Vivid Recollections of the USNS Bowditch
Here are some impressions of the old USNS Bowditch for your web site from the MSC side. I spent 16 months on board in 1975-76, which I remember very well because it was my first experience as a professional sea officer. After thirty years at sea, including five years with MSC and participation in two wars (Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom), the Bowditch still stands out as a unique experience.
I sailed as Third Mate on the USNS Bowditch for 16 months, from July 18, 1975 until November 22, 1976. She was my first sea-going job and, after a thirty-year career at sea, represents the longest period I ever spent on any one ship. The Bowditch carried the largest ship’s company I’ve ever sailed with by far; comprising 101 people, two cats and a dog. It was the only ship I’ve ever sailed on that carried any animals on board, other than as cargo.
After three decades of shipping out on a wide variety of vessels, The Bowditch also remains the most unusual ship I’ve ever sailed on. That was because, for all intents and purposes, the Bowditch was not one ship but two. First there was the ship proper, run by a crew of Merchant Seamen, to which I belonged. Then there was a separate, mysterious, subterranean ship, operated by U.S. Navy personnel in what used to be #2 and #3 cargo holds. The Navy spaces had neither windows nor portholes. It must have seemed as though they were serving aboard a submarine, although I understand that the men of the Navy detachment actually regarded the Bowditch as fairly luxurious duty. Both crews lived and worked separately, and had their own separate hierarchy of officers and ratings. The only connection between the two ships was by a single narrow ladder well. The two crews only interacted socially at mealtimes and during weekly abandon ship drills.
Up on the bridge where I worked, our only normal connection with the Navy part of the ship was with a disembodied voice from “Survey”, which came to us via an intercom that they referred to as a “talk-back system”. Some of the dialogues we carried on with the Navy troglodytes were pretty ludicrous.
“Bridge…Survey, what course are you steering?” “Survey…Bridge, course is 269.” “Bridge…Survey, could you steer a smidgen to the left?”
“Bridge…Survey, why are you changing course?” “Survey…Bridge, because if we stay on this course any longer we’re going to run aground.” “Bridge…Survey, wait one…” Then, after a considerable pause, “Bridge…Survey, OK with that course change.”
Having graduated in June 1975 with a Bachelor’s Degree and a Third Mate’s License I found myself on the beach with little chance of finding any seagoing employment. The Viet Nam War had recently ended and, as usually happens at the conclusion of any conflict, ships were being laid up left and right. The Union Halls were filled with unemployed seaman, and the few available jobs were going to those with the highest seniority. In desperation I tried making the rounds of the individual steamship companies. One of those I tried was Zim Lines, which had an office in the World Trade Center. Having been granted admittance only after being thoroughly searched (“New York is a very dangerous city”), I was courteously informed that they didn’t hire ship’s officers in New York, and that if I wanted to sail for them I’d have to go to Haifa.
I was on my way home via the subway station beneath the World Trade Center when I ran into a former classmate. Imagine the odds off of encountering someone you know in the lobby of the World Trade Center, which had to be one of the most crowded places in the world? My friend informed me that The Military Sealift Command was hiring over at their headquarters in the Military Ocean Terminal in Brooklyn. He gave me their address, and I immediately changed my plans and boarded the N Train to Brooklyn. There I applied for a job with MSC and immediately found myself employed.
The Military Sealift Command is a government entity that the public hears very little about, and for very good reason. It would hardly be good public relations for the Navy if the people knew that the Department of Defense hired civilian Merchant Seamen to sail the Navy’s ships for them. It would be even worse if the general public ever found out how much more efficiently the Merchant Seamen sailed them than the Navy did.
About all the public ever heard out of the Navy concerning their civilian counterparts were gripes about how overpaid the Merchant Seamen were. However, at the time I began sailing for them MSC was beginning to take over some of the Navy’s fleet oilers, which they operated with less than a third the number of Navy men. Evidently the Navy was thoroughly embarrassed by that program and had no intention of seeing it succeed, because they transferred only their oldest and most decrepit oilers to MSC. I know that to have been the case because in 1975 I spent about a week working as an Able Seaman on the USNS Waccamaw (T-AO-109), immediately after MSC took it over from the Navy. The Waccamaw, which was already over thirty years old at that time, was in such terrible condition that I absolutely refused to remain aboard it. Instead the MSC dispatcher sent me to the Bowditch as Third Mate.
I had no idea what kind of a ship the Bowditch was or where she was going and I didn’t much care. Shipping out as Third Mate on anything had to be better than the prospect of going to sea as an A.B. on that horrible Waccamaw. It didn’t even seem odd when I found myself filling out one of those “Are you now or have you ever been a member” forms, or being interviewed by a very intimidating Federal Agent. I assumed that all new MSC officers were required to get top-secret clearance, and just went along with the program (it was only months later that I learned that Federal Agents had made the rounds questioning my neighbors about me). However, I must admit being somewhat impressed when the Fed who interviewed me informed me, with a straight face, that the crew I was to serve with “were all hand picked men”. Many times during the months to come I was to wonder whether he was being facetious.
At the time I joined the Bowditch she was preparing to depart from a small Shipyard at the foot of Columbia Street in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. The ship was just completing repairs after a bad fire in #4 hold. The fire had been the result of an act of arson committed by a member of the crew. Apparently the crewman in question had a penchant for starting fires so he could discover them and then put them out, thus making himself the “Hero of the Hour”. They knew which crewman was responsible because he had apparently done the same thing before. This time, however, he had let things progress too far and nearly destroyed the ship. I couldn’t help wondering why MSC hadn’t fired him after the first time he had pulled this little prank. I also couldn’t help reflecting on the words of that Suit-Coat about the Bowditch’s crew being “hand-picked men”.
