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Daryl Swiggs emigrated from New Zealand in 1966, spent 29 years in the U.S. Navy

By Hilary Reeves

Swiggs stands beneath the massive rudder of a Marlin Class ship in the drydock. He wears a hard hat and safety glasses.
Swiggs emigrated from New Zealand in 1966 at the age of 16. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1968, serving 29 years in the military before retiring and joining the private sector.

Daryl Swiggs was just two years into his new life in the United States when he joined the Navy in 1968.

“I was 18 years old, and I wasn’t ready for college,” he said. “I figured I’d rather join than be drafted. Being on a ship and having warm food and a warm bed every night was better than sleeping in a trench.”

During the war, Swiggs’s fellow soldiers would leave a gunner on the bow while they dove from their 140-foot minesweeper into the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

“I remember hearing, ‘bang!, bang!, bang! All of a sudden we saw three pieces of (poisonous) sea snake floating on by us,” he laughed. “That was the only Naval vessel I ever swam off of in my 29-year military career.”

Swiggs was born in Napier, New Zealand, a coastal town on the eastern shore of the country’s North Island. His father was a watchmaker and owned a jewelry store in town.

“We had friends in the American Embassy, and when the Navy ships used to come to town – we belonged to a waterski club – and we’d always take them out skiing,” he said.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s socialized government was making life harder than Swiggs’s parents thought it needed to be for entrepreneurs.

“Our friends in the American Embassy are the ones who talked us into applying to come here,” he said. “We were on the waiting list for a year.”

Two years into Swiggs’s tenure at St. Bernadette [high school], he, his parents, and his two brothers and two sisters left for the United States. Swiggs was 16 years old.

Swiggs points a yellow flashlight into a windowpane aboard the Midnight Sun, hard hat on.
Swiggs inspects work during a recent drydock of the Midnight Sun, one of TOTE Maritime Alaska’s two Orca class ships custom built for the Alaska trade

“We left on a passenger ship that was California bound,” he said. “It took two weeks. We made stops in Fiji, Hawaii, Vancouver, B.C., San Francisco, and we got off the boat in Long Beach.”

The family settled in Newport Beach in 1966. Later, they moved to Irvine, where Swiggs was among the first graduating class of Mission Viejo High School. Then he joined the Navy.

“I started off Enlisted as an electrician, and ended as a Lieutenant Commander,” he said. “I did three tours in Hawaii, 12 years in Japan, one in Italy, and one in Bahrain. I remember working up in the stacks on the Midway aircraft carrier, and I saw an A7 crash-land on the deck. It skidded all the way across and back into the water in a giant fireball. The pilot had ejected. The heat of it blew me back a bit, and burned the hair off my arms.”

Swiggs married a Japanese woman during his time on the island, and the couple has a daughter. Swiggs spoke little Japanese when they met.

“Enough to get into trouble, I like to say,” he laughed, “and enough to get out of trouble sometimes.”

In 1972, when Swiggs’s daughter was six months old, the family left Japan for the first time and moved to Seattle. Though they eventually moved back to Japan, Swiggs’s wife and daughter settled in Seattle permanently while he finished his military career in Italy. He retired in 1997.

“After I got out, I spent more than a year training foreign navies on the decommissioned ships the U.S. sold to them,” he said. “Then I came back to Seattle and spent a year working for an electrical company doing shipyard work.”

Swiggs eventually landed with the Washington State Ferries, inspecting the boats and working as a project manager. Ten years ago, he joined TOTE.

“I’m currently the Electrical Superintendent and lead Port Engineer for the Midnight Sun,” he explained.

The Midnight Sun, owned by TOTE Maritime Alaska and custom-built to run between Tacoma, Washington and Anchorage, is one of two Orca-class vessels being converted to run on LNG. Every Friday morning at 8 a.m., Swiggs focuses his attention on ship maintenance and reports before the ship sails out again at midnight.

“When things occasionally go wrong, there’s a sense of helplessness because I’m not there,” he said, noting one occasion in 2015 when the ship sat at sea without power for eight hours while a fix was engineered.

“The engineering plan for these ships though was modeled after cruise ships,” he explained. “They’re built for redundancy. There’s enough on board to get them home. They’re probably some of the most technologically advanced vessels I’ve ever worked on.”

Swiggs just bought a motorhome, has a cabin in rural Eastern Washington, and loves riding his Honda motorcycle, jet skiing, and power boating, but has no plans to retire.

This LNG stuff – these are very exciting times,” he said. “And I truly enjoy working with the crews. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my career – even the not-so-good times have a way of fading away.”

Swiggs sails with the Midnight Sun once a year to inspect her at sea. He looks back on his career on the water, and in 2006, finally went back to where it all began, the coastal town in New Zealand where he grew up.

“Neither my parents, who have since passed on, nor I ever regretted coming to America,” he said. “I never felt a strong urge to even go back to New Zealand, but I eventually went with my daughter and her boyfriend. When I left, the country had a population of about 2.5 million. Now it’s at, I think, 3.5 million. Napier actually didn’t look all that different from what I remember from 1966.”