Captain of the Sheila McDevitt: John Hawkins

Captain of the Sheila McDevitt: John Hawkins

John is the captain of the Sheila McDevitt, a 179-meter (587-foot) cargo vessel that hauls dry bulk goods, including coal, phosphate, dry cement, grain, corn, rice, and sugar.


8 - 12+


Sociology, Earth Science, Oceanography, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...

John is the captain of the Sheila McDevitt, a 179-meter (587-foot) cargo vessel that hauls dry bulk goods, including coal, phosphate, dry cement, grain, corn, rice, and sugar.

Speaking from his home in Burnet, Texas, John is modest about his responsibilities. “Overall management is really what I do for the most part,” John says of his job. “I do some navigation duties entering and leaving port also.”


Growing up in Palmetto, Florida, John spent a lot of time in and around the water. “From my earliest age, I was at home in the water,” he says. “I’d run out every morning and jump in the water and swim and boat and fish. I had rowboats and sailboats and canoes and everything else that would float.”

John’s father was a commercial fisherman, and his grandfather used to run freight schooners. John learned a lot about boating while going out on the water with his father. “Sometimes, it was scary,” he says. “I just got respect for the sea early on . . . boats being out in bad weather sometimes.”

After studying naval architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, John realized he would rather be out on the water than indoors. John was accepted at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, where he graduated in 1984.


“I just love the traveling,” John says. “I just like to be able to go to all the different places and see the life there. It’s not always very nice places, but it’s interesting just the same.”


“[Making sure] that everything is ready, that the vessel is ready to discharge cargoes, that the machinery is in good condition.”


“I think of basically sea lanes, and how I get from one place in the world to the next by ship.”


John says he always has to consider geographic features, including ocean currents and weather patterns, when he is planning safe routes for the Sheila McDevitt.

Traveling to places like China, East Africa, and even North Korea for his job, John has had to deal with many issues in human geography. “When I get into ports, I’m dealing with a lot of different cultures, different rules, different governments and things like that,” he says.

When John first became a captain, he used sextants and LORAN, a radio navigation system, to pinpoint where he was. “Now with GPS, it’s become very easy as far as open ocean navigation,” he says. “We know where we are all the time.”


“If you are deck side or even if you go to the engineering side, the sciences are pretty important.”


If you live by the water, take an introductory sailing or boating course.

John says you can familiarize yourself with navigation without using a lot of tools. “With a GPS receiver and latitude and longitude, you can actually pull out a chart or a map and start plotting positions,” he says, “That’s always good practice, or a good way to know if you have an interest in that or not.”

Fast Fact

Fourth Arm of Defense
The merchant marine, often called the fourth arm of defense, is a fleet of American cargo ships. According to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, There are tankers traveling along the west coast with raw petroleum for our refineries; Great Lakes vessels loaded with iron ore, coal or other minerals for America's industry; huge containerships in Eastern ports, their box-like containers filled with manufactured goods; general cargo ships in the Gulf unloading pallets of coffee and crates of fruit; tugboats pushing and pulling barges carrying the Midwest's grain.

These kinds of vessels, owned by U.S. companies, registered and operated under the American flag, comprise the U.S. merchant marine. This fleet of highly productive ships is a major part of our system of commerce, helping guarantee our access to foreign markets for sale of our manufactured goods.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact for more information and to obtain a license. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. She or he will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to him or her, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources