Skip to main content

Masters Of The Merchant Marine

July 2024
20min read

We built a merchant marine despite the opposition of the Royal Navy, went on to develop the most beautiful of all sailing ships, and held our supremacy for years. But how do we measure up today?

AMERICA is in the midst of a revival of interest in things nautical—nineteenth-century nautical. It began with the efforts of a handful of romantics to preserve the few remnants of the age of sail and was intensified by the magnificent Bicentennial Operation Sail. Now seaports across the country—in New York and San Diego, Philadelphia and Galveston, San Francisco, Boston, and Houston- are turning their waterfronts into public parks, often with a tall windship as the centerpiece. Such acts of urban renewal and historic preservation are praiseworthy and even stirring but they are happening only because of the irony that our historic ports are being abandoned by modern shipping.

We seldom see today’s ships. They no longer load or unload near metropolitan centers. Many are bigger than whole fleets of 188Os vessels, and we regard with caution their size, their odd shapes, their potential for disaster through fire, explosion, or oil spillage. Passenger ships, which once brought us our most significant import, people, have given way to cruise ships, adult playgrounds as useful as television’s Love Boat.

It seems particularly sad, as we spend more and more time recapturing our maritime past—when sporting men would bet on the duration of the next clipper passage and cheering boys trailed famous captains down the street—to consider that only a quarter of the ships owned by U.S. companies now fly the American flag, and that, by 1978, the median age of our sailors was nearly fifty.

Clearly it is time to look back over the way we have come as a seafaring nation and to assess America’s long struggle to build better ships and to recruit better sailors to man them.

Our independent life as a nation began with one of the greatest surges in maritime activity, innovation, and sheer zestf ul adventure in world history. Each seeming reverse in shipping called forth a new spurt: privateering was our answer during the Revolution and the War of 1812; smuggling and the development of the Far East trade was our answer when the British closed their markets to us. Privateers, smugglers, and slavers demanded speed and daring seamanship. More peaceful vessels needed to be able to outsail pirates whose motto was “Dead cats don’t mew. ” Very quickly our designers and builders surpassed their European counterparts in the speed, tonnage, and efficiency of their ships.

The men who drove those ships came from the vessels’ home ports; seafaring in the early nineteenth century was still localized. A ship out of Salem would be manned mostly by Salem boys. At thirteen or fourteen, a youngster shipped out as “boy” in a coastal vessel commanded perhaps by father, brother, or uncle. In the first recorded mention of nautical schooling for the American merchant marine, the Reverend Whit man of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, wrote in 1794, “We have in the winter a number of private schools, by which means the greater part of the young men are taught the art of navigation.” Thirteenyear-old Robert Bennett Forbes signed on the Canton Packet in 1818 “with a capital consisting of a Testament, a Bowditch, a quadrant, a chest of sea clothes and a mother’s blessing.” He already knew how to use the quadrant and to read the Bowditch tables.

These young men were not babied; they worked a twelve-hour day, plus off-watch calls for all hands. A bright, industrious boy was expected to rise to command after only a few voyages. James Howland II, of New Bedford, combined his honeymoon with a trading voyage to the Baltic as master of the merchant vessel his father had given him on his eighteenth birthday. Each of the five Crowinshield brothers commanded a ship at twenty. Most of the famous clipper captains made their reputations while still in their twenties.

Adventure, true adventure, was real, almost routine. In 1794 the Boston Centinel reported, in four words—“Sloop Union, Boit, Canton”—the arrival of an American vessel commanded by nineteen-year-old John Boit, Jr., after a voyage that sounds much like a boy’s novel: an Indian attack in Puget Sound; on to Whampoa for silk, to Mauritius for coffee and pepper; then a visit to Owhyhu (“the females were quite amorous”); encounters first with a French and then a British man-o’-war.


During this period, the homogeneity of the fo’c’sle began to break up, though officers remained for the most part native-born. Ships replaced crew members lost during voyages through sickness, accident, or desertion with Portuguese, Scandinavians, Spaniards, Germans, Kanakas, Lascars. As early as 1817 Congress felt it necessary to pass a law requiring two-thirds of the crew of any American ship to be citizens.

