Interview with Dennis M. Powers
Tales of the Seven Seas: The Escapades of Captain Dynamite Johnny O'Brien
Taylor Trade Publishing (2010)
Reviewed by for Reader Views (02/10)
Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Dennis M. Powers about his new book “Tales of the Seven Seas: The Escapades of Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien.” Dennis is here now for his third interview with us.
Before turning his attentions to writing, Dennis M. Powers was a full-time attorney specializing in business law. He is the author of ten books, including “Tales of the Seven Seas,” “Treasure Ship,” “Sentinel of the Seas,” “Taking the Sea,” and “The Raging Sea.” Dennis Powers has been featured in “USA Today” and on “Hard Copy,” “Extra!,” on CNN, NPR, “The O’Reilly Factor,” and other national media.
Tyler: Welcome back, Dennis. This is the third time I’ve been fortunate enough to get to interview you, and I know you always have some rollicking tales of the sea to enthrall us.
Dennis: It’s good to be back with you, Irene, and Juanita, again—you do such a good job for authors.
Tyler: Thank you. We love what we do, getting to talk to such interesting people as yourself. Your new book’s title captured my attention right away. Who wouldn’t want to hear about someone known as “Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien”? So for starters, will you give us a basic short biography of our subject?
Dennis: Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien sailed the seas for over sixty years, from the late 1860s in India to 1930 on the U.S. West Coast. He sailed every type of ship imaginable, but this book is as much about this incredible, charismatic sea captain, as it is about what sailing over the oceans was really like then, when danger and adventure coexisted on a daily basis.
The story sweeps from his sailing full-sail ships in the South Seas and the rich living of kings and princesses in the Hawaiian Islands to captaining vessels during the Klondike Gold Rush, when sailors and their ships steamed into the Arctic through ice floes and the brutal gales of the Bering Sea. O'Brien was revered in Alaska, as the one captain who didn't lose a ship and brought thousands of prospectors, gamblers, and speculators to that wild country. And all is true .
Pierre Berton’s masterful book “The Klondike Fever” summed this best:
O’Brien, perhaps the most colorful sea captain on the Pacific Coast, had a history so garish that it tended to read like one of the more florid sea novels popular at the time. He had narrowly missed being eaten by cannibals; had fought off Chinese pirates with cannon fire; had supped with the Royal Family of Hawaii; had made love to a Tahitian princess; had been offered a partnership by King O’Keefe, the famous white emperor of the island of Yap; and had shipped with the hairy and villainous Robert O’Malley, prototype for Jack London’s “Sea Wolf.”
Tyler: And how did he get the nickname, Dynamite Johnny?
Dennis: The nickname came from his actions when he first sailed on the large steamer “Umatilla” in a storm off the Pacific Northwest. The ship ran into a bad squall and the huge waves and whipping winds slammed the vessel about. If this wasn’t bad enough, highly explosive cases of dynamite were being shipped—with a large safe nearby. The ship’s rolling snapped the safe from its tying ropes, and it became a large battering ram against the cases of explosives. Learning this, O’Brien climbed down into the hold, lassoed the safe, and tied it down to save the ship from the volatile dynamite—and hence his nickname. For the rest of his life, he was called Dynamite Johnny O’Brien.
Tyler: What made you choose the title, “Tales of the Seven Seas”? Did Captain O’Brien really sail all seven—and what were they?
Dennis: What amazed me in my research was that O’Brien sailed over so many oceans, seas, and waterways: From the Indian Ocean, Antarctic, and Atlantic when he was young to the entire Pacific, Atlantic again, and Arctic as a captain. Although seamen of distant years said that they “sailed the seven seas," there really isn’t one, accepted definition of this. The seven seas commonly are the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, Antarctic, and Arctic Oceans—however, it depends on whether you are consulting Medieval European literature, geographers, or oceanographic societies—and there are over fifty seas recognized worldwide. In any event, the travels of O’Brien were distant, adventurous, and amazing.
Tyler: Dennis, it sounds like such travels were not usual for a sailor or ship captain. Did most simply travel the same route back and forth over and over, and why do you think O’Brien was different?
Dennis: This can depend on whether the time period was one of full-sail ships or of steamers. The sail ships were more at the mercy of typhoons and running out of provisions than steamships. Lack of winds could becalm them with harsh weather forcing them from their routes. On the other hand, steamships could sail 24/7 with ample food and water, thus allowing them to have regular routes and voyage times.
