Saturday, January 16, 2010

Call Me "Captain"

Like many ship captains, I love to quote myself, so here's an excerpt from the very first post of The Misunderstood Mariner:
Captain is commonly used to refer to the person in charge of any vessel, but the term is inexact. It can be very confusing when dealing with the military, where “captain” is a specific rank (and even then, a captain in the Navy is equivalent to an Army or Air Force Colonel, while a captain in those two services is equal to a Navy lieutenant). The captain of a military vessel can be almost any rank, depending on the size of the vessel, it mission, etc. The Coast Guard uses the word master to refer to the person in command of any civilian vessel. To some people, especially in the yachting world, master is only used when the owner and the captain are the same person. Sail boaters often use the term skipper to refer to the captain. Although many of these folks are licensed and working mariners – often as professional sailing instructors – this term may be considered derisive outside the recreational boating community (‘Nice docking there, skipper!” said in a sarcastic tone).
It is almost always appropriate to address the captain of a vessel as "captain," in fact it may be compulsory for the crew to do so, either by the captain's order or by service or company policy. On the other hand, some captains hate it. My first captain got up in front of the crew and said he didn't care for saluting "or any of that stuff" and that we should just call him "D---." Some captains insist on the honorific, virtually using it as a first name. Crew working under these guys (and they are almost always men) need to be alert: such a captain may be driving with his ego or hiding some form of incompetence with his title.

Origins. The word captain derives from the Latin caput, meaning "head." The title thus has the same origin as capital (as in "capital punishment," literally meaning removal of the head), capitol, and, of course, cap. Although now much more formalized in meaning, a captain was originally the head of any military unit and only later came to be used to indicate a specific rank.

Famous Captains. On the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005, the website yesterday compiled a list of the "Top Ten Famous Captains." Topping the list is Francis Drake, followed by Sir Walter Raleigh, followed by three or four pirate captains (of course, some considered Drake a pirate, too), a couple of explorers, and finishing up with two fictional captains, Long John Silver from Treasure Island and Captain Kirk from Star Trek.

Intense Captains On Film. For some true egomaniacal fun, check out Charles Laughton's performance as Captain Bligh in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, James Cagney as Captain Morton in Mr. Roberts, and Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in the 1956 version of Moby Dick. More recently, there's the melodramatic Captain Sheldon (played by Jeff Bridges) in White Squall and Gene Hackman as Captain Ramsey (pictured above) in Crimson Tide. The latter, a submarine commander, holds a missile drill while the crew is fighting a real fire; now that's intense.

"O Captain my Captain!" I am often greeted by passengers with this line, which is the title of a poem by Walt Whitman. The captain in Whitman's poem is dead, which makes this a somewhat less than cheery greeting. Here's the whole poem:
O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.


  1. My favorite captain quote:
    “One of the advantages of being Captain is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.”
    James T. Kirk

  2. Good ol' Kirk. Another of my favorites from Ramsey (Hackman) is "We're here to defend democracy not to practice it."