Bringing the Mediterranean Sun to Marcus Hook

(Published in The Inquirer Magazine, Today on August 9, 1981)

Story by Robert R. Frump

(Robert has also written many other marine related stories and one of my favorites is: Until the Sea Shall Free Them 

Visit his website:

BRINGING THE MEDITERRANEAN SUN TO MARCUS HOOK - This region is the largest refining center on the East Coast.  Here's how the oil gets here


    Beginning the night before, continuing all through the day, and then for much of this night, the big tanker had sucked crude oil through pipes that looked like three long straws attached to the pier at La Sakhirra, Tunisia. The straws in turn were attached to a pipeline that arched back along a gray causeway toward the sand-brown land with its scrubby sandalwood and olive trees, and then west toward the oilfields of Algeria, where it had come up out of the ground.
    Now, bloated like a fat black tick, her weight slung like lead below her waist at the waterline, the tanker, named the Mediterranean Sun and owned by Sun Transport of Aston, Pa., routinely prepared to cast off in the black North African night and start her journey from this land of dates and almonds to the land of cheese steaks and hoagies. Her next stop would be the Sun Co. refinery at Marcus Hook, Pa.
A whole section of the landscape was about to move. Scowling Domenica Fragala, half Arab and half Sicilian, wrestled to release the ropes half again as thick as his thigh that had held the ship's stern to the long pier jutting out into the Gulf of Gabes. Six stories up, Captain Antonio Mancini wound himself tight as a clenched fist as he watched the stern of the ship swing out from the pier. There was no hint of the small crisis to come in the dime's worth of green wire under the control panel on the bridge where he paced.  The angle between pier and ship seemed right. Everything seemed to be going routinely.
    At 5 feet 5 inches and 125 pounds, Mancini was the smallest man on the bridge, but his manner and the flashing cobalt-blue eyes beneath arched eyebrows left no question as to who was in command. A tennis sweater hung jauntily over his shoulders, and a long, thin, brown cigarette stuck in his fist. Soon he would order the lines that held the bow of the tanker released, so that it would swing out from the pier, and then, at just the right moment, he personally would turn the huge, turbocharged engine to full power, using a device near the wheel that looks like an oversized automatic floor shift on an expensive American car. The device buzzed sharply whenever speed changes were
made. But its resemblance to the old " telegraph," which rang bells in the engine room to increase power, ended there. This lever controlled the engine from the bridge. Advancing it was like pressing an accelerator. Sliding it all the way to " Full Ahead" would bring the engine throbbing to full power.
     That surge of power was crucial to the maneuver. The huge propeller would bite into the dark sea, frothing it white and driving the great ship, almost three football fields long, forward in a graceful arc, pivoting her bow away from the pier and sending her out toward the deep ship channels of the Mediterranean with all the grace of a fat figure skater.
    The moment arrived. Mancini stepped decisively to the engine control and slid it forward through " Dead Slow," " Slow" and " Half" to the ultimate position: " Full Ahead." He waited for the surge. It didn't come.
    Directly beneath him the small green wire had popped loose inside the engine- control mechanism. It dangled a fraction of an inch from the sliver of solder that had held it in place.
    But this was not apparent then. What was apparent was that there was trouble - that the Mediterranean Sun, loaded with 97,000 tons of crude oil, was adrift.
    Her weight at that moment was equal to 50,000 automobiles, many more than the number parked at Veterans Stadium for a football game. The ship, at least in relation to everything near her at La Sakhirra, had become something of an irresistible force. At only 0.2 knot, she could crush anything in the slow, creeping, relentless manner of an advancing glacier. The modern pier of reinforced concrete and steel could be crumpled like a mockup of aluminum foil and toothpicks if the tanker drifted back against it. That would cost money.
    The ship's hull itself, in the event of such a collision, could be breached.  Oil vapors and oxygen could mix, inviting the ball-of-fire explosions for which tankers are famous. That would cost lives. (More than 400 persons have died in such tanker explosions since 1968.)
    Now the stern continued to sweep outward, at a bigger and bigger angle.  And the bow of the ship was turning, too, lazily but surely, through an arc that would take it right through the pier if something was not done.
    Far below the bridge, in the main control room of the ship, Chief Engineer Luigi Germelli sat in a light blue jumpsuit behind a glass wall
overlooking the clattering, gargantuan eight-cylinder engine. He was the oldest officer on the ship, but he wore no paunch to show his 50-plus years, and he had no macho-man bearing to prove he was the engineer. Germelli has the manner of a kind surgeon, or a gentle priest. In fact, he is a gentleman in the old Italian tradition, a bachelor with a villa in Florence once owned by a Medici prince, a yacht near Portofino, vineyards, a taste for opera and fine food and a love of plants.
    Perched behind the glass wall overlooking the pea-green engine the size of a two- story house, he resembled an attentive concert-goer, craning his neck slightly, tilting his head one way, then the other.
    Germelli knew that the symphony was being played wrong. He cocked his head, and a look of concern played over his scrubbed-clean face, as if a bassoon had hit a flatulent note. The engine, he knew, should be throbbing now, not idling. Quickly he snapped up his phone to the bridge and began to say something to his old friend Mancini, but the captain spoke first. Overriding the ship's computerized navigation and control systems, which were blinking and buzzing their ineffectuality, Mancini had reached across the non-operating engine control to snatch the rubber-armored engine-room phone and bellow an order. " Give me the power ," he shouted.
    Germelli, still exuding calm, pushed on a metal lever that feeds the fuel manually to the engine. A tremor touched the ship. In seconds the engine was throbbing to full power. Pistons that could not be circled by five people holding hands chugged up and down with maximum force. Fuel valves the girth of a fat man jiggled and shook. Up top, the surge was more subdued. It was as if an elevator had bumped lightly into motion as the prop dug in.
    At the stern, the water boiled. The bow's movement toward the pier slowed, checked and stopped. The bow swung away from the pier and out toward deep water.
    " You see, it is a silly little thing, heh?" said Mancini later. He was kneeling on the floor where the panel beneath the control lever had been removed to reveal the electronic guts of the bridge. A fresh glob of solder now held the green wire in its place. Mancini pointed to it and a dozen other connections.
    " It is a silly little thing, yes, one silly little thing that can make this go 'BARROOM!,' heh? Unless you have the situation always in hand!"
    " Ahh," he said, now bubbling with good humor. " This is why Sun Oil sends its masters to expensive schools. This is why they pay them so much. Hah!  But they do not pay for my big liver, hey? For the stress?"
Calm returned. A few minutes later a falling star streaked from the skies across the bow, and after a little more than an hour a huge, half-crescent moon rose, framing the bow of the ship and pointing the way through water so calm and beautiful that it seemed to be frozen black lava etched in silver. The delicate shore scents of sandalwood and olive were joined now by the richer aroma of strong espresso coffee.
    On the control panel, the radar screens swept an amber terrain. The " Data Sail" system had been turned on. Course-setting instructions had been fed into the system's computer on punched tape, and the computer had taken on the job of analyzing the movements of the ship and the data gathered by the radar units as they scanned the night, reporting what they found on the two amber screens. The control panel, with its dozens of lighted dials and buttons, blinked, buzzed and glowed comfortingly. The Mediterranean Sun was on her

