I have always loved the sea – in fact, if by some magic I could live my life again (and how wonderful that would be!), I would unhesitatingly elect to join some noble ship and spend my days, free as the wind itself, roaming the vast and, thankfully, still untamed oceans of the world.
Not, mark you, on any of today’s monstrosities. They’re not ships!
I talk of real ships: the ships of yester-year which were designed and built by a generation of men who took pride in their work and understood the mysterious ways of “the great seas and winds”.
But the nearest I ever got to fulfilling this deep-rooted, almost atavistic, ambition was when I decided to ship aboard a rusty old freighter of some 10,000 tonnes which one gray morning slipped silently into Beira Bay, Mozambique. I made enquiries about her and learned that she was bound for Antwerp via the Cape of Good Hope and a hundred-and-one small ports on the West Coast of Africa – anywhere, that was, where there was a cargo to be had.
The Capitaine Paret, as she was named, was herself hardly what could be called “a thing of beauty” or a “joy for ever”! Contrary to my opening remarks, she was really quite ugly but she had been built in an emergency, and looks are the last thing needed at such times. Added to this she rolled like a barrel in even moderate seas (her cargo had shifted at some stage) and, as I later learnt from bitter experience, one spent half ones time clinging on for grim life to anything that looked even remotely secure – and how little there was of that. Everything seemed to move when a sea was running!
She was also old and very slow by then – so slow that when we encountered those cold, dark, mountainous seas off the Cape (it was in the full flood of winter) it seemed to me that we were doomed, like the Flying Dutchman, to spend all eternity in trying to round that grim, threatening headland, then shrouded in heavy, swirling storm clouds.
Much to my amazement, and relief (and, I think, the captain’s too), she did eventually make it, albeit battered and scarred and with great masses of water streaming from her decks and out of the cabins. But what was the Cape of Storms to her? As the Chief Engineer proudly boasted, had she not endured long and heroic service in the vicious seas of the Baltic, and survived years of perilous convoy work in the North Atlantic during the long war years?
I found such talk comforting, and I began to look at this decaying old tramp ship, which was to be my “home” for the many lazy and sometimes exciting weeks that lay ahead, with fresh eyes and an ever-growing feeling of pride – even affection.
Her officers were a very mixed and fascinating cocktail of nationalities. The elderly Captain himself – who longed for retirement and spent most of his time reading cheap novels on his bunk – was Belgian; the First Engineer Dutch, the First Mate Latvian, while the Radio Operator was French.
Being the sole passenger on board, it was early on decided that I should have free run of the ship and take my meals at their table, along with the ship’s cat – one Cristobel (I never learnt what her surname was). She normally sat in her own chair between the Captain and the First Mate and seemed, as far as I could make out, to be the most important member of the crew. She certainly thought so (she and Dingo would have got on well!) and what I chiefly remember about her was that she drank most of the milk, when it was available, and that I was the one who normally had to go without, much to the officers’ silent and conspiratorial amusement!
The First Mate, despite his somewhat limited knowledge of English, was a born story teller, and having had a rich and varied career at sea, I spent hour upon hour listening with fascinated attention to his many and varied tales. Only once do I remember his getting angry. One warm evening, when we were sitting quietly on deck under a tropical sky ablaze with glittering stars, I gently reproached him with having fought alongside the Germans during the war. He was silent for a while, and then standing up abruptly he said: “And so would you if you had seen your family shot by the Russians as I did”.
Next morning I apologised. To my surprise and embarrassment, so did he.
He was a strong man and a true one and I always felt that as long as he was around nothing could really go wrong.
Although I was a passenger, there were many times when I got tired of just watching the porpoises or flying fish as, day by day, we slowly – oh how slowly – wandered up the coast of Africa. One morning in desperation I asked him if there was any work I could do. Without a word he went off and reappeared a few minutes later with a couple of paint brushes and a large can of white paint. “Ja, Mr Passenger” (he always called me that) “you can make me the starboard lifeboat all beautiful again!”
It took me a long time – especially when it came to picking out the name Capitaine Paret and port of registration Antwerpen in black letters on the stern.
When I had finished, very sun and wind-burnt, I might add, I proudly went and looked for him.
“Come, Mr Mate, and have a look at the magnificent life boat!”
He stood and examined it carefully in silence for a while. “Sehr gut, Mr Passenger” he said after a while. “Now I let you paint more!”
I was pleased and hoped that I might be entrusted with some more delicate artwork, like varnishing the beautiful teak woodwork in the chart room. “What shall I do,” I asked enthusiastically.
He stepped away and looking and pointing upwards said: “You can climb up there and paint the mast – and then the derricks! But make sure you scrape all the rust off first!”
I burst out laughing. “O no – definitely not! If you want those done you can do them yourself – why not get the Captain to help you!”
He roared with laughter.
But I was very proud of the lifeboat and more than disgusted when one night a couple of weeks later it was ripped off its davits and swept overboard during a violent tropical cyclone somewhere off the coast of Sierra Leone. That turned out to be quite a lively part of the voyage for it was not long after when entering the lovely port of Dakar that we successfully rammed and sank the local dredger in a way that was as unexpected as it was spectacular! But that, as they say, is another story for another time!
I once thought of writing a book about this voyage. I wish now that I had because although it was just a very ordinary, mundane everyday sort of trip for many, for me, personally, it had immense and lasting significance.
Unfortunately, in those days I didn’t have a camera (what a lost opportunity that was) so I had to make do with this more personal “snapshot” which I wrote one night sitting on the silent, gently-swaying bridge. The First Mate, whose Watch it was, came and stood by my chair and looked over my shoulder at the notebook I was writing in.
“So” he said after a few moments, “you are a – wot you say in English?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
He snorted and tapped me softly on the head. “Nefer mind – I suppose you’ll get over it whatever the damn thing’s called!”
But for once he was wrong. I never did!
Sunset off the River Congo – 1955
A heavy, oily swell,
And the rusted freighter rolled,
Her derricks creaking softly
As the waters rose and fell.
And o’er the darkening,
In the hot and humid air,
The deep insistent throbbing
Of the beating drums came clear.
And westward on the horizon,
Where the vast Atlantic lay,
The sun was swiftly sinking
In a fiery, misty blaze.
And suddenly came the darkness
And the silence of the night,
And in the soft and velvet sky
A crystal star shone bright.
And then, on a day of sunshine and strong wind blowing up the English Channel, we slowly made our way to the ship’s home port.
When I finally walked away from her with my few belongings in a well-worn handgrip, I turned round on the quay and took a long, last look at her. To my surprise all the ship’s officers were on the bridge. They waved and the First Mate held up Cristobel in the air and shook a paw.
I waved back and then turned and walked out through the harbour gates. My eyes were watering, but that, I suppose, was because of all the dust in the air.
It was, after all, a very windy day in Antwerp.
© 2012 Thurstan Bassett