2005 Interview with Captain Andrew Mckee

At age 25, Andrew Mckee got his first license; Driver's license, that is. He hasn't really needed one, since he's been at sea aboard traditional boats and research vessels from the age of 16. At age 21 Andrew earned his 1600 Ton Oceans Master License and had already completed a circumnavigation. He looks at traditional sailing with a slightly more practical view than he did nine years ago, and has a lot to say about the industry.


On a freezing spring day in Northern Michigan my crewmates and I were painting spars under a shrink-wrap boat cover, dressed in paint-splattered Carhaarts, wool sweaters, and hats. We listened to Gogol Bordello on iPod speakers, and told stories about previous pranks, voyages, and maintenance mishaps. On the topic of young captains, we argued the wisdom of placing lives in the hands of young, less experienced people. I mentioned that while my friend Andrew has rarely, if ever, sought employment as a captain, I would respect and trust his leadership. The first mate's response was "Not everyone can be like Andrew Mckee."

Andrew has crewed aboard Schooner Zodiac, Brig Lady Washington, Schooner Californian, the classic tug Arthur Foss, the square topsail ketch Hawaiian Chieftain, Schooner Spirit of Massachusetts, Schooner Westward, the brigantine Robert C. Seamans, the clipper Pride of Baltimore II, completed a circumnavigation as professional crew aboard the Barque Picton Castle and is now aboard the icebreaker/research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer. But I suspect that even if you have crewed with him, you may not know Andrew well nor fully grasp the extent of his seamanship skills. He will be the first to admit that there is always something more to learn. Upon meeting him, he will never automatically assume to know more than you about anything. His humble confidence is refreshing.
I caught up with Andrew in Seattle in 2005 while he was in town attending a welding class. The last time we had hung out was in late 2004. At that time he introduced me to the charming Renegade; a sailboat he'd purchased from author and OarClub founder, J. Fitzgerald. With the best mojitos Bellingham has to offer in hand, he had been telling me about his recent travels and Henrik, his friend and shipmate from the Barque Picton Castle. In 2004 Andrew had been planning a month-long trip to Henrik's family farm north of Cape Town, South Africa. Two years later our conversation started up where we'd left off…

So how was your working vacation on Henrik's family farm in South Africa?
I spent most of my time working on the installed irrigation system. They grow a lot of food to feed the sheep in the winter, and then sell the extra.
Their farm is huge; about sixty thousand acres. When you drive out to work for the day, and forget the tools, it's a twenty minute drive back to the barn. Between driving out, finding tools, and driving back, that could be an hour lost. It's a drag. 

That's like sending (insert slacker's name here) up into the rig.
YES! Put that in the magazine. Where they are the grass is really shitty. It's like a desert. It takes three hectares of grass to support a single sheep. They put a thousand sheep on one patch of land for a month, then they move them next door and let that other grass grow back. They cycle the camps.

Yeah sure. I saw Brokeback Mountain.
I didn't. I don't know what it's all about.

They did the same thing!
Alright then I think it's pretty normal worldwide then. At times we had to gather the sheep in a stone enclosure to count them, plus cut the tails off the lambs and gave them medicine for worms. The tails would then be barbecued and eaten as a snack.  

Were they good?
It was alright. The hair burns off really quick, then you just pick it up and (makes crunching sound). I asked the foreman why the tails get cut off, and he said, "Well, two reasons; it keeps them healthy and much cleaner, and… for the ladies it is like… panties off!" I guess it promotes breeding (laughs).

You must have made a lot of friends aboard Picton Castle. What were the best parts of that contract? I remember you once told me about your time ashore in Bali with your girlfriend. You stayed in a deluxe little hut on the beach. It sounded amazing.
was, although as far as my time with her, the charter in Tonga was at the top of the list. We chartered a 27-foot sailboat with three other people around the time of her birthday. A resort down there had just opened up, and it was owned by a couple from Sausalito. I asked if they knew of the NoName bar and Smitty's, and of course they did. They gave us a good deal on this sweet hillside bungalow the night of her birthday. Anything involving tropical atolls in the South Pacific is pretty awesome. 
There were a lot of really awesome parts about that trip: ocean passages, and never having to trim the sails day after day after day, the tropics, flying fish, sunshine and warmth all the time, showing up to midwatch in board shorts, flip flops and a tee shirt. It was pretty all right.