    Tankers are the capital ships of our times, the Yankee Clippers, the lifeline of a Western world whose economic life depends on massive
transfusions of foreign oil. They form great energy convoys bringing the black blood that gives us economic life from the Mideast and the North African shores. Always these ships are out there, in the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic, on the Delaware River. We take much notice of them only when these special ships have their special, spectacular problems. We were aware of what can happen to tankers, for instance, in the early hours of Jan. 31, 1975, the morning the Corinthos went up.
    Orange and yellow flames boiled up from the Corinthos, tied up at Marcus Hook, until they were lost in the clouds. Tiny fireboats darted in and out of the billowing smoke, whistles shrieking like parent birds trying to save their young. But there was no one to save. Twenty-six men and women, including the captain of the Corinthos and most of his family, were killed in that disaster, caused by a collision that was, in part, the result of a malfunction by a five-inch valve.
    Nor was that an isolated instance. The tanker trade is a dangerous trade, and 1979 and 1980 were particularly bad years for tanker losses. Twenty-seven tankers - including five big supertankers - were lost in 1979 alone. Interestingly, there is more peril of fire on an empty tanker than a full one. When a tanker is loaded to the brim, there is little danger of explosion. But when the tanks are empty or just part full, there is a constant danger of the oil fumes combining with oxygen until the mix is just right. Or just wrong. Today, many tankers have an " inert gas" system that is supposed to prevent such explosions by pumping oxygenless gas into the holds. (It is a process Sun Oil first employed in the 1930s.) But roughly two-thirds of all tankers at sea do not have such a system, and even for those ships that do, the system is far from foolproof. A half-dozen of the tankers that blew up in 1979 were equipped with the new gas systems.
    The recollection of these and other recent losses had caused the waxen skin around John Oliver's eyes to crinkle in distaste during an interview that took place in the company tearoom of Lloyd's of London a few days before the Mediterranean Sun sailed from La Sakhirra. Oliver, an elderly, dignified " lead broker" in the international maritime insurance field, noted that as a result of that " spate" of losses, " we had to screw the rates a bit more. Inert gas systems are not simple to operate. There are crews who do not know what they are doing."
    But the Mediterranean Sun crew does know what it's doing. So skilled is Francesco Russo, the handsome, 29-year-old first mate of the ship, that Sun Transport would like to have him train other crews. In port, he studies gauges, pipelines and pressure needles, employing just the right blend of experience and calculation to keep the tanks " inerted" properly.
    Yes, the crew of the Mediterranean Sun takes pride in handling or preventing the conventional tanker problems. Such problems can be seen. They are confrontable and, almost always, ultimately solvable. One later realizes that there was something akin to enjoyment in the reaction to Captain Mancini's handling of the problem created by the malfunctioning engine control. Ah, if only things were always so challenging and exciting, this melancholy that creeps over tanker men might burn away like sea haze under a hot sun.
    It is not that their life is bleak. Sun Transport, Inc., the Sun Oil subsidiary that owns the tanker, does things right. There are staterooms,
gourmet meals, movies and even a swimming pool. But these and other touches are an incomplete defense against a problem that is a central fact of life for the men aboard the Mediterranean Sun and hundreds of other tankers.
    Tanker crews are isolated in a manner that sailors in modern times only recently have begun to experience. As always, of course, they are isolated from the land during the period of the voyage. What is more, the technology necessary to operate these huge new ships increasingly isolates them from the sea as well.
    But all of this becomes more understandable as we continue with the Mediterranean Sun, sluicing through the Gulf of Gabes south through the starlit night toward the point at which it can loop around and head up into the Mediterranean Sea.