In those days Red Hook was one of the roughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The night before I arrived one of the crew got rolled while making a phone call from a telephone booth at the foot of the pier. Hurrying back to the ship one night to stand his watch, another crewman asked a passing pedestrian for the time. The pedestrian immediately whipped out a gun, pointed it at the crewman and replied, “Go buy a watch!” Going ashore in Red Hook the crew learned to travel in convoys for mutual protection, like ships on the Murmansk Run. A few might get torpedoed, but the rest were bound to get through.
The first thing that
went trough my mind upon seeing the USNS Bowditch tied up to that dock in
Brooklyn was that MSC had sent me to a spy ship.
I had seen photographs in the newspapers of the infamous Navy spy
ship USS Liberty, as well as the smaller USS Pueblo, and the Bowditch had
the same look about her.
wasn’t as though the Navy had been subtle about disguising the ship.
Not only had they painted the converted Victory-class freighter
battle-ship gray, they had replaced her normal cargo gear with a set of very
naval-looking masts and yards.
In addition to that, they had erected a huge, unsightly box above the
bridge, and cluttered up the ship with a host of sinister-looking antennae
in a variety of inappropriate places.
The Navy calls that sort of thing “camouflage”.
Small wonder that, while docked in the Canary Islands a few months
later, the front page of the local newspaper featured an article including a
photograph of the Bowditch, accompanied by the headline, “El Barco Americano
It always seemed to me that the Bowditch would have been a whole lot less conspicuous if the Navy had painted the hull black and the house white, left all the original cargo gear in place, and simply made all their modifications on the inside where they wouldn’t show. Better still, they could have painted the entire ship white, like a reefer ship. That would have made it much easier to keep the Navy quarters cool in the summer (in fact, quite a few of MSC’s survey ships were painted white). Either way, the Bowditch would have looked a whole lot less suspicious. After all, that’s what the Soviets used to do with their intelligence-gathering trawlers. But then I am not, nor ever have been, a Naval Officer, so I don’t think the way they do.
Immediately upon arriving on board I reported to the Old Man, and received another surprise. My initial impression of the appropriately named Captain Power was that he seemed far too much like the romanticized image of ship’s master to be true. If Hollywood wanted to find someone to portray a salty old sea captain they couldn’t have done any better. In his gray beard and turtleneck sweater he looked exactly like Earnest Hemingway. He also had the sort of deep, booming voice appropriate to the quarterdeck of a 19th century clipper ship. It turned out that our captain actually was everything his appearance betokened. After a lifetime at sea (“44 years at sea, man and boy”), he had worked his way up “through the hawse-pipe” from Ordinary Seaman to Master Mariner.
Unlike the Navy, which breaks in new officers as “Junior Officers Of the Deck” under the supervision of a more experienced “Officer Of the Deck“, licensed Merchant Marine officers are expected to assume their full responsibilities as soon as they join their ship. “If I have to do your job for you then what am I paying you for?” was the way the Bowditch’s Old Man summed up that attitude. As recently as 2004 I saw a Third Mate hired in New York and then fired the following day in Norfolk because he couldn’t handle his job. Immediately after the Bowditch took departure for the first time the Old Man told me ship’s course, speed, position and details of the surrounding traffic, and then left me alone on the bridge in complete charge of the ship. From the very first day he never once looked over my shoulder, kibitzed or second-guessed any decision I ever made. Knowing what I now know of sea captains, based upon thirty years additional seagoing experience, I have no doubt that he spent the first few of my watches glued to the window of his cabin one deck below the bridge. Nevertheless, he never interfered with the running of my watch. I believe I was singularly fortunate in my first captain. I have sailed with few better since then, and a whole lot who were worse.
I learned a lot from
sailing with that Old Man.
instance, he used to insist that, “Your schedule is more flexible than your
At sea time is money, and
the ship’s owners expect the goods to be delivered on schedule.
However, many a captain has come in on time with a ship and cargo
damaged by heavy weather.
are many occasions when you can save the owners a great deal of money by
arriving a few hours late.
At school we were taught to work out the exact speed required to make our estimated time of arrival. However, the Bowditch’s captain always ran the ship at her normal speed. “You can always slow down“, he used to say, “but you can only speed up so much”. He was right. You never know when the ship is going to be delayed by heavy weather or a mechanical breakdown, so it always pays to have some extra time in hand. Through the years I’ve sailed with plenty of academy-graduate captains who never learned that.
Another valuable lesson I learned from the Old Man was, “never order anyone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.” I’ve always born that in mind, and there’ve been numerous occasions when it’s stopped me from ordering a crewman to do something hazardous. I have no doubt that I’ve prevented a lot of accidents that way over the years. An awful lot people get killed or injured simply because some fool tells them to do something he knows is dangerous.
The Mate was very
different sort of character from the Captain (In Merchant Marine parlance
the Chief Mate is traditionally referred to as “The Mate”, while the Chief
Engineer is called “The Chief”).
Our Mate was a pre-World War II graduate of the Polish Naval Academy.
I understood that he had escaped to Britain in 1939 and ended up in
The Royal Navy, in command of a Polish-manned frigate.
