Looking for a Ship

Looking for a Ship

by John McPhee

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This is an extraordinary tale of life on the high seas aboard one of the last American merchant ships, the S.S. Stella Lykes, on a forty-two-day journey from Charleston down the Pacific coast of South America. As the crew of the Stella Lykes makes their ocean voyage, they tell stories of other runs and other ships, tales of disaster, stupidity, greed, generosity, and courage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429958110
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 242
Sales rank: 559,871
File size: 721 KB

About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written over 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

March 8, 1931

Place of Birth:

Princeton, New Jersey


A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54

Read an Excerpt

Looking for a Ship

By John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1990 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5811-0


Andy was worried about the Ben Sawyer Bridge. He thought of it stuck open, and saw in his mind's eye an unending line of stifled cars, his own among them. If his neurons seemed hyperactive, they had some reason to be. On the other hand, how often did this drawbridge get stuck? Once a year? Three times every two years? Whatever the statistics might be, they would make no difference to Andy. The drawbridge had stuck open one afternoon with him on the wrong side, and the delay was so prolonged that he checked into a motel and caught up on sleep. On that day, he wasn't going anywhere important. On this day, he allowed a minimum of three hours to complete a journey of thirty minutes. He was looking for a ship.

In Andy's wallet was a National Shipping Card that had been stamped in Boston ten and a half months before, registering under his name, George Anderson Chase, the date, the hour, and the minute when he arrived in a union hall after leaving his last ship. The older the card, the better the prospects for a new job. If the card were to go twelve months unused, it would roll over — lose all seniority, and begin again. Meanwhile strongly competitive, it had all but reached the status of a killer card. In the evolving decline of the United States Merchant Marine, qualified people seeking work so greatly outnumbered the jobs there were to fill that you almost had to hold a killer card or your chances were slim for shipping out. You went to a union hall, presented the card in person at a job call, and if someone tossed in an older card you stayed on the beach. From his home, in Maine, Andy had come to Charleston this time because he thought that shipping cards deadlier than his would be more numerous in Boston or New York. On sheer speculation, I joined him, our idea being that when he got himself a ship he would ask the shipping company if I could go along on the voyage as a P.A.C. — Person in Addition to Crew. Andy said, "I probably have a better chance out of Charleston. Fewer people. Less competition. A fairly steady stream of ships." Besides, he had a place to stay. His wife's mother lived on an island whose connection to the mainland was the Ben Sawyer Bridge.

We had no idea where we would be going, if anywhere. We had gear for cool weather and gear for the tropics. Looking for a ship, Andy had once spent two months fruitlessly hanging around the union hall in Charleston. He had put in many weeks in New York with the same result. He once went as far as Puerto Rico. He spent two weeks there going to the hall. He got no ship. He tried Charleston on his way home, and with great luck got a ship in two days. The ship he got in Charleston was called the Puerto Rican. He was on it four months, sailing as third mate, coastwise. A chemical tanker, it blew up, out of San Francisco, on a later voyage. It broke in half.

I had known Andy for several years. I had been to his home in Maine. I had accompanied him to the New York hall of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. The New York hall is in Jersey City. On the PATH train, Andy said, "The union halls are not really halls. They're like dentists' offices." This one was a room on the east side of the fifteenth floor of a fairly new building at 26 Journal Square. The view of Manhattan was unimpeded from the midtown skyline to the towers of world trade. Andy was just checking out New York. His card was only thirty days old, and he was taking the long chance of finding a short trip that no one else in his category would want. By union rules, he could not do his checking by telephone. If he called the hall, the dispatcher would not tell him who was competing for what. One of the mariners in the hall was a friend of Andy's named Bryan Thomas, who explained to me, "You might trust a friend to check out a hall for you, but what friend? Almost anyone would tell you not to bother coming, no matter what the work situation might be." He went on to say that he had been surprised as he shook my hand, because "there seemed to be some sincerity" in the warmth of my hello. Andy told him that I was no threat.

Thomas said, "There is so much hunger for work that no one is happy to see anybody else. We are a brotherhood, so we hate each other."

Andy said, "Nobody ever does anybody a favor. You can't beg a job off of somebody. It just isn't done."

The New York hall was about the size of a high-school classroom, and an interior window separated it from a small office. At one-thirty, the time of the job call, action would take place at the window. Job sheets, if any, would be posted on a corkboard. Meanwhile, there was a clipboard with a sheaf of papers headed "OFFSHORE JOBS," showing positions that had been picked up in recent weeks and the age of the cards that had won them. Some of the runs were "Coastwise," "Far East," "South America," "N. Europe," "R/World , "W. Africa," "Caribbean," "Med," "Panama." Andy said, "South America is the romance run — beautiful women, beautiful ports." Andy had never been to South America. To make unexpected replacements, owners will fly people to foreign ports. In extremes, they have used the Concorde. Andy once turned up for a job call at the New York hall and that night was on a flight to Athens. On each offshore-job sheet was a "Reason" column, explaining why the job had come open: "LOA" (leave of absence), "Quit," "Fired." One sheet had called for a mariner to fly off at once on Iberia to Gibraltar. "Rotary" was the reason. He replaced someone whose hundred and twenty days were up — the maximum sea time allowed by the union, in the interest of rationing available work.

