Pass it on: Gifts of knowledge and kindness foster success at sea

Drummer Ringo Starr of the Beatles famously sang how he got by with a little help from his friends. I think that verse of the song applies to merchant mariners as well. From my experience, it is virtually impossible to go aboard any commercial vessel and not find that everyone in the crew, from captain to ordinary seaman, has a story to tell about someone who gave them their big break, career push and/or the helping hand that put them on the path to where they are now. Personally speaking, I am no different, having been fortunate throughout my career with schoolmates, shipmates and friends who were there for me when I really needed “a little help” — such as the time I was preparing to take my unlimited second mate and 1,600-ton master’s tests.

Trying to cram in everything during my 10-week vacation from the tanker I worked on, I felt that after a month my progress had generally been good. However, I developed a celestial navigation mental block and started to mess up even basic questions. After missing three “time of sunset on a moving vessel” problems in a row, it was obvious that I was in trouble. Then I thought of Dan, a robust septuagenarian who lived a couple of blocks from me. After retiring from the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant, Dan obtained a 1,000-ton freight and towing master’s license, sailing as a deck officer on commercial tugboats for a large West Coast towing company out of Seattle. Several years later, he accepted a position as a teacher at a local school of navigation. When the owner closed the school, Dan decided to retire and moved with his wife, Dorothy, from Seattle to the island where my wife and I live. He kindly agreed to tutor me, and for the next couple of weeks spent hours helping me go over all types of navigation test questions.

Despite feeling pressure as my return to work date approached, thanks to Dan’s help I felt ready to test and I drove down to the Regional Exam Center at Pier 39. Passing both the second mate and 1,600-ton master tests on the first go, and having already finished the flashing light test, I walked out with my new licenses in hand. A few days later, my wife and I took Dan and Dorothy out to dinner, and during the meal I asked if there was any way I could pay him back for all of his time and effort on my behalf. He replied, “Kelly, I was glad to help. All I ask is that sometime down the road you pass it on, and help another mariner who needs a hand — like when you needed one.”

As a kid growing up in Spokane, Wash., it was drummed into my head by my mother that it was de rigueur to give thanks for a kindness, gift or good deed by going directly to the benefactor. So Dan’s request that I pay him back by helping someone else “down the road” did not fit in with the way I had been raised. As the “pay it forward” movement came into vogue, however, I began to see what he was getting at. Sparked first by the book Pay It Forward and followed by the movie of the same name, one of the key ideas put forth was that the beneficiary of a good deed can repay the kindness by helping someone else in need sometime in the future. The idea caught on, with human-interest stories of “paying it forward” being published in newspapers and magazines regularly, and television personalities such as Oprah Winfrey publicly espousing the philosophy.

In 2014, a young man from Idaho named Shaun contacted me after his dad heard me on a nationwide radio interview. Shaun was interested in a career in the merchant marine and sought my advice. I was extremely busy, but I thought of Dan, all of the others who took their time to help me, and of “paying it forward.” So my wife and I invited Shaun and his dad to our home. Over a wonderful meal we talked for hours, discussing different schools he could go to, how to obtain grants, loans and scholarships, the types of vessels he could work on, and a bit about life at sea on a commercial vessel. After that conversation he decided to attend my alma mater, California Maritime Academy (CMA).

Shaun got into CMA and we have kept in touch by phone and email. Each summer since he has been at school, my wife and I have had him and his dad over for dinner. During their visit last August, Shaun spoke of his experiences and told stories of his cadet cruise on a containership on the Puget Sound-Alaska run. At the end of that day, just as they were getting ready to leave, I asked them to wait and then handed Shaun the stainless steel navigation compass and divider set I purchased during my senior year at CMA. My hope was that it would serve him as well as it had served me over the years, during my studies at school and preparing for my Coast Guard upgrade tests. Today, Shaun is finishing his junior year with a higher grade point average than I had at CMA, and I feel good being able to “pay forward” some of the kindness and help I have received in my career.

Most people will say that helping others makes them feel good, and studies have shown that there is direct connection between helping others and happiness — something I’ve personally experienced at sea. The happiest crew I have ever worked with was when I was the second mate on an oceangoing tug pulling a fully loaded 450-foot barge of gasoline from Lake Charles, La., to Los Angeles. Everyone from the skipper to the ordinary seaman went out of their way to help other crewmembers. There weren’t any whiners, complainers or freeloaders, and we all got along really well. At the end of the trip, I sat on the back deck having a cup of coffee, waiting for customs and immigration to show up and clear the vessel. I thought to myself, “A good pay rate, a fine new boat and a great crew of just about the happiest and most helpful bunch of sailors I could imagine working with — what more could a second mate ask for?” At that moment, not a thing.

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

By Professional Mariner Staff