Ben Lyons (Photo courtesy of B. Lyons)
FROM KINGS POINT
THE BRIDGE OF
by Richard H. Wagner
(Originally published by the
Navy League of the United
States, New York Council in
The Log, Summer 2007).
people who can say that they are actually fulfilling their childhood ambition.
Second, he is the first American deck officer to be hired by Cunard in its
166-year history. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at
Kings Point, Lyons is the Safety Officer on Cunard's flagship QUEEN
Lyons' interest in ships began at an early age. "I'm not really sure where
my interest started -- it might have been some cruise brochures brought
over by a friend of the family, it might have been taking the Cape
May-Lewes ferry, or it might have been something to do with the
TITANIC. But whatever it was, it started by the time I was five, and I was
collecting cruise brochures, checking out books in the library about ships,
"At the beginning, my interest was only with passenger ships. Living in
Baltimore, I didn't get the chance to see too many cruise ships, but I do
remember watching the QE2's maiden arrival in Baltimore in 1985 - - it was
a big event, with a flotilla escorting her in, crowds on the shore, etc. For
some reason, Cunard has always been the focus of my interest. I imagine it
was because QE2 was still carrying on the Atlantic crossings, because
Cunard had the most tangible link to its heritage, and of course because of
the notoriety of Cunard ships."
This focus led him to bombard Cunard with letters seeking information
about their ships. Eventually, a tour of QE2 was arranged where the
10-year spoke with Captain Robin Woodall. Subsequently, he sailed on QE2
on some nine voyages, first with family members and then later with
maritime organizations such as the Steamship Historical Society of America
("SSHSA"). During those voyages, he came to know more of the Cunard
captains and officers.
While still a teenager, he went to an SSHSA lecture given by the captain of
the restored liberty ship, JOHN BROWN, which is homeported in
Baltimore. The ship is maintained by a volunteer organization and, after
visiting the ship, Lyons decided to join the crew. "It was great fun.
Instead of being limited by signs saying "Crew Only", I could go anywhere
I wanted -- the bridge, the engine room, climb the ship's masts, etc. At
first I started doing menial jobs such as chipping paint, but as I spent more
time on the ship, I got involved with operating the cargo gear and the ship's
booms, learning navigation, helping with the mooring operations etc. The
average age of the crew then was in their 70s. There were two other
people my age on the ship but we had a great time and learned a
tremendous amount from the rest of the crew. They really took us in and
showed us everything we wanted to know, and couldn't have been more
This is really what got me interested in ships other than cruise ships."
As a result of this experience, Lyons began to think seriously about turning
his boyhood interest into a career. Cunard Captain (later Commodore)
Ronald Warwick was among those who gave Lyons some advice on the
maritime academies and Lyons entered the program at Kings Point.
"Throughout Kings Point, though, I had the feeling of not wanting to work
on a cruise ship - - they weren't 'real ships', [and the] officers on cruise
ships didn't do much. Then, I was a cadet on the SS INDEPENDENCE and
learned the opposite, of course. Instead of having only two lifeboats to deal
with as on a cargo ship, a cruise ship might have 22! Instead of two life
rafts, we have 60! Instead of arriving in port once every few weeks, on a
cruise ship you are doing it every day. In short, I found the cruise ship life
to be far more challenging, multi-faceted and dynamic than that on a cargo
ship... and of course, far more comfortable."
Although Lyons found the program at King's Point more geared toward
cargo ships, he nonetheless believes that it was helpful in preparing him for
his future work on passenger ships. However, "there are so many more
aspects of the job on a passenger ship that don't exist on a cargo ship, that
really the best preparation for them was simply to experience life on a
Following graduation, Lyons was hired as Third Officer on the cruise ship
M.S. PATRIOT of American Classic Voyages, which was operating under
the name United States Lines. "Because of my time on the
INDEPENDENCE, it wasn't too hard to get started working on passenger
ships. AMCV knew me, of course, as I was a cadet with them, and I was
hired upon graduation."
While for a time it looked as if that company, which specialized in Hawaiian
cruises on American-flagged ships, had a bright future but it became
over-extended and went bankrupt in October 2001. (See The Log Summer
2005 at p. 24). Consequently, Lyons went to work for Tyco and
progressed from third mate to first mate on cable-laying ships in the Pacific.
Meanwhile Cunard was building QUEEN MARY 2 and they had not
forgotten about Lyons. Captain Paul Wright (now designated to command
QUEEN VICTORIA) sent Lyons an e-mail asking him if he was interested
in a position as Third Officer on the new Cunarder. Lyons applied and
joined the ship in November 2003, shortly before her maiden voyage. "Of
course, there was also a bit of a learning curve for me on joining a British
ship - - some of the nautical language they use is different, some of the
regulations are different, and simply the way they do things are different."
Nonetheless, Lyons has progressed from Third Officer to Safety Officer,
sailing in the interim as Second Officer and First Officer before becoming
Safety Officer. "I'm only on the bridge for arrivals and departures. Mostly,
I work a normal schedule. My main duties are, assisting the Chief Officer
and Staff Captain in looking after the lifeboats and life rafts, doing a lot of
the training with the fire parties and the safety induction training for all the
crew, looking after the emergency response organization onboard and
planning the drill and training program."
Even though the majority of the passenger ships today are foreign-flagged,
they are ultimately owned by an American corporation (Carnival
Corporation) or by corporations based in the United States (e.g., Royal
Caribbean). Still, there are relatively few American deck officers on these
ships. "I tend to think it is for several reasons. Going to the [maritime]
academies, you really only hear about American ships, you are only exposed
to American ships - - there isn't much thought about working on foreign
ships, and I think working on a non-US flagged ship still has negative
connotations for some people. [Also,] the pay is almost always better on
American ships. [The] benefits are all geared more for Americans on
American ships, so the financial conditions are simply more beneficial. You
are put on a track to work on American ships right from the start--
especially coming from the Academy, of course, because you do have the
[military] service obligation. That being said, I think people get a bit too
locked into looking only at American ships, even after their service
obligation, and there are lots of opportunities on some fabulous
non-American [flag] ships for those officers that want to try something
different and learn a different way of looking at the same job."
Could an American ever rise to the top in a line such as Cunard where the
officers are, and have always been, primarily from another nation? "I didn't
used to think an American could be captain of a Cunard ship, but I think
now it is technically feasible - - but it is such a long time off for me that it
is too soon to speculate on that one!"
Lyons at the bridge wing controls of QUEEN MARY 2.
(Photo courtesy of B. Lyons).
Cruise ship interview - - Cunard - - Queen Mary 2 - - Safety Officer Ben Lyons