How Did You Get Into the Merchant Marine?

A few days after my recent email announcing my upcoming book, No Ordinary Seaman, questions began pouring in. Rather than respond directly to the questions, I have decided to share them in the blog, and post them like a Q and A.

Following are some of the questions I have received, and my answers, most of which are excerpts directly from the book.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by
the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off  the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour.
Catch the trade wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
~ Mark Twain ~

Q. How did you get into the merchant marine, and onboard that ship, the Havkatt?

Havkatt docked in ballast - Photo Vancouver Sun

M/S Havkatt docked in ballast – Photo Vancouver Sun

A. I had just graduated from high school (1965) and was looking for summer work to pay for my university fees in the fall. There were always ships in the Vancouver harbour right at my doorstep. One day I asked myself, “What if I could get a job on one of the Norwegian ships and sail on it to Norway? I could go to university any time.”

I learned that crew hirings were handled by the Norwegian Consulate, so I went there one day to make inquiries.

Chapter 1 – The Havkatt

On my way to the Consulate offices on West Hastings Street, I was convinced that, with a name like Karlsen, I would be a shoe-in. I was rather naïve, of course. It would have made no difference if my name was Smith or Yablonski or Chan. The only thing that really counted was how much sea experience I had. So, my story was that I had worked two summers as a deckhand on coastal freighters.

“Yaw, okay,” said Miss Sigurdsen in her Norwegian sing-song dialect. “I vill poot yoo on da list.”

I asked her how long the list was, and she said, “Dirty men. It cood take a month or too, or tree.”

“Is there any way of getting hired on sooner?”

“Only if the Captain asks for yoo by name, Karlsen.”

Map of the Havkatt's route

Map of the Havkatt‘s route

I boarded four Norwegian ships during the next few days, always asking for the Captain’s Office. Never did a captain fail to speak with me, but only the fourth ship needed crew.

“Come with me,” he said. He introduced himself as the Radio Officer. I followed him up to the top deck of the ship. The Officer took me directly to Captain Anders’ office and left me there. I asked the Captain if he needed crew and he said he needed six men. Which job was I here for? I told him “deckhand”.

“Did the shipping office send you here?” he asked. “I was on the telephone with them this morning.”

“Yes,” I said, stretching the truth.

Captain Anders told me to go to the Norwegian Consulate for the paperwork and be back for sailing in four days. I said he was to confirm with the office by calling in my name.

compass roseWith that I left the ship and drove straight to see Miss Sigurdsen. She greeted me with a big smile. “I’m surprised too be seeing yoo again so soon Karlsen. How did yoo doo that?”

“Well, Captain Anders asked if you’d sent me and I sort of said you did, and because you told me that I’d be at the top of the list if I was asked for by name, then…”

“Sign here,” she said.

The next day I was to get vaccinated for cholera and a few other nasty diseases to which sailors were exposed. As I was walking out the door, I turned back and asked her where the ship was sailing to.


Wow, I thought. University can wait. This would be the beginning of my journey to Norway. Well, the Havkatt sailed under the Norwegian flag but it had never been to Norway, and I was soon to learn that it never would sail to a Norwegian port.


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