Chemical Trader

The Leggatt’s Point Church at Christmas, 1967.

However, when I sailed on my first ship, the Galveston Lumberman, I had chatted with many radio operators from ships in the numerous ports in South America, Europe and the United States. Making good friends with reliable contacts in that field was essential in finding your next job. Almost all the operators I had visited had at least half a dozen addresses of shipping agencies, but one name repeatedly appeared on those lists: “Dutch”. He was the owner of “Dutch and Carlsson,” a small shipping office that he managed in New Orleans that provided mainly sailors and officers to ships operated under foreign flags. One day, curiosity overcame me, and I phoned “Dutch”.

His answer was “Fly to New Orleans.” Since my duffel bag was still packed and ready, I fly from Montreal to the city of Mardi Gras in mid-February and arrived at his “office”. What a disappointment! It looked more like a dilapidated bar than an office. Dutch had a soft side for those middle-aged sailors who were chronic wine boozers, mostly too drunk to navigate. I rented a room not far from his “office” and returned several times each day to see if there was anything new on my prospects. Sadly, all I ever heard was “there aren’t any jobs yet.” That was during Lent, so the time passed quickly. However, one day he told me he had found a “beautiful little ship” in Houston, Texas, that was waiting for me.


The Small but Beautiful Ship.

When she was built in the Netherlands in 1960 as a coaster, she was registered as the Laga (IMO5201984). In 1964 she was sold to the EID (Bahamas) Ltd. London, England, converted into a chemical tanker and renamed the Chemical Trader. When I boarded her March 5th, 1968, she had been hauling tetra-ethyl lead (TEL), used to prevent vehicle engines from knocking. However, Dutch didn’t tell me that the neurotoxicity of tetra-ethyl damaged the nervous system and brain, nor did anyone on board tell me that the previous radio operator had been poisoned by the same. It was only after several weeks on board when I wanted to clean the antenna insulator at the top of the foremast, I was advised it was too dangerous due to the fumes rising from the ventilator. Maybe she was small, but not such a beautiful ship.

And small she was. The captain, a retired British master-mariner from the era of the tall ships, regularly commented that a radio operator wasn’t required onboard his ship. At 1.871 tons, she was barely above the minimum requirements of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The radio room, located just behind the bridge, was no larger than the single toilet compartment used by everyone. To my surprise, the radio communications equipment actually worked to a limited degree. It’s single transmitter dated back to the Korean war, while the radio receiver had probably been collected at a second-hand amateur radio garage sale. The required volumes of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) List of Coast stations, ship stations and maritime mobile services required on board to be up-to-date were so old to be useless. Even the antiquated non-functional spare vacuum tubes had been saved onboard. Welcome aboard the small but not so beautiful ship.

The Chemical Trader, Houston, Texas, 1968.

The deck and engine crew of the Chemical Trader that had been with the ship since 1964, were from the Grand Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory in the western Caribbean Sea. Although there were some 600 banks and trust companies operating in the Grand Cayman, including 43 of the 50 largest banks in the world, none of those islanders appeared at all wealthy. However, they were knowledgeable and reliable seaman, easy to get along with. Both the captain and chief mate were experienced British navigators, with years of accumulated experience. For some reason, I can’t recall anything about the second mate. Maybe we didn’t have one. As a coastal freighter, she had been in collision with a Dutch coaster named Hunzseborg in the Straits of Dover area in 1964. Before she sailed from England bound for Houston, Texas, she had been repaired and converted into a chemical tanker for carrying tetra-ethyl and tetra-methel lead. The above photo taken in Houston in June, 1968, shows a dented bow which suggests she was in more than one collision.

When she arrived in Houston, her mission was to deliver tetra-ethyl and tetra-methyl lead to the various refineries in the Caribbean Sea. Apparently, her arrival wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm. In fact, there was a period when the Houston shipping channel was closed when she was in transit. By the time I joined her in March, 1968, modifications to her operation had apparently been made so that leaving the port didn’t appear to arouse fears of being poisoned by her escaping fumes.