After the war he had supposedly immigrated to America, where he
sailed as an Able Seaman until he accumulated enough U.S. sea-time to sit
for his Mate’s License.
knew for sure if there was any truth in that story, but it wouldn’t have
It was not unusual to encounter foreign-born officers and crewmen aboard MSC ships during the 1970s. There was actually a much higher percentage of foreigners sailing on MSC ships than aboard American-flag commercial vessels. I was once told that a large number of those foreign officers came to MSC after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, during which they had been hired by the CIA to sail the ships transporting the Cuban counter-revolutionaries over from Mexico. The story was that those individuals had guaranteed jobs for life with the Department of Defense, and that they couldn‘t get fired. During my five-year period with MSC I sailed with two Greek captains, one from Newfoundland one German and one Serb. Amongst the other licensed officers and engineers I served with were individuals from The Philippines, Trinidad, Norway, Poland and Sweden. Small wonder MSC was widely known among seamen as the "Mercenary Navy" and the "Foreign Legion Fleet".
The Mate had the stiff-backed manner and meticulousness of a Prussian Junker. One of the duties he assigned to me was the monthly inspection of all the ship’s fire fighting equipment. Every month I submitted a detailed list of discrepancies to the Mate, who fastidiously filed them in a drawer, exactly as per MSC regulations. Apparently nothing in those regulations ever specified that anything be done about correcting those discrepancies. Certainly nothing ever was done to correct them during the 16 months I served aboard the ship. Nevertheless, I dutifully went on submitting my monthly inspection reports to the Mate because those were my orders and, more importantly, because he paid me two hours overtime every time I did it.
The Mate had been on the Bowditch without a vacation for at least a dozen consecutive years. As often happens to long-time “homesteaders”, of which there were entirely too many among the Bowditch’s crew, he had begun to acquire his share of peculiarities. Among them was the fact that he had become something of a habitual packrat. He never discarded anything that might possibly prove useful at some indefinite future date. For the same reason he often had the crew loot old, useless gear from MSC ships that were being laid up. On one occasion, for example, he ordered myself, along with some of the crew, to bring back a length of heavy, rotten, waterlogged manila mooring line from the USNS Andrew Miller. What possible use we could ever have had for that piece of rubbish I never understood, but we dutifully lugged it aboard it anyway.
One day the Mate ordered me to inventory some spare signal flags he had stored in #1 upper-tween deck. Down in that hold I found, amongst tons of other rubbish, at lest half a dozen enormous mail sacks filled with signal flags. There must have been enough signal flags squirreled away down there to equip a whole fleet of ships, far more than the Bowditch alone could possibly have used in a century. I don’t know how old those flags were but when I began examining them they immediately fell to pieces in my hands, thoroughly mildewed and completely useless. In approved MSC fashion, however, I stuffed the pieces back into their sacks, retied them, and simply “gun-decked” an inventory. I then submitted the fabricated inventory to the Mate who, well pleased with my efforts, filed it away amongst his vast collection of records.
The first time I reported to the Mate he explained my regular duties and responsibilities in minute detail. Then he informed me, almost as an afterthought, that I was also assigned to be the ship’s “Special Service Officer”. Never having had anything to do with the Navy before, I assumed “Special Service” meant that I was going to be involved in some sort of sneaky, cloak-and-dagger business. I was quickly disabused of that illusion. “Special Service” meant administering the ship’s collection of movies, of which we received 30 per month. I was also required to submit a dozen copies of our monthly movie inventory to the Navy, which I had to prepare without the benefit of a Xerox machine.
Those movies were actual 16mm films, not videotapes or CDs. As a result thirty movies represented hundreds of pounds of weight, and took up enough space to require the use of a truck to transport them. I could never have managed without the voluntary assistance of members of the crew, for which I shall always be grateful.
The Second Mate was a quiet, easy-going man who was constantly harried by the problem of maintaining the Bowditch’s cantankerous gyrocompass. MSC’s policy was to shut down both the radars and the gyrocompass whenever the ship was in port, a practice that every technician to whom I have ever spoken deplored as the worst thing anyone could possibly do. As a result of that abuse the Bowditch’s ancient Sperry Mk. 14 gyrocompass used to burn out a $75 rectifier tube about once a fortnight, which the Second Mate would then have to replace. It was then his task to coax the beast back up to speed again. I did not envy him.
After a few months the
Second Mate was relieved by Hank Sauerland.
Hank was one of a substantial number of MSC deck officers who were
he came from Oklahoma, wore cowboy boots and chewed tobacco, he was a
thoroughly professional seaman.
Years later he became captain of the super-secret USNS Marshfield and her
replacement, the USNS Vega.
less said about those ships the better, except that they were so secret that
most Navy men weren’t even aware of their existence.
Hank managed to harpoon a whale with the Bowditch’s pit log. It happened one morning just at twilight, when visibility is at it’s worst. The lookout on the bow spotted the whale just ahead of the ship and reported it to the bridge on the sound-powered telephone. However, his warning came too late for Hank to avoid running over the whale. The pit log immediately stopped working, and when the Navy technicians tried to retract the “sword” they found that there was nothing left of it but a few shreds of fiberglass. Hank said he figured the whale must have already been dead before we hit it, because it smelled as though the ship had sailed through a hundred tons of dead fish.
The Bowditch’s radars
were just as poor as the gyrocompass, and for much the same reason.
It was MSC policy to shut off the radars every time we came into port,
rather than simply put them on standby as most ships did.
As a result we were fortunate if our radars managed to pick up a
large vessel at a distance of eight miles.
Fortunately for the Second Mate, however, the tuning and maintenance
of the radars was the province of the Radio Officer.
In those days Radio Officers, who were invariably addressed as “Sparks”, were still required to be able to transmit an receive Morse code manually. Just as no licensed deck officer was considered to be a true professional unless he owned his own sextant, no Radio Officer was taken seriously if he didn’t bring along his own tapping key. True to form the Bowditch’s Radio Officer, John Mason Newsome, invariably used his own personal tapping key in the radio shack.
