Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mariners In Review: Looking For A Ship

Looking For A Ship is John McPhee's 1990 slice-of-life look at the American merchant marine of that time and has become a classic of the genre. McPhee begins by following second mate Andy Chase from union hall to union hall "looking for a ship," that is trying to find work at sea. When Andy finally finds a berth on the freighter Stella Lykes, bound for South America, McPhee switches the spotlight to the ship's captain, Paul McHenry Washburn, following him and the ship to various ports in South America.

Looking For A Ship is in many ways a sea story about sea stories. After quoting a crewman who complains about guys telling sea stories (opining that some of them would have to be 200 years old for all their stories to be true), McPhee then goes on to tell sea story after sea story, by and about the crew members on the Stella Lykes. Mariners will recognize the type, if not the particulars of each story: the salty old characters, the gruesome accidents, the hilarious misadventures.

The book is at its strongest, though, when it recounts the facts of life in the modern merchant marine and the effects of those facts on the crew. Large ships with 50+ crew not so long ago are now manned by 20 or so senior citizens; you can almost hear the lonely foot-treads on the deck as the American merchant marine shrinks and American merchant mariners fade away. If anything it's more true today then twenty years ago when Looking For A Ship was first published. This sense of nostalgia is the book's most poignant aspect. As McPhee quotes Washburn
A lot of us who have put our lives into this thing don't want to see the Merchant Marine die. It is not only worthwhile but necessary. Every hundred million the government has pulled out of Merchant Marine subsidies has probably cost billions in mounting trade deficits. We pay other flags, including Russia [the Soviet Union at the time Looking For A Ship was published], millions of dollars to deliver our foreign aid: rice, flour, vegetable oil, powdered milk, tanks, jeeps. By law, fifty per cent is supposed to go on American ships, but we don't have the bottoms. Some years, we carry five per cent. Even so, our shipping companies are more dependent on foreign aid than the foreigners we aid. We have not only one of the smallest but also one of the most aged merchant marines. Most of our ships are beyond their normal life expectancy. American shipyards have been folding, and their skills with them. The shipyards that remain are essentially repair yards -- Bath, Newport News, Chester, Pascagoula. That's it. That's all she wrote, hoss.
The book is at its weakest when McPhee shows us the landlubber he really is. He is obsessed with "how deep is it here?" and with satellite navigation. He falls back heavily on his nature writing style (look for this book in the Nature section of the bookstore with McPhee's other works) to describe the landscape and quotes Charles Darwin at length. Nothing wrong with Charles Darwin; it's just that merchant seamen are engaged in trade and little concern themselves with the history, natural or human, of the areas they sail in. McPhee is downright credulous when it comes to many of the sea stories he hears: the second mate is a descendent of and owns the sextant owned by Nathaniel Bowditch; the captain is a descendent of former Chief Justice John Marshall and Ulysses S. Grant's secretary of state. And both these guys just happen to be on the ship John McPhee is on? Come on.

McPhee also looks at other working mariners, among others, in his 2006 book, Uncommon Carriers. More on McPhee at his website here.

See also my recommendations for additional reading at my post reviewing Steaming to Bamboola.

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