Maritime Ties

My condolences to those people who have birthdays close to Christmas. It is so easy for them to miss out on gifts. I, however, am lucky enough to have my birthday in January; which means that whatever I didn’t get for Christmas is on sale before my birthday. My dad reads this blog (not a surprise, eh?) and noticed my Christmas Wishes from 2012 – after he’d bought my Christmas presents. So, he decided to have some fun buying me my birthday presents. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted to a Merchant Marine Veteran that I am bad at tying knots. Ah, but I do give myself credit for noticing what ties us, what connects us.

I was never a Boy Scout. My first classes in knot tying were when I moved to Seattle and began my very intermittent sailing endeavours. One of these days I’ll get a bowline right without having to think about it three times. Getting knots made quick and right was essential, and still is, for sailors. The bowline that takes me a minute and two hands to make can be made one-handed with a practiced flick of the wrist. I’ve seen it. The faster the knot could be made and set to whatever it was attaching, the faster vessels could be made safe and the sooner the company was paid. Tugs and barges relied on such expertise. The faster they could tie up the more likely they were to get a job to move a ship or prove the job was complete; and for safety, letting tonnage drift is usually dangerous so a knot must be made correctly and quickly. I don’t have such needs, and now it is possible to secure almost any household load with velcro, duct tape, buckles, or zip ties.

I asked for very long zip ties. My dad sent me his versions: one of which actually works as a mariner’s version of a cowboy’s bolo tie. This is a tie. This is a zip tie. I think tying that knot would take me about a week. Oh, and I won’t be wearing my dad’s tie to go dancing. A friend saw it and pointed out that some dancer who had sat out too long might use it to drag me back onto the dance floor. Gag.

I’m reminded of my family’s sailing heritage every day. My dad’s time in the Merchant Marine was in World War II. He drew the unlucky straw and was on one of the ships that picked up the ammunition we no longer needed against the Germans that was then carried halfway around the planet for the invasion of Japan. No smoking, really. By the time he got there a bigger threat had hit another fleet. A Pacific typhoon slammed into Okinawa just before he got there. A couple of generations earlier, one of my ancestors spent time at sea when knots were even more critical. The only power his ship had was the wind that carried him from Liverpool around Africa to India to New York to Liverpool. First Voyage He was sneezed on by a whale, witnessed a suicide across a table, survived a tidal wave, saw Imperial India through his 14 year old rascally innocence, and spent most of the time aboard with an unsolved murder which meant time spent in close proximity to an unrevealed murderer. My life’s adventures are much more benign – well, there was the time in the steel mill, but I digress.

My house has a view of the shipping lanes of Puget Sound. Ships don’t sail anywhere they want. There are traffic lanes, navigation signs, and rules. Every major ship coming in to Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton goes past my house. Container ships, car carriers, bulk freighters, ocean barges bound for Alaska, cruise ships, ice breakers, Coast Guard cutters, research vessels, and plenty of Navy ships from submarines to aircraft carriers steam by while dodging luxury yachts, fishing boats, sailboats, and even kayaks.

November Sunset - Twelve Months at Cultus Bay (Not the solstice, but we not see the sun then.)

November Sunset – Twelve Months at Cultus Bay (Not the solstice, but we might not see the sun then.)

I particularly like sitting on my deck in the summer and watching the cruise ships drag race as they head out on their various itineraries. Then sometimes they return incredibly slowly in the hours before dawn, not wanting to dock until after sunrise. They don’t want to upset the cruise passengers’ sensibilities by waking them too early.

My view is a front row seat to international commerce. Almost all of our trade with China travels by ship. All of those containers stacked above and below deck were filled thousands of miles away weeks ago. The car carriers from Japan are the most futuristic. They are boxy, featureless, and clean. Every ship that comes in only spends about a day before it heads back out, hopefully equally full, but our balance of trade suggests there is a lot less tonnage returning.

It is easy to ignore the journeys of the things we buy. In 2012, more than one ship a week was lost. (In comparison, 1,768 Merchant Marine vessels were lost in World War II, which means the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest rate of casualties of any service in World War II.) International commerce relies on dangerous ventures that costs lives. In peacetime, that risk is taken mostly so we can enjoy luxuries or cheaper products. It has been so since boats sailed beyond their harbors thousands of years ago.

I don’t take data, but it seems that traffic has picked up. I suppose from my vantage I could chronicle the traffic, but now that ships carry transponders and sufficient satellites are in orbit, web sites display the real time position and identification of most of the major traffic.

Transportation investments are a leading indicator. Businesses try to anticipate encouraging economies. If the product is on the shelf when you’ve heard it is in style, then weeks before it was crossing the ocean in a container – unless you’re like me most days (not for today’s picture) and you wear clothes made in America (Hello, Carhartt!). Really, bib overalls are quite comfortable, and are great for diving into chores or even just for cooking in the kitchen. There are so many handy pockets.

Automation and scale mean today’s thousand-foot long ships take less crew than my great-grandfather lived with. I follow trends, but underlying exotic technologies are complex international economies, there are people spending weeks at sea struggling through Nature’s wildest wilderness. The ships are bigger. Radar and radio are wonders. But the waves haven’t changed size. Icebergs don’t file travel plans. And anything that goes wrong, goes wrong in a place where you just can’t walk home.

Peter Lynch talks about investing in the boring, because it is overlooked and frequently undervalued. I don’t have discretionary cash (a massive understatement), but I thank the generations I know about and the ones whose stories never made it back to shore for all that they have done. Their careers were investments in us, their descendants. Thank you.

And yes, maybe I’ll try learning how to tie a bowline yet again, but if I end up at the hardware store I’m buying the longest zip ties I can find, and not as a fashion statement.

About Tom Trimbath

real estate broker / consultant / entrepreneur / writer / photographer / speaker / aerospace engineer / semi-semi-retired More info at: and at my amazon author page:
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2 Responses to Maritime Ties

  1. Susan Averett says:

    Great photo of you and that special tie!

    Sue Averett The Enchanted Studio photographic and healing arts Whidbey Magic photo book

  2. Happy birthday! Great chunk of maritime history and information. Watching the ocean traffic is a relaxing passtime. Let’s hope you get to keep that wonderful view and don’t have to sell your house in 2013.

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