My Worst Job Ever

I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my lifetime. Some were pretty good: newspaper reporter, magazine editor, hospital public relations director. Some were okay: Limo driver, boat rigger, bar tender, pizza delivery driver. Some were great: captain of an 85′ sailboat on the French Riviera, captain of several yachts and captain of crewboats in the Louisiana oil patch. And some jobs really sucked: captain of a 300-passenger tour boat in Chicago that was so boring I put the entire lecture on tape so I wouldn’t have to say the same boring lecture 12 times a day, six days a week, customer service representative, night manager or a fish and chips restaurant that paid $5 an hour and all the steaks and lobster tails I could carry out of the joint, and teaching a course in Nautical Science at West Jefferson High School in Louisiana.

But absolutely the worst job I ever had was the second job in my maritime career. When I got divorced I decided to pursue my dream of working on boats and got a job as deckhand on a dinner-cruise boat in Fort Lauderdale. It was a pretty good job despite the fact that it paid practically nothing. In fact, more than 30 years after I got that job, I’m still in regular contact with the captain of that boat.

When the boat voted to have union representation I was made shop steward in a rigged election (hey it’s good union tradition). Towards the end of the first year of operation the company was mired in deep financial problems and the workers (boat crew, wait staff and galley slaves) weren’t getting their pay checks. As shop steward I figured it was my duty to rattle the cages of the union officials to whom we were paying dues. I made regular appearances at the union hall and lots of phone calls, none of which helped our situation.

Late one night, just as I was getting ready to go to bed, there was a knock on my front door. I opened it to find a pair of  beefy, no neck union thugs. “We’ve got a job for you on a ship in Detroit. Be there in a week,” they said. I packed things up,put some stuff in storage and either threw or gave away everything else and six days later I stood outside the Detroit Greyhound station on a cold March day watching the falling snow turn brown before it hit the ground.

The Union Hall was as grungy and depressing as you would expect it to be but they fixed me up with papers to take to the Coast Guard offices so I could be issued a “Z card” which would allow me to work as an Ordinary Seaman on large ships. Back at the Union Hall they gave me some other papers and I was given directions on how to find the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant where I was to report on the SS Consumers Power, a self-unloading bulk carrier.


The ship was built in 1927 as a Straight Deck Lake Bulk Freighter by the American Ship Building Co., Lorain, OH as Hull #796. Launched December 30, 1926 as a) GEORGE M. HUMPHREY (1) for the Kinsman Transit Co., Cleveland, OH. and was 605′ loa.

The GEORGE M. HUMPHREY sunk in 80 feet of water after a collision with the steamer D.M. CLEMSON  off Old Point Light, at 2:50 a.m. on June 15, 1943. The HUMPHREY was downbound in the fog shrouded Straits of Mackinac with 13,992 tons of ore for South Chicago, IL. Thirty-one of the crew were rescued by the steamer LAGONDA, the remaining eight by the CLEMSON. Kinsman abandoned the HUMPHREY to the underwriters as a total loss for $860,000. The ship was raised, towed to The GEORGE M. HUMPHREY (1) sunk in 80 feet of water after a collision with the steamer D.M. CLEMSON (2) , 1 7/8 miles, 79 degrees off Old Point Light, at 2:50 a.m. on June 15, 1943.

The ship was towed to Manitowoc Ship Building Co., Manitowoc, WI, first for an estimate of repairs which totaled $469,400, and then was towed to Sturgeon Bay by the tug JOHN ROEN III arriving there on September 9th for reconditioning which was completed at a reported cost of $437,000. The ship re-entered service on May 1, 1945. She was renamed CONSUMERS POWER in 1958.

Self- unloaders are called that because that’s exactly how they discharge their cargo. You can see in the photo above the big boom that swings out from the ship. Two conveyor belts are located alongside the keel and these transport the cargo, in our case coal and rock salt, up to the boom and over the side like this:

As a result these ships are never in port very long as you can see by looking at the arrival and departure times of a few of these entries in the Shipping Log of the Muskegon News:

Vessel: Samuel de Champlain (tug)/Innovation (barge).

Length: 544 feet.

Destination: LaFarge slip, next to Heritage Landing.

Cargo: Cement.

