In the autumn of 1966 my sister was getting married. Personally, I don’t like big meetings, parties or gatherings. More than 3 people is a crowd for me. She had invited some 250 friends and guests from all over the world. How could I avoid such a very unpleasant situation? I flew to New York, living at the International Seaman’s Home on a 21 day pass without a work permit or any work in sight either. However, I’m usually resourceful. I visited the coast radio station/WSF on the 33rd floor of the building in lower Manhattan, not far from the Home. On chatting, I mentioned I was a second class commercial radio operator looking for work on a foreign-flag ship. To my surprise, they offered me a job transcribing and printing in clear English the incoming ticker-tape telegram messages. Not having a green card, I had to refuse their kind offer. On my twentieth day of my visit, they called me to say that they had found a job on board a cargo ship that sailed under the Panamanian flag in the port of Galveston, Texas. God had liberated me from my torturers! Now I had an excuse not to go to my sister’s wedding the next week!
I flew to Houston and the company representative brought me to the ship, the Galveston Lumberman, HPWF. She was a rusty, dilapidated old C1 type tub of 3,800 tons, a product of the efforts of the Second World War, built in 1943 or ’44, but at least, she floated. With a crew of 26 men from 13 nationalities, I wondered how they got along together? The captain was Greek, the first and second officers were Spanish. The Greek captain didn’t get along well with the Spanish officers; I don’t recall whether he resigned or was transferred to another ship of the same company. The first officer took the place of the Greek captain. We sailed the next day for Tampa under average Gulf of Mexico weather conditions, but with a strong swell. In order to clean the hold for the new cargo, the wooden spacers installed in the hold for the last trip were being hoisted upon the deck. During this operation, a sling of planks was brought up by the derrick, hanging a meter above the deck. An unusually big swell rocked the ship, causing the sling of planks to sway and hit the captain, breaking his leg. Instead of going directly to Tampa, we had to divert to the West Point pilot station, where the pilots board ships bound for New Orleans. But now we had no captain! Plato said many years ago: “Necessity is the mother of all inventions.” In just 48 hours or less, the second officer became first mate and then our captain!
In 1966, celestial navigation using a sextant was the primary means of sailing on the high seas, but, unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be among our new captain’s strengths. His options seemed limited to dead reckoning, radar or to sailing point-to-point coastal. His experience in managing multicultural teams on the high seas wasn’t obvious either. To enrich the ambiance, the main transmitter didn’t work and I had to communicate with the Coast Guard using the emergency equipment to send the “old” captain ashore. Sailing aboard rusty old tubs wasn’t exactly what I had been taught at the marine school under the United Nations convention on safety of life at sea (SOLAS.) However, not a day passed without drama.
Two weeks later, we sailed from Tampa for Colon (Panama) and on to Buenaventura, Columbia with a cargo of wheat, our main radio station working normally and a bubbling conflict between officers and crew. The animosity between the Greeks in the engine department, Spanish officers on the bridge and the deck crew had grown to a flashpoint. One day I was busy copying the marine weather forecast on the old RCA radio, when I heard someone yelling that he was going to kill somebody. I opened the door to see what was all the noise. The Greek second engineer was chasing the Spanish first officer with a fire axe, screaming and running toward the captain’s office. Remember, at sea you can’t call the police! What should I do? I joined the fight. I was the newest officer on board, a young Canadian who couldn’t understand Spanish or Greek, but luckily, most of them understood and spoke a little English. Humbly, I offered my version of conflict resolution through mediation. Another act of God: it worked! Almost three hours later, the fire axe had been put back in its place on the wall, everyone had cooled down and returned to work. Finally, I was able to copy the marine weather forecast for the next day. Luckily, the rest of my sailing adventures involved nothing quite so emotionally intense. My limited experience in conflict mediation did help me get through some very tight spots during the next several years. But those stories are for another day.
I Accidentially Killed the Captain’s favorite cockroach.
Aboard this ship, dinner was at five in the afternoon. After listening to the traffic lists in Morse code broadcast from the Galveston (KLC) and New York (WSL) marine radio stations, I took a seat next to the captain who was then feeding his favorite cockroach that regularly climbed up the wall beside the table during meals. No fire axe was visible but the tension was palpable, the silence was deafening. Without knowing how to react without causing more tension, I ate my lunch in silence. Since I was busy in my office the rest of the evening, I didn’t notice anything unusual.
The next morning, we were passing through the Yucatan Strait on our way to the Panama canal under good weather and little wind. A few mariners, a deck officer and two from the engine room were eating in the dining room, occasionally mumbling a few words. After having completed my daily radio checks for the morning, I went to look at the television installed above the counter in the dining room to find out why nobody ever turned it on. The chief cook didn’t know why it wasn’t being used; neither did the steward. The captain said that the company didn’t want in invest anything to repair it. I checked the wiring and quickly found the problem. Several of the aluminum rods in the antenna installed above the dining room were hanging loose from the passage of time and some corrosion. I didn’t have a soldering iron big enough to do the job of reattaching them so they would work for a while. The only place on board where such a tool I needed was down in the engine room. After a little exploring, I found a ladder and climbed down. The first face I recognized was the Greek second engineer, our friend with the fire axe of the previous day. Now, how could I explain what I needed to such a friendly person without getting him excited? Surprisingly, after describing my project, he brought out the biggest soldering iron that I had ever seen, a roll of solder, a tin of acid paste and a roll small size wire. An hour later, everything was working, but we were too far from the coast to receive any TV signals.
