Looking For A Ship, by John McPhee
When one has read enough books from someone, one can get at least a hint into some interests that the author particularly has, and this book demonstrates the importance of logistics and the people who work in it to the author. There is something melancholy in the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, in the way that damaged ships have to be babied because there is little hope at repairing or replacing them, little infrastructure in terms of young people being raised in nautical traditions or in terms of American shipbuilding, and a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and safety and living conditions in the sea. There is a certain elegiac tone to this work and to the author’s efforts at writing about the American merchant marine while there is still such a thing to write about. And of course, there is something Nathanish about the way that people who do not fit in on land are drawn to the ocean, and that the company the ship of this book is owned by happens to have been founded by a group of brothers from Hillsborough County, Florida, where I lived for almost a quarter of a century.
Published in 1990, this book of almost 250 pages tells the story of a voyage on an American-flagged container ship. We begin with the author befriending Andy Chase, a merchant mariner who has been without work on the ocean for ten and a half months and following a hunch that it would be easier to get a cruise out of Charleston than out of Boston or New York. The author finds himself in a competitive world where people hope for a killer card that doesn’t roll over after a year without work to get on one of the few American owned ships going to a really great destination. Once Andy is able to get on a ship owned by the Lykes Brothers (in this case, the wounded ship named Stella Lykes), the reader gets to know the other people on the boat, including a captain who learned his trade from legendary mariners in the past with colorful nicknames. The author intersperses the story of the ship’s journey between the United States and South America in such ports as Valparaiso and Callao (Lima’s port) with stories about merchant marines and various problems (like stowaways and drug trafficking) that container ships have to deal with. The book ends, mournfully but appropriately enough, with the broken ship dead in the water while full of a cargo of tropical fruit that is, sadly, going nowhere.
There are a lot of complicated emotions that likely went into the writing of this book. Andy faces the fear of not being able to find work and the worry about making a living as a merchant mariner, as well as concerns about the ability to get to where he is staying on the outskirts of Charleston, where a bridge has a habit of getting stuck in the open position. McPhee, of course, is on the lookout for a good story and finds one in the history and contemporary state of the United States Merchant Marine. The various crew on the ship are not, for the most part, very young at all, and they have their own complex life stories. There is also the danger of harm happening to Americans abroad, whether from the dangerous conditions of places like the North Atlantic or from ships that fail in various ways, or from harm done in ports of call. The ship shows itself to be a group of friendly people able to get hard and work together well in the face of difficulties, and if there is a melancholy tone to the work, it reflects the tragedy of circumstances rather than tragic flaws in the captain or crew themselves.