    The ship slipped easily through the oil rigs scattered through the gulf. Their positions are fixed. Radar spots them easily. Captain Mancini was more worried about the dozens of tiny blips on the amber radar screens representing the tiny Tunisian shrimp boats. Often, these boats run without lights and drift into the channels. The tanker's bulbous snout could wreck several of the small wooden vessels without rattling the china tucked in the galley 800 feet from the prow.
    The officers kept a lookout for shrimpers atop the bridge. This control room and lookout room is stacked on the six-deck- high superstructure that rises like a pre-fab motel from the rear eighth of the ship. A complex of cabins, lounges and game rooms is contained in that motel. Winged balconies flare out from each side of the bridge to provide vantage points overlooking the ship's sides.
    The dominant color scheme was utilitarian green and gray, and there was very little that seemed nautical in the usual sense. There was very little shined brass. The " wheel" in the center of the floor was an unprepossessing circular piece of metal that a landlubber could mistake for a valve control. At night the bridge was pitch black, permitting good vision through the windows.
    Clear of the shrimpers, the ship left the gulf and turned in a wide arc to the north, pointing directly at the homeland of the 29 men on board, all of whom are Italian. As it happens, most of the crewmen are from Sicily. The officers, for the most part, are from Genoa. Sun Transport thinks that the strong Italian tradition of skilled seamanship, combined with a relatively low wage pattern, makes an Italian crew the optimum buy. Other oil companies look for more complex combinations, hiring, say, Norwegian or British officers, German engineers, a Hong Kong cook and Haitian, Taiwanese and Tunisian deck hands.
    The wages can be cheap in such a mix, but the communication and morale are often poor. Jeff Lappin, an American expert in tanker unloading who boards many tankers, put it this way, " When you see a crew like that, a lot of the time every one of them is wearing a sheath knife. You know you don't have a good atmosphere."
    On the Mediterranean Sun, everyone is Italian. No one wears knives. Messmen are the lowest-paid men on board, and they make $1,200 a month, a good wage anywhere and a great one in Italy. Captain Mancini makes more than $30,000 a year. He and the other ship captains are among the most respected of professionals in their country.
    The history of the Mediterranean Sun, though, is truly a multinational story of the forces of supply and demand operating on a worldwide scale. It was a Norwegian company that ordered the ship in the first place, and it did the job right. The Mediterranean Sun carried a price tag of $31 million, just seven million dollars less than the cost of one of the big supertankers twice its size. It was built to weather any storm, but not the freakish economic winds blowing in 1974, the year it was launched. The Arab oil embargo in that year led to a reduction in oil consumption, and this reduced the need for tankers. Thus Sun Oil got the buy of its life. It paid the Norwegian company $12 million for the $31 million ship.
    The American company registered the tanker under the Liberian flag, which flies over some of the worst tankers in the world, and also over some of the best. U.S.-registered ships must hire American crews, who get up to three and four times the salaries of an average crew on the world market. The Liberian flag gave Sun a license to hunt the crews, and the hunt stopped in Italy.

