The Voyage Home

Being at sea on a merchant ship is like what they say about flying – 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. The routine of life at sea is highly regulated by the watch cycle and other duties The average voyage in those days was about 3 months, and one quickly falls into set patterns interrupted only when in
port.

Things start to change subtly, however, about halfway through the final crossing to the home port. Then, the crew starts to get “channel fever”. A certain anxiety sets in, it gets harder to sleep, and everybody pays a bit more attention to just how fast we’re going. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are – if you had family waiting for you, you got channel fever.

This voyage on the Adventurer was no different. My Captain was pushing her especially hard because the relief Captain had set a new crossing record for her on the previous trip. Just before that trip, she’d had an overhaul with some power plant improvements. The Captain wanted to make sure the speed record was
returned to his name.

About two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic, we began to encounter heavy weather. It came on us suddenly and built quickly into heavy wind and waves. The waves were unusual because they were confused mountains of water rather than rolling swells. Instead of riding over them, the ship would slam into a wall of water, burying the bow and shaking the whole structure. I was finishing my 8-noon watch and the third mate told me to find the Captain and ask permission to
slow to half speed.

The Captain was at lunch, with several of the passengers when I approached and asked permission to slow down. “NO!” he exclaimed, just as we hit an especially large wave. The pitcher of ice water, held in the middle of the table by a metal ring for stability, bounced up and out of its ring, turned over, hit the table, and soaked everybody too slow to jump. “Alright, dammit,” he said, “half speed. I’ll be right up.”

I returned to the bridge, now far too interested in the building storm to think about going off watch. To be able to stand, you had to brace your feet apart and hold on to one of the railings that surrounded the inside of the bridge. By the time my Captain arrived ten minutes later, it was beginning to look like even half speed would be too much. He stood at the window for a few minutes, watching the weather and the ship. Then he turned to me and said “Gadget, I can’t believe you’re grinning ear to ear. You’re actually having fun, aren’t you!” I had to admit, I was. I was absolutely confident my Captain and his ship could handle anything, and this was an exciting departure from the dull daily routine.

True to form, however, my Captain wasn’t going to let me be a spectator for long. After a few minutes, he called me over to where he was inspecting the barograph. It was dropping straight down like the pen was tracing the face of a cliff. “Gadget, I want you to get a logbook and start taking weather readings. Every five minutes, I want wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity, cloud type, and sea state. I’ll let you know when you can stop.”

We experienced rain and mountainous chop battering us from all directions. It was impossible to find a course and speed that allowed the ship to more easily take the weather. The elements were coming from all sides. We needed speed to control steering, but any speed seemed to worsen the impact of the waves. For the next three hours, I recorded everything my Captain asked. Then, almost as quickly as the weather hit us it began to dissipate, and we were back into reasonably calm weather at full speed. Over the course of those three hours, the wind had swung through 360-degrees in direction, reaching speeds of 60-70 mph. The barograph dropped straight down, stayed on a flat bottom for the period, and then climbed straight back up to where it had been.

I gave the log-book to my Captain. At dinner, he called me to his table. He gave me the book told me to use my observations and the barograph trace to write a report about the three-hour episode.

Having completed my on-board academic assignments from the academy, this didn’t seem particularly exciting, but he would not be swayed. After as much procrastination as he would tolerate, I delivered the report. This was returned to me crumpled up with an order to try again. When my second version suffered the same fate, it was clear a little more effort was going to be required. All in all, it took about five days with many re-writes before my Captain would accept the report… and I had no idea why he wanted it until halfway through the next semester back at school.

One afternoon after class, I received an order to visit “the Pear-Man”. The Pear-Man was second in command at the academy and was so nick-named because of his shape. Being called to his office was never good, as one of his duties was Midshipman discipline. Walking to the administration building, I tried to figure out which of my many but relatively minor “indiscretions” he may confront me with.

When I arrived he asked me if my last ship had been the Export Adventurer, which I confirmed. We spoke briefly about the ship and her Captain. He showed me an envelope containing a copy of my report with a new cover page entitled “Birth Of A Subtropical Cyclone” by Midshipman K. J. Morley. The report had been submitted by my Captain to NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and was being considered for publication in an upcoming issue. The proposed introduction (by the NOAA editor) indicated that this was the first complete set of weather observations ever submitted by a ship that went through the middle of this brief-lived phenomena.

As it turns out, the report wasn’t published, but I have never forgotten the patience and perseverance my Captain showed in pushing me to complete it. He probably knew what we were encountering as soon as he saw the barograph and the developing weather and made sure to give me the opportunity to document it.

In these three stories, I’ve told you some of the highlights of my voyage on the Export Adventurer. Throughout the voyage, my Captain took great interest in my education, my personal life, and my well-being. Although he seemed demanding, I realize now he was exceedingly patient. He was, for me, the right man at the right time in my life, bridging that period of transition away from the protection and tolerance of parents and into a life of responsibility for my own actions. I will always remember him fondly.

I dedicate these stories to him as the only way I know to thank him.

Cape A Class Breakbulk Cargo Ship:

  • Laid down in 1960 as SS Export Adventurer, a Maritime Administration type (C3-S-58a) hull, under Maritime Administration contract (MA 56) at New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, N.J.
  • Launched, 9 July 1960
  • Delivered to the American Export Lines in 1960
  • Acquired by Farrell Lines from American Export – Isbrandsten Lines, in 1978
  • Acquired by the Maritime Administration from Farrell Lines, circa 1978 for lay up in the Maritime Administrations National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), James River Group, Lee Hall, VA., in a retention status, named changed to SS Adventurer
  • Assigned to the US Navy Military Sealift Command (MSC) Ready Reserve Force (RRF), as AK-5005, 25 February 1980
  • SS Adventurer (AK-5005) could be activated in 10 days
  • Moved to the National Defense Reserve Fleet, Suisun Bay, 11 November 1994
  • Downgraded from RRF retention status to non-retention status in 2001
  • Final Disposition, sold for scrapping, circa December 2012

Specifications:

  • Displacement 7,848t.(lt),10,986t.(fl)
  • Length 492’6″
  • Beam 73′
  • Draft 27′(max.)
  • Speed 18.5kts.
  • Full Operating Status Complement Civilian Mariners, 55
  • Propulsion:
    • two General Electric steam turbines
    • two Babcock and Wilcox boilers
    • single propeller, 12,500shp

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