How My Life’s Course Was Set, at 19, Aboard a Swedish Freighter, Heading for the South Seas

Gotham Canoe

A Marine Memoir in Six Parts

By Barry D. Wood

PART I

Slowly, silently the big ship slides away from pier 34. Nudged up close to the hull, the tug has taken hold of the mooring line and begins to guide the Swedish merchantman out into San Francisco bay. There’s a short toot and then a voice in Swedish over the intercom commanding the fantail crew to haul in the last hawser holding the ship to the dock. 

Keys jangling from his belt, Borjesson, the boatswain, leans over the rail, whistles, and raises his arm, signaling two longshoremen below to lift the hawser from the bollard. It splashes into the water. Then the boatswain begins working the electric winch near where I’m standing, shouting in English, “come on boys!” Two of us haul in the wet hawser, directing it onto the winch. Then as the hawser comes off the winch I’m ordered to coil the three-inch diameter rope on the deck. 

It is July 1963. I’m 19 years old and exhilarated from the first minutes of work aboard this magnificent ship.  Taking a break from fore and aft duty, I and another new crew member stand at the rail marveling at the beauty of the city silhouetted white against a blue sky. 

Below us the big diesel engine throbs and comes to life. A hundred feet out from the pier I hear the turning of the giant propeller as it makes swirls in the water. I feel the vibration of the engine through the soles of my boots. A couple more toots from the tug and we’re on our own, moving ahead unassisted. 

Soon off to starboard is Alcatraz, The Rock, its cream-colored buildings and water tower perched up high. It had closed down for good just four months earlier. We’re now moving straight ahead on this July afternoon towards the unshrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Beneath the bridge and briefly in its shadow, I watch cars zipping along up above. Minutes later we’re in open water and the ship rolls gently in rough sea. Then the engine stops and the ship halts.  A tiny pilot boat bobs in the waves and swings alongside. The pilot, bent forward to keep upright, his shirt billowing and snapping in the wind, advances slowly along the foredeck. Coming to the unspooled rope ladder secured to the deck—a seaman on each side– he climbs out over the rail and disappears down the rope ladder to the waiting craft, having steered our huge ship safely out of the bay. 

Barry in sailor-appropriate cap, gloves and dungarees

As the bobbing pilot boat drifts away, Parrakoola’s diesel comes back to life and the ship goes full ahead, continuing westward for some minutes before turning sharply to starboard, steering north for Seattle.

Stepping for the first time into the crew’s mess, I follow the lead of my Scandinavian shipmates and take from a wrapper a piece of Wasa knackebrod and generously spread butter over its crenellated brown surface.  I quickly learn that crisp bread is a staple on Swedish ships.  Similarly, I take a mug from the tray next to the urn of hot tea. We sit at one of four Formica tables and eat and drink. The crew numbers 44, nearly all Scandinavian—mostly Swedish. The talk is in Swedish but also English at the foreigners’ end of the table. Several of us—a disparate bunch– have recently signed on. We’re Australian, Italian, German, Spanish and one other American, Dave Alexander, a 17-year-old from Oakland, who like me is a dekskutt.  

The motormen with whom we share the mess are easy to spot. They sit at a separate table, their faces are sweaty from working adjacent to the heat of the engine, grease stains are smeared on their arms and tee shirts.

Parrakoola—an Australian aboriginal name—is only 18 months old,  christened in its home port of Gothenburg, the Swedish city closest to Denmark.  It boasts the latest in maritime design, the superstructure is aft and electric cranes supplement booms and tackle for lifting cargo. Each crew member occupies a one-person air-conditioned cabin.

The ship is owned by the Swedish Transatlantic Company and chartered to the US-Australia Direct Line.  Parrakoola is one of four company ships trading between east coast Australia and west coast North America.  A roundtrip voyage, to which I’ve just committed, takes five to six months. 

I’m assigned two four-hours watch that require steering the ship or standing lookout on the wing of the bridge twice daily, from four until eight in the morning and then from four until eight in the afternoon under the command of the second officer.

