Sea Stories (Chapter 2)

Maiden Voyage – Chapter 2

Part One “San Francisco and the Hiring Hall”

Once we had completed our stretch at Piney Point (for it had felt like incarceration), we were split up and sent to ports around the country. As this was taking place during the Vietnam War years, many of us were sent to the West Coast. It was my luck to be assigned to San Francisco. I say luck because, besides the fact that I had been here less than a year previous, the City held a great deal of meaning for me. My parents met in San Francisco and lived there for a short time after they were married. My father had spent his life there from the time he was fourteen. For me it was always this great gleaming city on the hill.

The Seaman’s International (my union) covered airline transportation and for me it was my first time flying. We flew out of Baltimore direct to San Francisco on a 747 Jumbo Jet. This was one of those huge jets no longer employed except for international travel. There was a deck above the main cabin that was nothing less than a cocktail lounge, replete with a U shaped bar, barstools and cocktail waitresses. This, as I say, being my first time flying, it seemed like the proverbial lap of luxury. As might be expected, I spent most of the trip up in this lounge lizard’s paradise.

Upon our arrival, I was ushered to another holding house. Fortunately, I did not have to wait long to get away from this arrangement. Daily, recent graduates were brought down to the union hiring hall. The union hiring hall is an arrangement where all the jobs currently available are posted on a large board. Union members are divided into three classes of seniority: A, B and C.
Union members wanting work would place their union cards on a separate board that was arranged by the date posted. As jobs were taken, the member’s cards would be removed and all cards posted after it would be moved up. Each day, as jobs were posted, members would place their union cards on the counter to be considered for particular positions. Whoever had a combination of seniority class and oldest date position on the card posting board would get the assignment. This system overall was fair to everybody and seemed to work quite efficiently.

However, the status of Piney Point graduates was a bit of a sticky issue. By dint of the fact that they had attended the union school, they were automatically designated “B” class. This particular practice was of no small matter to the rank and file and bred considerable dissatisfaction. Most union members had worked their way up from “C” class, working the jobs that nobody else wanted until they were awarded, after a certain amount of time, a higher seniority rating. The fact that these young pups, who were perceived as ingrates, still wet behind the ears, could just walk right in and post for a job above all the “C” class mariners really grated on some.

The first day I was in the hall, one of the union leadership asked to see my union book. As I have mentioned, the inner page looked pretty suspect and the official called me on it. When I gave him the explanation, he gave me a look I had come to recognize and would continue to do so throughout my short career as a Merchant Mariner. He took one look at my somewhat slight physique and advised me to put in for a steward department job that was about to be called. The position was called Pantry man and, as I envisioned it as being some sort of assistant to the chef, it didn’t sound half-bad. At this stage, all I really wanted was to be on a ship and sailing for exotic ports of call; so, when this opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.

Before joining the ship, I had to receive the necessary vaccinations for diphtheria, cholera and the like. I was told to go over to Alameda, which is across the bay, near the Army base. When I arrived, I started asking around about where to get my shots and I was steered toward a building on the base. I went in and there were a number of guys standing about in their underwear. I asked about the shots and someone said I could receive them there. I stood in line and when it came to be my turn, I presented the logbook I had been given that listed the shots I needed. The doctor looked at the book with a bit of a quizzical expression on his face but then, with a shrug, began administering the shots. After he was through, he directed me to another room for what he called further examination. Upon my arrival at this room, I realized something was amiss. People were being subjected to complete physical exams, complete with all manner of probing and bending over. As I was only there for my shots, I knew this wasn’t right and when I inquired about it I was told that the physicals were required of all new Army personnel. I had inadvertently wandered into an Army new recruit processing station! After explaining myself, I quickly high tailed it out of there.

Part Two “Welcome Aboard the U. S. Mohawk”

I went down to the docks where I was directed to go to meet up with my ship. There were several there and after inquiring, I located the U. S. S. Mohawk, as she was named. (Oddly enough, a company called Ogden Marine of Ogden, Utah owned the Mohawk. What a shipping company was doing headquartered as far inland as Utah is anybody’s guess.) The Mohawk was an old C-140 troop transport from WWII that had been converted to a freighter. This being before container ships took over completely, the Mohawk was a freighter of the old school, containing seven holds a few stories deep. The beauty of these older ships was the fact that they required days, sometimes several, to off load cargo that, with today’s cargo container ships would only take hours. This of course translated into that much more time ashore for the crew. Longshoremen offloaded the cargo, leaving the crew to do as they may until it was time to set sail again.