    In the morning the radio picked up Italian newscasts that said the weather n northern Italy was uncommonly cold for May, but there was little conversation among the ship's officers about their home. The mountains and deserts of the North African coast were clearly visible off the port side, only 30 miles away. Fine sand from the Sahara, blown out over the sea on silken winds, coated the deck of the Mediterranean Sun.
    The crew was out on the deck chipping and painting amid a forest of pipes and valves. The sea parted on each side of the tanker's prow in surf-like light blue waves and played out behind as 100 yards of turbulent white wake. Smaller ships bucked in the waves, but aboard the tanker it was like being on an immense, solidly rooted steel island in the middle of a river whose rapid current was slicing to either side.
    All parts of the vessel hummed slightly from the huge engine, which sounded like a distant jet. It was a deceptively calming sound. "Vibration is the enemy of all things," Germelli says. In particular, vibration is the enemy of the thousands of little green wires that can pop loose at the wrong time.
    And in these waters, the present would be the wrong time. The Mediterranean Sea is an energy highway. Informal convoys are formed - tankers and liquid natural gas carriers called LNGs - heading for the U.S. or ports in France, England or Holland. The Med Sun plowed westward in the midst of the traffic. Two tankers cruised three miles off her starboard. A tanker and an LNG carrier paralleled her to port.
    The officers, who work two four-hour shifts each 24 hours, paced the bridge deck, Zeiss and Nikon binoculars in hand. The Med Sun's twirling radar antennas tracked the other ships on screens that resemble sophisticated versions of electronic games. The officers can electronically circle the little blips on the screen and push a button, and the computer will plot the speed and direction of the nearby ship. Another read-out shows the Med Sun's speed. Yet another provides the estimated time to Gibraltar. There is a sensitive " collision course" button with " audio alarm" that sounds whenever the computer senses the slightest chance of ships' paths crossing - and the " beep . . . beep . . . beep" of the alarm sounds frequently.
    But there are some holes in the electronic armor. While tankers show up on radar, wooden or fiberglass sailing boats sometimes do not. " They say we sleep and the computer runs the ships at night," said one of the ship's officers one morning at 3. He had just spotted a small vessel invisible to the radar. His manner was that of a wide receiver who had caught an impossible pass and was spiking the ball triumphantly in the end zone. " Tanker officers do not sleep. We watch, hey? For fools. Like this one."
    The next day a whale passed, sounding and rolling in the sea. Graceful sea-going yachts humped up and down over the small waves. The crewmen smiled at the whale, and they waved at the sailboats. In many ways they were glad for the company. But even before the ship drew even with the wild coastal mountain ranges of Algeria, the crew and officers activated their own informal systems to deal with the deadly boredom that would settle in quickly once they were out on the Atlantic.
    At the officers mess there was a perpetual comedy show, involving the Med Sun's two senior officers, Captain Mancini and Chief Engineer Germelli. One lunchtime, after the dishes for the pasta, soup and salad had been cleared and while the waiters were serving veal in a cream sauce (which was followed by red snapper), Captain Mancini looked over at Germelli and began, in a tone of deep seriousness, a discussion of the heraldic crests of their respective families. He guided the discussion around until he had established the fact that his crest contained three spherical ornaments, while Germelli's had none. This, the captain happily declared, proved a point he had long believed to
be true but for which until now he had lacked proof.
    " Aha," the captain exulted, " the man admits it himself. His family has no balls!"
    " Oh no!" Germelli said. " I think I have been tricked." (Without knowing it, he mimicked the " Mr. Bill" voice.) " I cannot trust you."
    But it happens again and again. Always, Germelli is the straight man, Mancini the Pan-like corrupter of the innocent. Always, there is a ribald patter of jokes, double entendres and sexual innuendoes. " Mr. Germelli is my hobby," Mancini explained with a warm smile one day. " I think of ways to cause him trouble. It is all a game."
    Everyone has a way to beat the boredom. Many of the crew members play hyperactive Ping Pong, with skilled smashes, lunges and parries. They retrieve loose balls with soccer kicks and head butts.
    The videotape cassettes of movies get heavy use on the play-back equipment in both the crew and the officer lounges. Most are English, dubbed in Italian. Il Padrino - Parte Prima is popular, though Marlon Brando's lips are slightly out of sync in this version of The Godfather - Part One, and everyone has seen at least three times Rosa Pantera ( Pink Panther ) and Grazioza Bebe ( Pretty Baby ).
    The four-course meals often feature champagne and cognac, cappuccino and espresso. Last Christmas, the crew dined on eggs with caviar stuffing, prosciutto antipasto, shrimp cocktail, cannelloni, shrimps butterflied with a cream sauce, fried shrimps American style, filet mignon, salad with very thin slices of eggs and ham, pannefone (a cake), cream puffs, fruit and champagne.
   The cabins - officers' quarters - are little hotel suites with finely jointed Scandinavian wood dressers, bedsteads and tables. The living room contains a desk, rug, couch and table. The sleeping room has a comfortable recessed bed. There is a separate bathroom with shower. Each member of the crew has his own room with bath.
    The furniture in the crewmen's rooms is identical, but the decor offers a chance to express individual tastes. Some desks are topped with pictures of village saints. Others have pin-up posters from Penthouse on the walls. The more rounded men have pictures of saints and nude posters.
    There could be real women on board soon. The Norwegians regularly carry women officers now, and a few women are enrolled in the Italian maritime schools. Also, under a new contract affecting the Mediterranean Sun, seamen and officers with three years of seniority can bring their wives on board. Second Mate Antonio Stillittano and First Mate Russo agree that they would do that - if they were married, and if the wife of either would not be the lone woman on board.
    There are some moments when the automated systems that have appropriated much of the excitement and responsibility of life at sea do a turnabout and add a bit of extra excitement. The highly sensitive fire alarm is frequently triggered, and the alarms are almost always false, but too many tankers have gone up in flames and fireballs for anyone to take the false alarms casually.
    At one point during this voyage the alarm sounded in the middle of a spirited post-lunch card game. " Stay!" said a player." No!" said another, his chair sliding back. " Play!" said the first player. But his friend had already slapped down his cards and was running for it. The second player followed. Domenico Fragala, the tough Arab-Sicilian deckhand, laughed scornfully and a contemptuous grin spread across his face as his colleagues raced from the game room for lifejackets, hard hats and lifeboat stations. Fragala reached across the cards to an abandoned glass of Remy Martin Very Special Old Pale cognac. He tossed it down, turned his stubbled face skyward and laughed.
Then the alarm sounded again. Fragala did a cartoon-like double-take and scurried after his colleagues, discarding bravado for an orange life vest.

    The men on the tankers do have some fears besides fire. They talk, too, of the unpredictable phenomenon along the South African coast called freak waves. The waves, appearing out of calm seas, can be as high as 45 feet. For them to form, currents and gale-driven winds must align themselves. One wave is superimposed on another so that two become one towering monster preceded by a formidable trough.
    Mancini encountered one years ago when he was commanding a smaller tanker. " Mein Gott, you see this mountain of water coming, 10 miles off. A wall of water. A monster," says Mancini, who learned German and English at the same time in school and frequently intermixes them. " You must be very careful that you hit it straight on. Then . . . ahhhh . . . hold on . . . Mein Gott, it was terrible . . . like skiing . . . surfing . . . you must be careful to keep the ship straight coming down the other side. If the wave turns to white water on the top, then you are in trouble. It breaks . . . shhhhhaaa aaaccckkk . . . tons of water on top of you . . . you are finished. It destroys all."
    Few sailors are apt to encounter the huge waves, but conventional storms also are capable of creating killer waves that threaten even the largest of ships. Antonio Stillittano told of his days aboard the Atlantic Sun, Sun Transport's one and only supertanker, when a squall blew up off the West African Coast.
    Two waves joined together to form one big wave that lifted the bow of the Atlantic Sun up as an Atlantic City roller might lift up your air
mattress. The supertanker had no problem handling that, but as her bow descended into the oncoming trough, a third wave slapped over her deck. " We look, " Stillitanto recalled. " We see the wave cover the pipelines and the derrick. It goes. We look and say, 'Where is the derrick?' Gone. It broke over."
    A short while later a helicopter buzzed the Atlantic Sun and told her by radio that a relatively tiny, 10,000-ton Singapore freighter had broken up in the storm, and the copter signaled the supertanker to follow and aid in rescuing survivors. Excitement grew, and in the distance the officers spotted what appeared to be a covered lifeboat. As they approached, the crew was on the verge of cheering. But the lifeboat was not covered. It was upside down. There was no one in it.
    " It was not such a good time," said Stillittano with moist, melancholy eyes. " We think we are going to save them. It was not so good and makes us all very sad."
    The passage through the Strait of Gibraltar went routinely. The famous rock was only an ominous black presence in the pre-dawn darkness. Amber blips of a dozen ships filled the radar screen as all the officers clustered on the bridge to help in crossing this heavily trafficked area. " Sometimes it is just like walking on Broadway," Mancini said. " 'Excuse me. Can I get by? Pardon me? Excuse me?' We are very lucky tonight; it is a joke tonight."
    The crossing fell on Luigi Massagli's midnight-to-4 watch. (Massagli is a second mate, like Antonio Stillittano; the Med Sun had two second mates on this voyage because Stillittano was replacing Massagli and there was an overlap of tours of duty.) The 32-year-old Massagli remained deadly serious even after the dry and slightly bored British voice from Lloyd's Gibraltar reporting station, which lists all passing ships, said, " Thank you very much, Mediterranean Sun. We wish you a safe passage to Philadelphia. Bye-bye and good morning."
    But when his command of the bridge had ended, Massagli went to the wing deck, eyes alight with a mock manic look, and started doing a Charleston to his own off-key rendition of Chicago . " Shee-ka-go, Illinois. Yes?" he said, his eyes wide. " You are Mafioso, yes? American? Kissinger? Allende? Chile? Yes? John Wayne? Ahhh! Fascisto! Fascisto!"
    He was the only one of the officers who had been on the ship five months. Five solid months. He would be getting off in Marcus Hook and flying back to his apartment near Portofino, to his Alfa Romeo, and to his girlfriend. But now, so very close to the end, the other officers explained, he needed the broad humor of feigned madness to shore up his defenses.
Like many of the officers, messmen and engineers, Massagli had once served on a passenger ship. Their faces light up when such duty is mentioned. There is a little society there. Frequent ports of call. And in the Caribbean a constant parade of American women who do not quite know what hit them when for the first time they meet the dark-complexioned Italian officers in their starched white uniforms with the gold braid.
