ALCOHOLISM

Some of my sea stories talk about some typical exploits of merchant seamen. Many of them involve excessive use of alcoholic beverages. People who live ashore probably have a distorted view of the seafaring profession because of these stories. I am not sure if alcoholism is any more prevalent at sea than in any other profession. Recent legislation by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation mandate drug and alcohol testing for those people involved with the operation of the vessel. The Coast Guard has set a minimum blood alcohol level of 0.04%, which is about half of what most states allow for operating a motor vehicle. As a Captain in later years, I was the person in charge of testing. I would usually test only when a Department head would complain that he suspected that one of his crew were drunk. In such cases I would test them and find that they were well over 0.10%. In any event, the recent legislation in the wake of the Exxon Valdez grounding has made an American ship a poor place to work and drink. Our ship's articles, which is our contract for employment, state that "No Grog shall be brought aboard or consumed by the crew." Enforcement of this provision was left up to the Captain. Most ships would allow moderate and discreet consumption of alcoholic beverages, as long as it was not in public, and was not interfering with work. With the more recent laws requiring post-incident drug and alcohol testing, the no alcohol regulations are more strictly enforced. Passengers are not crew members, and are allowed to consume alcohol. On foreign ships it is my understanding that there are more liberal rules concerning use of alcohol.

One thing is certain, and that is that if someone has a problem, it can't be hidden for long. Unlike people ashore, we all live together 24 hrs. per day, and get to know each other well. For that reason it is a hard place for users of illegal drugs, excessive users of alcohol, and those with severe mental disorders to survive.

On one of my first trips to sea I was introduced to excessive drinking while ashore by the crew. I had driven my car across country, from New York to San Francisco, in order to find work on the Viet Nam Sealift. Jobs were hard to find on the East and Gulf Coasts, but plentiful on the West Coast. I quickly found a job, and put my car in storage in Oakland. After my first trip, the Captain, Chief Engineer, and Chief Mate found out that I had a car, and I was accepted into their group as what now would be called the "designated driver". They invited me to Jack London Square, to a restaurant aptly named the "Captain's Table". It was an elegant place, with windows overlooking San Francisco Bay. We got a table in a fairly crowded room with a view. Everyone except me was enjoying a wide variety of alcoholic beverages. By the time the meal was over, the Captain Kelley had passed out in his chair. I was embarrassed about that, but it quickly got worse. Charlie, the Chief Mate, could see that getting the Captain out to the car in those restricted quarters in the dining room would be difficult. He got up and in his most commanding voice announced to all those in our dining room that they would have to clear the decks, that we had to "get the Captain out of here". Astonished diners all looked at our group. I tried to pretend that I wasn't with this group to no avail. Charlie picked up Captain Kelley and threw him over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, and ordered me to get the car to the front door. I ran out of there as Charlie wove his way across the dining room with the Captain on his shoulder. Never again have I dined at a place called the "Captain's Table".

Another memorable experience happened about five years later. Tom came aboard our ship one trip as the new First Engineer. He was replacing a rather disagreeable man who was aptly named "Groucho" by the crew. We were glad to see Tom, he looked young and industrious. He had sailed previously for the American Mail Line. I wondered why he would leave those beautiful ships for our old rust-bucket. I quickly found out. I invited him out to dinner at a local restaurant. We had to wait about 20 minutes for a table, and we went to the bar. He ordered a double martini right away, and about two more before our table was ready. He had a glassy look in his eye when we ordered. Finally when his Abalone steak came, he was in really bad shape. He passed out face down into his plate. What a waste of a good piece of fish. I found out right then why he was no longer with American Mail Line. He made the trip with us, and had trouble in every port. Our second mate Hans went ashore in Saigon to buy some coins, and while there bought a toy snake from a street vendor. It was painted like a Chinese dragon, and operated by pulling on a thread attached to a spool under the snake's body. When we returned to the ship, Tom was sitting next to an open window in the lounge. Hans placed the snake on Tom's shoulder from behind, and began pulling on the string. Tom was pretty well lubricated as usual, but felt something on his shoulder. He looked and saw the snake, and let out a scream that could be heard all over the ship, and jumped out of his seat and crawled across the deck. Hans and I couldn't stop laughing. I don't think Tom ever knew what happened. He was used to hallucinating about such things.