A Man of the Sea

Most people document their professional lives by the companies they worked for, the positions they held or the products they created. For the mariner, their professional lives revolve around ships and ports.

Mom sending Dad off at the dock.

My father spent most of his life at sea as a merchant mariner. He worked his way from deck hand on a small liner ferrying tourists to Havana to master of the largest tanker flying the American flag. Although eventually a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, his studies were interrupted by World War II while he served on liberty ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He was first mate on the first merchant ship to sail into Tokyo Bay after the surrender. He shuttled water to Guantanamo when Castro cut the water mains to the base in the 1960s. He carried wheat to the Soviet Union and oil to Cam Rahn Bay to support our efforts in Vietnam.

He moved from super tankers to fishing boats after he retired and always found being out on the water a relaxing experience. He died in 1991.

His brother also made the sea his profession, but when it came time to settle down with a family, he chose a job piloting ships through the Panama Canal. As a canal pilot, he was in a unique position to have access to almost every ship that sailed the seas for the many years he worked there. So, when I recently inherited my father’s discharge books, I called my uncle to help me understand what these documents were and how I could use the information they contained as part of Dad’s life history.

The terms of employment for a mariner are much different than onshore professions. Some of those traditions go back many centuries. A mariner signs on for a cruise to perform a specific job on that ship. A “cruise” may make several stops and may or may not return to the port of departure. At the end of the cruise all the crew members are paid off and become technically unemployed. The Continuous Discharge Book is a U.S. Coast Guard book issued to every mariner to log each cruise that individual is hired for, giving the ship’s name, the mariner’s assigned job and the dates and places of engagement and discharge. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you all the places that cruise visits. You need access to each ship’s log for that.

As my uncle is explaining all this to me and looking through the books, he starts commenting on several of the ships listed in Dad’s logs. He was familiar with a number of them from his experiences in the Canal Zone. Several times he mentioned that he had a sketch of a ship in his sketch book. I was delighted to learn details about Dad’s career and the additional comments about the ships was icing on the cake.

I should mention that my uncle is an accomplished watercolorist and we all have been the delighted recipients of pieces of his work. He always has a sketchbook nearby and has years of earlier sketches in his studio. So, when he stopped by several days later to show me a rough sketch of a project idea and wanted me to help, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to participate.

He is fond of creating collage-style paintings for friends and family members that incorporate the person’s interests, special events and places. His proposed project would be a painting celebrating Dad’s maritime career that would include the memorable places he visited and the special ships he sailed aboard. My job was to help compare cruise dates in the discharge book with dates of significant events to determine which ships were involved with those events and to find photos online of the one or two ships he didn’t already have in his sketchbooks.

A Seaman’s Life by C. O. Barrett (click to view larger size)

The finished painting is a treasure to each of his children. His only son has the original and both of us daughters have high-quality prints. We have always known that Dad had an amazing career, but this painting beautifully documents just how amazing it truly was.

It’s also a fitting memorial as we celebrate the anniversary of his birth. William Henry Barrett, Jr., was born in Savannah, Georgia, ninety-four years ago today. Happy birthday, Dad!

2 thoughts on “A Man of the Sea

  1. What a lovely story about your dad! It’s so amazing to piece together our parent’s lives…to retrace the paths they’ve followed. I’m so glad you’ve got such a knowledgeable and talented uncle to help you along the way! Thanks for sharing your story.


  2. Pingback: A Story Without Words – SAGS Writers Group

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