When I went for dinner, the news in Spanish were being read by an anchor man at the speed of a machine gun and loud enough to be heard from on deck. Maybe I shouldn’t have fixed the TV? Someone was sitting at my place, so I sat down in the captain’s. There were so many cockroaches in the kitchen and dining room that I swatted the first one that was close to the table. A total silence followed. Then someone whispered, “you just killed the Captain’s favourite cockroach!” To make matters worse, rather than being paid the same rate as the second mate, I received the same wages as the captain. The costs of living in North America were much higher than in Spain and my employer paid the difference without me even commenting about their poor rates. Imagine that! The captain was King and God on board, but I got the same salary! You can imagine that I heard more than a few derogatory comments about that!
When we approached the Panama anchorage roads, I imagined that we would be delaying not more than a few hours. According to my teacher at the marine institute, there are usually 5 or 6 authorities on board including officers from emigration, customs and several representatives from the ship’s owners and operators. I discovered quickly that the delay could be much longer. There were so many ships anchored waiting to enter the canal that I lost track. But I had another surprise. What I had seen were mostly from the Panama government agencies. Still missing were all the authorities from the Canal Zone to come. What a waste of time, or maybe not! An interesting incident occurred after we left Buenaventura, Colombia, for Ilo, Peru, that maybe made all those visits well worthwhile. I’ll tell you about it then.
Life on board ships at sea is mostly calm, relaxed, predictable and sometimes boring. At anchor waiting to transit the canal was tediously boring. All normal routines were turned upside down. The sailor at the wheel yesterday became the security guard at the accommodation ladder. The first officer became an artist showing the officials from shore around the ship. The captain was everywhere at once, and at the same time provided the best Scotch whiskey, quenching the thirst of the authorities on board before they left. And the radio officer? Under international law, we are not allowed to transmit radio signals while anchored in any harbour unless there is an emergency. Worse than that, the antenna is usually taken down and rolled up near the mast. I’m called the tourist. Surprisingly, the description is quite accurate. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply when we’re in the Panama Canal area. With no pass, visa or other documents issued by the immigration authorities, I was just a simple soul with nowhere to go and nothing to do. But that was almost fifty years ago and I don’t remember how long we remained at anchor.
Anyway, we finally lifted anchor and moved towards the first lock. What was the canal like? How did it work ? For several days I had heard many versions from all kinds of experts on board. The story of the Panama Canal has a very long history. Around 1535, the King of Spain, Charles V, ordered a study to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama in order to make trips shorter between Spain and Peru, but nothing ever developed. Then in 1698, the kingdom of Scotland thought of building an overland route, but that didn’t work either. The California Gold Rush in 1849 revived 200 years of sleepy canal history. Sometime around 1855, the Panama Railway was built alongside where the Canal was finally built. However, converting dreams into reality is not always easy. The Americans finished building it in 1914, but, for me, the American story is not my cup of tea. The Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had designed the Suez Canal, presented his draft of a sea-level canal in 1875 to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean via the Isthmus of Panama. Due to the consequences of inappropriate geological practices, earthquakes, the deaths of 22,000 workers caused by epidemics of malaria and yellow fever, lack of funds and a number of other problems, the project was abandoned. In the revolution of 1903, Panama broke away from Colombia and became independent. Not having enough money to build the canal, a section of the new republic of Panama was ceded to the United States for 99 years, an area 8 kilometers wide on either side of the canal and it’s full length. The project was completed in 1914.
But back to my story, we finally received permission to transit the canal and headed to the first lock. 300 meters long and 33 meters wide, several small ships entered the lock before the doors closed. Surprisingly, the lock filled so quickly that I was not expecting to be jerked forward by several very strong electrical machines and ended up on my ass. Near the end of the lock, these powerful units stopped our ship as if it was a toy. After going up three locks, we were about 25 meters above sea level in Gatun Lake. A few hours later, we were crossing the artificial lake and through the cut in the mountains, a most spectacular and very impressive view. Descending the locks to the Pacific was a bit different, as the locks are really lakes and much longer. Once the pilot had left, we were on our way to Buenaventura, Colombia, a little over a day and a half’s sailing time.
The trip from Panama to Buenaventura, Colombia in the Cauca Valley, took a day and a half. The port and town are built on an island about 2.5 km long by 1.5 km wide. Both the captain and several sailors, who had been there before, warned me not to go down to the city alone at night as it was very dangerous. I have always accepted such practical advice with great respect. However, they were somewhat confused the next morning, when they saw me after breakfast dressed like a peasant with a well worn hat, with only a few pesos and a thick catalog that nobody recognized. You’ll probably also wonder where I was going with a catalog.
