Cavorting across the seven seas in various states of delicacy for twenty-five odd years has prompted me, twenty- odd years later, to ask why?
Well, it was the glamour. The glamour of the South China Sea that got to me, listening to an old sea dog I knew, telling yarns of the South China bloody Sea and the jolly good time he had there. He was the cellarman at my local pub the Mead House in Penzance, an old priory. Listening with awe, whilst sitting on an upturned barrel sipping half pint glasses of highly intoxicating mead, to tales of gun running, opium dealing, white slave trading and other ebullient traits. There I sat, surrounded by hundreds of cobwebs in a dimly lit Cornish cellar as shadows of god knows what flickered across ancient granite walls There I sat entranced perceiving oriental brigands, lascivious Suzie Wongs. It fair took a young lad’s fancy.
And tramp I did. Sailing from port to port, picking up cargoes in old rust buckets of dubious stability crewed by shipmates of dubious sanity. Put the elements together and a swashbuckling life of heigh-ho on the ocean waves seems writ large.
The owners of these tramps were usually dubious as well. Sometimes they were the captains of the vessel, sometimes shadowy figures living in the back streets of cities dotted across the world dealing in cargoes that sometimes varied widely with those entered in the ship’s manifest. Just tramping round the world, taking your time, ensconced with a sociable set of like-minded blokes was a nice way to spend half your life. Not for us the hectic schedules of Container ships, nor the ‘Tanker Twitch’ which is a universal symptom of all Tanker and Gas Carrier crews worldwide. No rush, no hectic schedules, no irate agents or Charter Companies screaming and certainly no wives.
Herewith then a series of tales. most of which you won’t believe unless you’ve tramped yourself. Then you will nod your head knowingly and say,’that reminds me.’
Something like this…
‘I think we’ll go the nice way round,’ said Farmer John, through a hole in his froth covered beard. John wasn’t a farmer, although his rotund figure and very red face coupled with a natural affability made him a dead cert for one. He was a gourmet as well as the Captain, and the nice way round was, on this voyage, his idea of a ‘Grand Tour’ of bars and restaurants stretching from the north coast of Spain through the Straights of Gibraltar and all points east until we reached our destination which happened this time to be Cyprus.
The ship’s officers happened to be sitting in a pub, two hours after closing time in Hull, an exotic port shoved right up the Humber. The crew, Cape Verdi Islanders, were dotted around the town battened down with various girls of dubious virtue. It was pouring down outside and very dark. We looked out of the window and could see the ship with gangway half askew as the vessel rose with the tide and through Farmer John’s beard a blast of beer-laden fumes erupted, which just about summed up all our feelings.
We had been waiting for five hours for the pilot to board the ship, a rather nice and comfortable 1,500 tonner carrying general cargo vessel christened ‘M.V.George Armfield’. Who or what ‘George Armfield’ remained a mystery. Although rumour had it, he was little-known Goalkeeper who once let in nine goals whilst playing for Norwich against Wolves. Anyway, we would be summoned by a blast on the ship’s whistle, when the pilot arrived, blown by the only man left on the board, the Donkeyman a seventy-five-year-old Cardiff Arab who was too infirm to negotiate the gang- way.
I think it was at this point in the proceedings that a course of action was devised, we always prepared a plan for such eventualities, an act of retribution against the miserable weather. We ordered another round and discussed the ports of call. It seemed to be a good idea, this time, to get across the Bay of Biscay first, and then by chance, have a number of surreptitious machinery failures very near various ports with a tradition of gastronomic excellence on passage to our discharge port in Cyprus.
I was Second Engineer on this voyage and to go the nice way round seemed like a very good idea after eight pints of ale. The Mate thought so as well as he indicated by kicking the Second mate, who had slid underneath the table three hours earlier, and told him to get various charts out, in readiness for the gastronomic dawdle through the Mediterranean.
The third Engineer, Denzil, a lad from Camborn was not widely travelled. His experience of shipping was confined to the King Harry Ferry in Falmouth; a backwards and forward trip of a hundred yards. In fact, he’d never been further than Plymouth in his life until today when he joined the ship. His only work so far was to get the beer in.
A knock at the back door drew our attention. It was the pilot. He said he was unable to get on board as the gangway was now ten feet off the jetty as the tide had come in and nobody had lowered it. He was invited to join us for a quick one and of course, he agreed. Eventually, we stumbled back to the ship and after one or two fractious moments with errant crew trying to smuggle ladies of the night on board we managed to detach ourselves from the quay and set sail. After dropping the pilot off in the estuary and headed down the English channel towards Ushant and thence the Bay of Biscay.
Three days out the Chief Engineer, a grizzled individual who was on his fifteenth Discharge Book and made a point of finding the engine room at least once a trip made his first appearance, we knew he was on board, we could hear him snoring. He sat down at the breakfast table in a three-piece suit and said he was going ashore for a haircut. (This is the seaman’s equivalent of telling your wife you are taking the dog for a walk) It was gently pointed out that he would get rather wet as we were half way through the Bay of Biscay. He glanced out of the porthole, grunted and went back to his cabin.
Santander was the first port of call where we had to call in and pretend to repair a shaft bearing that was running hot. There we feasted on particularly good oysters’ sautéed in Cointreau. Next port of call was Gibraltar, where we took on fuel and the Mate took on rather a lot of his own.
Sardinia was rather a letdown, we stopped there for a dodgy fuel pump but the prawns in margarita had an adverse affect on the digestive system. Sicily was memorable for crayfish marinated in calvados. We had to stop there for imagined urgent repairs to the gearbox. Malta where we needed repairs to an oil cooler, was memorable because the Chief Engineer appeared again in his paying off suit and announced, that he was going to visit ‘The Gut’ as he, ‘Had many old friends there from his war years’. We saw him three days later while we were dining in a rather nice restaurant on scallops in a very good aquavit source; the Chief Engineer was being escorted by the police back to the ship at the time.
We had a fanciful problem with the shaft generator next, just off Crete, and called in for a delicious meal of lobster flavoured with an exquisite retsina dressing. Denzil, the Third Engineer excelled himself on this occasion by ordering a Cornish pasty and getting rather huffy when he was shown the door.
Finally, we headed for Cyprus. We missed it, and stopped a fishing boat to ask the way. The Boat’s Skipper informed us it was two days back the way we had come, but not before we exchanged three bottles of Johnny Walker for a rather nice basket of prawns which the fishing boat skipper cooked for us while we exchanged pleasantries. They went down very well with a Riesling we had picked up on a similar voyage a few months before.
Eventually, a couple or so days later, we arrived at our port of discharge and while lying alongside the berth, we settled ourselves in a seafood restaurant, with a lovely view of the port ‘I think, as we’re loading in Palermo for Antwerp,’ said Farmer John, over a plate of squid in brandy; we’ll go back via……