This piece ran in Sunset‘s January 1928 issue. In it, the acclaimed novelist, best known for the Perry Mason series, provides “Some Sidelights on the Human Side of Transporting the Vast Tonnage of Freight That is Shipped by Boat from the West to the Markets of the East”

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Clark Miller

It was approaching midnight. Beneath the white glare of the clustered incandescents men toiled frantically. Stripped to the waist, they resembled strange white beetles attracted by the glare of the lights.

Donkey engines chug-chug-chugged, winches rattled, and occasionally one of the steel cables whipped itself against a steel boom with a mellow clang, like the bell of a huge clock. On the bridge, the captain paced back and forth. From time to time he consulted his watch, then looked aft over the great hulk, out to where the black waters of San Francisco bay stretched in inky silence. A heavy-set figure lumbered up to the bridge, a giant of a man whose white, drawn face was pallid with fatigue. “All right, Captain, I’m going to let you get away. I’ll have a tug here in twenty minutes.” The captain snapped his watch back into his pocket and, of a sudden, his restless pacing became as purposeful as the stalking of a cat. On noiseless feet he slipped to the wing of the bridge, surveyed the dock, now grown strangely silent, and looked at the inky blackness astern. “Tug be hanged. I’m three hours late now.” The company manager shifted uncomfortably. “Tide’s running half in, Captain.” The captain paused mid-stride, surveyed him with cold eyes and smiled. It was a strange smile. The lips moved, almost into a grin. The eyes remained steady, and cold. The company manager seemed to interpret that smile, for he stretched out his hand. “All right, Captain. Pleasant voyage.”

The captain grasped the outstretched hand, and his smile suddenly flashed from his lips into his eyes.

“Good-bye,” he said, and stepped to the other wing of the bridge. In some manner he contrived to give the impression of having finished the stride he had been taking when he paused before the manager. The heavy set man sprinted down the steel stairs, clambered across piled lumber. I watched him with a smile. He seemed to be in the most unseemly haste. As I watched, there came a jangling of bells from the interior, a creaking of a line on a dolphin. The creaking became a shriek. A low voice called an order from the bridge, an order that was swiftly relayed the four hundred odd feet of the dark boat.

The company manager had reached the wharf, and stood, white and anxious of face, watching the was then I realized we were moving.

I am not enough of a seaman to know exactly how lines were manipulated to take the place of the tug boat, but they were. Winches purred, the boat throbbed, lines shrieked and docks were cleared. They were cleared by a matter of inches, but they were cleared. The terrific force of the incoming tide was estimated to a nicety, distances were gauged to fractions of a foot—and the water front of San Francisco slipped quietly astern.
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In the pilot house all was darkness and tension. Colored lights slipped by, then pneumatic counter clacked forth the revolutions of the single screw—and the captain stepped from window to window upon silent feet. Occasionally he gave a compass course in a low tone. The quartermaster repeated the course, and from the bowels of the ship sounded the whirr of the steam steering mechanism.

We cleared the heads, rounded the light boat, and I went below. The captain was bent over a chart, drawing a straight line with a pencil and ruler. After half an hour I stepped back to the chart house. He was still there, busied with piled charts and note books.

His smile seemed cordial, inclusive, so I stepped to his side.

He picked up a calendar, pulled off one of the sheets and circled a date with a pencil. “See that date, Mister?”

I nodded. “What is it?”

“That’s the date this boat is due back in Norfolk, Virginia.”

I looked at the calendar, glanced at the long stretch of watery miles which showed on the big chart, thought of the other charts that were in the drawers and which I had been inspecting that afternoon.

“How much leeway do you have on that date, Captain?” Once more the teeth flashed. “Not a damn minute, Mister.” With that he turned on his heel and went below. “Good night,” he called from his cabin. I returned his call and rolled into my bunk. There followed days of monotonous weather. Cape San Lucas showed under a bank of piled up clouds. The tropical heat gripped everything and every one. Engineers coming off duty would pause to take off their shoes, turn them up and let the perspiration splash out on the sizzling deck. The boat throbbed steadily on.

There was a blown tube in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, a smashing head sea in the Caribbean, a thick fog in the north of the Windward passage. There was a delay in the Panama Canal, a steady head wind in the Atlantic—but the boat pulsed her way into Hampton Roads and came to dock in Norfolk, Virginia on the exact date which the captain had encircled with a pencil there off the San Francisco harbor.

And there was an illustrative incident in connection with that docking.

It was nearing midnight. A thick fog hung over the water. From all sides sounded the booming of whistles, the clanging of bells. About us was thick, impenetrable, fog-filled darkness. The boat had to take nearly a right angled turn from the channel and the captain had wirelessed for a tug to come out and swing him around. As the tug captain stood in conversation on the bridge, the freighter captain suddenly cocked his head to one side. From the encircling darkness there came that confusion of orderly noise which only a foggy night can bring in a busy harbor channel, yet the captain’s ears picked out one faintly clanging bell, and his head jerked toward it.

