Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Squall

One fine day in the summer of 1964, my parents and I went sailing on the Great South Bay along the South Shore of Long Island.  The weather was beautiful—blue sky, sunshine, a few altocumulus clouds, and a gentle breeze from the southwest.  The family sailboat was a small wooden knockabout of the Cape Cod class.  It measured eighteen feet in length, drew one foot of water with the centerboard up, and had a foredeck but no cabin.  Designed for fair weather recreational sailing, it offered minimal shelter from and little resistance to strong winds and high seas.  But it was fully seaworthy, handled gracefully, and served the family’s purposes well on an enclosed and shallow body of water.

As a sign of his devotion to my mother, my father named this boat Justine.  He rented dock space for the Justine in a bulkheaded canal called Karras Creek in Massapequa.  This was named after Peter Karras, the proprietor of the Riviera, an adjacent restaurant and banquet hall situated on a point of land which overlooked an alcove on the north side of the bay.  Peter Karras owned this property and operated the dining facilities.  As a sideline, he leased the dock space to my father and several other folks.  A small man with a big temper, he also complained loudly, viciously, and unceasingly about all the taxes he had to pay.  Every time we saw him he was throwing a tantrum about his taxes.  I think my father listened to these tirades for amusement.

The taxes notwithstanding, our family spent many enjoyable and peaceful afternoons sailing on the Great South Bay aboard the Justine.  Usually there were four of us, my parents and my brother and myself, but sometimes my grandparents came with us, too.  We only went sailing in good weather, and it was always a lot of fun.  But then one day the weather suddenly changed.

My mother and father and I were sailing just south of the Nassau Shores neighborhood of Massapequa, where the Great South Bay and the South Oyster Bay come together.  The weather had been perfect for such sailing all day.  Toward the late afternoon, though, dark clouds appeared in the distance to the southwest.  As the wind freshened and the air cooled and the dark clouds came closer, it became clear that a squall line was approaching.  My parents decided to return immediately to Karras Creek.  They brought the Justine about and started to sail northward up the channel.  With the increasing wind, they expected to reach port quickly.

The Justine moved right along with the wind on her port quarter, but the squall line approached faster than expected and caught up with the little boat.  The sky became overcast with ominous looking cumulonimbus clouds; the wind speed increased exponentially; the surface of the bay turned choppy; and heavy rain poured down on the bay, drenching the Justine and her crew.  Unable to hold her northbound course in the channel leading to Karras Creek, the little boat was blown eastward across the flats toward the opposite shore of the alcove.  With her shallow draft, the Justine made it safely through the flats without grounding.  In deeper water again, she approached a residential neighborhood with a bulkheaded shoreline between Carman Creek and Narrraskatuck Creek near Amityville.

As the Justine was blown closer to the shore, it became apparent that she would land alongside the large backyard of a white house.  Seeing our little boat arriving, a middle-aged couple came outside to assist with docking.  In the howling wind and pouring rain, they helped secure the Justine to their dock, and then they insisted that we come inside their house to warm up and dry off.  

These kind people were Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro, a Jewish couple with grown children. They proved to be very gracious and compassionate hosts.  They explained that they had seen what trouble we were in, and they wanted to help us if they could.   When it became obvious where we would land, they were ready for us.  With no hesitation, they took the three of us, complete strangers, into their home.  They gave us towels so we could dry off, made hot tea for my parents, and fixed a light supper for me.  Some time afterwards, when the rain and the wind abated, Mr. Shapiro returned outside with my father and me.  He helped us check over the boat and bail out the accumulated rain water.

With the squall moving eastward out of the area, the rain ceased and the sky once again became clear.  My parents decided that it would now be safe to resume our voyage and return to Karras Creek.  The three of us thanked Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro for their kindness and hospitality and bade them farewell.  Embarking once more aboard the Justine, we made the short sail westward in the twilight and across the flats to Karras Creek.  We arrived there without incident.  We tied up the boat, furled the sails, stowed all the gear, and then drove home.

My parents spoke often of this little adventure in subsequent years.  They appreciated the kindness of the Shapiros, and they remembered this couple fondly.  Like the Good Samaritan of the New Testament, Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro tended to the needs of strangers caught in an emergency.  They were indeed a credit to the great Jewish faith.

As for me, I was six years old when this took place.  Despite the intensity of the weather, I was not frightened.  I felt safe through everything because I knew that my parents would take care of me.  My mother, in particular, had had extensive experience with sailboats on the Great South Bay when she was younger.  She and my father knew what they were doing.  So I had no reason to be frightened.