My accommodation was a very tiny, hot and stuffy room below deck with no windows and not much ventilation. Probably this was due in part to the captain’s attitude towards radio operators and also perhaps the owners or operators that didn’t like having to pay the wages. As I mentioned earlier, the ships displacement tonnage exceeded 1600 tons as specified in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). For that reason, a radio operator was required on board when sailing more than 16 hours offshore. If you have followed my blog since the beginning, you will no doubt have noticed that I succeed in sailing in very unconventional ships. The Chemical Trader was no exception. A little inconvenience never bothered me. My goal was to visit the world on a very small budget while I was young, ignoring the occasional irritation.

                                                      Destination: Talara, Peru.

After loading 470 tons of the toxic and cancerogenic anti-knock agent known as tetraethyl lead, we let go the mooring lines from the loading birth at Houston, Texas In mid-March, 1968, bound for Talara, Peru. Probably the port authorities kept a sharp eye on our departure movements, but from the ship, we couldn’t see anything unusual. A small tug towed us out from the pier, leaving us just outside the harbour sea buoy. Since the hurricane season was still several weeks away, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan peninsula and onto Colón, Panama, the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal, was easy sailing. The usual delay of a few days at anchor on the Colón anchorage grounds was uneventful until our turn arrived to transit the canal. Since I had already crossed the canal the previous year aboard the Galveston Lumberman, I spent most of the next 16 hours sleeping, eating and studying. Arriving in the Balboa anchorage grounds at the Pacific entrance to the canal, the pilot left, and we proceeded on to our destination, Tarala, Peru, about 1,700km to the southward or four days sailing time.

At that time, Talara, Peru was a small city not far from the petroleum refinery where we were tied up at. Although it was only in the first days of spring, the weather was dry and very hot, at least for a Canadian. With nothing interesting to do on board or around the refinery, I took the first bus to visit the city. A sign announcing “Turtle Research Center” caught my eye, where I got off at the next stop. It didn’t appear to be open, but, after banging on the front door for a while, a gentleman opened the door cautiously. He seemed curious, but a little surprised to see a gringo dressed “en vestido campiseno pobre” wanting to visit a turtle research center that looked dusty, dark and smelly.

Turtle Research Center, Talara, Peru. 1968

Evidently, the Turtle Research Center wasn’t accustomed to having visitors. The gentlemen who showed me around the numerous turtles didn’t seem to be either enthused or prepared to answer questions from the public. However, he did explain in his own words that sea turtles only visit the Talara, Peru, habitat every other year during the spawningand foraging period from October to April. According to him, the visiting nesting Green turtle came from the Galapagos Islands and Mexico, while Loggerhead turtles came from eastern rookeries in Mexico and Costa Rica. The Olive Ridley turtles originate from Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico while the rarer Hawksbill turtles were from Ecuador. However, he noted that the Leatherback turtle and the Hawksbill turtle were two of the most severely threatened species due to excessive local small-scale fisheries and net-fisheries incidental bycatch.

When I asked him what was the risk of turtles getting caught during their numerous migrations, he mentioned that they had to pass by 50 million long line hooks, 575km of nets, etc. Until they reached maturity in 15 to 20 years, when natural predators had little chance of endangering them, their probability of further survival depended mainly on evading human interventions such as harvesting adults and eggs, disturbing nesting beaches, pollution, overfishing, etc.

Doing a little research, I learned that small-scale sea turtle fisheries were an important source of food and employment for coastal communities, not only around Talara, but worldwide. Unfortunately, the large commercial fisheries incidental by-catch of turtle in Peru and elsewhere have caused the entire collapse of the food supply for coastal communities due to excessive overfishing. The result was in1976, the Peruvian government banned the capture of all Leatherback and Green turtles, and by 1995, they banned capture, retention and commerce of all turtle species. Sadly, it is suggested that due to the continued turtle by-catch by large commercial fisheries in addition to poaching, the quantity of turtles caught annually has not changed. The saddest part is that turtles have become an endangered species that could disappear within a few decades.

Ships and Hurricanes

The Chemical Trader had finished discharging its cargo of tetra-ethyl lead at the petroleum refinery in Talara, Peru. We still had a few days before sailing, and I asked around town about visiting the tar seeps located between the Pacific and the Amotape Mountains, about 10km inland. These fossil-bearing petroleum deposits were used by the Spaniards hundreds of years ago who boiled tar in order to caulk their wooden ships in order to keep them from leaking. From what I could understand, access to the tar seeps was restricted, but I never found out why. The La Brae-Pariñas oil fields were located further inland, but I wasn’t interested in visiting industrial site like that. Instead, I spent the next few days listening to Morse code broadcasts by the Miami hurricane center on short-wave radio concerning all the projected tropical storms and hurricanes we might encounter between Panama and Houston in a week or 10 days.

