A Seaman’s Primer

My maritime education began at about age nine as I started to assist my father on jobs aboard the large party fishing boats in New York’s Sheepshead Bay. As an engineer in the Merchant Marine, my dad had been on several world cruises, numerous passages to China and Japan, and had survived two torpedo sinkings. He was eminently qualified to pass along a Seaman’s Primer. So, pipe down, and listen up. Here are the basic nine things you really need to know:

  • 1.) Keep your wallet in your front pocket so it can’t be stolen. Seeing a sailor running down the street in a liberty port pursued by a pimp who had cut his wallet out of his back pocket confirmed my father’s take on this.
    2.) Be careful what articles and agreements you sign. Fairly obvious, but for a sailor, this one can be deadly. The mutiny of all the crew except the engine room, on my father’s first passage, ingrained that in him, and subsequently in me.
    3.) Tattoos are used by the police to identify you, and many people have the same artwork. My father had the usual eagle with fouled anchors that thousands of mariners had, so he knew.
    4.) Sooner or later every sailor winds up under the tutelage of some deck ape bosun (known “affectionally” as Boats) who wants you to chip paint. So my Dad’s advice was to learn how to create a map; it looks like you are keeping busy. My father’s favorite was a map of Ireland. From personal experience, I can tell you that this does not work when deployed against older mariners who also know the trick.
    5.) When in a bar stay close to the exits, stick with your shipmates, don’t get into card games in the back room, and oversee the barkeep as he pours your drink. As soon as someone gets shoved and things get loud – get out.
    6.) Always look like you know where you are going. Don’t dawdle. Walk with confidence.
    7.) Can the arrogance. Treat people politely. Most fights start because people swagger around acting like jerks.
    8.) Always find out how good the cook is on any ship you are thinking about shipping out on. On a long voyage, the food is essential.
    9.) Different ships, different long slices. You know that the way things were done on your last ship was the best, but crowing about it on your new ship will not make you any friends.

Ultimately, my father strongly opposed my getting seaman’s papers, but in 1965 I joined the Navy. So there my uncle Lenny Carreras’ ( gunner mate) Naval expertise came in handy. From uncle Lenny I learned all I needed to know about non-regulation ways to modify the thirteen buttons on Navy trousers. He also taught me how to twist a gob hat into a very rakish non-regulation chapeau, how not to lose at Cheater’s Monopoly, and some tricks about liberty in uniform that my dad did not know having been in the Merchant Marine.

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