As one-thirty neared, more than thirty mates were fanned out around the office door like fish at the mouth of a tributary stream. They wore nylon jackets, down vests, rubber-soled moccasins, bluejeans, cotton-flannel shirts, fatigue jackets, trenchcoats, sweaters. Nobody looked nautical. Two were in suits and ties. This could have been any carpenters' or plumbers' union hall. Add cowboy boots and it could have been a union hall in Fairbanks at the fading end of the pipeline boom.

"The majority don't tell you what they do in their other lives," Andy said. He had shipped out with restaurateurs, real-estate entrepreneurs, and a lot of people who, in the proximity of fresh water, "just go fishing." The cook on one of Andy's ships was a male stripper. Andy had shipped out with an engine-room wiper in his sixties who called his broker from every port. Andy had shipped out with a sax player who had lost two fingers when they became caught between a mooring line and a capstan. For unrelated reasons, he was known as Goldfinger.

The dispatcher came to the window. The thirty-odd faces lifted in attention. Loudly, the dispatcher said, "Nothing on the offshore," and he read the particulars of four night-mate jobs — eight-hour relief work on docked ships — in Port Elizabeth and Howland Hook. That was it. That was the work available for all those mates. They showed no surprise and quickly dispersed. Sometimes, if you hang around a union hall after all the other people have left, a desperate last-minute call will come in, and if you want the job you can have it. "You dash down and join the ship," Andy said. "But that is very rare." Shipping out that way is known as "a pierhead jump." On this day, no one was jumping.

Andy was sixteen when he dropped out of school and first went to sea. Eventually, he finished school but intended not to go to college. After another year at sea, however, he enrolled at Maine Maritime Academy, in Castine, and in 1979 he became a Merchant Marine licensed officer, a third mate. Before long, he was hanging around New Orleans and New York, a month each, attending daily job calls. In those days, jobs were a little more plentiful, but for someone that green there was no ship. Becoming frantic, he tried Boston, the anachronist center of commerce, where he found a square-rigger, a barkentine, casting off to do whale research in the Caribbean. She was called Regina Maris. He shipped out under sail.

The irony of Andy's career is this: as his sea time accumulated and his status in the union improved, his increasing potentiality as a job seeker was largely offset by a decreasing number of jobs, as Chapter 10 started coming to the end for the United States Merchant Marine. After three weeks in New York one spring, he got a job on a container ship called Sea-Land Oakland that shuttled between Rotterdam and the Persian Gulf. The temperature of the Red Sea was ninety-five degrees and the air was over a hundred. In 1983, he had luck in Charleston, where he went to the hall for three weeks and, with a better card than four competitors, became third mate of the LASH Pacifico, a Prudential Lines ship, on which he spent six months and made sixty thousand dollars. He was twenty-eight when he joined the ship. He had been married less than a month before. The sixty thousand dollars was actually a full year's income, because, by terms then set by the union, the six months of work were followed by six of obligatory vacation.

And then another six of utter frustration looking for a ship. He failed to get one in New York, in New Orleans, in Port Everglades, in Charleston. Tension grew within him as the end of a year approached. He had seen a man get a ship with a card that was three hundred and sixty-four days twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes old. ("He was sweating.") For Andy, the end came without a ship. He still refers funereally to "the day my card rolled over." He needed work so badly that he signed up as an able-bodied seaman on an integrated tug-barge operating between Perth Amboy and Duluth. He was a licensed officer of ocean ships on his way to the Great Lakes as a deckhand on a barge.

To provide jobs of any kind for its increasingly distressed mariners, the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union arranged for five oceangoing tankers to be crewed with union members, right down to the last deckie. Licensed officers accepted jobs as ordinary seamen, able-bodied seamen, and bosuns because they could not get other work. Andy sailed from Providence as an A.B. on the tanker Spray. Later, for many months, he was bosun on the Spray. He was not entirely troubled by this. It gave him a chance to practice marlinspike seamanship — knot tying, wire splicing, rope splicing, rigging. There is an expression in the Merchant Marine that describes officers who are former deckhands or engine-room wipers and rose to licensed rank not by going to college — not by graduating from one of the seven maritime academies — but by passing examinations after learning on the job. Such people are said to have come up the hawsepipe. Hawsepipes are the apertures in the bows of ships through which the anchor chains clatter. Hawsepipes are the eyes of Yangtze junks. When a big-enough ship is at anchor, a person can climb up one of the chains and make it through the hawsepipe to the fo'c'sle deck. To the question "What academy did you go to?" a licensed officer may answer, "I didn't. I came up the hawsepipe." Andy likes to say that he has been through the hawsepipe, too, but in the wrong direction. As someone who went to an academy, sailed third mate, earned his second mate's license, and then was forced to work as a deckhand, he will tell you that he was "stuffed down the hawsepipe."