    " Yes, yes, Madam, you have a problem?" Massagli was demonstrating his suave passenger-ship manner. He looked like a debonair Al Pacino with a slice of Marcello Mastroianni thrown in. " I see. Oh? The problem is in your cabin. Yes. Yes. The bed in your cabin is broken. Perhaps I can help fix it. I will come to your cabin now."
    But the women and the glory of liner duty are hard to come by. Luigi Massagli was a tankerman this trip, and he did not like it. " I want to go ho- o-o-o- mmmmmme," he howled plaintively at the moon and the stars above Gibraltar. " I want to go ho-o*o-o-mmmmmmme."
    The others did not yell it, but they thought it, especially past Gibraltar, where there is nothing but water and sky and where Germelli's hanging spider plants began to sway lazily, regularly, back and forth in the paneled bar of the officers lounge. The big rollers of the Atlantic move the ship now. You hear the sad sounds of the night waves as they slough and heave in sighs. The lines of the lifeboats flap, click and chime, and during the lonely nights there IS an unmistakable feeling of doing time.
    The young officers went to sea for varying reasons - for the money, for the romance, to uphold the maritime traditions of their families and of Genoa. " From the beginning," Russo said, shrugging, when asked when he knew he would go to sea. " It is tradition. My grandfather was captain of a sailing ship."
    Massagli, too, was captured by the romance of it all. " A bambino, yes? I was a child. I see the big ships come in. Ahhhhhh," he sighed, looking up with his mouth and eyes wide open. His imaginary first ship loomed in front of him. " I see the uniforms. Ahhhhhh. The officers. Ahhhhhh.
    " I think it is wonderful. Bambino! Hey? Fool! Fool! See the world, hey? Sail on the ships and see the world, hey? America, hey?
    " Marcus Hook is America. See America. See Tunisia. La Sakhirra is Tunisia. See Tunisia. Hah! Twenty hours in Marcus Hook.
    " The Coast Guard comes," Massagli said. He clasped his hands as if in prayer and bowed slightly in mock politeness. " We must be on board. The cargo is discharged hands clasped and a bow . We must be on board.
    " There is no time! There is just the pier! Twenty hours! Then back! Tunisia. La Sakhirra. Twenty hours. The pier. Then back. Marcus Hook. The pier. I do not see Tunisia. I do not see America. I see . . . this . . . pier! I do not see America. I see . . . this . . . ship!
   " For the modern sailor, this is not 198l," he said. " It is nineteen zero zero."
    Massagli was an angry young man. First Mate Russo was the quiet one. A shrug. A slightly sour look. Pursed lips. The trace of a grimace, and a wrinkling of the brow. That is how Russo communicated displeasure. Massagli was loved for his antics and acting. Russo was respected by the officers on board and admired by the crew, who called after him, " Hey, Roose!" They will tell you with pride how Roose once ran 22 laps around the deck - 13 kilometers.
He no longer runs. He has a new way of fighting the loneliness, and he cut a bizarrely noble figure as he walked up the deck of the Med Sun at 7 in the morning, his double-breasted khaki Italian navy officer's shirt loose and flapping in the wind, a single arrow clutched in his right hand, a Ben Pearson 40-pound bow over his shoulder.
    He levered loose the clamps of a hatchway at the front of the ship and descended into a cavernous steel vault known as the boatswain stores. The waves of the Atlantic crashed into the ship at irregular lazy intervals, rumbling the hull as if it were so many yards of sheetmetal shaken at arm's length. This is the secret place of Roose. The other men know about it, but they do not trespass.
   Dangling in the center of the cavern, strung from two ropes, was a bull's-eye tacked on a mattress folded double. Russo walked to the end of the room opposite the target. " I will show you what I do," he said with a slightly mischievous pursing of the lips. He pulled the bow to full draw, sighted down the arrow and let loose the bowstring. " Pffftwiinnnnng. SPLATTT!" The arrow struck home.
    Russo's steps echoed in the metal chamber as he crossed the 15 meters to retrieve the arrow, his last after five others shattered against steel bulkheads.
    Later, just before reaching Marcus Hook, Russo confided that even he thinks of leaving the sea. " From the beginning, I want to do this. It is a tradition. The sea. But now that I see, I believe I will leave in one or two years."