The following year a new phenomenon in ocean commerce appeared: the packet ship. For centuries vessels had set sail only when holds were full and weather reasonable; and they carried out “ventures” in which the shipowner also owned the freight, the captain and supercargo sold it and with the proceeds bought cargo for the return voyage. Packets carried passengers and priority freight, and they sailed on a designated day to a designated port, full or empty, fair weather or foul.

It was a great life for the master, who could be a bully on deck and a suave gentleman in the saloon, but existence for the crew was brutal. Hard driving kept the fo’c’sle wet; both watches were often on deck. American sailors fled the packets, and “Liverpool Irish” replaced them. They made hardy but dangerous seamen, and it took plenty of “handspike hash” to keep them under control.

Meanwhile, our maritime activities burgeoned. The potato famine of 1846–47 brought swarms of Irish emigrants to our ports; the Mexican War opened the Southwest and West Coast; discovery of gold in California brought a mad stampede from the East; that same year the British repealed their navigation laws, opening Australia and India to our shipping. All these events called for more and faster ships. America had the men and the will to order, design, build, and command them. Out of these years came the loveliest of all man-made commercial objects, the clipper ship.

The first clippers made fantastic profits. Rainbow earned 200 percent on her maiden voyage. Flying Cloud more than repaid the builder’s costs on hers. In a couple of decades oceangoing vessels quadrupled in size, carried five times the amount of sail, almost doubled their average speed, and tripled their crews! Not until the 1960s and ’70s would change so profound occur again. But with complements of ninety to one hundred men, too little cargo space, and the need for constant repair from the strain of their exceptionally tall masts and huge sail areas, they made sense only for high-priced, long-distance cargoes.

The terrible man-killing work the clippers demanded discouraged most Americans from signing on. Narrow, sharp, and hard-driven, the ships constantly took green water aboard, making their decks nearly as dangerous as their rigging. The terrors of Cape Horn were not exaggerated, nor were the casualties. When Sparkling Wave finally reached New York in 1858, she had lost two captains, five mates, a stewardess, and five seamen. Six of the surviving crew were sick.

Nevertheless, many seamen took pride in these ships and, perversely, in their commanders, who, if nothing else, were supremely able. As in battle, fearlessness and competence and even cruelty outweighed all other qualities. Masters and mates believed harsh treatment of the crew was essential, despite the evidence of better captains, like the famous Josiah Cressy of the Flying Cloud , who, speaking of his crew after winning a race around the Horn against the N. B. Palmer , said, “They worked like one man, and that man a hero.”


The arbitrary and brutal system of shipboard discipline was to some extent a reflection of the authoritarian temper of the times. Courts and the public agreed that the good of the ship overrode most rights of the individual. In a free country the seaman gave up his personal freedom for a voyage that might take years. There simply was no other occupation that offered such low pay, danger, hard work, poor food and living conditions, loss of privacy, rigid discipline, brutality, and lack of redress.

The man-killing work the clippers demanded kept most Americans from signing on.

In 1825 a House of Refuge was established in Manhattan to care for the city’s population of orphans, truants, and delinquents. In a move that reflected the generally held view of seafaring, “the very worst cases among the boys were indentured out to sea.…” For more than twenty years several boys each year were so assigned.

The first recorded step toward more formal training came in 1827, at Nantucket, when Adm. Sir Isaac Coffin of the Royal Navy visited there and endowed the Coffin School as a memorial to his distant ancestor, Tristram Coffin, one of the purchasers and early settlers of the island. Young Isaac had attended the Boston Latin School and, at fourteen, joined the Royal Navy as midshipman; he had command of the seventy-four-gun ship-of-the-line Shrewsbury at the age of twenty-two.

