The Call of the Deep

August 2014


LT Alex Smith and LT Rob Kelly aboard USS Milius in 2010.

LT Alex Smith and LT Rob Kelly aboard USS Milius in 2010

Since coming ashore as an NROTC Assistant Professor, I have come to wonder why poems and literature at sea are losing popularity amongst our ranks. Perhaps the mystery and feel of navy life has been diminished – Electronic Chart Data Information System (ECDIS-N) does not have the feel of a sextant and receiving storm data vis-à-vis Meteorological Officers in Hawaii isn’t the same as predicting gales using weather gauges.

Many officers and sailors have talked to me about “how interesting navy life used to be,” or have confessed, “it isn’t the same anymore.” These are accurate observations and I think that an organization with a rich history such as ours deserves admiration. Nevertheless, this is the best time to be in the Navy. Women and minorities serve at equal status with their white male counterparts; sailors have more support networks then ever before; and social media allows many of us to communicate with our families in nearly real time. Our sensory connections with the duties we perform at sea are indeed not what they once were, but does this necessarily mean we are less inclined to write about the encompassing power of our planet’s restless and mysterious waters?

A personnel transfer at sea in 1951 (lst1126.com)

A personnel transfer at sea in 1951 (lst1126.com)

Despite the interest our careers inspire amongst men and women of all ages, there has been a considerable decline in literary reminiscences over the last few years. Instead of using turning to pen and paper to share and confess our thoughts, we merely use hash tags and click ‘share.’

The nineteenth century gave us Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad; the early twentieth century produced Jack London and Patrick O’Brien. They were sailors with the ability to portray sea life from a variety of perspectives that engaged readers at their core. Although their work was primarily fiction, I’d offer that the difference between fiction and reality is razor thin. The stories poignantly reveal human nature at sea and provide meaning that all of us can relate to. Like these famed authors, we too must strive to make meaning in what we do and then portray this cogently to the public domain and each other.

Popular writers have weighed in, but their contributions are not necessarily accurate. The April 19 New Yorker article “Shipmates: Life on an Aircraft Carrier” by Geoff Dyer, ended with the same dubious colloquialism every landlubber surmises. “When, at last, I was back on the very dry land of Bahrain, I checked in at a hotel, went up to my room, and showered for a long time. The water felt cleaner, more sparkling [. . .] I looked out the window at the empty cityscape and experienced another revelation: I could go for a walk!” Similarly, the only question Thomas Friedman asks a young junior officer when he rode the USS New Mexico for one night was “how do all of you stand being away from your families for so long underwater, receiving only a two-sentence ‘family-gram’ once a week?”

I would contest we are not simply motivated by the same social connotations that our civilian counterparts enjoy. We are sailors. We come from a different breed and our lives by nature do not possess the homogeneous social norms of our civilian counterparts. Although we may have put to sea for a variety of reasons – service to our nation, learn new skills, earn the GI Bill – all of us have been affected by the wonders of navy life; our lives sharpened by the life on the seas. Some of the mystery is gone, but the beauty still remains.

Proceedings and other naval publications primarily exist to discuss and debate naval doctrine, but it should also reflect on our social experiences in a meaningful way. To be honest, I have never mused about the powers of Aegis beneath the vast night sky, with the dust of the Milky Way scattered as far as the eye can see. Even though the Main Propulsion Assistant and the senior gas turbine technician could recite each valve within the main drainage system by memory, we never argued too much about engineering improvements that our senior leaders should be pursuing. We told sea stories, discussed books and history, laughed as we reenacted scenes in our favorite movies, and then went about our duties.

Mahan’s diary as a junior officer is a fascinating read. Many of his entries lament about his fear of drinking too much and his abhorrence of superior officers. “The Captain has annoyed me, and I have felt and spoken angrily and sullenly.” And, like so many of us, he does not always complete tasks on time. “Have failed in my duty concerning the reading of the Articles of War.” Yet, within his complaints and small victories, a portrait of life at sea emerges. His ability to reflect on sea life, both positive and negative, ultimately led to him thinking more critically about naval tactics and the naval profession as a whole. Simply put, it gave him meaning and persuaded him to remain at sea.

Over the years, I have found that life itself is like the sea. Our lives ebb and flow like a foaming tide. We attempt to seize each moment, try to live one day at a time, hang on tightly to lifelines and trust that our faith in each other will get us there. So much we do in our lives as sailors is wandering and I do profess that wandering the ocean is the most exciting profession in the world.

