Lykes Lines

No very long ago I was talking to an old man who sailed 3rd and 2nd Mate in the 1950’s and 60’s before settling into shoreside employment. We discussed the many companies then in existence and their routes.

When I asked him if he had ever sailed for some of them, he said he had, but when Lykes came up he quickly replied, “heavens no, thank God I never had to resort to sailing for Lykes.”

Does anyone here have any knowledge or experience with them when they still existed? Were they not a very good contract or outfit to work for even way back in the twilight years of break bulk shipping?

John McPhee’s “Looking for a ship” chronicles a trip on a Lykes ship…pretty good read


I did read that, but it doesn’t really hint at any problems with working for Lykes Lines, it outlines the voyage and the personalities onboard the Stella Lykes but little else.

The NMU guys used to always complain about the food with Lykes. One MEBA engineer had a photo of voyage stores that included boxes of “pork bungs”! Feeders they were not.
"Stack of gray and blue, Nothing to eat but plenty to do!!
But when I started in the mid 70s they had over 40 ships.

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A venerable, family run company for many years. Opinions ranged from “Leakey Brothers” from the detractors, to “The best Company I ever worked for” from the stalwart employees.

Men like Bernstein, and a host of others propelled this company to being the largest (for a time) under US Flag… A progressive company with revolutionary designs (The Prides Pacers, Clippers and Seabees.). A sad day when the family sold out…

Early on in my career I shipped out of New Orleans and sailed on a few of their ships as 3rd, 2nd, and 1st. Going through my old discharges I sailed on the Shirley Lykes, Ruth Lykes, Margaret Lykes, Marjorie Lykes, Stella Lykes, and lastly the Letitia Lykes. They were all steamships. When they got into diesels they reused some of the aforementioned names.

They were standard contract ships but definitely not known for giving out OT. Dayworkers were not guaranteed weekends. Their runs were worldwide. I made trips the Med, Northern Europe & Russia (USSR back then), West Coast of South America, and to the Far East. Being predominately breakbulk there was time in port. Being young and single I made use of that time.

With the exception of the Seabees, I doubt if those who worked on their ships considered them (the company) progressive or revolutionary. The GSA ships, Prides, Pacers (stretched Prides) and Clippers were nice steam ships. Their plant layouts were similar, meaning you could go from one to the other and easily find your way. The Clippers were considered very automated for their time.
Progressive? None of the ships I sailed on had a welding machine, they weren’t even supposed to have a cutting torch (most had one squirreled away). That quickly changed when they ran the ex-States Lines Ro-Ros.

Several factors hastened the demise of the company. They knew all the ins and outs of the subsidy contract. Once a ship made the minimum required sailings for the subsidy there was a chance it would get laid up for a few months and another ship broken out to service the run. When Reagen ended ODS, it forced Lykes to actually make money on their own and they didn’t have the tools or means to do so.
In the 70’s when I started sailing, they had 40+ ships. All were breakbulk (Yes, they could carry some containers, but they weren’t container ships) and they were all steamships. The days of breakbulk ship were coming to a close and the price of fuel put steamships at a big disadvantage. US Lines, APL, Sea-Land, to name a few, had already transitioned to containerships and Lykes was forced to play a game of catch-up.

Their decision to build Seabees was nothing but a money sucking disaster. I would give them credit for building a class of ship that was revolutionary in design and “militarily” useful but commercially, they were a money loser from the get-go. Similar to the LASH concept in that they stood half a chance to make the concept work IF they ran them to parts of the world with unimproved or poor port infrastructure, but that isn’t where they ran them.

They were an old school company. When I sailed with them, we often had passengers. The mates were expected to wear khakis on watch.


I Worked for them at the very end. The reputation for terrible food and choice items like ice cream that more closely resembled sand in texture was well deserved. All the senior officers who had been with the company for many years were a mixed bag of love and hate for the company. Oh but the sea stories of making a round the world voyage on a break bulker were excellent!

Do remember that the late C3 design (Prides) were originally designed for West Africa and South America. They were a direct competitor to the MorMac 1624’s- comparable in size and speed.
Their innovation was basic simplicity. They were (as you have pointed out) stretched into Pacers (and for one reason or another it also increased their speed slightly.

