And then … Salty Tales From The Sixties

The RockAnd then there was Panama:  Balboa is a bunkering (fuelling) port at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. I had been forced to leave the Cap Norte, a German cargo ship now berthed there, the day she arrived. With nary a backward glance, I had hefted my bags down the gangplank and traipsed ashore into the tropical, humid fug that is Panama. I hadn’t gone far from the ship when I clashed with officialdom. Due to a lack of ready cash and insufficient documentation, I was persuaded to spend my first night ashore on a hard, wooden bunk in the Balboa gaol.
I had joined the Cap Norte in Sydney after weeks of walking the wharves: going on board ship after ship, seeking a ‘workaway’ position (to work my passage) to Europe. The Cap Norte was needing extra (unpaid) labour to spruce up her engine room. My job, along with 6 other workaways, was to clean the engine room from bottom to top by the time we reached the port of St Johns in Canada.
After a month on the Australian east coast: calling in for two or three days each at Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns, and steaming up the inside of the Great Barrier Reef, the Cap Norte headed west across the Pacific for Panama. Life for us workaways settled down to a hard, but pleasant routine. Twelve hour days, seven days a week. The German food was robust and plentiful and my cabin mate, a young Macedonian German crew member, was great company. Through him, I was learning some basic German; how to play chess; and how to build up a tolerance to the consumption of copious amounts of gin. By drinking more … ! Duty free alcohol and tobacco were cheap on board. My companion had already built up a considerable tolerance to gin, and was no slug at the game of chess. Even after I had become quite competent at the game (in my opinion): after consuming a 26oz bottle of gin – his daily ration, and having removed his queen from the board to begin with, he would still win! I did learn a few good tricks though.
The cloth lagging (insulation), wound around the myriad pipes which were mounted on the walls of the engine room was thick, hard and sharp edged with innumerable coats of white paint. Getting behind these pipes to clean the walls inevitably meant scratching and scraping your skin. We were cleaning the walls with cloths soaked in straight caustic soda solution. Our hands, as you can imagine, became a mass of soggy, open raw wounds that were never dry long enough to heal. The long rubber gloves supplied exacerbated the situation, and were a bigger problem as the caustic liquid ran onto our arms and down into the gloves softening and eating into our hands even more. I began to notice the German work ethic and sense of orderliness, distinctive national characteristics.
The further north we travelled, the hotter it became down in the engine room. I had ripped the sleeves off my work shirt for comfort, and one day, while we were slopping around in the swell due to an engine breakdown, I went off balance and my upper arm pressed against an un-lagged steam pipe. Over the next few days the large burn I thus sustained began to fester – badly. Seven days out from Panama the pain was so great that, lying in my bunk at night I was unable to sleep: any movement of my body caused excruciating pain. A large lump had formed in my armpit, and a dark, red line was tracking down the inside of my arm: now seriously poisoned. At this point I simply refused to work, which didn’t go down well with the Germans and their ‘work ethic’.
Over the next couple of days I was visited in my bunk, in ascending order, by all the officers – some curious, most doubting. “You must vork! You must vork!” they intoned at me. The difference between the lot of the worker in New Zealand, and that of the German was impressed upon me. The First Mate, who oversaw our work, was followed by the Second Engineer, who was followed by the First: then the Third Officer who was followed by a doubting Second. There was no Medical Officer on board to vouch for the seriousness of the state of my arm, but by the time the First Officer came down accompanied by the Mate, the wound on my arm was so putrid, and I so feverish, that they did an about face: feeding me all the antibiotics they could find and even being a little sympathetic. It was, however, decided that it would be best if I got off in Panama.
The day I disembarked, they begged me not to let the shipping company’s representative know of my treatment. In my state, and feeling slightly aggrieved, I was just happy to be off the ship. Upon reflection of course, it had been a pretty rewarding experience and I’d made a couple of good friends. Also, my life would have gone a different course if I had stayed on until the end. As it turned out, I never did get to pass through the Canal on a ship, and I missed out on visiting the ports of Tampa in Florida, Boston and St Johns. Ahh well, here I was, a young man wide eyed in Panama.
I was released from gaol into the hands of someone from the British Consulate, and after dealing with all that, eventually found a room at the colourful Hotel Ideal in Panama City. This was truly an ‘exotic’ place after Sydney. I already knew of its delights and reputation from many of my seamen friends in New Zealand: its bars where you could see bizarre sex acts with animals, and the availability of the legendary Panama Red strain of marijuana amongst other things. Even the Americans making this Canal their own wouldn’t spoil it for me: their presence wasn’t that dominant to the casual observer anyway, as they basically kept to the official Canal Zone, their military barracks, their PX stores and supermarkets. The CIA’s political machinations and ‘Black Politics’ of the time were not ‘visible’ of course.
I was thrilled to be in this tropical wonderland. So colourful, so vibrant. In suburban Cristóbal, at the Atlantic end of the Canal, Latin music pulsed, throbbed and bounced through the streets day and night: the place and the people so lively. I gorged myself on tropical fruits, caught the colourful buses all over the place, discovering new and ancient wonders at each turn. It took me a while to get used to the Cuna Indians who visited the mainland from the nearby San Blas Islands to trade: the women wearing bright and colourful clothing, with huge gold rings in their noses. Little children with their frizzy hair platted and patterned off into neat, geometric designs was new to me too. There are quite a few distinct, different races living here. There were many who had distinct Polynesian features, which I found curious.
I befriended a young Panamanian who was able to take me to meet a supplier of Panama Red, and one day we set out to meet him. We took a bus from down town to the outskirts of Panama City. Here, for the first time, I came across the shanty towns that sprawl around the edges of too many Central and South American cities. These ‘shacks’, no higher than your head, are built out of scrap roofing iron, beaten out tin drums, scraps of wood, cardboard, anything. Thousands of families live there. Similar to what I would call huts – for they reminded me of the sort of structures we used to make as children – they are densely spread for miles on the outskirts, and are a rabbit warren of little alleys and lanes: lacking in the usual amenities we take for granted. On other occasions, in the mornings, I would see the people streaming out from these ‘homes’, spruced up, clean and tidy looking, heading for the bus stops to go into town and assumedly, work. I was very impressed. Living in such deprived conditions they still had such great pride in their appearance. It was inspiring.
My young friend confidently led me deeper and deeper through a maze of shanties. At every twist and turn I encountered glimpses of people and lifestyles totally foreign to me. Eventually we arrived at our destination, and I was invited into the supplier’s home: a series of huts like car boxes, joined together. In the dim lit interior, I made out a couple of other foreigners already seated, sampling the goods. I joined them on a low bench before a low, rough table: an uncovered wick of a fuel lamp lit the scene and provided the necessary flame. My friend gave cursory introductions and a conversation took place in Spanish. A joint was rolled, lit and offered to me. Greedily, I took a heavy toke, then another before passing it on. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to buy some – the other foreigners would have been there for bulk business purposes – I was just having an adventurous, good time. Slowly, the scene began to change for me. A muffled conversation, in a language I couldn’t understand continued, but became more muffled. The floor started to slope upwards, the angles of the ‘walls’ began distorting. The joint came around again. After this toke, I was having trouble just sitting upright. This was some smoke. Far stronger than I had had before: I was in trouble. I had to get out. With a supreme effort of willpower I stood up, swaying. I found my young friend in the gloom, and managed to mumble, “Gotta go!”. There were protestations all round, I had no idea what they were thinking or how I looked: all I cared about was getting the hell out of there. I was a mess and I needed to straighten my head. I was also becoming alarmingly fearful for my well-being. Mustering my dignity, fighting the oddly sloping walls, floor and ceiling, I took my leave through the low exit: striking out through the ramshackle and populous shanties, putting some distance between them and myself before confronting the problem of how to get out of the maze.
It is a mystery to me to this day just how, in the blasted state that I was in, that I found my way out to the main road; caught the bus (not just any bus, but the right bus) and found my way back to my room at the Hotel Ideal. There, I locked myself in, put a chair up against the door and went to bed. The next day, straight again and no longer paranoid, I went over the events, feeling guilty and a little foolish for abandoning my new friend: but how I found my way back, I had no idea.
A couple of days later, having failed to find a ship willing to take me as a workaway to Europe, I booked a passage on a passenger ship, the Castel Felice, due to come through the canal soon. An elderly shark fisherman who I had befriended in Cristóbal, managed to get me a small amount of the fabulous Panama Red to take with me on my journey to Southampton. I shared it with my cabin mate on board for the duration of the voyage across the Atlantic. Good fun.
Panama was my only sampling of the Americas, but it left me with a lot of vivid memories, and a yearning to return.

