Book Review: Looking For A Ship

Enjoyed John McPhee’s notes about career shadowing a merchant marine. Thought I’d tell you about it while waiting for the guy to come check on the family of bats that wintering in the Pineapple Hill attic this year…

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Back in my Jacksonville Beach days a buddy of mine spent a lot at the JAXPORT ship terminal inspecting oil shipments. He’d go out on arriving tankers (at whatever hour they came in from sea, often in dead zone of darkness between 1 and 3 am) to verify that the deliveries were as promised. Often I’d go with him. He’d pick up the tab at the shabby beer joints where we waited for the call to go aboard. I was right out of college and living the life of a beach bum. My schedule was pretty flexible. And it was cool to see the secret life of professionals in the shipping business. My friend’s girlfriend, it happened also, was a Merchant Marine. So I learned a bit about it from her as well. But she was usually away –out at sea for a hundred and more nights at a time, staring at the moon over the Black Sea.

The whole deal seemed so cool and the only thing that stopped me from going that route was the ink –still wet– on my Journalism degree. I thought I owed to my dad (and the student loan company) to deploy that thing somehow.

Just as soon as I was done hanging out on the beach…

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McPhee’s book follows the highs and lows of his friend Andy whose wallet contained a National Shipping Card, the Merchant Marine’s ticket to going to sea.

No card, no job.

They don’t just give you the cards, you have to train for them then pass a bunch of tests. (I’d already decided I was done with tests for a while, except for testing the SPF rating on my sunscreen, and testing the local surf bunnies on their tolerance for alcohol.)

As Mcphee explains: the older the National Shipping Card, the better the prospects for a job. But if the card the goes unused for twelve months, the holder is bumped down in seniority. Back to the end of the line. The book was not just a narrative, it was a drama singing the woes of too much supply (cardholders) and too little demand (job openings).

The once big and mighty U.S. Merchant Marines had fallen on hard times. Again, too much supply (too many companies operating under foreign flags –enabling them to pay at near minimum wage levels). These flag-of-convenience ships, McPhee notes, are essentially unregulated, leading toward “compromised safety and the lowest practical levels of operation and maintenance. Dragging others down with them…”

Consequently, the big bucks Andy made at sea (or, when he could, in between jobs, getting gigs guarding ships dockside) had to also cover the long stretches in between.

Andy and his brothers in the MM would go into the union halls every morning and wait for assignments to be called out. Often there were none, or just one, for the 15 – 30 people hopefully reporting in. While there, they’d listen for any stirring rumors of other ships heading out from other ports –then quietly try to beat each other there. Andy would go down to Jacksonville from Maine. Then up to Savannah from Jacksonville. Then back to Maine. While the clock was ticking against the expiration date of that card of his.

That aspect of the business was every bit as interesting to me as when Andy finally landed something. It’s a much more quirky line of work than I’d imagined. (Probably a good thing I stayed on the beach.)

The book keeps a good clip all the way through. The inside quirks and background stories of a commercial ship at sea –especially under the command of a polished Captain such as Andy sailed with makes an eye-opening and FUN read.

Check it out. Another great choice for the private library book collection and a favorite among Pineapple Hill’s books to take to the beach and boat/books to take sailing.

(Nope, not going to drop any spoilers on you here.)

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–Tim Bryant
Author of Blue Rubber Pool
Surf Director at Pineapple Hill