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Milt Merritt and his son, Dave, share a passion for all things maritime

By Hilary Reeves

The 136-foot M/V Willis Shank, painted white from an old photo.
The 136-foot M/V Willis Shank

Milt Merritt was just 13 the first time he carried his sleeping bag onto the 136-foot M/V Willis Shank, a converted Navy minesweeper chartered by Milt’s father, a Navy chaplain for an at-sea retreat for the college age group at his church.

Under the direction of Fred “Cap” Stabbert, the wooden ship was the sister of John Wayne’s Wild Goose and Jacque Cousteau’s Calypso, sailing on medical missions to isolated communities between Alaska and Central America along with up to 100 high school and college age kids camping out in the ship’s main salon and upper deck when the staterooms overflowed. Merritt lived on the Willis Shank off and on for the next five years with the permission of his father and mother, a partner in a San Diego investment firm.

Cap Stabbert had a son, Dan, who was my age,” Merritt said. “Dan and I were the primary crew, alongside temporary volunteers who trickled on and off the ship. We learned how to operate the engine room, deck, wheelhouse, run the launches, and maintain the vessel. A kid growing up on a boat is similar to a kid growing up on a farm. We got up early and put in a very full day’s work from an early age.”

Merritt said the organization had a small budget, and he watched the way Stabbert prioritized spending to keep the equipment and operation running safely. “In all the years of hundreds and hundreds of people living, cruising, swimming, water skiing, and scuba diving from the vessel, the one and only injury we ever had was a fishhook to a finger.”

Milt Merritt in his home office, with a framed photo of the M/V Willis Shank behind him.
Milt Merritt in his home office, with a framed photo of the M/V Willis Shank behind him.

During his years on the ship, Merritt developed a love of flying – seaplanes were often the only form of transportation to and from the Willis Shank. He started thinking about life as a bush or airplane pilot. But when a wealthy donor later gifted a tugboat to Stabbert’s organization, Merritt eventually took a different path. A secondary education spanning three junior highs and five high schools – in San Diego, San Pedro, Orange County, and San Francisco – led to college in San Diego, which led to the School of Mission Aviation, a trade school designed to train bush pilots to fly and repair their aircraft in remote areas. But Merritt’s truest love was tugs. He purchased two: the Texaco Havoline and a Gulf Oil tug named Delano, and started a ship-docking business in Port Arthur, Texas.

Merritt eventually sold his tugs to American Navigation (AMNAV) Maritime Services in San Francisco, running them through the Panama Canal. He moved his wife and three children from Seattle to Foster City near San Francisco and began managing the company.

“I think the biggest impact of living on the ship that transferred to my job at AMNAV is being able to spot not only talent, but more importantly talent accompanied by a great attitude,” he said. “I would rather have a ‘B’ student with a good attitude and willingness to learn than an ‘A-plus’ student with a bad attitude. I can honestly say that everyone at AMNAV has unique talents, great attitudes, and is always open and willing learn new things.”

Merritt and his wife, a clinical radiology professor, raised three children: their oldest son is the managing director for an investment firm in Orange County; their youngest daughter works for a software company in the Bay Area; and their middle son, Dave Merritt, began his career at AMNAV.

“I grew up wanting to be a tugboat captain,” said David Merritt. Now a harbor pilot and CFO of the San Francisco Bar Pilot Association, and the father of twin five-year-old daughters, he fondly recalls his childhood living on the water in Foster City.

A young Dave Merritt ties a small dinghy to a dock.
Dave Merritt began his career on the water at 5 years old when his father Milt introduced he and his brother to the water.

“We had two sailboats and a small fiberglass barge that my dad rigged and powered with a trolling motor,” he said. “Starting at age five, my dad taught my older brother and I how to dock and undock the power barge. My dad made us make hundreds of landings over and over until we got the hang of it. Once we knew how to land the barge, my dad tied the two sailboats to the dock just far enough apart to allow the barge to fit between them. That began a long, ongoing competition between my brother and me to see who could make the smoothest landing without hitting the sailboats. My dad was the referee, and would sometimes videotape our landings – just in case ‘the play’ had to be reviewed after a protest, so to speak.”

In 1993, new regulations in San Francisco Bay required that all tankers be escorted by state-of-the-art tractor tugs. Unable to invest millions of dollars into building these new tugs, AMNAV’s leadership team decided to sell the company. Merritt reached out to three companies he knew were interested.

“One of the companies wanted to let our employees go and just retain the tugs, so they were eliminated,” Merritt explained. “The other two companies indicated their desire to keep the company, brand, management, administrative staff, and marine personnel operating as before. So what tipped the scale? Saltchuk was by far was the most open and transparent company, and we liked the positive attitudes possessed by the shareholders. They got us at ‘good attitude.’”

Milt Merritt was named President in 1996. His great challenge remains the same, year after year: controlling costs in a competitive, commodity-driven market.

Dave Merritt stands in front of a pilot transfer ship docked in the San Francisco bay.
Today, Dave Merritt is a pilot in the San Francisco Harbor.

“One of the larger shippers went bankrupt recently, and there may be more coming,” Merritt said. “Although challenging, there is a bright side, because all our employees run their segment or vessel in the most efficient manner possible – and frequently come up with improved efficiencies – day in and day out. They put the company in the best position to weather most economic storms that come our way.”

The trick, he said again, is hiring for attitude.

“If a person has the desire to be a deckhand, engineer, tugboat captain or a harbor pilot, AMNAV is the best company to work both in terms of advancement opportunities as well as working with solid congenial shipmates with, you guessed it, great attitudes.”

Dave Merritt said those great attitudes, alongside AMNAV’s diversified fleet, thoroughly prepared him for his career.

“My work is both challenging and diversified,” he said. “Pilots are assigned a ship on a rotational basis, so on any given day you could pilot a cruise ship, a tanker, containership, a car ship, a U.S. Navy ship, or even a mega-yacht. And because AMNAV performs a large number of ship-docking operations daily, it gives tug captains more opportunities to work with more ships and a better chance to observe the harbor pilots’ techniques in various dynamic and changing conditions.”

The Merritts share more than a passion for all things maritime. The father-son duo have spent years building further on Milt’s original love of flying.

Dave and Milt Merrit smile in front of an AmNav tractor tugboat coming into dock in the San Francisco bay.

“With my dad’s encouragement, I also earned a pilot’s license,” Dave said. “We enjoy attending air shows, especially the world’s largest gathering of aviation enthusiasts in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where more than 10,000 aircraft fly into the area for a week. During airshow week, that airport is the busiest in the world.”

When it comes to regrets, the Merritts have none. “We live in one of the best places on the planet and work on the water,” the pair concluded. “What is there to regret?”