After four stories about my life at sea as a midshipman from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a bit of background about that fine school might be in order.
The purpose of the school was (and still is) to provide the country a highly trained group of officers who could lead the American merchant fleet in times of war. Often called the “Fourth Arm of Defense” after the Army, Navy, and Airforce, a merchant fleet that can integrate quickly into a support role for the military is considered essential to national security. To that end, the U.S. government provides subsidy funds to companies that build ships in U.S. shipyards, and operate those ships under the U.S. flag so they are quickly available for military service. The government also funds the Academy and mandates that shipping companies receiving construction and operating subsidies provide training berths for academy midshipmen. Those berths generally consist of one for an Engineering cadet and one for a Deck cadet. We went to sea for six months during our second year and six months during our third year; a full 365 days on board were required to graduate and receive a license as a Third Mate or Third Engineer. Combined with a fully accredited classroom curriculum, we were in school for 11 months per year for four years.
Opened in 1943, the Academy’s first classes were short – 90 days to graduation. The now-famous Atlantic convoys were full speed ahead supplying the war effort and officers were desperately needed. May of the first graduates distinguished themselves, including one who went down with his ship, the last man still standing at the bow cannon, firing to the end and sinking an enemy vessel with his last shots.
The S.S. Mayaguez
Fortunately, my year at sea was not that dangerous. The closest I came to war was on my third ship, the S.S. Washington when we visited Vietnam just before the war ended. As we were heading down the river, the North’s final push was starting, and the Mekong Delta has probably never been navigated that fast by a ship that large! On my next ship, the S.S. President Polk, I was back in the Far East shortly after Saigon fell. We were in Taiwan and I saw an American ship at the next pier. Hoping to see a classmate, I went over for a visit. The ship was the S.S. Mayaguez of Sea-Land lines. There were no cadets on board; the ship was a ‘feeder’ ship, picking up cargo delivered to a central location and dispatching it throughout the region. Its trade route took it near Cambodia… too close as history shows. A month or so later, as my ship was heading home, we heard on the radio that an American ship had been captured by the Cambodians, and the crew held hostage. It was the Mayaguez. We all know the outcome – President Ford sent in the Marines and the crew was liberated, but at a significant cost in lives.
What was a major event for the country at large was an event of momentous importance to those of us at sea.
When I arrived in port, my sea year was finished, and I was flying home from San Francisco, I read every magazine article on the plane about the entire battle to liberate the crew, and knew the details and timeline by heart by the time I landed at New York’s Kennedy airport. Because I had a week before classes were starting, I chose to go home to Virginia but had to get to Laguardia airport to catch my next flight, a 1-hour $75 taxi ride away from Kennedy airport. This was a momentous sum, as my pay was $8.25 per day onboard ship.
I got in the taxi with my luggage (one of Dad’s old Air Force bags), my sextant, and wearing my uniform. The taxi driver immediately asked me what the uniform was for, and I told him I was in the Merchant Marines. He said “Marines?” and I said, “No, Merchant Marines, like the Mayaguez” which was then a household word. Somehow, he thought I was actually one of the rescued crew members of the ship. Not wanting to disappoint him, I carried on with the story, showing him my sextant and describing in tremendous detail (right out of Newsweek and Time magazines) every second of the rescue. He quickly turned off his meter and gave me a free ride to the next airport.
I’ve always felt a little guilty about that, but figure that he got to spend the next couple of weekends telling his buddies and family all about his famous passenger and how he gave me a free ride!
After graduating from the Academy, I went to work for Exxon, who then had the largest fleet of U.S. flag merchant vessels under one brand. I chose the management end of the industry because life at sea was quickly becoming much less interesting than what I experienced during my year sailing around the world. The old ‘break-bulk’ ships like the Adventurer, where every crate was individually loaded into the hold, were too slow to make a profit. After all, the ship gets paid for each mile the cargo is moved, not for sitting in port loading and unloading for a week. New ships were using concepts in which containers were packed with cargo at their point of origin – such as a factory – and loaded onto the ship in a matter of minutes. The most common containerization uses steel boxes the same size as the trailer on an 18-wheel truck but fitted with brackets for quick loading and unloading. Shops could turn around in less than 24-hours and the new ports built to accommodate these ships (called “container ports”) were often far from anyplace interesting in that country. Instead of five to ten days in a fascinating port like Bangkok, it would be 12 hours of intensive cargo operations then right back out to sea. Not the life for me!
Other things were changing also. During my year at sea, it was still an all-male industry. In my last year at school, we became the first federal academy to accept women into the ranks of Midshipmen. Technology on the ship was also changing quickly. A few years into my career at Exxon, I got to see just how much life at sea had really changed.
I had the opportunity to ride one of Exxon’s ships from Valdez, Alaska to Los Angeles to test some software being developed for use on the ship’s computers. I chose that particular ship, the Exxon Houston, because a classmate was the Captain.
Leaving the harbor in Valdez, with the radar painting a picture of the harbor, buoys, and other ships, I watched as the Captain used the computer-driven radar to identify key navigation buoys. Once these were identified, the radar’s software then took over and overlayed the appropriate shipping lane information and the optimal course for the ship to follow. It also would automatically track other ships, and provide computerized course projections, identifying any possible collision hazards. I turned to my buddy and said “Wow! They didn’t have these when I was at sea!”
Out at sea, once out of proximity to land, navigation on the Exxon Houston was done by newly developed satellite navigation systems. These are now so common, you can buy one in your car. They are accurate to the nearest few yards. No longer was there a need for meticulous sextant readings using the stars at dawn and dusk, with the ensuing page-long manual calculations to determine the ship’s position (and only to the nearest mile or so). I said to my buddy “Wow! They didn’t have these when I was at sea!”
One evening on the Exxon Houston, I was doing laundry in the officer’s laundry facility. Per the tradition, if somebody was doing laundry ahead of you but wasn’t there when their load finished, you would move their clothing from the dryer to a folding table or from the washer to the dryer, as appropriate. I had to move another officer’s clothes from the dryer to the folding table. As I stacked up the person’s clothes, including bras and panties, I said to my buddy “Wow! They didn’t have these when I was at sea!”