Perhaps John Masefield says it best in Sea Fever.

Oh I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship

And a star to steer her by

And the heel’s kick and the wind’s song,

And the white sail’s shaking

And a grey mist on the sea’s face

And a grey dawn breaking

Before my final deployment aboard USS Milius, my wife gave me the finest gift anyone could: a journal. It was an impeccable idea. After all, there’s nothing like a day at sea, to meditate about this earth and to think of all the challenges that await us afloat and ashore. So, as naval officers who experience the daily grind, let us tell the evolving story of our Navy. One hundred years from now these entries will capture us for who we were and where we were going.


Geoff Dyer, “Shipmates: Life on an Aircraft Carrier,” The New Yorker, April 2014, 6; Thomas Friedman, “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle,” The New York Times Sunday Review, March 29, 2014.

Diary entry on August 6, 1868 and May 11, 1869 in Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, vol. I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 201; 301.

John Masefield, “Sea Fever” in Salt Water Ballads (1902).

Posted by LT Alex Smith in Books, History, Merchant Marine, Navy, Proceedings, Training & Education
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  • Matthew Hipple

    Well put!

  • Haole Jon

    Great article. I think there are a lot of reasons that have caused the ‘romance’ of sea life to dwindle. A big part of it is how the service is changing in the day to day aspects of how it accomplishes its mission, and where the focus is. Almost every meeting I walk out of has produced for me a list of ‘products’ that I need to create (powerpoints, hyper-linked watchbills, 50-50s) that all need to be uploaded to the ‘portal’ so the ISIC can see all the great stuff we’re doing. Of course, while this can be seen as a negative change in the Navy, there is also another shift in leadership that is (trying) to focus on the Sailor. As we continue to try to do more (missions) with less (people, money and supplies) Navy leadership is focusing on ensuring our Sailors, especially the young ones, are capable, resilient and ready to accomplish the mission. As a by-product of this process, a lot of the ‘mystery’ is gone. We know longer have the days of “Don’t worry where we are going, just do your job” and now have the days of “We’re going to the Arabian Gulf, and while our part may be small, its an important part, and you all have a role. Now, lets all go to the messdecks and learn about the culture of where we are going, and the do’s and don’t’s about liberty!” Modern Sailors know a lot about the world, more than Sailors from fifty years ago, or even fifteen years ago. And yet, even in these days of big data, Facebook and information a Google search away, I can still say one of the most pleasant experiences that I continue to have is slowly approaching a coast for a port visit, looking at the buildings, mountains, trees and increasing boat traffic and wonder “what’s out there?”

  • MrInvestor

    I go back to the era where Loran and Omega were considered state of the art and morning and evening star shots and a local apparent noon were part of the daily reminder that we were still real mariners. My own sense of what made our Naval life so unique and hard to understand by those outside the clan was the necessity to depend on each other not just to succeed but to survive. This created a human connection between sailors that short-circuits time and space so completely that shipmates separated for far longer than they served together feel an intense sense of happiness and fulfillment when they reunite, a feeling that extends even to those who served on the same ship but not at the same time. As a former steam engineer I can also say the shared realities of extremely difficult operational challenges, even at times a sense of fear, weld people who might not otherwise have even liked each other into something new, a team, bound together by respect, shared abilities, yes even courage. The pain of family goodbyes, loneliness, being too hot or too cold all the time, fighting to stay awake on the Mid Watch…we have all lived it, are better for it, miss it. Where we have been and what we have seen live on in each of us, secrets shared only with the brethren.

  • Claude Lumpkin

    I would encourage every young person to keep a diary or journal. Years later, you will want to revisit your earlier thoughts and experiences and it would be nice to reflect upon them with the passage of time and accumulation of experience. I sure wish I had done as I suggest.

  • vtbikerider

    Thank you for your post about the romance of the sea. In 1994 I was privileged to sail aboard the “HMS” Rose (Now Surprise) as a deckhand and lecturer in Naval and Maritime history. It was one of the most moving and celebratory experiences I’ve ever had. The “romance of the sea” is real and as I look back now to the photos I took and the memories of dawn at sea, constellations above that I’d never seen before and other events no simulator or computer could replicate– well. Masefield does say it best.
    I hope that sailors today can find the time off watch to listen to the sound of water rushing slowly past the hull and the glow of marine animals at the bow wave, marvel at stars high above while wondering what creatures are just beneath them in the depths.