Emerging from the mess, climbing three decks to the bridge for my first sea watch, I tell myself I’m a real sailor, which of course isn’t true. I try to look the part despite knowing little about how a deckhand should dress.  Before signing on I went shopping in the Mission, finding an army/navy store where I purchased work gloves, boots, heavy khaki pants, a black turtleneck, a work hat and a knitted watch cap.

We depart from pier 34 in late afternoon.  Twelve hours later Parrakoola is pitching in ten-foot seas off Cape Mendocino. When my watch arrives at 4 a.m. I’m standing on the port-side bridge wing determined not to get seasick.  The sea is so rough we can only proceed at half speed. Parrakoola rolls rhythmically as it pounds through the rough water. By  the second morning the weather has cleared and we’re at full throttle, 16 knots, and off the Oregon coast. 

On the third morning we’re in heavy fog inside the Strait Juan de Fuca that separates the US and Canada and leads on to Puget Sound and Seattle.  With so much fog and ship traffic in the channel I’m ordered to the forecastle (FOHK-sul) as a close-range lookout.  I move swiftly with deliberate steps over the wet, slippery deck. Reaching the bow and peering ahead there’s only darkness. Standing just forward of the anchor cable, nothing is visible through the damp, thick fog. There is the occasional sounding of a fog horn and Parrakoola twice alters course to avoid passing ships. In these minutes before dawn it’s not cold and the breeze from the ship’s forward movement feels good on my face. Holding tight to a rail with both hands I dare to pull myself up into the massive steel Vee of the bow, lean out, and peer down at the water far below. I hear the hiss of water being sliced from the big ship’s forward movement.   

Later the fog lifts and we approach our berth in downtown Seattle where for two days we unload cargo–canned fruit and frozen meat from Australia. 

PART II

There was poignancy being back in Seattle, as I had arrived here only three weeks earlier as a vagabond, a refugee from the American Midwest. I was a sheltered kid with two years of college and an ill-conceived plan. Going west was my first independent decision. A college friend was moving to Seattle and needed someone to share the driving.  Ernie Biehn drove a lime green 1953 V-8  Pontiac Chieftain with Dynaflow transmission.  In that sturdy conveyance we set out from Grand Rapids headed north for the Mackinac bridge, then turning left to follow US 2 all the way to the west coast. 

I departed Michigan with $220 in travelers checks, enough I reasoned to tide me over until I found work.  We reached Duluth the first night, Wolf Point, Montana the second, arriving at Ernie’s  new home on Seattle’s Mercer Island two days after that. Our expenses were modest. A restaurant breakfast was typically under a dollar, dinners averaged $2, a shared motel room usually $3.

I was in search of adventure. Surely, I  thought, I would find work on a fishing boat or an American freighter in the Alaska trade.

I moved into Seattle’s downtown YMCA at 909 Fourth Avenue on Mars Hill, where a single room was $12 a week.

Here I dwelt for 12 days searching for work without success. My time at the Y was noteworthy.  There was a TV room I visited most evenings to watch network news. Early on June 26th there were live pictures via satellite of President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech from Germany. It was riveting, seeing something live from another continent nine time zones away.

Most of all I was gripped by loneliness and fear of impending failure.  Each day I prowled the waterfront docks, eventually dreading making another visit to the Seafarers International Hall.  I spent hours walking.  I filled out applications at the Washington ferry commission, Black Ball Shipping, the coast and geodetic survey and frequented both the SIU (Seafarers International Union) and the NMU (National Maritime Union). I spent evenings at the public library and had meals in the YMCA cafeteria. 

Joseph Heller’s classic novel had come out two years earlier. Here in Seattle I was Yossarian experiencing my own Catch-22.  The union man said I needed seaman’s papers issued by the Coast Guard to get a shipboard job.  The Coast Guard said I needed a job commitment to get papers. And so it went.  I was getting the runaround and the certificate I eventually obtained meant nothing.  

