The Jinxed and Haunted Whale Factory Ship Juan Peron.
The Compañia Argentina de Pesca, whose president was Alfredo Ryan, commissioned the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, to build a 25,000-ton whale factory ship, the largest vessel of its class in the world. The honoured guest, la Señora Eva Peron, wife of the president of Argentina, was invited to christen the ship Juan Peron, but due to ongoing political foment, she declined. In Evita’s place, Irene McClurg, the secretary working for the Harland and Wolff shipyard responsible for their Latin American business, pronounced those renown lines “I name this ship Juan Peron, may God protect her and all who sail in her,” on that memorable day of April 4th, 1950. The Juan Peron was destined to harvest the seas of Antarctica with a crew of 484 men, processing some 2,500 tons of right whale a day in the vicinity of the South Georgia Islands in the South Atlantic that teemed with krill. Alas, she never saw a krill, the whales or glimpsed those glorious spectacles of the Antarctic midnight sun.
On the 31st of January, 1951, at the end of the day’s shift, workers were descending the gang-way when it broke in two at the 13th step. Some fell 20 metres into the water, some fell onto the quayside and lay like broken dolls. 16 men died that day, 2 were drowned and 59 were seriously injured. * These misfortunes that haunted her reminded many an Argentine sailor of the old sea legend that a curse descends upon any ship on whose construction lives have been lost. She became known as the most cursed vessel the Harland and Wolff shipyard ever built.
* Don’t miss watching Thomascow McMullan’s 5 minute video that presents a wealth of details far beyond my humble research field at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uO_QdR84GQ
The Norwegian crew assigned to her first whale harvest was obstructed by the Norwegian international laws limiting the pursuit of their intended pelagic whaling expedition in Antarctica. Instead, they took the Juan Peron to Port Arthur, Texas, to load bunker C fuel oil for Argentina. Unfortunately, she ran into the pier causing extensive damage, resulting in expensive repairs and litigation. When she arrived in Argentina December 6th, 1951 with the same load of fuel oil, her draught prevented her from entering the access channels to the port. Consequently, the petroleum had to be loaded into lighters and towed into port.
Within hours of her arrival, the government embargoed the ship and accused the company of misusing foreign exchange. The Juan Peron road at anchor in port for two years, as security on the loan for her construction. In any case, the company would not hunt whales as only one of the 15 catcher boats had been delivered. The government turned over the ship to the YPF (Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales) for cadet training cruises. After two trips to Curacao in the Caribbean, she proved worthless as an oil transport.
The regime that deposed Juan Peron from power in Argentina, rechristened the ship Cruz del Sur, in hopes the new name would bring luck. She was offered several times for sale, and on the 5th time, seventeen companies bid, but the best offer was about 400,000 pounds sterling with no takers. In 1966, the Buenos Aires Municipal Bank tried to auction her off, but there were no bidders, only a few curious newsmen attending the auction. Finally, Navios of Naussa paid $1,051,500, barely one third of the original cost, to be converted into the world’s largest offshore drilling platform. The 8,000 ton whale factory was dismantled and removed by Talleres Metalúrgicos Anglo Argentino, resulting in that the vessel floated so high that on windy days, the propellers on either side of the unusually large rudder were unable to keep her on course. Of all the years of service, she never received a classification by any of the numerous classification societies responsible for setting technical rules, confirming that designs and calculation required to meet these rules, etc. Hendy International Company was contracted by Navios for one year to get her classified by hauling bunker CA from Maracaibo (Venezuela), Williamstad (Curacao) and other ports to various U.S. ports along the Eastern seaboard. When I joined the ship July 8th, 1968, I knew nothing about the above details, but even if I did, I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity of sailing aboard her, haunted, jinxed or otherwise.
A Bunker C fuel, the cargo carried by most oil tankers, is a very heavy viscosity oil distillate, left over after other fuels have been distilled from crude oil. It has to be heated with a special heating system before it can be used and it may contain relatively high amounts of pollutants, particularly sulfur, which forms sulfur dioxide upon combustion. It is used mainly in power plants, ships and large heating installations consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons containing hundreds of individual organic chemicals. However, its undesirable properties make it very cheap. In fact, it is the cheapest liquid fuel available.
Where is that damn Whale Factory Ship “Cruz del Sur”?
