LONG ago, when the word “navigation” had not yet been born and the world was still a pleasing puzzle, the earth’s first naval officer took command of a group of armored soldiers crowded in the open hull of an oar-propelled galley, and ventured on the waters in the world’s first warship.
A century or more, perhaps, before this unknown admiral created the beginnings of naval power, tiny galleys, rowed swiftly by half-naked crews, stole from headland to headland, skirting the shores of mysterious oceans and flirting with unknown dangers for the sake of the cargoes they carried; “ivory and apes and peacocks,” sandalwood and spices and all the opulent offerings of a bountiful world whose natural yield was yet untaxed by the greedy hand of man.
“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Economic laws have forever decreed that naval sea power shall be antedated by commercial sea power, that the former is conceived, born, and nourished through the growth of the latter, that navies exist primarily because of sea-borne commerce and that commerce can exist and grow because of navies.
In spite of this interrelation of two ancient maritime institutions, a lack of cohesion and coordination between the services and even feelings of misunderstanding and jealousy have been the rule rather than the exception. Such feelings have probably existed since the days when our thirteen Colonies first banded together to form a nation. They were accentuated with the disappearance of the privateer and reached a head with the advent of modem warfare, when the convoy system first placed large numbers of merchant vessels under the direct command of naval officers. They have continued in both post-war Navy and merchant fleet, to the detriment of the combined mission of both, the furtherance of America’s sea power. These misunderstandings are, fortunately, not momentous; they are but petty irritations or jealousies born of trivial incidents, rivalries where there should be but harmony.
It should be a cause for chagrin to both services should such conditions continue to exist now that both America’s Navy and her merchant fleet are occupying positions close to world primacy. The frank airing of differences and the admission of faults are the only remedies. This article is intended as the precursor of what it is hoped will develop into a frank discussion between the two services that will lead to better mutual understanding.
In the Navy, particularly among the younger officers like myself, I have noticed that whenever the merchant marine is thought of at all there goes with the thought an air of tolerant superiority. Because of the advantage of a Naval Academy education and the social position which graduation insures, many officers seem to feel that the officers and crews of merchantmen are inferior creatures, and that the only seagoing ship worthy of note is a man- of-war. Because they have had the advantages of a good education and can handle the intricacies of the English tongue with more correctness, many youthful officers and some mature ones look down upon the officers and men of the merchant service, not only socially and mentally, but professionally.
Such an attitude does discredit to the officers who adopt it. In this day of the fast turning printing press, many of the men who bring our cargoes from the Orient and the West are self-educated; a few of them to a greater extent than the narrow, professional training of the naval officer permits. In this day of the palatial passenger liner, many a master mariner and chief officer is more adept, from long practice with gushing passengers, at small talk and social niceties than the most accomplished gallant who ever signed the hop liberty list in the rotunda of Bancroft Hall. But all this is beside the point. In the teeth of a North Sea gale or in the grip of an Adriatic bora or Indian monsoon, the mastery of the sea goes not to him who knows the art of sipping tea, nor to him who can best describe the details of the Battle of Marathon.
In proportion to numbers, the merchant marine can probably offer considerably more skilled navigators than can the Navy. This is primarily due to the fact that in the merchant service all licensed deck-watch officers must be navigators; i.e., the officer of the deck is required to do a share of the “day’s work” which is ordinarily done in the Navy in its entirety by the navigator alone. Thus during all his career at sea, the deck officer in the merchant service actually navigates his ship, whereas in the Navy an officer may be assigned to navigation duty only once or twice in his professional career. There may be, and usually are, long intervals in the naval officer’s life when he does not even take a sight.
In seamanship, the Navy is probably slightly superior, although many officers of the merchant marine will question such a statement. It is undoubtedly true that the “old timers” in our merchant fleet are far more skilled in the intricate art of ship handling than is the average naval officer. But the younger officer in the merchant marine, due to the changing customs of the sea, and the amount of “red tape” attending the departure or arrival of ships in port, is given very little chance to learn practical ship handling unless he serves under an exceptional “skipper” and on the ships of an unusual line. On the other hand, the Navy, with its maneuvers in formation and its frequent seamanship exercises, gradually develops officers who are skilled in ship handling.
Lines of professional demarcation could be drawn ad infinitum with arguments to show that the weakness of the one service may be the strength of the other.
