My Maiden Voyage and Onward – A Sailor’s Yarn (part two)

The most notable thing about being on a tramp steamer is that one minute you are bound for South Australia and the next your destination can change faster than you can change your clothes.  We had got as far as Ushant in the Western Approaches when our masters decided that our general cargo, destined for Adelaide would make more money in Tampa in Florida – “Starboard Twenty . . . . . . “

The ‘scuttlebutt in the wardroom was not particularly happy because we had been wrong footed.  However the rest of the crew were furious.  I quickly realised that more than half of the men had only signed on because they had designs on illegally ‘jumping ship’ once we had made landfall in Australia.  When I think back it was totally illogical because at that time for just a £10 fee they would have been welcome immigrants.  Perhaps they needed a sense of adventure.  Just as in the Canterbury Tales one cannot read the Shipman’s mind.

Other memorable members of the ship’s crew that I have not yet mentioned were the Geordie Chef, who turned out some really excellent meals but had a roaring drink problem and on odd occasions we found that the deck boy/cabin boy always known as ‘The Peggy’, was doing the cooking.  Peggy also deserves a mention he was a ‘rather fey’ young lad with the unfortunate name of Gilbert Buttery from Plumstead which summed him up to a T.  More of Gilbert later.

Sharing the amidships cabin to respect their seniority, were the Bosun (boatswain) who was an Irishman of about 40, who seemed  to always in a bad temper.  We never crossed swords but I was often to hear him cursing me below his breath.  I must say that I steered clear of him if I could.  His cabin mate was the Shipwright (Chippie) another ‘Geordie’ well sort of, he was from Middlesbrough, which is in Yorkshire but spoke with a Geordie accent to everyone’s ears, wae’aye man!  He was a happy go lucky 50 years old.  His job appeared to be a Mr Fixit, repairing anything that needs fixing.

He sticks in my memory for his performance when he totally lost his cool.  The Bosun and the Chippie used to eat in their cabin suite and took it in turns to collect their meals from the galley.  One lunchtime as we were approaching Florida landmass, we were being greeted by flocks of noisy seagulls.  The Chippie was carrying two plates as he collected his and the Bosun’s lunch.  He was happily singing as he danced along the deck when a couple of seagulls swooped towards his plates and he shouted to frighten them off, the birds veered skywards and one of them crapped in fright and bird shit splashed right into one of the plates.  That was when Chippie completely lost it!  He hurled his plate of food at the appreciative swooping gulls, and began screaming “You feckng shitehawks, why couldn’t you shit in his dinner instead of mine?”  He was nearly foaming at the mouth.

By this time I was close behind him and was laughing – He promptly threw the Bosun’s dinner plate at me and thankfully missed.  There must have been 50 odd birds swooping at the food splattered all over the deck.  The pair of us were completely overwhelmed by the feathered rats and by this time both could see the funny side and dissolved into fits of laughter and another friendship was formed.

We docked alongside in Tampa and were unloaded overnight, while the crew had our first run ashore. . . . . . The next morning I was involved in a conference among the deck officers and that evening we moved for 30 miles along the Florida coast to a US Naval establishment where we loaded to the gunwales with mixed general cargo, the loading took two days.  We set sail with the crew believing that we were waiting instructions.  In reality we were heading to Korea with general stores for the United Nations troops who were fighting Kim il Sung’s North Korean troops who had overrun South Korea and America together with United Nations troops were pushing them back . . . . . . . and another fine mess you’ve got yourself into Jake hmm!  We were escorted alongside at a port near Inchean and set about unloading out cargo, tout de suite!

Meanwhile the US 7th Fleet lay offshore and were shelling the forest above the docks where we, me in particular were cringing, absolutely terrified, watching shells flying over us, they looked the size of double-decker busses as they hurtled into the jungle – I don’t remember any retaliatory returning fire.  I know that I was a very frightened 16 year old boy doing a man’s job, but I was no more frightened than most of our crew.  In the early hours the sporadic shelling ceased and Jet Fighters began flying from an aircraft carrier, streaking over our little ship as we carried on our business of unloading as we listened to cannon fire in the distance.  That unloading was literally all hands on deck.