A taxi took me from the airport in New York to a dock in New Jersey, where I was supposed to meet the Cruz del Sur around 4 pm on July 8th, 1968. It was a desolate place when I arrived at 2p.m. Apart from several steel bollards along the dock, there was not a vessel in sight, not even on the horizon. There were no buildings nearby, nor one dockworker either. When she finally appeared, it was as if she was sitting on top of the sea like a ghost, but there was still not a single stevedore in sight. When the ship approached the dock, a sailor threw me a heaving line Awith a monkey fist B.Pulling in heaving line with some trouble, I was able to put the Manila hemp hawser over the bollard. By the time the vessel was tied up, some dock workers had arrived, but seeing the ship already moored, they turned their vehicles around and left.
The first person I met on the ship was the captain. He was perhaps 65 and spoke good English, but with a slight German accent. Later, I learned that he had been a captain on a German warship in World War II and that he did not like the British, since they had kept him in prison for a few years in the UK for reasons I never learned. When I visited the radio room, many pleasant memories flooded my mind as soon as I gazed at the Marconi “Oceanspan” and “Worldspan” transmitters that I had studied at the Institu Maritine du Québec à Rimouski. However, the captain didn’t have the same opinion. “It doesn’t work, it never worked,” he told me, adding that the previous operator had only used the low power emergency transmitter to communicate with nearby coastal stations.
The office was originally set up for two or three operators, with a large, well spaced work area, two portholes and a good lighting system. However, it was very hot. The thick wooden planks originally installed in 1951 on the roof to reduce the direct effects of solar radiation in the radio room and bridge had been removed. Perhaps the captain thought that there was nothing that could be done with the old Marconi transmitters. But for me, the main job was finding out why it “never worked”. As I mentioned in an earlier text, I always liked to use the short-wave marine bands on high-frequency for international radio communications.
A Heaving line is a lightweight line that has a monkey’s fist on the free end and the other end attached to a heavier line (such as a hawser) and that can be thrown across intervening space and used to draw the heavier line to a desired position (as for mooring a ship at a wharf)
B A monkey fist is a type of knot so called because it resembles a small fist. When attached to a heaving line, it allows throwing it a considerable distance.
A Ghost with a Mission.
The dining room on a ship is always the best place for meeting many members of the crew. The Cruz del Sur was no exception. After introducing myself, I chatted with some bridge and engine room officers, and mentioned that the next day I wanted to find out why my predecessor couldn’t use the main transmitter, and had to use the emergency transmitter that operated on batteries. The topic of discussion changed, and I completely forgot the matter.
The next morning, after studying many technical diagrams, I removed some of the side panels on the transmitters and proceeded to isolate the problem, when a young man about my age appeared. He was from Argentina, speaking impeccable German and a very easy English, and offered to help me in my project as an electrician. That was good, because the electrical system worked on 220 volts direct current, something I knew very little about. A few hours later, all circuit lines worked well, when suddenly, nothing worked at all. That was very strange. For more than one hour, all power lines worked normally, and then nothing. The electrician told me that the ship’s autopilot worked exactly like that, and discovered that the problem was accumulated rust and corrosion over the years. The ship had not sailed for more than a dozen years, anchored near Buenos Aires. After all those many years, the accumulated rust, humidity and perhaps other conditions had grown into a ghost with a mission. Studying the wiring diagrams between the transmitters and generators in the engine room, he disappeared, but first, told me not to work on the transmitters until he returned.
A little after three o’clock in the afternoon, I went for a coffee. When I returned, there he was sitting on my office chair with the biggest smile on his fact that I had ever seen. With a new cable installed between the transmitters and the electrical panel in the engine room, a stable and reliable service was restored. However, after making numerous adjustments and advanced testing, I was not able to transfer more than 10 percent of the potential transmitter power to the long wire antenna. Typically, Marconi transmitters work well for many years, but ten or fifteen years of inactivity can cause many unexpected problems. This was a problem for ITT-Mackey technical experts when we were moored in the Bronx to offload the cargo of fuel oil the next day.
The Bronx Neighbourhood, a very dangerous and hostile place?