“What’ve they done? Put a new bell on that buoy?”

The tug-boat captain nodded.

“The other one broke down and they put this one in her yesterday.”

The captain of the freighter nodded his relief. “I just caught a different tone in the bell and it worried me,” he said.

When we had been safely docked and the captain was stepping with thistledown efficiency from the chart house, I asked him a question.

“Captain, how often do you do this?” He paused, mid-step to look at me blankly.

“Do what?”

“Make your trip exactly on schedule.”

“Every trip.”

“But, surely, you have a certain leeway for bad weather, emergencies and such?”

He nodded, almost enthusiastically. “Oh yes, they give me a margin.” “How much is it?” “Half a day.”

At the time I thought he was joking. Later I found out he was telling the bare truth.

Competition is keen in the coast-to-coast freighting business, rates are virtually uniform. The result has been a struggle for schedule maintenance. When a business man is informed that he can expect a shipment on the twenty-fifth of the following month it interferes with his plans if they shipment arrives on the twenty-eighth. There was several large, dependable companies engaged in coast-to-coast freighting, and when they tell the business men at either end that the shipment can be expected on the twenty-fifth it arrives on the twenty-fifth.

Of course there are exceptions, but the exceptions are few and far between. The boats have a certain speed flexibility. It is not much, but it counts when it is multiplied by twenty-four hours for several days at a time. But captains don’t like to use that speed flexibility. It means more oil consumption, and oil consumption is one of the things that owners take into account.

As a result, efficiency upon these freighters has been developed until it has become marvelous. The impossible is merely the difficult, and the difficult becomes a matter of everyday accomplishment. These boats establish themselves into independent, floating communities. They are prepared to cope with any emergency, and they master emergencies with such tools and equipment as they have. Take the captain’s electric iron, for example. He had burnt out an element. Examination showed that it had been constructed of a certain metal having an exact electrical resistance, that it had been stamped in a zig-zag and nestled between carefully trimmed sheets of isinglass. The captain casually remarked he would have the deck engineer fix it. I ventured a bet of five dollars that it couldn’t be fixed. The captain covered the bet with a cold-eyed lip-smile, then suddenly let the smile flash up to his eyes, and said, “All right, Mister, I’ll give you some chance for a win.” With that he took the sheets of isinglass and the remains of the burnt-out element and heaved them overboard. To the deck engineer he handed merely the shell of the electric iron. “Fix it,” he said.

The deck engineer tuned the parts over in his hands.

“Where’s the rest of the parts?” The captain stared at him for two or three seconds, his eyes cold, frosty. “Fix it,” he repeated. The deck engineer colored slightly.

“When shall I have it, sir?”

“By tomorrow night.” I made it a point to watch that deck engineer. He had to begin at first principles. He didn’t know the amount of electrical resistance necessary. He couldn’t blow out the fuses and he couldn’t develop too much heat. He had to arrange for insulation and work out the size and shape of his core. He tried a spiral of a certain wire, found that a spiral wouldn’t work and that the wire didn’t have enough resistance. He tried flattening out the vore and found that the current “jumped”. He scratched his head and began all over again. At eight bells the next evening, after we had finished dinner and were sitting out on the bridge deck, getting what breeeze there was, the deck engineer padded across the steel deck to respectful attention at the captain’s chair.

“Yes, sir,” he said, and handed the captain the iron.

It was significant that the captain didn’t ask if it worked all right. He merely took the iron, dropped it to the deck and extended his hand for my five dollars. He had been betting on a cinch.

Afterwards I took that iron to pieces.

The parts that were in it were nothing at all like the parts the captain had thrown overboard. The whole interior of that iron had been changed. I press out a suit with it, and the iron seemed to really work better than a new iron. It is still in use. The incident is significant. It shows the utter independence of a seagoing engineer. He must accomplish results with length and breadth of a boat. And owners do not tie up their money in carrying a complete stock of odds and ends for repair work. The engineers are given but two things, tools and the opportunity to use them. They are accustomed to give results rather than explanations. Explanations may work on shore, but they have never been known to get a disabled boat into port under her own power—and within that half day allowance of leeway. Then there is the matter of crews. Every trip a big percentage of the crew is new—new to the boat, new to the sea. There is the constant necessity of fighting rust. Between ports the boat is painted, painted from stem to stern. Rust must be chipped, scraped, painted. Masts must be painted, decks oiled, hull painted.

Mates are expected to take green men and instruct them in the performance of work that is usually considered as being more or less skilled labor. They must take a nondescript bunch of men of all ages and dispositions and weld them into a homogenous crew, a something that functions as a part of the ship, works as a unit. There will be anarchists, bullies, fighters, talkers, agitators and scum in that crew. They must be taught discipline. Not the sort of discipline that merely says “yes sir” and “no sir” but the discipline that works for hours at a stretch at top speed and accomplishes results.

