Pirates! German U-boats trying to torpedo the convoy! Passengers and crew held captive! The captain gets washed overboard in a typhoon! The hazards of being at sea on a commercial vessel, in peace and during war, have been the basis for some great movies and television series. The truth of the matter is, however, that there have been only a handful of Hollywood films that even acknowledge the existence of the U.S. merchant marine. That’s one reason why I was looking forward to seeing the movie “Captain Phillips” when it came out in October 2013.
It was a pleasant Northwest fall day when my wife and I got on the Washington State Ferry, headed off-island to see the movie. Having previously sailed with Capt. Shane Murphy, the chief officer on Maersk Alabama at the time of the hijacking, I was curious to see how accurately they depicted him in the film. The movie itself, allowing for some — but not too much — Hollywood artistic leeway, was in my opinion exciting and well done. Michael Chernus, the actor who portrayed Shane, did a great job conveying his professionalism and hard work, while Tom Hanks put in a performance as Capt. Richard Phillips that I think deserves an Academy Award. Judging from the huge box office earnings the film has garnered, millions of people worldwide now know a bit more about containerships, modern-day Somali pirates and the sacrifices everyday men and women in the merchant marine make to bring people the food, equipment and other goods they rely on to live.
I think that “Captain Phillips” was the most authentic depiction of commercial mariners of any big studio movie released during my lifetime. Long before that, Humphrey Bogart’s 1943 thriller “Action in the North Atlantic” told the story of merchant mariners on a U.S.-flag tanker that gets sunk by a German U-boat, and of a Liberty ship’s death-defying trip on the Murmansk run. As a kid growing up in Spokane, Wash., I remember watching “Action in the North Atlantic” with my dad during the Saturday afternoon classic movie program on television. He sailed in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and told me how important convoys like the one depicted in the movie were, and that they were utilized to protect the merchant ships carrying the supplies and troop reinforcements needed by our military. For me, watching the movie gave a glimpse of the dangers commercial mariners bravely faced during wartime, and showed that it wasn’t only the U.S. Navy that helped us defeat our enemies at sea back then.
When I was in grade school, one of my favorite television shows was “Gilligan’s Island.” Though it was a silly comedy, every show’s opening credits told the story of how an unexpected storm threatened the very lives of the passengers and crew — and that the bravery and courage of the two merchant marine officers on board kept everyone from dying in the raging tempest. Watching “Gilligan’s Island” as a kid showed me that at any given time, a vessel’s officers and crew might be called upon to face powerful forces of nature such as a sudden storm or a freak wave, which could pose a threat to their safety at sea.
A sitcom set on a commercial cruise ship is a good idea — so good, in fact, that “The Love Boat” aired for a decade from the late 1970s until the late 1980s. Every episode I saw showed how well the cruise ship captain and his crew dealt with peculiar passengers and strange situations — one time even being taken hostage by a crazy hermit during an excursion ashore. I found the idea of interacting with people from different countries and cultures on board a commercial ship interesting. That’s one reason why, years later, I took a relief mate’s job on passenger vessels one summer. It was my first time dealing with the general public as a licensed deck officer, and as I predicted from watching the television series, the job was a challenge — including as many as 10 different languages being spoken on board and the mystery of the lost dentures.
Today there are some cargo ships that still “tramp” around the South Pacific islands, an idea that was the basis for the television series in the late 1950s/early 1960s called “Adventures in Paradise.” Gardner McKay, great-grandson of a real-life shipbuilder, was cast as Adam Troy, the master of a small commercial ship called Tiki III. It would sail throughout the South Pacific islands, carrying passengers and cargo everywhere from Hong Kong to Pitcairn Island. I watched reruns of the series on local TV growing up and was enthralled by the weekly adventures the captain and crew had braving typhoons or foiling villains. By the time the final camera shot of a tropical sunset came on the screen at the end of the show, I’d be daydreaming of visiting exotic, far away places. Years later, as a California Maritime Academy cadet during a South Pacific cruise on the training ship Golden Bear, watching the sun set over Tonga, I thought of those “Adventures in Paradise” shows I had seen as a kid — and of all the adventures then coming true for me.
Finally, I remember an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” where Ward and June were worried that Wally was going to leave home and join the merchant marine. Well, I eventually did just that, and from my own experience am convinced that watching mariners portrayed in various TV shows and movies played a role in my choosing a career at sea.
A 2012 university study out of Africa notes that nearly 60 percent of respondents surveyed stated that television influenced their career choice. A 2007 study out of Sweden, conducted for the European Commission on Enterprise and Industry, directly points out that television not only has a strong impact on the career decisions of young people, but also influences whether the general public has a favorable or unfavorable perception of a particular industry or type of work. The fact that the movie “Captain Phillips” has already made well over $200 million worldwide should convince Hollywood to make more movies and TV series involving merchant mariners. At a time when there is a growing shortage of seafarers worldwide, the more people who get to see the vital work we do onscreen, the better.
Till next time I wish you all 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 email@example.com.