My plan, such as it was, wasn’t working. I was discouraged–depressed, a month short of my 20th birthday, alone, without prospects and 2,000 miles from home. 

Disappointed, receiving only occasional letters, I stood at 4th Avenue and Madison looking down the hill where in the distance the ships I wanted to be on slid gracefully across the harbor. 

Aware that failure was looming, I developed a plan B. I checked out of the Y and boarded a Greyhound Scenic-cruiser bound for Portland and Eureka, California where my aunt and uncle lived. I hoped that my confidence would be bolstered by Aunt Ilah’s loganberry pie and encouragement from former navy man, Uncle Robert.  It worked. A few days later I arrived in San Francisco with fresh optimism.

On my second day at the San Francisco YMCA there was a phone call from Scandinavian shore captain Ragnar Thaning, with whom I had been corresponding.  A Swedish ship had come in and needed crew. If I was prepared to travel to Australia, be gone six months and work for $25 per week, I could sign on as a deckboy aboard Parrakoola, a general cargo ship currently collecting outbound cargo at west coast ports. I was to report the next day to the ship’s captain at pier 37. 

I was thrilled beyond description. Getting that job was the best thing that had ever happened to me. 

PART III

And now here I was, triumphant in a sense, back in Seattle with a job. Soon Parrakoola shifted to nearby ports– Vancouver, B.C. then Port Angeles, WA. By now we were taking on cargo for Australia.   We loaded Canadian salmon, lumber, powdered chemicals and 480 tons of pulp paper. On the evening of July 21st, in heavy fog, we departed for Coos Bay, Oregon.

If I had prematurely declared to myself that I had become a merchant seaman, that fanciful boast was given the lie by what happened en route to Coos Bay.  

As Parrakoola bumped through choppy seas I was ordered into hatch number one, the most forward cargo hold that is a three-level tank used to haul bulk liquids. It comprises A deck, the biggest hold closest to the main deck, B deck below that and then bottom-most C deck,  narrow and slanted, conforming to the contour of the hull.  Tween deck covers are steel plates that fold accordion-style, held secure by a steel pin accessible from the stationary crew ladder. Deck cranes use a hook to open and close hatch covers.

My job was to scrub the walls in hatch one, removing the slippery residue of vegetable oil that had been offloaded a week earlier. Leaning my broom and mop against the crew ladder on B level, suddenly there was a terrific bang when the folded steel plates broke loose and crashed down into place above me.  The metal pin must not have been properly inserted. It was a moment of terror that happened with lightning speed. I realized at once I was engaged in dangerous, potentially deadly work. 

Soon I was joined by another crewman. We spent the entire day scrubbing oily residue from the side walls, hosing them down and carrying away the detritus that blocked the drains. We were filthy.

In Coos Bay we loaded 2 ½ million board feet of Douglas fir lumber bound for Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.  We shifted multiple times along the Georgia Pacific dock and were joined by other vessels–the Thor I from Norway, the Italian Toscanelli, the Velus from Israel and a Japanese ship that lashed entire logs to its deck.

Shortly after dawn on July 31st we again sailed under the Golden Gate bridge and went straight across the bay to the Standard Oil docks in Richmond. There we loaded 1,700 drums of lubricating oil plus bulk oil and then filled the number two and three deep tanks with heavy oil. Twenty-four hours later we crossed the bay, past San Quentin penitentiary to San Francisco’s pier 41 close to Fisherman’s Wharf.  

By now there was excitement and anticipation among the crew as the long voyage across the South Pacific was drawing closer.  

During my three weeks on board I had become friends with Gunter, who called himself Gordy.  German and five years older, he was also a deckboy.  More worldly than I, Gordy suggested we explore the jazz scene in North Beach and have a night on the town. 

Typical sailors, we went from bar to bar and somewhere met Joy, a striking American beauty who was our companion until the early hours.  We visited City Lights bookstore and stood in line for a show at the Jazz Workshop on Broadway.  Regrettably, focused on Joy and ignorant of jazz, I don’t recall who was performing. I do know that Coltrane, Adderley, Monk, Roach and Ahmad Jamal were regulars during that time.