But perhaps the results desired in this article can be obtained more quickly by describing briefly life and methods aboard a typical merchantman, a 2i,ooo-ton passenger-freighter engaged in the South American trade, aboard which I recently shipped as a quartermaster. The trip proved a revelation to me, and I believe that similar knowledge of the conditions confronting officers in the merchant marine and a better understanding of the lives they lead would go far toward promoting more amicable relations between the naval and the commercial servers of the sea.
Living my life as a quartermaster, I went back to my midshipman days: scrubbing in a bucket, eating "chow” from a linoleum- covered mess table while seated on wooden benches, scrubbing paintwork or “soogeying” as it is called in the merchant service, “caulking off” on a hatch cover, and in general following the hard but somehow alluring life of a seaman. One old companion of “Crab Fleet” days was missing; for the hammock a narrow iron bunk was substituted which was well populated with other creatures besides myself.
I soon found that running ships with all of Uncle Sam’s resources back of you is a far different thing from running ships backed by private capital; that naval ships are cleaner than vessels of the merchant fleet; that the men of the merchant service do far more actual physical work in a shorter time than do the men of the Navy, but do not do it as thoroughly; that discipline in a merchantman is very lax compared with discipline on a man-of-war; that less attention is paid to the crew’s welfare in the merchant service; that pride in the ship which is so much a part and parcel of naval life is to a great extent lacking in the merchant service; that merchantmen spend far more of their time at sea and consequently their officers and men are engaged far more in strictly professional duties than is the case with naval personnel; and that therefore the knowledge of the merchant marine is knowledge practically acquired, whereas the knowledge of the Navy is knowledge more or less theoretically acquired from books.
The upper decks of this 21,000-ton ship, the crew’s quarters, and various other compartments, were cared for by the three quartermasters (who also stood a watch in three on the bridge), who cleaned the bridge, the flying bridge, and other miscellaneous places, and by the boatswain and his mate and fourteen sailors, “A.B.’s” and “ordinaries.” Aboard a naval vessel similar cleaning spaces would have been assigned to at least a hundred men. The entire crew, including the steward’s department, numbered less than three hundred men. A naval vessel of similar size would be manned by a crew of approximately one thousand. The crew of a merchantman is limited in size not only because of lack of space for accommodations due to great cargo holds and passenger staterooms, but also because of economy.
In this connection, the penurious policy of many ship owners, who force ships which are sadly in need of overhaul to run month after month without repair, is a serious blow to the morale of officers and crew, who are continually harassed by efforts to effect repairs which really require shore attention and the leisure of an overhaul period.
The chief mate acts as executive officer of the ship and upon his shoulders falls much of the burden that in the Navy would go to the captain. In addition, in some ships where there is no first mate, he stands a watch, always the four to eight, morning and evening. In vessels which have a first mate in addition to the chief mate, the latter does not stand any watches and devotes all of his time to executive duties. He is responsible for the work of the deck department and for all its equipment, and transmits his orders to the deck force through the boatswain. Coming into or going out of port, he takes his station forward in charge of the ground tackle and the forward mooring lines. In some vessels he is in general charge of the unloading or loading of cargo, with the second mate in active charge of the after holds and the third mate of the forward holds. It can be easily seen that a conscientious chief mate fully earns his rather meager pay.
The second mate always stands the afternoon watch and midwatch. He is in charge aft when coming into or leaving port. He is also generally charged with the care of the navigating equipment, although practice differs on various ships. The third mate stands the eight to twelve watch morning and night, and takes his station at the engine-room telegraph when getting under way.
At sea, the three watch officers’ duties are limited entirely to watch standing, which includes the navigation of the ship during the course of their watch. When off watch they are free to follow their inclinations, except, of course, in emergencies. They work, therefore, eight hours out of the twenty-four, just as do the sailors and petty officers of the deck force. The third mate starts off the navigation day by taking a forenoon sun sight, which he follows up with a sight for noon latitude. The second mate sometimes helps to check the noon position and takes an afternoon sun sight, and the chief mate takes star sights, night and morning, when available. Many officers in the merchant service still use the old “Time Sight,” although many now employ the Marcq Saint-Hilaire method. Any method which will yield a correct result is permissible. The results are always checked by the captain and are usually very accurate. Radiocompass bearings are used frequently and many of the officers of the merchant service are cognizant of each new “wrinkle” in the art of navigation.