Some people say they get bored with long ocean passages.
Running a ship is a complicated thing with so much detail to develop and understand. When you're a mate there's a lot more depth to the act of making an ocean passage. If you're a deckhand getting up to stand your 47th wheel watch and steer west...again… I can see how the monotony develops. When you're a watch officer it's interesting to think about how everything is working out. When (the deckhand) is so bored of steering that he's not doing it well anymore we might be going 4.3 knots instead of 4.4 knots. This may sound ridiculous, but a tenth of knot over one day is 2.4 miles. Over ten days that's 24 miles. Over an ocean transit of 30 days that's 72 miles, which is the difference between getting in a day earlier or a day late. That's off of the minutest detail of whether that deckhand can keep it together for 16 minutes, you know what I mean? Often they are new or haven't been trained, or maybe they haven't been told that concept – I think many don't understand that how they steer affects how fast the boat goes. Seems obvious, but it isn't always. Or the fact that how you trim the sails has a huge effect on how well the boat steers and thus how easy it is for the helmsman to do their job and how easy it is for you to get in a day early and have a beer. All of that is really exciting, in a suspenseful kind of way. The whole trip is suspenseful, like watching the weather fax come in every four to eight hours. The progress of an ocean voyage is this thing that is alive and growing every day. My mind stays very engaged on an ocean voyage, and it's important to me to do my job well and not just say, "Oh I don't care about the little stuff."

What else sticks out in your mind about that circumnavigation?
Making sails on the beach in the Seychelles was one of the best times. They were hand stitched sails made of actual canvas. We worked under this big tree for a few hours, then sat there and had a beer in the shade at eleven in the morning. It was an awesome day. All in all we spent three weeks in the Seychelles.

What's it like working for Dan Moreland? I once was discussing on-board safety with one of PC's engineers. He had a pretty clear cut definition of how safety should be handled – that seamanship was far more important than safety equipment. Does Captain Moreland feel that way too?
Well when I was on board you didn't have to wear a harness aloft. No shoes required – it was a pretty free-for-all place but if he caught anyone skylarking he would land on them like a ton of bricks. There were very specific rules on what was allowed aloft and what wasn't. You were never allowed to sit on top of the yard, because your center of gravity was above what was supporting you, making you much more likely to fall off. He's a classic example of the mindset that training over equipment keeps you safe. The difference is that Dan doesn't have to do several three-hour sails per day or take new trainees every few weeks. The guys on his ship are there for a long time. After the first two weeks, people understand things better. I believe a little bit of both. I appreciate Dan's thoughts on it, but I still think a harness is a good backup. I'm not the example of safety in the rig, however, I've never trucked a mast in my entire life.

Yeah it's like, whatever, you know. I slid down a backstay once and was like, ok (shrugs shoulders). The thing is, now I will never do any of that, because I'm an example for the rest of the crew. It's true I don't clip in all the time, mostly because I forget, and that's a stupid excuse. It's totally retarded. The safest things we do are climb up the ratlines, where it's almost impossible to fall off, and furl sails on the yard. Granted, much more hazardous than climbing the ratlines, but much, much safer than trucking the mast or sliding down backstays. I clip in most of the time, but not all of the time, but the important thing is that I don't do all the crazy stupid stuff.

Green hands look up to the professional crew so much. I think that before trainees even go aloft, they need to be thoroughly trained and acutely aware of potential dangers.
Was the first time you actually used your license while you were on
Picton Castle?

Yes, although I was the relief mate here and there aboard Californian when I was 18. But really it was on Picton Castle when I was 19. I didn't use the license much at first on PC, but I wouldn't have gotten the job without the ticket. I was actually told to go away, then I said, "What if I have my mate's license?" And they said, "…Oh…come back in an hour." It was the same for the Californian. I was crew for their big trip to Panama and the east coast and people were competing for jobs aboard. After all that, on the Hawaiian Chieftain I was the captain for two months one summer in San Francisco Bay. Then I served as relief captain for Micah (Captain Faust-Allnut) aboard the Chieftain.  

How many other times have you worked as captain?

What license do you have now?
1600 ton ocean master, AB unlimited.

