheless indicative of the unfortunate divisions in Christianity.
2 The historical data on individual piers comes from two sources: City of New York Five-Borough Atlas, Fourteenth Edition, Atlas No. 2088A, n.p.: Hagstrom Company, Inc., 1972, p. 9; and “Tourist Manhattan,” Atlas Plate 15, insert in The National Geographic Magazine, July, 1964. Despite the name “Tourist,” this really is a very high quality and richly detailed map.
3 City of New York, loc. cit.

4 I love these verses from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967, p. 224-225:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I have thought of these lines on many occasions when the day’s outing to the seashore was ending and it was time to return home and tend to the responsibilities of negotiating heavy traffic, feeding children, keeping house, going to work, etc. I often wanted to prolong the visit to the oceanfront, but the promises that I felt obliged to keep, i.e., my domestic responsibilities, always called me away.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Still more pictures of ships and children.....

The U.S. Coast Guard sailing ship Eagle at sea between Bermuda and Newport, Rhode Island, on June 21 or 22, 1976.  This was the first of my many encounters with the Eagle.  In honor of the American Bicentennial, tall ships from around the world gathered first in Bermuda, then Newport, and finally New York.  The State of Maine carried news reporters and photographers and maneuvered around the tall ships so these guys could get their stories and pictures.  I took my own pictures, though.

A U.S. Navy P-3 Orion flies high over the State of Maine in the Atlantic, one day out of Norfolk, Virginia, on May 22, 1978.  My older brother flew P-3 Orions during his time in the Navy, but he was not aboard this aircraft.

One of the beauties of the sea.  Sunset in mid-Atlantic seen from the State of Maine while enroute from Norfolk, Virginia, to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in May of 1978.

The tugboat Charger reposes at the dock in Newark, New Jersey, in July of 1977.

The fully loaded gasoline barge Interstate 35 is pushed ahead by the Charger, eastbound on Long Island Sound in July of 1978.  This view is from the bridge of the Charger.

The passenger liners America and Queen Elizabeth 2 docked on the West Side of Manhattan on July 27, 1978.  My grandparents sailed from France aboard the America in 1955.  This view is from the southbound Charger, enroute from Rensselaer, New York, to Newark, New Jersey.

The lounge area of the Interstate 50, northbound with a full load of crude oil on the Delaware River in August of 1978.

The tanker Scapmount aground in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Henlopen, Delaware, on August 23, 1978.  Note the two black balls displayed in the rigging.  The correct signal for a vessel aground is three black balls.

Miss Patty poses happily with the drydocked Waccamaw behind her in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 2, 1983.

Karen, Steven, and James wear the souvenir American Export Lines shirts that my grandparents had bought for my brother and me thirty years earlier.  This is in Nashua in June of 1993.

James on lookout duty aboard the northbound Delaware between Lewes, Delaware, and North Cape May, New Jersey, on August 18, 1998.  Beyond him in the haze to the east lies the open Atlantic.

The four children crowd into the wheelhouse with Captain Steve Pond of the Champlain on an eastward crossing of Lake Champlain from Port Kent, New York, to Burlington, Vermont, on July 2, 2001.

The lightship Nantucket rests alongside a small pier in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay, Long Island, on August 19, 2009, prior to being towed to East Boston, Massachusetts, where she is now undergoing restoration.  I took my children to this park frequently when they were little.  The Nantucket was one of several attractions there.

Another beauty of the sea.  The whole family sailed aboard the excursion boat Iceberg Quest from Twillingate, Newfoundland, to see this iceberg up close on June 24, 2004.  It was a cold, damp, and overcast day on the north coast of Newfoundland.

The Nantucket at her restoration pier in East Boston, Massachusetts, on July 27, 2013.  Michael and I enjoyed this view from the ferry Island Expedition, enroute from Spectacle Island to Long Wharf in Boston proper.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Day on the Water

The past and the present have an interesting way of intersecting. Shortly after 7:00am on Saturday, July 27, 2013, I met my son Michael in front of South Station in Boston. Our itinerary for the day included voyages across Boston Harbor, visits to historic ships, visits to historic shoreside locations, and many happy hours visiting with each other. Under the Creator’s clear blue and sunny sky, then, we set out for the Eagle Hill neighborhood of East Boston.