Many years later aboard larger vessels on more violent bodies of water, I encountered storms of vastly different proportions.  With stronger winds and larger waves, and covering a much greater surface area, these storms were not simply local squalls but formed substantial parts of the global weather system.  They raged not just for hours but for days and sometimes for a week and more. Even long afterwards, they remain memorable: aboard the Rigel and the Waccamaw in the Mediterranean, on the Mercury in the Caribbean, the State of Maine and the Victoria in the North Atlantic, the Comet in the North Pacific, and the most violent voyage of all, aboard the Wilkes in the far North Atlantic.

While each of these is a good case in point, the rough ride on the Wilkes north of Scotland is perhaps the most illustrative.  With wind speeds of 75 knots and more—hurricane force—and wave heights ranging from 25 to 40 feet, the ship pitched and rolled without letup.  Waves crashed over the foredeck continuously.  Walls of spray threw themselves over the entire superstructure.  As soon as the ship emerged from one wave with water hurriedly draining over the side, the next one would hit and drench the vessel again.  The repeated onrush of water coupled with the constant and extreme pitching, rolling, and yawing motions of the ship made for a memorable but exhausting voyage.  A scan of the horizon through binoculars from the bridge revealed an angry ocean with waves so mountainous that their crests collapsed under themselves and turned to masses of blowing and bubbling foam on the wave tops.  Endless rows of such waves marched inexorably toward the Wilkes, and as they arrived they lifted the little ship high up on their crests and then plunged her down into their troughs and covered her with a rush of violently churning water.  Occasionally waves would break over the Wilkes’ bow, and the descending pile of water crashing down onto the foredeck would cause the entire hull to shudder and lurch and twist  under the enormous weight.  But then the bow, being lighter than the water, would leap upwards again.  As the torrents of seawater then poured overboard, the next wave would strike and the cycle would be repeated.  This continued day after day and night after night until the passing time became a blur.

By comparison, the squall that blew the Justine off course on the Great South Bay was not so bad.  Put in perspective, the wave trains that assaulted the Wilkes would completely obliterate the low-lying and sandy South Shore of Long Island.  But just as the squall that caught the Justine did not give cause for fright, neither did the storms that caught the larger vessels in subsequent years.

When I was a little boy aboard the Justine, I relied on my parents to take care of me, and they did.  As an adult aboard the Wilkes and other ships, I was more self-reliant and better educated in the ways of ships and the sea.  A knowledge of meteorology, oceanography, shipboard stability, and heavy weather shiphandling forms an important part of the Merchant Marine license exams.  These are subjects which every Master and mate must know.  I had studied them in preparation for the exams, and I used them daily aboard ship.  Understanding how the weather works, how the ocean works, and how a ship reacts to the weather and water enables one to take the elements in stride and realize that rough voyages are normal.  Furthermore, the Wilkes and her fleet mates were well maintained vessels.  All the ships of our fleet were structurally sound with positive stability and full watertight integrity.  Despite the occasional grumbling of the practitioners at sea for the administrators ashore, our fleet was well run and properly maintained.  So again, I had no reason to be frightened.    

As an old proverb holds, knowledge is indeed the key to understanding, and understanding frees one from fear.  As a child aboard the Justine, I knew that my parents would take care of me no matter what happened.  I understood their love and concern for me, and so I knew I was safe.  Aboard the Wilkes and other vessels in rough weather, I knew how the forces of nature operated and why the sea and the ships upon it behaved as they did.  I understood the laws of physics, and so I knew I was safe.

But there remains one more factor.  Because I have studied the scriptures, I have learned the fullness of the Gospel.  I know that I am a child of a Heavenly Father who loves me, cares about me, and wants me to return to him after my earthly voyages are complete.  I understand that I entered this life at his bidding, and that I will enter the next life at his bidding, too.  I further understand that no matter how extreme the storms of this life become, God will take care of me, both here and in the hereafter.  I can trust his infinite wisdom and love, which supersede both natural parental love and the laws of physics, and so I have no reason to be frightened.

The awestruck and perhaps frightened psalmist prayed, “Thou rulest the raging of the sea” (Ps. 89:9), but I think the Lord’s angel said it best:  “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…” (Luke 2:10).

Friday, November 20, 2015

Pictures from Alaska

An assortment of photographs taken on my visit to Alaska, October 8 to 10, 2015. As always, click on the photo for a larger view.

James' and Sarah's new house in Anchorage.

