Call of the sea brings retired executive back to his first love

In 1965 my June graduation from the New York Maritime College was followed by an August wedding to my high school sweetheart. After one of my around-the-world voyages that lasted almost six months, my bride suggested, “Why don’t you think about getting a legitimate job?” I had never suspected that sailing on ships in the merchant marine wasn’t, but for her now trying to raise a family without me home somehow made sailing less respectable.

The author’s first job after his return to sea was as third mate aboard the 2,500-TEU containership Sea-Land Liberator for a 35-day voyage from the U.S. West Coast to the Far East by way of Alaska.

“After the kids are out of school, you can go back to sea if you would like,” she said. So I embarked on a corporate career. I spent my first 10 years ashore with IBM Corp. as a systems engineer, marketing representative and financial controller.

My corporate career developed into one of transforming companies. From 1988 through 1991 I served as chief executive officer of Itel Containers International Corp., the largest lessor of ocean cargo containers in the world.

I continued to manage companies requiring major transformation until June 2001. I was 57 years old and healthy. It was time to retire, I believed. Yet during those first few months of retirement, I felt at a loss: of a hectic pace, of the CEO’s stature, of developing younger people, of saving companies. One day in my home office I found myself staring at a poster that had been on my wall for years.

Most mariners have seen the poster depicting the merchant seaman with that unique look of determination to return to sea in support of the American victory fleet of World War II. I had no such rationale pushing me toward my return to sea, but I did have that longing and compulsion to return to the job that I liked best after years of being a landlubber.

Even so, returning to the ship’s bridge was not an easy decision. In many ways it was a romantic notion to consider after my 30 years ashore. I needed to return to the ships — that way of life, of working hard, of sailing to faraway places, of being at and with the sea. To me the ships I had sailed had always been living organisms, friends and family.

So in September 2001, after only four months of retirement, I developed a plan to renew my license with the U.S. Coast Guard, acquire my IMO Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping credentials and register for work once again with the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots. It did not take long to realize that my plan was easier to develop than to execute. But I had honed my execution skills for 30 years and I knew I could do it.

There were many skeptics among friends and family who believed that seafaring was a young man’s occupation. Most of my classmates from New York Maritime College were retiring from their seagoing careers, many as masters, relief masters or chief mates. Each one with whom I spoke had a good reason why my objective did not make sense. They all cautioned that, “Sailing isn’t like it used to be.” “Then again, what is?” I thought.

By June 2002 I had my new Merchant Mariner’s Document, the replacement for my Z-card, and I had successfully completed the examinations for my limited tonnage ocean master’s license and unlimited ocean chief mate’s license. In my younger days the certification process would have ended there. Not so today. There was much more to do as I began the study, training, evaluation and testing for my five STCW-95 endorsements, all of which were completed by November. That process was one of the most difficult aspects of my preparation for return to sea, the ramifications of which I would not really understand until my first voyage. Suffice it to say that these certifications (basic safety training, bridge resource management, advanced firefighting, ARPA and GMDSS) were worth both the cost and time.

By April 2003 I had registered for my MM&P offshore shipping card and was waiting for it to gather some age for bidding purposes. In the meantime, I was introduced to the new “company training requirements” that were being imposed by MM&P-contracted companies on their potential mates and masters. At this point I wondered whether the training aspect of my preparation would ever end. In fact I have now concluded that in the Merchant Marine of the 21st century the training and upgrading of skills will be continuous throughout one’s career.

By June 1, 2003, I had completed the U.S. Maritime Administration’s National Sealift Training Program at Kings Point and the necessary company training: marine propulsion systems, computer systems and hazmat (hazardous materials). It had been a long 21 months of planning, preparation, study and testing. Now it was time to return to sea.

On July 14, 2003, I headed from my home in San Diego to the MM&P hall in Wilmington, Calif. My offshore shipping card was only 3 months old, but I figured that would be good enough for me to catch a relief trip somewhere at this time of the year. I was right. Sea-Land Liberator was posted for a third mate for a 35-day relief trip to the Far East. This is one of a class of ships managed by U.S. Ship Management under charter to Maersk Sealand solely to keep corporate relationships in line for the government’s Maritime Security Program. After clearing the hall and the medical exam, I headed for the ship at Pier 400 in Los Angeles. As I approached the berth, I felt like a newly minted third mate again.