And then there was young Mandy:  the English cook on board the ‘Virgen Dolorosa’.
In the short time she had been with us, she had given the impression that she was inclined to laziness, though we had grown fond of her. The ‘Virgen Dolorosa’ – Sorrowful Virgin – was an old Baltic Trader of generous proportions: a lovely old wooden craft. I was deck-hand on board at the time.
We were berthed in the Destroyer Pens in Gibraltar – the Pens so named in the days when Gibraltar was a strategic naval base during World War II. Naval vessels, assumedly naval Destroyers, had berthed there. From here to the town was a good kilometre’s walk, with the Wharf Police and Customs gate about a third of the way along. One free afternoon, Joe (the engineer on board) and I decided to go into the township for a few drinks. Mandy claimed that she wasn’t feeling too well and chose to stay in her bunk. We had ambled half way to town when we both had an urge to return to the boat to persuade her that she should accompany us. We turned back, and when we reached there, I hung about on deck while Joe went down below to talk her round. He found her lying in her bunk in a pool of blood. Ashen faced, he came scrambling back up and we held a hurried conference. Given our combined total lack of medical expertise we decided I would make a dash back to the Wharf Police and have them summon an ambulance. He returned below to comfort her in the meantime. We were later informed that if we had not turned back for her she would have died through loss of blood.
What had happened – as it was explained to us – was that not too long ago in England, she had had an abortion on the National Health Scheme. Apparently they had failed to remove all the relevant bits and pieces, including the terminated foetus. To compound matters, on her way down to Gibraltar from England, hitching with some male companion, she had sold her blood three times in ten days to raise money for this worthless man. Selling that much blood in that short space of time is asking for trouble. It is also difficult to get away with: doctors and nurses generally pick up on the needle marks. She would have looked a bit drained too. I believe the safe period between blood-letting is one month per half litre. It certainly explained her apparent laziness.
After Mandy was taken off to hospital, Joe and I headed back to the nearest bar. She later fully recovered. To this day, what made us decide to return for her, remains a mystery.

