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Looking for a Ship
Andy was worried about the Ben Sawyer Bridge. He thought of it stuck open, and saw in his mind's eye an unending line of stifled cars, his own among them. If his neurons seemed hyperactive, they had some reason to be. On the other hand, how often did this drawbridge get stuck? Once a year? Three times every two years? Whatever the statistics might be, they would make no difference to Andy. The drawbridge had stuck open one afternoon with him on the wrong side, and the delay was so prolonged that he checked into a motel and caught up on sleep. On that day, he wasn't going anywhere important. On this day, he allowed a minimum of three hours to complete a journey of thirty minutes. He was looking for a ship.
In Andy's wallet was a National Shipping Card that had been stamped in Boston ten and a half months before, registering under his name, George Anderson Chase, the date, the hour, and the minute when he arrived in a unionhall after leaving his last ship. The older the card, the better the prospects for a new job. If the card were to go twelve months unused, it would roll overlose all seniority, and begin again. Meanwhile strongly competitive, it had all but reached the status of a killer card. In the evolving decline of the United States Merchant Marine, qualified people seeking work so greatly outnumbered the jobs there were to fill that you almost had to hold a killer card or your chances were slim for shipping out. You went to a union hall, presented the card in person at a job call, and if someone tossed in an older card you stayed on the beach. From his home, in Maine, Andy had come to Charleston this time because he thought that shipping cards deadlier than his would be more numerous in Boston or New York. On sheer speculation, I joined him, our idea being that when he got himself a ship he would ask the shipping company if I could go along on the voyage as a P.A.C.Person in Addition to Crew. Andy said, "I probably have a better chance out of Charleston. Fewer people. Less competition. A fairly steady stream of ships." Besides, he had a place to stay. His wife's mother lived on an island whose connection to the mainland was the Ben Sawyer Bridge.
We had no idea where we would be going, if anywhere. We had gear for cool weather and gear for the tropics. Looking for a ship, Andy had once spent two months fruitlessly hanging around the union hall in Charleston. He had put in many weeks in New York with the same result. He once went as far as Puerto Rico. He spent two weeks there going to the hall. He got no ship. He tried Charleston onhis way home, and with great luck got a ship in two days. The ship he got in Charleston was called the Puerto Rican. He was on it four months, sailing as third mate, coastwise. A chemical tanker, it blew up, out of San Francisco, on a later voyage. It broke in half.
I had known Andy for several years. I had been to his home in Maine. I had accompanied him to the New York hall of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. The New York hall is in Jersey City. On the PATH train, Andy said, "The union halls are not really halls. They're like dentists' offices." This one was a room on the east side of the fifteenth floor of a fairly new building at 26 Journal Square. The view of Manhattan was unimpeded from the midtown skyline to the towers of world trade. Andy was just checking out New York. His card was only thirty days old, and he was taking the long chance of finding a short trip that no one else in his category would want. By union rules, he could not do his checking by telephone. If he called the hall, the dispatcher would not tell him who was competing for what. One of the mariners in the hall was a friend of Andy's named Bryan Thomas, who explained to me, "You might trust a friend to check out a hall for you, but what friend? Almost anyone would tell you not to bother coming, no matter what the work situation might be." He went on to say that he had been surprised as he shook my hand, because "there seemed to be some sincerity" in the warmth of my hello. Andy told him that I was no threat.
Thomas said, "There is so much hunger for work thatno one is happy to see anybody else. We are a brotherhood, so we hate each other."
Andy said, "Nobody ever does anybody a favor. You can't beg a job off of somebody. It just isn't done."
The New York hall was about the size of a high-school classroom, and an interior window separated it from a small office. At one-thirty, the time of the job call, action would take place at the window. Job sheets, if any, would be posted on a corkboard. Meanwhile, there was a clipboard with a sheaf of papers headed "OFFSHORE JOBS," showing positions that had been picked up in recent weeks and the age of the cards that had won them. Some of the runs were "Coastwise," "Far East," "South America," "N. Europe," "R/World , "W. Africa," "Caribbean," "Med," "Panama." Andy said,"South America is the romance runbeautiful women, beautiful ports." Andy had never been to South America. To make unexpected replacements, owners will fly people to foreign ports. In extremes, they have used the Concorde. Andy once turned up for a job call at the New York hall and that night was on a flight to Athens. On each offshore-job sheet was a "Reason" column, explaining why the job had come open: "LOA" (leave of absence), "Quit," "Fired." One sheet had called for a mariner to fly off at once on Iberia to Gibraltar. "Rotary" was the reason. He replaced someone whose hundred and twenty days were upthe maximum sea time allowed by the union, in the interest of rationing available work.