The United States Merchant Marine, the name of which suggests an assault on a valuable foreign beach, is not, as a good many people seem to think, a branch of military service. It is essentially a collective enterprise of competing private companies, flying the American flag on the sterns of their ships, employing American-citizen crews, and transporting cargoes throughout the world. Sail and steam, the United States grew in rank among nations on the aggressive reach of its Merchant Marine. American merchant ships once numbered in the thousands. The chimerical ship that Andy Chase and I went to look for in Charleston would not be a selection from a field that large. Diminishing rapidly, the number of American dry-cargo ships was already below two hundred, and there were about as many tankers. Not one commercial vessel was under construction in an American shipyard.

In time of war, the Merchant Marine is a prominent participant. This civilian job — risky enough at any time — becomes exceptionally dangerous. During the Second World War, the percentage of deaths was higher in the Merchant Marine than it was in the Navy or the Army, and was exceeded only by the percentage of deaths in the Marine Corps. Something like eight hundred ships went down and six thousand five hundred sailors died. As prisoners of the Japanese, American merchant mariners were among those who built the bridge on the River Kwai. War, with its all-out sealifts — the Korean Sealift, the Vietnam Sealif — expands the merchant fleet. Afterward, the ships go out of service more rapidly than the sailors, and jobs are hard to come by. The unions close their membership books until numbers level out. By the late nineteen-seventies, the Second World War crowd was gone, and much of the Vietnam crowd. Books opened. There were days when Andy actually felt positive about his choice of career: "Much more young blood coming up now. It's starting to feel as if it's my Merchant Marine. My generation. Our turn has come." In the mid-eighties, "everything slammed shut again" as the United States Merchant Marine was competitively outbid by ships under foreign flags and was reduced to carrying less than five per cent of all oceangoing American cargo. One American company after another entered Chapter 11 with its keel up and its screws in the air. Soon the Soviet merchant fleet was carrying at least ten times as much American cargo as the United States Merchant Marine, in direct trade between the two countries — a multiple that keeps growing through time.

In 1988, the National Maritime Union sold its ninestory building at 346 West Seventeenth Street, Manhattan, which had medical facilities, a gymnasium, a sauna, a restaurant, a theatre, and a school, and — with its porthole windows — suggested an upended ship. The N.M.U., of course, was a sailors' union — the once very powerful organization of the unlicensed — and now it had lost a leveraged sellout, was called M. E. B. A. /N. M. U., and had been merged with a branch of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, an organization of engine-room officers. N.M.U. sailors who were looking for ships were reporting to a new address: 404 Lafayette Street, in the saddle of low structures that lie on the loose gravels between the high summits of midtown and Wall Street. The building looks like a warehouse that has seen its last ware. What doorway to use is not clear from the sidewalk and less so if someone is lying in it. Upstairs is a large low room where the bright polish of the maple floor does little to console the N.M. U. sailors for the lost symbol of their lovely hall. The job-call scene is much the same as it is elsewhere for the masters and mates. The board says "Killer Card Date: April 8," or whatever it happens to be. An N. M. U. card accrues seniority for only two hundred and ten days, and then rolls over. Say a car carrier belonging to Central Gulf is the only ship on the board, with two A.B. positions — vacation relief. That's all. And a short run to boot — San Juan. More than forty men are in the hall. Two jobs. It's a lively, noisy room, a hubbub of chatter, many styles of fits-all visored cap, leather jackets, running shoes, flannels, jeans. Any one of those present will know a good many of the others, having sailed with them across the years. While the men wait around to lose out and go home, they argue politics at the shouting level. Each one's picture of the President of the United States seems to be framed entirely by what — as the sailor sees it — the President might do to the Merchant Marine.

The N.M.U. hall in Savannah is a quarter the size of the one in the warehouse in New York — a small freestanding building a few blocks from the Savannah River. You step in off the street and show your killer card. If a sailor doesn't have one, he may be in some difficulty. When I was there one time, Barbara Evans, the dispatcher, said, "Someday I'm going to be a social worker, because that is what I am now." She mentioned sailors who came looking for ships and slept on park benches until they moved to the Inner City Night Shelter. She mentioned a sailor living under a house.


Excerpted from Looking for a Ship by John McPhee. Copyright © 1990 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,

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Looking for a Ship 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
kenno82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting read. I've often looked out at cargo ships passing through the bay of my home town and wondered what happens onboard. McPhee provides an insight into the decreasing size of the US Merchant Marine and paints it as a dying industry. Unfortunately, the book meanders along without ever really reaching any high point or having something grander to say than describing the minutiae of every day. I think there were plenty of missed opporunties with this one. I haven't read any other of McPhee's works though, so this could be stylistic.
majorbabs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My very favorite John McPhee book.
mhankel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book starts out very interesting. The author catches a ride on a container ship. He give the reader a look at the present state of the Merchant Marine. Following the ship from port to port in South America, where the crew deals with boaders stealing out of the containers. The book though ends in frustration. The ship has a major engine meltdown, but then it ends. You have no idea what happened to the crew or the ship. It is almost like part of the book is missing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book itself had some interesting perspective but at times was very confusing and difficult to follow. The constant page after page drivel quoting Darwin still leaves me at a loss. I can only assume it was meant to provide some unnecessary filler. Ultimatly the book lends with no definitive closure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago