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4.6 out of 5 stars
Looking for a Ship
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
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. But when I closed the back cover, it was with somewhat melancholy satisfaction, as I recognized that yet another romantic calling has died at the hand of modern technology. The book ends suddenly, almost prematurely. I had found myself very interested in the lives I was introduced to, and wanted to know more.
After you've finished your latest powerful read, and before you begin your next, I highly recommend that you cleanse your palette with this simple and fulfilling study of the modern Merchant Marine. I doubt you'll be disappointed. An "8" rating may be high when comparing this book with some of the classics, but _Looking for a Ship_ is not trying to be a classic. Its aims are limited, yet few books hit their intended mark as cleanly as this one does. I give McPhee great credit for so elegantly doing exactly what he set out to do.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 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
on August 9, 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
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
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
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. McPhee could have handled any period in the Merchant Marines history as capably as he does here, but there is an extra twist in that he has captured a time when the slow dissolution of the industry lends the story a lonesome, melancholy tone. (The book was published in 1991 but surely gathered together in the late '80's as there's no mention of the Gulf War and its massive movement of equipment.) It is an interesting, indicative snapshot - people don't seem to remember, or may be too young to know, that the end of the eighties was a very difficult time all around in this country, especially for those jobs that actually produced material things. The Merchant Marine evidently suffered under the same malaise as the rest of the country, precipitously falling to less than five hundred ships, and a fantastic addition to a twentieth anniversary printing of this book would be an afterward by Mr. McPhee, bringing his readers up to date on the state of the fleet. As it is, he leaves his readers with a bleak assessment of the future of U.S. flagged ships and their crewmen - and a cursory search over the internet seems to confirm that it hasn't changed.

One small nit-pick, which will affect each reader differently, is the illumination of the personalities involved. The majority of these sketches were appropriately clever and insightful - and recognizable. But there was a moment, mid-way through the book's examination of the captain, where I was reminded of the front seat interviews of police officers on patrol during the television show 'Cops', or of the interviews with the fishing vessel captains on 'The Most Dangerous Catch'. If you've never cringed at how un-self-aware some of these interviewees appear to be as they reveal their outsized egos, then you will probably not mind the same thing in print. To further cement the connection, I've worked with several un-self-aware personalities whose voice sounds remarkably similar to that of Captain Washburn, the captain of the S.S. Stella Lykes. Except Mr. McPhee presents Captain Washburn as an effective officer and a man the entire crew enjoyed sailing for - but, unfortunately, once I latched onto the resemblance between Captain Washburn's interview and those of 'Cops', I couldn't get it out of my head.

Honestly, this objection is less than minor. Even if a deep-sea vessel and a towboat paddling up and down a river are worlds apart, there is plenty enough similarity to know that Mr. McPhee has a sharp eye for detail and tradition - and for people. It isn't the job or the events or the situation that makes this a captivating book - as exotic as they are - nor does the author rely on these specifics to drive his story. It is, instead, like all successful dramas - entirely dependent on the ability of the author to convey the personalities of the cast. Thus, there is little need to have an overwhelming interest in the Merchant Marines to enjoy or appreciate this book. In fact, it might actually disappoint if that was what the reader was looking for, as it covers the facts in broad strokes and downplays the minutia. Rather, all that's necessary is that the reader share at least a little of the fascination Mr. McPhee has for that curious relationship between a person and their occupation, and some of the respect he has for dedication to a skill. Genuine and un-patronizing respect.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2010
Format: Paperback
... all protein and fiber, intelligence and information instead of starchy ambiguities and sugary imaginings, John McPhee is the word-chef for you! There's nothing in literature as matter-of-fact as a McPhee description of a work space. Only two writers in any language have ever had the knack of turning a list of gear into poetry: John McPhee and Walt Whitman. The comparison ends there, of course; McPhee is the guy you'd want holding your ladder, Whitman the guy you'd want holding your hand after you fell.