The whale factory ship Cruz del Sur tied up in the Bronx early the next morning. The Customs and Immigration officers arrived just after 8, and were finished before noon. The captain mentioned that he would meet me at the Liberian Consulate in New York later in the afternoon, and to drive into town with the officers. I had shown the captain my Canadian second class certificate of competency in radio telecommunications, but the Consulate wanted to see it for herself. I met the captain in the lobby, and the meeting with the Consulate lasted about one minute, as the Canadian radio certificates were well recognized worldwide. Since the captain had other business, I took a taxi back to the ship. However, when we were about 10 blocks from where the ship was tied up, the taxi driver stopped and told me he couldn’t go any further. Apparently the neighbourhood was very dangerous and unfriendly, although I hadn’t noticed that when I passed a few hours earlier. Walking back to the ship, I did notice a few coloured persons along the way that were poorly dressed and lived in rundown houses. However, I had no difficulty chatting with them.
My official Liberian certificate was waiting for me on my return trip to the States.
When I arrived back at the pier late that afternoon just before supper, the security guard at the accommodation ladder told me that the radio technicians had been on board all afternoon and had just left. I was a little disappointed as I would have liked to ask them a few questions concerning the radio equipment on board. However, they left a note on my office desk stating that they had repaired the transmitters. Apparently they were able to transfer a little over 90% of the maximum power output to the long wire antenna. That sounded good. However, I would have to wait until we had sailed before I could test their findings for myself.
Uncertainly reigned supreme.
Normally, the conversation around the supper table of a ship is a light, convivial chatter about what had been done during the day. Instead, doubt, uncertainty and confusion seemed to abound. A few seemed happy to be leaving the Cruz del Sur without having completed their contract, others were depressed not knowing who would be the replacements, if any were available. Others feared having to work excessive overtime shifts. I was curious why so many seamen and officers were leaving the ship whenever it arrived in an American port, without completing their contract.
Ever since the ship started hauling bunker C fuel oil between Maracaibo (Venezuela) and Willemstad (Curacao) to the American eastern seaboard in the spring, nobody knew what the next loading or discharge port would be as the ship had no regular charter. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the whale factory ship, launched 17 years earlier in Belfast, Ireland, had never been classified by any internationally recognized classification society. The purpose of navigating the ship for a period of one year was to accumulate sufficient sea time in order to be accredited the obligatory classification certificate as a tanker before she would be converted into the world’s largest offshore drilling rig.
The head office in Los Angeles, Hendy International, regularly issued the instructions: “Curacao for orders.” A literal translation of this technical phrase is “Proceed to Curacao anchorage and wait for further orders.” Prior to my arrival, the ship’s high-frequency short-wave transmitter for international communications never worked. As soon as the ship was beyond radio range of American coast radio stations, the radio operator had to transmit his messages through the closest marine radio station in Central and South America. We were in 1968, long before cell phones and satellites communications, when each country, state and sometime even regions had its own telephone and telegraph system that was only partially compatible. The result was that receiving a message from the head office in Los Angeles could take five or six days. If the captain required further instructions, that meant another 4 or 5, maybe even 6 days of further delay. Uncertainly reigned supreme.
Normally all the officers on a ship are kept updated on the ship’s destination, type of cargo carried or to be carried and an approximate arrival date. However, without normal high-frequency shortwave facilities, nobody had any idea what was happening. The result was unbelievable chaotic uncertainty that nobody appreciated. That uncertainty would change as soon as we departed from the Bronx in a few days.
Destination Maracaibo, Venzuela, 1968
While the method of propulsion of our ship was conventional, using an unusually large propeller, steering her was controlled by two rudder blades, one on either side of the propeller that were outside the direct thrust of the propeller. This configuration worked relatively well in calm weather or light winds. However, in heavy weather, it was practically impossible to navigate the ship since a strong cross winds had more influence in the direction of the vessel than did the twin rudder blades. Luckily, during my four and a half months aboard, it was one of the quietest hurricane season on record, with only two weak category one hurricanes and a few tropical storms. Our 7 day trip from the Bronx to Maracaibo was no exception. Hurricane Dolly had passed near Andros Island in the Bahamas, made landfall near Lauderdale, Florida and turned northeastward into the Atlantic during mid-August. By then, we were already 350 miles further south, barely noticing her passage, apart from reading the weather reports.
To get into the Gulf of Venezuela and the Maracaibo Channel, it was compulsory to take a pilot at the Guaranao pilot station. The pilot boat was waiting for us on arrival as the captain had sent his routine 72 hour notice as required. I expected we would dock near Maracaibo, but unfortunately, that wasn’t quite what happened. Instead, we tied up to an offshore petroleum dock about ten kilometres further into Lake Maracaibo and over a kilometre from shore. My dream of visiting the city disappeared like smoke as our stay would not be much more than 12 hours and ordering a launch to go ashore was both expensive and complicated. Consequently, I continued my duties as if we were at sea, checking for messages from the head office, copying the weather forecasts for our return trip, documenting the number of sunspots reported for that day, etc.
