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Book Review: Looking for a Ship by John McPhee

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Three hundred and forty-one ships owned by Americans sail under foreign flags. Some of the owners patriotically refer to these ships as the Effective U.S.-Controlled Fleet, a term regarded as a risible euphemism… “A ship owned in Chicago, with a Burmese crew and Spanish officers, will not go where you want it to in an emergency…”

John McPhee has made a specialty of writing illuminating essays on intriguing topics. His work is very journalistic, reflecting his long career in writing for Time magazine and The New Yorker. So when he follows Andy Chase in his search for employment aboard one of the last remaining American-flagged merchant marine ships, the result is a thorough – and very enjoyable – exploration of the history of the U.S. Merchant Marine service.

The first challenge is finding a berth. Andy Chase has a “ticket,” a National Service Card that shows he’s qualified, and that he’s been looking for work for ten and a half months. This is nearly a “killer card.” For another month and a half, he will have seniority, but at twelve months, the card rolls over, and he goes back to the end of the line.

As we approached the Ben Sawyer Bridge, we saw that it was open. Andy turned off the engine, and we sat in the line of cars… Andy said, “Last year, down here in the Charleston Hall, I saw a guy come in with an eleven-months-plus-thirty-days killer card and take a ship an hour before his card was to expire.” I said, “A lot of good that card would do him if he’d been stuck behind this bridge.”

Once Andy Chase gets a job, Second Mate on the S.S. Stella Lykes, he needs to arrange for McPhee to come along. But these challenges pale in comparison to the job itself.

The sea is an uncertain work environment and, for a merchant ship, the ordinary dangers of storm, navigation and collision in crowded waters are only part of the tale. The contents of the ship present their own problems – valuable shipments attract pirates. Poorly-stowed cargo may shift in high seas, putting the ship in danger of being scuttled by her own contents.

Some containers do not contain what is listed on the bill of lading. Contraband cargo may bring a merchant ship under the hostile scrutiny of a government in whose waters she sails. Mislabeled containers can even pose a risk of explosion or fire, fatal to a ship at sea. Stowaways become the responsibility of the ship, even if they are packed inside a shipping crate marked “Perishable Goods.”

The dangers at sea are equalled by the problems faced by the crew once they make landfall. McPhee uses Rand McNally’s South American Handbook to illustrate some of these: Mugging, even in daylight is a real threat. You shouldn’t take a taxi that has 2 or more people in it as you may get mugged or robbed. Don’t get into… conversations… with any locals if you can help it. Stand your glass on the ice cubes rather than putting them into your drink. You can be fined on leaving the country for staying too long.

There is a long quiet on the bridge. It is finally broken by McLaughlin, speaking in the dark from the helm. He says, “One of the foreign ports where I never go ashore is Miami.”

One of the most memorable segments is the passage through the Panama Canal. At the time this book was written, control of the canal had recently been returned to Panama. McPhee notes that with the transition, the mosquitos had returned. “Eventually there won’t be a Panama Canal,” says one canal pilot. “Anywhere in the world, if you fool with Mother Nature, she’s going to get you… We’re back to the yellow-fever days.” Another disagrees. “The Japanese will run it. The Japanese bank is the only one that didn’t close when others did.” The ship’s captain agrees, “We can get along without this canal. Japan and Russia can’t.”

The operation of a merchant marine ship is business and, like any U.S. business, is hedged around with concern for lawsuits and liabilities.

Once, on the way into Buenaventura, Stella shuddered and abruptly stopped. Captain Washburn remembers that he said at that moment, “Heavens to Murgatroyd, we’re aground!” Whereupon the mate… went to the logbook, recorded the exact time, and wrote “Aground.” The weight of this memory causes the captain to slap his forehead… “In this business, you don’t write ‘Aground.’ If you hit a dock, you say, ‘We touched the dock.’ If the side is stove in and the hatches are buckling, you say, ‘We touched the dock – I think.'”

What McPhee is really searching for in Looking For A Ship is a sense of what it means to be a merchant seaman in the U.S. today. As with any of his excellent essays, he lays out all the information he has uncovered, and leaves it to us to make our own conclusions.

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About DrPat

  • SFC SKI

    This looks like a very interesting read, thanks for the review.

  • Duane

    Thanks DrPat, oh voracious one. I loved Basin and Range. I still pick it up now and then and reread certain parts of it. Delicious.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    I first encountered McPhee with The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, a wonderful essay on lighter-than-air flight, and The Curve of Binding Energy, a tocsin about the possibility of pocket nuclear weapons, both written in the early 70s.