I had always been interested in radio communications. The Citizens Band radio became very popular in the early 1960’s. By 1964, I had my first amateur radio license to communicate with other hams. Because there are more than a million fans worldwide, I bought the International List of Radio Call Signs published by ARRL, the Amateur Radio Relay League which I’ve used many times. The night before entering the port, I checked carefully and made a list of all the radio amateurs living in Buenaventura. My first visit was to a radio and television repair shop, where there was a very large antenna on a tower on top of the house. Amateurs are the same all over the world. As soon as I showed my QSL card with my call sign, VE2BTT, I received a big hug, and, as expected, was invited to see the radio station, where we spent most of the day chatting with fans from South America in Spanish and English. Some crew members told me that the rainy season was over. Believe me, friends are very important especially when we visit a place for the first time, when it pours torrents during the dry season. With or without rain, the next day, I visited many of the hams around the village. But that was only the first part of my visit as a tourist. The next part was equally interesting, but very different. But first, I’ll explain a little.
Amateur radio and my career.
You wonder how come I got my first radio station without investing a lot of money? During the Easter holidays in 1963, I really didn’t want to go home. Instead I visited my sister in Montreal. In the Dorval International Airport, I met a technician working in the runway security department. I showed him my amateur QSL card. Instantly he knew I was very new to the hobby, and asked if I had any radio equipment. As I come from a poor family, my answer was no, that such a purchase was not within my budget. His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. “My wife is going to love you ,” he said .
His father had been in WWII, and brought back the radio equipment used in the Russian tanks. It was built in Canada by the Marconi company and had name plates markings in both Russian and English to identify its purpose. It had been in his basement for nearly 20 years and his wife was furious that he had not thrown it away years ago. When he showed it to me, I was a little surprised. It consisted of several metal boxes slightly damaged including numerous metallic armored cables. After many hours trying to understand how it worked without the instruction book, I managed to make a transmission. The radio receiver had so much background noise that I could only hear a few strong signals. Regardless, when the school year ended, I took all the equipment home and installed it in my bedroom. Over the next two summers, I logged more than 4,000 contacts with amateurs in North America with that station. The sad part was that I spent so much time practicing this hobby that I did poorly in my final exams at school. The benefits were that everything I learned in keeping it maintained and in good condition helped me in my work in the merchant marine service in which I enjoyed numerous enriching experiences and met many very valuable people. Now you know how it is that my Spanish grammar is like my English and French.
Buenaventura, Colombia – Second part
After visiting most of the radio amateurs who were not far from the ship, I began visiting the peasants beyond the outskirts of the town. Still wearing the same attire, I boarded the first bus I found to bring me into the countryside. After traveling about fifteen minutes, I got off the bus where there were no urban development. To me, this is the land of voluntary simplicity. Everyone lives according to their means. Many of the houses were built by the inhabitants of the area with local material. Perhaps some properties were not the most flashy, but overall they seemed well adapted to the local environment. Some families had farm animals, a few chickens and a horse with some farm implements. Each had their own water supply independent of the city aqueduct. Many had a small garden and seemed self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables. Probably some were self-employed. I don’t think it would have been worth pestering them with my questions as I didn’t have enough knowledge in anthropology to make adequate leading questions.
But were they happy? In the past 45 years, has the town improved and developed? Perhaps. If you look at Buenaventura in Google Earth, you can see that the city has grown to become one that I wouldn’t recognize. The island has little room for expansion, while the container cargo industry occupies almost half the island. In 45 years, it has evolved from a quaint and quiet harbor to become the most important sea port on the Pacific Ocean in South America and the largest in Colombia by cargo volume (more than 60% trade of the country), creating many good-paying jobs. Have they improved the level of education? According to the latest statistics of UNESCO, at least during the last 20 years, the level of education in Colombia has steadily improved, and seems to have fewer dropouts than we have in Canada. However, 25% of Colombians live outside urban centers. Are they happier than city dwellers? I do not know. If someone can tell me that answer, I’d be very happy. But anyway, if no one does, I’ll find out once I get to heaven. They were good people, I am sure we will meet there. Now the cat is out of the bag. You know now why I am learning Spanish .
An unexpected holiday.
According to the climate and local gossip, the rainy season should have ended before we arrival in the end of November. We expected it would take 4 or 5 days to unload 3,500 tons of wheat, but that was not what happened. Intermittent rain, sometimes very heavy, changed everything. Every time it rained, the hatch covers had to be replaced and covered with tarpaulin. A few minutes later, the sun came out, and the reverse operation followed. Probably the price of bread rose soon after, as a ship had to charge extra to compensate for the long delay. It was a little boring after spending two weeks visiting radio amateurs, walking all over the countryside and taking too many naps.
