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At Sea With the Merchant Marine

By Jim BencivengaJim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor. / September 21, 1990



LOOKING FOR A SHIP. By John McPhee, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 242 pp., $18.95 JOHN MCPHEE'S most recent book reads like an old friend who just ``pops in'' for a chat after many months, or even years, on the road. No effort is needed to ``catch up.''

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``Looking for a Ship'' delivers vintage McPhee: a bracing slap of the English language - crisp, anecdotal, learned, familiar, yet distinct; a subject, important in the grander scheme of life but little known. The United States merchant marine is dying, if not dead, diminished in less than 10 years from 2,000 to fewer than 400 ships.

McPhee illuminates as he informs. There is little left of a US-owned merchant fleet. Foreign fleets, especially the Soviets', carry the bulk of US trade in their holds. For a host of reasons - all economic - American ship owners register their ships under foreign flags.

It is painfully clear that the United States is but one generation from American merchant sailors going the way of the village blacksmith. The men who still sail the remaining US flagships are getting old, on average well into their 50s and 60s. They struggle to find work (despite, or more likely because of, high pay: $30,000 to $60,000 for half a year's work, which is the maximum amount of time they are allowed to work under union rules). There is little incentive for young men and women to ``go down to the sea in ships'' as merchant sailors.

What better way to tell us all this than to ship out and see what it's like. McPhee has a friend, Andy Chase, who's a second mate in the US Merchant Marine and a direct descendant of Nathaniel Bowditch, the godfather of navigation (McPhee always works in history lessons). Andy hails from Maine but is on his way to Charleston, S.C., in search of a berth. McPhee follows, tagging along as a P.A.C. (Person in Addition to Crew), or walking cargo.

Andy holds a ``killer card,'' a ``National Shipping Card'' (issued by the maritime union) that had been stamped in Boston 10 1/2 months before. It lists his name and the date, the hour, and the minute when he arrived in a union hall after leaving his last ship. ``The older the card, the better the prospects for a new job. If the card were to go 12 months unused, it would roll over - lose all seniority, and begin again.''

Andy feels he has a better chance of a job in Charleston than a more competitive northern port (rightly so as it turns out). He ships out on the S.S. Stella Lykes, a container ship more than two football fields long, headed for the west coast of South America.

Less than three dozen crew and a curmudgeonly old captain run the ship. They fuel McPhee's imagination like diesel oil in the ship's engines. Anything from pirates to loose cargo rolling in heaving seas to 140-degree temperatures in the coolest spot in the boiler room can and does happen.

The narrative navigates around nautical dangers still common on the high seas, however high-tech the ship: the treachery of the weather (never to be trusted); the condition of the engine room (never to be trusted); the contents of cargo in containers, always identified in the ship manifests as ``said to contain'' (never to be trusted).

A cargo ship's purpose, from bow to stern, is hauling for revenue. A single container can hold up to 16 tons. McPhee's rendition of two dozen thoroughbred racehorses in the hold of a ship on the way to Peru adds flesh and blood to the overwhelming presence of cold steel on a ship where containers are carefully weighed and positioned by computer so as to maintan an even keel and avoid tipping in rough seas. The trainer of the racehorses is saving all the oats for one horse. It wins big money. He lets the others eat the wood and cardboard of their packing crates for two weeks.

Piracy on the high seas seems such a quaint anachronism, almost unimaginable amid the lengths of cables, railings, nuts, bolts, girders, a five-story pilothouse, sophisticated navigation and communications gear - until McPhee does what he always does with hunks of inanimate matter and human endeavor: makes them familiar and immediate.

``Understand: this ship is about the length of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Rockefeller Center, Pennsylvania Station, Union Square. To berth her, you need almost three city blocks.... She carries a crew of 34. Thirty-four highly trained SWAT troops would have a hard time defending Rockefeller Center.... The ship might as well be an open city.'' p193-4(see excerpt)

Some critics quibble with ``Looking for a Ship'': that McPhee pads the narration, overwriting some of the escapades of the old salts; or that the plot wanders too much. No such criticism from this quarter. Form fits function here since McPhee knows you can't tell a sea tale without some exaggeration, and besides, he's as interested in the teller of the tale as the tale itself; steaming at sea isn't driving on the interstate.

The ending, with the S.S. Lykes dead in the water due to total engine failure, is as apt a description - without being polemical - about the sorry condition of US maritime strength as one will find.