Seamen also tended to be more capricious in their travels than their captains. Unhappy sailors would skip at the next port, and then take the first ship heading out, even if it was sailing to a different country. Sailors were shanghaied or drugged, and awoke to find themselves heading away to a different continent. Although this changed over time with laws and the advent of steamships, captains generally had more stable routes—and lives.
Even sea captains, however, had their plans interrupted. Collisions sank ships, negligence forced changes in companies or careers, and an unprofitable route for the owners soon disappeared. Despite this, it is true that Dynamite Johnny roved over more different routes and seas than the average captain. First, he survived to a ripe old age, despite hurricanes, icebergs, serious accidents, groundings, and even attempted mutinies. Second, he successfully navigated the transition from sail ships to steamers and in the process worked different seas. Another reason was that he had a reputation as a skilled master and never had to wait long for another assignment—or sea to venture over.
Tyler: Captain O’Brien sailed from the 1860s to the 1930s. Did he never think of retiring, and did he have any thoughts left to posterity about how the world and ships and the life of a sailor changed so vastly during that time?
Dennis: O’Brien never thought about retiring, as he loved the ocean—regardless of the weather, stormy or sunny—and commanding ships. As a long-time captain, he commented on how the law and legalities changed to rope in the practices, some harsh, in disciplining wayward sailors and their compensation; but he didn’t commiserate, nor applaud, how ships and sailing changed over those years. The reason: He was too busy living this life. For example, he recognized quickly that steam would soon prevail over sail, and gave up commands of full-sail ships to take lower positions on steamships, just to learn how to run and operate them. O’Brien then easily transitioned into commanding huge steamships, both over the Pacific and into the iceberg-infested regions of the Arctic.
Tyler: It sounds like Captain O’Brien was often in the right place at the right time, from Hawaii to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush period. Did he follow the money, would you say?
Dennis: After sailing through many waterways of the world, including from India to China and Hawaii to the South Pacific, O’Brien wanted to settle down. Once he married his beloved Emily (and she sailed with him, including giving birth to their second child at sea), they decided to make the Pacific Northwest and Seattle their home base, primarily so their children could have a stable environment. He was there when the Klondike Gold Rush burst upon the scene.
If anything, Captain O’Brien didn’t follow the money, because he just wasn’t good with it—and this was by his own admission. If he came upon a nice sum of money from his captaincy or business operations—and he did—Dynamite Johnny would invest it in some speculative venture or hit the gaming tables. To O’Brien, life was to experience and live, not save for old age.
Tyler: How does this experiencing life relate to his wife and other women? First will you tell us more about that Tahitian princess?
Dennis: O’Brien was as adventurous with his romances as everything else. As a young man, his love affair with a Hawaiian princess—even before sailing to Tahiti—was one that had risk. Their romance had to be kept secret since the king would not look very kindly at a foreigner who became involved with a princess. He romanced her by quietly bringing fine horses close to her quarters, avoiding the guards, and then galloping away in the late night to a remote, beautiful beach setting.
His love affair with the Tahitian princess was as striking. Despite its intensity, O’Brien sailed away to another island, never to return for years although he still held the princess in his heart. Much later when he was in his seventies, a company hired him to captain a steamship through the South Seas and O’Brien returned there. A retinue of princesses walked up the boardwalk, placed leis of flowers around his neck, with the last one saying quietly that she was the granddaughter of his long, lost love—who had since then died. But the granddaughter told him the stories that her grandmother held of the beautiful man she had once loved.
O’Brien later met and continued with his courtship of his beloved, Emily, a Portland, Oregon woman who at first didn’t care for swashbuckling, young sea captains and came from a very established and well-regarded family. Dynamite Johnny, however, persevered and was finally able to be the successful man that she selected to be her mate for life.
Tyler: Did Emily travel with him often? Do we know much about her life beyond being his wife? What was this sailor’s wife’s life like? I’m sure our female readers will want to know.
Dennis: After a brief honeymoon, Emily Showers O’Brien sailed away with her husband to Hawaii and the South Seas. When a southwest gale with towering waves engulfed the vessel, Captain O’Brien asked whether she was frightened. Emily answered, “I don’t know anything about this old ship, so if you get scared, then I suppose I’ll also get scared.” They both laughed. She voyaged extensively with Dynamite Johnny in her early years and with her young family, including when her second child was born at sea during another windstorm—all written about in the book.
