Today’s Illustration: THIS Is The Life Boat!

Panamax-Bulk-CarrierPanamax Bulk Carrier

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Person:  Dan Stone

  • Graduate of NY MAritime College
  • Ed. S in educational administration (Education Specialist ), University Northern Colorado
  • Currency Trader
  • Writer for Quora
  • Teacher at Denver public schools

“I sailed deep sea as a tanker mate after graduating from NY Maritime College for a number of years on a variety of ships between 600 and 1000 feet long, up to 100,000 tons dwt. They appeared gargantuan as one standing on the pier looking up to the main deck that sat fifty plus feet above the water.

At Panamax width (105’-09” or thereabouts) they were like floating cities, acres of steel deck. Some of these ships were so long that in heavy seas, you could stand just forward of the superstructure (the house) on the main deck and watch the bow flex so much that it dipped below your visible horizon.”


One dark and stormy winter night in the Gulf of Alaska, leaving Valdez with a load of ANSCO (Alaskan North Slope Crude Oil), I was on the midnight to 0400 watch. “Normal” 25–30 footers were pouring green seas over the bow, spray obliterating the forward range light causing this 100,000 ton beast to shudder every so often.

The Captain came up to see how things were and we chatted a bit. One of the things that came up was how useful the lifeboats would actually be in seas like this.

After a minute of silence, what he uttered next made my blood run cold and I’ve never forgotten it since.

Gesturing with his hands the area surrounding us, he quietly said,

“Mate…this IS the lifeboat.”

This is why sailors have a deep respect for the sea.

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Key Illustrative Thoughts:

  • Dangers
  • Storms
  • Dark and stormy nights
  • No lifeboats
  • Safety
  • The Ark
  • Lifeboats
  • No other help available
  • You are in the lifeboat
  • One Way
  • Life’s shudders
  • Lifeboats in a sea / storm like this

. . . . . . . . . . 

Key Words or Phrases:

  • shudder every so often
  • how useful the lifeboats would actually be
  • I’ve never forgotten (these words)
  • This IS the lifeboat

P.S. There are different ways to use these “illustrations.”

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Additional Information & Links:

1. Tankers & bulk carriers

“I’ve worked both as a deck mate. There are several factors to keep in mind. On a bulk carrier, life takes on a slower pace. Voyages are generally longer so you find a nice cadence with respect to living the sailor’s life. Many participate in some kind of self improvement regime such as reading, writing, singing opera…I learned Tai Chi and worked out on the way to Africa.

Standing watch is slower paced. Less vessel traffic. Lots of chart corrections though!

Working a coastwise tanker is all business. Arrivals, departures, pilot waters, cargo ops…but more overtime, better daily rates and if you thrive under pressure, this is the job for you.

I sailed mostly on tankers. My father (RIP) never did – spent his whole sea career aboard bulk and break bulk vessels. We use to compare stories. I loved to hear his stories of tramp steaming all over the world, each voyage an adventure. I spoke of the Houston Ship channel, the grey water and multiple terminal flares…it was like steaming through hades. Carteret, NJ oil docks, Chelsea creek, South Boston…yep, been there. Done that. His trips on the bulk carriers were by far more interesting than my stories.”

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“My longest stretch was a little over 5 months (but I usually spent about 7–8 months/year at sea). My father (RIP) who was one of the youngest Masters in the American Merchant Marine was a motivated individual. He spent a year at sea, paid off long enough to upgrade his license and went right back out until he received his Master’s unlimited tonnage at the ripe old age of about 28…and then shipped out as Captain aboard an old C-2 out of NY.”

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A different kind of sailor here. My “sailing” was on large seagoing vessels of the bulk cargo kind (sometimes solid, sometimes liquid…and flammable). I’ve stood every watch but my favorite was mid to four (midnight to four in the morning and noon to four in the afternoon).

