Interviews: Able Seaman Butch Harty

hartyButch works with Victor Barnhart, Bosun, to terminate the trawl wire.


At 17, Butch Harty was struck with what he calls “wonder lust.” He wanted to see the world. After graduating from high school in Virginia, he joined the Navy and set sail. He made it as far as Portland, Oregon. The ship he was assigned to had just returned from Vietnam and was dry-docked for one year.

When he finally had the opportunity to go to sea, he traveled across the Pacific Ocean from San Diego to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia and Singapore.“At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in the Navy,” Butch says. “But a friend of mine told me to give it time.”

Butch and Victor Barnhart, Bosun, sit on the fore-deck during an abandon ship drill.

Butch stayed in the Navy until 1986, when he joined the Merchant Marines - an organization of seamen who work on ships not related to the military. Merchant Marines often are the sailors on cargo ships transferring different types of cargo, such as grain, logs and oil. “It was scary coming out of the Navy where we worked on 700 foot ships with about 1500 people to an oil tanker roughly the same size, but with only 18 people. When I first got on board and we met in the mess hall, I said, “this is it? This is all of us?” Butch learned that unlike the Navy, where multiple people took turns doing the same job, on the oil tanker there were no back-ups. It was hard work, he says, with no time to enjoy the different ports they visited around the world.

A decade after Butch became a Merchant Marine, Scripps hired him to work on board its research vessels. Butch works the 12 to 4 shift: from noon to 4 p.m. and again from midnight to 4 a.m. “I still keep those hours at home, I can’t really help it.” He will wake up around 11 at night and go to sleep at 5:30 the next morning. Working on the 12 to 4 shift on Revelle during this cruise with a group of scientists who have given themselves the nickname Los Tiburones, or The Sharks, Butch says is a lot of fun. “The Sharks are great. We have a good time and they are very professional.” Butch is responsible for painting the ship and maintaining its equipment. He also keeps watch on the bridge, steering to our different waypoints and monitoring for ship traffic along the way.

Keeping the ship ‘ship-shape,’ rust free and painted is all part of being a good seaman.

He works for about four months at sea and then spends one to two months at home in San Diego. “My wife, Delia, and I are comfortable with this type of life. But it’s not a job for everyone. My son, Mark, is 24-years-old and an electrician. He did four years in the Navy and that was enough for him.”

Butch especially enjoys his time in port experiencing the different cultures of the world. “I’m fortunate to have grown up around different cultures.” Research vessels, he says, give him more time to learn about the environment he is visiting. “It’s always a treat to talk to the scientists and see things like the Galápagos in their natural state.” A few years ago Butch sailed with Revelle to Fiji, where an erupting underwater volcano churned the surface of the water like a teapot. “The island was just forming, and we could see the lava was still red hot underwater.”

Butch is a member of “Los Tiburones,” The Shark shift from 0-0400 hours.

Much of Butch’s inspiration to follow his dreams came from his grandparents. “My grandmother was the head nurse during the first open heart surgery,” he says. “When my grandfather was a child he lived in the Virgin Islands, ran around barefoot and didn’t go to school. When he was 13, he moved to Philadelphia where he worked hard in school and earned a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. He then became a well-respected professor.”

Butch is also excited about the future generations of scientists growing up. “This generation is so much smarter,” he says. “It makes me feel good about the next generation coming up.”