In 1828 he bought the brig Clio of Boston and commissioned her as the Coffin Schoolship. The U.S. Navy loaned Lt. Alexander B. Pinkham to command her. On the first voyage with her complement of Nantucket students, the Clio visited the St. Lawrence and Quebec; on her second, Rio de Janeiro. The school operated on the then popular “Lancastrian” system, using abler pupils as monitors to teach small groups of fellow students, thus saving on faculty salaries. But even so the Clio proved an expensive investment, and the trustees persuaded Admiral Coffin to sell the vessel for the benefit of the endowment fund. Lieutenant Pinkham returned to the Navy.

A few years later, in Boston, Capt. Robert Forbes worked to establish the “reform schoolship” Massachusetts for homeless and wayward boys, to provide shelter, discipline, and elemental vocational training. She must not have lasted long, since only sparse records exist.

The Massachusetts was around long enough, however, to impress New York’s Commissioners of Public Charities, who decided the schoolship idea was worth emulating to give homeless and delinquent boys “a sure and honest means of livelihood suited to their adventurous spirit.” The packet ship Mercury was purchased in 1869 and fitted out to house three hundred boys. The original plan was to keep the ship at anchor, but the “experience of a few months demonstrated that the only effectual mode of instruction is the continuous handling of a ship at sea. ” Of the 258 boys who made the initial cruise to Madeira, the Canaries, Sierra Leone, and Barbados, the captain certified 100 as qualified for navy or merchant service as ordinary seamen—a step above ship’s boys.

The Mercury continued in service until 1874, when staff complaints of stinks, rodents, inadequate ventilation, and the failure of many boys to accept seagoing jobs combined to disillusion the Commissioners of Public Charities. At the same time, the city’s Board of Education had been contemplating creation of a nautical academy, not to house, school, and prepare foremast hands but to train prospective officers.


In 1874 Congress authorized the Navy to lend appropriate ships “for the instruction of youths in navigation, seamanship, marine enginery and all matters pertaining to the proper construction, equipment and sailing of vessels.” The ships were offered not to states but to seaports, and the federal government undertook no financial support except maintenance.

New York City was quick to take advantage of this offer, and established, at the foot of Twenty-third Street on the East River, the New York Nautical School aboard the former sloop of war St. Mary’s (the odd name came from St. Marys County, where Maryland’s first settlers landed in 1634) with a full complement of 123 boys between fifteen and nineteen. Thus began the first complete, coordinated approach to organized training of volunteer candidates for officer rank in our merchant marine since the brief career of the Clio , forty years before. In 1891 the Pennsylvania Nautical School began to function, followed two years later by the Massachusetts Nautical School, both on square-rigged former naval ships. These were state schools. All the nautical schools limited enrollment to local residents. Seattle and San Francisco also started schools, though they were shortlived. Since then Maine, Texas, Michigan, and again California have established state schools, while Pennsylvania closed hers. The Great Lakes Academy in Michigan concentrates on Great Lakes rather than deep-sea licenses.

It is ironic that these schooling systems came into being at a time when the merchant marine was in precipitous decline. All those glorious clippers of the 185Os were becoming tired and uneconomic at the same time. This simultaneous decrepitude, known as block obsolescence, always follows a spurt in shipbuilding. It has become a repeating phenomenon in American shipping.

America hadn’t altogether neglected steam, even though the clippers could sail rings around the steamships. But the steamer kept moving even in calms and won on averages. Our decline came not only from what we did not do but from what the British did . They came out of the doldrums in a rush, building clippers that rivaled ours. And at a time when few of our seamen had a good word for the steamers, which, they declared, “used four tons of coal to move one ton of cargo,” the British were building of iron and favoring the screw propeller over our side-wheelers. With the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, their steamships became the dominant means of ocean transport to India and the Far East. We still built ships, both sail and steam, but gradually left to other nations the important Western ocean passenger traffic. By 1900 only one American transatlantic line remained in operation, and American ships were carrying less than 10 percent of our foreign trade.

Both Congress and the Navy were worried about the decline of the American merchant marine and, as the packet and clipper officers died or retired, about their replacement. In 1891 Congress reestablished mail contracts for U.S. flag vessels. To be eligible, ships were required to carry on each voyage cadets or apprentices to be educated in the duties of seamanship: one American-born boy between seventeen and twenty-one for each one thousand gross registered tons.