After twenty-one days we cast of, bound for Ilo, Peru. At sea, everything returns to normal and everyone does the work assigned. With the rainy season behind us, there was no warning of bad weather or unusual weather system, nor was there any expected El Niño on the horizon, giving easy navigation for the next 8 to 10 days. The next day, although everything was back to normal, I noticed a strange tension in the air that you could feel, you could smell but couldn’t identify the cause. We had dropped anchor in the bay at Balboa, the western approach to the Panama canal, for a couple of hours before resuming the trip. I had been busy and had not noticed that several people had boarded the ship from shore with a small cargo. Later that night, I learned that the captain had been told by the same people that he had to exterminate all the cockroaches or the vessel would be refused passage through the canal zone on the return trip. I could not understand where the problem was. These things happen to ships. After listening to the evening traffic list on Morse code, I brought my coffee up to the bridge, where I heard about the problem firsthand. None of the officers or sailors were willing to exterminate the cockroaches for fear of reprisal from the captain. The officers and staff of the engine room had rejected the offer because it was not their job. That eliminated everyone except the kitchen department, and the waiters and stewards said that it was not their jobs either. I got along well with the cook, a plump middle-aged Colombian who spoke some English, joked a lot and was easygoing. After lunch, he joked about the captain, saying that in his last incarnation, he had probably been a cockroach and that was the reason why he couldn’t kill them. The cook had a DDT sprayer in his hand, and I had some free time. An hour later, after spraying, we opened all the portholes. With shovels and brushes, scraper and rags, we cleaned up the kitchen and dining room. I think our chef sprayed the kitchen and the dining room once a week or at least occasionally, as we only saw a few cockroaches after that.
From the Equator to Ilo, Peru
In the maritime tourism industry, crossing the arctic circle, the equator or the Antarctic circle includes many colorful ceremonies. However, ships sailing under flags of convenience owned by small and often poor companies generally waste no money on such ceremonies, and mine was no exception, as we passed over the equator on our way to Ilo, Peru, about 1800 kilometres further south. The weather continued as forecasted, but much colder than I had ever imagined.
The Peruvian or Humboldt Current is an ocean current of some 200 kilometers wide, caused by the waters rising from the depths of the Pacific, therefore, very cold, flowing from south to north off the coast of Peru. This large mass of cold water cools the air, and since such cold air can’t hold much moisture, very little rain falls. Every journey brings its own history, and it certainly was not the weather this time. My accommodation was just behind the office of the ship’s radio station, with a rugged wooden door that opened directly onto the stern. To prevent the door from being left open accidentally during bad weather, it had a large hydraulic door-closer. When it was built over 20 years earlier, it probably worked fine, but now, instead of closing silently, it banged. It was not worth complaining to the captain as he probably wouldn’t even mention it to the owners. I quite often went out through that door facing the stern, which had a spectacular view, almost circular, both of the ocean and the sky. A few days before arriving in Ilo, when I came in to listen to the ship’s traffic list on Morse code at dusk, I accidentally placed a finger a little too close to the door, and when it slammed, my finger was in the way. The tiny veins crushed under the nail prevented normal circulation, resulting in sharp throbbing pains. When we got to the port, I was glad just knowing that there was a nurse at the emergency centre, created by the company because of similar mining accidents. She drilled a small hole through the nail, blood spurted out, the pressure disappeared, but I didn’t feel that much better. However, for a while the pain almost disappeared. There I met a mining engineer from Peru who was an active amateur radio operator. I don’t have to tell you what happened if you have read my previous pages.
Ilo, Peru – My first day ashore.
I don’t recall if it was the immigration officer on board or the mining engineer who informed me that the manager of a fish fertilizer plant in Ilo was a Canadian. When I entered the complex, a middle-aged man, well tanned, stuck out his hand and welcomed me “à la Canadienne”. I absolutely had to visit his fish fertilizer plant. The mountains of fertilizer bags were everywhere. I asked him what happened when it rained; did he put everything into a warehouse? He told me that it hadn’t rained in the past 17 years, and that the river ran seven or eight meters below the surface. The smell around the plant wasn’t exactly what you would expected from a 5-star perfume, but after an hour, I got used it. Tiny fish caught by fishing boats were vacuumed by a set of tubes, installed about half a mile offshore, and transported to the fish plant. Once there, they were cooked, dried, packed in bags, piled in long rows and sold worldwide. When I returned to the ship that evening , someone mentioned that I smelled like rotten fish. Sometimes experiencing those odors can save the day, but that’s for another story on our trip back to the United States.
Ilo, Peru to near Arica, Chile.
The next morning I got up early at five. We were anchored half a kilometre from shore. The outlook was even sadder than I had thought after looking at the marine chart. It was easy to see why the fishing boats unloaded at sea rather than at the pier. There could not had been more than a meter of water at low tide. Throughout the morning, there was little activity at the pier, as if they had not yet noticed us. After lunch, a flat-bottomed barge was brought around to the pier. In the afternoon, I could see men moving the barge now loaded with bags of fish fertilizer coming towards our ship. It was slow. It would probably take a week, maybe a month to load our vessel. Luckily, the barge moved several times each day between the dock and our ship. It certainly wasn’t fast, but at least I could get ashore and return on board easily.
