Captain's Log, Part 5

In The Nick of Time

Ship of Fools

When Apores joined the crew of the Southern Fundie, he was still conducting his explorations at the institute for advanced techniques of navigation. He hoped to discover what had happened that left so few captains able to navigate or to feed their crews with bread. The time that he spent aboard the Fundie only increased his desire to answer this question—but that is a story that must wait for the telling.

Captain Fardeau seemed to have little desire to put Apores to work, so his duties aboard the Fundie were light. He had time to spend at the institute, examining old charts and captains’ logs. Day by day he wormed himself further into the vaults of the institute until one day he spied an old chest labeled Finnegan. When he opened the chest, he found it packed with old charts, a pair of large tomes on theoretical navigation, and a log. All of these bore the same name as the chest.

The name was one that Apores had heard. Finnegan had lived nearly two centuries earlier, and some Captains thought of him as a hero. He had never had the responsibility of commanding a ship, but he presented himself as an expert on navigation who knew exactly how ships ought to be sailed. He still had a reputation as a great navigator, though Apores could not recall having ever met a captain who had actually studied Finnegan’s charts or logs. Well, here they were—charts, logs, and tomes on theoretical navigation, collected together and available for his inspection.

Apores threw himself into the task. It was slow work, for Finnegan was not easy to read. As Apores studied, however, he began to understand why captains now sailed as they did. Finnegan’s methods were clear, and those methods had been widely copied for generations, even by mariners who had never seen Finnegan’s charts or read his writings. In effect, Finnegan had founded a tradition, and the tradition mediated his thinking to captains who had never studied his works.

As Finnegan understood it, a captain’s main responsibility was not to sail the ship but to recruit sailors. This responsibility was complicated by the fact that, left to themselves, people would not normally enlist. Indeed, sailors who had already come aboard were in constant danger of deserting. Since they could serve only of their own Free Will, the captain’s greatest duty, in Finnegan’s mind, was one of persuasion—and it was no use waiting for help from the Admiral of the Fleet.

Sailors were subject to distractions, said Finnegan. They could become distracted by another ship, by the sight of land, or even by the passing waves. A distracted sailor was useless for manning the masts or swabbing the deck, and such a sailor would never recruit other sailors.

What the captain had to do (according to Finnegan) was to get people’s attention. He had to gain the attention of lubbers in order to recruit them to become sailors. He had to gain the attention of sailors in order to convince them not to abandon ship. In every case, the first step was to attract attention.

How was a captain to attract attention? Finnegan asserted that he must create an excitement. A captain had to do or cause something that would be exciting enough to draw people’s attention away from whatever else interested them. According to Finnegan, that kind of excitement required novelty. Therefore, a good captain always had to be ready to come up with something new, something that would surprise people and that they would find exciting. Finnegan insisted that no captain ever had or ever would recruit large numbers of sailors without creating novelty and excitement.

Of course, a captain might wonder what sort of novel activities would be effective. Here, Finnegan had specific advice. He suggested that captains ought to observe what people found exciting in the world at large. Specifically, they should discover what advertisers, politicians, and entertainers were doing to attract attention. Their activities would provide a model for drawing recruits to the Admiral’s ships, and Finnegan maintained that the true mission of the ship and the true work of every captain was to recruit sailors.

Older captains had regarded themselves as mere instruments through whom the Admiral accomplished His work. For Finnegan, however, a captain was a free agent, commissioned and given goals by the Admiral, but responsible to accomplish those goals according to whatever means he found effective. The Admiral Himself prescribed no methods: those were entirely at the discretion of the captain. The value of any particular method was to be judged only by its effectiveness in drawing recruits. No captain should ever permit himself to be distracted from the work of recruitment (least of all by talk about the Star, which was a mere human invention), and no captain should ever blame the strategy of the Admiral or the principles of the Mariners’ Handbook if he failed to recruit a ship full of sailors.

Finnegan advanced one final and very crucial point. Since the business of captains was to recruit sailors and since he was responsible to implement for himself the most effective means of recruitment, the wisdom of any captain could be judged by the number of recruits who came to his ship. Failure to recruit the maximum number of recruits was, according to Finnegan, profound folly and disloyalty to the Admiral. Finnegan’s formula was simple: great recruiters were great captains, and ineffective recruiters were disloyal fools.

Because of his vision of captaincy, Finnegan insisted that the mode of training captains should be drastically altered. In previous generations, captains had learned much about the Destination and the Star so they would know how to navigate. They had studied the Mariners’ Handbook in detail so that they would know how to serve bread to their crew. Finnegan regarded these studies as a waste of time. Rather, preparation for captaincy ought to consist in learning the most effective methods of recruitment. Future captains should be taught how to navigate close to the places where the most recruits could be found. In a word, their training should be PRACTICAL.

At last, Apores had his answer. He understood when things had gone wrong. It was Finnegan who had introduced massive alterations into maritime life. Finnegan had redefined almost everything. He had effectively turned navigation into a form of entertainment. Why bother to feed sailors when they would be much happier (and less likely to desert) if you amused them? Why did a ship need to navigate by the Star if it was not aiming to reach the Destination? Why shouldn’t a captain follow other captains who had shown that they knew how to attract recruits? At this point, Apores drew a conclusion that would shape the rest of his life: any vessel governed by Finnegan’s ideas could not help becoming a ship of fools.

Sonnet xvi [On His Blindness]

John Milton (1608-1674)

When I consider how my light is spent,
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lod’g with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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