In practice, cadet training was hit or miss. The boys were tolerated by officers and treated with good-natured contempt by the crew. If they were persistent, they could learn to take bearings and pick up some of the principles of loading and shoring cargo, docking and undocking. If they weren’t persistent, no one minded. After each voyage they turned in a sort of correspondence-school report. This system, which lasted fifty years, produced some good officers, but in the main it didn’t work. More plain seamanship could be learned in the fo’c’sle. If a boy produced a sextant, a Bowditch, and Riesenberg’s Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service on a freighter, one or more of the officers would be willing to help, though he could take a bit of hazing from the crew. Before going up for his license, he’d pay for a crash course ashore at one of the small schools run by retired masters and chiefs or, after 1916, at schools like that set up by the Seamen’s Church Institute. Most officers, except for the few produced by the state maritime academies, still came through the hawsepipe or the shaft tunnel and were proud of it.

At first our men cursed the steamers for using “four tons of coal to move one ton of cargo.”

No system of compulsory examination or licensing to ensure competence existed before 1871, when the Department of Commerce established the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to qualify shipmasters, first mates, engineers, and pilots. In 1898 the requirement was extended to second and third mates. Not until 1915 were compulsory examinations set up for able seamen and equivalent members of the engine department; ordinary seamen and wipers were exempt. Standards thus established greatly increased the usefulness of formal training, but still no effort was made to develop a national program.

When Europe burst into war in 1914, the United States was shocked to discover how few ships it had in foreign trade. In 1913 only 6.4 percent of “departures foreign” from New York were in U.S.flag ships. The war reduced our imports to a trickle; our exports backed up. In 1916, as German submarines and raiders decimated the remaining sailing ships and the vulnerable eight- to tenknot tramp steamers, we launched a frenzied building program. A total of 2,318 ships were delivered, most of them after the war had ended. These were the famous boxy Hog Islanders “built by the mile and cut off at any length you wanted.”

It took the authorities almost a year to realize that they’d need trained men to sail them. Urgent calls for ex-captains, mates, and engineers as well as landlubbers to attend crash courses eventually produced eleven thousand license holders. They were known as the “Hooligan Navy,” and most of them completed their training after Armistice Day.

The World War I shipbuilding spurt did at least put the United States back in the passenger-ship business. We had seized thirty German liners that were in our ports when we entered the war, including the Vaterland , which became famous as a troop transport and as the U.S. Line’s flagship Leviathan . The Emergency Fleet Corporation had also built twenty-six transports, most of which were used postwar to strengthen our passenger service on both oceans.

After the war a major improvement, long argued, took place in the state academies, beginning with California and New York: the schools came ashore. Suitable subjects could now be taught on land, interspersed with periods afloat on a school ship and aboard working commercial vessels. California’s school came ashore at Tiberon, near San Francisco; New York’s at ancient Fort Schuyler in the Bronx; Massachusetts’, somewhat later, and after several moves, ended at Hyannis.


But despite these educational improvements, seafaring simply did not present an appealing economic picture to ambitious young men during the 1930s. A government survey reported in 1937 that “wages fell and working conditions grew steadily worse until, at the depths of the Depression, some American seamen were receiving as little as $25 a month, living under wretched conditions, eating unpalatable food, and working 12 hours a day.”

Low pay or not, the cost-of-living gap between the United States and other mercantile nations was expanding, making competition difficult. Maritime labor unions were winning their first successes, bringing much-needed improvements but making jobs harder to get and increasing the expenses of American shipping companies. More and more ships were laid up.

When World War II broke out in Europe, the U.S. Neutrality Act got in the way of Lend-Lease and other aid to the Allied nations. Ducking its own law, the United States encouraged transfer of registry of American ships to Panama and Honduras.

American owners had operated ships under foreign registry from the time of the Napoleonic Wars, though it was never an extensive practice. Nor until World War II began was it ever encouraged by the government. The ships reverted to American control after Pearl Harbor, but a dangerous precedent had been established and would be furthered right after the war, when transfer of war-built merchantmen to Panamanian, Honduran, and Liberian flags was promoted by the Maritime Administration to encourage replacement in America by more modern vessels.