Someone woke me up a little after midnight, not entirely to my delight. The captain had several messages to be sent immediately to head office, the charterers and others. This part of the trip was probably a time charter, meaning that the cargo had to be delivered within a certain time frame, i.e., probably within 8 days. Luckily, no bad weather had been forecast. Since we were now outside the Gulf of Venezuela, with not much radio interference, I spent the next hour chatting in Morse code with some of my amateur radio contacts in Canada.
A picturesque and idyllic trip.
Our return trip from Maracaibo (Venezuela), passing between Port of Spain (Dominican Republic) and Kingston (Jamaica) and along the east coast of Cuba and Nassau and northward to New York, was both picturesque and idyllic. I had never seen the Caribbean Sea or the Atlantic ocean so calm and peaceful. Even the captain was occasionally smiling. As I mentioned earlier, over the previous few months, both officers and crew members were leaving the ship at an unusual rate without completing their contracts on arrival at any American port. This trip seemed different.
Aboard a ship with 45 seamen, there are always a few grumblers. When we were passing just west of the Island of Bermuda, I happened to be on the port wing of the bridge when the captain came up. After the usual small talk, he mentioned, in his accented Germanic style, that he was a little surprised how well the crew was getting along, hinting that nobody would be signing off in New York this time. For me, that was music to my ears. I had met nearly everyone onboard and they all seemed to be serious, experienced and hardworking seamen that I could get along with.
Discharging cargo took a bit over 18 hours. Since I had nothing special to do during that period, I dressed a little and started from the bulkhead door towards the accommodation ladder, a distance of about 5 metres. However, I became very popular on the way. “Could you post my letters, please? ” or “Would you send this money to my wife?”, “Would you buy me a copy of my favourite sports magazine?” and numerous other errends. That was funny. How did they all know I was going ashore? Why not? I suppose it’s the social responsibility of any radio operator. Apart from buying several novels and perhaps a few trinkets, I would have sufficient time.
We left early next morning for “Curaçao for orders.” Hopefully, the weather would hold for the 7 day trip and according to all the forecasts, prospects were good. A few days later, we received a new routing “Proceed directly to Willemstad (Curaçao) to load a full cargo of bunker C fuel destination eastern seaboard.” That could be anywhere from the state of Maine to Florida.
The harbour at the refinery had perhaps one of the clearest, aqua green waters you can find. It was just waiting for us to dive into, as we had been advised there were no sharks in that area. In the afternoon, I took a taxi to the Curaçao marine radio station PJC. In my opinion, it was the best marine station covering the Caribbean Sea and as far south as the equator. When I presented myself, the officer looked at me and stated “You’re not that drunk we’ve worked over the last few months?”. “No, I’m the new operator who knows how to use a Marconi key!”
Curaçao radio/PJC operated from a tiny office outside Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao. Located in the southern Caribbean Sea only 44 miles north of Venezuela, Curaçao formed a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. I expected some language problems, but quickly learned that Curaçao had a polyglot society that used Papiamentu, a Portuguese creole spoken in all levels of Curaçao society. Dutch, English and Spanish made up the other 3 official languages. The origin of the name Curaçao is that it is derived from the Portuguese word for heart (coração), referring to the island as a centre in trade.
The two persons working the afternoon shift at the radio station were friendly, and gave me a short explanation of all their equipment used for maritime and domestic communications. However, PJC was always known as a very busy station, so I didn’t stay to distract them. I walked into Willemstad, although I would have liked to visit their radio antenna system. Unfortunately, I was advised that access was restricted and only accessible using an all-terrain vehicle.
At that time, Curaçao was small but a very colourful city, with lots of trinkets and things I didn’t need. However, I passed by a liquor store that had a variety of labels I had seen before in Canada, but at prices that I couldn’t believe. A litre of the best Scotch whiskey was only a few dollars. In Canada, it would cost an arm and a leg. I knew the Cruz-del-Sur was a “dry” ship, but the temptation was so great that I bought a bottle anyway. When I got to the accommodation ladder, the security guard wouldn’t let me bring it aboard, but told me if the captain said it was ok, he’d leave me pass.