This is an "easy" McPhee. It doesn't require the concentration or the broad background knowledge of his massive books about the geology of North America. It belongs on the shelf with his similar quick-read books about long-haul trucking, tennis, and orange juice. This time, McPhee ships out as a passenger-observer on the merchant marine ship Stella Lykes for a forty-two-day cruise through the Panama Canal, down the Pacific Coast of South America, and back to Charleston SC. His 'informant' on this adventure is his 'buddy' Second Mate Andy Chase; McPhee is the sort of literary gent who WOULD have a merchant mariner for a buddy. On the ship, McPhee gathers impressions -- life stories -- of the crew, especially of Captain Paul McHenry Washburn, as staunch a seaman as any in literature. McPhee also depicts the ports the ship visits in all their vivid squalor and riskiness, including several episodes of piracy. But the central theme of the book is the decline of the American merchant marine and the implications of that precipitous decline for America's "soul", for the society that once went forth in tall ships and now simply sends its jobs abroad. "Looking for a Ship", though brightly entertaining to read, is in fact an elegy for American "genius" and working-class dignity. Appropriately and poetically, in a book that presents itself as pure prose, the voyage of the Stella Lykes ends with an albatross circling its bow, its engines stalled, "dead in the water."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
An excellant book that is at times laugh out loud funny. One of the main characters, Andy, graduated a couple years behind me and I was aquainted with him so it made the book even more real. The people described are defintely the real deal. It's a book that I reread nearly every year.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2008
Format: Paperback
John McPhee has a unique investigative journalist style that I personally find very enjoyable, and he generally picks interesting topics to "meander" through. Looking for a Ship is not a disappointment in any regards to those who enjoy his writings. His general approach is to almost lazily wander through a topic, exploring it in a fairly free form but adventurous manner and going wherever he wants to within the subject matter. As such we find him glomming on to a merchant marine sailor looking for a ship on the southeastern seaboard and using this as a springboard into exploring the then modern state of the US shipping fleet. An industry in tough times and with arcane union rules, and also one with a storied history (the merchant marine had a higher casualty rate than all the armed services in World War II save the Marines), merchant mariners strike a strange balance between free lance labor and union organization. Finding a vessel to work on is like going to an auction where the auctioneer bids for you and everyone else and it can be both a grating and boring experience for those trying to eke out a living. Finally John McPhee's subject du jour gets a chance to work on a freighter on a South America run. This leads to getting onboard the ship and a myriad list of relatively unconnected sea stories about storms, encounters with US submarines, and experiences in the Merchant Marine academy. Next the author investigates the cargo on the ship, what it is, where it's going, where it came from, how it's sold, how it's loaded, how it's unloaded, and every other detail, including horses that are brought onboard along in a converted 40 foot container complete with a feeder / trainer. As McPhee lazily explores the ship and its agenda of ports he next focuses on the ship's captain and his history, even following the captain back to his home in Florida and staying with him for a few weeks. By the end it's almost like you had gone on a vacation with press credentials to allow you access to anywhere you wanted and the power to ask people any question you wanted. This literary vacation through the Merchant Marine explores an American Tradition and industry on the severe decline in a globalized world, the generally safe and trim US flag ships being out-competed by third world flagged and multi-lingual crewed ships paying near slave wages. A local harbor master in South America reveals that he can always tell when he's on an American ship because they are the only ones that "smell clean." The worst thing that can happen to a ship in the open water is to lose the powerplant. In an omen for the current and future state of the US Merchant Marine, which played a truly central role in our nation's growth and our victory in WWII, John McPhee concludes his story with the plant actually going out on his host ship. This book, despite it's apparent disorganization and aimless but interesting wandering, is actually a rather poignant elegy for a dying American tradition and the few souls left who carry the torch into a darkening night.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I rarely re-read a book, but this is one I find myself reading again and again. It also was my first introduction to John McPhee, and he has since become my favorite living author! He could write about quilting bees and make it interesting!
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