Statue of Captain James Cook, RN, in Resolution Park in downtown Anchorage.
James and the Aurora of the Alaska Railroad in the Anchorage station, preparing to depart for Fairbanks.  I rode this train to Wasilla, the first stop.
The Alaska state flag over the Wasilla station.  I particularly like the depiction of the constellation Ursa Major and Polaris, the North Star.  I used Polaris many times at sea for navigational purposes.
The ferry Aurora of the Alaska Marine Highway, just arrived in Whittier.
The railroad barge Anchorage Provider in Whittier, with railroad freight cars on the main deck and shipping containers stored in the upper works.
The bow of the Anchorage Provider.  Note the bulwarks situated to protect railroad cars and shipping containers from the rigors of the Pacific Ocean.
The ocean-going tugboat Gulf Titan, the towing vessel that hauls the Anchorage Provider between Whittier and Seattle.
Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Eklutna.  Very distinctive with the "houses" for the spirits of the deceased.
Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage.  An impressive sight with its plethora of onion domes.
Saint Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church in Anchorage.  The largest onion dome, over the main entrance.
The statue of the angel Moroni atop the Anchorage Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Twice By the Pacific

When I was in the shipping business, I went where my employer sent me.  Now that I’m in the family business, I go where my wife sends me.

Such were my thoughts in the evening of Wednesday, October 7, 2015, as the Alaska Airlines 737 maneuvered on its approach to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at the conclusion of a transcontinental flight from Boston.  This aerial voyage had taken me over Ontario, Manitoba, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  Finally, the aircraft descended and made a wide left turn which gave me a panoramic view of the region.  For the first time in 31 years I looked upon downtown Seattle, Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and the vast Pacific Ocean.  I had last seen this part of the world from the bridge of the freighter Comet in the spring of 1984.  After all this time, it felt good to be back.

But I would not remain long.  A connecting flight aboard another Alaska Airlines 737, this one a combination passenger and cargo airplane, conveyed me northwest from Seattle and out over the inky black Pacific to Anchorage, Alaska.  I had never been to Anchorage before; my employer had never sent me there.  Instead, my wife sent me there—to visit our son and daughter-in-law.  They had recently bought a house, and my assignment was to help them move their belongings.  At 3:45am on Thursday the 8th, the plane touched down.  A few minutes later, my oldest son James met me inside the terminal and drove me to his new home.

It felt disconcerting at first, after traveling thousands of miles, to arrive in a place where the people spoke American-accented English, used American money, and flew the American flag.  A journey of similar distance but in the opposite direction from Boston would have yielded a much different result.  Several years spent making transoceanic voyages had accustomed me to this.  Today it felt odd to still be in the United States.  Soon enough, however, I would see subtle differences and become aware of Alaska’s cosmopolitan background.

For a few hours every day, we moved James’ and Sarah’s belongings from their previous residence to their new home.  The rest of the time we spent traveling and sightseeing.

Starting in Anchorage on Thursday, James and I visited Earthquake Park.  Named for the infamous earthquake that struck the region on Good Friday in 1964, this site offered an open view to the west, north, and northeast.  Across the water of the Cook Inlet stood downtown Anchorage with the snow-capped Chugach Range behind it.  A spectacular view, even on a damp and cloudy day.  In the city proper, we visited Resolution Park, which faced the opposite direction.  A life-sized statue of Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy looked to the west over the Cook Inlet, the waterway that bears his name and connects Anchorage with the open Pacific.

Captain Cook is an iconic figure in the history of Alaska.  Justly famous for his voyages of exploration in the vast Pacific Ocean, he and his crews made extensive surveys and drew detailed maps of the Alaskan coastline.  They carried out much of their Alaskan explorations aboard the Resolution and the Discovery during the summer of 1778, at the same time that their military colleagues were attempting to put down an armed colonial uprising on the eastern seaboard of North America.  I found it ironic that Alaska would one day join the country that was formed out of this rebellion.  For his work, Captain Cook came to be honored not only with this statue, but with a downtown luxury hotel named for him and with numerous wall murals in its lobby portraying his ships, their crews, and the sites they explored.  In the long history of seafaring, very few seamen have been honored with statues, let alone with buildings and paintings.[1]

Friday’s sightseeing took place south of Anchorage.  On the road to Whittier James and Sarah and I skirted the waterway known as Turnagain Arm.  Named thus by Captain Cook because his two ships needed to turn around in it repeatedly to avoid danger, Turnagain Arm extends inland but does not lead to the seaport of Whittier.  Instead, to reach Whittier we drove through a 2½ mile long combination railroad and highway tunnel cut through solid rock beneath the 4,100 feet high Maynard Mountain.  Emerging in Whittier, we  came upon its small but important harbor, situated on the western end of Passage Canal.  This is not really a canal, but an arm of the much larger Prince William Sound.  Cruise ships, ferries, and railroad barges serve this port, which is surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped Chugach Mountains.

