When I entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1976, I was 6’ 3” and weighed less than 170 pounds – eating was a passion. When I went to sea eighteen months later, I quickly learned to make friends with the cook and the entire steward’s department, because eating was still my favorite pastime. My second and favorite ship, the Adventurer, was an especially good feeder. American Export Lines was the only U.S. shipping company at the time to have an in-house union. Other companies drew from the national unions with thousands of members, so they frequently didn’t know their fellow sailors when boarding a ship. On the Adventurer, most of the crewmembers had sailed together for years. A cook who can survive that kind of continuous exposure had to be good!
One morning, I was having my usual breakfast – five pancakes, three eggs over medium, sausage, bacon, toast, orange juice, and coffee. The Captain walked by, looked at my plate for a few moments and said “Dammit Gadget, I’m the Captain and I don’t get served that well!”
Eating a lot was a good thing to do during heavy weather. I never got seasick, even during the worst of storms. With the enthusiasm of a 19-year old, I would tell all the green-faced passengers just how good they would feel if they too ate five pancakes and three eggs and ‘put some weight in their stomachs”! They just never would listen. I couldn’t understand it.
Testing the lifeboat supplies.
On my third ship, the Captain asked me and my roommate to test the provisions and supplies on the lifeboats in anticipation of the annual Coast Guard inspection. Each lifeboat could carry 20 men, and the provisions consisted primarily of chocolate-covered malted milk bars and vacuum-sealed cans of water. You wouldn’t want to drink the latter unless you were dying of thirst. Obviously, you couldn’t open every water can to test it because then you’d have to get all new water supplies. So, you tested by holding the can in your hand like you’re holding a beer and smacking it down on your thigh. If it made a sharp ‘crack’ sound, it was good. A dull thud meant it wasn’t. (I have no idea why.) The chocolate-covered malted milk bars were a different story. We had to do a ‘statistical sampling’ to make sure they were OK. What percentage constituted a valid statistical sample was our choice. We had to report to the captain that there had been an exceptionally high failure rate in the chocolate bars.
People who go to sea
The usual tour at sea is three to four months long. Because of the small number of people on a commercial cargo ship (25-30) and the loneliness of many of the staggered watch positions, it’s possible to spend most of a trip in solitude. I began to notice that there were an abnormally large number of ‘strange’ people on these ships. As Cadets, during our year at sea, we had to write eight book reports but were given the option of substituting for two of them reports about foreign cultures we visited. I chose that option; one was about Brooklyn, N.Y. and the second was about life at sea. My thesis in the latter was that in normal society, people receive sufficient feedback about their ‘quirks’ to keep those quirks submerged. However, at sea, that feedback isn’t available, and so the quirks come to the fore of some people’s personality. Nothing dangerous, just the kind of behavior you might see from a hermit on his rare interaction with society. I got an A on the report, so there must have been something valid.
Darn fool kid
As mentioned in my first article, most near disasters were of my own making. On the President Polk of American President Lines, my fourth ship, we were heading home across the Pacific from Japan. A large storm off the west coast of the U.S. was sending long large rolling waves our way. The weather was otherwise beautiful and clear. This ship also carried triple stacks of containers, and when fully loaded we couldn’t see the bow from the bridge. Standing on the bridge I was watching the ship climb steeply up each wave and drop precipitously into the trough behind I found myself wondering what it was like on the bow. I went down and asked my roommate if he wanted to come with me, which he wisely declined. Since he was much crazier than me, I should have taken his cue. But I proceeded up the side of the ship until I reached to foc’sle, the small raised deck at the bow. Waiting for what seemed to be the right moment, I raced up the ladder and across the short open deck to the very point of the bow. Just as I got there, the ship crested the wave. I looked over the side and the entire front third of the ship was out of the water. Then, like a teeter-totter, the bow began to drop – so quickly I felt I had to hold on in order to not be left in mid-air. The ship quickly dropped over the top of the wave and raced down into the trough behind it. Suddenly, I found myself looking up at a wall of water fifty feet high. I realized that not only was I in serious danger, but nobody on the bridge could see me, or would know I needed help. Where the two sides of the ship come together at the bow, the very point is covered with a small triangle of steel plate that’s about two feet across. I ducked under that plate, pressing my feet against either side of the ship, and held on. As the ship crashed into the wave, there was just a rush of solid blue water, and I was trapped in a small bubble of air created by the two sides of the ship and the cover plate.
As the water rushed away, I could feel it sucking at me, trying to pull me with it. When it was finally gone, I climbed out from under the cover both exhilarated and terrified (not to mention soaked.) My legs were too wobbly to reliably carry me across the 30 feet of foc’sle deck to the ladder, so I realized I was going to have to endure for a while longer. I went through a dozen more dunkings until confident of the timing of the waves and my ability to get back to safety in time.
These are stories you don’t tell your Mom until thirty years later!