The Gulf Clipper Class C4’s were also innovative in their ORIGINAL configuration with cargo oil tanks and cargo oil systems. The Seabee’s were a remarkable design- ( I have been 1st and Port Engineer on three of these)- a most revolutionary cargo handling and stowage design- though the cargo systems were extremely complicated (they transported then lifted/lowered two 1000 ton Seabee Barges simultaneously) Sadly, there was no reduction in port fees or labor- so the concept never paid off- later container adapter frames were used in place of the barges- to carry a limited number of containers.

Letitia Lykes? The first US Ship in many years to pull into mainland China (1979?) I was in the A-2 Anchorage directly behind her in Diego Garcia in 198d5 when the container fire and explosions occurred (have photos)- I was 3rd A/E aboard the USNS Jupiter- (Ex Arizona, Ex Lipscomb Lykes)…

As far as I recall- ALL of the Lykes Brothers vessels built after 1947 were CDS and ODS. Revolutionary Innovation? First Gas Turbine Vessel, Motorship Conversions, New Cargo Handling systems- this was mostly in the late 1940’s…

SS William Patterson - Wikipedia

I was on the Stella Lykes in 1979. We were the first US Flag ship in Dalian, China since the Nationals were kicked out. It was a step back in time. All the trains in the port area had steam locomotives. All the men were dressed in their Mao outfits. Women were dressed their white blouses and black pants. If you went into town on any one of the scheduled tours, you had to keep moving or a crowd would form around you and stare. They weren’t used to seeing westerners. We were there 3 weeks as I recall.

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Another disadvantage the Seabees (and LASH vessels) encountered was that every barge was in itself a registered vessel. They had their own set of documentation and required inspections.

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And the sea stories - no bullshit - about the South American run!

While on the Margaret Lykes on a trip along the west coast of South America I learned a very important lesson in life. While in Barranquilla, Columbia I went out for a night of dinner and drinking with the Chief. Chiefs don’t have to get up in the morning, but lowly Day 3rds do. I turned to but was much near useless I hurt so bad. After a few hours the 1st took pity on me and told me to go back to bed. Completely lost my taste for scotch to this day.

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Maybe it’s just that I have never sailed break bulk classics like these but I never understood the cargo hold being in the middle of the house itself. Was there a genius reason behind that configuration?

I think that hold was for “premium” cargo. It’s location supposedly cut down on the pilferage that was endemic to breakbulk ships.


And were all ABS Classed and on Surveys! BUT- remember that the SEABEE’s also had the notable distinction of being the fastest to secure cargo- literally under an hour- Pneumatic jacks came down from the overhead and “clamped” the barges down; then the CO2 and Fire Detection hoses… Quick and easy…

The transporters and barge elevator were just a bit different…

The good old days, Mayo and the Elizabeth both as a Hoonie cadet. The 75 year old 3rd would rather salt the plant up than me see him putting the evap on the line or adjusting it. “You want to steal my job”.
I watched them take the frozen stores off the Joseph and bring them over to the Elizabeth. The Joseph had just finished a 120 days Far East trip. Lykes demanded the ships keep the frozen food boxes at 15, save money, use less R-12. The neopolitan ice cream, y’all old farts remember the 3 flavor slab, were always soft.
They were so cheap they wouldn’t even buy their own brand of cold cuts. Bologna that was grey all except the very center, recycling the uneaten vegetables off the plates.
They would lower the burning/cutting torch into the ER after departing the last US port.
Why buy impeller rings when you can use the cadet to make them on the lathe. At $6.45 a day for my wages they were cheaper than buying.
I swore I would never work for them once I got my license and never did.

Y’all just didn’t like fried brains with eggs for breakfast and chitterlings at dinner Bluto.

Sailed on the MARJORIE for a Great Lakes to Med run. That was a pretty good route and the plant was easy at the time. Chief was so fat (Size 72) you couldn’t see around him to sight the EOT from the boiler front. Kinda made maneuvering a bit of guesswork from time to time.

Who’s complaining about “horse cock” sandwiches??? :rofl:

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