The historic marker on the low stone wall in front of the house at 78-80 White Street informed us that this was once the residence of the famous shipbuilder Donald McKay. A legend in his own time, Mr. McKay designed and supervised the construction of clipper ships at a shipyard in East Boston in the mid-1800s. The notation on his wall summarizes his career very briefly. Volumes on library shelves elaborate on it more fully. Between these two extremes, Mr. McKay’s name and work are immortalized in brick and stone elsewhere in East Boston. Clipper Ship Wharf still stands on the waterfront; Clipper Ship Lane abuts the old shipyard property; the Donald McKay School educates the rising generation; and Piers Park overlooks the Inner Harbor with pavilions honoring his work and memory.

Michael and I walked from the house to the park. A beautiful facility with immaculately manicured lawns and brick walkways, it commanded magnificent views of the harbor, the surrounding waterfronts, and the downtown skyscrapers. In the distance to the south, airplanes took off from Logan Airport and headed west over the city. Directly in front of us, tugs with barges made their way between the docks and the open sea. One tug and barge unit reposed at anchor slightly to our left. My son and I sat in the McKay Pavilion to have a snack, enjoy the view, and discuss shipping and history. He asked me many questions.

Had I ever come into Boston on a ship? Yes, I explained, on two ships, actually. The first was the old State of Maine in May of 1976. She tied up at the Commonwealth Pier in South Boston. Then I joined the Wilkes at the Braswell Shipyard, also in South Boston, in July of 1980. Braswell went out of business and shut down while the Wilkes was there. Like the McKay shipyard off to our right, it receded into the past and took many people’s livelihoods with it.

Did I know how tugs and barges work? Yes, I answered. I had spent the summer of 1978 working aboard the Charger and the Interstate 50 of the Interstate and Ocean Transport Company. As we watched a tug with a loaded barge pass in front of us, Michael asked about the operation. How were the two vessels lashed together? How does the crew steer the tug with the barge attached? What cargo do barges carry? Do they go out on the open ocean? And as another tug with an empty barge lashed to its starboard side came along, Michael asked about towing positions and freeboard. He wanted to know everything!

Another pavilion in Piers Park honored the various ethnic groups that had immigrated to the United States and settled in East Boston. Many of these folks had found work in the McKay shipyard. Appropriately, then, a painting of one of the yard’s masterpieces, the clipper ship Flying Cloud, stood prominently on display. At the time of her construction in 1851, the Flying Cloud was the largest and fastest merchant ship ever built, more ambitious even than the previous McKay masterpiece Stag Hound. On her first voyage the Flying Cloud set a new speed record on the New York to San Francisco route, then continued transpacific and eastward via the Cape of Good Hope and returned to New York with a load of Chinese tea. She paid for herself in this one round-the-world voyage, an unparalleled commercial and technical success. About three dozen clipper ships followed the Flying Cloud from the East Boston shipyard. Many of them, including such luminaries as the Lightning, the Great Republic, and the Sovereign of the Seas, became world-famous in their time and have been remembered for their achievements ever since.1

From Piers Park Michael and I walked to the nearby Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. At the end of a medium-sized wooden dock the lightship Nantucket lay in repose. With her white-lettered bright red starboard side facing away from the dock, she was plainly visible clear across the water from downtown Boston. She was designed to stand out in the distance, and she did. The product of an era vastly different from the clipper ship years, the Nantucket had long stood guard over the treacherous Nantucket Shoals, warning merchant vessels away from danger as they traversed the traffic lanes leading to and from New York. Retired and withdrawn from service for many years now, the Nantucket had been acquired from the government by the privately owned United States Lightship Museum and was undergoing restoration for preservation as an historic vessel. My children and I had seen her previously in Oyster Bay, Long Island. She had been parked there for a time while her fate was being decided. Then she was towed to East Boston on May 10 & 11, 2010, and has remained there since.2 It was good to see her again! I had the feeling of revisiting an old friend as Michael and I stood on the dock admiring this great ship and reminiscing about happy times in Oyster Bay.