My journal entry for the next day reveals how much the culture has changed. I wrote that Gordy and I had “met a beautiful doll,” that the evening was a “wing ding,” that we had a “swell time” seeing beatniks and visiting night clubs. In the early morning hours Joy handed each of us a bar napkin on which she wrote that we had shared a memorable evening.

If I was not yet a sailor, I was getting closer. 

Joy’s bar napkin
PART IV

It took only 24 hours of close to shore sailing for Parrakoola to travelsouth from the Golden Gate past Monterey and Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.  On a glorious summer day we were treated to the magnificent tableau of California’s coastline— brown hills, tall mountains, rocky cliffs, waves rolling onto sandy beaches.  It was what Harvard student turned sailor Richard Henry Dana described 130 years earlier in Two Years Before the Mast

“There was a grandeur in everything around. Which gave a solemnity to the scene…Not a human being but ourselves for miles, and no sound heard save the pulsations of the great Pacific.”

Arriving in L.A., over four days we went first to San Pedro, then Long Beach and finally Terminal Island, loading a bizarre assortment of cargo– roofing shingles, sandpaper, grass seed, bulk salad oil, swimming pool filters and a complete oil exploration rig lashed to the foredeck.  On these final days in North America crew members often went ashore for provisions that might not be available in Australia.  I splurged, spending $25 on an 8-transistor a.m./f.m. radio in a handsome tan vinyl case.  

As Parrakoola was not expected to return for five months, all hands either welcomed or dreaded the approaching work routine of a long duration voyage. Each knew his place in the ship’s Swedish-led pecking order. Aside from work there was little contact between officers and crew. The former—all Scandinavian—lived on two decks higher up. Their galley was better, their cabins more spacious.  The best quarters were on the boat deck closest to the bridge. They were occupied respectively by the captain, chief mate and chief engineer.  For the two thirds of us in the deck and engine departments, living quarters were at the stern in the fantail and one flight down. 

Despite this hierarchy there was also a remarkable Scandinavian egalitarianism as each crew member had his own cabin. This, I learned, was exceedingly rare as merchant ships of other nations typically crammed two, four and even six into a cabin.  Even my lowly deckboy status warranted an air-conditioned cabin with a single bed, porthole, a slide out desk, settee, and sink. 

While the ship’s culture was Swedish there were several foreigners in the crew and not surprisingly, we tended to stick together.

Shipmates—Italian, Australian, American, Canadian

There are three gradations of work within the deck department. The bosun, equivalent to a petty officer, was in charge. There were three A.B.s, able bodied seamen, three ordinary seamen, and three deckboys (in Swedish, Jungman). My pay was $25 per week, room and board included.

Everything battened down and stowed, we sailed from Long Beach at 6 a.m. on August 6th, 1963 steering a southwesterly, 230° course.

On the first evening out, finishing my 4 to 8 p.m. sea watch, I sat on a plastic chair in the fantail next to a coiled hawser and gazed eastwards towards my receding homeland somewhere over the horizon.  On a.m. radio LA stations came in loud and clear and I listened with delight to my favorite song, the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl. “Little surfer little one/Made my heart come all undone/Do you love me, do you surfer girl/Surfer girl my little surfer girl.’

On subsequent nights I would scan the dial in vain hoping to hear these lovely slow-moving lyrics. I imagined Surfer Girl to be an omen, that in some distant port I might find a foreign beauty, my own surfer girl. As the miles slipped away mainland stations grew faint and then only Honolulu stations came in.  I didn’t hear Surfer Girl again for five months.

PART V

For 16 days we saw neither land nor ship. The sea was smooth and most of the time the only sound on the bridge where I stood watch was the faint murmurof the big diesel many decks below. The crew settled into the routine of work, eating, sleeping, work, eating and sleeping. 

