John Dunaway – Life and Times of a Merchant Mariner


John Dunaway at sea

John Dunaway is a Texas-based merchant mariner who spends six months each year traveling the world as the captain of large cargo ships. Whether cruising the calm, warm waters of Central America or avoiding Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, John’s goal is the same: deliver the cargo efficiently while ensuring the safety of his crew—quite the responsibility for a 32-year-old. When not at sea, John is an avid bird hunter, surfer, and all-around adventurer who uses his downtime to explore everywhere from Jackson Hole to Canyonlands to Antelope Island with his wife and young daughter. Thanks to a talent for photography and writing, John has gained a huge following on Instagram, where he documents his exploits on his account, AbstractConformity.

So you might be asking, what does a ship captain have to do with mountains and/or prairies? Although John may spend most of his time on the high seas, far away from the American West, you’ll notice that his optimistic perspective, focused sense of purpose, and thirst for adventure parallel the attitudes and outlooks of many of my previous podcast guests. Also like other guests, he is well read, a deep thinker, and has a genuine conservation ethic thanks to his close connection to the natural world. Although the objects of our affections may be different, our underlying values and priorities are surprisingly similar.

After almost a year of recording this podcast, I was excited to switch it up a little with this in-depth conversation with John about a subject that was fairly new to me. We start by covering the basics of his job—how one becomes a ship captain, particulars on the size of the ships, and details of day-to-day life on a 90-day ocean voyage. Then we dig deeper into some of his thoughts on leadership, his rituals and superstitions, how fatherhood has changed his outlook, and how he manages the pressure that comes along with being responsible for a massive ship, his crew, and the cargo. He also tells a few crazy stories from Africa and India, and he shares some insights from his recent trips around the American West. As usual, we discuss favorite books, films, and thoughts on conservation.

I found this to be a fascinating conversation, and I’d love to hear what you think. If you have a moment, please shoot me an email and let me know your thoughts. As always, thanks for taking the time to listen; hope you enjoy.

Photos courtesy of John Dunaway


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Episode Notes

Topics Discussed

3:00 – How John describes his work
4:20 – Details on the ships
5:40 – Length of the typical ocean voyage
8:35 – How John became a ship captain
10:25 – A typical day on an ocean voyage
12:40 – John’s morning routine
19:00 – Superstitions on the ship
21:00 – Details on the crew and boat
22:15 – How John leads his crew
25:20 – Comparing leadership methods of old-timers and younger captains
27:20 – Ernest Shackleton
28:40 – Common misconceptions
30:35 – Most dangerous areas John has visited
31:00 – Adventures with Somali pirates
33:50 – Robberies at port
36:15 – Getting a gun shoved in his chest in Mumbai
38:40 – John’s early years in Brazil and Texas
39:10 – Family ties to ships and the ocean
41:00 – John’s decision to pursue ships as a career
41:55 – John’s advice to young students at the Merchant Marine Academy
43:45 – How fatherhood has changed his perspective
49:30 – How John became a well-known photographer
54:45 – Background on John’s ability as a writer
58:00 – John’s recent adventures in the American West
1:03:30 – What was most striking about the American West
1:07:30 – Favorite books
1:10:15 – Favorite documentaries
1:11:00 – Best piece of advice he’s ever received
1:12:30 – Biggest challenge facing the oceans today
1:15:00 – John’s request to the listeners
1:15:40 – Connect with John online

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