Leaving the Nantucket behind, we doubled back past Piers Park and walked along Marginal Street toward Maverick Square. This route took us past some of the dilapidated old docks of the East Boston waterfront. Long a busy shipping site, these docks have now lain in ruins for decades, a sad waste of valuable urban real estate. With its views of the harbor and downtown skyscrapers, this land seemed to have tremendous potential for residential use. Happily, though, at the foot of Lewis Street, a new building was under construction.

Long before railroad and motor vehicle tunnels connected East Boston with downtown, ferries carried the passengers and freight across the harbor. Much discussion about reviving such a service and even expanding it to connect East Boston with South Boston and Charlestown has taken place, and the federal government has committed money toward building new vessels.3 Michael and I wondered, then, if this new building would be a ferry terminal. It was certainly in the right place for one. Until ferries started crossing the harbor again from East Boston, however, we would rely on the subway. And so returning to Maverick Square, we rode through the Blue Line’s subaquatic chambers to Aquarium station, walked the short distance to Long Wharf, and boarded the ferry Rita for Charlestown.

The voyage aboard the Rita through the Inner Harbor to the former Navy Yard in Charlestown took maybe fifteen minutes. But it was a very pleasant fifteen minutes, with the sun bright in the mid-morning blue sky. The Nantucket’s white-lettered red hull stood out prominently on the East Boston shore line, and as the Rita approached the docks in Charlestown two other historically significant vessels came into view. The Constitution, of course, has long been a special feature of Boston Harbor. This weekend, though, she had a neighbor. The Coast Guard’s famous sailing ship Eagle shared the dock with the Constitution. She was open over the weekend for public tours, and Michael and I were going to visit.

My first glimpse of the Eagle took place at sea in June of 1976. I was embarked on the old State of Maine which was following the tall ships’ race from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island, and carrying the press corps for this event. To enable these newsmen to take photographs of the various sailing ships and write stories about the race, Captain Hill deftly maneuvered the State of Maine from one tall ship to the next, always maintaining a safe distance between the vessels and remaining downwind of them so as not to spill the wind from their sails. Since that occasion, I had seen the Eagle many times in Boston, New York, and her home port of New London, but I had never gone aboard.

I knew her history pretty well, though. Built in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany, she began her long career as the Horst Wessel, a training ship for the German Navy. Taken over by the United States in 1945, she became the Eagle for the next phase of her career, training personnel for the United States Coast Guard. In June of 2011 she observed her 75th birthday by returning to Hamburg where she was received as an honored guest by both the city and the German government.4

Under less auspicious circumstances, Michael and I enjoyed a wonderful time aboard the Eagle in Charlestown. We puzzled over her extensive rigging, studied her elaborate woodwork, and admired her military orderliness. A Coast Guard officer engaged us in conversation and tried to interest Michael in attending the Coast Guard Academy in New London. On the pier again, I pointed out aspects of the Eagle’s hull structure to Michael, most notably the elaborate curvature of the fantail stern, an artistic feature of ship designs of a bygone era.

From Charlestown we sailed once again aboard the Rita and returned to Long Wharf. Another short but very pleasant voyage. As we had done earlier, Michael and I sat in deck chairs on the stern, away from the more crowded cabin and with open views of the harbor. As the Rita passed the North End of Boston, I showed Michael the Coast Guard building on Commercial Street, the place where I had taken the exams for the chief mate’s license in the summer of 1984. Almost thirty years ago! Tempus fugit, indeed.