I climbed the gangway and headed up to the bridge to see the Captain and sign the Articles. As mentioned previously the Articles are a contract to work, in this case for three months. The “old man” (i.e., the Captain) was, indeed, an older man, Polish, who had been at sea for many years. He was a quiet man and I would come to learn an odd duck but fair, not given to being overly harsh with the crew. Standing alongside the table were the First Mate, the Third and the Steward.

The First was in charge of all things on board, second only to the Captain. The Third was responsible for all Deck Department activities. The First was ostensibly in charge of the overall ship’s operation and, although in charge of the Engine Department, the Chief Engineer still answered to him. The Steward was another story altogether. He lorded over his domain (the Steward Department) and answered to no one, some would say not even to the Captain. This was true of every ship. It seems having sway over sustenance wields great power.

The Steward was a small man: short of stature, slight, but with a considerable paunch that gave him the appearance of some ungodly pregnancy; too many years in charge of the food I imagined. He was an intense person, seemingly staring right into my depths, as he looked me up and down. The mates and officers all wore uniforms but they were not of the same union as the crew. The Steward belonged to yet another union and no else in the Steward Department wore a uniform so I can only surmise this was his attempt at looking official, giving him that elusive sense of command. For him the graduates of Piney Point were beneath even contempt. He held strongly to the belief, held by many older union members that we somehow, true or not, felt some sense of entitlement. He would come to be my albatross.

I soon learned the nature of my position as Pantry man. The work consisted of three meal shifts: morning – where I made up fruit selections, fruits, cantaloupe and such, and washed dishes; mid-day – where I prepared small salads and desserts, and washed more dishes; and evening – where I prepared yet more salads and desserts as well as, yes, even more dishwashing. This in reality was a glorified dishwasher position, which they had dolled up with nomenclature. Hail Pantry man! There were forty-one men aboard so as you might imagine, the dishwashing took up most of my work time. Meals were at 6:30AM, 11:30AM and 6:00PM. To a certain extent this was a cozy arrangement. I had extensive breaks between shifts and best of all no night work, unlike the other two departments.

The Deck and Engine shifts were broken up into four-hour shifts of which two were served during a twenty-four hour period. These consisted of the 12 to 4, the 4 to 8 and the 8 to 4. Shifts were served AM and PM so, for example, the 12 to 4 consisted of a 12AM to 4AM shift and again at 12PM to 4PM. For the Deck Department, each four hour shift was broken into three one hour and twenty minute sections: one on the bridge manning the wheel, one on the bow standing lookout and one in the crew lounge on stand-by. The Engine Department was always a mystery to me but I assume they spent their time checking valves and gauges and such, but in the same four hour shifts. For me, never having to work beyond 8PM or so, it all turned out for the good.

Part Three “At Sea”

The Mohawk set sail sometime in the afternoon that first day. It was before the evening meal so I had the liberty of standing on deck as we cruised out across the bay and headed for the Golden Gate. The marine layer was sitting well offshore so the view of the surrounding hills of the Bay Area was unimpeded. This area, particularly in summer, is usually quite foggy so this was a real treat for this first time sailor. Slowly the ship worked its way through the busy bay traffic and eventually reached the Golden Gate Bridge. The ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed out to sea. I loved the sound of that, “heading out to sea”. It brought to mind any manner of visions of the high seas I fantasized from books I had read or more immediately from movies I had seen. I was soon to find that neither did the reality any justice. The ship moved steadily, if not swiftly as freighters rarely do better than twelve knots (this is approximately akin to miles per hour), out past the shores and then to the open sea.

Soon we reached the marine layer, a thick bank of fog sitting offshore. As we passed into the enveloping mist, the ship seemed to enter a world removed from time and space. The enshrouding fog was thick enough so that parts of the deck were not visible from others. The sense was of being suspended from the realm of normal experience and drawn into a world unto itself. The sounds of the crew and the sea itself became muffled and somehow removed. It was as if we had been transported directly into that novel or onto that movie set. I lingered there on deck, taking it all in, until I was reminded I was to report to work. That evening as I walked the deck after my shift my mind raced with thoughts of what was to come, what lay ahead?

