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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By noon, the ship was ready to sail and the all volunteer crew brought the lines in.
Backing out was tight—sharing the pier was the ready reserve ship ss Wright, and we maneuvered quite close while exiting the berth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.