Arriving shortly after we did was the ferry Aurora of the Alaska Marine Highway, the state’s coastwise ferry line. The Aurora backed gracefully into her berth, discharged and loaded passengers and vehicles, and then quietly got underway again.  Moored nearby were the main attractions for us, the tug Gulf Titan and the barge Anchorage Provider, operated by Western Towboat and Alaska Marine Lines, respectively.

The Gulf Titan was an ocean-going tugboat that towed railroad barges such as the Anchorage Provider.  These vessels are two of the fleet that runs the supply route between Whittier, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington.  The Anchorage Provider’s main deck consists of railroad tracks, and her upperworks holds shipping containers.  A shoreside crane would load and remove the containers on the top level, and railroad locomotives would push and pull the freight cars onto and off the main deck.  As I studied this vessel’s configuration,  I became impressed by her size.  A non-motorized barge, she measures 450 feet in length and 85 feet in breadth, large enough to accommodate eight railroad tracks each 420 feet long.  Fully loaded, she can carry 50 railroad cars and a combined total of 20,000 tons of rail cars and shipping containers with a draft of only 18 feet.  James explained his role as a railroad employee in the process of loading and unloading rail cars.  A precision operation, it requires an exact alignment of the barge’s rails with the shoreside rails, tolerates a ramp elevation of no more than a few degrees, and requires that the barge be kept on a even keel at all times.  Wind and sea conditions, even in this sheltered harbor, can wreak havoc with this delicate process.

Despite these constraints, this tug and barge operation serves as Alaska’s lifeline.  Consumer products of almost every description including food arrive in Whittier by sea and are then trucked or railroaded to Anchorage and other destinations.  In the opposite direction, railroad tank cars bring petroleum products to the “Lower 48.”  A fleet of three tug and barge units carry the seaborne commerce between Alaska and Washington.  Additional vessels operated by Foss Marine and the Canadian National Railway carry cargo between Alaska and British Columbia.  By comparison, the cargo carried by Alaska Airlines is a tiny fraction of that carried by sea, and consists of mostly small items and mail that need to be delivered quickly.

We did not see this operation in process, though.  On this particular day, the cargo loading had already been completed, and the Gulf Titan and the Anchorage Provider reposed quietly at their dock.  What they were waiting for remained unknown.  It likely was not the weather, which was quite mild.  Besides, that would not stop them.  James explained that the one way voyage between Alaska and Washington normally requires six days; in poor to extreme sea conditions, though, it can take ten to fifteen days.  Sailing on the open Pacific is not always a pacific experience, as I had learned aboard the Comet many years previously.

On Saturday we followed a different course.  I took a ride on the Alaska Railroad’s weekend Anchorage to Fairbanks train Aurora.  I rode only from Anchorage to Wasilla, though, a 1¼  hour long journey.  James followed the train in his automobile, and Sarah returned to work.  After a pleasant ride out of the city and through the woods and wetlands and with the snow-capped mountains always looming in the distance, I disembarked at the Wasilla station.  James was waiting for me on the platform.  We then returned to Anchorage, but with stops.  The first of these was at a locomotive shop, where a volunteer crew was restoring and rebuilding an Alaska Railroad steam locomotive, Number 557.  An ambitious project of several years’ duration, it is gradually nearing completion.  James had spent many hours working on this locomotive, but was off duty today.  He kept himself occupied with me instead.

Continuing back toward Anchorage, we stopped first at Lake Eklutna, a fresh water lake high in the mountains that provides the drinking water for the Municipality of Anchorage.  Next we visited the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church and Cemetery in Eklutna.  A beautiful little building topped in the Russian fashion with onion domes and Eastern-style three-armed suppedaneum crosses, Saint Nicholas occupied a small site and served as a spiritual haven in a very quiet rural area.  Much of the property contained the cemetery, itself a sight to behold.  Miniature houses painted in bright colors covered the individual graves.  James explained that these served to house the spirits of the deceased in the Russian tradition.  James further explained that when the Russians came to Alaska, they brought Christianity with them, and they passed it on to many of the native inhabitants.  To this day Russian Orthodoxy remains one of the most prevalent denominations of Christianity among the native Alaskan population. 