The next morning I arose early to get out on deck before my shift began. It was early, just before the sun came up, and the gray light of the approaching dawn was just beginning to lighten the now clear skies. The perspective alone was something I had never experienced. All around at every turn the sea stretched to the horizon. There was nothing to break the boundless sea save the rise and fall of white-capped swells. The large, heavy ship bore relentlessly through the seas seeming to defy the force of the mighty ocean; yet, I well knew the potential power of the unfathomable depths. I stood at the rail and contemplated all this while the light of the coming dawn swelled.

Sunrise, and sunset for that matter, at sea is astonishing. The intensity of colors, on land usually relegated to a single horizon alone, at sea are all around, 360 degrees with nothing to act as an impediment. Instead of the concentration of color at one horizon gradually fading across the skies, the colors on the open sea are equally intense all around the circumference of an unbroken circle. The sea itself reflects the gradually increasing light until the sea and sky merge in a cataclysmic crescendo. After several mornings of this, I was struck by the diversity of conditions under which this daily light show took place.

On particularly calm mornings, I would come out on deck to see the ocean entirely without swells. On these mornings the sea would look like nothing more than a vast, undulating bowl of gelatin without an eddy or swell to break the mirror like surface. With the color of the skies reflected on it, the sea on these days looked like an immense version of the oil and water disks used in ‘60s projector light shows. Looking down over the rail, the water broken only by the wake of our passing, small flying fish could be seen breaking the surface intermittently, their glittering silvery bodies coasting for a few moments before returning to the mirror-like impenetrable depths. This seemed like a game to them, as they would repeatedly rise above the surface just next to the slowly moving hull.

Dolphins too would play games with the ship. Rushing alongside they would suddenly, with a burst of speed, race out in front of the bow crossing the ship’s imminent forward path. Sometimes, on rougher days, the dolphins would travel with us in groups for miles, leaping up through the waves. On these mornings, as the ship pitched and yawed in the bounding waves, the skies would take on a calm, steadfast appearance, contrasting greatly with the jumble of water that tossed the ship about. The waters reflected the colors in an almost kaleidoscope fashion, bouncing pinks and purples off the many peaked white caps receding away to the distant horizon.

From San Francisco to the Philippines, the first scheduled port, at twelve to fifteen knots took fourteen days. The Mohawk, although quite large at approximately 300 feet long, seemed small after several days. Beyond the comparison to the enormity of the open sea, there was actually very little room on board. Below are numerous galleyways only a few feet wide. The fo’c’sles (forecastles or living quarters) are quite small, consisting of two bunks lying end to end in a narrow living space with only an entryway on one end and a porthole (window) on the other. On the opposite bulkhead (wall) from the bunks were two sets of lockers separated by a small desk. The deck topside was really the only place to get a sense of space. Yet, even the decks were covered with seven sizable hold covers as well as great mounds of ropes, chains and other sea-going paraphernalia lying about. There not being very much area to move about below or on deck, I took to exploring up on the smokestacks. Later the knowledge of the maze of ladders and landings would serve me well.

The weather at sea, as you may suspect, can be very unpredictable. However, most times weather can be seen approaching from miles away, very similar to the Great Plains in the U.S. but at a greater expanse. Great sheets of rain would darken the horizon hours before they would reach the ship. Sometimes, particularly well out at sea, the ship’s course could be maintained in order to avoid these storms. Other times, though, squalls would rush upon us unexpectedly with a fury and intensity rarely seen on land. During these storms, the huge ship would be tossed about like a child’s toy. Great waves would break over the bow and sides leaving gallons of water to rush about the decks. In the storms the seaman on bow watch would have to lash himself to the deck until, if conditions worsened to the point the mate saw fit, he was called to the bridge.

The most furious storm I was ever in was a typhoon off the Philippines. It hit late at night, the swells lifting the bow of the ship up into the air fifty feet or more. The force necessary to displace the enormous ship in that manner was staggering to contemplate. I stayed out on deck for only a short while watching the storm’s fury, the pounding seas roaring in my ears as the ship seemingly moved in several directions at once. Walking below required a certain dancer like agility, ping ponging off the galleyway bulkhead and sometimes caroming and careening about with little or no control. That night I found the use for what appeared to be two seatbelts, one each attached near the head and the foot of the bed. As I slept, or attempted to, securely strapped -in, the cot pitched about, sometimes heaving me to nearly a standing position. I had wondered what those belts were for and now I knew.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Sea Stories (Chapter 2)

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

Sea Stories continued


sea stories

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