There’s something about a cloudless and moonless night. Starlight so bright that it actually casts a faint shadow when walking out on a bridge wing to breath in fragrant Caribbean air. Or an overcast night where it’s so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face and fantom lights appear on the horizon. You are the only person awake, with the best seat in the house; watching meteor showers, shooting stars, satellites orbiting past and even (with younger eyes) the ability to see four of Jupiter’s moons with just a set of mediocre binoculars.

Not every voyage is like that…in fact, most aren’t. Sometimes, you spend hours hanging onto railings and anything that is bolted down so you don’t go sliding across the deck into the bulkhead. Weather so bad, that your face develops a compression ring from pressing it so hard on the hood of the radar because visibility is down to yards. Sometimes, you are fortunate enough to experience beautiful sunsets, “green flashes”, bioluminescent wakes, the occasional whale or dolphin…even waterspouts…or days of nothingness. No other vessels to track and strike up a conversation with, never changing scenery, gloomy skies, and black seas.

There are days…weeks even, crossing oceans where we stand watch twice a day for a total of 8 hours, marking off time and distance on a chart, using celestial, terrestrial and electronic methodologies for navigation. Sometimes we can fiddle with the shortwave radio to pick up a far off broadcast or listen in on more “local” VHF radio traffic. In the dark, your mind turns into itself. Reflective thoughts about life, in general, can take you far away in your own head. But, you better be paying attention to what is outside and on the radar. A poor lost soul could be depending on you for rescue or a vessel running with no lights with its own watchmate back in the chartroom, preoccupied with something trivial, not realizing that his and your course may intersect. Coastwise charters are all business. In and out of ports, picking up and dropping off pilots. Deck gear laid out for loading and discharging cargo, sea watches secured for deck watches and round the clock operations take precedence. This is when sleep is truly valued. Catnaps, sleeping with your clothes on to maximize the amount of time in the rack. Gallons of coffee and eating on the run. Occasionally, the chance to head down the gangway for some sailor “adventure”. No, not bar fights, tattoos, and massage parlors…more like hitting the mall for some CD’s, a couple of newspapers and a bag of junk food.

When not on watch, opportunities for overtime abound. A vessel always needs TLC…everywhere, so four hours a day there are things to be tended to both on deck and below in the engine room.

Coffee time and meals are sacred periods of reprieve from everyday seagoing life. Stories abound, discussions of all kinds (except of course…politics, money, religion and your girlfriend/wife). Occasionally we watched movies or read books from the “library”; usually donated paperbacks from the Seaman’s Church. Back when my father was at sea, he educated himself in the arts. Some develop crafty skills or write. Now, with the advent of inexpensive satellite connectivity, internet access is just a mouse click away.

Some voyages are long, slow paces and pleasant – a bulk carrier from the Gulf of Mexico to West Africa. The same course for nearly three weeks, agreeable weather and a month-long stay discharging ashore. Some voyages are harried, arrival times and speed closely monitored, dodging storms crossing the Pacific from Los Angeles to Japan in 12 days, then 18 hours in port for a quick discharge only to return to the West Coast for another brief 18 hours – over and over (I did this 5 times, back to back). I preferred the longer voyages…they felt more like what shipping is thought to be.

Shipping has changed over the decades. When my father sailed, there was a romantic sense of a nomadic life aboard a tramp steamer, never knowing more than one trip into the future. Crews were twice the size on vessels half the size. Now, we have unmanned engine rooms and occasionally less than 14 persons on board. Once lines were cast off and departure made at the sea buoy, the “office” had virtually no contact until arrival at the next port weeks away. Now, constant communication with advisements, adjustments and the like are just a phone call away.

I haven’t been to sea in a long time. Occasionally I dream about it. Once you get some salt in your veins, it never leaves. I still find myself scanning the horizon, toes in the sand with a smug sense of satisfaction that an umbrella drink is not far away. Some of my life’s best moments were on a vessel…and some of the most fearsome. I’m glad I lived part of my life as a sailor. It gave me perspective in life and appreciation for things that most take for granted – like going home to family each night.”

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