It was obvious from the outset that our need for ships during World War II would far exceed any previous crisis. This time we had a small head start. Emory S. Land, chairman of the Maritime Commission, had begun expansion of our shipyards. A standardized ship, the Liberty, was selected for its ease of construction; labor was assembled and hastily trained; mass-production methods were devised so sizable parts of each ship could be built outside and put together at the shipyard. Hulls were welded instead of riveted.

The eleven-knot speed of the ships, with their old-fashioned triple-expansion engines, dangerously limited the speed of convoys; a total of 195 Liberties were lost. But over 2,700 were launched, and they saved the support lifeline on both oceans.

Once again a frantic need developed for officers and crew to man the merchant ships launched during the war. This time the nation had a slightly better base on which to build. For years Richard McNulty, a graduate of the Massachusetts school ship Nantucket , had been writing and speaking on the need for training of merchant marine officers through a federal academy equivalent to those of the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. In 1934 the disastrous fire aboard the Morro Castle , a fouryear-old American ship, left the country shocked and the shipping world ashamed of the conduct of some of the officers and crew, which violated all traditions of seafaring gallantry. Despite the opposition of organized labor, new support developed for a national academy, and the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 stated that our ships must be “manned with a trained and efficient citizen personnel.”


Two years later the United States Maritime Service was created, with the mission of training “licensed and unlicensed personnel on American merchant vessels. ” It was swamped with ten times as many applicants as estimated berths. On August 30, 1939, the “Plan for Expansion of Cadet Training” was signed. On September 1 the Nazis invaded Poland.

They improvised: swimming pools were used for abandon-ship drills.

Everything speeded up. Cadet trainees were sent to receiving stations at Tiberon, New York, and New Orleans. Numbers at first were small. When the Japanese attacked in 1941, only 453 cadets were in training, 103 at land bases, the others at sea. The state academies, which had been hoping to expand from two to four years, instead found their curriculum abbreviated to eighteen months.

Meanwhile, a frantic search was under way for shore bases to accommodate the Atlantic, the Pacific Coast, and the Gulf Coast cadet schools. The Atlantic school—with five hundred cadets and thus the largest of the three regional institutions—finally settled on the estate of the late Walter P. Chrysler at Kings Point on the Great Neck peninsula, barely a mile across the western end of Long Island Sound from Fort Schuyler in the Bronx. No more dramatic location could be imagined. The school looked out toward the crumbling stone battlements of Fort Totten, now busy with antiaircraft batteries and searchlights; the Whitestone Bridge framed Manhattan’s midtown skyline; and beyond Steppingstone Lighthouse lay historic Eastchester Bay, where Admiral Howe’s huge fleet had dropped anchor during the Revolution.

Admiral Land had set a goal of ten thousand new merchant marine officers to man his emergency fleet. This meant a fivefold expansion of the Atlantic Coast Cadet School, which was already being called Kings Point.

A program that required the resident student body to expand by ten times within six months, and by thirty times in another year, led to a maelstrom of activity: all existing buildings, including greenhouses, were put to use; Civilian Conservation Corps buildings were trucked in and slapped up; streams of new cadets and new instructors somehow got received, housed, fed, and put to work on a curriculum that had to evolve as it came into effect. Scrounging for equipment was continual. Swimming pools were used for abandon-ship and survival-at-sea training. An odd assortment of former yachts and workboats plus a venerable bark gave atmosphere to the basin. The Coast Guard, which had taken over officer licensing, reduced the standard three-years-at-sea requirement to sixteen months. By mid-1943, the cadet corps was 7,338 strong, with half the men being taught at sea. On September 30 the Kings Point Academy was officially dedicated, and a congratulatory letter from President Roosevelt seemed to promise a permanent institution: “This academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis serves the Navy. … War has proved to the American people that a strong Merchant Marine manned by courageous, capable, well-trained officers and crew is as necessary to the nation as a powerful Army and Navy.”