Since the Navy operated their own encrypted communications equipment, “Sparks” role was confined largely to transmitting and receiving weather reports. The weather reports that the Bowditch transmitted regularly to the National Weather Service were peculiar, and deserve some further mention. The licensed deck officers of all ships at sea record detailed, encoded weather reports for transmission to the N.W.S. at six-hour intervals, beginning at midnight Greenwich Mean Time. We did that on the Bowditch as well, except that in the space on the form reserved for recording the ship’s position we used to record, “In Oparea”. We were required to do that because the Bowditch’s position was considered top-secret information. That was also the reason why the ship’s licensed deck officers, myself included, were all required to have Top-Secret Clearance. At that time I couldn’t understand what use anyone at the N.W.S. could possibly have for detailed weather reports lacking the position from which they had been recorded, and I still don’t. I inquired about that at the time, but nobody on the Bowditch ever gave me any satisfactory explanation.
When he wasn’t busy
puttering in the radio shack or tuning our recalcitrant radars, Sparks was a
devoted bird watcher.
often wander up to the bridge to ask those on watch, “Have you seen any
He was constantly
sending correspondence to the Audubon Society to the effect that he had
spotted some rare bird at such-and-such a position in the North Atlantic, to
which they would invariably reply that he was crazy, because they all lived
in New Zealand.
Apart from watching birds, Sparks was also an amateur taxidermist. Land birds sometimes follow ships out to sea, where they die of starvation. Sparks used to collect their bodies from the deck and stuff them. First he had to dry them out, however. He did that in his spare parts locker, located in the otherwise empty deck above the bridge. After Sparks got off the ship his replacement, Bill Valashinas, remarked that his predecessor had left everything in apple-pie order except that he had found feathers in the spare parts locker, which “had a rather musty smell about it.” We never told Bill about the additional purpose to which that space had been employed. We figured what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
That was not Bill’s first time on the Bowditch. He was the guy who provided the photograph of the ship’s damaged bow that appears on the Bowditch web sight, the result of an incident that took place sometime prior to my tenure on board. Although I never saw that photograph during the time I was on the Bowditch, I did hear the story of how the accident came about. Apparently an inexperienced Mate had blindly obeyed N.I.C.’s instructions to change course, and had then collided with another ship. The inexperienced Mate apparently did not realize that the Navy boys down in N.I.C. were directing the movements of the ship without recourse to navigational charts, radar, or even so much as a window. As a direct result of that accident, subsequent captains issued standing orders to their Mates that all course changes transmitted to the bridge from N.I.C. were to be regarded as REQUESTS rather than as ORDERS.
The Bowditch’s officers did not dine in a “wardroom”, as the Navy would have called it, nor in a “saloon”, as it would have been designated on a merchant ship. Since the Bowditch was neither the one not the other, we simply ate in the “officers mess”. My first impression of the place was that I had just become a member of an old age home. I turned twenty-two years old the day I joined the ship. The Second Mate, who was the next youngest officer to myself, was about fifty years old. One of the Third Assistant Engineers was on the eleventh issue of his license. The Coast Guard requires officers to renew their licenses every five years, so you can imagine how old he must have been.
The engineering watch officers (the Second Assistant Engineer and the two Third Assistant Engineers) occupied one table. Across the mess deck sat the licensed deck officers, the Radio Officer and the Navy’s Executive Officer, who was an Ensign. The large table in the center was the domain of the BIG BOYS. Those included the Old Man, the Navy Commanding Officer, the NOAA Chief Scientist, The Mate, The Chief Engineer, and the First Assistant Engineer.
I explained before how the Bowditch was set up virtually as though it were two ships; the ship proper, run by MSC, and the mysterious troglodyte world in what had once been the forward cargo holds, run by the Navy. Not only was the ship divided physically, both portions of the ship had their own separate hierarchy of officers who administered their respective parts of the ship separately from each other. That fact was brought home for me right after we sailed from Brooklyn, when the Navy Officers and Chief Petty Officers conducted a search of the Navy quarters and confiscated all their crew’s alcoholic beverages. When we docked four weeks later the Navy officers and CPOs took all the alcohol they had confiscated ashore and had themselves a party with it. I would never have done anything like that to any crew I sailed with, but then again I am not a Naval officer.
The Commanding Officer of the Navy personnel was a Lieutenant Commander whose previous posting, I was told, had been as the Navy’s Chief Meteorologist on the Island of Guam. The Navy personnel called this individual “The C.O.” The rest of us referred to him as “The Scout-Master.”
The C.O., who was an officer in the Regular Navy, thought he was in command. The Old Man, who I don’t believe ever graduated from high school, knew he was in command. Needless to say they loathed each other. The C.O. had contempt for the Old Man because he wasn’t “an officer and a gentleman”. The Old Man’s opinion of the C.O. was summed up by a remark I once heard him make, to the effect that the C.O. “ain’t worth a pimple on a merchant seaman’s ass.” It was always great fun to watch them go round and round.
On one occasion when the Bowditch was in the midst a particularly bad North Atlantic gale, the C.O. decided that the spare magnetometer needed to be secured to the deck in order to keep it from being washed overboard. We had two of those units, which looked like a large tin can on the end of a special 1,800-foot long cable. One magnetometer was constantly streamed out behind the ship, while the spare was coiled up on deck near the fantail. The Mate was going to send the Bos’n and some Able Seamen to secure the spare magnetometer to the deck. However, the C.O. didn’t want a bunch of ham-fisted seamen manhandling such a delicate piece of electronic equipment. Consequently he sent some of his Navy electronic technicians to secure it instead. By the following morning the spare magnetometer had disappeared over the side.
