Life in Fast Shipping Lane for Today’s Merchant Sailor

Times Staff Writer

Kistzi Suzuki, master of the Japanese automobile transport ship Polar Ace, loves golf.

So when his ship pulled into Long Beach Harbor with a cargo of 3,300 new Hondas recently, he was ready: Golf clubs polished, starting time at a course near the water obtained via radio-telephone.

But Suzuki never got to the first tee.

On arrival, he found a gang of 60 longshoremen-drivers waiting to move his cargo from the ship to an assigned parking area on shore. The job was scheduled to take only nine hours--just long enough for him to complete the necessary paper work--after which he was expected to sail for Japan.


Suzuki wasn’t a bit surprised. “Always I have my golf clubs ready when we hit land,” he said with an air of resignation, “and almost always I’m disappointed. I can’t get off the ship. Too much for me to do.”

All over the world, the time-honored image of the carefree, carousing sailor on liberty has undergone a quiet change during the last decade. Automation, containerization and the demands of an ever-more-competitive industry have produced a revolution in shipping--and in the lives of men who go down to the sea in ships.

“Yah, still we travel the world,” said Herman Fredericksen, 37, a Norwegian who has made his living at sea since he was 16. “But the trouble is we seldom get off the ship.”

Fredericksen’s ship, the 900-foot freighter Barber Tampa, was tied up at Terminal Island for only a dozen hours on its latest stop.

“The few hours we’re in port,” he said, “we are so busy on the ship we have no time to go ashore. Usually we arrive alongside early in the morning, load and unload cargo . . . and sail away the same evening.”

“Being a sailor today means work, work, work,” nodded Fredericksen’s shipmate, Rolf Garshol, 42, who also went to sea at 16. “There is little free time on the beach. No sightseeing. No camaraderie in waterfront bars.”

And the bars have felt the change.

“The colorful old saloons, all gone now,” lamented San Pedro fisherman Tony (Mama) Vidovich, 60. There was a pronounced sense of nostalgia in the care he took to draw a map of the area: Beacon Street, Harbor Boulevard and Palos Verde Street in San Pedro. All, he said, were once lined with the saloons--Shanghai Red’s, the Skipper Inn, Bank Cafe, the White Swan--frequented by merchant sailors speaking a multitude of tongues.


“Beacon Street was the toughest street in the world,” he sighed.

No more. One by one, the old seamen’s bars were razed during the various redevelopment efforts of the 1970s. But long before that, they had outlived the needs of their erstwhile clientele.

“Waterfront bars are disappearing all over the world,” said Garshol. “Seamen don’t have the time or opportunity to frequent the waterfront bars as they did before.”

Today, the once-raucous waterfront is dotted with pricey eating establishments, office buildings and gift shops. But Garshol admitted he isn’t entirely dissatisfied with the change.


“Life at sea is different,” he said. “Because there are relatively few men on a ship, we are all kept plenty busy and scarcely have time to talk to one another. Sometimes we play a little spar domma or queen of spades . . . what you call hearts. It’s a lonely life.”

Garshol, who is married and has three children, thinks the job is better for a family man.

Modern-day Norwegian seamen work 4 to 4 1/2 months aboard ship, then are given an airplane ticket home for 1 1/2 to 2 months of paid vacation. “Before,” Garshol said, “we stayed 18 months to two years at sea before going home. Now it is much better.”

Japanese seafarers get long vacations, too: Nine months at sea are followed by three months of paid vacation. But Yoshikazu Oku, 36, second mate of the Japanese cargo ship Alligator Fortune, said he has a few reservations about the system.


No Time to Go Home

“When my ship docks at Kobe,” said Oku, who has been a professional seaman since he was 21, “I am only four hours from my home, but there is never enough time for me to go there.”

Suzuki of the Polar Ace mentioned the same problem. The round trip from Japan to the United States and home again, he said, takes a month to six weeks, and the time in home port is just as work-filled as the turnaround in Long Beach.

“We arrive early in the morning, take on the cars, then leave in the afternoon. Each round trip, if I’m lucky, I see my wife for a few hours.”


Another factor mentioned by many is the different class of sailors who now go to sea. The men tend to be older, more often married and better paid than in the old days.

Nonetheless, a seafarer still likes to greet friends and loved ones with presents from afar--and if the world traveler hasn’t time to visit the shops on shore, then Sandy Sawyer, 28, who works for Matsubara Co. of Long Beach, is one of the people ready and eager to fill the void.

“My company brings the shops to them,” Sawyer said, busily setting up her portable displays on board the Alligator Fortune. “The poor sailors don’t have time to go ashore to shop, so we sell perfume, watches, toys and other gift items on the ships, things the men buy for their wives, children, sweethearts, family and friends.

Disneyland Is Out


“These guys would love to go to Disneyland, Universal City, Hollywood and places like that. But they don’t have the time, so we have gifts from those places--things like these Mickey Mouse Disneyland T-shirts . . . very popular.”

Some aspects of the shore scene are less portable, however.

In the 1940s, the Norwegian government purchased a large plot of land on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, constructed a clubhouse and laid out a soccer field for the use of Norwegian merchant seamen whose ships visited Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.

For years, soccer teams made up of seamen from Norwegian ships played at Nansen Field. But today the soccer field is used by local Norwegian sports clubs, not by seamen. The sailors aren’t in port long enough to play soccer.


And then there is the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. It is one of the overseas centers established more than a century ago by the wives and sweethearts of Norwegian seafarers, to give their men a “home away from home” (and keep them from seeking out other women) while spending days or weeks ashore in the ports of the world.

When a Scandinavian ship enters Los Angeles Harbor and sails up the channel past the church, one of the ministers there plays a record of the national anthem of that ship’s country--Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland--on the loudspeaker. The men stand at attention on the passing ship.

Homeland Newspapers

Then the Rev. Arne O. Oystese or the Rev. Johan Wierup hops in the church’s van and heads for the ship.


They bring the crew newspapers from their homeland and exchange films.

“We take them on sightseeing trips around the Los Angeles area if they have time, but I’m sorry to say few ships ever stay that long now,” Oystese said. “Most of the time we are able to bring perhaps a half dozen of the crew to the church for an hour or so. At the church there are phone booths where the men can call overseas to their homes.”

“Hard on these men, being aboard ship and never getting off,” said Wierup.

He recalled a barbecue planned at the church for the crew of a Swedish vessel recently. “It was a ship that was to leave port at midnight,” he said. “The barbecue was to start at 8 p.m. We went to the ship at 7 p.m. to pick up those men who could be spared to go ashore. The captain met us at the gangplank and said he was sorry the men could not come.


“The ship had rescheduled its departure--to 8 p.m.”