The Kings Point standard shows a circular compass rose under the academy’s seal, with the numerals 142—the number of cadet midshipmen lost in action during the war. Hundreds of others endured air and submarine attacks; some suffered repeated sinkings. Virtually all came under enemy fire, especially early in the war, aboard the slow-moving Liberties.


The wartime cadet midshipmen wanted to see Kings Point become a fully accredited academy and they began to accumulate the appropriate informal evidence: a school paper, mascot (a black Persian ram), an alma mater hymn, an alumni association, even intercollegiate athletics. With the end of the war the four-year academic course was reinstated, and in 1951 the first Bachelor of Science diplomas were awarded, along with licenses as third mate or third assistant engineer, plus Naval Reserve commissions as ensign.

But it was not until 1956—after a good deal of squabbling between Kings Point and the state academies—that Congress finally established a permanent U.S. Merchant Marine Academy after eighty-two years of hit-or-miss federal efforts. Kings Point was home safe.

This would seem to have happened just in time, too, for in the mid-fifties the shipping industry stood on the threshold of enormous changes that would create a demand for continuing education at every level of the maritime industry. Freight-carrying ships became longer, faster, more specialized, more complex, more expensive, more dangerous than ever before in history. It was not an orderly evolution but, again, a spurt. Passenger ocean liners disappeared, to be replaced by cruise ships.

Political events, as always, had potent effect. The closing of the Suez Canal in 1967 led to ever larger oil tankers. During World War II a sixteenthousand-ton tanker was a big ship. Now a few tankers approach six hundred thousand tons—and will carry as much oil as thirty-five of those earlier “giants” for a fraction of the cost per barrel. The Arab oil embargo of 197374 not only brought worldwide depression but also proved to the industrial nations how dependent they were on imports.

Container ships, first used to combat pilferage, took over most of the premium cargo in giant vessels capable of keeping up with the Atlantic blueribbon holders of the recent past. Queer-looking vessels were designed and built to carry chemicals, natural gas, foodstuffs, ores, automobiles. Acronyms like Ro-Ro (roll on, roll off) LOLO (lighter on, lighter off), OBO (ore/bulk/oil), LNG (liquefied natural gas), VLCC and ULCC (very large crude carrier and ultra large crude carrier), and PAN-A-MAX (maximum size for Panama Canal) were invented. Automation, computerization, and electronics now perform most of the traditional critical seagoing functions except docking and undocking, which is fine as long as the computers and automatic controls work. Evolution of these controls still continues; officers and crewmen are constantly forced to update their education and techniques. The bridge of a modern ship holds a multiplicity of electronic controls, some of them temperamental; radio direction finders, radar, collision assessment systems, Decca and Loran, Omega, Transit satellite, Doplar sonar, and others. Oh yes, and a compass. Those are navigation instruments; most of the engineroom, cargo-hatch or -tank, firefighting, and other controls also lead to the bridge.

Special training facilities sprang up, some run by equipment manufacturers, some by shipping companies, some by the Maritime Administration, and some by the unions. For decades the Cinderellas of the labor movement, maritime unions finally had achieved power and acceptance beyond the dreams of the early organizers. Ship’s officers, who once were watchful to fire or avoid hiring a union member, formed unions of their own.

We’ve relearned that in seafaring the human element is more important than any device.

Those union schools were no poorboy, storefront institutions. Congress, in an effort to keep at least some trained merchant seamen, adopted an “equalization” system, subsidizing officer and crew pay and benefits as well as shipbuilding costs. Establishment and support of union schools was written into union ship operator contracts, the money really coming from Washington. Despite all these subsidies, American costs to build and operate far exceed costs of ships built and manned abroad.

