Oh Captain, My Captain
In the spring of 1974, after a year and a half at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (known as Kings Point to most), it was time to embark on the school’s real-world curriculum of spending a year at sea on various U.S. flag merchant ships. I was 19 years old. On four different ships, I sailed to 28 different countries in South America, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. There were close calls with disaster – some man-made, some natural, but most were self-made. It was an opportunity to learn a lot of things, meet a lot of people, and have a lot of fun. Most of all, it was an opportunity to start growing up.
Of the four voyages, the second was the most memorable. The ship was the Export Adventurer, of American Export Lines. She was a fairly old ship. When I came aboard, one of the officers said, “You’ll like this ship, Cadet. We’re all good friends; we never know when we’ll be sharing a lifeboat together.”
She had a charcoal grey hull, with a tan and white superstructure. Her Captain looked like an old Dutchman and acted about the same. The old-timers had a saying that life at sea used to be steel men on wooden ships, but now it’s wooden men on steel ships. He would have been happier on the former. He called me ‘Gadget’. As a Midshipman from the Academy, my position was officially a ‘Cadet’, halfway between officers and crew. But like any gadget, I could be used for just about anything. And I was.
I have pictures of that ship, pictures of the places we visited, and pictures of the people in those places. But I don’t have any pictures of my Captain. I don’t even remember his name because I was too young to realize how often I would think of him during my life. He was just “Captain”. He pushed me, berated me, expected of me, and rewarded me. I had to work to impress him because he wasn’t my Dad and had nothing invested in me.
I first boarded the Adventurer in New York. We spent about two weeks loading cargo in several different ports. Cargo duty was boring. As a Cadet, I was assigned to supervise operations in one of the seven holds… as if some 300-pound 50-year old veteran of the New York Longshoremen’s Union is going to listen to a college kid! The Adventurer was one of the old ‘break-bulk’ ships, meaning that every crate was loaded individually with cargo booms that looked like giant chop-sticks and required years of experience to learn to handle.
The only exception to using the ship’s booms came when we loaded a locomotive in Philadelphia. That job required two giant shore cranes. I remember it because that single load dropped the ship a long way down toward her plimsoll mark, meaning we would be fully loaded soon and head out into the Atlantic. The locomotive was to be delivered to Yugoslavia – then still under the rule of Tito. After two weeks of tedium, it was thrilling when we headed out to sea.
The crossing was to the Azores, where we were to deliver supplies to a U. S. military base on our first of many stops. At sea, the Captain turned his attention to me. For some reason that I didn’t understand then but appreciate now, I became his pet project. More than most Captains, he considered the Adventurer to be truly ‘his’ ship. He’d been her Captain forever (to a 19-year-old). I believe he was her first Captain (she was built in 1960).
On the first day out, he informed me of my daily activities during the crossing. My primary duty was to stand the 8-12 watch with the third mate. That meant being on the bridge helping with navigation from 8 am to noon, and from 8 pm to midnight. In addition, every morning before going on watch, I was to wipe down the wooden railings and all the deck furniture on the passenger deck with fresh water (the ship carried 12 passengers). Finally, when I got off watch at noon, I was allowed an hour to eat, then I was to return to the bridge for two hours of steering practice.
“Swabbing the decks” for the passengers wasn’t exactly in line with my job expectations after eighteen months of higher education, but at least there seemed to be a purpose. The steering, on the other hand, seemed unnecessary. I couldn’t see any value in it because the ship had an autopilot that kept her within a couple of degrees of the programmed course. My obvious lack of enthusiasm was ignored but I was soon to learn why my Captain insisted on it.
On my first day of steering practice, he came up to make sure I knew I couldn’t just leave her on autopilot and stand behind the wheel pretending to steer. He wanted the autopilot off, and he made sure to point out to me how he could tell the difference. I was charged with staying within one degree of the desired course.
It’s very difficult to keep a 500 foot long, 11,000 deadweight ton ship on course in winds and ocean swells. When you turn the wheel, giant hydraulic rams slowly move the rudder. On a ship that size, it can take ten seconds until the first perceptible reaction to turning the wheel. If you wait for your correction to bring you all the way back onto course, you won’t be able to stop the turn in time, and you’ll oversteer. To keep her on course, you had to make a course correction before she actually started to drift off course. The course recorder (in those days) recorded the course on a drum covered with graph paper that was changed every day. The record of my two hours of steering each afternoon of the first week looked like spaghetti.
My Captain was clearly not pleased. He didn’t say much, but would stand and observe my steering, and make small comments. After a while, it got to be a challenge. Try to outguess the effect of the wind and swells, and learn to predict the ship’s actions before they happened. By the time we got to the Azores, I was doing pretty well. My spaghetti became al-dente!
Coming into the port, we were told we had to anchor for a few hours until our berth was available. My Captain suggested I go forward to the bow to help with the operation. We anchored in about ten fathoms (60 feet) of water. I watched the anchor drop through water so clear it seemed to magnify its every detail. The very bottom curve of the ship’s hull – an unusual sight – could be seen as we seemed to float in clear air. As the anchor hit bottom, it sent up a small explosion of sand and the ship was slowly backed away. Small paddles set at ninety degrees in the base of the hinged flukes caused them to rotate into the sand and dig in for a firm set.
We spent two days unloading cargo, most of it foodstuff needed to keep American GI’s happy during their tour of duty in a foreign country. The local longshoremen wanted to be happy too, so we spent a lot of time putting back together opened crates of food. For some reason, there was a lot of pepperoni, which my roommate and I feasted on for several weeks to come.
A few days after we left the Azores, we hit heavy wind and swells. In the measured routine of life at sea, this is the only thing that makes the day interesting when you’re young. One of the forward cargo booms hadn’t been properly secured and broke loose. It began swinging longer and longer arcs as it pulled more cable loose. Unchecked, it would soon start causing serious damage to itself and other parts of the ship’s cargo gear. I had just gotten off steering practice and the Captain called me back to the bridge. He wanted to relieve the crewman on the wheel to help secure the boom. The Captain had already slowed the ship to ¼-speed and he told me to hold her head steady into the swells. On deck, a dozen men dodged a couple tons of swinging steel trying to lash it down. Behind the wheel, I struggled to maintain control of the ship. The wind and swells pushed her sideways and she repeatedly heeled over hard. This caused the men on deck to scramble for footing and something to grab onto, and the boom would sweep across the deck threatening to crush anything or anybody in its path. The Captain repeatedly yelled at me from the wing of the bridge to keep her into the swells. Finally, I got up the nerve to yell back that I couldn’t the way he had her running. He paused, looked at me sternly, and said “set the speed you need, but keep her steady.” Normally, only the Captain chooses the specific speed setting, but I pushed the engine room repeater to half-ahead, hoping it would be enough but not too much. I sensed I had only minutes to prove I could gain control of the ship before he relieved me. Fortunately, the extra speed gave me the steerage needed to take the swells head-on. Although more water came across the bow, she remained steady and the crew was able to secure the boom.
The next day, my Captain told me – with a slight grin on his face – there was no further need for steering practice.
Part 2: The Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean.