Sailing with “The Old Man”


I used to be a first trip Cadet, and I knew quite a bit. Then I became third and I knew everything. Then I switched to Second Mate, and soon realized I wasn’t as smart as I thought. Once promoted to chief
Officer, I knew I had a lot to learn. Then I became Captain and I realized how much knowledge remained to be acquired. But, it didn’t matter because my third mate knew everything. A master’s tale.
The Island Bound Bookstore email said:
Keith Lewis’s book (“The Old Man: A Block Island Sea Captain and the Woman He Loved”), is here. We think you might be interested.
• Immediate response: “Please send ASAP. Send to cargo shed at Point Judith. Load my card. Thank you!”
• Immediate response: “On the way. I will drop off at the ferry when I leave at noon.
Bingo! I was going to sail for the next three days, and Keith’s book about his mother and father was with me; however, I was anxious and burned 35 pages after supper; I couldn’t put this book down for a minute. The next day, “The Old Man” would sail up Narragansett Bay with me in 25 knots from the southwest on a wide reach downwind. I literally flipped the pages and read the book while steering Reverie with my foot. The book is so good. Needless to say, I was looking forward to this story about a formidable Block Islander named Captain Rob Lewis.
I first heard of Rob Lewis in 1970 while living and working on the island. Its name came in connection with land conservation. Several years later, I would put his white van on the ferry while he went to get his tickets. His wife Alyce – who reminded me of Katherine Hepburn – whom I always called Mrs. Lewis, appreciated that I put their rig on the boat. His smile was sincere and powerful. They were nice people. I didn’t know anything about this couple other than that they were nice people and lived on Block Island. Besides, I had never met Keith Lewis. Over the decades, that would change.
Rob Lewis grew up on a farm on the south side of Block Island and went to a one-room schoolhouse. In addition to his duties on the farm, Rob has been a caddy on the Vaill Hotel golf courses; however, when the Depression began, his jobs became scarce, so he went fishing. At the age of 18, Rob Lewis made the bold decision to leave his small island community and join the Merchant Navy as a cadet. Thereafter, after serving three years on his first ship and acquiring hard-earned knowledge as a merchant seaman, he had enough time at sea to take his mate’s license. Then he was able to sit down for his second’s ticket. (He memorized all of the requirements for that license. All of them.) From there, he sat for his mate’s license, and by the age of 25, he had earned his unlimited master’s license. Captain Rob Lewis went to sea, and absorbed and assimilated everything his career allowed; that informed his worldview in the context of sustainability.
While Rob Lewis made several Atlantic crossings during his service voyage as a merchant seaman, in addition to learning how ships worked, their engines, and celestial navigation, he also zigzagged across the ocean. so that his ship can dodge the submarines. Before the war, American-flagged ships were marked with large American flags painted on their port and starboard sides to alert adversaries that they were a neutral nation. I’m sure anyone who sailed as merchant seamen in those days was wary of this unseen and hostile threat. When the United States joined the Allies to thwart Hitler, Rob Lewis’ ships became targets; before and during the war, they were sometimes unescorted. In this book we see the directness and grit (gravel) of men like Rob Lewis and his ilk, who had a sense of duty and patriotism that we will find highly commendable in reading about the inherent danger these men faced in high wed. Rob Lewis was a natural leader who kept a leader’s perspective in his duty to do his job. This observation is noted as a common thread in his story.
Rob met Alyce Burt – a bright and beautiful woman – in New York. After a long courtship, they got married. Here’s a city girl and a Block Island guy who fell in love and faced long absences early in their marriage. There’s a great photo in the book of Alyce’s first trip to the Isle of Lewis farm, which Rob had arranged with his mother Maize while at sea. This couple were poles apart when it came to their respective places of origin; however, they were well matched intellectually, with a deep curiosity about the world as it was. When Rob was finally able to introduce his fiancée to his friends on the island, an older islander noted, “She’s going to dress well.”
She did indeed, and Alyce Burt had met the love of her life.
Keith Lewis is a merchant seaman who doesn’t consider himself a writer – I disagree. Keith’s grandmother, Maize, was “born with a pen in her hand”. Keith’s father kept accurate sighting and sighting diaries while at sea. When America finally gave up its neutrality to join the Allies, Rob Lewis was not allowed to keep a diary for reasons of national security. If his words were commandeered by the enemy, they might be able to inform the enemy. Keith and I discussed the writing and he’s a man with a really methodical mind. Having been a Merchant Seaman for over 30 years, whenever I spoke with Keith I always felt that he valued detail and an accurate analysis of things. Keith Lewis graduated from Maine Maritime and was chief engineer on steam and diesel engines. In the operation of these motors, there are many details to be observed for proper operation. This sense of detail is legion in his writing. Keith, in my opinion, is not just a writer, but a damn good one.
Recently, I was telling Keith that I wanted him to have a copy of his book engraved for one of my former students, who was the first female master to be hired for Chevron. He was happy to do so, and I was happy to be the link in this triangle of merchant seamen: Captain Rob Lewis, Captain Lisa Chaplin-Dixon and Chief Keith Lewis. Keith wrote the first of four volumes of his mother’s and father’s respective lives together. He takes an objective position on a very subjective subject – his own flesh and blood. Keith told me that his father’s memory was clear until the end of his life. Nevertheless, being a man of details, he has a bibliography of primary sources to add context to the story. Here is the exercise. Shortlist this book, which is available at the Island Bound Bookstore. Additionally, Keith will speak on October 12 at the Block Island Maritime Institute at 5 p.m. Go listen to this Block Islander talk about “The Old Man”. Well done Zulu, Keith Lewis.


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