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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea:

Written by the son of Senator Patrick Moynihan, this book was submitted as an assignment to Paul Horgan’s writing class, promptly forgotten, and then resurrected by his mother after his untimely death at forty-four from a reaction to Tylenol. John had signed on an as ordinary-seaman on a tanker for a voyage that became much longer than he had anticipated. His father, who had served in the Navy, thought it was a bad idea; his mother thought the contrary, having a more naive and more glamorous view of the sea - perhaps much as I do. (Whenever I took those blasted career tests, they always came out librarian or ship captain. Then again they were pathetically easy to manipulate. I guess the reality was I wanted to sit around and give orders while reading.)

John worked on a supertanker. The bow was a quarter-mile from the stern and to walk from one end to the other took about 5 minutes at a brisk pace. They never walked briskly since the five minutes were like an additional break. “And always carry something like a wrench to make it more like work,” he was advised. Obtaining the job through connections his father had with the Seafarers Union, he was not popular with the crew who saw him as taking up a job someone else needed. That most of them spent their time trying not to work was beside the point. As an ordinary seaman, he had to be taught everything until he can make a contribution. His description of his first turn at the wheel is lyrical: The first sensation was the immediate contact with the shudders and tremors of the ship. Between the grinding vibrations of the all-powerful engine room and the pounding of the sea at her unyielding steel sides, the ship was an animate mover. She pushed her way through the ocean, raising her bow with every swell and hurtling back down with a deafening crescendo. I could feel the movement, the huge screw in the back working to propel her forward. The horizon became less of a definition between sea and sky than a tangible object that could be sought, reached, left behind.

The union, the officers, the company are all to be derided. Contrary to Coast Guard rules, they have to repair a crack in the superstructure by welding and John is the only one (in his ignorance) willing to stand in the empty tanks with a fire extinguisher in case sparks start a fire. I hadn’t realized it, but when a tanker is light, the danger of igniting volatile fumes is at its greatest. Our captain, it suddenly occurred to me, was not only violating Coast Guard law by welding on deck, he was sending us down into vapor-filled tanks with an open flame. It also came out that the radar on the bridge had gone out the first full day at sea, and instead of stopping off in South Africa to have it repaired we were going to wait until we got to Japan. It didn’t matter that we’d be going through the Straits of Malacca in typhoon season: Business is business, and the insurance will pay off anything that might go wrong. . . I did take out my silent revenge on Texaco and the Seven Sisters by pissing in the tank, hoping that somewhere, six months later, some stockholder’s Cadillac wouldn’t start as a result. The tanks had been washed out first, a task that must be done between each loading. Again, on the high seas, the rules were routinely ignored. It is not difficult to tell whether a tanker is cleaning its tanks. Having washed, buffeted, and generally rinsed out the tanks, we could see the dirty water discharged from the side of the ship through the manifold. For hundreds of miles we left an oily slick on the surface of the ocean without thinking twice about it. Anywhere in the Atlantic, Indian, or Pacific Oceans the residue of tankers can be seen. At one point we followed the course of another tanker that had left a trail of pollution across several latitudes.

The yearning to avoid work was understandable. The peculiarities of their contracts made it difficult for seaman to reach retirement age since they needed twenty years of duty to make their pensions: twenty years of sea time which meant actually they needed forty to forty-five years of working before qualifying.

Monyihan does have his lyrical moments. In between the monotany (it would get so bad that scrapping paint was to be looked forward to) he did learn to appreciate the sea: In the absolute still of the morning watch, in the rapt hour before the dawn when the only light was the dull glow of the electric compass and the useless pulsings of the broken radar, in the foaming seas of another hemisphere and on another side of the planet, I relished the thought that all those fuckers back there at the university were scratching one another’s eyes out with the same old bullshit. There was none of that here. None you could get away with, anyway. This was life and death with every turn of the compass. It was real. It was a strangely comforting thought. On the seventh the clouds began to gather. Monsoon season...

The book goes off the rails somewhat after the ship arrives in Japan and it becomes a quasi journal, e.g., bummed around Nara, went to a bar, looked for a place to sleep, had a beer, etc.

Note: I believe the Rose City was delivered to the Navy and became the hospital ship Comfort in 1987. Here’s a picture of her engine room. It looks like something from a space ship.

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