While my own boy’s soul never heard the call of the sea, many another young man has dreamed of setting sail since the dawn of human perception. In the wake of those adventures, a great literature has arisen, including countless memoirs by those who’ve sailed in times of both peace and war; for profit and for glory.
One of the latest is Oceans Apart: The Wanderings of a Young Mariner by Kevin McCarey (The Glencannon Press, 241 pp., 2016). McCarey is a distinguished, prize-winning documentary filmmaker who’s produced nature films for PBS and the National Geographic, among others. Several Emmy and Peabody awards shine from his mantle.
But years before finding his life’s work, McCarey spent part of his youth as a merchant seaman, a trade that, thanks to various technological changes, has been in decline for the last five decades.
Full disclosure: McCarey was a family friend, though about a decade older than I. We’ve only recently reconnected.
McCarey was born and raised down the road from me, in Putnam Valley, New York, across the border from where I lived in Westchester County, a bit east of the Hudson River. I can state plainly, the Hudson River Valley is a most beautiful part of the world, but unless you have money, it can be a hard and ugly land on which to live; a place you need to escape from. Country life is no stroll through the woods for those without.
McCarey’s family were “tenants on a perpetually fallow potato farm.” They were an excellent illustration of Tolstoy’s dictum that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. As his father, a frustrated, penniless comic-strip artist, was sinking into alcoholic self-pity, his high-spirited mother was raising Kevin and his three brothers by the simple dictum “Don’t get caught!”
While playing hokey by the Hudson near Peekskill one day during the early 1960s, McCarey espied an old World War-II Liberty ship being nudged and dragged away from the Ghost Fleet (whose gray misty silhouettes I also recall) by a tugboat before sailing off down the Hudson River.
“But to where?” he writes. “What ports of call? I wondered. Buenos Aires? Shanghai? Zanzibar? The other ships, stuck at anchor for almost two decades, must be envious, I thought. And I was envious, too.”
If he’d known at the time where that vessel was headed—likely Vietnam, as that war was already brewing—McCarey might have hesitated. But even if he had known, the sea had made its irresistible call.
Shortly afterward, he enlisted at the State University of New York Maritime College for several years of hard study and youthful hijinks. After graduating, “Maharry,” as he was called by one of his mates, found himself on freighters bound across the Seven Seas. While his itinerary seems inexact and sometimes confusing—given this is a memoir rather than a formal autobiography—he takes the reader on waves of adventure that teem with gamy colorful characters, including crazed captains, dissolute sailors, and sex workers (one of whom, a Portuguese girl, lured McCarey into posing as her fiancé to help her put on a respectable face for her strict family.)
Then there was the time that McCarey took a quick dip in the middle of the Atlantic. And then the sharks came. And then his ship started to sail off without him. And then there was that loose military ordinance shell rolling around below decks while on the way to Cam Ranh Bay, one of the largest U.S. bases in Vietnam. Following an episode right out Apocalypse Now, it’s a wonder McCarey didn’t hand in his papers for a nice safe janitorial position in a school somewhere.
Fortunately, McCarey had the sea legs and stuck with it. Most of the freighters he sailed on were virtual slums, but another love was rising to the surface: a love for the ocean. He started opening to its mysteries, giving birth to another dream, one like a distant island in the mist at dawn. There wasn’t only life on board ships, there was also life in the seas, endless life. Eventually that life would become his vocation, a most essential one in our times.
Oceans Apart is a spirited read, a must for travel and adventure readers, a colorful, pungent, funny and exciting story, at times as hair-raising as a Category 5 hurricane.
And it’s all beautifully written, literate and endlessly enjoyable, its prose shimmering like blue sky, full of salt air and ocean spray. It’s an armchair journey worth your ticket and time.
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel, will appear this March 2017. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.