At the now crowded and noisy Long Wharf, Michael and I signed up for our next voyage of the day and then had a light lunch while we waited. At his suggestion we took the ferry Island Expedition to Spectacle Island in the Boston Harbor Islands chain. About 200 other people had the same idea, so it was a full boat. Nonetheless, it was a lovely 25-minute voyage from the downtown area past the working piers of South Boston and into the cluster of small green islands at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Within sight of the downtown skyscrapers yet seeming a world apart from them, Spectacle Island offered hiking trails and scenic lookouts laid out amid lush verdant hills. It was an oasis of peace and quiet surrounded by calm and restful blue water. It soothed the soul. Michael and I followed a trail partway around the island and up one of the hills and enjoyed spectacular views of the expanse of water and additional islands in all directions. Recreational boats dotted the adjacent seas, and ferries hurried to and fro within the archipelago. In this beautiful location time seemed to stand still. The unfailing westward movement of the afternoon sun clearly indicated otherwise, though, and all too soon we needed to hike back to the dock. We agreed that with a picnic lunch and a set of binoculars we could have done a full day’s outing on Spectacle Island. Perhaps next summer!

Returning again to Long Wharf aboard the Island Expedition, I positioned myself in the best possible photographic vantage point and with the newfangled digital camera recorded the principal shipping activity around us. There was the Nantucket, of course. Also the Roseway, a two-masted, red-sailed school ship for high school and junior high school students gliding gracefully into port. And then there was the Cosco Genoa, a 900 or so feet long container ship of the China Ocean Shipping Company, moored and working cargo at one of the South Boston piers. After another very pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable 25 minutes on the water, the Island Expedition arrived back at Long Wharf, and it was time for us to disembark.

During our absence on the water and ashore on Spectacle Island, the city had become very hot, crowded, and noisy. People milled around everywhere. No doubt many of them had come into town to see historical sites. Michael likes to call Boston “America’s cornerstone” because of the city’s richness in history, particularly colonial and revolutionary history. This is borne out in the North End neighborhood where he had attended school.5 Tourists parade through the North End to see the Old North Church, the statue of Paul Revere, and the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. From these sites, it’s a reasonable walk over the Charlestown Bridge to the Navy Yard where the visitors would then tour the Constitution.

While this is very commendable, I daresay few if any of these same tourists would venture across the harbor to East Boston and visit the Donald McKay house, the site of the clipper ship building yard, the Nantucket, or Piers Park. Yet all this is historical, too. I like to think of it as history off the beaten path. In a city that is practically saturated with history, the out-of-the-way shipping history stands out as the most fascinating of all. Great historic ships like the Flying Cloud, the Eagle, and the Nantucket not only connected Boston with the rest of the world but also connect the past and the present. Likewise, humble ships like the State of Maine and the Wilkes connect the family’s past with its present. Similarly, ferryboats like the Rita and the Rookie, aboard which Michael commutes daily to work, connect the family’s present with its future.

As I rode the bus back home to Nashua later that afternoon, I stared out the window but saw in my mind’s eye the events of my day on the water. A special day spent in a unique setting with—best of all—a beloved son. I liked it so much that I wanted to do it all again!

1 A.B.C. Whipple, The Clipper Ships, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1980, p. 55 & 61. Chapter 2 of this book, comprising pages 46 to 71, contains a wonderful capsule summary of Donald McKay’s career, the Flying Cloud’s initial voyage, and a vintage photograph of the East Boston shipyard. See also for a roster of clipper ships that he designed and built.
2 For complete information see
3 Jeremy C. Fox, “BRA approves ferry plan to connect East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston,” Sept. 18, 2012, available at; and Edward L. Glaeser, “A bridge to East Boston—via ferry,” Boston Globe, available at
4 Dirk Langeveld, “Coast Guard Eagle Visits Birthplace in Hamburg,” in New London Patch, June 6, 2011, available at For historical and technical information about the Eagle without the ethnic and political vituperation that permeates most American accounts of the ship, see
5 Michael attended the North Bennet Street School, where he studied woodworking and furniture building, starting on February 7, 2011, and graduating on May 31, 2013.