To my total surprise, the captain had no objection, but with a condition. I had to drink it with him in his dayroom! Since we were leaving in a few hours, I left it in my room and shortly afterward, forgot all about it. The next day, we received a message from the head office to proceed to the American Virgin Islands about 1700 miles northward and 250 km east of Puerto Rico to discharge 10,000 tons on bunker C fuel oil. That still left 15,000 tons on board with no definite destination, just the American Eastern seaboard.
A home-made Wine Binge at sea can be explosive!
Our chef, a retired German vintner, was about to make another batch of his favorite homemade wine. He had a motive. Since the whaling ship Cruz del Sur had a crew of 40, much of the perishable foods were delivered on board in large clear glass bottles. As an environmentalist at heart, he never threw a bottle overboard. Instead, he washed them carefully and put them in the ships’ large refrigeration room. Probably many of those bottles had accumulated when I learned of his pending project. It would cost me a few dollars for the fruit, a little yeast and I forget what else. When he asked if I wanted a bottle of wine, I said a big “Yes”. His only instructions were that I had to keep the bottle in my cabin and not open it for the next 30 days.
A few days later, the bottle arrived, or at least someone put it in my room while I was working. A glass bottle filled with 25 liters of fruits in various stages of fermentation, yeast, or maybe hops, water and whatever else in a small room on a ship for a month can be a bit annoying, to say the least. However, in a few days, I forgot about it until the cook told me to remove all the fruit and see if I liked his brew. That night, I drank only a couple of mugs, maybe a little more. It wasn’t strong, but the flavour in each new mug seemed a little better.
The next morning the ship was rolling considerably. The winds were light and the sky didn’t look threatening. There was, however, a deepening weather system somewhere in the Atlantic causing swells of 5 or 6 meters high, sometimes higher. With a spacing of 150 meters between the swells, it made the old factory vessel roll 20 or 25 degrees on each side. As a sailor, there was nothing to worry about. I had seen much worse. Half an hour before lunch, my steward came into my communications office with a very sad face. He explained that the ever-increasing swells had probably dislodged my 25 litre glass bottle that slid back and forth a couple of times across the room, only to finally hit the radiator and shattered. In my mind, I could see the wine as it exploded, splattering everywhere on the walls and the floor, even the ceiling. I knew from experience that my steward would have cleaned up everything even before telling me about it. That was my first and last wine binge. The moral is that combining homemade wine binges with life at sea doesn’t mix very well.
A collision with a mermaid!
I don’t recall much about the Virgin Islands, apart from my first encounter with the world of scuba diving. There didn’t seem to be anything of interest around the harbour apart from a small shop with a big sign advertising extraordinary scuba diving at low prices. After signing up for the rental of their equipment for a few hours, I was offered several different types of head masks, snorkels and fins. Not knowing anything about the equipment, I followed their suggestions and ended up with quite an elaborate mask, a snorkel that did the job but seemed a little short and a pair of power fins. After changing and storing my clothes in a locker they also rented, I was on my way to my first scuba dive.
The water was unusually warm close to shore, being in the subtropical zone. As I got into deeper water, I started to see a kaleidoscopic array of colored fish in small schools passing under me. Continuing further into deeper water, I gazed at the spectacular marine flora and fish that included beautiful coral reefs, a green turtle and a little later, a hawksbill turtle, some sea urchins beds, a small number of barracuda, a few starfish much larger than we have in Canada, a southern stingray and dozens of other species that I didn’t recognize.
How long had I been swimming or how far I was from shore never crossed my mind. The power fins had probably pushed me a lot further than I had thought, as it seemed as if the marine flora on the bottom was starting to look smaller or maybe, the bottom was deeper. Then I saw a nurse shark resting on the bottom amongst the coral. While they are not considered dangerous, I didn’t stay to ask.
Turning around, I checked my direction and started back, kicking along. A few minutes later, I was mesmerized watching the fish and flora passing below, when suddenly I must have collided head-on into another scuba diver on her way out. I only saw her face for a few seconds, exchanged our regrets, and never saw her again. It certainly wasn’t my imagination, as I had a sore head for a few hours, and no doubt it was the same for her. When I got back to the scuba shop, I was advised that I had swam far beyond the permitted safe limits of the bay. Apparently the Coast Guard had warned me, but I didn’t hear anything. I must have turned before they got worried, as I never heard anything from them.
Diving a few years later.
