But then he recalls that, while growing up in Spokane, he didn’t realize how much our lives are affected by the fleets of merchant ships that carry goods from one international port to the next.
Sweeney, a 1977 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School, now splits time between the sea and what he calls a “hobby farm” on Whidbey Island, which he shares with his wife of 21 years, Frances.
It was to help explain the reality of life on the sea that Sweeney began writing columns for Pacific Maritime Magazine. Those columns have been collected and published under the title “From the Bridge: Authentic Modern Sea Stories” (Philips Publishing, 183 pages, $15.95 paper).
He seems to have succeeded.
“Sweeney is equally candid and not afraid to criticize in ‘From the Bridge’ ” wrote a reviewer for the Seafarers International Union. “He tackles a wide range of subjects including crew sizes, the amended STCW convention, piracy, entry training, holidays at sea, gender equality and much more.”
“He offers the reader true (and pertinent) words of wisdom, sea-going humor and little known facts,” wrote a reviewer for the Seattle nautical supply store Armchair Sailor. “The subject matter spans the entire sea-going experience. Enjoy the book! It’s definitely a good read for all of us whether afloat or ashore.”
Born in Fairbault, Minn., Sweeney and his family moved to Spokane in 1961. He attended Jefferson Elementary, Sacajawea Junior High, Ferris and LC.
After high school, Sweeney went into the army. Upon getting out, he did a short stint at Spokane Falls Community College before attending the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif.
In a recent phone interview from his Whidbey Island farm, Sweeney talked about how he became an author and a number of other issues.
What follows is an edited transcript of that interview:
Dan Webster: Why did you your family move here?
Kelly Sweeney: Because my dad, John Sweeney – who used to be a merchant seaman but later got a teaching degree at Carleton College and then a master’s at Mankato State – got a job teaching there in Spokane.
KS: He was for years at the continuation high school, until he retired in 1985.
DW: What did he teach?
DW: What was your impetus to go to sea?
KS: It was my dad. I remember sitting at his knee, and he would tell me stories of his travels in the world as a merchant sailor. Matter of fact, he was pulling into Capetown, South Africa, the day I was born. He didn’t see me for about a year. I dreamt of faraway places, and seeing the world. That’s why I went to sea. I didn’t realize the waves were as big as they were, though. … I was on a 600-foot car carrier, and we got caught in 60-foot seas. And the hull buckled. We were off the Aleutians when that happened, and it was the middle of winter. … The engineers ran down there and were going to weld a plate to hold it, to keep the bulkhead from working too much. I was a second officer at that point. It was the mid’-90s.
It was a scary thing. But, then, I’ve been on a ship that was boarded by pirates, too.
DW: Yeah, I read about that. What happenened? It was in the Caribbean, right?
KS: It was in the Dominican Republic. There’s a picture in the book of me and these two armed guards who were patrolling the deck as we where pumping cargo. And they play a key role in that story. Those two guys did their thing, and the next day there was a dead body floating in the river – one of the pirates who didn’t make it. It was Christmas night and they hit on my watch. And to have people who were intent on doing you harm or taking valuable equipment from the ship and then maybe slitting your throat in the process … I felt very vulnerable. And, of course, merchant ships don’t have weapons aboard. … I feel we need weapons out there. And I write about that.
DW: When did you start writing your monthly column?
KS: About five years ago. I was on a chemical tanker, and I got off the ship in Lake Charles, La. There were a number of magazines in the officer’s lounge, and I took one back to my room. For some reason I must have packed it away. And when I got home, I was, “Hey! I forgot that thing.” So I’m thumbing through it, Pacific Maritime Magazine, and on one page at the bottom it had an ad that said, “If you have any pictures of the maritime industry, give us a call.” So I called the guy up. It was Chris Philips. His dad started the magazine in the early ’80s, and he and his brother (Peter) took over when their dad passed away. … I said, “I’ve got pictures from some 20 years.” And he said, “Well, send them over. We’ll pay you a little bit and give you a byline, but we’re not going to give you a huge amount of money.” And I said, “OK.”
Then I told him, “You know what? I used to like your magazine, but I don’t really think too much of it anymore.” And he goes, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, you don’t have any stories of people who do the work.” I said, “When your magazine first came out, there were lots of stories about sailors and what we do out there. All I see now are people with suits and ties from the office. And that’s OK, but what about the sailors?” And he said, “Well, I’ve heard that before but nobody’s ever done anything about it. If you’re so uptight, why don’t you do something about it?” And I said, “OK, I will.”
I had been done some freelance stuff before that. I’d been published in some magazine, local and national. I’ve always had an interest in writing. The electives I took at the academy were all writing classes. People thought I was strange. Writing? That was something everybody took because they had to. I love writing. So anyway, I wrote two articles. One was about fatigue in the maritime industry, which to me is one of the dirty little secrets of the industry. One was about what I call know the basics, which came out of an experience I had on a tanker when the computer broke and the guy couldn’t figure out how many barrels we were pumping. On other words, he didn’t know the old way – the slide-rule way.
So I sent them, and I didn’t hear anything for a week or two. Then Philips called and he said, “Do you think you can do this every month, Kelly?” And I said, “Sure.” “Well,” he said, “what do you want to call it?” And I said, “How about ‘From the Bridge’? And then I said, “I’ll do it under one condition: You’re not going to tell me what to write. I’ll do it with taste, and I’ll do it with insight, but I might say something from my point of view as a mariner that people maybe advertising with the magazine might feel uncomfortable with. You have to be willing to accept that, or I’m not going to do it.” And he goes, “OK.” That was five and a half years ago.