The town of Ilo, like Buenaventura, has changed so much that I would not recognize it. Between Ilo and Ciudad Nueva, the land looked like anywhere in the Atacama Desert, but now it has a population of over 50,000 inhabitants. In places where the peasants lived in shacks, well organized streets with water, sewer and houses have taken their place. It didn’t take long to walk around the village in those days. Some inhabitants had farm animals grazing near their houses during the day, but were corralled at night to prevent theft. Bored, I took a taxi-bus that did the Ilo – Arica circuit, along the Panamericana Sur highway S1, but only got as far as Tacna, Peru. My passport was in the captain’s safe, and he was ashore. I only had a seaman’s pass the immigration officer had issued me allowing me to visit anywhere in Peru. Therefore, when the taxi-bus stopped in Tacna, I was denied entry into Chile. True to my style, during the next six hours, I visited all the places where my feet could carry me, including a church and eating some tacos with coffee. Later that night I got back to Ilo. When we left in the morning, we were only two passengers, but picked up 3 or 4 campesinos along the road with their hand-woven products, probably to sell at the market in Arica. Since I was dressed like I’ve been in Buenaventura, I was very comfortable with them, though I couldn’t understand most of what they were talking about.
Bye, Bye Ilo.
Being anchored half a kilometer from shore of a desert is not particularly interesting, unless you’re a marine biologist interested in researching its species. Without television and only poor radio signals, the days were long, dull and boring. By the time the captain called “Anchors away”, the deckhands had replaced my radio antenna between the masts. I was again in communication with the rest of the world, that is, in Morse code. As I mentioned before, the weather on the coast of Peru in late spring is predictable and reliable, suggesting a trip without incident, at least to the Equator. I was busy in my office when someone knocked softly on my door. That was very strange. The captain never came to my office, but asked me to come to the bridge if he had messages to be sent. The steward always cleaned my office every morning before I arrived. Who would that be knocking at my door? As you no doubt recall, we had a second Greek engineer who ran past my door with a fire axe, yelling and screaming that he would kill someone. This was the same person, but this time with his engine room cap in his hand, looking quite depressed. With a long face, he told me that the emergency motor generator wouldn’t start.
After finishing what I was working on, I went down to see if I could solve his problem. Well, it was really my problem too, because the generator produced all the electricity for the ship when the main engine, a diesel engine of 1,700 horsepower, was stopped. No electricity, no communications, or at least not much with the emergency radio. I checked out all the cables and electrical connections, and finally found the problem. The 12-volt battery used to start the generator was, like the rest of the ship, in very poor condition. A cell in the battery was dead, and I showed him how to jump a cable to the next cell. His face grew even longer, “Do you think it’ll work?”
“Of course, but remember to get a new marine battery when we return to the States, not a second-hand truck battery like you are using now.” When he pushed the start button, his face turned into a smile. He gave me a big bear hug. Now I had made a new friend on board. At sea, each day is something new.
En route to Beaumont, Texas.
North of the equator, the good weather continued but with persistent morning fog banks. Our captain was nervous, sometimes agitated as the radar had stopped working and we had no spare parts or vacuum tube replacements. The direction finder and depth sounder were working normally, so we continued our journey. We arrived at the anchorage of Balboa, on the western side of the Panama Canal and anchored expecting a pilot to take us across. Panamanian control officers for the Canal Zone did their routine visit, without even mentioning anything about cockroaches. The next day, the pilot came on board and we proceeded up the locks to Lake Gutam, across the isthmus and down the three locks to Colon. We were anchored there for several hours, while fresh fruit, vegetables and meat were loaded on board. The radar technician worked most of the day, and when he left, everything appeared to be working normally. Dinner was delicious, after having to eat stale frozen food for almost two months. We had barely left the Bay of Manzanillo, when I got seasick. I had never been sick on my father’s 5 meter long open fishing boat when fishing in the St. Lawrence River, although it had a quick pitch and roll. The slow roll and pitching of the ship was really gut-wrenching, but it was also the last time I ever got seasick.
As I promised a few pages back, the smell of rotting fish had returned to haunt us. The next afternoon, we ran into a rain storm of a magnitude I had never seen before. The rain was so heavy I couldn’t see more than 5 meters outside the bridge portholes. It lasted about 25 minutes. When the storm had passed, it was followed by unusually warm weather, even for the tropics and continued all night. The next morning, having just finished checking the traffic list, someone called from the bridge, wondering if I had noticed a smell of rotting fish. Honestly, I thought it was a joke, but when I went on deck, and I could smell it. Was it a stink bomb? It was hard to tell. It smelled like the worst part of the fish fertilizer plant I had visited in Ilo, but much worse. According to the boatswain, no gas masks were aboard. Slightly immunized by my experience at the fish plant, I ventured on deck. It was strong, floating about everywhere you went. Probably it would have been easy to see if the sun was shining from the right direction. By isolating all the possible causes, I didn’t think I should have much trouble finding the source of the smell. The hatch covers had been secured and covered with canvas, so that source was eliminated. I walked the full length of the starboard and when I was returning on the windward side, I noticed what looked like part of a bag of fish fertilizer stuck between the hatch and the superstructure, probably damaged during loading. The stevedores probably had intended to take it back to the plant, but had forgotten about it. While the bag had remained dry, it didn’t smelled any different from the cargo. However, the addition of rain water of the previous day plus the unusually warm weather had created ideal conditions to generate the stink. The bos’n came with a deck hose and washed what was left of the fish fertilizer bag out onto the deck and most of it went by the scuppers. The deck crew hosed down the entire deck, and I went for a well deserved shower. However, that smell stuck in my nose for quite a while.
We passed Cancun, Mexico a few days later en route to Beaumont, Texas to discharge the cargo of fish fertilizer. One morning I woke up a little early and went to the bridge. The helmsman was not behind the wheel. The security guard was nowhere to be seen on the bridge or in one of the wings. I looked in the chart room but no one was there either. When I looked out the portholes, I got really worried. Our vessel was sailing between an oil rig to port and a black oil-drum to our starboard. According to what I had learned at the marine institute I realized that we had problems. But it got worse. There were dozens of oil rigs everywhere, and our ship should have been navigating in the shipping channel 1.5 km to starboard. I ran down and knocked on the captain’s door. “Don’t disturb me,” was his first reaction. When I banged the door again and told her to look through his porthole , his reaction was immediate. He ran up the stairs bare feet and in pajamas, spinning the wheel quickly to starboard. The consequences could have been disastrous if we had hit an oil rig or even an oil-drum, one of the four markers warning vessels to keep away. As you can imagine, we were instructed not to mention the incident to anyone when we were ashore, or anyone that came on board.
Lake Sabine , Texas. A frozen lake ?
When I woke up on the morning of January 4, 1967, the sky was clear and cloudless but cold. The ship had just entered Lake Sabine, Texas, and I was a little alarmed at what I saw through the portholes. A thin transparent layer of clear ice covering the lake. Maybe the second officer had made a navigational error? The pilot said no, we were entering Lake Sabine covered with two centimeters of ice, a very rare occurrence. He assured me that though the ship was not built to navigate in the ice, we should have no difficulty.
When we sailed through the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and Pacific under tropical conditions, nobody ever asked about how the ship was heated. As mentioned earlier, this vessel was a product of World War II. It certainly wasn’t a cruise ship with all the conventional conveniences. In fact, it had no heating in the accommodations, in the radio room, on the bridge or anywhere else. Nobody had suitable clothes for this type of weather. I don’t know what the others did, but after breakfast, I went to a hardware store and bought three 500W heat lamps. Then I bought three pairs of thick underwear and other necessities. When I returned on board the warmth was pleasant but it was a little hard to sleep with these lamps. The cockroaches definitely didn’t like the light and disappeared , if there was any in my bedroom. The next morning the steward came in and exclaimed “This looks like the Alcatraz prison!” Luckily , we only stayed a couple of days while we unloaded fish meal. When we left Lake Sabine, temperatures were warmer in the Gulf of Mexico, but, as usual, the Gulf didn’t smell much better than the fish fertilizer.
Santa Marta, Colombia.
My first trip had been rich in novel and diverse experiences. The best part was when the captain called me in to pay me. Was he really going to pay, or was he going to tell me, like so many masters working for small companies that operated their ships under foreign flags, that they were short on funds, but would definitely pay me in full at the end of the next trip. Surprisingly, he counted out several brand new, crispy American $50.00 bills , exactly what 2 months wages should have been according to my calculations. I’m still wondering, perhaps, if it was because I casually mentioned to someone on the bridge that I had phoned the Canadian Consulate in Houston, Texas the first day after we arrived in Beaumont. He knew, and that I knew it too, that several things aboard the vessel would not pass a critical inspection. It seemed that inspections were somewhat lack and cursory because the ship was under the Panamanian flag. However, if someone had complained to the authorities, the ship would probably be held in port for weeks until everything was according to current standards. Sitting around in port for weeks, maybe months, probably without pay was not my cup of tea. I wanted to sail, so I kept my mouth shut. However, I did learn a little later that most of the seamen and some officers including the captain had only received a portion of their salary for the two months. It is surprising how the effects of a few contacts and a little pressure applied at the right time and place can be beneficial.
But was that the only reason why the captain paid me in cash, while most of the crew was paid, partly in cash and partly in promises. Vessels were denied permission to leave port if they didn’t have a competent captain, first officer, chief engineer and his all engineers on board with the necessary certification. In general all the officers had the documents required to sail abroad in whatever capacity was required. If the master or chief engineer got sick or left the vessel, competent officers were always on board capable of continuing the operations. The same applied to radio operators if the ship displaced 1,600 tons and was sailing outside coastal waters in accordance with international maritime law . The problem was that most cargo ships had only one operator on board. Finding a replacement at short notice would be difficult because the shipping company was considered suspicious by the radio communications community. If it takes possibly two weeks to find a “sparks” in a European country and fly him to wherever the ship was, the ship owners would loose valuable time and a considerable amount of money. This would reflect poorly on the image of the captain. You have probably already guessed it. Captains were advised to be kind to his communications officer. As a result, “sparks” generally received preferential treatment without ever having complained. While that era was difficult and sometimes even dangerous, it was a memorably and exciting experience few would ever forget.
After loading a cargo of wheat, our destination was Santa Marta, Colombia. In late January, several months before the hurricane season, the weather in the Caribbean sea is generally uneventful. Ten day or so later, we arrived in Santa Marta. It wasn’t much to see, several dusty streets, a few nondescript stores, churches and such. Actually, I don’t recall much about that place. Unfortunately, due to the usually short visits of cargo ships, I wasn’t able to visit the Tairona culture, a people who first lived along the shores of northern Colombia some 6000 years ago until the arrival of European invaders. After some disastrous conflicts, they moved inland to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. But now I’m too old to travel much, and have to content myself studying the culture of those same indigenous people through mainly archaeological journals, mostly on internet.
Now where are we going?
Our next destination was “Galveston for orders” This is a generic term used in the shipping industry, where the head office does not know where the next cargo will be waiting to be put on board. They probably guessed that it might be somewhere in the vicinity of Galveston. After the ship sailed, there was no communication with the head office, except through me in Morse code. In general, the captain gave us instructions according to company policy by setting the hours we had to work. Since I was a short wave radio enthusiast, the captain found my routine of monitoring radio traffic a bit strange, but he never mentioned anything. Normally, radio operators listen to traffic lists at least four times a day, but because of my interest in high frequency radio communications, I monitored them seven or eight times a day. Thus, both the central office and the captain received their messages in an hour. We didn’t know where our next destination might be, creating a period of great uncertainty. Everyone wanted to know where our next port of call would be. ” Sorry, pal, confidentiality of communications prevents me from telling you.” Everyone was trying to figure out if I had received a message and if the captain had it, or if I was waiting like the rest of them to find out.
Bounced out of bed by the swell?
After unloading the cargo of wheat in Santa Marta, Colombia, we were on our way in ballast towards Galveston, Texas “for orders “. We passed by Cancun, Mexico, in seasonal weather and moderate seas. The afternoon forecast gave gale warnings for the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico, which was a rather rare occurrence in midwinter. The swell was in the range of 3 to 5 meters high, but they were spaced far apart, maybe 50 meters. When I went to bed at ten o’clock that night, the bow of the ship was diving in the trough of the wave, while the stern rose partly out of the water. Moments later, the bow was passing over the peak of the swell, and the stern was being partly flooded. Around midnight, I woke up under the sink, near the foot of my bed, slightly banged up. Getting back to sleep was difficult as I was shaken out of bed a second time. But what was causing all this?
The next morning I asked the officer on duty, and learned that the swells had exceeded 7 meters in high. The distance between the peaks of the swell was estimated between 65 to 75 meters. The result was that while the bow of the ship was at the depth of the swell, the peak of the last swell was located about 70 meters back from the bow and over 7 meters high, lifting the stern of the ship with the propeller halfway out of the water. The propeller rotated at about 100 r.p.m., creating rapid harmonic vibrations that pounded on the surface of the water and shook the entire aft section. From my room, located just above the propeller, the result was that I found myself under the sink more than once. The vibrations were strong enough so that the structure of the ship went into oscillations, lasting from 8 to 10 seconds. Luckily, there was no visible damage. By the time the swell had passed, the stern was back in the water and the oscillations had ceased. Was this a typical rare incident of Type C1 ship? If there are any marine engineers among us, I would dearly like to know if my theory is correct.
We were anchored for more than a week in a large bay near Galveston, Texas, waiting for orders. That has never been good business practices for any shipping company. Ships only make money when they are going somewhere to load or deliver a cargo. Earlier I had mentioned that when we come to Beaumont, Texas, many of the officers and crew had received part of their wages in cash with the promise of the rest in the future. That was another bad sign. But something else had changed on board. The common problems that were described above had disappeared, only to turn into a boring routine. I listened to the daily messages exchanged between head office and it’s ships, and realized that the Galveston Navigator, another vessel of the same company, had stopped transmitting. Was it my imagination or had company business slowed? My suspicions were confirmed in March, when discharging a cargo of wheat in Cartagena, Colombia. I had heard in a bar frequented by the maritime community that the Navigator Galveston had left Orange, Texas, in November 1966, bound for Saigon, South Vietnam. With serious engine problems, the ship changed course to the Island of Guam, a territory of the United States located in the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific. Sixteen nautical miles from Agana, Guam, the engine broke down and the ship had to be towed into port. It was reported that the maritime agency in Guam had seized the ship as they were owed money, but the owners refused to pay. It was a succession of bad omens in such a short period of time for a ship. What would happen next? The calm before my storm.
When a seaman joins a foreign-flag ship, he is obliged to sign the ship’s articles. Among the conditions include wages, hours of work, duration of contract, vacation pay, repatriation including giving his passport to the master for security. If I signed off in some port in the States, I would lose my vacation pay and have to pay for my air ticket back home plus other disadvantages. If I stayed on board, I might not get paid at all and still have to pay my way home. It was a stressful moment, but a decision had to be made. I wrote my letter of resignation and handed it to the captain. I expected he would be furious. To my surprise, he barely looked at it and didn’t even send an advisory message to the head office. He probably considered that since we would be in Coalzacoalcos, Mexico, in a few days to load 5,000 tons of sugar beet, it wasn’t worth sending it. But he also didn’t tell me that the previous radio operator had quit within six months after the company had acquired the Galveston Lumberman, nor did he tell me why the early resignation.