And the boat covers a lot of water, first and last. Take the run from the pine-clad hills of the Pacific Northwest, down through the redwood belt, along the chaparral covered slopes of southern California, past the arid wastes of Mexico as shown in lower California, down into the tropics where parrots call and monkeys chatter, backup toward the north, across the Caribbean, through the Windward Passage up to New England and into port.

In the winter the boat runs from the wet weather of the Pacific Northwest down through sunny California, into the tropics where Southern Cross blazes steadily downward and the heat becomes almost stifling, up into the cold weather of New England, with probably a terrific blizzard off Cape Cod, and into port covered with snow—right on schedule.

This freighting business affects our national welfare more than we realize. There is a lot of money tied up in it. It gives employment to a lot of men, and it brings the economic resources of one coast into exchange with another. Take the lumber mills in California, Oregon and Washington. A lot of their lumber goes east, and it goes east by boat. It is hardly possible to ship lumber by rail for a such a distance, even if rates permitted. But a four-hundred-and-fifty-foot freighter can, will and does store her hold with cargo and then carry a deck load of a million feet of lumber.

Perhaps it is this lumber which is the determining factor, but the fact remains that the tide of business is from the west to the east as far as ocean freight is concerned. It is much easier to get a full load for an east-bound freighter than it is to get one for a west-bound.

And that brings up the problem of the shore end of the steamship business. Every morning, promptly at nine o’clock, solicitors start covering coastal cities for freight. They work steadily until five in the afternoon and they bring in a most miscellaneous assortment of freight orders. The Williams Line, for instance, maintains a force of four men in San Francisco and three in Oakland. They maintain a corresponding number in each of the large orders based on guaranteed delivery within a certain time limit. Then comes the job that gives company managers gray hair. They must load the boats so that they show a maximum profit and so that they freight all gets there on schedule. Freight rates are made by ton of 2000 lbs weight, but when they reach the steamship offices they must be translated into terms of the cubic foot. Theoretically a boat has so much ton-carrying capacity. Actually she has so many storage feet of space. As a general average, a ton becomes forty-cubic feet of will vary from lumber, which runs one hundred and twenty feet to the ton, to steel which runs twenty. Canned goods run about sixty.

A boat must be loaded with so much cargo freight below deck and so much deck load. The hold cargo must be balanced with the idea of stowage and loading ever in mind. There will be several holds and those holds should be all loaded at about the same time.

It is impossible to load a boat to capacity and have the trip show less net returns than another trip where she was two-thirds loaded. Owners want profits. Incidentally they don’t want boats sent out loaded light. They want each boat to be loaded to capacity, to earn capacity and to travel on schedule. There is no other line of human activity where results count so heavy, where excuses fall so short.

It would be ideal if freight rates could be based on tonnage feet and ship’s capacity. Actually rates are based on industrial competition. The shipping companies must enable the lumber companies of the Pacific coast to get their lumber on the Atlantic coast at a price which will compete with local lumber and show a profit. Oregon fir competes with southern pine. The same is true of canned goods, of every article of merchandise handled. It must be packed and stored so it will arrive in good condition, and carried for a rate which enables it to sell against competition at a profit.

Where one considers the problem of loading a boat to capacity, making rates which satisfy economic conditions, securing hold freight and deck load, properly balancing each, equalizing the various stowage weights so that the earning capacity of the ship will be at a maximum, and having another boat coming in day after tomorrow, with thirteen competing companies fighting for business—well, it’s a great game.

Day by day a stream of freighters plow their through heaving waters, going from Atlantic to Pacific, and they pass a similar stream going from Pacific to Atlantic. Each one of the boats is loaded to capacity, each one earning a profit or else there is a shake-up due in the shore management. Each one of the boats is travelling on a schedule, and the captain is allowed might small leeway on that schedule. Each one of those boats is an independent, separate community, absolutely self-reliant. It must get into port under its own power and on schedule. Such repairs as have to be made while the boat is at anchor must be timed to coincide with loading and unloading periods.

On sea or shore, ocean freighting, via canal, from coast to coast, becomes one of the most absorbing, fascinating, high-pressure occupations that a man can engage in. It is also why men in the shipping game, both on sea and on shore are used to getting and giving results. They are too busy to make excuses, too competent to have to. It is not a game for the weak sister or Alibi-Ike. It is a game that demands men and makes men. It is something that will  make or break a man quicker than any other branch of shipping, and it is crammed around with action, swift decisions and all around good fellows. She may be merely a slow freighter, lumbering her way along at nine knots, spatted with rust, crewed by grimy riff-raff, but she’s a marvel of floating efficiency, nevertheless, and back of her is a long and complex problem of ton-feet, loading, shipping, and delivering on time. And she’s enabling the lumber mill on the Pacific to come in competition with the lumber mill on the Atlantic, keeping down building costs, increasing mill wages, and making men.

All of which are but a few of the factors that are incident upon the West going East.

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