Six years after my first experience in scuba diving, I was working at the Matagami Airport in northwestern Quebec as communications officer. It was probably my wife who mentioned about an advertised class for scuba and professional diving. As you can imagine, my vivid memories of scuba diving on the Virgin Islands made the decision very easy. We signed up for the basic course given by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Our first several hours were in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but soon after he had us in Lake Val’dor, a 25 km long lake by a few kilometres wide. Perhaps you recall in my last text mention of the Spanish professional diving equipment maker, Nemrod. Once we had passed all our tests and received our certificates, we bought our deep diving equipment designed by Nemrod including wet-suits, tanks, breathing regulators, masks, fins, depth and pressure gauges, compasses, weight-belts, etc.
We weren’t able to try out our equipment for a year, as I was transferred to Inoucdouac, an Inuit community further north on the east coast of Hudson Bay, and couldn’t bring the diving equipment. However, when we transferred a year later to Rivière-au-Renard, some 300km east of where we grew up, we were impatient to try out our equipment. In July, 1975, during the capelin (Mallotus villosus) migration season, there were million of the small forage fish of the smelt family looking for the best place to spawn. They reach about 15 cm at maturity within 3 to 5 years. Capelin spawn on sandy beaches and sandy bottoms. Their morality rate on the beaches is extremely high after spawning; for males close to 100% mortality. They have olive-colored dorsal fins with shading colours to silver on the sides while males have a translucent ridge on both sides of their bodies. The ventral aspects of the males takes on a reddish iridescence at the time of spawning. Dozens of them would momentarily stop to look into our visors to see what kind of strange fish with big eyes we were. We spent perhaps 40 minutes motionless in about 4 metres of water watching them. After looking at us for a moment, they continued on their route towards some preferred spawning ground, only to die soon after while continuing their contribution to the progeniture of their species.
Problems both old and new.
Favourable weather continued throughout the remaining autumn months of 1968. While our devoted chief cook and his hardworking galley were trying their best to present appetizing and tasty meals, they were slowly losing their enthusiasm. Inferior foodstuffs continued to be supplied by the various ship chandlers at each American seaport we visited. Entirely to my surprise, nobody had signed off by the time we were ready to sail for Maracaibo, Venezuela.
Apart from routine chatter about poor food, everything appeared to be working normally onboard. One day the cook stopped by at the radio room for a short chat. After a while he mentioned that the food he was working with was the worst he had seen in his many years aboard numerous ships. Although I understood his depressed feelings, I suggested that it wasn’t half as bad as the food aboard most cargo ships sailing under the Greek flag. Since there wasn’t much either of us could do, we chatting for a few more minutes, when he left to return to his duties.
The erratic currents in Lake Marcaibo were quite unpredictable. I was finishing up my morning duties when I heard several loud voices coming from deck astern. Several seamen were looking over the stern as if in search of something. Maybe someone had fell over board? No, just an unattended mooring rope that had drifted onto the propeller and had got entangled, winding itself many times around the shaft and blocking the propeller from turning. That was a problem. Luckily, several other ropes had already been connected ashore, so the vessel could tie up but without assistance with the main engine.
Since the propeller was below the surface, ballast was pumped foreword to make the stern more buoyant. Part of the rudders were visible from the pier, but the propeller remained a few meters underwater. Who would be the first to dive? Our Argentine electrician offered to take on the job. Diving in warm water might be quite pleasant, but with a few electric eels around, it might not be so pleasant.
Exceeding 2 metres in length and weighing over 20 kg, electric eels can deliver a 600-volt shock, stunning their prey, mainly small fish. Our diver continually saw them but only got a few light shocks. Unfortunately, no diving equipment was on board, so the job was slow. However, as the day advanced, more crewmembers joined in, and by the next afternoon, they had sawn and cut through all the manila hemp rope around the propeller shaft. By then, most of the cargo had been loaded. As usual, our destination was the States without any definite destination.
Was it a Misunderstanding?
It was mid-November, 1968, with the hurricane season well behind us. Rarely had I seen the Caribbean Sea so calm for several consecutive days. It was like a shiny mirror, but on the horizontal. Perhaps it was my imagination, or maybe my lack of years of experience navigating in the area, but I felt that something ominous was about to happen. What might that be? Normally, I’m a happy-go-lucky guy that rarely gets bothered by superstitions or old wives tales. However, for some reason, I was unusually alert, listening to the weather forecasts analysis, often checking for new messages, listening to the officers on the bridge and the meal-time chatter.