By the time all our holds were empty we were into our third day and the shelling had become sporadic.  Oddly enough and I can’t speak for the crew but I no longer felt scared.  The Captain disappeared ashore to confer with our agent by telephone and the powers that be.  The Second Mate told me that we would probably make our way back to the USA to wait for instructions.  I was convinced in my ‘Boys Own’ mind that we had been hi-jacked by the yanks to bring more goods back to the war-zone.  We remained alongside for a fourth day well aware of the fighting going on around us.  I remember going into the seaman’s mess and jokingly asking if anyone fancied a run ashore.  No-one seemed to have a sense of humour any more.

That evening while partaking our evening meal the skipper took out four small boxes and passed me two of them, saying that as was the youngest officer, they would probably be of more use to me than anyone.  That was the ceremony when I was awarded the pair of United Nations Korean War medals.  I was quite pleased to see that the Third Mate was really pissed off that he had been excluded!  Can you imagine later in my life being asked “I see you have the Korean War medals when were you there?”  Me, mumbling “Four days, but I heard a few bangs” My medals remained in their boxes.

We ran back to America to pick up a cargo from a place called San Pedro in California, mightily relieved that we were not to be seconded to the US Navy.  San Pedro is a really exotic location with the entrance some ten miles along a river that appeared to be lined with really large pelicans and flamingos who totally ignored our passage, in fact all passing shipping – They were perched on every single post or withy along our route.  Before docking to take on our cargo, we stopped just offshore at a fuelling jetty to refuel.

It was there I met the most obnoxious and offensive immigration official, one of nature’s bullies.  Remember, we had been cleared some two or three months previously in Tampa and had loaded stores in a US Naval base in Florida and had been with the US Navy in Korea.  This ignorant pig was hell bent on cross examining me as to my politics – Had I ever been a member of the Australian Labour Party? I’d never even been to Australia – It turned out that he’d misread our manifest and had spotted our original destination.  Rather than admit his mistake, the idiot took 45 minutes of third degree before signing my permission to land and go ashore in the land of the free!  I kept his precious immigration clearance piece of paper many years and had many laughs over it for the name of this All-American boy was HERMAN HOSTETTER perhaps he should have said “Ve haf vays of making you talk”  –  Joking apart if you Google the name (and I did) it is in fact a common long established name in the US.

Apart from Herr Herman my first visit to California was great but too short as after only a few days we were loaded and on our way to British Guiana which was then a part of the British West Indies on the North coast of mainland South America.  We docked in the main town which was Georgetown where we were unloaded by a local crew which was to take four days – If I tell you that Georgetown is at the mouth of a large river called Demerara, it will not take much of an imagination to guess what our cargo was to be once our holds had been emptied.  The good news was that we now had at least 6 days to sample the delights of Georgetown which was highlighted with lush rain forests full of exotic wild life and the people are laid back easy going west Indians full of calypsos and happy people.

Now I might have got that a bit wrong but the place was delightful, the exchange rates were very much in our favour and the atmosphere was fun.  We donned our best bib and tucker and myself and the Second and Third mates set of to enjoy, a good time was had by all.  As we made our way back to our ship, replete, happy but not drunk we bumped into our Deck Boy the redoubtable Gilbert Buttery from Plumstead.  He had gone ashore on his lonesome as was his nature.  We continued on our way joking and generally teasing Gilbert, when a large, very black man, appeared in front of us, totally blocking our path.  He was big, not very tall perhaps 5’6” but he was about 5’6” across.  I can’t  remember how he was dress other than a bright red baseball cap, I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone wearing on before – It suddenly dawned on me that the guy was carrying, no wielding an enormous machete/cane knife and threatening us with it and demanding our wallets, watches, cash, in fact empty all of your pockets.

I came out of my blue funk haze when Gilbert began screaming at the top of his voice and he took off shrieking like a girl and doing about 20 knots down the hill.  The robber kept his cool and continued to relieve us three remaining victims of every single valuable that we owned and then turned and walked coolly away.  We acted like zombies, really not knowing what to do other than return to the ship.  Gilbert the Peggy had already alerted the ship’s crew and they met us with about a dozen crew members and they went off in search of the robber, while we waited at the ship for the Police to arrive.

I was particularly upset because I had lost a nearly new Rolex Oyster Air King watch that had been a gift from my sponsor Herbert and was the most valuable thing that I had ever owned.  A couple of cops arrived dressed like the military and took us for a drive round to see if we could identify out assailant.  At the same time giving a lecture on how poor the local population was and that it was no surprise that they were driven to temptation, etc.  Not a lot different to our police today.  They didn’t just give us a crime number; we were each supplied with a copy of a crime report.

