One of my favorite holidays, at sea and ashore, has always been Thanksgiving. Sitting down at the table enjoying a specially prepared feast, and most of all giving thanks for the good things and good people I have in my life, has always made it a special time. As the holiday season approaches, I have been cultivating my “attitude of gratitude” by thinking about all those who have helped me in my maritime career. The list includes my wife of 31 years, mentors and teachers in class and on board, and a number of officers and crew I have had the good fortune to sail with. For this year’s holiday article, however, I decided to give specific thanks to three people whose efforts, in my opinion, have greatly benefited merchant mariners and the industry as a whole.
For hundreds of years, navigators at sea had to rely on dead reckoning — an “educated guess” — to determine their longitude. In 1707, nearly 2,000 sailors lost their lives in one of the worst maritime disasters in British history. Four warships, blown off course due to a storm, mistakenly thought that they were in the safe waters of the English Channel when in fact they were headed right for the rocks on the Isles of Scilly. Navigators’ inability to accurately determine the longitude of their positions was a factor in the mass sinking and prompted the British Parliament to pass the Longitude Act of 1714, which promised a massive monetary prize (about $2 million in today’s money) to anyone who could come up with a practical and precise way to determine longitude at sea.
Finding longitude then was almost impossible during ocean crossings, in large part because there was no accurate way to keep time. Taking up the challenge, a young self-educated British clockmaker named John Harrison invented the first reliable marine chronometer in the mid-1700s. Enduring ridicule after decades of designing prototypes that failed, Harrison finally invented a small, reliable marine chronometer that was easy to use, kept excellent time and held up well in the rough ocean environment. Though he got a few advances to cover his costs over the years, after much government resistance Harrison finally received full credit for his invention and the remainder of his prize money in 1774, just two years before his death at 83. Being able to keep accurate time enabled mariners to take reliable readings to determine their position at sea and changed ocean navigation forever. Though they have been modernized for the electronic age, oceangoing vessels still carry a ship’s chronometer — a continuing recognition of Harrison’s contribution to marine navigation over 250 years ago.
A second historical figure that mariners should be thankful for was another British citizen, a man who in the mid- to late 1800s started a movement that continues to save mariners’ lives today. Samuel Plimsoll was a social reformer and member of Parliament when he began the push against “coffin ships.” The common practice of the day was to take a worn-out, worm-eaten ship, repaint it and send it out to sea as a “new vessel.” Rich shipowners would overload and over-insure these vessels, and when they sank the owners gladly accepted the insurance claims with no regard for the mariners who had died on board. In 1873-1874, 411 British “coffin ships” went down, taking the lives of over 500 merchant seamen. Forced between the proverbial “rock and a hard place,” by the mid-1800s over 2,000 mariners were tried and convicted of desertion after they reported for work, saw the horrendous condition of the vessels they were sent to join, and refused to sign aboard — the standard punishment being three months in prison.
For over a decade, Plimsoll waged a nearly solitary fight against the owners of these unseaworthy vessels, many of them owned by fellow members of Parliament. After publishing a book titled Our Seamen: An Appeal, which described in detail the unsafe conditions British merchant mariners were forced to work under, public opinion turned in his favor and the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 was finally passed. In addition to requiring stringent vessel inspections by the Board of Trade, another key aspect of the legislation mandated that a set of marks be placed on commercial ships. These marks showed the maximum draft to which each vessel could be safely loaded, ensuring the ship would not be dangerously unstable when it set to sea and during its voyage. To this day nearly all U.S. commercial vessels on ocean, coastwise and Great Lakes routes must have a set of Plimsoll lines, an homage to the man who made mariners’ lives safer.
The last historical figure I want to recognize this year was a person to whom I owe much of my seagoing career — Sen. Wesley Jones, a Republican from my state of Washington. He secured passage of a law that required goods shipped from one U.S. port to another be carried on vessels registered under the American flag. Over the years the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Jones Act, has helped ensure that our country has a strong domestic merchant marine — an economic backbone of our wonderful country. Personally, the Jones Act has been instrumental in my getting jobs on everything from coastwise tankers to tugs running between different West Coast ports. Another provision of the Jones Act entitles injured mariners to make a legal claim against a shipowner because of negligence or unseaworthiness, a right not afforded to merchant mariners under common international maritime law.
The modern merchant marine was built upon the hard work and resolve of all the mariners who came before us, and it is up to us to continue to make our profession the best and most humane it can be. Detractors and men of greed who want to do the wrong thing will always exist, but history has shown that with determination and perseverance they can be overcome. I believe that we have an obligation to always work to improve our industry, in thankfulness for those who preceded us and in consideration of those who will follow.
Till next time I wish you all happy holidays, and smooth sailin.’
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professional mariner.com.