The Voyage of the Rose City
By John Moynihan
Spiegel & Grau, 2011
In 1980, between terms at Wesleyan University, 20-year-old John Moynihan insinuated himself aboard an oil tanker as an ordinary seaman. (Moynihan died in 2004 at age 44 from an allergy to acetaminophen; this book was published posthumously through the efforts of his mother.) He had used family connections — his father was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York — to jump to the head of the line at the union hall, but otherwise asked for no special treatment notwithstanding his family’s prominence.
He sailed from Philadelphia and found himself lonely and in considerable peril as the hard-boiled crew discovered his background and then harassed him all the way across the Atlantic. Yet through a combination of hard work, good humor and willingness to engage in the foulest, most dangerous jobs, he gradually earned the respect of the crew.
Rose City sailed across the Atlantic and picked up a load of crude in Cabinda, Angola — where he witnessed squalor and deprivation reminiscent of the worst post-apocalyptic scenes in popular literature.
The ship continued around the Cape of Good Hope for the Far East, making numerous stops throughout Southeast Asia and Japan, allowing the crew to engage in all manner of sailorly bad behavior. This was in the last halcyon days of port stops that could exceed a week and without security restrictions that now force ship crews to be isolated in tightly secured industrial terminals without chance of a visit to town.
Moynihan revels in the adventure and describes it with an unflinching prose that is both full of humor and self-deprecation. The book includes the author’s witty, hand-drawn cartoons; he later became a professional animator.
No doubt debauchery and adventure still exist in the merchant marine, but one gets the sense that a mild-mannered senator’s son would have no chance to slip aboard and sail around the world for four months and then tell all in a rollicking narrative. But what a ride it was, and his story is at once heartbreaking, funny and thought-provoking — a rare true glimpse of the extraordinary lives that professional mariners lead.