All three of us spent hours on the following day at the British Embassy being issued with a Seaman’s identity card the equivalent of a passport.  In those days the country was a British Protectorate, part of the British Empire. It is now an independent country named Guyana, still covered in dense rain forest, English speaking with cricket and calypso music.  I don’t suppose it has changed much in the past 60 years but I have never felt the urge to return.

We departed full to the gunwales with large sacks full of unrefined sugar bound for the Far East.  Sugar to Singapore, where we refuelled.  Some of our crew were unlucky enough to have to spend 2 days with the shore crew, cleaning out the cargo holds where the stinking Demerara had leaked into the bilges and turned into molasses in the tropical heat.  This gave the majority of the crew the opportunity for some time ashore.  My first visit to the lovely city, island and country of Singapore – Over the years I have had the opportunity to return and each visit it seems to get even better.  I always feel that the government has got it right.

I keep saying that a tramp steamer is quite unique as it has a company agent shuffling cargoes between ports.  A ship can be laden with general cargo, say electrical goods and set sail to a buyer in Hong Kong and two days out the buyer in Hong Kong has sold the whole cargo to one or two of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. –  Hence, wrong, footed again!  So its Starboard 30 to an island names Bataan.

My nearly 17 year old mind is thinking “Back to Bataan” – 12 years previously the Japanese marched 76,000 prisoners of war some 80 miles across the Bataan peninsula during WWII, The famous death march with a death toll of at least 10,000 and once they got to the prison camp thousands more perished from starvation and disease over the next few years.  The survivors were rescued by US troops in 1945 when they re-took the Philippines.  My only real knowledge was from films and a few newsreels but I approached the Island of Bataan with a little trepidation.  The truth I learned was a little different – The death march took place on the peninsular of Bataan, we were bound for the Island of Luzon to the city of Bataan in Manila Bay.  Navigation was a real school lesson for me as we plotted through coral reefs littered with shipwrecks – not all from wartime.  Stunning blue seas, white sand beaches, marine turtles and exotic bird life.  I saw a huge towering memorial commemorating the Battle of Bataan in WWII.

Once we docked in the city we were descended upon by the largest number on dock workers imaginable, cheap labour?  We obviously weren’t needed but had no chance to go ashore as we were turning around in less than 24 hours with only two holds for Bataan.  What I could see was beautiful scenery full of colourful bird life.  The housing had a sort of temporary look about it.  We could have had a cheap and interesting run ashore but time is money and the promise of the capital Manila just a short hop across the bay looked promising.  It is still on the same Island of Luzon and there lay more broken dreams of this young mariner!

If you Google Manila, it will tell you that it is one of the most populous cities in the world – I would put money that in my day 1954 it was the world leader.  We still had six holds stacked with miscellaneous electrical goods that were the pride of Singapore.  As we docked we were descended upon by hordes of workers.  In Bataan we had the impression that we had been taken over by thousands of Dockers.  In Manila we were overrun by swarms of black ants who emptied holds, cleaned them and promptly and tidily re-stacked all hols with what else but Manila rope and cordage, coconut products such as coconut oil in 5 gallon drums, dried coconut copra, at least 2 holds packed with soap products that smelled far nicer than Demerara sugar.  Finally all the holds were topped off with layers of green bananas. – That’s what you call a mixed cargo.  I was on duty overseeing the Dockers, what delightful people they were!

On the day before we were due to sail, the 2nd Mate and I grabbed a taxi and headed for the city which had some stunning architecture with really historic buildings, BUT – did I mention its population?  If you think London or New York are busy and then multiply by 100 that was Manila.  We were nearly stationary in our taxi and apparently there aren’t many cars.  Anyway we gave up after a couple of hours and grabbed a rickshaw for our return journey.  That was only slightly quicker than our taxi ride.

We left the Philippines on the following morning with our destination and route fully laid out for us.  We set our compass once again for South Australia – Adelaide here we come and the spirits of the crew had lifted.

But that’s another story. . . . . . . . . . .

About Jake

Long retired travel writer, author and freelance journalist. Educated at Wolverton Grammar and Greenwich Naval College. Happily married since 1958, with a married son and daughter, a married granddaughter and an adult grandson. Hobbies rock-climbing, dinghy racing and ocean racing. Still regularly working out in the gym.
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