BRINGING THE MEDITERRANEAN SUN TO MARCUS HOOK - This region
is the largest refining center on the East Coast. Here's how the oil
BY ROBERT R. FRUMP
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
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
to the land of cheese steaks and hoagies. Her next stop would be the Sun
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
as thick as his thigh that had held the ship's stern to the long pier
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
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.
angle between pier and ship seemed right. Everything seemed to be going
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
fist. Soon he would order the lines that held the bow of the tanker
so that it would swing out from the pier, and then, at just the right
he personally would turn the huge, turbocharged engine to full power,
device near the wheel that looks like an oversized automatic floor shift
expensive American car. The device buzzed sharply whenever speed changes
made. But its resemblance to the old " telegraph," which rang bells in the
engine room to increase power, ended there. This lever controlled the
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
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,
three football fields long, forward in a graceful arc, pivoting her bow
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
of solder that had held it in place.
But this was not apparent then. What was apparent was that there was
- that the Mediterranean Sun, loaded with 97,000 tons of crude oil, was
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
in relation to everything near her at La Sakhirra, had become something of
irresistible force. At only 0.2 knot, she could crush anything in the
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
The ship's hull itself, in the event of such a collision, could be
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
died in such tanker explosions since 1968.)
Now the stern continued to sweep outward, at a bigger and bigger angle.
the bow of the ship was turning, too, lazily but surely, through an arc
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
the clattering, gargantuan eight-cylinder engine. He was the oldest
on the ship, but he wore no paunch to show his 50-plus years, and he had
macho-man bearing to prove he was the engineer. Germelli has the manner of
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
prince, a yacht near Portofino, vineyards, a taste for opera and fine food
a love of plants.
Perched behind the glass wall overlooking the pea-green engine the size of
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
and a look of concern played over his scrubbed-clean face, as if a bassoon
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.
the ship's computerized navigation and control systems, which were
and buzzing their ineffectuality, Mancini had reached across the
engine control to snatch the rubber-armored engine-room phone and bellow
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
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
a fat man jiggled and shook. Up top, the surge was more subdued. It was as
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
" 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
now held the green wire in its place. Mancini pointed to it and a dozen
" It is a silly little thing, yes, one silly little thing that can make
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!
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
calm and beautiful that it seemed to be frozen black lava etched in
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
the system's computer on punched tape, and the computer had taken on the
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
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
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
special ships have their special, spectacular problems. We were aware of
can happen to tankers, for instance, in the early hours of Jan. 31, 1975,
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
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,
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.
tankers - including five big supertankers - were lost in 1979 alone.
Interestingly, there is more peril of fire on an empty tanker than a full
When a tanker is loaded to the brim, there is little danger of explosion.
when the tanks are empty or just part full, there is a constant danger of
oil fumes combining with oxygen until the mix is just right. Or just
Today, many tankers have an " inert gas" system that is supposed to
such explosions by pumping oxygenless gas into the holds. (It is a process
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
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
around John Oliver's eyes to crinkle in distaste during an interview that
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
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
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
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
the conventional tanker problems. Such problems can be seen. They are
confrontable and, almost always, ultimately solvable. One later realizes
there was something akin to enjoyment in the reaction to Captain Mancini's
handling of the problem created by the malfunctioning engine control. Ah,
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
are an incomplete defense against a problem that is a central fact of life
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
necessary to operate these huge new ships increasingly isolates them from
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
night toward the point at which it can loop around and head up into the
The ship slipped easily through the oil rigs scattered through the gulf.
Their positions are fixed. Radar spots them easily. Captain Mancini was
worried about the dozens of tiny blips on the amber radar screens
representing the tiny Tunisian shrimp boats. Often, these boats run
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
galley 800 feet from the prow.
The officers kept a lookout for shrimpers atop the bridge. This control
and lookout room is stacked on the six-deck- high superstructure that
like a pre-fab motel from the rear eighth of the ship. A complex of
lounges and game rooms is contained in that motel. Winged balconies flare
from each side of the bridge to provide vantage points overlooking the
The dominant color scheme was utilitarian green and gray, and there was
little that seemed nautical in the usual sense. There was very little
brass. The " wheel" in the center of the floor was an unprepossessing
circular piece of metal that a landlubber could mistake for a valve
At night the bridge was pitch black, permitting good vision through the
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
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
wage pattern, makes an Italian crew the optimum buy. Other oil companies
for more complex combinations, hiring, say, Norwegian or British officers,
German engineers, a Hong Kong cook and Haitian, Taiwanese and Tunisian
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
time every one of them is wearing a sheath knife. You know you don't have
On the Mediterranean Sun, everyone is Italian. No one wears knives.
are the lowest-paid men on board, and they make $1,200 a month, a good
anywhere and a great one in Italy. Captain Mancini makes more than $30,000
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
of the forces of supply and demand operating on a worldwide scale. It was
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
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
led to a reduction in oil consumption, and this reduced the need for
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
best. U.S.-registered ships must hire American crews, who get up to three
four times the salaries of an average crew on the world market. The
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
Smaller ships bucked in the waves, but aboard the tanker it was like being
an immense, solidly rooted steel island in the middle of a river whose
current was slicing to either side.