And then there was Red:  an Englishman whose main claim to fame he later divulged, was that he had been dope dealer to Joe Cocker.
He joined our crew on the Virgen Dolorosa after the ship he was on had a writ nailed to its mast, curtailing any future prospects. He brought with him a seemingly endless supply of Moroccan hash. Red had a shaven head, which in those long-haired days, made us suspicious of him. His was just another case of someone hiding his past. Full, or real names were rarely asked for or offered amongst the ‘boat bums’. Nobody volunteered information about themselves, and nobody pried into others’ lives or their reasons for being there. In retrospect, some would simply have been avoiding conscription into their respective armed forces –  America was warring in Vietnam at the time, so the Americans were usually draft dodgers – others were out and out criminals on the run, while yet others were escaping romantic entanglements, and their legal obligations. Some were a party to big smuggling schemes being hatched in time honoured Gibraltar fashion.
One day we were relaxing down in the hold (which was converted into the living quarters) having a smoke of Red’s hash, crumbling it in with tobacco. By now we were using airmail envelopes to roll the massive joints, having long given up the task of sticking together so many cigarette papers. We gradually became aware of boisterous cheering and shouting on the wharf above – now at deck level, as the tide was high. On pulling myself up through the hatchway I saw to my horror, not five metres away, a large group of people waving, shouting, gesticulating and cheering – at me! Stunned, I stumbled back down below through a pungent cloud of smoke, gibbering about this audience up there and stirring up all sorts of paranoid speculation. What did they want with us? What had we done? After three or four of the less timid, thoroughly stoned crew had popped their heads out to have a look, it was finally established that the audience were actually spectators of a small-boat race out in the harbour close behind us. Visions of instant fame or infamy were dispelled like burst bubbles, and we settled back down to being the dreamers we truly were.

