Saturday, 2 June 2012

Cruising down to Rio (Devis 1966)

I will try not to start each posting like a Vivian Stanshall radio flash, but I need to do it at least once.
The story so far...In previous stories I talked about my first trip to sea (A Ship of My Own and Why Engineers are Never Tanned).  Now read on... 
After leaving Baron Jedburgh in Glasgow, I spent a few weeks in England with friends and relatives before heading to Liverpool in search of my next job. One or two shipmates had previously entertained me with tales of the Amazon and I was determined to see it for myself.  Thus it was that after emerging from Lime Street Station, and walking the half mile or so west towards Pier Head, I arrived at the headquarters of the Booth Steamship Company in the Royal Liver Building on a rainy Merseyside morning in late summer of 1966. Booth and its sister companies, Lamport and Holt and Blue Star Line were part of Lord Vestey's vast empire of cattle stations and ranches extending from Brazil and Venezuela to Australia and New Zealand.  Vestey's speciality was refrigeration ships, but of more interest to me were the cargo vessels that sailed from Britain to South America and from the east coast of the United States to the Caribbean and ports along the Amazon.
The Royal Liver Building is a great landmark, and its impression on me then is as clear after forty years as it was on that day.  A large gothic structure, dwarfing its similarly imposing neighbours with two monstrous green copper Liver Birds spreading their wings above domed turrets: one stares to sea, the other guards the city. Once inside, an ornate elevator conveyed me to an oak-panelled antechamber containing scale models of ships of the fleet, each housed in a glass case with the vessel's name and building date on a brass plaque below the case.
The Marine Superintendent was Thomas Clatworthy, an engaging bespectacled Lancastrian engineer, and it was to Mr Clatworthy that I presented myself that morning in search of my Amazon adventure. Sadly, there were no vacancies for ships on the Amazon trade at that time, but he was pleased to have me join the company and after a few formalities I was soon dispatched to one of the company's ship, MV Ronsard which like many others at the time was standing idle at Liverpool docks. 
The British Seamen’s strike had started several weeks earlier.  This was the first national strike by seamen for over fifty years and as a consequence shipping was being disrupted throughout the United Kingdom. No ships were leaving port and those that arrived tied up alongside and became idle as their crew walked off. Ronsard was one of these vessels impacted by the action.  She had been tied up in Bootle docks for over two weeks when I joined a small crew of engineers and deck officers whose task it was to keep the generators running and the lights on.
So here I was in Liverpool. Where else in the world would a 20 year old from a small town in North Queensland want to be than the home of the Beatles and the Mersey beat in the summer of 1966. Each night would find us in one of the many bars, clubs and pubs that surrounded the area. The Bootle Arms was a clear favourite (it was after all no more than 100 yards from the dock gate), but we visited numerous other places in the area where we drank warm beer and cold lagers and sang Reach Out I’ll Be There with the Four Tops and Sunny Afternoon with the Kinks.   Once or twice we went to The Cavern Club, a couple of minutes' walk from Lime Street, but it was always crowded to the point of overflowing and there were always more accessible venues within reach of us.
Although it was against company regulations, there were frequent occasions when locals joined us for social gatherings on board and we could often be found after chucking out time, struggling back on board bearing cartons of beer on our shoulders, ascending the steep gangway and making our way to someone's cabin (thankfully usually one larger than my tiny quarters) where the merrymaking would continue.
All things come to an end, and eventually the strike was over and the seaman went back to work.  I knew that it was a good thing that the strike was over, but I was enjoying life and getting paid for doing very little.
I was sent from Ronsard to Devis, an old ship, built in 1938 that had seen out the war as a troop ship and supply vessel, Empire Haig. She was bound for Buenos Aires and ports along the Brazilian coast and I joined her as junior engineer.
She was old and ugly and her main engine was one of the most cantankerous awful things I had come across, but she was one of the happiest ships I sailed on, and after Baron Jedburgh and several weeks of alcohol poisoning while on Ronsard, it was great to actually have a deck moving underneath my feet again – even if the best we could ever do was about 10 knots. We did a little coast trip first from Liverpool to Glasgow and back during  which time I had the pleasure of listening to England win the Football World Cup by beating Germany 4-2 in extra time. Shortly after this Devis sailed from Liverpool for South America and I was back on the 12 to 4 watch with another Scottish third engineer, a taciturn Edinburghian, Ted Kinnaird.  Our first destination would be Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where after a brief stop for bunker fuel we continued on our way south and west across the Atlantic Ocean.