After returning to Anchorage, we stopped at three more churches.  The first and largest of these was the Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  A large and fairly new but nonetheless very ornate structure, it featured a multiplicity of onion domes and suppedaneum crosses.  Similarly, the smaller Saint Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church and Parish Hall also displayed onion domes and suppedaneum crosses.  I especially enjoyed seeing these distinctive symbols of Christianity from far-off Eastern Europe.  Some may regard them simply as cultural icons, but to me they demonstrate the universality of the Christian faith and its acceptance by the diverse peoples of the Earth, the result of the early Apostles heeding the Lord’s instruction to “Go therefore, and teach all nations…” (Matt. 28:19).  Finally, we went to see the Anchorage Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Built in an architectural style vastly different from the Russian and Byzantine churches, it also expressed the spiritual character of its denomination, especially in the statue of the angel Moroni summoning the entire population of the world to enter its hallowed halls. 

Additionally, several Roman Catholic and Protestant churches stood in Anchorage, but with time in short supply, we unfortunately needed to prepare for my departure on Saturday night.  Three days in Alaska were quickly proving to be insufficient.  There remained so much more to see and do, including miles of rugged coastline and numerous sheltered harbors to explore.  But for now, I had the long aerial voyage home.

Shortly after midnight, I left Anchorage aboard an Alaska Airlines 737 bound for Portland, Oregon.  After takeoff the aircraft turned southeastward and flew over the Pacific Ocean.  Sitting by a window on the starboard side, I gazed down through the dark night at the dark sea.  It was faintly but definitely discernible.  As the airplane neared the Oregon coast, the gradual approach of dawn turned the vast Pacific from a dark to a medium gray.  From the air it appeared to be truly pacific, yet I thought of Robert Frost’s famous opening lines:

                        The shattered water made a misty din.
                        Great waves looked over others coming in,
                        And thought of doing something to the shore
                        That water never did to land before.[2]

And I thought of the thrashing the Comet had taken on her two-weeks-long return voyage from Japan in 1984.  She had made several port calls here on the American West Coast before and after sailing transpacific to and from the Far East.  I would love to make such a long voyage again, I daydreamed, perhaps aboard a Holland-America Line cruise ship!  For now, it simply felt good to be back, I reflected, as the aircraft turned east and headed overland to the Portland International Airport.

After a short layover, I left Portland early Sunday morning aboard another Alaska Airlines 737 bound across the continent for Boston.  Cloud cover hid the ground until the aircraft reached Montana.  There I saw for the first time this state where James had gotten his start in railroading. The farmlands of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin followed.  Then the airplane passed over the Great Lakes.  Looking south, I enjoyed a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan, then Michigan itself, Lake Huron, and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario with Niagara Falls and the Welland Canal clearly visible.  Lake Erie reached to the horizon in the south.  Finally, the aircraft passed over Lake Ontario and then upstate New York.  On the approach to Logan Airport in the late afternoon, the pilots took the airplane east over the Atlantic Ocean and then made a wide left turn to land into the northwest.  A long and bumpy descent over the bright blue and calm sea followed, and then the plane touched down.  Despite the inability to attend church, it was a restful and spiritual Sabbath for me, flying over and imbibing the magnificence of the Pacific, the Great Lakes, and the Atlantic all on the same day!

On the bus to New Hampshire, my thoughts returned to the Pacific.  I felt a sense of gratitude for all my experiences on the great waterways of the world.  Somehow, though, the Pacific was different, and ironically, I had never intended to go there.  When the Comet arrived in New Orleans in December of 1983, I spoke with the powers-that-be at company headquarters about returning to the Waccamaw in the Mediterranean, as had been the original plan when I went on vacation.  This plan was nixed, however.  I remained aboard the Comet, transited the Panama Canal, and crossed the great Pacific.  My initial disappointment about this went away quickly, and now I’m very grateful that I stayed the course.  And I wish I could do it again!

From Panama to Korea, from the Comet to the Anchorage Provider, and from Alaska Airlines to the Alaska Railroad, the Pacific has repeatedly opened up a world of new adventures for me.  I’m thankful for these unexpected but happy experiences, and I think  of the scriptural injunction to  “live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you” (Alma 34:38).

Between my employer and my wife sending me away on long voyages, I owe a lot in thanksgiving.

[1] I personally know of three other statues of seamen:  Captain Rafael Semmes of the Confederate States Navy in Mobile, Alabama, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut of the United States Navy in Madison Square Park in New York, and Capitano Cristoforo Colombo in Genova.  There may be others, though.
[2] Robert Frost, “Once by the Pacific,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, p. 250.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

One Hundred Years and Counting

We watched with bated breath as the ferry Adirondack approached the dock in Burlington, Vermont.  It was in the late morning of Wednesday, August 20, 2014, and Miss Patty and I had just driven across two states in order to sail aboard this great ship.  As the vessel eased gently into her berth, we noticed the name board that identified her as the Adirondack mounted on the pilothouse just under the large windows.  Right below that, another inscription gave the date, 1913.  These two simple signs told the world proudly but quietly that the Adirondack was over one hundred years old!  Very few ships have become centenarians, but the Adirondack was one of them.   Furthermore, unlike most of her contemporaries, she remained in revenue service, crossing Lake Champlain every day.   On this day, it would be our great privilege to sail with her.