Why don't you pursue more captain jobs?
A long time ago someone on the Californian asked me if I wanted to be the captain some day. I told them that first I would want to be a good mate. And the thing is, I think it's hard to be a really good chief mate. Being a great chief mate is a very lofty goal. There's a lot of not so great ones, then quite a few middle of the road chief mates, which is the category I feel I fall into, and then very, very few exceptionally good ones, because the problem is there's such a shortage of decent captains that all those guys get bumped into captain before they've really fleshed out the chief mate skills, but it's not the same set of skills. A great chief mate is a very good rigger, engineer, carpenter and a halfway decent metal worker, and good at personnel management and organization. That's a huge list of skills to work on, huge. I guess I'm trying to work towards that, and then if I find myself in a captain's position I will feel pretty qualified.
It's not a right to be captain. It's a privilege. I think I could be pretty decent, but the reality is that I'd rather be a good mate for a good captain and be more likely to learn more about how to be a good captain. If you get to be captain really young and you just stay being captain, it's difficult because the only person you have to learn from is you and your own mistakes. But if you work for very seasoned, experienced captains with a lot of deep sea time, you're learning from the pros, instead of your own foolishness. That will make you better in the long run. A lot of people are in way too big a rush to be captain. I think to them it's more about being called Captain as opposed to actually being good at it. It's a lot of responsibility. I mean, sure… everyone realizes that when they leave the dock that everyone's survival is in their hands, and with day sails it's much less serious. Once you start doing offshore transits, east coast in the fall, during hurricane season - that's a big responsibility. No matter how fast you are at reefing or how good you are at docking the boat - skills that you can hone or maybe have gift for - won't save you when it's blowing 100 knots, or when somebody falls. Among other things, you have to be able to inspire your mates to be aware all the time, and the deckhands too. That is what's going to keep the passengers and trainees safe. Very few, if any, 21 year olds have all that down.
On the other hand I think it's really awesome that I worked briefly as captain at that age, because I learned so much about what makes a good mate and what makes good deck crew. You see a different perspective. You're on the foredeck trying to furl a sail and the captain's yelling about hurrying up… you're thinking: "That asshole's not up here doing this…" maybe untangling the downhaul that was led wrong… but when you're the captain you see a lot of times where stuff is taking way longer than it should, because visually you have a better perspective than anyone else and can see the whole picture. You see eight people standing around while that one person is furling. Plus it teaches you to be a better sailor so that when you're back on the foredeck you can execute stuff a lot better than before, and you realize what's riding on your actions. Before, you might have wondered what the big deal was if the jib goes up one minute later. But when the jib is what's going to get the boat to have the speed to tack around the next point… you can take a step back and see what's really happening. You start to realize that how the deck crew performs has an effect on how the captain handles the ship and how conservatively he's going to operate the vessel. People don't realize how huge an effect they have, and that a captain can't be any better than his crew. I learned a ton about myself then, and how to be a better mate. That definitely helped me out when I went back to sea as mate. It's not a mistake to be captain at a young age, but it's a mistake to only be captain. 
Since I never went to college I think about my license being my little piece of paper that proves that I'm invested in a particular thing and can focus on a specific topic for awhile. So if I can upgrade it, I'm going to. Even if I don't have any plans to use it. I might try college, too. Maybe go for a mechanical or civil engineering degree.

What have been your experiences aboard sail training vessels as both the trainee and the trainer?
I remember during my first time living aboard a sail training boat we had this engineer named Wally. He was a bitter guy in his late thirties and quite a good engineer. When I got on that boat, I was in paradise. We worked four sails a day, seven days per week, no time off, no pay, and it was the best thing I'd ever done. I thought everything was awesome and everyone was happy. Somehow Wally and I got paired together. He was really good so I was directed to follow him around. Wally gave me a running commentary on what he was doing at all times. He never stopped to take time to explain stuff, because there was no time. He'd be saying "Now we're hauling on the jib sheet. The jib sheet pulls on this corner of this sail, to tighten it or loosen it." and then we'd make that fast. Even if I hadn't finished comprehending what was going on, I was still getting fed a lot of information. The buddy system is really good if you have enough people to do it.
I don't set people up for failure. I give them just enough information to kind of do the job right, but not a two hour dissertation with checklists to make sure every thing is executed just so. I really like it if I give someone a bunch of information and they come back and tell me what they didn't understand, and ask for more information. That's awesome, because they recognize that they do not have the adequate knowledge or skill to complete this task, and see that there are a number of ways to get the info they need. One of those ways is to ask the mate: a perfectly valid course of action. That seems to escape a lot of people. They think "Oh I was told already and I shouldn't have to ask…" I see why people think that, but they need to get over it.
I also believe in forcing crew into admittedly difficult, awkward situations. It prepares them for when the shit really does go down and there isn't anybody around to answer their question. They have to figure things out on their own, whether that means calling more knowledgeable people, or books, or just staring at it to figure out how it will work. Maybe it's some weird splice or sending a yard aloft without ever having done it before. When people get more "spoon fed" it's harder to teach them that mindset.

