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Your favorite singer or actor may be a former merchant mariner

Jan 22, 2013 04:24 PM

Sailing as a merchant mariner is a job like no other. Even after only a few trips at sea a person learns to work as part of a group, be adaptable, and do a professional job in difficult situations — attributes that are sought-after in any profession. Indeed, the annals of the U.S. Merchant Marine are filled with people who spent time at sea on commercial vessels, and then became successful and famous after coming ashore.

Any mariner will tell you that being at sea means long hours, changing arrival and departure times, and weeks or months of work followed by a good amount of time off. With the irregular filming schedule and odd hours the acting profession is known for, it should come as no surprise that many famous Hollywood celebrities sailed as merchant mariners. Peter Falk, who played the scruffy detective Columbo for decades, worked as a messman and cook. Jack Lord, best known as Steve McGarrett on the original “Hawaii Five-O,” was a third mate and graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Old-time western fans may still remember Clint Walker from his days on “Cheyenne,” but few know that although he makes his home in the California desert these days, Clint sailed on deck out of the Port of Long Beach during World War II.

Of course, Hollywood is more than just actors — and former merchant mariners are well represented in other film-related categories. Oliver Stone, who won Academy Awards for directing the films “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Platoon” and “Midnight Express,” was an engine room wiper. Haskell Wexler, a famous cinematographer and two-time Academy Award winner, sailed as an ordinary seaman. Clearly, the attention to detail and flexibility learned at sea paid off for these Hollywood celebrities.

I’m not musically inclined myself, but can understand how the rhythm of the engines, sound of the waves slapping the hull, and the call of sea birds on a sunny day could bring out the Muse in any musician. Woody Guthrie, father of “Alice’s Restaurant” singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie, worked as a galley hand on a freighter. Although Woody wrote and sang hundreds of non-maritime songs, including the well-loved “This Land is Your Land,” his song “Talking Merchant Marine” tells the story of a working mariner and the hope that his ship will make it safely past the deadly Nazi U-boats. Another famous musician and my friend John’s favorite classic country music singer, hall-of-famer Ferlin Husky, worked on deck and sang a number of nautical-themed songs — including “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”

Music isn’t the only way mariners have traditionally shared their sea experiences. Contemplating the expanse of ocean from the wheelhouse, or watching the moon reflected off the water under a starry sky could stir the bard in anyone — so when it comes to poetry mariners are “naturals.” Lenny Bruce, comedian and jazz poet, sailed as an ordinary seaman for American Export Line in the 1950s. Beat generation superstar poet Allen Ginsberg worked on a commercial vessel before continuing his studies at Columbia University. Much of his verse contains references to the sea — including his epic poem “Howl.”

A number of famous prose writers also sailed in the merchant marine. Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, was a Mississippi River pilot — and used his experiences on the river as the basis for many of his stories. Nearly a century later the iconic Jack Kerouac, whose travels in the famous tome “On the Road” helped define more than one generation’s search for personal freedom and expression, sailed as an ordinary seaman and made several trips across the Atlantic. In addition to these writers who went to sea, there are also a few career mariners who have become writers in their own right. Long-time Columbia River Bar Pilot Capt. Deborah Dempsey wrote one of my favorite maritime books, “The Captain’s a Woman.” Obviously, the experiences of being at sea can be translated successfully to literature.

Working on commercial vessels is challenging on many levels, but is unquestionably a physically demanding job that can push us to, and sometimes beyond the limits of our endurance. I sailed on a dredge where the skipper took this need for physical fitness seriously, and bulked up like Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he was ashore, the skipper worked out at his local Gold’s Gym, probably without realizing that Joe Gold was not only one of the fathers of modern day bodybuilding and founder of the Gold’s Gym chain, but also served in the U.S. merchant marine as an engine room machinist. Injured during a torpedo attack on his ship off the Philippines, pumping weights helped him recover his strength and stamina. Later, using his machinist’s expertise, Gold designed much of the equipment used in his gyms. There are now around 700 Gold’s Gyms worldwide.

With no outside help, such as the fire department or emergency medical technicians available at sea, commercial mariners are compelled by necessity to become adept at using creative thinking to help solve difficult problems. Not being afraid to think and act “outside the box” often results in unique and innovative solutions. Many merchant mariners who come ashore continue to use those same skills to achieve success in academic, or business pursuits. Douglass North, co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics, sailed as a navigator on U.S.-flagged vessels. Paul Teutul, who worked in the merchant marine during the Vietnam War, founded the world-famous custom motorcycle fabricator Orange County Choppers in 1999. Robert Kiyosaki, motivational speaker and successful businessman behind the Rich Dad Poor Dad franchise, graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point in 1969. Like Gold did with his chain of gyms, these former mariners made their mark by looking at things a bit differently, turning fresh viewpoints of established ideas into successful new economic models.

Working on a commercial vessel hones the mind, body and even the very spirit of the mariner. That, coupled with the view of the world that going to sea provides, helps develop a belief in yourself and your abilities. Successful people in every profession will tell you that armed with these attributes, you can make your dreams come true — as many have.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

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Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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