An unlikely hero: Remembering the old sea captain

Heroes come in many shapes and sizes, and as we celebrate National Heroes Day tomorrow, it brings to my mind a man I knew once. On the surface he seemed an unlikely hero, but when you delved deeper, he displayed the courage, resilience and seamanship for which the Cayman Islands are renowned.

I first encountered him back in the mid 80’s. Myself and close friend Andy Martin were cruising along the south shore of Cayman Brac in an old ford that someone passed off on us as a rental car. We were going to nowhere special, just killing time and listening to a George Jones cassette, when I thought I saw the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.

“Who’s that?”  I asked Andy

“Oh that’s the old sea Captain, Captain Callan Ritch”.

We made a U turn and pulled alongside of the old man who was sitting on a coral stone wall. He was a photographer’s dream with facial lines as deep as the sea and a streaky gray beard with a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. He wore a sweat stained captain’s hat, shades with one glass missing and held on tight to a walking cane.

“May I take your picture”?  I asked.

“It’ll cost you a shot of whiskey”, was the quick retort.

Wonderful I thought, just the response I had expected from an old mariner, little knowing that this would be the start of a close friendship with one of Caymans’ forgotten and ignored heroes.

We placed the old man in back of our car and made way for Club 29. While the slamming of dominos echoed in the background, Capt. Ritch filled me with seafaring stories that left salt caked in my ears. I used up nearly all my 35 mm film as nautical yarns flowed like the whiskey being poured at my expense. I wasn’t complaining however, in fact – I was captivated. He told stories of his many trips to the Mosquito Cays to catch turtle and he told stories of women. Captain Ritch loved women.

“I’ve been married seven times “legally” and they weren’t your typical seaport barroom maidens – no way. In fact one was a Judge in the Philippines and the other an executive secretary”.  “You know”, he continued “the first word I ever learned to say was “woman” and after that didn’t speak for three months.

In among the colorful yarns one war story stood out. The old captain had been assigned to navigate a vessel damaged by Japanese planes. For 7,000 miles from Hollinda in the Pacific to San Francisco he delivered the ship without radio, navigational equipment or steering from the aft station.  He navigated with his wrist watch and relayed his orders to tugs via an emergency telephone.

An intoxicated patron shouted across the room, “Oh shut up old man I’m sick of hearing your tall tales”.   There is something to be said for that rude remark, I had heard my share of barroom stories over the years so most of what is said in the company of whiskey I put in the category of chit-chat or cock-and-bull story. But I didn’t care , true or false in my eyes he was a living Captain Nemo,  a man who had harnessed  the wind, sea and tides until he retired on Cayman Brac , the island where he was born on the 22August  1912.

Later we drove the old captain back to his small house where he lived alone.

He set aside his walking stick and fell onto his bed thanking us for the day. “I sure appreciate you spending time with me, it can get lonely here in this old house and most folks in the community sort of avoid me, maybe it’s because I drink a little too much whiskey now and then.” And just before he began to snore he added, “hell man made whiskey so man should drink whiskey”.

As we were about to leave I noticed a moth eaten Captain’s uniform hanging in his musty closet and a collection of old black and white photos displayed on the wall. Photos of tall ships and huge oil tankers anchored in every port from Trinidad to Liverpool.  But what really caught my eye was an American flag and a framed letter from Norton Lilly and Company Steamship Agency. The letter was dated January 10th -1945. It read:

                                 To whom this may concern

This is to certify that Captain Callan H Ritch was Master of a vessel assigned to our General Agency from December 5 1944 till January 9 1945.

He was assigned this command after the death of the vessel’s Master due to enemy attack and successfully brought the vessel to home port in the company of tugs, with no radio or navigation equipment, and steering from aft station.

We take great pleasure in commending Capt. Ritch for his seamanship, ability and devotion to duty.


N. W. Lee

Assistant Supt. Engineer

American So African Line, INC.

United States of America

I was taken aback, so it wasn’t a trumped up story narrative under the influence of Jack Daniels. It was factual, nautical nostalgia divulged by a Caymanian who in my opinion has never received enough credit or acknowledgment for his valor, in his own home land.

Callan and I became good friends and Brac trips were never complete without a visit to his solitary dwelling to hear more maritime stories. The old Captain passed away on the 20th of February 1992. He was a classic sample of Caymans’ heritage and the fame our islands have achieved for supplying top rate mariners to shipping agencies around the world.

Capt. Ritch was celebrated on Andy Martins hit CD with the song “The Old Sea Captain”  and just recently bestowed space at Linton Tibbets Maritime Museum on Little Cayman.