Four days out we were south of Hawaii.  As we pushed farther into the South Seas we sailed between Fanning and Washington islands, mere specks on the world map I had mounted on the wall of my cabin. Each day I marked our position with a dot. Today was 4° north latitude, 160° west longitude.  I knew the coordinates because each morning Persson, the second mate on my watch, used a sextant to determine our exact location. Parrakoola maintained a steady speed of 20 knots, meaning that every 24-hours, more or less, we traveled 400 miles. Every other night we set the clock back either 30 or 60 minutes.

Barry’s wall map

This repetitious shipboard routine went on for nearly three weeks.  

The 4 to 8 watch took getting used to. My longest sleep period was at night, but I was groggy when the bang on my cabin door and shout of “turn to!”  came at 3:50 a.m. I went back to bed after my morning watch.  I began the day trundling through the darkness, up the ladder to the main deck and into the mess room for a cup of tea and a buttered knackebrod cracker. Then I climbed to the boat deck and ascended the last few steps up to the darkened bridge. Second officer Stig Persson would already be at his post.  In calm seas the steering was on autopilot, depriving me of the more challenging task of holding an assigned course while standing behind the ship’s wheel.

Most of the time I stood on the portside bridge wing looking straight ahead. Thirty-year-old Persson, invariably attired in khaki shorts, officer’s dress shirt and knee socks, paced slowly from one side of the bridge to the other, pausing occasionally to check our course on the wing gyroscope.  Once into the routine, I busied myself silently repeating some text that I was trying to memorize to relieve boredom. I began with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and continued on to Morse Code and then the Gettysburg Address. Later I memorized Spanish phrases given to me by Burillo, the Spanish ordinary seaman.

As darkness gave way to light, my job was to extinguish the lights that illuminated Parrakoola at night.  Of course, the green and red starboard and port navigation lights stayed on. I welcomed this task as it broke the monotony and was a welcome daily adventure that absorbed ten minutes of time and took me onto the foredeck where even in calm waters, you could feel the movement of the vessel. Sometimes I went to the forepeak, leaned forward on the damp steel plates of the bow feeling wind on my face. Ahead was the endless sea and 100 feet below in the semi-darkness you could see the ship slice through water, creating small whitecaps that sparkled as they slid away. 

Returning to the bridge, the next task was rousing the deck crew and then at seven breakfast, often the best meal of the day. The porridge was thick and steamy requiring only sugar and a small amount of evaporated milk to make it sumptuous. My groggy shipmates invariably gulped down the porridge before reaching for plates of eggs and bacon or dried cod.

After some days, usually during the hour before sunrise or sunset in the evening, Persson would stand beside me on the bridge wing, extend his arms over the varnished wooden railing and we would talk.  He was interested in what I, an American ten years his junior, wanted to do in life. I told him that having now toiled several weeks in the lowest ranks of the Swedish merchant navy, I was determined to complete university so that this (lowly) seaman’s life would not be my fate. Persson spoke of his own selection to officers’ training school and the completion of a course that put him on track to eventually reach the exalted position of ship’s captain. Of course, as a non-Swede this was not open to me.

The 4 to 8 watch in the evening was different. Typically, the first two hours were physical labor, swabbing decks, sanding and varnishing bridge railings, scraping and painting various parts of the bridge deck.  The attraction of nighttime hours was observing stars become brighter, eventually filling the darkened sky. I watched shooting stars and was fascinated to watch the tableau above seemingly rotate above me, bringing up the southern sky.  The shimmering north star gradually moved from port to midships.  Slowly the dramatic cluster of the southern cross took shape, unmistakable proof that we were no longer in the northern hemisphere. Parrakoola had ventured into an unfamiliar world.

On the morning of Friday, August 23d, we made landfall near Brisbane on Australia’s northeast coast. We had been at sea two and a half weeks.

By midday we had entered the Brisbane River and soon were docked. The Australian customs and immigration officers came aboard to examine and stamp our passports. On deck we threw off the hatch covers, lifted the derricks and prepared for unloading.