Like every ship, the crew held a fire drill every week on the Bowditch. One week the C.O. decided that the Navy ought to take a more active part. He had his men run out and charge a couple of 1½-inch fire hoses in Survey, three levels below the main deck. When the C.O. reported that to the bridge the Old Man was astonished. “Now that you’re charged those fire hoses full of sea water, down there in the middle of all that electronic equipment, how do expect to drain them out again?” That had apparently never occurred to the C.O. His Navy boys spent the rest of the day mopping up in Survey.
Another instance when the Navy boys had occasion to regret their C.O. involved their radio communications. They Navy part of the ship had its’ own encrypted radio facilities, run by Navy radio operators, which were entirely separate from our “radio shack“. During the course of one voyage they found themselves unable either to transmit or to receive messages. The C.O. ordered his hapless radiomen take all their equipment to pieces in a vain attempt to find the trouble. It finally transpired that there was nothing wrong with the radio equipment at all, the source of the problem had simply been that the C.O. had neglected to get the Navy’s latest encryption codes. The upshot was that we had to return to port early, and the chagrined C.O. went ashore with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist to pick up the latest codes.
The C.O. used to appear on the Bridge from time to time, although he really had no business there. One day he showed up just as we were making a landfall on Corvo, the westernmost island in the Azores Archipelago. My helmsman spotted the island looming up over the horizon and remarked, “That must be the Azores.“ The C.O. was appalled. “Who leaked that information? You’re not supposed to know that! This ship’s position is supposed to be classified!” The A.B. looked at him as if he were crazy. “We been steering southeast from Saint John’s, Newfoundland for four days and we come across an island. What else could it possibly be?“
Despite their personal animosity, the Old Man was under orders from MSC to cooperate with the Navy detachment in every possible way. He certainly acceded to every request from the C.O., no matter how hare-brained it might seem. For example, The C.O. was convinced that cavitation bubbles beneath the hull were interfering with the sonar. He therefore insisted that the Bowditch should be trimmed four feet down by the head. I don’t know what effect that procedure had on the performance of the sonar, but it certainly rendered the Bowditch the most uncomfortable ship I’ve ever sailed on.
One of the many fire stations I was called upon to inspect every month was located in the shaft alley. The first time I went down there I was horrified to see water pouring in through the stern gland, where the propeller shaft passes through the hull. When I pointed it out to the engineer on watch, he told me not to worry about it. He said it was the result of trimming the ship down by the head, which left half the propeller sticking above the water, setting up excessive vibration in the shaft. There was nothing any of us could do about it, so we just had to live with it.
Trimming the Bowditch improperly also meant that the ship tended to shove her bow under water in heavy weather, sending tons of seawater cascading over the foredeck onto the well deck. I’ve sailed on a number of smaller ships than the Bowditch, but I have never sailed on a wetter one.
Another result of trimming the Bowditch improperly was that she was also by far the worst rolling ship I’ve ever sailed on. It was standard procedure on the Bowditch to sound a quick shot on the general alarm whenever we changed course at the end of survey line, to warn all hands to hang on. In thirty years at sea I have never been on any other ship where anything like that was ever done. On one occasion the Old Man and I were on the bridge when we took one particularly bad roll, and I saw the clinometer register 57 degrees from vertical. That day we rolled so far that one of the soda acid fire extinguishers actually discharged itself while still attached to it’s rack. There were times when I was thrown out of my bunk or out of my chair. People eating in the mess decks only ordered one course at a time because they often needed one hand to hang on to their meal and the other hand to hang onto the table. Later on I had the opportunity to sail on the USNS Pvt. John R. Towle (T-AK-240) which was an un-modified cargo-carrying Victory ship. The Towle never rolled or pitched anywhere near as badly as the Bowditch, so I’m convinced the latter ship’s stability problems were in no way characteristic of all Victory ships.
Although the C.O.
disliked having to deal with the Old Man, he objected even more to sharing
the captain’s table with the Chief and First Engineers.
Sitting there in his spit-shined shoes and starched khakis, he simply
couldn’t stand eating at the same table with a couple of professional marine
engineers dressed in filthy coveralls and covered with grease up to their
I suppose they simply
don’t have creatures like that in the Navy, or if they do they eat with the
The C.O. was
constantly demanding that the Captain order the engineers to clean up their
The Chief, who was in no
way impressed by the C.O.’s exalted rank, would then growl something about
“where were you when we got torpedoed back in ’42?
The food on the Bowditch was the worst I have ever experienced on any ship in my thirty years of going to sea, and that includes Lykes Lines, which was notorious for providing the worst food in the Merchant Marine. The Bowditch’s galley was the domain of the Chief Steward. He was known as “Chicken George”, because that was just about all he ever served. He almost never served steak or prime ribs, and he used to run out of fresh milk after the first week at sea. If you did manage to find some milk and poured it over some dry cereal the weevils would float to the top. If you opened a packet of crackers and broke them in half you would be sure to find weevils in them as well. The cooks routinely strained the rice and flour before using them to separate the bugs. If you opened up the refrigerator in the pantry you often find live cockroaches inside.
On one occasion Chicken George served pork fried rice. Mine came with a bay leaf in it. When I turned the bay leaf over with my fork, I discovered that the bay leaf had legs. I can put up with a lot, but that was beyond my limit. I showed it to the Old Man who said, “What ate you complaining about? That’s the only fresh meat you’re going to get on this ship.”
At holiday meals Chicken George used to set out little dishes of candy and nuts, which nobody ever dared to eat. That was because one of Chicken George’s gimmicks was to save whatever was left over to serve again at the next holiday meal. He reused them so many times that they had become fossilized.
