Drunks? Troublemakers? Time for mariners to set record straight

Following in the footsteps of my dad, who sailed as an able seaman and boatswain, I had made the decision to become a merchant mariner. One spring Sunday afternoon during a family dinner in Spokane, Wash., I announced my decision to attend a four-year maritime school, where after graduation I would come out with an unlimited third mate license and a bachelor of science degree. Hearing this news, my dad was excited and vowed to help me any way he could.

A few days later, having just come home from an evening lecture at Spokane Falls Community College, I walked into the kitchen to make a sandwich before heading to my temporary job as a janitor at a Mexican restaurant. My mother and her best friend Babe were having a cup of tea at the table. With a sour look on her face Babe said, “Your mother tells me that you are applying to a maritime college.” I nodded my affirmation. In a deprecating tone she then said, “Going to sea is a bad idea. Sailors are drunks and troublemakers. You should go to WSU or Gonzaga. You could become something respectable, like a lawyer or maybe a priest.” Stunned into an uncustomary silence by her rude, intrusive remarks, I got out of there as fast as I could.  

Later, I angrily told my dad about what she’d said, and I asked if merchant mariners did indeed have a “certain reputation” among the public. He replied, “During and after the war, a lot of bad things were said about the merchant marine. Landlubbers like Babe just repeat what they’ve seen or heard. It all started with Walter Winchell.” A nationally syndicated columnist and radio personality famous in the 1940s and 1950s, Winchell was known for his ruthless “take no prisoners” style. He would mercilessly attack whoever or whatever was the latest focus of his derision. Years ahead of his time, Winchell had no problem peddling “fake news” as long as it suited his purpose. 

One of Winchell’s notorious hit pieces claimed that civilian American mariners refused to unload vital military supplies at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during World War II, forcing sick and injured soldiers to do it for them. That was not true, and both he and Hearst Newspapers were sued for libel and found guilty. Unfortunately, by then the damage had already been done. Winchell’s articles helped turn public opinion against the U.S. merchant marine, and many believe that they were a factor in our government’s decades-long refusal to grant veteran status to merchant mariners after the war.

It is a rare newspaper article or news report that mentions U.S. merchant mariners supplying the military with what it needs, delivering food aid to starving countries and risking their lives every day at sea. From what I’ve seen, the mainstream media inevitably reports negative news stories about the U.S. merchant marine, but good news stories are largely ignored. A case in point is the 2020 scandal involving test fixing and the selling of fraudulent deck and engine officer licenses and endorsements in Louisiana. That story was widely reported — it even made The New York Times. During the same period the scandal was being read about in newspapers nationwide, I did not see or hear anything about merchant mariners being designated as essential workers, courageously delivering the goods during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only does the media disregard many of the good things merchant mariners do, the press will even throw shade on the U.S. merchant marine when the story essentially has nothing to do with us. One example is the mass killing that occurred at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas, on Oct. 16, 1991. George Hennard, a Glock 17 in one hand and a Ruger P89 in the other, opened fire, killing 23 people and wounding 27 others in what at the time was the worst single-gunman mass killing in U.S. history. I was a third mate on a chemical tanker when that terrible event occurred and recall reading about it in the Los Angeles Times. Seeming to imply some sort of a connection between working on commercial ships and his killing spree, one of the first things mentioned in the news article was that Hennard was a disgraced former merchant mariner. 

Whether it is yet another anti-Jones Act article or some other hit piece directed at the U.S. merchant marine, we should not just sit idly by and ignore it. I think that it is essential for merchant mariners to push back. Writing letters to the editor, calling in to talk radio shows, posting pro-merchant marine videos and pictures online, and making positive comments on internet forums and message boards are all good ways to be proactive.

Advocates of the U.S. merchant marine, including unions, professional organizations and industry groups such as the Propeller Club and Navy League, also need to step up their game. Not only should these entities send out letters to the editor, issue press releases and post online responses to spurious anti-merchant articles and reports, but they also should develop strong relationships with journalists who write about maritime issues — such as Carl Nolte of the San Francisco Chronicle. Carl has quoted me when he needed a merchant mariner’s opinion on an important maritime issue of the day, and he is a supporter of the U.S. merchant marine personally and in print.

My dad was right: Most landlubbers don’t know anything about commercial mariners and the vital work we do. That’s something any seafarer who has tried to explain the difference between the merchant marine and the military knows firsthand. It may well take another 75 years before the damage caused by the lies of our detractors is completely reversed, but it is absolutely necessary for us to get our truth out there. It’s time that the public saw us for the heroes we are. 

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff