More than 90 percent of the world’s raw materials are transported over water. Though the U.S. accounts for roughly five percent of the world population, we purchase nearly a third of the world’s output. Ninety-nine percent of these materials are transported via merchant vessels.
Twenty-two years at sea have earned Captain Andrew Smiley adventuresome tales to tell. Though anchored ashore for the past 14 years, his work is still in the water, moving products around the world. As vice president of shipping for Koch Supply & Trading, he manages the technical operations of 85-90 chartered ships at any given time.
Upholding KS&T’s compliance and ethics standards, Captain Smiley thoroughly vets up to six vessels each day. “The safety and quality of ships these days is high,” he points out, “but we won’t take on a ship if it doesn’t meet our requirements.”
Every ship has a unique story, and he reads it from front to back: the age, inspection reports, audits, he calls the owners and sometimes pays a visit to the ships themselves. “We even scour the internet and newspapers, finding out everything we can,” he explains. “There are physical risks that have to be considered, it’s just the nature of the operation of a ship.” Something undoubtedly understood by those who have tussled with the sea in all its tempest moods.
Captain Smiley fondly remembers his boyhood summers swimming and fishing along the Jersey Shore.
Captain Smiley grew up along the North Atlantic coast. As a young man, he delivered papers to a neighborhood overlooking the Delaware River, where he’d stop to watch the oil tankers idle by. In high school, he planned to join the Navy but a family friend introduced him to The U.S. Merchant Marine, a group of non-military civilians dating back to 1775 who carry goods to and from the U.S. during peacetime, and an active naval auxiliary during war.
And so his seagoing career began. Soon after high school, at 19 years old, he climbed aboard a ship as an ordinary seaman. Two years later, he signed on to an apprenticeship and upon finishing, hired on with a shipping company. Thirteen more years earned him the title, master, and soon after he commanded his first vessel.
In his time floating above the dark abyss, he saw it all, experiencing every aspect of ship life. “Look, I tell a lot of sea stories, about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what kind of stuff I’ve gotten myself into,” Captain Smiley laughs. “And how I got out of it.”
Off the coast of Israel, he abandoned a trade after a man pulled a knife on him over a linguistic misunderstanding. He once sailed from the English Channel, through the North Atlantic and to the U.S. using only a magnetic compass; the ship pierced though thick fog while the crew peered over the bow looking for icebergs. One frigid January in Montreal, he feared his oil tanker was dead in the water, wedged in nearly a foot of ice – it broke free. Or how about the time he sailed for weeks on a ship with a hole in one of its ballast tanks. “We were sinking all the time,” he says matter-of-factly. “The ship would start to heel over a bit, so every four or five days we would have to go pump it out.” No big deal. “I’ve seen lots of sunrises and sunsets,” he reminisces. “It’s a different world, but I tell ya, I would do it all over again.”
The seventh child in a family of 10, Captain Smiley credits his moxie to his parents. “My mom and dad were probably the best people in the world,” he confides. “They were hard workers and instilled in us that nothing comes free.”
He snagged the aforementioned job as a paperboy at 10 years old. By 16, he threw more than 300 papers a day, his wage fully funding his private high school education.
That work ethic has carried Captain Smiley through life. He’s never encountered a challenge he hasn’t bested, and his job at Koch certainly throws him some wrenches. “Those difficult challenges are what motivate me,” he says. “I can come to work every day to make a difference and I consistently receive positive feedback from our industry counterparts on our honesty and respectability, and how we manage situations in our business.”
“At sea, it’s a different world. I have to tell you, I miss it.”
A chief officer for 12 years, Captain Smiley applies his knowledge of the shipping world in his own duties, but also when helping coworkers find solutions.
Technology has improved certain aspects of the shipping world. In his merchant marine days, Captain Smiley’s meticulous nature came in handy when drawing these cargo manifests.
From his days as a simple seaman to his years as first mate, Captain Smiley’s home office is adorned with a photo of every ship he has sailed.
“The most value I use today comes from being a chief officer. You’re on the deck, running the whole show, executing everything. I know the shipping process from start to finish.”
He encourages those around him to learn to seize the moment, just as he has. “In shipping, there’s opportunity all the time,” he says fervently. “I tell people, Koch gives everyone opportunity. To this day I am grateful to Koch for giving me the chance to use my knowledge in shipping and continually learn about my passion.”
And though he sips his morning cup of joe from his kitchen table instead of the bridge of a ship, he has happily adjusted to his land legs.
“I’m in the same business but I’m talking to owners of ships all day, listening to the captains. I have to say, I’m a very lucky guy.”