A Weekend On The Liberty Ship SS JOHN W. BROWN

Ben Lyons submitted his highly illustrated article from a weekend as volunteer crew aboard WWII Liberty ship SS JOHN W. BROWN sailing from Baltimore to the Colonnas shipyard in Norfolk over the weekend of August 6 & 7, 2011 – Martin Cox

SS JOHN W. BROWN by volunteer crew member Ben Lyons

It may have been passenger ships that first started my fascination with ships when I was five years old, but it was a cargo ship that convinced me to go to sea for a living. Hearing there was an opportunity to volunteer as part of the crew on the WWII Liberty Ship John W. Brown, I began volunteering when I was only 13. While I was one of very few young crew members amongst the mostly veteran aged crew, I relished the chance to work on a ship and go behind doors marked “Crew Only.” Almost 20 years later, I still return to the Brown as often as I can.

The John W. Brown at her normal berth—Pier 1 Clinton St, Baltimore.

This past weekend provided a welcome opportunity to sail the ship not only without passengers but also on an overnight passage. Originally scheduled for her five yearly drydocking in October, Colonnas shipyard in Norfolk, VA contacted the ship only a few weeks ago to ask if it was possible for us to change our schedule and be in the yard in August. A quick email was sent out to the regular crew members, and seeing that I had the weekend free, I jumped at the chance to sail the ship from her home in Baltimore down the Chesapeake Bay.

The Brown’s crew is still largely made up of veteran aged volunteers. Those in their 60s are looked on as the ‘young ones’

I left my home in New York City on Friday afternoon, leaving me plenty of time to board the ship Saturday morning. The planned journey was relatively short- we would sail at noon on Saturday and arrive Sunday morning around 8am. The crew would disembark and return to Baltimore via bus that day.

By the time I arrived Saturday morning, preparations for sailing were already well underway. The boilers had been lit off at midnight, and as I walked up the gangway, the shore connection for potable water was being removed.

Project Liberty Ship Chairman Mike Schneider (US Merchant Merchant Marine Academy graduate , deck officer, and career Naval Officer volunteers his non administrative time in the engine room as a Fireman Watertender. Here, he lights off the boiler.) Soon, we’d shift over to ship’s power and only the mooring lines would tie the Brown to the pier.
The potable water connection from the pier is disconnected as the Brown makes preparations for getting underway.

Up on deck, the old-fashioned yard and stay rig was in use. Hundreds of life jackets (many of which originally belonged to the SS United States) had been stored on deck in anticipation of the upcoming September cruise.

Lifejackets on the after part of the ship are landed on the pier before being lifted back onto the ship forward of the superstructure.

Now, they had to be loaded into the tween deck cargo hold before sailing, a process that involved several more steps than merely operating a hydraulic hatch as found on today’s ships. Battens and strongbacks were removed, three layers of canvas pulled back, numerous hatchboards removed by hand and a large steel beam removed with the cargo gear.

A cargo hatch is opened the old fashioned way.
The author, in the green t-shirt- helps with lifting the hatch boards, most commonly used today as coffee tables!


One of the hatch beams is gingerly lifted with the ship’s cargo gear as the Chief Mate directs the winches.

Working with the booms has always been one of my favorite activities on the Brown; these labor intensive activities are common to the crew, but hardly ever seen in modern shipping.

One of the two operators working the winches to lower some of the lifejackets into the hold


The lifejackets stowed below, the work begins to close up the hatch again and secure the cargo gear for sea.
The Chief Mate helps tie off the preventer now that the boom is in a stowed position for sea.

Inbetween assisting with the lifejackets, I went up to the bridge to see the ship’s 80+year old 2nd Mate Frank Schmidt. Frank and I went through the steps to start up the Sperry Mark XIV  gyrocompass, allowing it plenty of time to warm up and ‘hunt’ for the true course before sailing.


2nd Mate Frank Schmidt prepares to light off the Brown’s Gyro compass.