We had crossed Lake Champlain with our four children on ferries previously.  We sailed aboard the Champlain on July 2, 2001, and aboard the Valcour on July 31, 2002.  These were magnificent voyages on a large and beautiful lake surrounded by pristine mountains.   The crossing from Burlington to Port Kent, New York, just south of Plattsburgh, took an hour.  The return voyage took about the same time.  For us, though, it always seemed too short.  The dark blue water rushing past the hull, the verdant mountains rising majestically on both sides of the lake, and the light blue sky laced with billowing white altocumulus clouds all beckoned us to stay with them and not return home.  Well, we needed to go home, but we also needed to come back.  And when the Adirondack reached her one hundredth year, we decided we must take our next voyage with her.

We boarded the Adirondack eagerly and got comfortable on the upper deck where the views would be best.   At the appointed time, and after taking on a full load of vehicles and passengers, the Adirondack set sail.  Easing gently away from her berth, the great ship headed north and out of the harbor sheltered by the Burlington Breakwater.  On passing the small lighthouse that marks the northern point of this jetty, the vessel accelerated and set a more northwestward trans-lake course for the New York shore.  A peaceful, quiet, and restful voyage followed.  For an hour we imbibed the natural and unspoiled beauty of Lake Champlain and the surrounding mountain ranges as the ship rode smoothly and gracefully through the calm blue water.  That it was the fresh water of an inland lake and not the salt water of the open ocean made no difference; the voyage was still, in Shakespearean terms, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”[1]

With the leisure time that such a voyage affords, I thought of the long career of the Adirondack.  She had come to life as the South Jacksonville of the Jacksonville Ferry and Land Company in 1913, and she served on the Saint Johns River between downtown Jacksonville and South Jacksonville, Florida.  In 1921, after only eight years in this trade, the ferry line was replaced by a bridge, and the South Jacksonville was sold north to the Tocony-Palmyra Ferry Company in Philadelphia.  She then plied the Delaware River as the Mount Holly until 1927.  At that point, she was sold north again, to the 34th Street Vehicular Ferry Company in New York.  With no change of name this time, she sailed on the East River between Long Island City and the foot of East 34th Street in Manhattan.  This arrangement lasted until 1936 when the company failed.  Two years later, however, the Mount Holly was sold south to the expanding Chesapeake Bay Ferry Company and renamed the Governor Emerson C. Harrington II.  Under this new identity and with a newly rebuilt superstructure, she linked the communities of Claiborne and Romancoke on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  In the early 1940s the State of Maryland assumed the operation of the ferries from the private owner, and the Governor Harrington ran until shortly after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was opened in 1952.[2]

In 39 years, our Adirondack had served five owners, sailed on four routes, and had twice been replaced by bridges.  In addition, her original coal-fired steam engine had been replaced by twin diesels.  But she was not finished yet, I thought, as she glided past Schuyler Island and slowed for her approach to the dock in Port Kent, New York.  Easing up to the wharf on a northerly heading, she came to rest gently at a small facility in the lee of a large promontory just to the south and almost adjacent to the Amtrak line that connects New York City and Montreal.  We remained on the upper deck as the westbound traffic disembarked and eastbound traffic came aboard.  This did not take long, and soon the Adirondack got underway again.

The return voyage to Vermont was just as lovely as the initial crossing to New York had been.  Again I contemplated the Adirondack’s long life and marveled that a ship could keep going so far beyond the usual expected lifespan of thirty to forty years.  She had gotten her new lease on life in 1954, two years after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge had taken away her work.  Purchased by the Lake Champlain Transportation Company, the Governor Emerson C. Harrington II was brought north from Maryland and renamed the Adirondack.  Following the long trek through the Hudson River and Champlain Canal, the Adirondack has remained on Lake Champlain for the last sixty years, making the seasonal crossings between Burlington and Port Kent every spring, summer, and fall.[3]  Job security at last!

Few ships, few things in general, and certainly few people live to be one hundred years old.  But even those who do reach the century mark know they won’t last forever, at least not in their earthly form.  While we often stand in awe of someone who has lived so long, we also recognize the 100th birthday as something of a last hurrah.  For the end of necessity must come, and fairly soon.  Not even the grand old Adirondack can sail forever!  Her time shall come, as will ours.  It is inevitable.

