Sea Worthy – A Sermon by Dave Witherill – May 8, 2011

As many of you know, I spent a career at sea.   From 1973 when I took my first Maine Maritime Academy training cruise through 2010 I spent months of each year afloat, and most of that time was out of sight of land.   Why would anybody want to willingly take on that sort of career you may ask?   Quite simply, I love the ocean, as well as the bays and sounds that line our coastlines; particularly those of our Great State of Maine.   A favorite poet of mine, Wilbert Snow, who grew up in the coastal town of Spruce Head, has this to say in his poem ‘Conflict’:

The sea is forever quivering,

The shore forever still;

And the boy who is born in a seacoast town

Is born with a dual will:

The sunburned rocks and beaches

Inveigle him to stay;

While every wave that breaches

Is a nudge to be up and away.

Well, I didn’t exactly grow up in a seacoast town.   Sanford / Springvale was known more for its textile mills than shipyards and sea captain’s homes.   But I did have a mentor.  My dad loves boats and from the earliest days of my memory we spent summers cruising the Maine coast covering most of the harbors from South Freeport to Lubec.   When I tell you that a family of four would spend up to three weeks aboard a 26 foot sailboat you know what I mean when I say my dad really loves boats!

So that is how I got my start.   Going to sea is not all that strange when you live in Maine.   It has been a tradition since humans first populated our coastlines.   Indians visited the rivers and bays as well as the offshore islands to harvest seafood and game.   Our rocky, hilly shore made water transportation the preferred means of getting about for several hundred years.  Maine built ships and Maine crews covered the world throughout the 19th century.    The tradition continues today.   I have met folks from Maine in my travels a long way from home.

A career at sea puts one in touch with the elements in a way that is hard to find in this modern world.   The positions of the jet stream,  Pacific Low, or Bermuda High Pressure systems were important in my daily life.  Daily forecasts and weather fax maps were studied in detail each.   The speed and comfort of each voyage depended the weather.   I’ve experienced 40 foot seas on more than one occasion, skirted around the edges of hurricanes, endured mind numbing nights in the fog staring at radar screens, and observed a thermometer reading of 94 degrees at 3 AM in the Red Sea.  I’ve also experience star filled nights with the southern cross high over head, seen the bluest of seas as flat as a table top, and have seen the green flash at both sunset and sunrise!

My career was spent aboard oil tankers.   Not exactly the most romantic of vessels, and when people discuss the health of the oceans they are thought of as public enemy number one!   Tankers have certainly had their share of disasters and at one time were some of the biggest causes of oil pollution in our waters.     I say ‘one time’ because times are changing and in a world where only bad news sells, I would like to point to a success story.  In my career the number of oil slicks and sheens observed at sea has greatly decreased.   In fact any oil sheen observed at sea was a highly unusual event in the last 20 years of my career.   The success is due to the will and desire of people around the world to limit the catastrophic spills that were witnessed onward from the 1960’s.   In 1983 rules coming from a United Nations agreement went into affect and the number of spills and amount of oil spilled was greatly reduced.   In 1989 the Exxon Valdez disaster prompted Congress to pass the ‘Oil Pollution Act of 1990’.    ‘OPA 90’ as it is called, prompted rule changes around the world.   Not only are all new oil tankers and barges built with double hulls, but perhaps more importantly the training and certification of seafarers working on tankers has been strengthened.   All studies show that the vast cause of oil spills is human error.

Statistics kept by the U.S. Coast Guard are showing the success: In 1990 approximately 6 million gallons of oil and refined products were spilled from tankers and barges in U.S. waters.   This includes the small as well as larger spills.   In 2004 that amount was down to 2000 gallons.   The number of vessels involved in spills has dropped from over 700 to less than 200.    Those numbers continue to drop.  According to the Coast Guard sewage treatment plants now account for twice the oil entering the ocean as come from oil tankers.    The Natural Resources Council estimates that North American oil in the ocean comes from the following sources: Natural Seeps 62%, Oil Consumption 33%, Oil Transportation 4%, and (prior to the Deep Water Horizon) Oil Extraction 1%.

The point of all this is to show that we human beings have successes when we put our minds to it and have the will.   The conservation rules adopted by our own lobster fishery, so many years ago, show how a vital industry can be saved in our own backyard.  Change is very hard and sometimes it comes more slowly than we would like, but we still have to keep pushing and fighting for what we believe in.   Compromise is not always a bad thing.  There were many who felt that OPA-90 did not go far enough, but it passed, and the results are there for all to see.   The oceans are under numerous threats, mostly from manmade causes.   Whether it is over-fishing, oil drilling, CO2 levels, oil transportation,  or the non-point source pollution that comes from our own day to day living, we can make changes for the good.

To finish I would like to offer prayer in the form of a poem, again by the Maine poet Wilbert Snow.   Although it speaks of a particular morning it may also be thought of as a hope for a better future when we live in harmony with seas.

Morning By the Sea

Give me the morning on Penobscot Bay —

At daybreak when the sun’s returning force

Is drying off the rocks whose colors play

More richly in the moisture; let the course

Of tides be low in order that the weirs

May cast their deepest shadows on the sea,

And the ebon rock that almost never rears

His length hold tired shags upon his knee.

And let it be the morning after rain

And fog and storm have bullied us a week –

The glad note in the gulls is here again,

The driftwood on the shore is new; waves speak

The madness they have reveled in: each one,

Breaking upon the beach, shouts to the sun.

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