Advanced for its time, this gyro is positively enormous compared to the modern fiber-optic gyros being built today. In order to start it, Frank and I consulted his textbook from when he was at the Merchant Marine Academy in the 1940s, just to be sure we remembered the steps correctly.

The inner workings of a Mark XIV Gyrocompass- a sight rarely seen at sea today.

By noon, the ship was ready to sail and the all volunteer crew brought the lines in.

Line handling is still very much a manual process on the Brown.
More line handling.

Backing out was tight—sharing the pier was the ready reserve ship ss Wright, and we maneuvered quite close while exiting the berth.

A tight squeeze, as the Brown backs out of Pier 1 close to the Ready Reserve ship SS WRIGHT. Once clear, the tug was let go and we were pointed down the bay.



While the afternoon was relatively hot, we were fortunate in that it was also relatively windy. Without air conditioning, the interiors can get very warm very quickly on a summer’s day. While some of the deck crew not standing a watch helped out clearing out a section of #5 hold in anticipation of work to be carried out in drydock, most everyone else did their best to escape the heat. Many simply stood at the rail, watching the Bay go by.

The delights of sitting on bits and watching the sea go by.
Old and New. Crew members checking their email on deck.


Some took to relaxing in the Crew Mess, although the small fans did little to cool the heat.
Twin spans, twin vents and twin booms- the Brown passes under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

I was assigned as the officer on the 4×8 watch. Navigating from the flying bridge, unprotected from the elements, meant that I felt the full force of the strong Force 6 winds right on our nose for the four hours. The wind slowed the ship down, causing us to average only 7.5 to 8 knots. The QUEEN MARY 2 it was not.

A room without a view! The Bridge affords limited viewing, with only 3 small windows, so most navigating is done from the Flying Bridge.
An empty room. The Bridge on the Brown.
A face only a ship historian could love? Looking from #3 hold aft onto the Brown’s superstructure. The three bridge windows are clearly visible.

In terms of experience, the BROWN must easily be one of the most qualified ships at sea. The 3rd Officer and myself both had Unlimited Master’s licenses (and the 3rd Officer had sailed as Captain on US flagged ships for many years.) The two ABs on the 12×4 watch were both licensed deck officers, and an AB on the 8×12 watch was a retired docking master and pilot! The Chief Mate had retired at the age of 70 as a Delaware Bay pilot, and still held his pilotage for the Chesapeake Bay, and we had yet another retired pilot in the deck gang.

Even steering is done the old fashioned away.
The Brown is an equal opportunity employeer. Here, one of the electricians asks for a turn steering, while the AB guides him from behind.
No uniforms here! When underway without passengers, the crew dresses casually. That is the Captain in the center of the picture.
Possibly wishing for either the ship’s 20+ knot speed, or the air conditioning, (or even the carpeting and food), several crew look on longingly as the Enchantment of the Seas overtakes the Brown.

Following watch, I enjoyed what has become a part of my seagoing ritual whenever possible—a quiet walk around deck around sunset. I’ve always found this to be the most peaceful time onboard, as some crew start making their way to bed, while others are clustered on deck, quietly talking while watching the sea go by.

Post watch socializing.
A view forward through a porthole.
The chartroom as evening falls.

Oftentimes, there is at least one person sitting in the crew mess, indulging in another dessert before bed. The interior lights give the wood paneling a warm glow, and the rhythmic thumping of the ship’s engine is felt throughout the house.

The warm wooden interiors on the Brown.
Evening falls on the Brown.

With the sun fully set, I went below for a quick visit to the engine room. Another John Brown ritual I have is to make sure I visit the engine room at least once when I’m on the ship underway. The sight of the triple expansion engine operating is simply mesmerizing, as the whir of crankshafts and connecting rods and pistons mixes with the smell of hot oil. Oiler Carlos Ramon was deftly sampling the oil by sticking his hands into the spinning crankshaft, perfectly timing his motions with the 65 RPMs of the engine.

Oiler Carlos lubricates the main engine, his hands perfectly in synch with the speed of the engine.
Oiler Carlos lubricates the main engine, his hands perfectly in synch with the speed of the engine.

The fireman watertender watches the steam pressure, temperature and water level inbetween the two boilers.
The fireman watertender watches the steam pressure, temperature and water level inbetween the two boilers.
The engine room.

Soon, it was past 930pm, however, and it was time for bed. My 4am watch would come awfully early, I knew, and with high hopes that my cabin had cooled off just a little bit in the evening, I went to bed.

As wonderful as cruising on the John Brown is, there is one definite disadvantage in being underway on the ship in the summer: no air-conditioning. Despite the strong breeze that blew on the Bay that night, very little made it into the house. A small electric fan in the cabin managed to hit only the lower half of my body, and the air inside was muggy and uncomfortable. The steel soaked up the heat and refused to let it go but somehow, I managed to get to sleep around 1130pm. Suffice to say, the shower I took when I woke up at 330am was a welcome one indeed and may have been the highlight of my day.

Walking up to the bridge in darkness, I saw that we were on schedule and about two hours away from picking up the Virginia Pilot. We were making over 8 knots, even with reducing the speed of the engine, and the wind had died considerably. A few passing clouds brought drizzles but no prolonged rain.

Shortly after 6am, we picked up our pilot and proceeded inbound, the light just starting to appear in the sky.

The Brown’s Captain, Rick Bauman, confers with the Norfolk Pilot. The Brown’s veteran crew (and several retired pilots) had years of experience (and matching stories) in these waters, causing the Captain to say to the pilot, “I bet this is the only time you get a ship where the crew tries to give you local knowledge!”

The Brown is already a ship full of early risers, in part due to the lack of air-conditioning, the general noise of others moving about shared cabins and the average age of the crew. This morning, however, everyone was given a 6am wake up call when the Chief Mate made a shipwide broadcast that breakfast had been moved ahead and was now being served!

Approaching Norfolk Naval Base.

By 7am we were approaching the naval base, with two aircraft carriers in port amidst many other gray hulled vessels. An hour later, we were off the city center and picking up two McCallister tugs who helped guide us through a narrow drawbridge.

The AB steering into Norfolk.
Passing through the drawbridge, with the shipyard in sight.
One of the two McCallister tugs and the yard tug that helped the Brown into the berth at the shipyard.

Shorty thereafter, we turned towards Colonnas shipyard and slipped into a lay berth. It was another tight squeeze- the tug barely fit between us and the adjacent pier.

The tug barely fit between the adjacent berth and the Brown.

By 930am, the Brown was all fast and preparations were underway for putting the ship back onto shore power.

With their work complete, the crew headed for the showers and began packing up in anticipation of an air conditioned bus ride back to Baltimore.

Freshly showered, the crew start piling off the Brown to head to the bus.

A few crew members will rotate through the ship in the yard for the next two to two and a half weeks, helping to oversee yard work and be present for inspections. Happily, there is little that needs to be done other than surveys and inspections, although some steel work will be done on one of the tank tops towards the stern. As with all operations on the Brown, the entire cost of the drydock will be paid for with private donations.

The Brown at the Colonnas shipyard.

In two and a half weeks, the Brown’s crew will be summoned, once again, to bring their old ship back to Baltimore. Her steaming season is not over, however, with another Living History cruise in September and an annual Veteran’s Day trip in November. While I won’t be able to work my schedule around the return trip from the shipyard, I’ll most certainly be onboard in September and November, doing my part, along with the rest of the Brown’s exceptional and dedicated crew, to keep this gallant old ship steaming.

Author Ben Lyons on watch

About the author: Ben Lyons has a lifelong fascination with ships and has sailed as chief officer on both the QUEEN MARY 2 and the polar expedition ship NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER. He is currently taking a short break from the sea to attend Columbia Business School in New York City.


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