In the long history of the world, even a life lasting one hundred years is a comparatively short time, a small window of opportunity that should be used wisely.  We are told many times and in many ways throughout the scriptures that one of the best uses of our time involves showing Christlike care and concern for others and helping them to feel the Lord’s love for them.  This thought calls to mind the famous remark of the great Quaker missionary Etienne de Grellet:

            I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or kindness I can
show to any human being; let me do it now.  Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.[4]

Good advice to follow, no matter how long or short our lives.  Admittedly, this is not always easy, especially when it involves disagreeable people.  Annoying personalities can challenge the good intentions of even the most saintly.  But we must strive to overcome such petty differences.  Also, most of us will not be able to follow this counsel for one hundred years.  Our windows of opportunity to serve others will most likely not be as large as the Adirondack’s.  But there will be opportunities nonetheless. 

Carpe diem, then, as the ancient Romans commanded.  We must seize the day, for every day presents an opportunity to do good for and to show kindness to someone else.

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i:62-63.
[2] Information from Lake Champlain Transportation Co., posted at
The Adirondack’s history with photographs is located on pages 7 and 8 of a pdf file.
[3] Ibid.  See also Jack Shaum, “Former Romancoke-Claiborne Ferry still going strong at 100,”

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Lady Commodore

In between voyages, the Bartlett usually moored in the basin of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  During these layovers, oceanographic survey equipment was  installed and changed out, technicians reported aboard and were discharged, fuel and provisions were loaded, and repairs to machinery were made.  All routine operations.  Occasionally visitors came aboard, mostly in connection with the survey equipment and mechanical repairs.  On Thursday, October 18, 1984, however, the Commodore of the Fleet came to visit the ship.

Nowadays a Commodore is an unusual personage.  In the Navy, there were Commodores ranking above Captains and below Rear Admirals until the late 1890s, when the position was abolished.  In the Merchant Marine, a Commodore was the senior Captain in the company.  Mostly an honorific, the rank and title of Commodore recognized the long years of experience and extensive knowledge of ships and the sea held by the line’s longest-serving Master.  In some cases, merchant Commodores had some administrative duties ashore; more typically, however, this administrative work came under the jurisdiction of the Port Captain.  Most Commodores continued to go to sea.  When they retired and came ashore, they often wrote their memoirs.

The Commodores who reigned over our line in the 1980s were different.  They were commissioned naval officers holding the rank of Captain, not Commodore.  Also, they were not the senior shipmasters in the fleet; in fact, none of them even held Merchant Marine licenses of any level, let alone as Masters.  Simply put, they were administrators.  They were not real seamen but office personnel who sailed desks in the company offices in Bayonne, New Jersey.  And these offices, contained in a windowless building situated on the waterfront of New York Harbor, did not permit the Commodores to even peek outside and see the shipping.

In my eight years with the company, I think we had four or five Commodores in succession.  They never stayed long, but arrived and departed with express train regularity.  Until this one day aboard the Bartlett in Port Everglades, I never saw any of these Commodores, although aboard all the ships we routinely received communications from them.  They remained distant and ethereal figures who sent commendatory memos for work well done and felicitous greetings at Christmastime.

Most of the seamen preferred it this way, and for good reason.  The Commodores and many other high-ranking personnel were regarded not with reverence and respect but with suspicion and disdain.  Too many times aboard too many ships big shots of various descriptions  came on board in various ports for very dubious purposes.  They demanded lavish attention from busy crews, and their presence on board interfered with the ships’ routines and wasted much of the company’s time and money.  In short, they got in everyone’s way.  They had no useful work to do and they made nuisances of themselves.  Consequently, the seamen came to regard visiting big shots as nothing but trouble.  The more inquisitive-minded of the seamen wondered about the psychology that drove these big shots to behave the way they did.

Impromptu discussions in the chow hall or at the gangway sometimes focused on the abnormal psychosis of the big shot.  There were many questions but few answers.  Why does this guy act like this?  What’s he trying to prove?  Is he compensating for an overwhelming inferiority complex?  Is he an unwanted second son trying to outshine his older brother?  Is he an  ignorant person trying to sound more sophisticated than he really is?  Is his demonstrated contempt for the crew an act to conceal his own lack of self-esteem?  Whatever his problem is, we don’t need it here.  He should go home and get counseling!

