Looking for a Ship

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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This is an extraordinary tale of life aboard what may be one of the last American merchant ships. As the story begins, Andy Chase, who holds a license as a second mate, is looking for a ship. In less than ten years, the United States Merchant Marine has shrunk from more than two thousand ships to fewer than four hundred, and Chase faces the scarcity of jobs from which all American merchant mariners have been suffering.

With John McPhee along, Chase finds a job as a second mate aboard the S.S. Stella Lykes, captained by the extraordinary Paul McHenry Washburn. The journey takes them on a forty-two day run down the Pacific coast of South America, with stops to unload and pick up freight at such ports as Cartagena, Valparaiso, Balboa, Lima, and Guayaquil—an area notorious for pirates. As the crew make their ocean voyage, they tell sea stories of other runs and other ships, tales of disaster, stupidity, greed, generosity, and courage. Through the journey itself and the tales told emerge the history and character of a fascinating calling.


Praise for Looking for a Ship

"The usual—that is to say, terrific—McPhee treatment, in which the author surrenders to his subject and conquers it: in this case, the merchant marine of the United States."—The New York Times Book Review

"Remarkably adroit and compelling . . . the sea seems to be his natural home."—William Warner, The Washington Post Book World

"McPhee makes Captain Paul McHenry Washburn one of the most memorable men of sea literature."—Stephen Jones, Chicago Tribune

"Looking for a Ship is not a treatise on the decline of the American merchant marines, any more than Moby-Dick was meant to be a Journal of Commerce report on the whaling industry . . . Style is what McPhee is loaded down to the plimsoll marks in: felicitous phrases, keen observations, the knack of unloading a cargo of information without hitting the reader on the head with a jumbo boom."—Richard F. Shepard, The New York Times

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Looking for a Ship

Andy was worried about the Ben Sawyer Bridge. He thought of it stuck open, and saw in his mind's eye an unending line of stifled cars, his own among them. If his neurons seemed hyperactive, they had some reason...

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  • John McPhee

  • John McPhee is the author of more than 25 books, including Annals of the Former World, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction in 1999. He has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965 and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were both nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

  • John McPhee Yolanda Whitman