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Looking for a Ship Hardcover – September 15, 1990

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

McPhee joined a friend, merchant mariner Andy Chase, on a 42-day voyage from Charleston, S.C., through the Panama Canal, down the Pacific coast of South America. A gem of a book, this leisurely, unpretentious log is a paean to the United States Merchant Marine, a declining institution battered by international competition and lowered cargo rates. The ship's New England captain "couldn't find his way around a traffic circle" but manages to outmaneuver a tropical storm. Porpoises and albatrosses accompany the SS Stella Lykes on a cruise laden with much talk of stowaways, collisions and cocaine smuggling, of pirates both legendary and contemporary (the modern variety carry bolt-cutters and walkie-talkies). McPhee's ( The Control of Nature ) clean, lean prose displays his sharp eye for telling detail and arresting incident.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Known for his books on natural history, such as The Control of Nature (LJ 4/1/89), Basin and Range (LJ 4/1/81), etc., McPhee brings his considerable storytelling ability to bear on the plight of the U.S. merchant marine. Accompanying Second Mate Andy Chase on a 42-day run down the west coast of South America aboard the S.S. Stella Lykes , McPhee provides the reader with stories and tales of modern seafaring life and the problems of making a living as a merchant mariner. This book is both an engrossing tale of the sea, with excellent detail and humanity, and a disturbing portrait of the merchant marine--a once-great American institution that made its presence known around the world. Highly recommended for public libraries. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/90.
- Harold N. Boyer, Marple P.L., Broomall, Pa.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 242 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (September 15, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374190771
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374190774
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #280,067 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

Customer Reviews

Wonderful, interesting book.
Barbara Johnson
John McPhee has a unique investigative journalist style that I personally find very enjoyable, and he generally picks interesting topics to "meander" through.
Dianne Roberts
The use of language in this volume is energetic but it serves its purpose well.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By pug@lava.net on November 3, 1997
Format: Paperback
Found in the clearance bin of the local bookstore, the title intrigued me, so I bought it. Rarely have I had such luck resulting from an impulse buy. _Looking for a Ship_ seems to take its pace from the slow and stately progress of any seagoing cargo craft. And yet the reader feels not the plodding, monotonous roll of a modern roll-on/roll-off, but instead is a passenger on the proverbial slow boat to China. You are on vacation, with a known destination, and little to do along the way but enjoy the scenery, the daily routine, and the satisfaction that mundane tasks are complete until the morrow.
We follow the author's first-person perspective as he in turn follows his friend, a sailor in the United States Merchant Marine, on the never-ending quest of finding work. McPhee enters a world known only vaguely beforehand, and as his adventure progresses, we learn along with him what life is to a Merchant Mariner.
I say "adventure" somewhat tongue-in-cheek; there is very little such in this book. Do not expect swashbuckling tales of derring-do. The only scene of pulse-quickening, a pirate raid while in a South American port, has not a whit of heroism, unless one agrees that saving one's own skin is of greater heroism than saving someone else's cargo.
Yet McPhee weaves a compelling tale from his real life experience. The people we read about are well described, fully characterized, and vital. Everyday problems still require solutions, and the Merchant Mariner must be as adaptable and wise in solving them as any of us, if not more so in the current climate of too little work for too many sailors.
Yes, I was able to put this book down. No, I didn't lose sleep while reading it.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 16, 2001
Format: Hardcover
One of the characters in this book, Capt. Paul Washburn, captained the Genevieve Lykes several years before taking the Stella. My father also skippered the Genevieve, and knows most of the officers portrayed in this book. The stories he tells of characters like Dirty Shirt George Price, and of incidents at sea and in port--for instance, standing off pirates (in Vietnam) with fire hoses--mesh perfectly with McPhee's account. Anyone who is interested in the actual American Merchant Marine, rather than a romantic preconception, should read this book, and carefully. But paying careful attention to John McPhee is no more difficult than paying careful attention to a bottle of Dom Perignon.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By jerseymca on August 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
McPhee joins a merchant marine as he tries to find a ship to work on - hence the title - then journeys with him as the boat does its work. I picked this book up because I've read other books by McPhee that make subjects that I would normally not even think about fascinating. This book was no exception. For readers who have read his geology series (compiled into Anals of the Former World) and found it a bit too technical and dry, this book will be a refreshing change. I never would have thought I'd be interested in this subject, but McPhee made it interesting.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Tom McMurray on December 7, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book gives a clear look at the merchant shipping industry from the perspective of the modern day merchant mariner. This world is very obscure to the public at large, especially to those of us living inland, and this book gives us an up close look. The book is also useful in pointing out what has happened to what was once a strong U.S. industry.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By OAKSHAMAN VINE VOICE on June 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I think I was born wanting to go to sea. I had never even seen an ocean as a kid, but I instinctually seemed to have a knowlege and a love of ships and the sea. As I grew older it puzzled me that the Merchant Marine wasn't considered a viable career choice. It also puzzled me that I never met anyone who had worked in the merchant service later than the early 50's. There was also the fact that the world's biggest industrial powerhouse seemed to have so few American flagged vessels..... Well, this book explains things. You can't get a berth on an American flagged ship for the same reason it is becoming impossible to find a factory job inland- the corporations decided that it was cheaper to hire cheap foreign labor and flag their ships in third world countries to get around taxes and decent working conditions.
That is why reading this book is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand it is great reading about famous captains or modern day pirates, but on the other, you realise that you'll never know any part of such a life. Pretty hard to get a sea card when licensed officers are being "shoved down the hawse-pipe" to serve as deckhands....

When I finished this book I dug out my old Bowditch and sextent and thought about what could have been. Maybe I couldn't have cut it, but damn it, I deserved a chance to find out.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bryan Byrd on September 14, 2010
Format: Paperback
After leaving the Marine Corps, one choice for employment that I considered was the U.S. Merchant Marine. I realize now that I knew less about what was involved in it than I had known about the Marine Corps before enlisting - and I had been ridiculously ignorant about the Marines. As it turns out, a relative happened to be working for a barge company on the Mississippi at the end of my enlistment, and he got me hired on with him instead. I didn't necessarily give up the Merchant Marine idea, but I thought it prudent to see whether I enjoyed living and working on a boat/ship prior to taking off on a trip that could last for months. Since then, I've never felt the need to leave the barge line, and after reading John McPhee's excellent account of the Merchant Marine, I feel I should count my blessings to have fallen into the job that I did.

I apologize for the biographical data, but since both my current occupation and the descriptions Mr. McPhee gives us of the Merchant Marine share some similarities (not as many as one might think), I wanted to qualify a few of my comments below. First though, 'Looking for a Ship' is Mr. McPhee's account as he sails aboard the S.S. Stella Lykes as a Person in Addition to Crew, and of the officers and sailors he meets aboard the vessel's forty-two day run down to South America and back. Despite any preconceptions one might have about a piece originally published in 'The New Yorker', Mr. McPhee's story is not only intelligent and engaging, but his style is salt of the earth - McPhee may not wish to become a merchant mariner, but he admires the hell out of those who are.

It's believable that Mr.
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