So basically you want people to strengthen their problem-solving skills.
Yes. On vessels that do long voyages, the best AB or deckhand should stand with the third mate, so that mate can worry about not crashing the ship into anything, and the AB can worry about everything else. The chief mate is usually with the least experienced deckhand, to help train that hand. The chief mate has a much easier time multi-tasking between navigating and actual seamanship/sailing stuff. When you're an AB your job is steering, painting, tacking, pulling on a line and furling sails. When you're a third mate your job is staring at the radar or chart, and being a helmsman. It's a different job, but the usual promotion is directly from AB to third mate. There's no in-between stage. Even if the third watch officer isn't entirely ready, the captain can "hang out" during part of their watch and it's going to build that person up. It reassures their skills by assigning them responsibility. When given responsibility, most people will rise to the occasion. Your learning curve is extremely steep when you're in over your head. The three people leading those watches can hold down the fort and get the captain when they need him. They should get the captain a lot: the more the better. If you run a small ship like you run a big ship, it's going to train people well. On boats like Spirit of Massachusetts, which by tonnage is about the same size as Lady Washington, the third mate is responsible for making sure the boat doesn't crash into the shore or any other boats, and that's what dominates their thoughts for four hours at a time. They also have to keep trainees from hurting themselves. It's a lot of work and hard to be good at; to see all of it at the same time. I don't have a solution, but that is what's hard about the whole seamanship over safety equipment issue; it relies on the mates being really good at their job, and being able to say "Dude, stop doing that. That's really retarded." New people just don't know what's dumb and what's not.

Your longest voyage was aboard Picton Castle. Do you think that was where you learned the most?
The thing about PC is that the longer you stuck around, the more depth you got to the skills you were learning. The way that that voyage is set up, people learn to make a ditty bag, then sails, then they bend the sails on, blow the sails out, repair sails, then bend them back on again. On a normal boat, how many times do you go through the whole cycle? But if it were just two months on the PC, you might not learn as much as you would have on the Hawaiian Chieftain or Spirit of Massachussetts. I learned a lot on the Chieftain in a short period of time, due to how Ian (McIntyre) ran the boat. Pride II is a beautiful sailboat that's fast, good looking and rigged well, but anywhere you go it always depends on who you're working for, much more than what boat you're working on. You can take the coolest boat and put a moron in command and lo and behold you won't learn anything other than how not to do stuff. You can take a totally unremarkable boat and put someone very skilled in command, and then learn a lot on that boat. Boats don't teach people. People teach people. It's not so much that you're learning how to sail that particular boat. You're learning how to work on boats in general. Sure, you have to learn the lines but if you can't figure that out in the first weeks, you're already screwed. Problem solving, prevention, troubleshooting; those are the things you need to learn, and i t doesn't matter how pretty or ugly the boat is. WHO you work for is really, really, important. I spent a lot of time picking jobs when I was younger, trying to make sure I was working for people whose skills I respected, so I could learn from them.

Speaking of Pride II, is Jan Miles one of your favorite captains?
Yes. I went to Pride II because of Jan Miles. I heard that he was the guy to work for. He's a really, really exceptional sailor, and I learned a lot from him. I also personally find him to be really funny. Many people find him quite scary or intimidating because he rides the crew and will swear at them. But I think it's amusing.

