Book info

Looking For A Ship (1991)

Looking for a Ship (1991)
Author
Rating
4.08 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
0374523193 (ISBN13: 9780374523190)
languge
English
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publisher
farrar, straus and giroux
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Looking For A Ship (1991)
Looking For A Ship (1991)

About book: In role playing game theory, we identify three "motivations" for players to play--in rough terms, gamists who want the excitement of winning and losing, narrativists who want the plots and moral issues, and simulationists who want the settings and characterizations and reality of unreal events. In helping to define the last of those categories, I noted that these categories play in other media as well, that the appeal of simulationism was the same as the appeal of travelogues and documentaries, the desire to learn, to know, about something.That is the appeal of this book: it is not a story but a telling of the lives of people in the United States Maritime Marines in the closing years of the twentieth century. I picked it up off the free books rack at the library because the author's name rang a vague bell and it looked interesting, and in fairness it was interesting. It was reasonably easy to read, although the author makes temporal leaps frequently--including many stories told by sailors from previous voyages of themselves or others, and a few accounts of events that would happen after the conclusion of the journey. This was only once or twice disorienting; it is usually clear what is happening "now" and what happens at another time and place."Now" begins as the author joins an experienced merchant marines officer looking for a ship. The union rules forbid permanent positions, in order to make jobs for more workers in a dwindling field, but also give workers cards which show how long they have been out of work. A card that shows a longer period of unemployment is guaranteed a job over another worker qualified for the same position (e.g., a second mate can take a job as an able-bodied seaman, but an able-bodied seaman cannot take a job as a second mate without training or education), but once it passes a one-year point (to the nearest minute) it is reset to zero, so there is a lot of pressure to get berths. The author signs on with the second mate as non-crew passenger so he can meet people and become familiar with the milieu.It is here that the book is difficult to categorize. One has the impression that the names have been changed, but not which names may have been retained. Assuming that he invented similar names for the crewmen, did he rename the captain? The ship? The other ships of which he told stories, and the captains and crewmen in those accounts? Obviously the ports were the real places, but doubt hung over the entire book on such points as whether these are the actual names of the major United States shipping companies. It felt like it was supposed to be an accurate historic presentation while at the same time conveying the feeling that one could not trust it on the details.Even so, it paints an excellent picture of a dying profession. It makes clear all the problems, from piracy to smuggling to stowaways, in the aging of equipment and the reduction in fleet, in the changing of how things are done, in the fact that a captain with decades of experience is often expected to follow the directions of a local young green tugboat operator who is as likely to run him into trouble as not, yet the captain will be responsible for the trouble. It also gives details of kinds of cargo, the nature of travel, the various tasks and responsibilities, and the feeling of the journey. It also gave some insight into particularly South American port cities, although only once did the author venture ashore any distance. It is worth reading if you want that vicarious experience.I was disappointed in the ending. For reasons of telling the story the voyage was never completed, and nothing was said about how the author got from the end of the book to the place of telling it. But it covered almost everything that could happen to a merchant marine vessel, one way or another. It would make a good sourcebook for a modern setting.

John McPhee can take topics like geology or engineering or cooking and write absorbing books about them. Some of these topics, like geology, I would discard after only the briefest consideration; McPhee's books cause me to re-examine the things he writes about and make me wonder what other interesting topics I have closed my eyes to.Here, we follow Andy Chase as he looks for a ship in the almost-but-not-quite-dead American merchant marine. When he finds it, it is the ~665' container ship STELLA LYKES. McPhee accompanies him as a "person in addition to crew". With his usual thoroughness, McPhee probes into the ship from stem to stern, from bilge to bridge. McPhee profiles a number of crew members, both crew and officers, visiting them in their homes in the States as well as observing them on the ship. The master of the ship turns out to be an interesting character who makes a good foil for McPhee's narrative style. In Buenaventura the ship must come to the dock in a 700' space between two other ships; the captain puts the pilot in the corner, tells the tugs to stand off, and parallel-parks the ship with his engine and rudder. When complete, "Leaning over the bridge wing, he looks down at the dockside and sees fifteen inches of water. He straightens up. 'Nice job,' he says. 'I couldn't have done it better myself.'"
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Reviews
Rex Fuller
“Wing-shooting Achernar, Mars, Sirius, and Venus” (navigating by sextant).“Plimsoll marks”: TF – Tropical Fresh Water, F – Fresh Water, T – Tropical Seawater, S – Summer Temperate Seawater, W – Winter Temperate Seawater, and WNA – Winter North Atlantic. Painted on the hull of a cargo ship, they indicate the maximum safe loading depth of that particular ship, for the expected weather and sea conditions - Winter North Atlantic being hell. First mandated in Britain to control greedy overloading.“The Bowditch,” the bible of celestial navigation, the catalogue of star positions.“Marlinspike seamanship.” No it’s not from the fish’s nose. It’s the art of basic seamanship named from its most fundamental task: splicing rope or wire (“marling” or "marlin'") by using a steel pin.The ship’s captain says, “You used to be able to eat on the structure of the Panama Canal and there were no mosquitoes [before ceding it to Panama]," but the Japanese banks will save it because while "we can live without it, Japan and Russia cannot."Loading 228 cows in Baltimore and unloading 327 head in Gdansk, after calving 107, even though one cow and seven calves were lost in a storm.It is inane to say a hurricane turned and went “safely out to sea” where it will put ships and crews on the bottom.The sophistication of South American pirates who take five minutes in port to empty the container with the TVs -- but that no one outsteals Boston longshoremen who consider it part of their pay.This and much more in the life of a merchant seaman awaits in this book. As always, McPhee educates before you even realize it, you were just enjoying the stories so much.
Eric_W
This is McPhee's report of his voyage on a freighter, the Stella Lykes. Another thing I really want to do before I croak. He travels for 42 days, through the Panama Canal and down the coast of South America delivering containers. The are attacked by pirates, navigate around storms, and discuss the decline of the American Merchant Marine. My father actually took a trip on one of the Lykes container ship and was stuck for several weeks on the west side of the Panama Canal during our invasion of Panama. Highly recommended for nautical buffs.
Thomas Burchfield
I truly enjoyed this book by the prolific NEW YORKER writer about life in the U.S. Merchant Marine, circa 1990. It's a beautifully written true-life adventure and a clear-eyed informative account of a way of life known to few of us, outside of a few fictional accounts. McPhee's clear and eloquent prose, both simple and sophisticated (with occasional flashes of impish humor) all but had me feeling the salt air and the deck tilting under my feet. Some might find the ending abrupt, while others might see it as "existential." Either way, sign on!
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