“The major part of his life must be lived at sea, must be lived in a world which automatically cuts him off from the world ashore, and so home, friends, and family all fade into time as soon as the stern of a ship disappears into the horizon.”
–“Shipping Out: A Sociological Study of American Merchant Marines”
Mariners on the Vineyard have been going out to sea in ships for hundreds of years. It’s in our DNA. They go in search of whales, fishing for cod off the Grand Banks, serving in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, and a select group serves in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
The Merchant Marine is not a branch of any part of the U.S. military. It primarily transports passengers and cargo during peacetime, although in times of war it can be an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy, and can be called upon to deliver military personnel and materiel.
The crews on the Steamship Authority vessels are considered part of the Merchant Marine, as are the crews on tugboats which ply our coastal waters, but another group of merchant mariners work on tankers and freighters which traverse the globe, creating absences from family and friends for months at a time. These are the stories of the Merchant Mariners in our community who spend half their lives at sea, and their families who must adjust to this lifestyle. People like Bill Mabie.
Bill Mabie, who lives in Vineyard Haven, came “up through the hawsepipe,” the phrase that refers to a sailor who works his way up through the ranks to become an officer. The alternative is to become an officer after graduating from one of six Merchant Marine service academies like Massachusetts Maritime or Maine Maritime, or the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
Mabie comes from a long line of mariners; his great-grandfather was a pilot and master on the Hudson River. After graduating from Syracuse University, he realized he wanted to travel and see the world, but he had no money, so he signed on as second mate aboard the sailing ship Regina Maris, and sailed around the Horn.
Mabie also served on the research vessel Hero, spending nine months in the Antarctic. In preparation for that trip, he was told that because he was going to be gone for such a long period of time, it would be impossible to send him home for a medical emergency, so he would have to have his appendix removed — just in case. Fortunately Mabie shipped out before the operation could be done, so he made the trip with his full complement of body parts.
Mabie would go on to spend his life in the Merchant Marine, retiring from Exxon three years ago as a chief mate, primarily working on tanker ships.
Growing up, Fred Murphy of West Tisbury was always interested in boats, but it was his interest in football that got him into the Merchant Marine. He was recruited for football by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and the rest is history — he retired from Exxon as a first mate after spending a career at sea.
Bob Sloane of Chilmark grew up in Winthrop, and as a boy, lobstered in Boston Harbor; he graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 1972. Sloan was hired by the Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO), but his passion was always lobstering, so he figured he’d just work for a few years to get enough money to go fishing, but “the jobs just kept opening up” and he stayed with it. But he found the best of both worlds; he would ship out in the fall and winter months and have the spring and summer free for lobstering on the Island. Sloane retired as a master (captain) from ARCO when he was 52.
Video shot by John Christensen
John Christensen of West Tisbury grew up in Brooklyn, watching the tankers in Sheepshead Bay. He later moved to Texas, attended Rice University and graduated from Brooklyn College. After school he did some yacht deliveries on the Vineyard, but declared that it was “too life-threatening.” In 1979 Christensen joined Exxon, retiring as a chief mate in 2006. Today he is an instructor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
Michael Gately of West Tisbury, at 30 years old, is the youngest of our group of Islanders in the Merchant Marine. After graduating from MVRHS, he went to Mass. Maritime Academy and took a job on the Hoegh LNG, a Norwegian liquid natural gas tanker, and he has been with Hoegh for eight years. We spoke to Gately via satellite phone on board the Hoegh in the Indian Ocean. He told us that he was the youngest chief officer in the company, and was aspiring to be the youngest master (captain).
Perhaps the glory days for the U.S. Merchant Marine were the years following WWII, when there were around 3,500 ships in the fleet. Today there are less than 500. With the exception of Michael Gately, our Island Merchant Mariners’ careers span 30 or 40 years, long enough to see some significant changes. Ships have gotten larger and crews smaller, but one of the biggest changes for sailors has been in communicating with folks at home.
“When I first started,” John Christensen said, “we corresponded by letters; the mail chased you around the world, and sometimes it wouldn’t get delivered until you got home two or three months later. Theoretically, you could call home, but it wasn’t always easy to make a call. I’d be in Alaska and get off watch, trudge out to a phone in the freezing cold with about $20 worth of change, and then the line would be busy, so I’d go back to the boat.”
“There was ship-to-shore radio,” Bob Sloane said, “but there was no privacy — everyone around the radio could listen in. Later, you could also use satellite phones, but they cost about 10 or 12 bucks a minute. Actually, in the old days, most of the ship’s communications were done with Morse code.”
The advent of the Internet and cell phones was a game changer. Husbands and wives could be 5,000 miles apart, but suddenly, with Skype and FaceTime, they could be in the same room. “One of the ways I cope with Michael being away,” Olivia Gately, Michael’s wife, said, “is knowing that I can talk to Michael when I want.”
Life at sea
“I enjoy the s___ out of it,” Bill Mabie said. “You spend your days looking out to sea — that’s your primary responsibility — charting positions, doing the weather. I love watching wildlife and the clouds … some guys hate it — they should probably be stockbrokers.”
“Life at sea is mostly boring,” John Christensen said, “but when you’re piloting a tanker, boring is good.”
“It can be lonely at times,’ Michael Gately said, “but what I find rewarding is that there are so many parts to my job, there’s accounting, purchasing, overseeing the crew — a weeklong course qualified me to be the ship’s doctor, but I tell people they’d do best to stay healthy.”