The members of the Steward Department hated Chicken George as much as the rest of us did. He was so cheap that if anything in his department needed to be done he would do it himself rather than pay any of his own men to do it. On one occasion he defrosted and cleaned all the reefer boxes by himself because he didn’t want to pay overtime to any of the Steward Department. It got to the point where he was afraid to go ashore for fear one of his own men would knife him. Once Chicken George actually complained to the Old Man that one of the Utility Men pulled a knife on him in the galley. The Utility Man claimed that he had simply been pealing an orange with a paring knife. The Old Man took the word of the Utility Man. Chicken George got off soon thereafter. As he was leaving, the gate guard searched Chicken George’s car because the rear end was hanging low. He found the trunk full of the steaks and prime ribs that Chicken George had refrained from serving to the crew.
The MSC crew was about equally divided between 1/3 ex-Navy personnel, 1/3 professional seamen and 1/3 of what I would classify as the “dregs of humanity”. Many of the ex-Navy and professional seamen were first-rate men, thorough professionals with whom I would have been pleased to sail again. Our Bos’n, for example, had been on the Bowditch for eight years, ever since he came aboard as an Ordinary Seaman. There wasn’t anything he didn’t know about the ship, and there wasn’t an item aboard that he couldn’t quickly lay his hand on. One of my Able Seamen was a huge Norwegian who had formerly sailed in the Antarctic whaling fleet, and who knew more than anyone I ever met about the blubber business. Another A/B had only two fingers on his right hand but could accomplish more work with two fingers than most seamen could with five.
One of our outstanding seamen was an ex-Navy bosn’s mate who had previously served as a Rig Bos’n aboard the fleet oiler USS Mississinawa. That astonished me because I knew MSC was currently taking over the operation of some of the Navy’s older oilers, and was desperately seeking ex-Navy men with oiler experience. In fact, the Mississinawa happened to be one of the oilers MSC took over shortly thereafter. The fact that MSC would be assign such a man to a survey ship like the Bowditch was mind-boggling, but typical of the way they did things.
Another of our ex-Navy hands was an elderly Fireman/Water-Tender, an unlicensed engineer whose job was to tend the boilers. He had the name of every ship he’d ever served on tattooed across his arm, and they stretched all the way from the top to the bottom. Most of those tattoos had been there so long they weren’t legible any more. One day he was standing among a bunch of the crew watching the Navy boys conduct a repel-boarders drill. They ran around the decks like a Chinese fire drill brandishing a couple of .45 automatic pistols, a couple of pump shotguns and a Thompson submachine gun. After watching them for a while the old Fireman remarked, “I ain’t seen one of these drills since I was on the gunboat in China.”
About a third of the Bowditch’s crew comprised individuals I would characterize as “the dregs of humanity”. Some were homesteaders, crewmembers who had remained on board the ship so long that they had lost touch with reality. Others were simply otherwise unemployable human rejects, which MSC routinely foisted upon the masters of their vessels in order to fill out their crews.
Every MSC ship had a certain number of berths that had to be filled, and MSC wasn’t too particular about who they were. If they dispatchers couldn’t get experienced seamen then they would hire anyone they could find who could be persuaded to go. As long as the ships sailed with the requisite number of warm bodies on board, the MSC office was satisfied. It was a standing joke on the ships that the MSC motto was “We employ the unemployable.”
It was not unusual for a
new seaman to show up without any baggage, because all he owned was the
clothes on his back.
one ordinary seaman proudly showing off his release from a mental
institution as though it were a diploma.
One senile old man’s daughter, who apparently wanted to get rid of
him, literally walked him though the MSC processing and then dropped him off
on the ship to be our new Second Electrician.
He was so far gone that he didn’t even know where he was .
Among those dregs was the Ordinary Seaman on my watch, who was a burned out ex-hippie. He told me he had never managed to hold onto a job for more than three months in his life, including the Post Office. Once I watched in fascination from the bridge as this individual actually managed to paint himself into a corner. He painted the deck all morning, steadily working his way aft until he reached the fantail and ran out of ship. From the bridge I could see him standing on the fantail in the last unpainted square foot of deck, holding his paint roller in one hand and perplexedly scratching his head with the other, obviously trying to figure out what to do next.
On one particularly foggy night in the Grand Banks my Ordinary was posted as lookout on the bridge wing. The Old Man had been on the bridge for days without a break, living on spiked coffee and peering endlessly into the radar until his nerves were frazzled. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Check the radar, I hear a ship’s whistle.” I told him I didn’t see anything on the radar. “I hear it again, are you sure that damn thing is tuned up properly?” I told him it was, and the radar still showed nothing. Then we heard it again, and the Old Man walked outside to hear it better. That’s when he found out that it had been coming from my Ordinary, who had been practicing his harmonica on the bridge wing. The Old Man was so angry I thought he was going to throw the Ordinary over the side. The Ordinary never did comprehend why the Old Man reacted the way he did. “I didn’t do nothing, I was just minding my own business, playing my harmonica.”
Some of our crew were so unhinged that the only reason they hadn’t been consigned to the acorn academy was that they hadn’t been ashore long enough for normal people to have gotten a good look at them. Typical of those was a certain Steward Utility named Mario. I don’t know exactly how many years Mario spent on board the Bowditch, but there is no doubt that it had been entirely too long.