Liberator is a D9J containership that is now 26 years old but a fine motor vessel. It rides well (not often the case for jumboized vessels), carries 2,500 TEUs of containers and sails with a crew of 20. The propulsion plant is diesel and is more temperamental (if not more compact) than the older steam plants with which I had sailed 30 years ago. In fact, my final qualification was earned at the MM&P’s Maritime Institute of Training and Graduate Studies, where I learned all about motor versus steam propulsion systems just prior to joining the ship. Today we control the power from the automated bridge console. Typically Liberator runs at 20 to 21 knots with no strain at about 22,000 hp. So there is additional capacity if it is required. However, the operating focus is on highest “economical” speed.

Sailing has changed a lot since my last voyage as chief mate aboard SS President Hoover in 1972. The combination of advances in containerization, computerization and communication technologies makes going to sea easier and more difficult. Proficiency in the traditional sailor’s trade is still a requisite, but it is simply not enough without an understanding, aptitude and ability to apply current technologies. Fortunately all of that came together for me, having had a lifetime of positions in and exposure to all three of these technologies while in the corporate world.

The food aboard the ship was excellent, but it is all self-service now. Officers’ mess was informal with one big table seating only eight officers and cadet/midshipmen, since the vessel no longer carries a fourth mate or engineer, no radio operator and no purser. The captain and the mates have taken over most of those responsibilities. For navigation, it is all DGPS. The only sextant that I saw on the ship was ship’s property and used only by the cadet from Maine Maritime Academy. There are some positive aspects to it though: we never estimate our position. We know exactly where we are all of the time. Hence, we waste a lot less fuel in the hunt for waypoints. Additionally, we are able to navigate around heavy weather with incredible precision.

During the 35-day voyage we sailed from Los Angeles to Oakland, Calif.; Dutch Harbor, Alaska; Yokohama and Nagoya, Japan; Busan and Kwangyang, South Korea; and Shanghai, China. The average time in port was seven hours, a far cry from the leisurely pace of 30 years ago when we often spent seven to 10 days in a port. The only opportunity that I had to go ashore was in Dutch Harbor.

The new container ports require hundreds of acres for check-in, staging, loading, discharging, and storing containers and chassis. The old break-bulk ports were downtown in the heart of the city and often a 10-minute walk to markets and less to the bars. Today our container piers are a 45-minute taxicab ride to the action. So if one pulls the cargo watch, going ashore is more of a hassle than it is worth for very little time to browse.

There was one incident that was characteristic of my reinitiation process. It occurred on the first evening on departure from L.A. I had completed my undocking duties on the stern and proceeded to the bridge for my 2000 to 2400 watch. The captain had the conn. I reviewed the watch plan, plotted our position and entered the darkened bridge as we sailed outbound in the VTS making for Oakland.

The master surveyed the situation (my age and gray hair) and then asked, “What was your last job?” I knew that he meant, “What was your last ship?” But I answered, “I was the CEO of a software development company.” Recognizing his error, he paused and then asked, “When did you last stand a bridge watch?” Now that was the right question. I didn’t have the heart to reply with an answer that began with a three so I said, “27 years ago, sir.” All of his face muscles tightened as though he had had an instantaneous facelift and he exclaimed, “Oh shit!”

Notwithstanding that ominous beginning the captain and I developed a fine relationship and he was genuinely interested in bringing my watch-standing skills back up to speed quickly, which he did. He was also a computer nerd who had designed and programmed most of the application software for the vessel. My prior skills as a systems engineer and programmer at IBM enabled me to help him with several programming logic problems, an unusual benefit of a rotary third mate to the ship’s operation. So for the second time in my seafaring career I felt fortunate for the “first captain” with whom I sailed.

Going to sea has changed a lot during the past 30 years. The certification process is arduous and time consuming, but with it comes a well-trained complement of seafarers with the skills to work and survive at sea. Containerization has standardized the carriage of goods by sea but complicates the need to balance shipboard life and relaxation ashore. Short turnarounds mean longer confinements aboard. Computerization has taken the drudgery out of the administration and navigation chores, but the higher level of productivity has also meant fewer jobs aboard and more to do for those who take them.

Finally, communications technology has made both the business and personal aspects of sailing easier. The Internet, satellite telephones and VHF all result in making time away seem not so far away and business processes easier to manage. The technology also makes survival at sea less problematic in difficult circumstances.

Serving in the merchant marine continues to be hard work, and I still enjoy it most when we are at sea. In the final analysis, it was a great trip, and my wife found that it is less of a hardship to communicate now because of e-mail, faster turnarounds and more predictable schedules. For me it has made retirement purposeful and exciting and an opportunity to return to my occupational roots. Over the years, I have often said that I would rather be on the bridge of a ship in the worst storm at sea than on the most beautiful golf course in the world on a warm, sunny day. Now, I just say, “You bet I’m going back to sea!”

By Professional Mariner Staff