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Looking for a Ship by John McPhee

Looking for a Ship by John McPhee

Author:John McPhee
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published: 2011-06-24T04:00:00+00:00


Below the bridge deck is the boat deck, and on the boat deck is Captain Washburn’s office. Nine A.M. I often sit here in the morning drinking coffee, reading manifests, and listening to him. “My house is your house,” he says, and the remark is especially amiable in this eight-deck tower called the house. During the night, a planned avalanche occurred in the office. From seaport to seaport, papers accumulate on the captain’s desk. “Paperwork has become the bane of this job,” he says. “If a ship doesn’t have a good copying machine, it isn’t seaworthy. The more ports, the more papers. South American paperwork is worse than the paperwork anywhere else in the world but the Arab countries and Indonesia.” Deliberately, he allows the pile on his desk to rise until a deep roll on a Pacific swell throws it to the deck and scatters it from bulkhead to bulkhead. This he interprets as a signal that the time has come to do paperwork. The paper carpet may be an inch deep, but he leaves it where it fell. Bending over, he picks up one sheet. He deals with it: makes an entry, writes a letter—does whatever it requires him to do. Then he bends over and picks up another sheet. This goes on for a few days until, literally, he has cleared his deck.

The roll that set off last night’s avalanche was probably close to thirty degrees. In a roll that is about the same, my tape recorder shoots across the office and picks up the captain with Doppler effect. Retrieving it, I ask him, “How many degrees will Stella roll?”

“She’ll roll as much as she has to. She’d roll fifty degrees if you’d let her—if she was loaded wrong—but normally she’ll roll in the twenty-to-thirty-degree range. That’s average for ships. It doesn’t slow her down or hurt her. She is a deep-sea vessel, built for rough weather. We don’t see much rough weather down here. We used to run this coast with the hatches open. That would be suicidal anywhere else. Every day, somewhere someone is getting it from weather. They’re running aground. They’re hitting each other. They’re disappearing without a trace.” Once, in a great storm, Terrible Terry Harmon said to Washburn, “Do you know how to pray?” When Washburn nodded, Harmon said, “Then try that. That’s the only thing that’s going to save us now.”

Straightening up with a sheet of paper in his hand, Captain Washburn looks out a window past a lifeboat in its davits and over the blue sea. After a moment, he says, “I love going to sea. I do not love that sea out there. That is not my friend. That is my absolute twenty-four-hour-a-day sworn enemy.” He shows me a map of maritime casualties. He also has back issues of the Mariners Weather Log, a publication of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that chronicles marine disasters throughout the world and features among its reported storms a “Monster of the Month.



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