Issue: April 2001
Big Storm Small Ship

Big Storm Small Ship - By Thomas B.T. Baldwin Jr., 133 pages, $16.00, Xlibris Inc. (


    Ships and tugs have always fascinated me. Sometimes when I watch them steaming south down the Bay, I wonder what exotic places they will see in the next few weeks, and I grab any chance to get (safely) close to them. This book by Tom Baldwin is a chance to do that too.

    Based on a story Baldwin wrote while he was a maritime writer at The Journal of Commerce (America’s shipping news), the slim book chronicles his trip on board the Bermuda Islander as it heads from Salem, N.J., to Hamilton, Bermuda. Under ordinary circumstances this would be a pretty run-of-the-mill trip, but Baldwin didn’t get on the ship just for funzies. He cadged a ride because the Bermuda Islander is one of the smallest container ships working the western Atlantic, and it just so happened that one of the larger hurricanes of the season, Edouard, was rumbling around the Bahamas and heading north toward the U.S. coast. Baldwin got the assignment because, he figured, riding out a hurricane at sea on this little ship would be great page one news. And he was right about that. And as if the looming Edouard isn’t enough, he sets up the suspense from the outset when he arrives at the wharf in Salem late in the afternoon, after the dockworkers are done for the day and are hanging around pulling on their beers. One of them accosts him and lets him know the apparently universal local opinion of the Bermuda Islander: “She’s a swayer. Just lookit. How high’s that wheelhouse? They put too many decks on that thing. She’ll roll on you. Go over and she won’t be coming back.”

    Baldwin is a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, and as an alum of the illustrious wire service myself, I recognized and mostly enjoyed his style, though at times his abrupt sentences grated on the ears. It’s not beautiful writing, but it gets right to the point. At times, he veers off too far on tangents that only seem to lengthen the word count rather than carry the story forward. But most of the time, this is an enjoyable book that gives the reader a glimpse firsthand into the inner workings of a container ship (small or not, they’re all big to us boaters on the Bay). At times, the revelations are a little scary - especially the ones about how few crew these ships really run on and how often those eyes and ears are exhausted when they stand those deeply dark night watches.

    Obviously, Baldwin and the Bermuda Islander lived to tell the tale, but it wasn’t a lark - Baldwin hadn’t planned to ride through the heart of a monster, and neither had the captain, who made the wrong choice predicting Edouard’s course. The resulting ride makes for a good read.