And then there was the ‘Ramaida’: a beat up, old Panamanian registered ship, carrying general cargo and bonded stores (spirituous liquor and tobaccos) from Gibraltar to Portugal and North Africa.
She had a complement of eleven: a Norwegian Skipper, an English A.B. (the only man on deck with any qualifications), a Colombian, a Moroccan, a Scotsman, an Algerian, 2 Spaniards, myself, a Portuguese and a coloured man from I know not where. He was by consensus, called ‘the ghost’, as he spurned any companionship and seemed to live in the engine room, taking his meals there as well. It was said he had murdered someone and was in hiding.
The ‘Ramaida’ sailed under a Panamanian ‘flag of convenience’. Ships registered in Panama or Monrovia (Liberia), the two most infamous ‘flags of convenience’, allow the owners to pay less attention to restrictive practices such as paying the crew and officers decent, competitive wages: to ignore loading limits and the deteriorating condition of things like running gear, spare parts, the engine, the galley, the crew’s accommodation, life rafts and safety equipment! Thus, it follows that only those who are unlikely to be employed aboard a ship flying a regular flag, where safe practises and standards are upheld – those who are unskilled and have no papers, or those of ‘tarnished’ reputations – will sail under a ‘flag of convenience’. And, the sea is never short of such sailors.
My introduction to ‘the way things went’ on board occurred the very first night when, still tied up alongside in Gibraltar I was invited to share a bottle of Drambuie with one of the crew. An offer I gleefully accepted, as liqueurs had been outside the reach of my finances for quite a while. It turned out that the bonded stores – those spirituous liquors and tobaccos loaded on board the day before, had already been broached and what was not being consumed was scattered throughout the vessel. There were even bottles of Drambuie hanging from wires in the bilges.

The cook, Cedric by name, was a short, swarthy young man in his early twenties. He claimed to be of Spanish Welsh extraction with some obtuse connection to that distant antipodean country, New Zealand. He had never, before the ‘Ramaida’, cooked for more than two people a fistful of years ago in distant Australia – badly. However, his careful attention to cleanliness, combined with an imaginative flare for presentation and a love of good food, soon won the crew’s hearts. The previous cook, a raw Scotsman, had chosen (or been persuaded) to give up the galley in preference to working on deck. One does not expect hospital like cleanliness on board these ships, but he had been a filthy bugger, with manners to fit. The galley was typically inadequate: a shortage of equipment, a leaking, inefficient diesel stove – it was a make-do situation. The diesel dripping continuously from the bowels of the stove onto the tiled galley floor made for interesting cooking in heavy weather. It was like being on ice. The stove had no fiddles (ledges) to keep the one and only large fry-pan from sliding off. So when the ship had a heavy roll on, as when steaming down the Moroccan coast, the cook would hold the handle of the heavy pan in both hands, slide up to the stove on the diesel slick tiles with the ship’s roll, give the pan a burst of heat, then, as the ship slowly rolled the other way, slide away with the pan at arms length ’till he backed up against the bulkhead, there to await the return roll and slide. One had to start cooking early in conditions like that.
Cook on the ‘Ramaida’ (yes, ’twas me!) was always popular, as the crew were wont to curry favour for extra titbits. Cook was also provedore, dishwasher and potato peeler. I used to enjoy sitting at the stern as we gently rolled along – on a good day – comforted by the rhythmic sound of the powerful diesel engine down below, and the thudding vibrations of the huge propeller as we trailed a wide, white wake out on the blue ocean behind us. I’d have a bucket of water to my left and a pile of potatoes between my legs. It was the most enjoyable potato peeling I have ever done. As provedore, I was given relatively large sums of local currency when we arrived at each port for the purchase of fresh provisions. I don’t know how or when during my travels I learnt, but it seemed only natural to ask the vendors for inflated receipts to present to the skipper, pocketing the difference. They didn’t object, being only too happy to comply, as, if they didn’t, I could have taken my business elsewhere. I am not a linguist, but with the help of a smattering of French, Spanish, German and English, all transactions in all ports went smoothly. I really enjoyed that part of it.
On one particular trip, we carried passengers to Lisbon. After leaving Gibraltar the weather turned particularly nasty, as it can down there. In that area of the Atlantic called The Gulf of Cadiz, the ‘Ramaida’ was forced to decrease speed to ‘slow ahead’. Cresting each mammoth wave, we would slowly descend: down, down, down – until you felt certain that the ship was never going to rise; that you were heading for the bottom. At that point of despair, she would ever so slowly start to raise her head again, and we would climb to the top of another wave. Here the ship would give an alarming “CRACK” as she hung momentarily stressed over the peak, then to repeat the slow motion roller coaster ride. And I was crook! A crook cook. Fortunately, nearly everybody else on board, the passengers included, had decided that eating was not a priority, confining themselves to their bunks. I was not a happy man that day.

