Modern mariner phones home to Maine schoolhouse

From an oil rig in the Indian Ocean, a seafaring dad offers practical math and tales of pirates as lessons over a Web connection with his kids’ classroom back home.

Todd R. Nelson
High seas lessons: Gordon ‘Mac’ MacArthur (center, with his children Bess and Will) visits the Adams School in Castine, Maine, on time off from his job as officer on the mobile oil drilling rig West Taurus.

Castine, Maine

Bess MacArthur’s father was calling from work. So Bess and her first- and second-grade classmates – all six of them – walked down the hall to the laptop computer to say hello. Dad is on the screen, wearing headphones and his bright orange coveralls in his office: the chart room of the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit West Taurus. Location: 18º 57.6’ S 58º 55.4’ E. and steaming west to Mauritius.

His words had a slight time delay; the picture was grainy, and the satellite dropped the call once. But it wasn’t a bad connection given the distance: Gordon “Mac” MacArthur was calling from the southern Indian Ocean.

Bess and her classmates were at the 60-student Adams School here, where it was noon. On the West Taurus it was 10 p.m. Maine: cold. Southern Indian Ocean: balmy.

Castine is on Penobscot Bay in the Gulf of Maine, the granite-shored region at the heart of shipbuilding and seafaring in the Age of Sail during the 1800s, when sea captains from nearby Searsport and Belfast spent years away from their families moving cargo across the world’s oceans.

At any given time, there are half a dozen Adams School parents on ships the world over. Two dads are on their research vessel in the Bahamas. Morgan’s dad is chief mate on a grain carrier; Liam and Amelia’s dad is on a product tanker between California and Alaska; Drake and India’s dad works on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Others work at the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) in town, teaching another generation of captains and engineers. And a dozen of Mac’s crewmates on the West Taurus are MMA graduates who call Downeast Maine home.

A Vermont native, Mac attended the MMA hoping to be a naval aviator, then fell in love with ships. He spent eight years in the Coast Guard – “between my sophomore and junior years” – and worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil for the past eight. He’s a licensed Second Mate. On the West Taurus, he is the dynamic positioning officer.

• • •

This region had an industrial heartbeat 150 years ago. Bangor, Maine, The Lumber Capital of the World in the age of sail, is 15 miles up the Penobscot River from Castine. Down the bay, Stonington quarries and numerous coastal brickyards supplied Eastern cities with brownstone homes and granite statehouses. Fish canneries, ropewalks, and boatyards flourished.

Over several generations, the age of steam took the wind out of sailing ships; steel replaced granite and brick; fisheries collapsed or went far offshore to factory vessels. Maine still has lobster – selling now at 1970s prices. And it still has sea captains and marine engineers who can live in tiny coastal towns and earn a living on drilling rigs sailing from Singapore to Brazil, blogging to the kids at the local school.

Mac writes to the kids about fuel consumption, navigation, distance/speed calculations, voltage, watts and megawatts, cranes, pipes, anchors, latitude and longitude, and hydro-acoustic positioning while drilling exploratory oil wells off of Brazil. The kids ask questions about lifeboats, laundry, time zone changes, weather and currents, pirates in the notorious Straits of Malacca, water spouts, crew quarters, and onboard food. Oil is the whole point of moving West Taurus – a huge floating factory – from its shipyard birthplace in Singapore to the southern Atlantic via the Indian Ocean and around the Horn of Africa. Distance traveled from Singapore: 3,259 nautical miles. Average speed: 5.9 knots. Distance left to Brazil: 6,555 nautical miles. Are we there yet?

• • •

“How’s Leon?” ask the online students. In Mac’s latest blog, one photo shows a frustrated chief engineer scowling at the camera. Technical difficulties: No. 2 engine keeps quitting.

“He’s doing well, but still can’t figure out the problem,” answers Mac.

The kids wanted to know more about pirates, too. “What would you do if you were attacked?” asks a third grader.

“We’d close all the doors and hide in a safe place,” answers Mac. “And use the fire hoses on ’em.” Mac’s ship may have traveled some of the world’s most notorious waters for piracy, but they aren’t carrying any attractive cargo.

By January, the West Taurus will be in place off of Brazil for six years. After more months of system testing, drilling will begin in earnest. At that point, Mac’s job will be to control the rig and keep it moored above the wellhead. When will oil start flowing? Ten years.

Aside from the lore of going to sea, Mac’s blog is loaded with good curriculum. “When I was in school, I never liked math and I never got very good math grades,” Mac wrote. “I was missing a way to make math seem useful.”

He has supplied the school kids back home with some pretty practical problems. The seventh graders have tried homework from Mac: “What speed do we have to average to travel 2,480 nautical miles in 18 days?” The West Taurus travels nine meters on a gallon of fuel. Not bad for a 36,000-ton vessel with eight 6300-horsepower engines. Better, in fact, than the family car going to the mall, adjusted for weight. Mac offers calculations for proof.

• • •

Capt. Andy Chase, professor of Marine Transportation at MMA, says that the new connectivity of mariners and their families isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“When I was at sea regularly [1979 to 1987],” says Captain Chase, “communication didn’t exist when you were out at sea, except on extremely rare occasions. You got mail in port, which was often two weeks to two months behind. If you were overseas, telephone calls would cost so much that you didn’t normally make them.”

Staying in touch with home while shipping can be a distraction. “When the septic tank overflows and the furnace dies [back home], you have to participate in the solution,” says Chase. “When emotional things are happening at home, they can distract you significantly from your work on the ship.” Like fixing No. 2 engine.

Chase was MacArthur’s navigation professor at MMA, and has a daughter in the Adams School sixth grade. He is the subject of John McPhee’s book about merchant mariners, “Looking for a Ship.”

A dozen MMA graduates work on West Taurus, including Leon, who lives in nearby Bar Harbor.

In his last dispatch from the rig on Dec. 5, Mac wrote: “By the time I get home, I will have traveled over 20,000 miles by air and 3,371 miles by sea; been in the countries of Japan, Singapore, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates and the good old USA. Thank you all for transiting the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean with me over the last few weeks.” He was heading for the airport.

Two days later, Mac was positioned at 44-23.2 N, 068-47.7W – back in Castine.

Still sporting the same orange Seadrill shirt from all of the blog photos, he walked into Bess’s school on Dec. 9 fresh from an airline voyage from Mauritius, via Dubai and New York.

In a month, he’ll rejoin the West Taurus in Namibia for the trans-Atlantic leg of its voyage. Next time he’ll fly home from Rio de Janeiro. He drops by Bess’s classroom for a photo, and by afternoon, he’s building snowmen in the front yard with Bess and her brother, Will.

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