A medium-size bulk carrier built in this country would cost $4.0 million, versus $1.8 million abroad. An American crew would come to $2.8 million a year. A crew selected in the Philippines, Taiwan, or Hong Kong would cost only $600,000. Fast cargo liners, the kind most suitable for wartime naval support or conversion, are most heavily subsidized—at the rate of 80 percent of wage costs and up to 55 percent of construction costs. Yet today 98 percent of the substances on our strategic-item list are imported on foreign-flag-ships. When World War II ended, 168,000 American seamen manned 3,500 active U.S.-flag vessels. By 1950 that fleet had declined to 1,082 privately owned ships with 53,506 seamen. Twenty years later the U.S. flag flew over 770 ships with jobs for 36,168 officers and crew. By 1979 the figures were down to 536 ships, manned by 19,710 seafarers. In 1980 only 3.5 percent of U.S. imports and 3.87 percent of exports were carried in American-flag ships. By way of comparison Russia carries almost 60 percent of her commerce in ships flying her national colors; Japan carries 40 percent and France 30 percent.

Our merchant marine is not a neat, centralized institution like the Army or Navy. Despite regulation by the Department of Transportation and policing by the Coast Guard, a shipping company still enjoys enough independence to go broke against foreign competition. High U.S. standards for vessels and sometimes quixotic Coast Guard enforcement magnify costs.

No matter how new and huge a ship may be, when she is taken out to sea, a certain humility is demanded. The sea is never conquered; there is only the pale victory of survival. Ships still go missing with all hands, like the Marine Sulphur Queen , which left Beaumont, Texas, in February 1963 with a cargo of liquid sulfur at high temperature, was reported once in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, then vanished. The Liberian tanker Torrey Canyon went aground in the Stilly Islands, spilling five million gallons of crude. The fifty-thousand-ton Panamanian tanker Claude Conway , with empty tanks, exploded off North Carolina, with loss of three of her Italian officers and nine of her Taiwanese crew. How did they communicate, I wonder, when the crisis came? The tanker Betelgeuse blew up in Bantry Bay, with loss of fifty lives; the Maria Alejandra —236,000 deadweight tons (DWT), only three years old, and with all the latest safety devices, including inert gas—exploded and sank at sea. The four-year-old Amoco Cadiz , with 230,000 tons of Mideast crude, ran aground when failure of the hydraulic steering system caused the rudder to lock left. The Italian captain stopped engines and radio-telephoned his owner in Chicago. No major disaster has yet struck an LNG carrier, so we can only speculate what might happen if one hundred thousand cubic meters of concentrated fuel at —260 degrees Fahrenheit were to expand three hundred times into its gaseous state in the presence of fire. Collisions almost always result in fire.

Suppose something happened to the Seawise Giant , the largest ship in the world; 564,762 deadweight tonnage, 1,500 feet overall, 225 feet beam, 93 feet depth, and 81 feet draft? The engine room of this ship can be left unattended for up to twenty-four hours under her American Bureau of Shipping classification. A television monitor in the chief engineer’s cabin keeps him advised. Engine controls are on the bridge. Navigation aids include a satellite system and collision avoidance system as well as more usual equipment. Among crew amenities is a swimming pool. Yet the sheer size of these ultra large crude carriers, as they are called, is frightening. Just the problems of steering a fifteen-hundred-foot vessel; the vulnerability of a single propeller with that great draft; the amount of pollution caused if ever she should come to grief—all these are daunting. The maritime industry operates at a frantic pace because competition is keen, and a vessel not under way at full speed is costing money. The goal is for propellers to be turning, or cargo unloaded or loaded, at every moment. Nor is there much patience with a captain who, with estimated time of arrival established, port authorities notified, pilot and tugs alerted, docking berth cleared, and stevedores hired, arrives late because of fog or storm.

During the 1960s and ’70s, when so many of these behemoths were being launched, it was thought that if you stuffed them with exotic electronics, they could be operated easily and safely. Now we have learned once again, expensively, that the human element is far more important than any device. Never in the history of seafaring has the training, efficiency, and responsibility of officers and crew been so important.

It is astonishing how little heed has been given, lately, to the men and women of the sea and to the shipmaster in particular. We pay little attention now to the men who are licensed as “Master of Steam and Motor Vessels of Any Gross Tons Upon Oceans” or “Chief Engineer, Steam and Diesel,” whose abilities are so vital to us all. But we can take comfort in the certain knowledge that ships built in the United States, to American standards, and the officers who command them are the best in the world. Too bad they are so few.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.