DW: People want to read stories.
KS: They do, and they want to read first-hand stories. And there are so many times … You know the book “Looking for a Ship” by John McPhee, the guy who writes for the New Yorker? That book was based on a trip he made for a month on a container ship going to South America, going up and down from the East Coast. And it sold quite well. And a lot of mariners read it, and everybody was like, ‘Hey, man, this stuff is basic. What is this?’ Because it wasn’t first-hand.
The problem is, there are a lot of mariners who have opinions and stories, but they can’t convey it in writing. They’ll say, “Oh, this is a bunch of, you know …” They can’t say it clearly. And there are a lot of people who used to go to sea who have the time to sit down and write, but what they have to say isn’t timely. I’m kind of unique in that I still go to sea, and yet I have the time because of my schedule to write these.
DW: How often do you go to sea anymore?
KS: I do relief work. It varies. For many years I was steady with different companies. And now I work out of a union, the American Maritime Officers, and so people will call me up and say, “Hey, Kelly, I need a first officer for 60 days at Christmas. Can you handle it?” Or they’ll say, ‘Hey, Kelly, my skipper just broke his leg, and I don’t have anybody to on for two weeks. Can you fly out there, um, yesterday, and cover the ship until I can get somebody over there?”
DW: But coming up through the ranks, it wasn’t like that.
KS: As a matter of fact, when I got out the academy in 1983, shipping was slow and I actually started on deck. I started as an able seaman. I put in almost a year working on deck before I was able to go up to the wheelhouse. … To me it was one of the best things that ever could have happened. Because it gave me a true understanding, when I did get to the wheelhouse, of what to expect and what could be done. …
And this is one of the beefs that I have against the academy. I know some people didn’t want to hear that, but they need to hear it. I just think a lot of the academy people, they’re used to being served, and they have no understanding of the value of people’s efforts. And it’s reflected in my writing.
DW: How did you adjust to so much time away from land? Are you married?
KS: I’ve been married very happily for 21 years.
DW: How do you play off marriage against being gone for so long at a time.
KS: It helps that we get paid well. And there’s nowhere to spend the money. And these days regulations say – though I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen – these days “What do you do with a drunken sailor” is not a consideration. We fire them. Most of the men and women out there now are family people. You make a living wage. And, of course, they feed you and provide a place to sleep while you’re working. So that mitigates some of it. I think why it works for me is that my wife, who is a math teacher by profession, is a very strong person.
DW: What’s her name?
KS: Frances Sweeney. She’s a very strong person. You’ve got to have a spouse who is strong. You can’t have somebody who, when the toilet clogs up, doesn’t know what to do. And Frances not only built our house – I live on Whidbey Island now; we have a small hobby farm of 10 acres – but she and an uncle did it themselves, almost everything but the drywall and the foundation.
DW: Do you have any children?
KS: We chose not to have children. I’ve seen way too many sailors get divorced, because if you’re going to have a family, you’re going in opposite directions. The spouse has been doing nothing but taking care of the kids for months at a time. And when the sailor gets home, they’re like, “Let’s get to the beach, get a couple of Mai Tais and relax.” Whereas the one who’s been away wants to sit there and bounce the kids on the knee and hang out and play baseball. They’re always at cross purposes.
And by the way, these days many women go to sea. I work with many excellent women. In fact, I wrote a story about gender equality that has been widely quoted in the industry. There was still a small group that didn’t want women in, who fought against them, who were playing these games like “What head are they going to use” or “The captain’s wife isn’t going to like you being on there.” When I put that article out, I had heard through the grapevine that a couple of women had been taken as company officers. And now they’re sailing as masters, which I’m glad of.
DW: Do you still have family here in Spokane?
KS: I do. My mother (Mary Sweeney) still lives there, and my brother (Andrew) still lives there.
DW: Final question. What would you want landlubbers here in Spokane to know about you and about your book?
KS: I would say that very few people know how the merchant marine impacts them. For example, 70 percent, I would say, of what people use comes to them by ship. The cars the drive, the computers they use, the clothes they wear, in many cases even the food they eat. And yet they don’t realize it. The sea lift for Iraq and Afghanistan dwarfed anything in history, including Normandy. At the height of the Operation Iraqi Freedom there were over 5,000 merchant mariners and several hundred ships bringing cargo over there. And they’re still bringing cargo over there.
And this is going way back, but there were more people who died in the merchant marine during World War II percentagewise than in any other branch of the service, including the Marines. But they didn’t get the G.I. Bill, they didn’t get medals when they had a ship blown out from under them. And as a matter of fact, I knew guys who had a ship blown out from under them and their pay stopped that day. They were just lucky to have a ship in whatever port they landed in and if the captain felt sorry for them, he’d add them to the crew and bring them back to the States. Hopefully, that’s changing.
So I’m surprised by what people don’t know. But I didn’t know, growing up in Spokane. It’s a long way from the ocean. And yet those containers we see rolling down I-90, or all the agricultural goods that we see go down the Columbia River and head out in containers to Portland, lentils and beans and everything, they all ends up on ships. The merchant marine is part of our life, and whenever I write anything I try to do them right in the public’s eye.