The frequent watches do not give the officer in the merchant service much time or opportunity to exercise leadership or supervision over the men. In fact he rarely attempts to do so except in connection with those with whom he is thrown in contact on watch, for his duties do not call for it. Unlike the division officer in the Navy, who is responsible for a certain portion of the ship’s cleanliness and upkeep and is given the leadership over a certain number of men with which to accomplish this result, the officer in the merchant marine is not generally responsible for the cleanliness or upkeep of the ship, unless he happens to be the chief mate, in which case he has the responsibility for the entire portion assigned to the deck force. Discipline and cleanliness suffer as a consequence. On the passenger- freighter, the crew spaces in general were fairly clean, but the heads and washrooms were filthy. The discipline was very lax; many of the crew were drunk, regardless of working hours, during much of their stay in port; a number of them were drunk at sea from smuggled liquor, and once or twice one or two of the petty officers were drunk on duty. This slackness in discipline, combined with the apparent lack of pride of the great majority of the crew in their ship and the roving tendency of the average “A.B.,” who jumps ship whenever he feels like it, are to my mind, the worst features of merchant marine life.
The passenger-freighter on which I served was actually steaming at sea about four and one-half weeks of the six weeks’ time required to make the round trip from New York to Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires. Other merchant vessels spend an even greater proportion of their time at sea. Practically all the officers who hold “tickets” or licenses have followed the sea as man and boy and have spent the largest part of their lives actually on the oceans, without the diverting, though professional, interludes of shore duty of the naval officer.
A few of the merchant officers of today have been made from junior officers, men usually from schoolships who have not had the necessary experience to become officers. These junior officers perform much the same duties as junior officers in the Navy, but they are without a license, and they are expected to learn navigation and other duties by experience. The great teacher of the merchant service is experience, and it beats its insistent lesson into even the dullest of heads.
The stowage of cargo, which in olden days used to be such an important item in the education of a merchant officer, is now becoming more and more the specialized function of stevedoring companies and longshoremen. Only the smaller ships, or ships which touch unfrequented ports, require their officers to give direct supervision to stowage and handling of the cargo.
In general the organization below decks of the “black gang” follows the lines of the deck organization. The chief engineer is in absolute charge of the propelling equipment and all its appurtenances. He has much more authority and latitude than is accorded to such a position in the Navy. He is in reality “skipper” below decks, although he is of course subject to the captain’s orders. A number of watch officers and junior officers stand watches below decks just as do the deck officers.
The shortage of men is not as noticeable as in the deck force, but the quota is still below naval standards. The officer personnel both above and below decks is limited in numbers as compared to the Navy.
The engineering plants of many merchant ships, although not so modern as many of the Navy’s prides, are efficient and well planned. The “black gang” in many vessels, however, is forced to struggle like the deck force to effect repairs while operating which should be made during an overhaul period. The close policies of many owners prevent maximum efficiency much of the time.
In summation: the merchant marine personnel is composed of officers and men who have made the sea their almost constant livelihood since early youth. Their knowledge is that unforgettable sort bred of long and often bitter experience, and for this reason is certainly equal in certain branches, if not superior, to that acquired from books by naval personnel. Their defects are due, not to inherent character weaknesses nor to lack of “book lamin’” but to handicaps forced upon them by penurious owners, or the conditions in which they serve.
To aid the Navy to a better understanding of its comrades in the merchant service, I indorse heartily the suggestions sponsored by Mr. O. H. M. McPherson, contained in his article, “The Navy’s Relation to Commercial Shipping,” in the March Proceedings. I suggest as a supplement to the proposed course, study of the organizations and methods of merchant vessels, the duties and responsibilities of the various officers and members of the crew and similar data, as outlined in the manual of the merchant service, Men on Deck, by Master Mariner Felix Riesenberg.
In conclusion let me stress once again the principal reasons for giving due respect and esteem to the merchant service and its personnel:
- The Navy exists primarily because of the existence of the merchant service.
- The officers of the merchant marine have lived their lives upon the seas; the ocean is their home more truly than in the case of the naval officer. Their professional qualifications and their ability as seamen, should not be misjudged nor sullied by the use of an occasional double negative or an incorrect grip upon a teacup.
- Running a ship with the resources of a government behind the engines is far different from running a ship with the specter of a tight-fisted owner of limited resources stalking the bridge with the "old man.”