We were four or five days from our still undetermined discharge port in the States, when I noticed that many of the crew appeared unusually tense, watching everything as if something was about to happen. Then I notice many were busy packing their bags. Next, the captain came to my office, asking if I knew anything about why so many officers and crew wanted to leave the ship. By this time, Greek ships and bad food had become the discussion at meal times. Then I remembered. I had mentioned to the cook a few days earlier that the food was twice as bad onboard many ships sailing under the Greek flag compared to what we had on board. Not being fluent in English, he probably misunderstood what I had said and concluded that we were switching from Liberian to the Greek flag. Asking around, I soon learned that was what seemed to be the problem.
However, if this was actually true, there were reasons why everyone, including the captain, would be worried. Salaries would drop significantly, working conditions would quickly deteriorate including health and security issues. Would families of the seamen who depended on regular monthly transfers from the company continue receiving the money? Other potential worrisome consequences were expected, since poor Greek shipping conditions during that period were well known by the crew.
On board any ship, I never mentioned anything about the ship’s communications, except advising the captain or the first mate. Probably they thought that what I had told the cook was a simple slip of the tongue on my part. Everyone was surprised when I carefully explained at the evening dinner table exactly what had happened. By next morning, everyone had calmed down. Even the captain seemed happy, a rather rare occasion. On a cargo ship, what you might say can quickly turn into something quite different, with unexpected consequences, even with serious repercussions.
Change was floating in the air!
Although the tension dropped once I had explained the misunderstanding concerning the Greek flag issue, I didn’t feel like going ashore. It had been a stressful few days, so I stayed on board and slept most of the 18 or 20 hours while the ship was tied up. Actually, I don’t recall where we discharged the cargo, nor do I remember seeing the company representatives from Hendy International who normally came on board every time we arrived at an American port. However, I could sense something had changed or was about to change, I could even smell it. If many of the crew had been worried about changing to the Greek flag a few day previously, now they were worried about perhaps a permanent change.
Navios Maritime, the current owners of the Cruz-del-Sur, had originally instructed Hendy International Company to navigate the whale factory ship for a period of one year in order for it acquire the necessary international classification to operate as a tanker. Once that transitional period was completed, they intended to convert it into the world’s largest off-shore drilling ship. Since the ship had been sailing for six months or so, we expected to continue working on board for at least another five or six month. However, Navios had other plans. Off-shore drilling platforms were appearing in many parts of the world, resulting that projected profits were falling. According to the dining-room discussion, Navios was now seriously considering having the ship towed to the far east, maybe Singapore or Japan, to be converted it into three large barges.
In the past, when we left an American port, the captain had always been instructed to proceed to Aruba in the Lesser Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela, for orders, and if none were to be had, to anchor and await further instructions. This time, everything was different. He was instructed to proceed directly to Maracaibo, Venezuela to load fuel oil for Boston, Massachusetts, a few hundred miles northeast of New York City. That trip was routine, repetitious and uneventful. However, when I saw the drawbridge we had to pass under in Boston to get to our discharge berth, I had my reserves. While the pilot assured us that he had brought larger ships through, it appeared he hadn’t noticed that we weren’t simply a regular tanker loaded to her load-lines. Several months earlier, the 8,000 or so ton whale factory had been removed in Buenos Aires, making the ship float several feet above her load lines, even when fully loaded. The drawbridge only rose to about 70 degrees allowing regular tankers to pass with no difficulty, but the unusually high superstructure of the Cruz del Sur would hit the bridge, probably seriously damaging the ship and make the bridge unserviceable. “Astern, full speed!” were the orders to the tugboat.
We spent the next several hours pumping ballast from port to starboard, causing the vessel to cant about 15 degrees to starboard. Next, the tugboat was instructed to advance very slowly, as the pilot didn’t know if there was enough space left to pass with the ship canted to such an angle. However, once we got through, there were several heavy sighs of relief that I heard on the bridge. But the story doesn’t end there. By that time, the tide had fallen. A ship of over 200 meters in length with a width of 25 meters couldn’t be turned in the narrow harbour unless the tide was high. Consequently, we had to wait several hours for it to rise.
After tying up, the customs and immigration officers boarded, followed by the company agents. The tension in the air was like violin strings about to break. I wanted to talk to the Hendy International agents, but they weren’t at all talkative. Once they left, the captain couldn’t be found. Finally, when the tug came back to bring us under the bridge again, we learned that we wouldn’t be going to Aruba nor Maracaibo, but to Mobile, Alabama where everyone would be discharged and sent home.