Today’s ships are a far cry from the old Liberty Ships that were used in the Merchant Marine after WWII. “Some of these ships today have swimming pools, saunas, and gyms,” Bob Sloane said. “The last ship I was on had stewards out of culinary schools, so the food was excellent.” Michael Gately agreed, “The food is great, although after you’ve been out for a month you tend to run out of vegetables.”
In the old days, there was a more lenient attitude toward drinking alcohol onboard a ship. “After WWII, the attitude was if you can still do your job, it’s OK,” Bob Sloane said. “Liquor was technically never allowed onboard, but it was smuggled on.” But after the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, shipping companies cracked down on drinking, and began administering drug tests.
On U.S. Merchant Marine vessels, the crew must be American citizens or naturalized citizens, but other than that, they run the gamut. “You get ex-professors, ex-convicts, it’s hard to generalize about the crews,” Bob Sloan said. “Agewise, they run from about 18 to 70. And for whatever reason, we seemed to get a lot of guys from Maine.”
“Drug addicts, alcoholics, and people running from the law,” that was Bill Mabie’s assessment of the old school Merchant Marine crews.
Sloane said that there tends to be a form of escapism. “People don’t have to conform,” he said, “they tend to just do their job and not care what other people think.”
Sailing under a Norwegian flag, Michael Gately describes his crew as being like the U.N. “The officers tend to be Norwegian or Croatian; the crew is almost entirely Fillipino. When I first come home, I tend to speak an English hybrid we call ‘maritime English.’”
And since the late ’70s, there have been women onboard Merchant Marine vessels. “Actually, I think it’s a good thing,” John Christensen said. “Guys tend to be a little more polite around women; in the beginning there was some resistance, but there doesn’t seem to be much of that now.”
“Occasionally there would be problems, some fights would break out if the woman was in multiple relationships,” Bob Sloane said, “and that would force me, as captain, to have some interesting fatherly talks with the women. I’d have to suggest that she limit her social activities.”
After having seen the movie “Captain Phillips,” I had to ask each of our seamen about piracy on the high seas. In 2011 alone, there were 439 pirate attacks worldwide. None of our seamen had had the misfortune of being attacked by pirates, but when traveling in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, it was certainly top of mind.
“There are no weapons on ship,” Bill Mabie said; “from an actuarial standpoint, there’s more chance of an employee popping a captain.” The first line of defence, according to Bob Sloane, were fire hoses, searchlights, and huge shackles that could be dropped down on a boat if it tried to board. Michael Gately said occasionally they would put cut-out dummies carrying fake AK-47s on the deck to scare off attackers.
“The freeboard is so high on most tankers that it’s hard for pirates to get aboard,” Bob Sloane said. “The greater threat is when a pirate radios the ship and threatens to use a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) unless ladders are lowered for the pirates to board.”
And when all else fails, John Christensen heard of a captain who would just leave the door of the safe open in case of an attack. His thinking was that he didn’t want to have to remember the combination when a gun was pointed at his head.
“The seaman’s wife, because of the enforced absence of her husband, must out of necessity find resources within herself in order to survive.”
To the best of his knowledge, Bob Sloan said, the incidence of divorce for Merchant Marine couples is about the same as other couples: about 50 percent. But it takes a strong and resourceful wife for marriages to succeed. It also helps to have a support group of family and friends at home.
Fred Murphy’s wife Sarah comes from a seafaring family; her great-grandfather was Freeman Dagget, a Vineyard whaling captain. She’s a retired schoolteacher, and has a lot of family on the Island. “We developed a rhythm,” Sarah said; “when Fred was due home, it was exciting. Then there was the transition period, where we readjusted to being with each other. We have two children, and our daughter Grace summed it up, ‘It just feels normal.’”
Sarah feels fortunate to have such a supportive community. “During the No-Name hurricane, our 48-foot schooner, Ishmael, broke off the mooring while Fred was gone. We were so fortunate to have Ralph Packer and other friends there to help out.”
Julia Christensen has had a successful career as a weaver, so from the outset, she said, she and John had independent lives. “I never felt bereft,” Juia said. “I knew how to do everything, and I was in charge of everything.” The hardest part for Julia was when John would come home from sea: “We both had to figure out our respective roles,” she said. “We have a daughter, so we had to figure who was the fun one and who was going to lay down the law.”
Julia also got to occasionally meet John when he was laid over in a port like Lisbon or Singapore. “It was a great way to appreciate his life,” Julia said. “You have no idea how big a supertanker is until you’ve actually been on one.”
Bill Mabie’s wife Shawn agrees with Julia that the homecomings can be tougher than the departures. “Over the years I’d get used to Bill going away — when someone’s away you miss them, but then there’s a reunion, which is nice — but adapting to when he’s home can be more of a challenge.”
Olivia and Michael Gately started dating in high school, and were married last summer (John Christensen officiated at their wedding), so Michael’s absences have always been part of their relationship. Fortunately, they both have large families on the Island, and Olivia has a career at the West Tisbury library. Michael’s leaving is the tough part for her; it generally takes a couple of weeks to get used to it every time he goes.
The life of a Merchant Marine family is not for everyone. “For a marriage it’s the worst thing you can do,” Bill Mabie says. But it can be rewarding as well, both for the husband whose passion is being at sea, and for the wife who draws on her independence and resourcefulness to maintain a life at home.
In the words of Sarah Murphy, “We’re a lucky home.”