Scheduled arrival: 11 p.m. Saturday.

Scheduled departure: 10 a.m. Sunday.

Vessel: H. Lee White

Length: 704 feet

Destination: Consumers Energy, B.C. Cobb slip

Cargo: Coal

Scheduled arrival: 11 a.m. Thursday

Scheduled departure: 6 p.m. Thursday

Vessel: American Century.

Length: 1,000 feet.

Destination: Consumers Energy Cobb slip.

Cargo: Coal.

Scheduled arrival: 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

Scheduled departure: 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

With the ships only staying at a dock for half a day or less this certainly wasn’t going to be a leisurely summer visiting ports on the Great Lakes. Unlike the work schedules I would encounter in the offshore oil industry a few years later where you generally worked a 14 days on followed by 14 days off or 7 on and 7 off on these ships you went aboard and worked pretty much until you got fed up and left or until the lake ports froze over.

Essentially what my job consisted of was to descend into the hold as the cargo was being discharged and knock down errant piles of coal and rock salt onto the conveyors and then washing the holds out with high-pressure hoses if the next cargo was going to be different than the one just dumped on shore. The only cool part of the job was docking. If you look at the photo you’ll see, just aft of the forward structure, a thin boom and a “T” shape dangling from it. When coming into a dock either myself or another OS would stand on the gunwale, slip the upside down piece of the tee between your legs and jump off the ship to be lowered to the dock where you’d put the steel lines to the bollards to tie the ship up for its short stay.

The worst part of the job, however, was shoveling coal or rock salt for 12 hours a day and having to share a tiny, overheated cabin with Abdul from Yemen. I lasted on the job for 10 days before I jumped ship back in Detroit.

Upon leaving the ship I headed to Chicago where I started a three-year long affair with a girl I’d worked with when I was an editor and I got my first skipper’s gig running a 42′ Hatteras Tri-cabin which I delivered to Fort Lauderdale in the Fall. On that trip out through the lengths of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, I ran across the Consumers Power taking on a load of coal in Toledo, Ohio.

The Consumers Power was laid up for the last time at Erie, PA on December 6, 1985. She was sold for scrap in March of 1988 and was towed out of Erie on May 2, 1988 by the tug W.N. TWOLAN, later joined by the tug GLENSIDE, and arrived at Lauzon, Que. on May 9th. On June 14th she cleared Lauzon in tandem tow with her former fleetmate, the steamer JOHN T. HUTCHINSON behind the Panamanian tug OMEGA 809.. The CONSUMERS POWER passed through the Panama Canal July 12th as a single tow followed by the HUTCHINSON’s tow two days later. The tandem tow arrived at Kaohsiung, Taiwan October 2, 1988 where dismantling began on October 14th by Li Chong Steel & Iron Works Co. Ltd.


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3 responses to “My Worst Job Ever

  1. good story – my worst was repairing steering mechanisms on fork lift trucks used in the London docks – endless replacing of steering rod knuckles

    The drivers would knock them out deliberatly so that they could take a morning off.


  2. Thought your readers might find my adventure with Hurricane Hugo on a boat interesting.Hurricane Bill is heading our way but at the moment 8/22 AM I will be leaving the boats on their moorings in Chatham, MA but tropical storm force winds are extending out for 275 miles so I will be putting on some extra tie downs. Not having to haul out left me some extra time yesterday to reminisce about riding out Hurricane Hugo on a 59′ Trimaran in Culebra, PR

    • oldsalt1942

      I know Stage Harbor very well having grown up in Orleans. We used to have our Rhodes 19 in Areys Pond and I spent every spare moment when the weather was good either on it or the Sunfish sailing all over Pleasant Bay as a kid. We lived a short walk from Skaket Beach and my family ran the Snack Shack over at Nauset Beach for 35 years, my brother finally selling it to the folks that run Liam’s. It’s my family’s recipe that is used for the onion rings at Arnold’s in Eastham. When my brother was running the Snack Shack he used to sell a ton to a ton and a half of onion rings a WEEK.

      The last time I was on the Cape was three summers ago for the Gary Philbrick Memorial Scholarship Golf Tournament named for my late brother who was the first pro at the Olde Barnstable Fairgrounds course.