    He paused, this quiet man, and then spoke in careful, clear English.
    " The life is not normal. When you leave, you are in another world. When you come back, it is as if you drop from the stars. You walk different. You talk different. You look different. You are very nervous the first few days. You lose your personality, I am afraid. Not right away, but over the years, I believe, it slips away from you. I believe sometimes that I will get a job typing perhaps. It is enough. Or perhaps the ferryboats along the shore. That is not so bad."
    In the meantime, he sights down his last arrow. " Pffftwiinnn nnnggg. SPLATTT!" Another hit. Another 10 seconds closer to the end of five months at sea.
    " Always they think about what they do not have, not what they have, " Captain Mancini said one day with an atypical touch of bitterness. "These young have a new mentality. What is the matter with them? You cannot drink the wine and have the bottle full, yes? They make money. Good money. My God! To make what my chief petty officer make, you must be an architect for 15 years. To make what my bosun make, a good man who love the sea, yes, but not a brilliant man, you must be a bank director in Italy. Men my age! All the time at sea. We give our lives! The young say, no sacrifice. But there must be sacrifice."
    The captain began his career when men regularly shipped out for two to three years. But that was before technological improvements made the ships so big and expensive to operate and the loading and unloading procedures so fast. It was common then for ships to remain in port for a week while longshoremen wrestled the cargoes by hand, and in one of those stops in the mid-1960s at a mainland Chinese port a younger, wide-eyed Antonio Mancini watched as the Red Guards dynamited a Russian freighter and then trained Tommy guns on his
Italian crew as they attempted to help the drowning Russian sailors. It was horrible, of course. But an adventure, too.
    In the old slow days at sea, Mancini was away from his wife and two children for more than a year, but he saw the world and collected adventures in ports. The young officers sat attentively when Mancini told the Red Guard story, and when he told of Carnivale in Rio, of typhoons in the Malacca Straits, of fights in Hong Kong.
    The younger officers on the Med Sun - Russo, Massagli, Stillittano - sometimes have enough time during the ship's turnaround to stay a night at the Brandywine Hilton at Naaman's Road off Interstate 95 in northern Delaware, and maybe go to a suburban-mall Basco's to buy discount goods.
    " When they say five months these days, they mean five months - you stay on board five months," Mancini said, his voice hushed. " It may be harder. In many ways, it is much harder."
    We forged ahead. There are notes from the mid-Atlantic: A storm blew wave after wave over the forward part of the deck. . . . The temperature dropped to sweater weather. . . . Three laps around the ship make a mile. . . . The computer gets a new data tape punched out to put the ship on a new course. . . . The Godfather is quite good in Italian. The Pink Panther is not. . . . It takes 3 1/2 minutes to walk from one end of the ship to the other. . . . One day the ship rocked like a slow pendulum and a porthole in my cabin showed nothing but water for a long count of four before the ship rolled back. Then the porthole lined up with slate-gray sky for four more seconds. . . . Sea . . . sky . . . sea.
    The weather cleared and a sparrow was spotted on board June 6, our 13th day at sea.  Soon, off in the haze, like bales of hay in a far off field, the high-rises of Ocean Cit, Md., became visible.  Then the low shores of Delaware and New Jersey glided into view, and that night fat American moths from land thudded against the tanker's lights and fell onto the deck to die on top of a thin layer of sand from the Sahara.  
    The river-pilot launch bucked the small waves out form Lewes, Del., and Captain Mancini let slip the anchor in the deep water of Delaware Bay off Big Stone Beach, Del.  Two barges were pushed by tugs alongside.  The Italians, precise and sure, clothed in crisp, spotless jumpsuits, cast lines and secured the barges.  The American barge men wore baseball caps, tattered oily T-shirts and beer bellies.  A few of them made fun of the Italians, not knowing - or not caring - that most of the foreign crewmen spoke English.