Whenever we sailed from port, (often parting a spring or one of the other hawsers used to hold the ship alongside the wharf) the skipper would disappear to his cabin with his Portuguese lady friend, to make only rare appearances on the bridge. He had long blonde hair and a flowing beard: a true Norse. He was a very likeable man. On his infrequent visits to the bridge, he would appear suddenly, hair dishevelled, eyes wild, gin dripping from his beard. He’d take a cursory look around, presumably to see if we were still on course, grunt, belch and wander off again to his nest.
With the skipper absent a good deal of the time, on this ship it was possible for any who wished to take a turn at the wheel. Imagine: at the helm of a huge ship, steering thousands of tons of water borne steel across the ocean … ha ha. This is power. But, there is a difficulty. There are as many variations of steering gear as there are ships, and on the ‘Ramaida’ the wheel operated in reverse direction to the rudder, giving a ‘click’ for each degree turned. I recall our steaming south down the north-west African coast one fine day, rolling with a rather heavy beam sea, the normal coastal swell. One of the lads with nothing better to do chose to permit himself a turn at the wheel (I told you it was that kind of ship). Given a compass reading, in theory, it is relatively simple to steer a course. But, given the total inexperience of this helmsman, and the capriciousness of the swells rolling ceaselessly shoreward across our bows, it was a recipe for mischief. The sea pushes the bow off course to port. Ah, the lad thinks, turn the wheel clockwise, click. Nothing happens. In fact, surely that last roller pushed it even further to port! Oh well, wheel clockwise, click-click and click. Ah, you say, the ship is now 4 degrees off course to port. Well, that would be true if he had brought the rudder back to mid-ships, and if the sea was not having more of an effect on the bow as she turned! But, well …. after another tentative 5 or so clicks in the wrong direction the lad panics, the ship by now well off course, and swings the wheel a rapid 200 odd clicks in the same direction in a last ditch attempt to bring her back on course. By now the ship is beginning to heel over in a sharp U-turn. This alerts ‘he who should have never left the wheel in the first place’. It is now too late to turn the ship to starboard and so the ship continues its lazy circle. Oh yes, the skipper did surface: to grunt and growl that it wasn’t to happen again. But it did, another lad, another day while I served on board. I must say we laid a most attractive wake: lines, curves, circles! In defence, I warn you that an ocean going cargo vessel does not handle the same as a car. Try it. I did!

Alongside in Setubal, Portugal, a 10 escudo whore came on board (while the Wharf Police politely turned their backs and sub-machine guns) and took up station in one of the empty passenger cabins. No brightly lit salon this – the lighting on the ‘Ramaida’ never glowed above dim. Just as well. But anyway, she could not compete with the sun, surf and fun girls we yacht bums frolicked with back in Gibraltar. So I bowed out.
The old gaff rigged sailing barges which tacked up and down the River Tagus past the ancient castles of Lisbon were a delight to this man’s eyes. Many had a monkey up in the rigging. In days of old, I was told, the monkeys were the food tasters on long voyages. Monkey curls up in screaming agony: food deemed unfit for human consumption! When I saw them, they were simply on board as pets. [On a recent visit to Lisbon, there were no more sailing barges to be seen. Progress?] Enormous tankers lay at anchor in the stream, dwarfing all other shipping. There is something quite awesome about these behemoths, their massive proportions dominate the seascape: rock steady, squat, indomitable. But even they can be humbled by the ocean.

Once while anchored in the stream just outside Mohamedia in Morocco, awaiting our turn with a dozen or so other raggedy tramps, I was witness to the sort of reckless skill for which some skippers of these tramps are legend. From where I stood at the rail that day, I watched as a sister ship to one anchored alongside us, steamed full ahead toward her mirror image. As she ploughed onward, without slackening speed, the bow anchor rattled out to grab the bottom, the wheel was spun over and she gracefully pivoted around in that ever so little space between us, to lie perfectly alongside her sister. As graceful a manoeuvre as one could ever hope to witness. Even the fish, which were abundant here, were leaping out of the water in what I fancifully took to be applause

* * * * *

Our skipper, much as I liked him, was unfortunately never sober enough at sea to demonstrate any skill other than his expertise at demolishing wharves. He always managed to actually hit the wharf, quite severely, whenever we berthed: I was convinced the ship was doomed. The Spanish engineer inevitably flooded the upper deck diesel tanks (she had a gravity fed system), and I believed that he was trying to sabotage this Gibraltar-owned ship – Spain and Gibraltar were engaged in a cold war at the time, the frontier gates firmly closed and guarded. Also, I missed the girls, parties and good times ashore in Gibraltar, so I eventually quit. I must have served the crew well however, because when I chose to leave the ship, the skipper begged me to stay on.

Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009