Before leaving Talara, I would like to mention that during the investigation of this text, I found an interesting little piece in the thesis by Irina Milagros Pérez Pérez on the importance of the oil industry in Talara. The first location to successfully drill for oil took place in Titusville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. when, in 1854, Edward L. Drake with the aid of a blacksmith, drilled a well of 21m and found oil. The second successful oil well was drilled at Zorritos, Talara, Peru to a depth of 26m in 1863. The Titusville site still produces some oil, while the Talara site continues to be a major petroleum producing site.

We cast off on a sunny mid-April morning bound for the Panama Canal, four or five days sailing time. During mid-spring, the weather along the coasts of Ecuador and Colombia was predictable, with clear skies and calm seas. We anchored half a day until a pilot boarded at the Balboa pilot station, the western entrance to the Panama Canal. Apart from continuing listening to the Miami Hurricane Center broadcasts, I spent most of the 16 or 18 hours sleeping. However, I did locate in the weather data a mid-tropospheric trough and a cold front south of the Dominican Republic advancing slowly towards Nicaragua. It looked as if we would be maybe a few hundred km ahead of her.

Luckily, we experienced very little delay after transiting the Canal, and proceeded at full speed northward. The captain was a little anxious, since the ship had been originally built as a Dutch coaster and not particularly suitable to endure hurricane weather. By June first, the trough had became a tropical storm and as it advanced, turned into a category 1 hurricane. By the time we passed Cancun, Mexico and changed our course to the northwest toward Galveston, Texas, the hurricane was 150km south of us moving at 8 knots northwards towards Mobile, Alabama. When we tied up in Galveston in the afternoon of May 4th, hurricane Abby had winds of 160km proceeding towards Miami. I pitied those living in Florida, but I was relieved to be out of clutches of that hurricane. However our peace of mind barely lasted less than12 hours.

Fire! Get Out! Fire!

Soon after tying up at the Jacinto Port located between Houston, Texas, and Galveston, the Chemical Trader, belonging to the A. & C. Ship Fueling Corporation of New York, was connected to the shore electrical grid and the ship’s main engine was shut down. No night security watch was kept on board, as we were only a small crew and everyone would be busy the next day. I had trouble getting to sleep that night as my room was unusually hot and very stuffy. I awoke sometime before 6 in the morning to the cry of “Fire! Get Out! Fire!” I could smell smoke but couldn’t see any flames, so I dressed quickly and went on the pier. It appeared that the captain’s accommodation, just below the bridge and radio room, was on fire. The Baytown Sun of June 5th, 1968 described it as a small electrical fire that was put out almost immediately by the Houston Fire Department. However, the ship’s crew, who had battled the blaze for some time, told me that the Captain had been smoking a little earlier and had fellen asleep. In any case, the entire interior and electrical wiring system in the bridge and radio room were cooked to a crisp and had to be refurbished or replaced. How long that would take was anybody’s guess, as there didn’t seem to be any, or at least not many blueprints or technical diagrams of the upper decks.

With nothing to do onboard and little to visit in or around the industrial complex, I spent most of my day helping the electricians who were replacing all the damaged electrical wiring. Turning a small hand-cranked Megohmmeter for hours to verify the ship’s electrical insulation resistance became a little tiresome. Three weeks after the fire, we didn’t seem to be much more advanced. It would probably take another month or two before we would be ready to sail again, and that wasn’t my idea of sailing.

In late June, I called my good friend “Dutch” in New Orleans who had given me a job on his ” beautiful little ship” that carried tetra-ethyl lead, to see if he had anything. Luck was with me. The “Cruz del Sur“, a decommissioned whale factory ship being used as a tanker needed a radio operator onboard urgently. A few days later, I received a telegram from the office of the British Consulate General at the World Trade Building in Houston, confirming that I was hired as of the 3rd July by the Hendy International Company at $400.00 a month with overtime on weekends.
They flew me to New York, where I joined the ship July 8th. I quickly learned that I had joined a ship that was not only jinxed but haunted, even before she was launched in 1951.

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