By: John McDonnell
I met Shorty aboard the Research Vessel Trident in the fall of 1973. He was a rather stout, and as his nickname implies, rather short Puerto Rican ordinary seaman. His love of life and fun was infectious. For example, he bought a watermelon ashore, infused it with at least a 5th of vodka, and snuck it aboard. I wondered why the whole deck gang got so noisy at their afternoon coffee break and discovered the watermelon.
But what I remember Shorty for was an incident on the “fantail” of the vessel one evening. Since we were doing research for the University of Rhode Island, we always had a good complement of scientists and graduate students in Oceanography aboard. A number of them were women. One of the most attractive of them was Charlotte. She was a liberated young woman who wore short-shorts and blouses open at the top. Every evening, weather permitting, someone would play the guitar and we’d have a little party on the “fantail”, the stern of the ship. Alcohol, although officially not allowed, was often present and tolerated as long as it was discreet and quiet and used only by those off duty.
Shorty was a product of the inner-city, Charlotte was from the suburbs and academic community. Shorty met Charlotte at the evening fantail party. He politely asked if he could sit next to her, and she agreed. He then asked her if she would care for a cigar (long before they had their renaissance) and she agreed. He bit off the end of one, slobbered all over it, and handed it to her, and helped her light it. Then he asked her if she would care for a drink. She agreed, and he poured her an 8 oz. tumbler full of vodka. Poor Charlotte sat there with a cigar in one hand, a glass of straight vodka in the other, wondering what to do when Shorty asked her if she would like to see his tattoo. A bit warily she agreed, and in front of all hands, he dropped his drawers and “mooned” her with his tattoo on both cheeks, which was of two ship’s propellers, and the words, “Twin Screws-Keep Clear” over them. It is a warning posted on the stern of all twin screwed vessels.
Poor Charlotte rapidly disappeared, and never again attended a fantail party. However, she did forgive shorty. At the end of the cruise, Shorty obliged our scientific staff by allowing them to take photos of his tattoo as he proudly showed his posterior to the departing scientists.
Captain McDonnell’s Bio
I was born and raised in a town called Hollidaysburg, In Central Pennsylvania. My father was a design engineer at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Test Department in Altoona. He was an honors graduate from Yale back in 1922 and went to work as a young engineer for what was then the world’s largest corporation, the Pennsylvania Railroad. My mother was a prep school graduate from Highland Hall. She never went to college but was an intelligent woman who taught me a lot. She tutored me during my license exams, even sent me the morse code blinker light messages. She could have been a captain with her skill and knowledge. Both my parents loved to travel by ship, and as a young couple between the two world wars made a number of trips on freighters in the Caribbean. They loved to take me and my brother and sister on exciting and unusual trips to places like Moose Factory, Ontario, on a cruise on the Kenora across Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, the North Gaspe from Quebec City to Gaspe, and a cruise on Lakes Huron and Superior on the S.S. Norgoma. I really loved ship and train travel of that era. My father did not want me to work for the railroad but felt that the shipping industry still had a future. I applied and was accepted at the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, where I graduated in 1965.
The Vietnam war was starting when I graduated, and I quickly found work as a Junior Deck Officer on the U.S.N.S. Eltinge, a troop ship run by the Navy. We carried as many as 7000 soldiers from San Francisco to Vietnam as well as from Korea to Vietnam. The troop ships were mostly laid up after 1965, they were considered too primitive for modern times. I got a job on a wartime built Victory Ship, the Alamo Victory in November 1965, which was operated by American Foreign Steamship Company. I sailed with them from 1965 to 1973 on various ships and increased my licenses and my jobs from Third Mate up to Captain, and got my first command, a C-3 called the American Robin at the age of 29. As the Vietnam war wound down, and government contracts became scarce, I found a job as a Chief Mate with Lykes Lines in 1974 and worked there until my retirement in 1995.
On a trip to South America and the Falkland Islands in 1982, I met my wife to be, Ines Gonzalez down at the Southern tip of Argentina, on Perito Moreno Glacier. We were married the following year. It isn’t easy to find a wife when you are sailing six to ten months a year, but I was lucky.
I retired in 1995 when my wife, who was twenty years out of medical school in Argentina, was required to do a three-year residency in an American medical school in order to be licensed in the United States. She needed help with our young family, and I went from being a captain to being Mr. Mom. It was rewarding for a while, but after five years of that (at which time I wrote these sea stories) I wanted to go back to sea. The terms of my retirement would not let me do this, but there was an exception made for work on humanitarian relief vessels. I read about an organization called Mercy Ships, who operated several hospital ships that visited poor countries around the world with a volunteer crew and medical staff, and gave free surgeries to those who could not otherwise afford them. I also sailed for a time as a Captain of the M.V. Louisa, a ship owned by LeSea Global Feed the Hungry that carried food and missionaries to the Caribbean. I didn’t make money, but I re-connected to my love of ships and the sea. At this writing I have just renewed my Master’s license for the 9th time, and can sail another five years, God willing.