On one occasion Mario went ashore and bought $24 worth of toilet paper for the crew with his own money because he didn’t like the quality of the paper supplied by the ship. Some of the other crew members commented that they found this behavior unusual, not because of what Mario had spent his money on, but simply because it had been so long since Mario had gone ashore at all. It occurred to me at the time that the crew’s reaction said as much about their state mind as it did about Mario’s
During the course of one voyage I began to notice that the linoleum tiles inside the deckhouse had begun to disappear. When I inquired the reason, crew members told me that Mario had “gotten an idea into his head” that the Chief Steward was going to pay him a five-cent bounty on every cockroach he killed (which wasn’t at all true). Mario had been peeling up the linoleum in an attempt to hunt down the insects. Shortly thereafter Mario “got it into his head” that he was required to make sure the stern light was working. He was repeatedly seen walking back to the fantail at all hours of the night, and in the worst weather, to make sure the lamp was still burning. Finally, he “got it into his head” that he was supposed to check the steering gear, to make sure the rudder was still working properly. Once the Chief Engineer got wind of the fact that Mario had bee seen going down into the steering engine room, that was the end. As soon as we reached port Mario was escorted ashore, dressed up in a nice new straight jacket.
Not all of the human dregs MSC sent us were amusing. Some of them could be downright terrifying. It was late at night during my very first port watch in a foreign port, which was Saint John’s, Newfoundland. I was up on the bridge correcting some publications when I happened to glance out the window, and I couldn‘t believe what I saw. A guy was brandishing a butcher knife on the main deck by the gangway. I could see my A.B. inside the gangway shack, who obviously had no intention of coming out. I immediately went down to the gangway to find out what it was all about. The guy with the knife turned out to be a drunken Messman. Apparently he and one of the A.B.s had an argument over a woman at a dive called El Tiko’s, which the Messman lost. The Messman then came back to the ship. He got a butcher knife out of the pantry, and now he was waiting for the A.B. to return to the ship so he could turn him into chile con carne. I managed to calm the Messman down and persuaded him to lay the knife down on the gunwale, then flicked it over the side into the water. After that he staggered below, still grumbling but at least unarmed.
I though that incident was closed. However, half an hour later the Messman showed up at the gangway with another butcher knife. This time I called the Old Man. I figured MSC didn’t pay me enough to disarm the same drunk twice in one night. The Old Man gave the Messman hell, and in the morning the belligerent drunk was on his back to the States.
I recall an even more frightening case, an A.B. on my watch. For months I never heard the A.B. speak more than a monosyllable at a time. I had no idea what his problem was, but I could tell by his behavior that he was wrapped way too tight, and that it was only a matter of time before he had to explode. This went on for months, until finally one morning, in the darkness of the 12-4 midnight watch on the Bridge, he decided to let it all out. He told me that the last time we had been in New York he had picked up a whore in Times Square, taken her up to her room, and found out that she was a guy. He wasn’t sure whether he had killed the guy or not. Shortly after he got back to the ship our Chief Mate was relieved. The A.B. was convinced that the new Chief Mate was really a detective the New York City Police had placed on board to catch him. You haven’t lived until you’ve stood watch alone in the dark with a paranoid psychotic who may or may not be a murderer.
The following morning, after a long and nerve-wracking watch, I related the whole gruesome story to the Chief Mate. He told me not to worry about it, and that he would take care of the situation. We had no actual grounds to fire the A.B. because he hadn’t really done anything on board the ship. However, I learned that at MSC they have their own little ways of getting around those difficulties. When we returned to New York the Mate sent the A.B. to the MSC headquarters in Brooklyn, ostensibly to take a periodic medical exam. However, the Mate called ahead and told the medical staff that under no circumstances did we want the guy back, and that they should find something wrong with him. A Doctor can always manage to find something wrong with anybody if they try hard enough. Consequently, we never saw our mad A.B. again, and I never heard what became of him.
Not all of the Bowditch’s crackpots came from MSC, however. One of the Navy men became terrified when he learned that the ship was about to sail through part of the area known as the “Bermuda Triangle”. Apparently he had read all the sensationalist books on the subject that came out around that time. He came to believe all that bilge about the sky turning green, the compass spinning around, and ships being teleported by aliens. He seriously thought that we were doomed. “We’re all going to die”, he moaned. Needless to say, nothing at all happened to us. There’s one born every minute.
The Navy provided us with other types of performers as well. Whenever the ship was in port they used to post one of their men on guard at the bottom of the ladder leading from the deckhouse into their part of the ship. Unlike our watch, the Navy watch was equipped with a handgun. One night a Navy man assumed the watch after having a few too many. When the C.P.O. tried to relieve him, he pistol-whipped the C.P.O. A few more Navy guys arrived and they finally managed to handcuff the drunk in the infirmary. Fortunately for all concerned, the Navy detachment on the Bowditch never issued their watch a gun with any bullets.
That image of a pistol without bullets brings to mind another interesting Bowditch character, the Purser. Pursers were fastidious, and sometimes slightly effeminate, men whose job chiefly involved paperwork and payrolls. MSC ships still carried Pursers in those days, despite the fact that most commercial ships had long since done away with them. That was because on MSC ships, unlike commercial vessels, the crew didn’t sign any articles. The articles are the employment contract between the ship and the crew. On a merchant ship the crew signs the articles at the beginning of the voyage and are paid when they sign off at the end of the voyage. In contrast, MSC crews were paid by the Purser every two weeks wherever the ship happened to be.
Because of that ridiculous system MSC crewmen never had more than two weeks salary to lose if they decided to jump ship. As a result, MSC ships had a high incidence of desertion. I’ve seen instances of Chief Mates and 1st Assistant Engineers jumping ship. On the other hand, Merchant Marine seamen rarely desert because they stand to lose their entire salary. When I was at MSC the fools who ran the organization, who for the most part were Navy officers, seemed completely unable to comprehend the reason for the high desertion rate on their ships.