It's amusing to watch him do it?
Well sometimes I'm the target of said anger, but if you take a step back and observe the situation, it's just entertaining. He's not losing control of himself; it's his way of expressing that he's not happy and he wants you to do something about it. It's not an attempt to make you break down in tears. He wants to provoke the reaction that's going to make you fix whatever you haven't done. Maybe you feel like it's unfair because you didn't know you were supposed to do it, but people need to get over that and move to the next step. I enjoy sailing with him.
Jan pushes his crew to their edge, but not beyond. Certainly that crew enjoyed sailing with him, but after the big event (dismasting) he was good at seeing where people were mentally, and not pushing them too far. After it happened, Jan was really awesome – yeah, he was awesome before, but those aren't circumstances where everyone excels.

What sticks out most in your mind from your time aboard Pride II?
Other than nearly dying? Yeah the whole dismasting thing was pretty remarkable, but really what was remarkable was the change in the crew dynamic. We were all good sailors and had sailed the ship extremely well together for six months, but we weren't the crew that was going to the bar together after work and have a good old time. After the "petit probleme" as we say in France, people were much more likely to hang out together. There was a much more communal or family feeling on board. We began hanging out together on the ship at night and having a few beers. I suppose it was people coming together under adverse circumstances. It was strange coming into port; people were actually in pretty good spirits. They were in a little bit of shock but there wasn't a whole lot of depression over the situation, nor did anyone feel personally responsible for it. Oh! And the food was awesome. Foie gras is so good. Give me any boiled, stuffed, duck liver or whatever that is, force fed duck liver… all those people who are morally against it – it's because they've never tasted it! They would be instant converts. It's amazing!

Did you try escargot?
No, so I tried snails a few months later in Morocco. In Marrakech there's this big square, and at nighttime street vendors set up booths. One booth serves only steamed snails. The pot that they steam them in is like a wok piled high with snails still in their shells. If you buy some, they scoop out a cereal bowl full of snails. It's not like France, where they're slathered with garlic butter. They're just steamed snails with nothing. They are revolting.  

Back to your time with Pride II in St. Nazaire…
Yeah. People felt sorry for us. One guy gave came on board and tutored the crew in French two nights each week. He would also drive the cook to the store. A welder offered us anything stainless steel that we might need. A guy from the American Bureau of Shipping office offered help. A local wooden boat foundation made their facility available to us. A guy who used to teach at the Rockland Apprentice Shop, a boatbuilding school in Maine, now teaches boatbuilding at a community college near St. Nazaire. He helped figure out where to find stuff and invited us over for dinner. That unsolicited help and whole sense of community and was pretty amazing.

I know your way over to Europe on Pride II wasn't your first Atlantic crossing, but how was that?
We did Lunenburg to Falmouth in just over 12 days. I think Pride II  had done four or five Atlantic crossings before that, always taking 17 days. We averaged over 200 miles each day. I couldn't believe it when we were carrying the full foresail during a 72 knot gust. We were headed downwind at 12 knots, which means 60 knots of apparent wind; still a shitload of wind. I thought, "I really need to buy Nat Wilson a beer because he's the guy who made this sail and I can't believe it hasn't blown out yet!" The next day I came on watch and said "Oh it's only blowing 45… how relaxing." If we had gone further south it would have been worse. Jan did a good job of weather routing. We were pretty comfortable and not bashing into it or anything. The EAGLE was crossing at the same time and took a wave that busted a guys' hip and some other guys' ribs.

It's crazy how much of your life you've spent aboard tall ships.
I have to tell you something Kim. It's like when you point out to your friend that they have to wipe their nose…

What did I do?
No, no you haven't done anything. It's completely unrelated… it's a very bad analogy. I have this thing that I overlook a lot of times with a lot of people because I'm just like whatever, I'm not going to bother. That's a lot of buildup for something that's not a big deal, but I have this issue with the phrase "tall ship."  My feeling is that the term seems to bring out the thought "pirate ship" and I hate when people say, "You work on a pirate boat!" It kills me. John Masefield wrote the poem ("Sea Fever," 1902) in which he says, "And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by," and that's where the phrase comes from. But what does that actually mean? This guy Bill Gilkerson has the best monologue about this. He goes off about it if anyone ever says the phrase "tall ship." It's a schooner or a sailing ship or a square rigger, so why not call it what it actually is? I mean, I know it's nice to use a nice catch-all phrase… I don't really hold it against anyone. But I do notice it. I try to lend respectability to the sailing industry as a whole, and that phrase detracts from that goal.

That's valid. I've never bothered to look it up myself, but it's always funny how every captain has their own definition when a tourist or volunteer asks "So what defines a Tall Ship?"
What I care about is that when you show up to the boat, you can do your job. Discussing the difference between a midshipman's and a rolling hitch or a tall ship and whatever… really isn't contributing to that goal. What matters is learning how to really work a boat. No matter what kind of boat it is: a tugboat or a schooner or a square rigger. All that terminology lies in the evolution of sail history, but I think many people miss that, because there's no clear cut definition. Definitions change over time, like technology. I'm into the esoteric stuff to a point, but people get overworked about it.

So I know you still want to sail, but currently you're working on an icebreaker around the Antarctic. What do you like about crewing on the Nathaniel B. Palmer?
Most of my job is problem solving… hanging out in the shop and fixing stuff. It gives me an opportunity to hone my shop skills. I think many in the sailing crowd are lacking in that department. I don't always sleep well. The noise never goes away. You're not in heavy ice all the time, and medium ice is OK. Sailboats always make for sound sleep, and I miss that. I'm getting old. I'm 25 going on 42. I've abused my body.
During a recent trip on the Palmer we worked many twenty hour days, and we were out two weeks longer than usual. Plus we had a med-evac. Finally getting into McMurdo Station was very exciting for everyone. The bar on shore stayed open for us until eleven at night. Usually everyone's pretty excited about getting to port, but this was extreme… the third mate was on watch and I asked him if he was going to the party at the bar at seven. He said "Oh no I'll be passed out by then for sure." I said "Really? It's only three-thirty and you haven't even started drinking yet! What time do you get off?" and he said "Four o'clock! The rocket ship to stupidity leaves in 30 minutes!" Then I found the chief engineer standing by the phone while we were taking fuel. He said "As soon as that phone rings, we're done!" And he sat there, staring at the phone. He was due to get off the next day. I asked if he was going out that night and he said "You bet. I don't want to sober up 'til March!"
It all set the tone for later that evening. I was still going until early the next morning – easy when it's so bright outside. The bar closed and we went down to the pier. It's floating ice cut into a pier shape, with gravel laid on it, then water poured over so that the ice freezes over the gravel, then they lay rebar down and more water… and they keep layering the whole thing up until it's 20 feet thick. The gravel and wire makes it float low. So the pier is this floating chunk about 500 feet long. There's a Quonset hut on the pier for the dockworkers to stay warm. We had our after hours party that night in the Quonset hut. The Filipino crewmembers played disco music, and there was a tiny motorized disco ball, and people were taking turns flipping the light switch. It was insane. It was so small that the few people there made it feel like it was packed. They blocked all the windows because it was still bright outside. I was pretty loaded and dancing a lot.
You know… to us the maritime community is this huge wide world of people and boats, but it's off the map entirely for 99.9% of the population. Previously I had no idea you could go work on an icebreaker in Antarctica for the National Science Foundation or even work at McMurdo Station. I'm sure there are millions of people around the country that would be really good at what I do, but don't even know it exists. I'm lucky to have been exposed to a wide variety of things. I keep looking for the job that I don't know exists yet, but might be the perfect thing for me.

That's something I really respect about you. You continue to be interested in learning and trying out new things, as well as inspiring others. Four years ago you got me excited about sailing traditional boats. Meeting you literally changed my life. At the time, you recommended I read the The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby, and study the Cornell Manual to become an AB. I read and studied both, and got a lot out of them. Name a few books you would recommend to other sailors.
I still wholeheartedly recommend The Last Grain Race, but I'd also say Wanderer by Sterling Hayden. You can learn a lot about seamanship from reading that book. Oh, and Call of the Sea by Jan de Hartog.

All week I've been sporadically recording this interview, plying you with beer or brie or coffee. Now I have enough material to print. Thanks so much for the thorough answers and for elaborating on all your adventures, even though you're not always a man of many words. Lemme buy one more round before I don't see you for another year…


  1. Andrew was my first Chief Mate, albeit for only 2 or 3 days, but he made a great first impression for the traditional sailing industry on me.

  2. There isn't an e-mail address, but I was looking to see if you had any back copies (or could reprint) a copy of the 2009 calendar.