All parts of the vessel hummed slightly from the huge engine, which
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
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
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
England or Holland. The Med Sun plowed westward in the midst of the
Two tankers cruised three miles off her starboard. A tanker and an LNG
paralleled her to port.
The officers, who work two four-hour shifts each 24 hours, paced the
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
speed and direction of the nearby ship. Another read-out shows the Med
speed. Yet another provides the estimated time to Gibraltar. There is a
sensitive " collision course" button with " audio alarm" that sounds
the computer senses the slightest chance of ships' paths crossing - and
" 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
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
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
the whale, and they waved at the sailboats. In many ways they were glad
the company. But even before the ship drew even with the wild coastal
ranges of Algeria, the crew and officers activated their own informal
to deal with the deadly boredom that would settle in quickly once they
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.
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
by red snapper), Captain Mancini looked over at Germelli and began, in a
of deep seriousness, a discussion of the heraldic crests of their
families. He guided the discussion around until he had established the
that his crest contained three spherical ornaments, while Germelli's had
This, the captain happily declared, proved a point he had long believed to
true but for which until now he had lacked proof.
" Aha," the captain exulted, " the man admits it himself. His family has
" 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
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
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
Il Padrino - Parte Prima is popular, though Marlon Brando's lips are
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
cream sauce, fried shrimps American style, filet mignon, salad with very
slices of eggs and ham, pannefone (a cake), cream puffs, fruit and
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
village saints. Others have pin-up posters from Penthouse on the walls.
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,
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
that - if they were married, and if the wife of either would not be the
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
add a bit of extra excitement. The highly sensitive fire alarm is
triggered, and the alarms are almost always false, but too many tankers
gone up in flames and fireballs for anyone to take the false alarms
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,
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
Domenico Fragala, the tough Arab-Sicilian deckhand, laughed scornfully and
contemptuous grin spread across his face as his colleagues raced from the
room for lifejackets, hard hats and lifeboat stations. Fragala reached
the cards to an abandoned glass of Remy Martin Very Special Old Pale
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
The waves, appearing out of calm seas, can be as high as 45 feet. For them
form, currents and gale-driven winds must align themselves. One wave is
superimposed on another so that two become one towering monster preceded
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
water. A monster," says Mancini, who learned German and English at the
time in school and frequently intermixes them. " You must be very careful
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
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
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
The supertanker had no problem handling that, but as her bow descended
the oncoming trough, a third wave slapped over her deck. " We look,
" Stillitanto recalled. " We see the wave cover the pipelines and the
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
the storm, and the copter signaled the supertanker to follow and aid in
rescuing survivors. Excitement grew, and in the distance the officers
what appeared to be a covered lifeboat. As they approached, the crew was
the verge of cheering. But the lifeboat was not covered. It was upside
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
all very sad."
The passage through the Strait of Gibraltar went routinely. The famous
was only an ominous black presence in the pre-dawn darkness. Amber blips
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
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.
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
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
his apartment near Portofino, to his Alfa Romeo, and to his girlfriend.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
the officers lounge. The big rollers of the Atlantic move the ship now.
hear the sad sounds of the night waves as they slough and heave in sighs.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
was loved for his antics and acting. Russo was respected by the officers
board and admired by the crew, who called after him, " Hey, Roose!" They
tell you with pride how Roose once ran 22 laps around the deck - 13
He no longer runs. He has a new way of fighting the loneliness, and he cut
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
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
length. This is the secret place of Roose. The other men know about it,
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
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
Later, just before reaching Marcus Hook, Russo confided that even he
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
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
come back, it is as if you drop from the stars. You walk different. You
different. You look different. You are very nervous the first few days.
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.
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
" 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
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
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
The captain began his career when men regularly shipped out for two to
years. But that was before technological improvements made the ships so
and expensive to operate and the loading and unloading procedures so fast.
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
mainland Chinese port a younger, wide-eyed Antonio Mancini watched as the
Guards dynamited a Russian freighter and then trained Tommy guns on his
Italian crew as they attempted to help the drowning Russian sailors. It
horrible, of course. But an adventure, too.
In the old slow days at sea, Mancini was away from his wife and two
for more than a year, but he saw the world and collected adventures in
The young officers sat attentively when Mancini told the Red Guard story,
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
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.
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
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
in my cabin showed nothing but water for a long count of four before the
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
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.
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
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.
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.