The engine was a bad-tempered old beast – a ten cylinder Burmeister and Wain heavy fuel burner which had three pistons in each cylinder and eighty fuel valves. These fuel valves were large dirty things that would frequently foul and require replacing. The fuel oil would harden into a bituminous black cake and it was my job to keep a healthy supply of spare fuel valves on hand. I spent many hours cleaning and maintaining these damn things, and I can say without rancour that it was an awful sodding job!
The crud from the heavy oil didn't only build up on the burners.  It would also accumulate in the exhaust system causing regular scavenger fires when the exhaust gases would overheat and the caked particles on the exhaust stack and the scavengers would catch fire. Whenever this happened we could only slow the engine right down, reduce the fuel to the offending cylinder and lumber along at a much reduced speed until the fire extinguished itself.
One thing I learned during my years at sea was the importance of being able to find one’s way around an engine room. Underneath the foot plates are hundreds of pipes carrying diesel oil, heavy fuel oil, lubricating oil, bilge water, ballast water, drinking water, steam, compressed air and more, and drawings providing details were seldom if ever to be found.  The only solution therefore, on joining a ship for the first time was to remove the floor plates, get into the bilge area with a flash light and meticulously follow each pipe to its destination. Not the most pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but a lot better than having a pipe burst and not knowing how to turn off the supply. Grumpy Gordon, my old third engineer on Baron Jedburgh demonstrated this to me on several occasions.
We were probably a week from our destination of Buenos Aires when the old monster of an engine reached a stage where running repairs were no longer solving her problems. After a lengthy scavenge fire, it was decided to decommission a number of the engine cylinders, remove the fuel valves to reduce compression and like an old car with faulty sparkplugs we limped along on three or four cylinders,  slowly make our way to the nearest port at little more than walking speed to get some serious shore based repairs. There is always a silver lining they say.  Our nearest port was Rio de Janeiro and thus it was that our vessel's poor health and age provided the only opportunity I have had of visiting this glorious city. Not that we had much chance for sight-seeing. We had some serious repair work to do once we were finally tied up in Rio.  A couple of brief trips to a local bar, a walk around Centro and more memorably along the beach at Flamengo and back to the endless task of cleaning fuel valves.
Repairs done, our next call was Buenos Aires, an exciting city whose avenues and streets are so wide that the simple act of crossing the road, becomes a journey itself. One of the main thoroughfares is Calle 25 de mayo and not far away is the massive Avenida 9 de Julio honouring Argentina’s Independence Day in 1816. There had been a military revolution only a few weeks before we arrived and as a consequence the streets were full of armed military who frequently stopped us to inspect our papers.  Despite this, we never really took these disruptions seriously (we probably should have based on later reports of student unrest, police violence and laws against long hair on young men and mini-skirts on the girls), but we felt immune and I fell in love with this beautiful city with its amazing Spanish colonial architecture so far removed from the Victorian and Edwardian buildings of Liverpool and Glasgow. Many of the cafés and bars were open air and it here that I first sampled the real Latin American culture. Until that time, I had not heard  a word of Spanish outside of Speedy Gonzales, but it rapidly became a language I loved to hear and I made up my mind to learn it.
We spent two weeks in BA and then sailed across the other side of Rio de la Plata to the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo – another exciting place with lots of open space and public areas and more soldiers patrolling the streets.
After a couple of days here, we sailed north along the Brazilian coast to Rio Grande (the second busiest port in Brazil); Santos the main port for São Paulo; Recife and finally Fortaleza. It was in Santos that I had for the first time, the opportunity to see some of the real squalor that was behind much of the façade of Brazil’s society. People in Santos were living in some of the most appalling conditions I had ever seen, and it made me remember, not for the first time, how lucky I was to have been born into a privileged position of always having a roof over my head, and a meal on the table.
The Devis adventure lasted about three months, and she was, without doubt one of the happiest ships I have sailed on. In the engine room the working conditions were appalling, but the companionship, the food and the general good nature of all on board, was such a far cry from Baron Jedburgh that I was glad I had made the decision to go to sea – which was in stark contrast to the many times on board the Baron boat when I thought the exact opposite.
I returned to the UK in time for my 21st birthday - a splendid evening shared with my aunt and uncle at the Trent Bridge Inn in Nottingham.  I received news on arrival in Liverpool that there was a spot for me on a Booth Line ship on the Amazon run and I signed a 12 month contract which would see me join MV Viajero in New York in November of that year.

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