Cruz del Sur (1968 – 2014)
When I started writing about the whale factory ship several months ago, I thought that I would have difficulty following her for the next 30 or 40 years. Perhaps she was a jinxed and haunted ship, but she certainly had endless fortitude and resilience.
She was towed from Mobile (Alabama) to Yokahama (Japan) sometime in 1969, where she was cut up into 2 units. A new bow section was built by the Mitsubishi H1 shipyard that converted her into an off-shore drilling barge and was christened Offshore Western VII. In 1989, she was renamed the Ismaya and used as a pontoon.
In 1974, the stern section of the ship was converted into an offshore drilling rig in Taiwan and christened the Western Offshore VIII. Then in 1985, she was transferred to the Western Offshore drilling and Exploring Co., managed by the Fluor Drilling Services inc.
By 1988, she had been sold to the Frigg Shipping Ltd, managed by Lauritzen and christened Deepsea Duchess. Two year later, she was sold to KS Deepsea Drillships managed by Odfjell Drillships.
In 1990, she was rechristened the Dan Duchess, but I was unable to locate any data on who her new owners were.
She was sold to Sinapore Falcon Drilling Co. of the R. & B. Falcon Corporation of Houston (Texas) and christened Falcon Duchess in mid-1995.
Then in 2000, she was sold to Frontier Drilling of Bergen, Norway, registered in the Bahamas and rechristened Frontier Duchess.
Sold again, she was christened Noble Duchess and finally she became the PARAGON MDS1 when I lost track of her in 2012. Unfortunately, collecting data from several sources results in some errors with conflicting detail. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if she isn’t still afloat, including her jinxed and haunted nature.
Bye Bye, Cruz del Sur
It had been a short contract, just 4 months and 13 days, but perhaps the most interesting with so many unexpected incidents as I described in my last 20 postings on Lang-8. My employer, Hendy International, had always been there to support me when I needed something to get the job done. Would they continue it? The captain, representing the company, gave me my “certificate of service” even though I had forgotten to ask for it.
He paid me my wages up to the 15th November, 1968, plus my vacation benefits and asked me where I wanted to be repatriated to in Canada. The next morning, the taxi brought me to the airport in Mobile, Alabama, where I picked up my ticket, stamped “Mobile via New York to Montreal, Canada”. Normally, in international shipping practices, that would be the end of the road. However, another unexpected incident happened several months later.
The winter of 1968-69 passed rapidly. Living with my parent, I tried to be useful while my father was working in the forest and my mother operated her beauty salon. Cooking, keeping the house clean, chatting with my friends on amateur radio, studying, applying for a temporary position as radio officer aboard our Canadian icebreakers were among the many activities. Unfortunately, all the jobs were taken by permanent employees, and Canada had very few ships operating under the Canadian flag.
One morning in the second week of June, 1969, the phone rang. It was the telegraph office advising me they had an urgent telegram and wanted to know if I would accept it “viva voce”. My old captain from the Cruz del Sur, now captain on the iron ore carrier Rio Caroni, needed me in Mobile, Alabama urgently. According to the message, he had needed me for some time, but didn’t have my correct address. As you can imagine, I contacted him immediately, and by the evening, I was on the train for Montreal, where I got a flight into Mobile, arriving June 15th. Before I had time to put my seabag in my cabin, the ship had set sail, bound for Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela.
Juan Peron/Cruz del Sur– Historia de un gran buque factoria que tuvo 8 nombres distintos y dos cascos separados.
Juan Domingo Perón, socios de dudosa reputación y el buque ballenero más grande del mundo
Buque tanque Cruz del Sur
Buque tanque de YPF “Cruz del Sur/Juan Peron”
The Juan Peron Disaster. Irish American World Newsletter
Time-sheet Check on Dockyard Dead. Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 02, 1951
Sailors Recall Legend of Whale Factory Ship Dogged by Misfortune.
Lethbridge Herald, Thursday, May 14, 1959, page 7.
Seagoing White Elephant – Argentina can’t get rid of jinxed Whaling Ship
Elyria Chronicle Telegraph, August 15, 1957. Page 22.
An Irishman’s Diary by Wesley Boyd
Southern Cross Whaling Ship is Still Available.
Anderson Herald Bulletin, June 20, 1967, Page 19.
Image of Juan Peron 7th October 1951