Oh is a letter and zero is a number. If you don’t say them correctly and clearly, things might go wrong for your shipmates and your ship.
It’s a lesson I learned in Sea Explorer Scouts when I was a boy growing up in Duluth.
I spent my childhood – and now my adulthood – as a resident of the “island” of Park Point, with Lake Superior on one side and Superior Bay on the other, and, of course, the canal under the Aerial Lift Bridge splitting us from the mainland.
City kids had their Boy Scouts. Rural kids had their 4-H. But for us “islanders” living on the sand spit of Minnesota Point (Park Point) surrounded by water, it was a given that most teenage boys in my neighborhood would join Sea Scouts.
Sea Scouts is a bit like Boy Scouts, but focused on the practical knowledge and social regime of the maritime life.
Instead of a “troop,” we had a “ship” and back then, our ship was called the Sea Explorer Ship Corsair. Mr. Jack Marrion, a man we all called “Skipper,” was captain of our Ship Corsair, much as a Boy Scout leader heads his troop.
Under our Skipper, we not only learned seamanship skills, but he taught us discipline and the consequences of our actions.
I especially remember the summer of 1959, when I was 14 and a group of us Sea Scouts were guests aboard the U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender/ice breaker Woodrush, stationed here on the Point.
The ship was headed to refuel various lighthouses on the Lake.
At the time, a keeper still tended the lights and those keepers were Coastguardsmen.
We left the Duluth Ship Canal and headed for Outer Island, the most remote of the Apostle Islands some 70 miles away in Wisconsin.
About 3 miles out, I was standing on the fantail watching our stern wake when Lake Superior changed from the root beer color of the harbor to the crystal clear water typical of most of the Lake, far out from cities and shores. Like most of the others, this was my first time “rounding the horn” (around Minnesota Point) into the deep open waters of our Great Lake. It was also to be our first “overnight” on a large vessel.
It took about six hours to get to the Outer Island Lighthouse. We refueled it and then stopped again at Devils Island. The fueling stops gave us a chance to get more experience on Lake Superior. The waters were too shallow for the ship to dock, so while the crew brought the fuel barge to the lighthouses, we Sea Scouts were allowed to take one of the lifeboats and to man the oars for a close look at the famed Apostle sea caves.
Next we headed for Isle Royale to service the lighthouses there. We spent the night on the ship on the open Lake.
We arrived the next day to refuel Rock of Ages Lighthouse. They split up the Sea Scouts and I was in the group that got to ride along with the barge to refuel and tour the light.
Three Coast Guardsmen were stationed at the light. It was quite a thrill to go to the top and marvel at the Second Order Fresnel lens turning on its base and to peer down into the waters and note the reefs where three ships had wrecked years before then.
Each of us was assigned to shadow a crew member and mine operated the crane and was a wheelsman, so when we left and went down the south side of the island in more open water, I was at the Woodrush’s helm, under supervision of my crewman. Captain George Winstein came on the bridge and the first thing he said to me was, “What course are you steering on?”
I knew the answer. “Oh five oh,” I said eagerly and importantly.
That’s when Captain Winstein promptly and politely explained the difference between an “oh” and a “zero.” He told me never forget it. I never have.
We went to Rock Harbor before returning home. We got three nights and four days on the Woodrush.
Throughout that voyage, Captain Winstein and his crew treated us teenage boys as adults, giving respect and expecting it in return. That is another lesson I have not forgotten.
Recently I was rummaging through some mementos of the past and turned up a newspaper clipping and this photo of our send-off. My thoughts turned to my mates from those days as Sea Scouts and our “Ship Corsair.” Reviewing the lives of those with whom I’d kept touch, I was suddenly startled at how many of us went from that imaginary ship to a life influenced by the water.
First my older brother Jim and I both went into the Navy after high school. We served on the carrier USS Oriskany. After our tours of duty, Jim served 20 more years in the U.S. Coast Guard, working his way to become a lieutenant. He served as engineering officer (1980-1) on USCG Mesquite and finished his career in the shipyards of California and Louisiana.
My own maritime career continued after the service and spanned 32 years, mainly as a captain for Duluth Superior Excursions/Vista Fleet, starting with the Flamingo in 1975.
Many of my Sea Scout buddies still live in the area, close to Lake Superior; a few remain on the Point.