In 1967, Coalzacoalcos was the smallest and quietest port I had every sailed into. Walking for five minutes along a path brought me outside the village along the river, and soon after I was walking along banana plantations. Within half an hour’s hiking, the path had turned into thicker bush and I turned back, fearful of getting lost. Forty five years later, Coalzacoalcos has became a major petroleum exporting center, with four big industrial petrochemical complexes located near the city, making it one of the most important concentrations of its kind in the world. With two 500m-long break waters, more than a dozen piers for ocean going vessels in Laguna de Pajarito, a modern kilometre-long harbour and a population exceeding a quarter of a million people, sugar-beet farming probably disappeared shortly after my visit. I don’t recall much about the few days we were there loading, apart from taking about a kilo of sugar from a damaged bag, cleaning it, and making the best brown sugar syrup I had ever eaten with my morning toasts.
The captain never said a word about my letter of resignation, it was as if he had forgotten. I had my doubts, however. Chances are that he been in contact with the central office in Galveston. In any case, I was busy compiling and closing the communications accounts for the ship while I was on board, packing my luggage and deciding which of my friends in Galveston I would visit. Arriving at Galveston was uneventful . The company agents spent several hours on board with the captain and quietly returned to their offices. As I had not been discharged from the ship and still did not have my passport, I remained on board. The third day after arriving in Galveston, the captain asked me to come to his office. He seemed a little friendlier than usual, and told me that the problem that the company had was that they could not get a new radio operator in only two weeks. The captain asked me if I could stay on board until Maracaibo, Venezuela , the 24th of March. I told him I would think about it, and asked for my passport, which he took out of his safe and handed to me without any objection. This change in attitude was a good sign.
I saw the captain at lunch. He looked a little worried. He wanted to know if I was going to accept his request. In his office, I explained my conditions which he accepted on the spot. I had the feeling he would have accepted anything as long as I remained on board. The next day he handed me an envelope with the letterhead Galveston Steamships Inc. . Reading the letter, I was a little surprised . I was offered a months salary bonus on company expenses and my repatriation from Maracaibo, Venezuela to Montreal, Canada. The letter was signed by one of the three owners of the company. The captain offered to prepare a letter of recommendation without even being asked. I had already received my salary when we got to Galveston, so one month’s salary for 10 or 12 days of relatively easy work was a good deal. I agreed. A few days later, we passed the outer Galveston buoy on our way towards Maracaibo, about 3,000 miles away. When we got to Maracairo, I hadn’t the opportunity to meet the new radio operator. Neither did I know what happened on the ship until 47 years later I decided to prepare this research project.
The name Galveston Lumberman was the fourth of five names that the ship received during it’s 35 years. The class C1-M-AV1 was a category of general cargo ship built by the Froeming Brothers Inc. in Milwaukee , Wisconsin for the war effort. It was commissioned on June 1945 and christened Tapir Splice and later assigned the International Maritime Organization (IMO) number 5295961. Since the war had ended, it was renamed as Ben Froeming September 9, 1945, still under the administration of U.S. War Shipping. What it was being used for is not clear, but February 28, 1947, the main engine exploded, killing three men. Later the same year, was sold to La Flota Mercante Grancolombiana SA, Bogota, Colombia and renamed the Rio Guayas. I could not find anything during the 19 years she spent working as the Rio Guayas. In the spring of 1966 , it was sold and renamed Galveston Lumberman under the Panamanian flag. The Galveston Steamship Inc., a young company recently created, had proposed the acquisition of several additional vessels. However, the Galveston Lumberman was seized by the U.S. Marshal’s office in Baltimore on June 12, 1967 by default in its first preferred mortgage. The food on board was given to St. Vincent de Paul to feed the needy. Several law suits later, it was sold to the E.Z. Trading Company and renamed Goldrill 5 (U.S. ). In the same year she was converted into a drilling ship, and in 1981, she was sunk intentionally. However, the location where she was sank was never mentioned .
That’s a very brief history of the Galveston Lumberman. When I was on board, none of these details were mentioned to me and it is doubtful that the master or any other person on board knew. My reason for leaving the ship was purely instinctive, or you could call it sailor’s superstition. However, my hunch was right since the ship was seized by the U.S. Marshal in Baltimore less than two months after I returned home. But that was not the only ship of the Galveston Steamship Inc., that was seized. You remember a few paragraphs ago that the Galveston Navigator had been seized in Guam. Before leaving Panama, the radio operator was among five sailors who left the ship. In Hawaii , three officers left the ship. Next, an engineer became ill and had to be repatriated home, and 5,000 km later, the ship was seized in Guam in April 1967, according to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal of April 27, 1967. In another article, we are advised that the Galveston Merchant was in Yokohama, Japan, abandoned by their owners. In addition, the Korean crew aboard the Indonesian Star, owned by the same company, had been anchored in the port of New York from February 1967 and the crew had not been paid. My instinct got me out of a lot of problems, and continues, even today.