So You Want to Own an Oil Tanker
Captain Donald Kilpela - Harborside Books
24 Waterfront Landing, P.O. Box 24
Copper Harbor, MI 49918
221 pages, with photos$15.95 + $2.00 S+H
During winter when outdoor activities become limited in the Upper Midwest and when evening's curtain is drawn earlier than we'd like, reading becomes a way to lose ourselves.
Let me recommend a book to you.
If you enjoy learning about maritime matters, if you have a background in either vessel operations, vessel management, marine insurance or marine regulations, or if you enjoy being entertained reading about another person's plight as he spirals into an abyss while still managing to keep a determined and optimistic outlook, or if you enjoy wit and humor - much of it self-inflicted - then this book is for you.
This book gets complicated. That is, the story gets ever more complicated, and yet it reads beautifully, easily, with conversations between real people of contrasting backgrounds and wills. Only a Kilpela would have done these things, you come to believe. Only Kilpela has the courage - now with hindsight of some 30 years - to tell his story without sparing us awkward and painful truth.
We've had the pleasure of knowing Don and Betty over the years through passenger vessel owner gatherings. I've always respected their hard work in building and operating their passenger ferry business to Isle Royale from their home port in Copper Harbor, Michigan. This four-hour run over open Lake Superior, at 60 miles, is one of the longest offshore runs made by any small passenger vessel in the U. S., and they do this in all types of conditions. Seasickness and discomfort among passengers is a normal part of the trip. Don keeps a file of humorous - in retrospect - customer letters, and he pulls them out to read every so often at gatherings. He's had us in tears with laughter. His humor in relating one near-financial disaster after another as an oil tanker owner struck me in a similar, unexpected way. I thought also for a moment as I began reading of similarities with Anne Proulx's Shipping News, a fictional account of Newfoundland's maritime community.
Don is a funny man, but he's also seriously insightful and critical of himself and the actions he took some 30 years ago when possessed by a notion to buy an oil tanker in the Caribbean. With multiple warnings that it was the wrong thing to do, that buying an oil tanker was a very risky proposition, he admits to being overwhelmed by the notion and plunging ahead regardless. Credit the Finnish honesty in his veins, Kilpela had the stuff to stick it out and make overbearing circumstances work in the best way possible. Just as remarkably, Don's wife, Betty, and his close family members supported him, and they came to enjoy this unique opportunity to spend a part of their lives in the warm, sunny Caribbean, away from the snowy Keweenaw Peninsula.
Kilpela did bring considerable experience to the tankerman's role, having lectured and written about business management. He started several small businesses - several of which also failed. Mostly, he relied on his experience running a successful passenger vessel operation. The rest he made up for with his waterfront smarts, and propitious timing when his back was pressed against the wall, as it was time and time again.
Descriptive passages and lively dialog makes this book flow from one sentence, paragraph and chapter to another. The unpredictable turns of events, the manner in which Kilpela frankly relates his blunders as well as successes, kept my interest at a high level.
I would also recommend this book to anyone interested in traveling vicariously to the Caribbean through the pages of his book. Along the way you'll gain insight into how residents and businessmen manage affairs in these islands colonized by European nations centuries ago.
- Dick Purinton