    Not all the Americans, to be sure, were ugly.  Jeff Lappin, the lightering (barging) coordinator for the Interstate and Ocean Transport Co., operator of the barges, treated the Italian officers and crew with respect and friendliness.  The Med Sun, he said, is probably the cleanest ship he boards.  "I have to get on some these guys," he said, gesturing toward the men on the barges.  "They don't understand and think that if you're from a foreign country you're dirt or something."

    The barges, towering high above the ship at first, sank lower in the water as crude oil was pumped into them from the tanker, and finally they stood two stories below the increasingly buoyant Med Sun.  They took on some 22,000 tons of oil and left the Med Sun high enough in the water to sail the 40-foot-deep channel of the Delaware River up to Marcus Hook and unload the rest of the oil herself.

    Two gallons of crude oil were spilled on the Med Sun's deck during the pumping operation and were quickly mopped up.  It was the only oil I saw during the voyage.

    The tanker's trip up the river went quickly.  Farmland grew closer as the bay bacame the river.  The channel became much narrower and the blue bay water chocolate brown.  In the distance, the urban huddle of Wilmington could be seen.  The steeples of the Marcus Hook refineries loomed just around the corner.

    The shepherding tugboats, tooting and shrieking, nudged the Med Sun into a berth as the officers directed the line crews.  Captain Mancini again was tight as fist.  Dubiously he eyed the American pilot who temporarily directed the ship.  And he waited to pounce on any problem caused by any little green wire.

    Then it was done.  Drawn by winches, the ship had inched to her mooring.  The pipes, like the arms of a great praying mantis, descended to the nozzles on the ship.  The transfusion of black crude into the veins of America had begun.

    At one of the last ship's dinners before docking, Mancini, bubbling with good cheer, turned to his chief engineer and asked. "Mr. Germelli.  If Italian is the language of love, why does the world day 'French kiss'?"

   He stopped when the chief engineer frowned slightly.  Mancini said with great sincerity and good will, no jokes attached, "Mr. Germelli, life is so short.  Give me a big smile."  Germelli  beamed at his old friend.

    Russo huddled over dials and switches, carefully monitoring the delicate procedures of the discharge operation.  He sniffled from a head cold.  Oil tankers can sink at the pier if the oil is pumped off incorrectly.  Ships are said to "sag" or "hog" under the opposing forces of gravity and buoyancy.  Place a child squarely in the cenetr of an air mattress with no weight on the ends and the raft will sag.  Place two children on the ends with no weight in the center and the mattress will "hog" - rise up in the middle like a hog's back.  Pump out the weight of a tanker unevenly and it bends like the air mattress until it breaks.  The tanks must be discharged evenly and then filled with inert gas amid the ever present danger of explosion.

    It was demanding precise work.  Always, it is the Russo spends his time in port.  There is no time for anything else.

   Once, he recalls, when the ship docked in Beaumont, Tex., and American oil worker, also an archer, offered to take him hunting in the mountains.  "I have the boots.  I would need a warm coat," Russo said.

    Only a few of the crew members walked into the dark night of Marcus Hook.  Russo asked them to buy arrows.   

    The officers have talked of them for days at sea. Then, finally, they arrive.  The tanker Mediterranean Sun has reached Delaware Bay, and the small launch chops over the waves toward her from Lewes, Del., and the eight cherry cheesecakes are taken aboard the tanker with the pilot. The desserts are a favorite of the Med Sun's officers. They are also a good illustration of how ships like the Med Sun pump money into the regional economy.
    Supposedly, tankers produce about $8 in spin-off benefits for every ton of oil they pump into refinery reservoirs. The Mediterranean Sun, for example, carried 97,000 tons of oil. So this trip should produce about $776,000 in benefits to the local economy.
   It seems an incredible amount. The ships simply come upriver and pump off oil, after all. It is easier to understand that cargo ships, which require cranes and longshoremen, punch about $25 per ton of cargo into local cash registers and paychecks.
    But tankers, too, require expensive and often complex services on a grand scale, as well as costly materials. Fuel oil to run a ship costs $300 a ton. The Med Sun burns around 75 tons a day - at a cost of something like $22,500. All food except for fish, which is better and cheaper in Tunisia, is purchased here by agents for the vessel.
    Tugs, pilots and sometimes even fresh water can cost a ship money. The barges that took off some of the Med Sun's crude oil so she could clear the 40-foot-deep Delaware River channel provide jobs for a half-dozen people. The offices of the barge company, the Interstate Ocean and Transport Co., the biggest lighterage concern in the region, are filled with dozens of white-collar workers.
    On shore near the bay, there are launch services to bring on board inspectors. The U.S. Customs Service contracts with firms to measure the amount of oil in the ship. A consortium of oil companies keeps a modern antipollution oil-skimmer vessel, the Delbay, stationed at Lewes. The Philadelphia Maritime Exchange mans a reporting station overlooking the mouth of Delaware Bay, to keep tabs on  ship traffic. Upriver, the Coast Guard inspects for pollution and tanker-safety compliance. Tugboat operators wait to dock the big ships.
    Sun Transport (a Sun Co. subsidiary), which operates the Med Sun and other tankers, has just put up a modern building in Aston, Pa., just north of the Delaware line. Taxi drivers in Marcus Hook regularly make the $35 run (for two) to Philadelphia.
    When the Med Sun's crew gets any sizable leave, U.S. immigration officers must check them out. Then they may stay in the Brandywine Hilton, near Claymont, Del., or head for the blue-jean joints, or Basco's.
    Last year, 289 fewer tankers came up the river than the year before, a 17 percent decrease, in large part because Americans were using less petroleum. That was good - but it meant more than just a downturn in demand for cheesecakes.
- Robert R. Frump