As one-thirty neared, more than thirty mates werefanned out around the office door like fish at the mouth of a tributary stream. They wore nylon jackets, down vests, rubber-soled moccasins, bluejeans, cotton-flannel shirts, fatigue jackets, trenchcoats, sweaters. Nobody looked nautical. Two were in suits and ties. This could have been any carpenters' or plumbers' union hall. Add cowboy boots and it could have been a union hall in Fairbanks at the fading end of the pipeline boom.
"The majority don't tell you what they do in their other lives," Andy said. He had shipped out with restaurateurs, real-estate entrepreneurs, and a lot of people who, in the proximity of fresh water, "just go fishing." The cook on one of Andy's ships was a male stripper. Andy had shipped out with an engine-room wiper in his sixties who called his broker from every port. Andy had shipped out with a sax player who had lost two fingers when they became caught between a mooring line and a capstan. For unrelated reasons, he was known as Goldfinger.
The dispatcher came to the window. The thirty-odd faces lifted in attention. Loudly, the dispatcher said, "Nothing on the offshore," and he read the particulars of four night-mate jobseight-hour relief work on docked shipsin Port Elizabeth and Howland Hook. That was it. That was the work available for all those mates. They showed no surprise and quickly dispersed. Sometimes, if you hang around a union hall after all the other people have left, a desperate last-minute call will come in, and if you want the job you can have it. "You dash down and join the ship,"Andy said. "But that is very rare." Shipping out that way is known as "a pierhead jump." On this day, no one was jumping.
Andy was sixteen when he dropped out of school and first went to sea. Eventually, he finished school but intended not to go to college. After another year at sea, however, he enrolled at Maine Maritime Academy, in Castine, and in 1979 he became a Merchant Marine licensed officer, a third mate. Before long, he was hanging around New Orleans and New York, a month each, attending daily job calls. In those days, jobs were a little more plentiful, but for someone that green there was no ship. Becoming frantic, he tried Boston, the anachronist center of commerce, where he found a square-rigger, a barkentine, casting off to do whale research in the Caribbean. She was called Regina Maris. He shipped out under sail.
The irony of Andy's career is this: as his sea time accumulated and his status in the union improved, his increasing potentiality as a job seeker was largely offset by a decreasing number of jobs, as Chapter 10 started coming to the end for the United States Merchant Marine. After three weeks in New York one spring, he got a job on a container ship called Sea-Land Oakland that shuttled between Rotterdam and the Persian Gulf. The temperature of the Red Sea was ninety-five degrees and the air was over a hundred. In 1983, he had luck in Charleston, where he went to the hall for three weeks and, with a better card than four competitors, became third mate of the LASH Pacifico, a Prudential Lines ship, on which he spent six months andmade sixty thousand dollars. He was twenty-eight when he joined the ship. He had been married less than a month before. The sixty thousand dollars was actually a full year's income, because, by terms then set by the union, the six months of work were followed by six of obligatory vacation.
And then another six of utter frustration looking for a ship. He failed to get one in New York, in New Orleans, in Port Everglades, in Charleston. Tension grew within him as the end of a year approached. He had seen a man get a ship with a card that was three hundred and sixty-four days twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes old. ("He was sweating.") For Andy, the end came without a ship. He still refers funereally to "the day my card rolled over." He needed work so badly that he signed up as an able-bodied seaman on an integrated tug-barge operating between Perth Amboy and Duluth. He was a licensed officer of ocean ships on his way to the Great Lakes as a deckhand on a barge.
