A lifetime of feeling the sea’s allure

Times Staff Writer

Call him Capt. Manny.

Everybody down on the waterfront does, even though Manny Aschemeyer last helmed a ship in 1969.

Officially, Aschemeyer is executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks ship movements at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. But he is much more: historian, statistician, booster and news service.

Next month, he’ll be pulling up the gangplank after six decades on or near the sea. Aschemeyer’s maritime years provide a window on the modern evolution of shipping.

He still remembers the safari he took during a voyage to Kenya 43 years ago. One night, there was brandy to be sipped with friends as Mt. Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak shone like silver in the moonlight.

“No one gets to do that anymore. There’s no time,” Aschemeyer says, because tight profit margins have led to ships that are much bigger and faster. Crew sizes have shrunk, as has the time spent in port, which is now sometimes as short as 48 hours.


When Aschemeyer was sailing, “The whole purpose was to go ashore and see something that you had never seen and experience something that you had never done.”

Nowadays, “Everyone now is either working or sleeping or eating.”

Growing up in Baltimore, young Manny and his father, Fritz, could walk to any dock and usually get aboard a vessel for a tour. Fritz Aschemeyer had trained to be a seaman like his own dad, but wound up a painter and decorator of Loews movie theaters.

Still, Fritz wanted his son to go to sea. He would invite seamen home for dinner to “hear their exotic tales of faraway places,” Manny Aschemeyer says. “My family says I was brainwashed and I guess I was. But I was able to make captain before my father died, and I’m very proud of that.”

Aschemeyer eventually became a master mariner, a status that meant he could command “any ship in any ocean.”

A typical cargo vessel in those days was 450 feet long and carried about 8,000 tons of freight, but not a single cargo container. The cargo was on pallets or as separate items that had to be loaded piece by piece. It could take days to load and unload a vessel. The size of a crew back then would be about 50 and included plumbers and carpenters “because we had to maintain the ship ourselves,” Aschemeyer says. A transpacific crossing took about three weeks.

Today, that voyage takes about nine days in a ship that is nearly three times longer and can carry 100,000 tons of cargo in about 8,000 containers.

“To look at the difference now from where we have come, it is just phenomenal,” Aschemeyer says.

His first stint as captain was aboard a ship owned by Calmar Steamship Corp., a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, hauling steel from Baltimore and Philadelphia through the Panama Canal to West Coast ports. A watercolor painting of the vessel by his father hangs in Aschemeyer’s office.

By 1969, Aschemeyer had married and begun three years as an instructor at his alma mater, the California Maritime Academy. That allowed him to go to sea three months a year on training cruises for the midshipmen.

Aschemeyer moved into maritime management in 1971 during the last days of some of the most famous U.S. shipping lines. Dozens went bankrupt or were acquired, succumbing to cheaper foreign competition because the U.S. companies failed to realize that containerships were the wave of the future.

From about three dozen U.S.-flagged lines, only a handful remain, and none is ranked among the top 30 in the world.

In 1992, Aschemeyer became executive director of the Marine Exchange, a nonprofit organization that helps clients around the globe keep track of their cargo.

“I still get to play with ships all day, but I get to go home to my wife at night,” he says.

For years, the Marine Exchange mostly announced the arrivals and departures of ships from the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Marine Exchange managed 27,000 vessel trips in 2007 through its Vessel Traffic Service.

“The Marine Exchange would not have the reputation it has in the maritime industry without him,” says John Hanlin, managing director of Marsh Risk & Insurance Services.

But Aschemeyer is probably best known for his “Mannygrams,” or daily e-mails to a worldwide audience that cover every aspect of the maritime industry.

“People complain because he sends so many, but then something happens and we’re trying to figure it out. We call Manny and he says something like, ‘Oh yeah, we sent you an e-mail on that two days ago.’ So you never delete those messages,” says Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach.

Aschemeyer will retire next month to a ranch east of Mt. Palomar in San Diego County. Although it is far from the water, he won’t be entirely done with the sea.

He will continue to serve as president of the International Seafarers Center of Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor, which provides a friendly atmosphere where merchant seamen can relax and call home or send e-mails. A van service picks them up at port and shuttles them to local shopping centers and restaurants.

“Once you are a seafarer, all others are your shipmates,” Aschemeyer says. “If we can help them make a phone call home to their families or drive them to a store, then we have helped them a little bit.”




Maritime man

Who: Manny Aschemeyer

Age: 67

Education: Graduated with honors from the California Maritime Academy

Hobbies: Completing the Captn’s Crows Nest, a treehouse at his ranch where all of his maritime memorabilia is kept, including charts, a ship’s wheel, ship’s bell, wooden anchors and a display of more 100 kinds of rope knots.

Favorite books: Both by James A. Michener, of course: “Hawaii” and “Tales of the South Pacific.”

Personal: Met his future wife, Flory Ann, a waitress who was working two jobs to support her three young children, in Los Angeles in 1967. Their first date was arranged by an old high school buddy while Aschemeyer was still a sea captain. Time spent together dating that first year: 17 hours.

Favorite voyage: A trip to Kenya 43 years ago that included a safari at Tsavo National Park.