One big shot and retiring Commodore especially rankled the crews of every ship in the fleet with a farewell message which he sent on his departure.  In this missive he discussed his upcoming retirement, and went so far as to brag that he had taken the exams for and had been given an original Master’s license by the Coast Guard!!  This meant that on the basis of going to sea in the Navy, the Coast Guard had permitted him to take the exams not for third mate or second mate or even chief mate, but to jump right to the top.  Whatever his military credentials may or may not have been, he had not built a career of sailing aboard civilian cargo ships.  This lack of experience in seaborne commerce, of which the Master’s license stood as the crowning achievement, struck the Masters and mates in the fleet as outrageous beyond belief, a slap in the face to all merchant seamen everywhere!  If this fellow could get a Master’s license without ever having been a merchant seaman, let alone working his way up through the licensing levels, then the Master’s license itself would become nothing but a meaningless piece of paper, a mere decoration.  But then, big shots always seemed to somehow get everything they wanted.

It was with the cynicism generated by negative experiences involving big shots that the crew of the Bartlett anticipated the arrival of the company’s first lady Commodore one bright and sunny October morning.

About 9:00am Commodore Elizabeth Wylie drove onto the pier in a nondescript rental car.  She parked the vehicle in a legal parking space, got out, and walked over to the ship and up the gangway.  She arrived alone, without an entourage.  She wore plain Navy khakis with only her rank insignia on the collar.  She did not wear battle stars, campaign ribbons, or gold braid.  The gangway watchman and I met her when she stepped aboard.  She greeted both of us cordially and introduced herself simply as Elizabeth Wylie without adding any titles.  She cheerfully showed me her company identification when I asked for it.  In fact, she remarked that of the five ships that she had visited thus far, the Bartlett was the only one to require identification, and she was happy to see this done.  I next notified Captain Giaccardo that the Commodore had arrived,   He came along a minute or so later, and the introductions continued.  The discussion that followed took place in normal conversational tonesThere was no shouting nor barking of orders nor unreasonable demands for lavish hospitality.  Neither were there any displays of self-importance, military pomposity, or personal aggrandizement.  On the contrary, the occasion was noteworthy for its simple civility.  After previous experiences aboard other ships, it seemed astonishingly benign.

After a few minutes of light conversation at the head of the gangway,  Captain Giaccardo  and Commodore Wylie set out on a tour of the Bartlett.  I returned to my own duties thinking that the day would not be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t.  The Commodore spent the next few hours touring the ship, meeting and talking with the crew, having lunch, and discussing business with the Captain and Chief Engineer.  I saw her again a few times, too.  She impressed me as being very interested in the ship and the oceanographic survey work that it did, and also as an exceptionally pleasant person.  After spending most of the day on board, she wished us all well and returned ashore as quietly as she had come aboard.  After her departure, a broadly smiling and very happy Captain Giaccardo told me more about her visit.

He, too, had not been looking forward to this state occasion.  A young man in his early thirties, Captain Giaccardo was serving his first stint as Master on the Bartlett, and quite naturally he did not want any trouble with big shots visiting from the Bayonne headquarters.  Well, he didn’t get any.  Captain Giaccardo described Commodore Wylie in glowing terms.  She was friendly and courteous and very gracious.  Obviously intelligent and well educated, she asked many good questions about the ship and its survey voyages, and then she listened attentively to the answers without interrupting or otherwise demonstrating impatience.  Somewhat surprisingly, she admitted to never having gone to sea—this was before the Navy became fully co-ed—and also to being new on the job as Commodore, having started only two and a half weeks ago, at the beginning of the month.  For these reasons, she stated her intention of visiting as much of the fleet as she could and learning as much as possible about all the ships and their operations.  She expressed a sincere admiration for the crews she had met thus far and for the work they did.  In this way, she made an outstanding first impression as a gracious guest and industrious administrator. 

Everyone on the ship who had met Commodore Wylie liked her and appreciated her polite and professional demeanor, her interest in the ship and its crew, and her demonstrated willingness to listen and learn.  While this behavior sounds like simple common courtesy, previous experiences had unfortunately shown it to be more the exception than the rule with visiting big shots.  But this one was different.  In Shakespearean terms, Commodore Wylie displayed neither “the insolence of office”[1] nor “the proud man’s contumely.”[2]  In shipboard terms, she did not act at all like a big shot!

The Bartlett remained in Port Everglades for another week and then sailed on Thursday, October 25.  She went on a three-weeks-long survey voyage in the southwest Atlantic, just outside the Caribbean basin.  I never saw Commodore Wylie again, but I did hope that she would do well in her new position as Commodore of the Fleet.  In retrospect, I see Commodore Wylie as following the scriptural admonition, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).  She boarded the Bartlett humbly and without fanfare as a new employee striving to learn the ropes, and she returned ashore commanding the respect and admiration of the entire crew.

[1] Hamlet, III:i:73.
[2] Op. Cit., III:i:71.