- Historic Sites
Masters Of The Merchant Marine
We built a merchant marine despite the opposition of the Royal Navy, went on to develop the most beautiful of all sailing ships, and held our supremacy for years. But how do we measure up today?
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
In practice, cadet training was hit or miss. The boys were tolerated by officers and treated with good-natured contempt by the crew. If they were persistent, they could learn to take bearings and pick up some of the principles of loading and shoring cargo, docking and undocking. If they weren’t persistent, no one minded. After each voyage they turned in a sort of correspondence-school report. This system, which lasted fifty years, produced some good officers, but in the main it didn’t work. More plain seamanship could be learned in the fo’c’sle. If a boy produced a sextant, a Bowditch, and Riesenberg’s Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service on a freighter, one or more of the officers would be willing to help, though he could take a bit of hazing from the crew. Before going up for his license, he’d pay for a crash course ashore at one of the small schools run by retired masters and chiefs or, after 1916, at schools like that set up by the Seamen’s Church Institute. Most officers, except for the few produced by the state maritime academies, still came through the hawsepipe or the shaft tunnel and were proud of it.
At first our men cursed the steamers for using “four tons of coal to move one ton of cargo.”
No system of compulsory examination or licensing to ensure competence existed before 1871, when the Department of Commerce established the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to qualify shipmasters, first mates, engineers, and pilots. In 1898 the requirement was extended to second and third mates. Not until 1915 were compulsory examinations set up for able seamen and equivalent members of the engine department; ordinary seamen and wipers were exempt. Standards thus established greatly increased the usefulness of formal training, but still no effort was made to develop a national program.
When Europe burst into war in 1914, the United States was shocked to discover how few ships it had in foreign trade. In 1913 only 6.4 percent of “departures foreign” from New York were in U.S.flag ships. The war reduced our imports to a trickle; our exports backed up. In 1916, as German submarines and raiders decimated the remaining sailing ships and the vulnerable eight- to tenknot tramp steamers, we launched a frenzied building program. A total of 2,318 ships were delivered, most of them after the war had ended. These were the famous boxy Hog Islanders “built by the mile and cut off at any length you wanted.”
It took the authorities almost a year to realize that they’d need trained men to sail them. Urgent calls for ex-captains, mates, and engineers as well as landlubbers to attend crash courses eventually produced eleven thousand license holders. They were known as the “Hooligan Navy,” and most of them completed their training after Armistice Day.
The World War I shipbuilding spurt did at least put the United States back in the passenger-ship business. We had seized thirty German liners that were in our ports when we entered the war, including the Vaterland , which became famous as a troop transport and as the U.S. Line’s flagship Leviathan . The Emergency Fleet Corporation had also built twenty-six transports, most of which were used postwar to strengthen our passenger service on both oceans.
After the war a major improvement, long argued, took place in the state academies, beginning with California and New York: the schools came ashore. Suitable subjects could now be taught on land, interspersed with periods afloat on a school ship and aboard working commercial vessels. California’s school came ashore at Tiberon, near San Francisco; New York’s at ancient Fort Schuyler in the Bronx; Massachusetts’, somewhat later, and after several moves, ended at Hyannis.
But despite these educational improvements, seafaring simply did not present an appealing economic picture to ambitious young men during the 1930s. A government survey reported in 1937 that “wages fell and working conditions grew steadily worse until, at the depths of the Depression, some American seamen were receiving as little as $25 a month, living under wretched conditions, eating unpalatable food, and working 12 hours a day.”
Low pay or not, the cost-of-living gap between the United States and other mercantile nations was expanding, making competition difficult. Maritime labor unions were winning their first successes, bringing much-needed improvements but making jobs harder to get and increasing the expenses of American shipping companies. More and more ships were laid up.
When World War II broke out in Europe, the U.S. Neutrality Act got in the way of Lend-Lease and other aid to the Allied nations. Ducking its own law, the United States encouraged transfer of registry of American ships to Panama and Honduras.