Most mornings on watch Mac and myself ramble on about current events and the plight of the world since neither of us really pay much heed to professional sports. During these conversations he often reveals something new of his 50 years working on or in close proximity to the sea. I’ve worked with Mac before; he was an A.B with me in the Pacific sailing past the islands where he had spent many of his later years studying martial arts including Tai Chi and Qi Gong which he still practices on the bridge.
Mac’s story began as a first generation Irish American born in Brooklyn. His father died the day before Saint Patrick’s day when he was a boy and three years later his mother lost her fight against cancer. The rest of his childhood was spent in a Catholic orphanage being raised by French nuns. In 1955 at the age of 17, two years after his Aunt took him out of school, there were few options for a orphaned teenager. A close family member was a Boson for Standard Oil Company and Mac soon had an intent to hire letter from the oil major. “In those days all it took to get your Z-Card was your hire letter and an FBI background check to insure you weren’t a communist sympathizer. Not like today with the god damned TWIC, they’ll have more background checks on me once I get it than any one else! Balls!” With his MMD in hand he went down to the docks of Hog Island in Philadelphia and joined the Esso Allentown.
As he struggled up the gangway with his cardboard suitcase the Chief Mate spotted him and rambled over the piping to interrogate his new ordinary seaman. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” the Mate asked between spats of tobacco juice. “Well sir, I thought I’d like to try going to sea” was his honest answer to which Chief Mate gruffly replied, “Son, I’ll tell you one thing…this job will either make a man out of you or turn you into a fucking bum! But one way or the other, once you’re used to paying off in hundred dollar bills you’ll never work on the beach again.”
And so Mac began his lifelong career of sailing before the mast, a career that would span more than five decades. He would soon join the National Mariner’s Union, which in those days only required 200 days to become a full book member.
Mac remembers this organization fondly often telling me how you never had to bribe the dispatcher for a job, how everyone sailed off the board and that it was run according to the shipping rules. “It was fair back then. Now it takes eight years of sea time to get a full book”, that is to become a member of the last major deep sea unlicensed union, the Seafarer’s International Union. The old NMU was absorbed by the larger SIU.
One morning Mac told me “I was raised by seaman. They were mostly Norwegians back then that had immigrated to America. They showed me how to tuck a splice, sew canvas, stitch the hatches closed, make a pilot ladder, bell ropes, the works. There were no drugs back then, if they caught you with narcotics you were a goner, but they’d drink. I was a drinker back then too. That was fifty years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since. There’s nothing else I know.” I couldn’t help but think that this guy has pissed more seawater than I’ve ever seen.
Mac moved up to and able bodied seaman quickly and still boasts about being one of the youngest Bosons the NMU ever shipped. He remembers it well. “Mate” he says, “I got my first boson’s job with McCormack lines, stick ship, seven hatches with booms everywhere. We went to West Africa, what a time.” He would later recall working for Export lines before they went bust. Apparently in those days Export Lines was renowned for their zealous use of fish oil. Anchor frozen in the hawse pipe? Lube it up with fish oil. Winch gears grinding, fill the casing with fish oil. “We’d even swab the worse off decks with the stuff before we expected to get weather. This way when the sea hit the rust it would take some of it off.” Mac never did explain exactly how this worked but I suppose it’s just another bit of nautical wisdom lost over the fantail.
At some point Mac took a job in New York harbor with the Local 1814 as a stevedore on the quays of Brooklyn. According to him “I was the only Irish kid on a dock full of
In 1962 he was drafted for a short stint in the Army but was never sent to Vietnam. Instead he would arrive there on a Liberty ship and make multiple trips to the waters of Southeast Asia carrying war goods into combat zones. “We went up the Mekong Delta one night and as we tied up you could watch the tracer rounds arc overhead.” He fell in love with Asia and vows to retire there, maybe Thailand, probably the Philippines or Guam where he can assist one of his sensei’s at his Tai Chi studio.
Eventually he ended up working for the Military Sealift Command from whom he today collects a small pension. After rejoining the NMU years later he became an instructor at Sheep’s Head Bay for a time training kids from his hometown to become A.B.s and join the union.
Mac married his wife later in life and took on the responsibility of raising her children together, moving them from Venezuela to the states. To this day he still provides for his daughter who recently lost her job and is the mother of his grandchildren. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Mac in the few months we’ve spent crossing oceans together it’s his steadfast interest in doing his job right and providing for his family has always been a part of that job.
Like all of us out here he complains some but when his relief is ten minutes late to watch he doesn’t get huffy when they finally show up. He doesn’t play the sea lawyer when he gets the short end of the stick and never puts another crewman down. He remembers the days when the Norwegians that brought him up all took pride in their work and feels that it’s a missing sentiment in most of a sailors work today.
Just the other day I was blown away while we were in England discharging two holds of high/heavy cargo. Each piece had been lashed down with eight 7-millimeter chains and it was the crew’s responsibility to claw through the mounds the stevedores had left us, sorting the binder bars in one bin and piling chains in another. This job took the entire deck crew on overtime half the day and Mac was right there bent over with the rest of us feverishly chucking chain, most of us being less than half his age. My quads are still sore.
Not only does Mac gladly show up for the backbreaking jobs, he still keeps his seamanship skills honed and eagerly wants to learn more. Just this morning we were hemming and hawing about what we’d like to do with life and Mac is still adamant about getting under way under sail. “I need to improve my skills” he says, “You know, learn more marlinspike, learn how to sail, I’ve read about it but never learned how.” It’s a pretty strong statement from a man who at seventy is the first to climb the bulwark and throw a monkey’s fist at the tug and makes it on the first shot.
There are things that make Mac unhappy, like working on ships without two A.B.s and an ordinary to each watch, no ship does that anymore, and not being paid enough. We both know that wages for deep-sea merchant sailors are essentially what they were in 1980. This is more displeasing for someone who has seen his paycheck shrink since then as opposed to myself, a recent addition to the work force. “But what are you going to do?” Mac says, “Half a loaf is better than none.”
If you ever happen to drop into the SIU shipping hall in Fort Lauderdale you might see Mac sitting there with an over sized sea bag waiting for a ship. “I never go out schooner rigged” is his defense for over packing, something I can relate to. He’s quite recognizable; a short and barrel-chested Irishman with a New Yorker’s brogue in a leather jacket with a coal black West Coast Stetson on his head (The rust stained white one he keeps just for overtime) and a bow legged stance from years of compensating for a rolling deck. He won’t be there for long though. Mac doesn’t like to sit around waiting for the big jobs to come along on the board, he’d rather sign on and start earning.