To provide jobs of any kind for its increasingly distressed mariners, the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union arranged for five oceangoing tankers to be crewed with union members, right down to the last deckie. Licensed officers accepted jobs as ordinary seamen, able-bodied seamen, and bosuns because they could not get other work. Andy sailed from Providence as an A.B. on the tanker Spray. Later, for many months, he was bosun on the Spray. He was not entirely troubled by this. It gave him a chance to practice marlinspike seamanshipknot tying, wire splicing, rope splicing, rigging. There is an expression in the MerchantMarine that describes officers who are former deckhands or engine-room wipers and rose to licensed rank not by going to collegenot by graduating from one of the seven maritime academiesbut by passing examinations after learning on the job. Such people are said to have come up the hawsepipe. Hawsepipes are the apertures in the bows of ships through which the anchor chains clatter. Hawsepipes are the eyes of Yangtze junks. When a big-enough ship is at anchor, a person can climb up one of the chains and make it through the hawsepipe to the fo'c'sle deck. To the question "What academy did you go to?" a licensed officer may answer, "I didn't. I came up the hawsepipe." Andy likes to say that he has been through the hawsepipe, too, but in the wrong direction. As someone who went to an academy, sailed third mate, earned his second mate's license, and then was forced to work as a deckhand, he will tell you that he was "stuffed down the hawsepipe."
The United States Merchant Marine, the name of which suggests an assault on a valuable foreign beach, is not, as a good many people seem to think, a branch of military service. It is essentially a collective enterprise of competing private companies, flying the American flag on the sterns of their ships, employing American-citizen crews, and transporting cargoes throughout the world. Sail and steam, the United States grew in rank among nations on the aggressive reach of its Merchant Marine. American merchant ships once numbered in the thousands. The chimerical ship that Andy Chase and I went to look for in Charleston would not be a selection from a field that large.Diminishing rapidly, the number of American dry-cargo ships was already below two hundred, and there were about as many tankers. Not one commercial vessel was under construction in an American shipyard.
In time of war, the Merchant Marine is a prominent participant. This civilian jobrisky enough at any timebecomes exceptionally dangerous. During the Second World War, the percentage of deaths was higher in the Merchant Marine than it was in the Navy or the Army, and was exceeded only by the percentage of deaths in the Marine Corps. Something like eight hundred ships went down and six thousand five hundred sailors died. As prisoners of the Japanese, American merchant mariners were among those who built the bridge on the River Kwai. War, with its all-out sealiftsthe Korean Sealift, the Vietnam Sealifexpands the merchant fleet. Afterward, the ships go out of service more rapidly than the sailors, and jobs are hard to come by. The unions close their membership books until numbers level out. By the late nineteen-seventies, the Second World War crowd was gone, and much of the Vietnam crowd. Books opened. There were days when Andy actually felt positive about his choice of career: "Much more young blood coming up now. It's starting to feel as if it's my Merchant Marine. My generation. Our turn has come." In the mid-eighties, "everything slammed shut again" as the United States Merchant Marine was competitively outbid by ships under foreign flags and was reduced to carrying less than five per cent of all oceangoing American cargo. One American company after another entered Chapter 11with its keel up and its screws in the air. Soon the Soviet merchant fleet was carrying at least ten times as much American cargo as the United States Merchant Marine, in direct trade between the two countriesa multiple that keeps growing through time.
In 1988, the National Maritime Union sold its ninestory building at 346 West Seventeenth Street, Manhattan, which had medical facilities, a gymnasium, a sauna, a restaurant, a theatre, and a school, andwith its porthole windowssuggested an upended ship. The N.M.U., of course, was a sailors' unionthe once very powerful organization of the unlicensedand now it had lost a leveraged sellout, was called M. E. B. A. /N. M. U. , and had been merged with a branch of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, an organization of engine-room officers. N.M.U. sailors who were looking for ships were reporting to a new address: 404 Lafayette Street, in the saddle of low structures that lie on the loose gravels between the high summits of midtown and Wall Street. The building looks like a warehouse that has seen its last ware. What doorway to use is not clear from the sidewalk and less so if someone is lying in it. Upstairs is a large low room where the bright polish of the maple floor does little to console the N.M. U. sailors for the lost symbol of their lovely hall. The job-call scene is much the same as it is elsewhere for the masters and mates. The board says "Killer Card Date: April 8," or whatever it happens to be. An N. M. U. card accrues seniority for only two hundred and ten days, and then rolls over. Say a car carrier belonging to Central Gulf is the only shipon the board, with two A.B. positionsvacation relief. That's all. And a short run to bootSan Juan. More than forty men are in the hall. Two jobs. It's a lively, noisy room, a hubbub of chatter, many styles of fits-all visored cap, leather jackets, running shoes, flannels, jeans. Any one of those present will know a good many of the others, having sailed with them across the years. While the men wait around to lose out and go home, they argue politics at the shouting level. Each one's picture of the President of the United States seems to be framed entirely by whatas the sailor sees itthe President might do to the Merchant Marine.
The N.M.U. hall in Savannah is a quarter the size of the one in the warehouse in New Yorka small freestanding building a few blocks from the Savannah River. You step in off the street and show your killer card. If a sailor doesn't have one, he may be in some difficulty. When I was there one time, Barbara Evans, the dispatcher, said, "Someday I'm going to be a social worker, because that is what I am now." She mentioned sailors who came looking for ships and slept on park benches until they moved to the Inner City Night Shelter. She mentioned a sailor living under a house.
The Masters, Mates, and Pilots hall to which Andy and I reported in Charleston was considerably smaller than any other hall I have mentioned: second floor, no windows, three little roomsan office for a dentist with a hand-medown drill. It was on Sam Rittenberg Boulevardan elongate bazaarand not far from the Truluck ChiropracticAuto Accident Clinic. By the union's see-through door, a poster said "SHIP AMERICAN, IT COSTS No MORE." On the first morning there, we looked through the sheaf of bygone jobs and noted the recent destinations: a Lykes Brothers ship to the Mediterranean, a Waterman ship to the Middle East, a Navieras ship to San Juan, a Sea-Land ship to Iceland, a Central Gulf ship to North Europe, a Lykes Brothers ship to the west coast of South America. That, at a glance, was the Charleston pattern, suggesting what might come. Musing over the possibilities, Andy had said that the three most likely were a Sea-Land ship, a Lykes Brothers ship, and a Navieras ship, and that his predilections ran strongly to Lykes Brothers and their run to South America, where he had never been. Least attractive to him was Navieras de Puerto Rico, with its roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) shipsin effect, truck ferrieson a short domestic haul. Aboard a Navieras ship, he said, you would find "a different crowd of peopleones that don't want to go overseas." Not that he could expect to shop for adventure. There had been a time when he thought he would specialize in break-bulk ships with topping lifts and king poststhe classical "stick ship," the freighter with a forest of booms, carrying dry miscellaneous cargo that you could see and touch. He looked upon his preference as "the romantic way to go to sea." Long ago, someone had told him that if he was choosy he would not last in the business, and now he knew that he would take anything. He would ship out on a tanker, a freighter, a container ship, a bulk carrier (ore and grain), an L.N.G. (liquid natural gas), a Ro/Ro, or a LASH (itscontainers are hulls: they are lowered into the water and towed away).
On that first day in Charleston, there was nothing on the board. Elise Silvers, the dispatcher, told Andy that the Cygnus, a Lykes Brothers Ro/Ro leaving in a few days for Antwerp and Rotterdam, would be replacing its second mate. She could also tell him that a Sea-Land ship needing a third mate would be sailing in about ten days from Jacksonville to Bremerhaven. And roughly two weeks hence the S.S. Stella Lykes would leave Charleston for South America with a new second mate. Andy Chase found all this "incredible"three openings in as many weeksand, schooled to go for the earliest opportunity, focussed on the Cygnus.
The door opened, and Pete Pizzarelli came intrim as a nail, beardless, dark-olive skin. He was, as Andy soon found out, a second mate. "I just got off the Allison," he said. "I'm sitting back and relaxing now. I'm night-mating. That's it." It was Andy's turn, for the moment, to sit back and relax as well. Which he chose not to do. Before the moment when your shipping card is exercised and actually takes precedence over all others, you never know what may come through the door and keep you off a ship. In Charleston, there was one daily job callat one-thirty. At one-twenty-nine on the crucial day, someone could walk in with a truly killer card. And Andy could kiss the Cygnus goodbye.
With Pizzarelli, he talked shipswhat else? Ships are all that people talk about in union halls, with the exception of politics as it relates to ships. This ship was built in Korea.That ship was built in Germany. This one paid off in Houston. That one paid off in New Orleans. Where a ship pays off is where it most often changes crew members. Pizzarelli told a story from his last ocean voyage. Thousands of dollars' worth of ships' stores had been seized by pirates in Guayaquil.
That evening, while Andy and I were talking about something completely unrelated to the sea, he suddenly looked up and said, "It happens more often than you like to think. A nice fat job appears on the board. A guy strolls in off the street with a card that beats yours."
Peninsular Charleston is a small antiquarian Manhattan, lying between confluent rivers and pointing south into a substantial harbor. As in Manhattan, there is a battery at the southern tip, in the oldest part of the city. When you drive about the region, you are frequently looking over water. On the way to the hall the second day, I noticed a ship that had come in and anchored in Charleston Harbora freighter, indistinct in haze, at least three miles from the road.
I said, "Why don't we get on that one?"
Andy, who was driving, glanced to his left, and said, "It's a foreign ship."
"How do you know that?"
"It has writing on the side. Lykes and American President have writing on the side and it doesn't look like either of them. It's a stick ship and the house is aft. We have plenty of ships with the house aft, but not stick ships. We don't have many stick ships left, period."
Through the intervening water a long black shape was sliding, graceful as an alligator, and analogously fast. Andy noticed it first, out of the corner of his eye. He said it was a Trident-class submarine, five hundred and sixty feet long, and it could go at least fifty miles an hour; the exact figure was classified; the Navy would admit to twenty-three. Submarines can move rapidly because they are in a single fluid, he went on. There are no waves. Waves detain ordinary ships, which operate at the interface of two fluids. An idea that has been around for a long time is to make a very fast cargo ship consisting of two submarines with stems rising to a literal bridge connecting them, where the crew would be housed and the helmsman would stand. We weren't going to be shipping out on anything like that, either.
For the second consecutive day in the Masters, Mates, and Pilots hall, there was, as Andy expected, nothing on the boardno surprises, no new developments, no unexpected ships, not so much as one night-mating job, nothing to learn that he didn't know already. He was present for the job call, thoughand in plenty of time. Andy never misses a job call. If he is in a city to look for a ship, he goes to the hall every day, regardless of what he may know. "You're counting on luck," he said. "A ship might come in a day early. A ship not on a schedule might come in." A ship not on a schedule is a tramp steamer.
The hall opens at nine. We learned that a mate named Tony Tedmore had been waiting there at nine to register for a new shipping card, and when the office opened a little late and he was handed a card that said "9:04" he hadbecome furious and announced his intention to make a formal complaint to the union. Andy said, "When I paid off my ship last year, I hotfooted it to the union hall as fast as I could. Your former job ends. Your bargaining power begins. Every minute counts. At job calls, I've seen one person beat out another by as little as a minute on his shipping card."
After the obligatory vacation period, which has lately settled back to fifteen days for every thirty at sea, there comes the moment when you are permitted to look for work again, but there's scarcely any point in trying until your shore time grows longer. As people sit in union halls, the grapevine will tell them how old a card has to be to get a job. One long job begets anotherthe more sea time, the more vacation time, the older your card when you look again. You can get into a bind of short jobs. On the actual day when a ship you are hoping for is called, your card goes into a box on a table at the union hall. Anyone can look at it. This prevents "backdoor shipping." There was once a day when a couple of hundred dollars tucked under a dispatcher's fingers could get you a ship.
Andy has never refused a job because of something he has heard about a ship from gossip in a union hall:
"The captain's a tyrant."
"The captain's a creep."
"The captain's a drunk."
"It's a terrible run."
"The ship is unsafe."
"You never get any port time."
"They carry dangerous cargo."
Andy said, "You may find that the creepy old captain is a neat guy. Or he may be a recluse, but when all hell breaks loose he turns out to be a great seaman. That's why the company goes along with the guy."
Many dry-cargo mates fear tankers. When a dry-cargo ship ties up at a dock, longshoremen come aboard and unload her. When a tanker is in port, her own mates load and discharge the ship. The work is hazardous, and most dry-cargo mates don't know how to do it. "I still get trepidation when I go on a tanker," Andy said. "You're lining up a hundred valves. You're operating under the assumption that all valves leak. They usually do. We had oil in the pump room on the Spray. We calculated that to get there the oil had to go through six closed valves. It was an old ship. The fumes on a tanker are sometimes so thick you can see them rise like fountains. They spread in the air. They flow over the deck. You can see them go down the sides."
The door opened. In came a man with a sharp face, a sportive mustache, bowl-cut bangs the color of light straw. Andy had never seen him before. In this situation, two people who are unfamiliar will sniff each other out in seconds. This was Gene Whalen, second mate, out of Cape Canaveral, looking for a ship. He said, "I just go from port to port: Jacksonville, Port Evergladessmall places." In the continuing conversation, he mentioned that he was a graduate of the New York Maritime College, at Throgs Neck, in the Bronx, that he enjoyed shipping with Lykes whenhe could, because "they're in a time warp, they're an easygoing company with break-bulk ships that stop in lots of ports." Dreamily, he spoke of Penang, of Borneo, of the mountain springs of Mindanao. He said that pirates had shot at his ship "in the Gulf of Thigh Land." He said, "Ping. Ping. You'd hear bullets hit the mast. You just duck." Piracy, one gathered, is heavy in the Strait of Malacca, in Guayaquil, on the whole West African coast. Pirates usually board ships in port. They come in boats to the seaward side of the ship. They throw a hook over the rail and shinny. They tie people up. They go for safes. In the Strait of Malacca, they attack moving ships. Crewmen line the rails with pressure-charged fire hoses to drive the pirates off the sides. Low-freeboard ships are especially vulnerable to pirates.
None of this interested Andy a ten-thousandth as much as the age of Whalen's card. Whalen eventually mentioned what it was. Andy had him beat to death.
The door opened, a new face came inblond, heavyset, linebacker man. Even a little cherubic. Curl across the forehead. Beard that could have been panned in a stream. Without a glance around, he walked right over to the desk to sign in for a job. He had just arrived in Charleston from his home, in Montana, and he didn't need to look for anything. This was, after all, the union of masters as well as mates. The paperwork he quickly completed is known as "clearing for a ship." Captain of the Sea-Land Performance, he would take over the ship when it arrived in Charleston. Captains and most chief mates are "permanent." They takeenforced vacations like everybody else, butat the owners' behestthey return to their specific ships. With rare exceptions, no second mates or third mates are permanent. Many unlicensed personnel have permanent jobs; most do not.
In the afternoon, we went to a couple of ship chandlers'. We talked with a fisherman about the fish he was not catching from the battery. We sat on a park bench under the deep shade of live oaks and squinted into the glare of the harbor. Andy said that he had begun to develop second thoughts about the Cygnus. He was unaccustomed to having any kind of choice. His experience instructed him to take the first open ship and risk nothing. Unfortunately, though, the desirability of the jobs before him seemed to rise from one to the next. He needed sea time. Second mates become chief mates not only by passing examinations but also by accumulating sea time. The Cygnus job was significantly short on sea time. For that matter, the Sea-Land trip out of Jacksonville was not what you would call an odyssey. Also, his daily wage and overtime pay would be lower with Sea-Land, because he'd be sailing as third mate. Jacksonville was something of a long shot in any case. And if he went down there he risked losing out on anything that might come up in Charleston in his absence.
The Stella Lykes was the most appealing ship. Second mate. Interesting run. All the sea time he wanted and needed. But to wait for the Stella Lykes meant weeks, not days, multiplying the possibility that something could go wrong. "It's a bit of a gamble," he said. "You never knowif someone's going to come walking into the hall that day and take it away from you."
In less than a day, though, he made up his mind. He would break his own rules. He would pass up the Cygnus and Sea-Land. He would narrow the field and raise the risk. He would wait for the Stella Lykes. In the Merchant Marine, there is an expression that describes what he was doing. He was laying for a ship.
Copyright © 1990 by John McPhee