Owing to O’Brien’s memoirs, we were able to gain an intimate look at Emily, their life together at sea and on land, and her as an individual. She was a strong-minded, intelligent, very attractive, and proud woman, who would be a challenge for any man—O’Brien or not—to court successfully, marry, and then settle into the life with someone who was a sea captain. But Emily showed her mettle, whether it was surviving the attack by pirates at Nine Pin Rock, living through shrieking typhoons, or standing out at grand ballroom affairs, such as the one given by the Hong Kong governor for important dignitaries. It was a pleasure to write about her and her essential part in this.
Tyler: What do you think is the most exciting thing about Captain Dynamite Johnny’s life?
Dennis: His adventures do read like the best fiction, although they are all true . From near-calamitous collisions at sea to surviving the great typhoons, from his adventures with Emily in the South Seas to Jack London in the Arctic, O’Brien was there. He had near-death experiences from being operated on in a crude, ice-bound Alaskan shack to being overcome by smoke in a ship’s hold at sea and being deeply knifed in the stomach by a crazed convict. But he lived. Overall, what is exciting is that O’Brien lived that life, savored it, and never looked back.
Tyler: I love that you keep emphasizing that he “lived” life. It sounds like he’s a lesson to us all. What did you find so fascinating about him that you wanted to write an entire book about him?
Dennis: In addition to living such an adventurous, but perilous life, Captain O’Brien spanned the eras from full-sail and clipper ships to the large ocean liners we know today. Although the times have substantially changed, with laws and lawyers now trying to rule the seas, the ocean cannot really be ruled. The ocean is about survival, whether it involves pirates sailing in junks after O’Brien with blasting canons and rifle fire at Nine Pin Rocks off Hong Kong, or the modern cutthroats off Somalia with their automatic weapons and motorized rafts. Hurricanes and typhoons govern, but sailors still—like O’Brien—brave the oceans showing respect and courage. Dynamite Johnny O’Brien lived life his way in an age when one could. What more could you ask.
Tyler: Dennis, what, in doing your research for the book did you find most surprising to learn about Captain O’Brien?
Dennis: This was his dedication and affection for his wife and family, no matter where he was or the circumstances, and, yet, he could still command the toughest, roughest of men. O’Brien was a gentleman, whether at home, in the exquisite mansions of the rich, or in the dirtiest of mining camps, but he could turn in an instant to combat danger or insubordination from the worst of people. As the “Marine Digest” wrote on his death at eighty: “…his personality had so many qualities, had so many sides, and such depths that it baffles analysis. It had a touch of the magnificent. In the moment of action, in crises, it was overwhelming.”
Tyler: I’m a big fan of Jack London’s novel “The Sea-Wolf.” You mentioned that Captain O’Brien has a connection to the characterization by Jack London of the brutal, but cunning, Captain Wolf Larsen in the book. Can you tell us more about this connection?
Dennis: O’Brien took over the command of different steamers to join the first ships taking the frenzied masses of prospectors to Alaska and the Arctic Circle during the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1896 and on. Dynamite Johnny told about his bringing excited men to the gold fields and embittered, sick ones back. He made numerous friendships with not only adventurers and prospectors, but also those who built the cities and railroads, including those who would become authors.
On one of these trips, he invited a young, budding writer to his stateroom. Jack London then listened to Dynamite Johnny tell the sea stories about his O’Malley, the hard-case mate of the “Edwin James,” a four-sail ship that O’Brien had commanded in the South Seas, and made “copious notes” with his stub pencil on this and other sailing stories. Although scholars still debate just what entered into London’s character, Wolf Larsen, in “The Sea-Wolf,” he met with O’Brien at the right time—and “Tales of the Seven Seas” describes this in detail.
Jack London continued on with his arduous trip to the gold fields through dangerous mountain passes, and then journeyed overland into the Klondike subsequently to return home that following spring. London’s Klondike experiences then brought about his novels “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and his memorable short story “To Build a Fire,” among other stories and novels, including “The Sea-Wolf.”
After his first successes, Jack London voyaged in an American square-rigger around Cape Horn to Seattle in 1906 and called at O’Brien’s home. He was disappointed to learn that Dynamite Johnny was then at sea. The writings of Jack London in “The Sea-Wolf” and Dynamite Johnny’s stories of the cunning, brutish mate O’Malley bear a striking resemblance, and the book in detail delves into this relationship.
