Our visit to the SS American Victory could not have had a more delightful start! As we made the short walk from the adjacent Florida Aquarium, we stopped at the water’s edge to admire an absolutely massive cruise ship that was loading hundreds of passengers when my boy spotted a fin silently and swiftly breaking the surface of the water just below us. Sure enough, we all soon saw a dolphin who was seemingly playing in the waters around the propellor of the SS American Victory. It was literally just feet away from us, chasing fish, and bringing smiles to our faces. There’s just something about dolphins that seems inherently playful and joyful.
The light rain started to pick up just a little so we bid our dolphin friend farewell and headed onto the SS American Victory. One of the first things we learned about this ship was that it was built in Los Angeles in 1945 in only 55 days, which just astonished me. While hundreds of these cargo steamships were built then, this is one of only four World War II era ships that remain fully-functioning in the country today. This ship actually sets off on a cruise around the Channel twice a year! Fun fact: approximately half of the shipbuilding workforce was made up of women at that time. The SS American Victory served in World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars so there’s a lot of history within these ship’s walls.
As we explored the ship, we got to peek inside the officer’s quarters and the crew’s cabins. There were 62 Merchant Marines and U.S. Armed Guard officers and crew who sailed aboard this ship in World War II. We found our location on a map of Tampa Bay in the chart room, wondered what sorts of things the huge cargo areas may have held and climbed most of the 9 decks on board.
Then we had the good fortune of running into Mr. Gary B. who clearly has an incredible amount of knowledge about this ship which, happily for us, he was willing to share. He knows this ship from top to bottom – and quite literally has touched her highest point as well as the bottom of her hull when she was in dry dock. He showed us the ship hospital and the engine room, which we viewed from a narrow walkway towering over the powerful engines that moved this ship up to 17 knots. This ship could cruise for up to 23,500 miles!
Mr. Gary answered my boys’ questions about the knee-knockers (the high thresholds at every door meant to keep water out) and the vents in the doors which it turns out weren’t just for ventilation purposes. If a ship was struck by a torpedo, the impact could bend the structure of the ship enough to get the doors stuck. In that case, the men would kick out the plate and crawl through in order to be able to move into another part of the ship.
A Language Lesson on Board the SS American Victory
Mr. Gary led us to the blissfully air-conditioned (as of this week) mess hall and regaled us with stories of how so many nautical terms have made their way into our daily language. Here I learned we had something in common: he had taught English as a foreign language in Honduras and I had done the same in Paris. We shared an appreciation for language and so this conversation was especially interesting for me.
I learned that the longest seam from stem to stern on a ship is called the devil. On wooden ships, this needed to be kept watertight, which meant it needed to be cleaned and caulked even when (or especially when) the sailors were far out at sea. To get this done, a sailor would be suspended by a rope over the side of the ship, or between the devil and the deep blue sea. Sounds like a pretty precarious position to be in, doesn’t it?
But there could be a worse position to be in. Back in the day, it was pretty hot, dark and dank inside a ship. Men had to sleep there, of course, but they wanted to be out on deck working in the daytime. The deck was exposed to the elements, rain or shine, and was therefore called the weather deck. If a man was ill or injured and could not work out on deck, he would have to stay down below inside the ship, or under the weather.
You know those people who feign the appearance of working hard when really they’re not? When a sail needed to be shifted in the wind, you’d need to haul in the ropes on one end, which obviously requires lots of hard pulling. The ropes on the opposite end of the sail would need to be loosened in order to for it to move. Relaxing the ropes, or slackening the lines, required a lot less effort. If that was the extent of your contribution, you would be considered a slacker.
After a long day at sea, whether spent working hard or slacking off, many sailors slept in hammocks between the guns on a ship’s gun deck. At times, they might have their wives, girlfriends or, ahem, rented lady friends join them in the hammocks. A captain is required to report any birth on board his ship in his logs. If a mother did not know (or would not report the name of) the father of the child, the child might be noted as simply being the child of any one of the men who slept in the hammocks between the guns, or a son of a gun.
We didn’t hear a gun, thankfully, but we did get to hear Mr. Gary’s boatswain’s pipe (or bosun’s whistle). The silver whistle hung around his neck and he demonstrated several whistles, explaining how the last signal from the boatswain’s pipe each day signaled that it was time to quiet down, and go to bed. In other words, pipe down!
Among many other things, we also learned why a toilet on a ship is called the head. We gratefully thanked Gary and then, armed with new knowledge, we left the comfort of the air conditioning and took to the decks again to admire the views.
There is a lot to see here at the SS American Victory Mariners Museum, and while we spent most of our time exploring the decks and the interior of the ship, there were also exhibits showing artifacts (even condiment bottles), uniforms, medals, documents and photographs.
When the SS American Victory was saved from the scrapyard and towed from Virginia, it found its permanent home in Tampa directly behind the Florida Aquarium. It takes approximately two minutes to walk from one to the other, possibly more if you’re distracted by dolphins and giant cruise ships. If you have a membership to the Florida Aquarium, you get 50% off admission to the SS American Victory Mariners Museum. For us, it was a great way to spend a couple of hours after our visit to the Florida Aquarium and we were all happy we took the time to explore it. We ended the afternoon with a stroll down to the nearby Channelside Bay Plaza for an ice cream at the Cold Stone Creamery. Really, a very fun family day out in Tampa!