Sunday, 10 June 2012

Welcome to Brooklyn - 1966

I have always said that Devis was the happiest ship I ever sailed on, and it’s probably true; but Viajero was not far behind. Certainly of all the places I have been on earth, the Amazon experience is up there with the best of them. Viajero was built in Hamburg in 1957, powered by an eight cylinder four-stroke 1500 horse power MAN diesel engine which after the brutish B and W engine on Devis was a pleasure to behold.
Pier One, Brooklyn - 45 years younger and about 20 kg lighter
I arrived in at Pier One, Brooklyn on a cold day in November 1966 as the most junior of the four engineers on board. Geoff Laws, the new third engineer from Keighley in Yorkshire had arrived a day or two earlier on Queen Mary and it wasn’t long before I joined Geoff and the second engineer, Frank Stinchcombe from Bristol in the regular haunt for Viajero engineers when in Brooklyn, a local bar and grill about 50 yards from the dock gates.
Frank was one of the most remarkable, of the many remarkable characters I was at sea with. Known to all as The Saint, he was about 45 years old, as skinny as a rake with a face only a mother would love and could mix a Cuba Libre like no one I have met before or since.
All deck and engine room officers that joined Booth Line for the Amazon service signed on for a year (four round trips from New to Iquitos).  Frank had done two trips and had been on board for six months. It was in New York that all major repair and maintenance work was done during the one or two weeks it took to provision and load the vessel prior to the journey south.
The ship's engineers had a great working relationship with the Brooklyn dockside maintenance crew. I can’t remember the names of the local guys, but it was my first time in the US and where better to begin an education in US culture than Brooklyn, New York. The local bar was called Otto’s and it was here that I became familiar with their signature dish, an epicurean delight known as an ale and chicken dinner (a pot of Schlitz beer with a pickled egg chaser). It was considered de rigueur to drop one's egg shells on the floor where it would quickly become lost among the sawdust and other particulate matter which collected beneath our bar stools.

Booth Line had half a dozen or so ships running up the Amazon from New York. All the ships had Spanish names beginning with “V” (Viajero, Venimos, Veloz, Vamos) The three month run would take us south through the Caribbean on to Belém at the mouth of the river and 3,000 miles along the river to Iquitos in Peru. We would be spending six weeks on the river each trip, and I couldn't wait.
First we would be dipping into the Caribbean islands and our first port was to be St Kitts. I was excited at the prospect of visiting these island nations for the first time. As a stamp collector in my youth names like Barbados, St Vincent, Dominica and Grenada filled me with visions of pirate ships, plantation owners, sun, palm trees and of course, cricket.
Only a few years had elapsed since the very first tied cricket test in Brisbane in 1960 between Australia and the West Indies and the images of the smiling black giant, Wesley Hall, crucifix swinging from his neck as he thundered in to bowl is one that all cricket lovers remember. I was then in the second week of my apprenticeship as a mechanical fitter at the local brewery (The First Job - Cairns 1960) and the memory of us all clustered around the tiny transistor radio which hung from a nail in the workshop storeman's little room, listening to the ABC commentary is as vivid today as it was then. Now I was on my way to the West Indies and the home of cricket, rum, and calypso.

Viajero was quite a small vessel and it was the first ship I had sailed on where all the accommodation was in the after part of the ship rather than midships.  This provided better access to the cargo from smaller wharves with limited unloading facilities typical of the small islands and river ports we would encounter, but it made the going a little rough in poor weather and we certainly encountered quite a bit of that in our first couple of days out of New York as we headed south through blustery North Atlantic conditions.
Viajero had a Barbadian crew and the warmth of their personalities and their love of music and celebration was everything I had expected. We had a steel band and once we were away from the constraints of the work and the weather, we were able to watch them fashion their instruments from cut down 44 gallon (200 litre) empty fuel drums.  The bass pans were made from the whole drum and tenor and baritone pans were made by cutting the drum in quarters and halves.  As the weather became warmer, the band could be found on the poop deck every afternoon playing songs like Peanuts and Latin Sun - songs that made you want to dance and clap your hands. The third engineer, big Geoff did just that – he was always there, leaning against the capstan banging a couple of claves together in time to the music and generally making sure he was part of the fun.
I had the feeling that I was going to enjoy the next twelve months - I wasn't disappointed.

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