Part of the Purser’s job was to go ashore to collect the ship’s payroll, which he kept in a safe in his office. Consequently he was the only member of the crew, apart from the Old Man himself, who was authorized to have a gun. He used to take along a Colt .45 automatic pistol whenever he went ashore for the payroll. In typically insane MSC style, however, he was required to carry the empty gun in his brief case and the magazine in his pocket. I once asked the Purser what possible use he would have for empty pistol locked inside his briefcase in the event anyone actually tried to rob him. He had no answer to that one.
In addition to the 101 Merchant Seamen, Navy Men, scientists and “Tech Reps” the Bowditch also carried two orange cats and a black cocker spaniel dog. The cats, whose names were Minnie and Thomas, belonged to the Old Man. Consequently, they spent a good deal of their time on the Bridge. Minnie seemed to be fascinated by the line sweeping around the radar screen. The radar was right next to the Old Man’s chair, so she used to spend hours sitting on the arm of the chair watching the radar.
Thomas was pretty indolent as a rule, but one day he scared the hell out of me. The cat had his eye on a certain wiseass seagull, which kept flying in close past the port bridge wing, as though it were daring Thomas to attack it. Finally the cat couldn’t take it any more. To my horror he sprang out the door and onto the bridge wing coaming. I thought, “That’s all I need, to lose the Old Man’s cat overboard on my watch!” Fortunately for me, however, Thomas stopped short of taking that final leap.
The Old Man acquired his cats when the ship had been to Britain. On one occasion the C.O. complained about lax security on the bridge. The Old Man replied by issuing a tongue-and-cheek directive that Minnie and Thomas were no longer allowed in the chartroom, on the grounds that they were foreigners and lacked the proper security clearance.
One stormy winter’s night in the North Atlantic my Ordinary came in from his post on lookout out on the bridge wing, looking scared to death. “We’re not going to make it, Mate”, he said. “What are you talking about?” “I just saw the Old Man’s cats climb into one of the lifeboats. We’re not going to make it through the night, I tell you!“
I was on watch in port one day when the Old Man told me to expect a ship chandler to deliver a supply of cat food for his cats. He said that when the chandler arrived I should simply send him right up to the Old Man’s stateroom. A couple of hours later a guy showed up at the gangway with a couple of cases of Johnny Walker Red Label. I was just explaining that he wasn’t allowed to bring that stuff aboard when the Old Man came running up. “That’s all right, Third“, he said, “that’s for me.“
It has often been said that the most important piece of navigation equipment on the bridge is the coffee pot. The Bowditch was the only ship I’ve ever sailed on that didn’t have a coffee pot on the bridge. If you wanted a cup of coffee you had to send one of the crew down to the pantry to get it. The Old Man, who often spent days at a time on the bridge whenever the ship was in fog or heavy weather, always got his own coffee. That was because he fixed his with a little “fuel injection”. One of the crew would ask the Old Man if he wanted another cup of coffee, to which he would answer, “That’s all right, thanks, I’ll just go down and get my own.“ A few minutes later he’d be back in his chair, take a big swig and then sigh like Jackie Gleason, “Wow, that’s good coffee!”
The cats belonged to the Old Man but the dog, whose name was Blackie, belonged to the crew. I suppose the Old Man figured that if he had his cats on board than there was no reason to prohibit the crew from keeping a dog. Blackie lived in the after house, which was also occupied by the Second Electrician and the Laundrymen. One day I saw one of the A.B.s leading Blackie down the gangway. When I asked him where he was taking the dog he replied, “I’m taking him ashore to get him laid.“ Eventually Blackie left the ship. I heard that the dog was injured when he stepped in something caustic, and it became necessary to leave him with a veterinarian.
I had such a tough time getting my first ship that I was determined to stay as long as possible, so that I would be in a position to raise my license when I got off. Unlike the military, where officers are promoted automatically as long as they stay out of trouble, Merchant Marine officers promote themselves. The Coast Guard requires a year’s sea time as Third Mate before a candidate is allowed to take the Second Mate’s license exam. For some reason, however, The Coast Guard requires one third more sea time from MSC officers. At the end of sixteen months on the Bowditch I began to understand first hand what happens to people who stay too long on the same ship. I actually began to feel that the ship had become my home and that I no longer wanted to leave. I didn’t even want to go ashore anymore. That’s when I realized I’d been on board entirely too long.
The Bowditch wasn’t the only MSC ship I served on, nor was it the only survey ship. I remained with MSC for five years, during which time I also served as Second Mate on the survey vessels USNS Kane (T-AGS-27) and USNS Lynch (T-AGOR-7). In addition I spent six months as Second Mate on the seagoing tug USNS Atakapa (T-ATF-149), which carried a detachment of Navy radiomen. I also had the privilege of spending three tours on the USNS Pvt. John R. Towle (T-AK-240), the last of the old World War II Victory-class cargo ships. I still had occasional dealings with the Navy even after I left MSC and began sailing on commercial vessels. From time to time I sailed on merchant ships operating on Charter to MSC, including two tours on pre-positioning ships stationed at Diego Garcia. During 1985 I worked on a Ro-Ro ship that took part in Operation Bright Star in Egypt as well as Operation Solid Shield in Honduras. I received a commendation for service in 1990-91 aboard an ammunition ship in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I received another commendation for service aboard a container ship that operated in the Persian Gulf from April through August 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Of all the ships I have
sailed on, however, none were as peculiar as the USNS Bowditch.
None of the other ships I’ve been on had two separate crews with two
different commanding officers.
I’ve also never come in contact with such a collection of bizarre characters
in one place.
I haven’t had
occasion to take a knife away from a crewman since then, nor have I
witnessed anyone else do so.
back, it’s a wonder that we accomplished as much as we did.