There were of course surprises in this distant English-speaking land. Vehicles drove on the left. Australian money was pounds, shillings and pence as the decimal Aussie dollar wouldn’t arrive until 1966. My first impression was of longshoremen, called wharfies, who came aboard to unload the ship. They wore shorts, slouch hats, and carried valises containing their billy cans, small kettles in which they brewed tea. Everyone spoke a curious form of English that one humorous book for foreigners called ‘strine.

PART VI

In Sydney a week or so later I experienced my first existential moment. I was a month past my 20th birthday, alone, and 6,000 miles from home. With Saturday off I walked from the Darlington docks to the city center. After some time I came to a milk bar, a kind of Australian ice cream parlor. I ordered a milk shake and fishing a few pence from the heavy coins in my pocket sat down. The drink filled a tall glass with foam at the top but only a hint of ice cream.

Refreshed, I went outside where my mind was absorbed by a curious thought. What would happen, I wondered, if I experienced misfortune like being hit by a car? My parents back in Michigan wouldn’t hear of it for days as Sydney for them was at the end of the world.  If it was 3 p.m. Saturday in Australia it would be 1 a.m. Friday night in Michigan. I became preoccupied with this thought. Away from the ship, I knew not a single person in a vast city and country. I was, obviously, on my own and alone.

It was a bolt of reality—not bad, just something I had never contemplated. I alone was responsible for my fate. Nobody was looking out for me. Just as leaving home was a first independent decision, this downtown Sydney moment acknowledged for better or worse that I was alone in the world.

Altogether Parrakoola was two plus months in Australia. We went down the east coast—Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney—unloading, proceeded to the south coast—Melbourne and Adelaide—crossed over to Tasmania to load apples, and then back up the east coast past Brisbane to Townsville along the great barrier reef. Our excessive time in Oz was largely because of frequent strikes by wharfies.

Australians were the friendliest people I ever met.  More than once walking through neighborhoods a passing vehicle would pull over (apparently taking note of my short haircut and attire) and ask if I was American. Replying yes, my interlocutors invariably voiced heartfelt welcomes. Often they expressed gratitude to me as an American for the successful defense of Australia in World War II. More than one called attention to the battle of the Coral Sea, saying that without this American naval victory in 1942 the Japanese would have invaded their homeland. 

While Parrakoola was docked in Melbourne there was an incident that provided evidence that I was indeed becoming a sailor. Pedro Burillo, the Spanish OS, and I were working over the side on a pontoon painting the ship’s hull. The pontoon–called a lighter—would be winched from the dock onto the water by one of the ship’s cranes.  From the dock Pedro and I would stand on the lighter grasping the sling where a hook secured the line to the crane.  Paint buckets and extension poles lay at our feet. With Pedro waving instructions with his free hand, we swung out from the dock and settled onto the water, which was filthy with the detritus found in most harbors.  

Pedro being senior barked instructions to me in his halting English. Insisting that I crouch while he stood and let go the rigging, he skillfully undid knots and the crane operator pulled dangling ropes back onto the ship. As Pedro guided our pontoon into position he lost his footing and tumbled backwards into the rancid water. Before he went entirely under I extended an arm and pulled the humiliated Spaniard onto the lighter.  His clothing splattered and flecked with a greasy film, we shouted to the crane operator who lifted us onto the dock. Pedro then rushed to his cabin for a change of clothes. Aware that this was a delicate matter, I learned something about an unwritten sailors’ code.  The incident was never mentioned, neither in the crew’s mess, nor in private conversations. It was as if it never happened. 

There were so many good times in Australia, not least the opportunity to visit other ships. From going aboard British, Italian and American ships I quickly learned the many advantages we had on Parrakoola. British ships with Indian or West Indian crews were dirty, all kind of equipment and rigging strewn about the deck. Regrettably a United States Line freighter from New York was the worst. The crew was surly and unfriendly with a palpable sense that theirs was not a happy ship.