Tyler: Dennis, since I’ve interviewed you so many times now, I’m curious if among all your books, you have a favorite and why that particular book is your favorite?
Dennis: Tyler, that is another excellent question—and which I’ve given some thought. Of my maritime series, “The Raging Sea” (about the worst tsunami ever to hit the U.S. West Coast) stands out, due to the stories of the survivors and just how they showed such uncommon courage; “Treasure Ship” is there, because I had the chance to interview and become friends with the salvors who discovered this long-lost, gold-bearing, ghost ship, the “Brother Jonathan; Sentinel of the Seas,” about the most expensive, dangerous, and remote lighthouse in the U.S.—Saint George Reef Lighthouse—is a highlight because of the odds surmounted to build that huge sentinel six miles out at sea; “Taking the Sea” is there, because of the near-pirate like attitude of the old ship salvagers and wreckers, but who still saved the passengers and crew without a second thought; and with “Tales of the Seven Seas,” Captain O’Brien truly stands out. It’s hard to choose, but I have to go with Dynamite Johnny O’Brien, his adventures, and the fascinating life that he led.
Tyler: Dennis, what was the most difficult part of researching this book, or any of your books for that matter?
Dennis: Each book has a special challenge that must be mastered before it can be written. For example, my first two required finding and then interviewing key people; without this, the book couldn’t be written with authenticity. In addition to securing all reliable sources of information bearing on the subject, the next book “Sentinel of the Seas” necessitated that I delve into old National Archive files and decipher the old photographs and letters bearing on that lighthouse’s construction. “Taking the Sea” required working with the same archivist, but one who specialized in tracking down genealogical records, this time concerning the background and life of Captain T.P.H. Whitelaw. This book, “Tales of the Seven Seas,” so interested me that I started researching and writing the book proposal before I had even located the most important documents—the personal memoirs of Captain O’Brien. Although it appeared that he had written these journals, no one had any idea where they might be, or even if they were still in existence. The difficulty was that there was no information as to where the memoirs went, after his wife died. When I finally tracked this down, I knew that I had this book.
Tyler: Dennis, from a writing perspective, how did you use these journals in the writing of this book? And why do you think he wrote these memoirs?
Dennis: Captain O’Brien was a well-known personality in his time, especially in the important West Coast port cities, such as San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, including the Pacific Northwest, into Alaska, and in the Arctic generally—and remember this was some eighty years ago when he passed away. I was fortunate in that I had located numerous articles about Dynamite Johnny before discovering his journals, and these publications ranged from different newspapers to maritime histories and publications with series of articles about the good captain. Further, two books had already been written about his life, and when the journals were located, I was able to use that in conjunction with all the other information located (including personal data secured by a skilled genealogist). In writing such a book, I—like any other author—would check information whenever possible, and, based on that, write accordingly. Although it’s possible he embellished a story or two, the framework was there with each one—and these were such wonderful tales.
However, what amazed me was that the articles written about him definitely corroborated events, including the important people he met and became friends with along the way, whether a builder of railroads or a very wealthy cigar importer. To write about his relationship with Jack London on the young writer’s travels to Alaska, I contacted Jack London scholars and reviewed the available information, including how O’Brien could have met London as he wrote down and what could have gone into London’s characterization of Wolf Larsen. In fact, I was asked to present a paper at an academic conference on just this, but I didn’t have the time, as all of my effort was going into writing this book.
It is possible Dynamite Johnny wrote his memoirs for eventual publication, but he died soon afterwards and that never happened. It is clear that he wrote this journal, because he loved the sea and enjoyed writing about those experiences. His last words written down were: “…my heart is, and to the last will be, in love with the sea and the dear old sailing ship days. I will leave it, as the old song goes, ‘Though my pocket is light, my heart has no pain’.”
Tyler: Do you have plans for another book and if so, what will the topic be?
Dennis: I am currently reviewing different themes in the maritime genre for my next book. Friends and readers alike send me ideas to delve further into. I haven’t selected the final topic yet, but, I have to say that the path is just as exciting as the final destination of a published manuscript.
Tyler: Thank you for the informative interview today, Dennis. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and where we might find out more about “Tales of the Seven Seas: The Escapades of Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien”?
More information, including pictures, an excerpt, and more background information is available at my website,
. As to where even more information can be found, this is the first time that I’ve written a book where there are no other substantive articles or information. “Tales of the Seven Seas” is the best source for the many lives, if you will, of Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien. And the true tales of sailors at sea during this time.