Parrakoola now proceeded north from Brisbane stopping at Rockhampton and then Townsville inside the Great Barrier Reef.  We were in the Australian tropics over 800 miles north of Brisbane. At Port Alma we took on more cargo but we were transporting a lesser variety of goods than we had coming the other direction.  We were laden with frozen meat, apples, sultanas or golden raisins for Vancouver—and miracle of miracles—Fosters Lager beer for Honolulu. That there was cargo for Hawaii quickened our steps as the crew welcomed this stop, a respite in the long transpacific crossing.

Ready to depart, Parrakoola steered northwest to the leeside of the Great Barrier Reef and through the most beautiful translucent turquoise waters one can imagine.  Under the guidance of a pilot, Parrakoola proceeded slowly within the designated shipping channel. Not far from Cairns the pilot left us and we made a sharp right turn slipping into the open sea headed towards the Solomon Islands. 

I welcomed the resumption of the 4 to 8 sea watch and the conversations with a Swedish third mate who had replaced Persson. By now my reading material was Conrad’s Lord Jim and a couple dog-eared volumes of Winston Churchill’s Second World War. During our many hours together, I told the third mate how eager I was to get back to university and really start to learn. I suggested I might specialize in international trade as what I had witnessed on board—products bought and sold and shipped from one place to another—seemed fascinating.

While five months at sea had made me more worldly and experienced, I was still a straight-laced Methodist kid from west Michigan.  For example, I was appalled when I learned that some members of the deck crew had broken into the Fosters Lager in hatch number three. I was distressed but declined to mention it to the third mate.  As days went on I became more relaxed about the theft, realizing that probably only a single case had been purloined. Nonetheless I refused invitations to drink the contraband.  

Parrakoola arrived in Honolulu at night and was in port for only 24 hours. I was among the lucky crew members who got shore leave. I hurried to Waikiki, walked for a couple miles and then took a bus to Pearl Harbor, visiting the newly opened memorial constructed over the sunken hull of the battleship Arizona. It was a somber moment 22 years after the Japanese attack to observe rivulets of oil still seeping up from the Arizona, a tomb for some 900 American sailors.

Five days after departing Honolulu Parrakoola arrived in Los Angeles. It was November 18th, 1963.  I informed the captain I would sign off when the ship reached San Francisco.

After three days in L.A. Parrakoola was back at sea headed for San Francisco. It was Friday November 22d. Someone had gotten hold of a television and set it up in the crew’s mess. We were off Santa Barbara. I was scraping rust on the foredeck when one of the motormen ran up saying, “Your president has been shot.”  Two of us rushed back into the galley to watch the coverage. 

What I remember most about that horrid time was moving quickly hand over hand on the ladders up to the bridge and telling the officer in charge that we needed to lower the American flag flying from the foremast to half-staff. At once, he instructed me to do just that. I hurried to the foredeck, gripped the lanyard tied to the deck house and lowered the flag.  

President John F. Kennedy’s life and death bookended my 1963 adventure.  Way back in June at the YMCA in Seattle I was inspired watching the youthful president proclaiming in German, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Now he was gone. Aboard Parrakoola the tragedy in Dallas gave pause but the  mostly European crew felt little of the palpable grief Americans were experiencing.  

Departing the Parrakoola

Parrakoola tied up in Oakland the next day.  For me everything was preparation for signing off. I telephoned family and friends, had a final medical check, and carrying my few belongings in a sea bag slung over my shoulder I walked down Parrakoola’s gangway of for the last time. 

My time as a deck boy was over.  Amazingly, it had all worked out. I was delighted that the captain had judged my job performance very good and my seamanship good.   

I learned over these five months that I could endure sustained physical labor and the regimen of working split shifts and seven-day work weeks. That the world is bigger, more diverse and exciting than I ever imagined. And, yes, that education is the ticket for getting ahead and not being stuck at the bottom.

Five months aboard Parrakoola had made me a better person.

–Barry D. Wood’s varied career, first shaped by his formative months at sea, has focused on the international economy. He is the U.S. economics correspondent for RTHK radio in Hong Kong and lives in Washington DC.

Neil King Jr., Gothamcanoe.com

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