Monday, 19 November 2012

Black muddy river, roll on forever...

I don't care how deep or wide, if you've got another side,
Roll muddy river, roll muddy river, black muddy river, roll.

I was planning to make the previous posting, Take me back to my boat on the river... my last story about Viajero. But there were a couple more things I wanted to tell you, and yes, I needed an excuse to use those Grateful Dead lyrics from Black Muddy River which is playing in the background as I write these words.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a young man in the 1960s and the 1970s with the opportunity of travelling the world at someone else's expense and for the most part being able to choose which part of it I next wanted to see. Of course, it is always easier to look back with affection on the happier moments, rather than the long periods of discomfort, occasional (but not often) danger, and days of boredom brought about by endless cycles of watch-keeping on extended sea voyages; frequently with so called "Board of Trade acquaintances" that under ideal conditions I may not have chosen to spend long periods banged up with, nor they me for that matter. 
It was generally a time of full employment, and engineers and deck officers even in the better companies, were in short supply. So I was in the position of deciding where I next wanted to go, finding which shipping company serviced that region, and giving them a call.  That's certainly what happened with Booth Line and how I got to South America. But the reason why "Maggie Booth" and her sister company Lamport and Holt were so good is that there was never a time - whether on stand-by in Liverpool during the seamen's strike, or limping into Rio de Janeiro on three cylinders on Devis (Cruising down to Rio) or doing five round trips from New York to Peru on Viajero, that I felt my shipmates and the crew were anything but the best. 
Of course we all had our moments - the second engineer on Viajero, Frank Stinchcombe (The Saint) could be a cantankerous old s.o.b. when he was woken for the 4 to 8 watch after a few too many of his special cocktails (The Perfect Cuba Libre), but I would have sailed with him anywhere on the planet, and I hope he had a long and enjoyable life after his days at sea were over.
John Needham was our skipper for almost all of the time I was on Viajero. It was his first command, but he had been with the company for many years and had travelled previously on the river as first and second mate in previous voyages.  He was a jovial, moustachioed fellow - who enjoyed life, was fond of good food (maybe a little too fond at times) and was always ready to share a cerveza or a cuba libre once the day's work was done. On one occasion when we were in one of the larger river ports, a few of the crew were caught partying with some ladies from a local cantina who had somehow found their way on board.  Unfortunately, their bacchanal coincided with a visit to the ship by one of the marine superintendents who had flown in that morning from New York. Captain Needham was on probation and could not afford to be seen as a weak disciplinarian. He had no alternative but to sack the offenders who were all discharged at Port of Spain in Trinidad a week later.  From there, the ship continued north to New York, loaded fresh cargo and headed south again.  We were back in Barbados within four or five weeks and most of them were re-hired.  I feel it's safe to tell this story now, forty five years later.
What can I tell you about big GeoffHe arrived in Brooklyn to join Viajero a few days after me and no more than an hour or two before the ship sailed. He had travelled in style from Southampton to New York on Queen Mary. I on the other hand, not knowing any better, had allowed myself to be rushed on to a BOAC VC10 from Heathrow and I was on my way from JFK Airport to Brooklyn and in my working gear while Geoff was probably sipping sherry on the Promenade Deck and enjoying shipboard life as only he knew how. Geoff was from Keighley. He was a big Yorkshire lad and had he not chosen a life at sea, I am sure would have made a great prop forward for the local rugby league team if he had been just a little more fit.  He had been with the company for a few years, but this was his first trip on the river.  He was the third engineer and I was the fourth of four. The second engineer, Frank had been on Viajero for six months when we both joined and later when he went on leave, Geoff took over his role as second engineer, and I moved up the ladder a notch and became third engineer. The small increase in pay barely made up for the impact on my social life of taking over the midnight watch, although I'm pleased to say that we did not keep sea-going watches while the ship was in port.
I've already mentioned that Geoff liked the music of our on-board Caribbean steel band. Most evenings after dinner Geoff could be found on the poop deck in his oversized white T-shirt and slightly grubby shorts, perched against the capstan, a glass of rum and coke or a Pabst beer nearby, banging away on his claves keeping time to some of the best music I've ever heard. In the year I sailed with Action (as he was somewhat ironically referred to by Skipper Needham), I don't think I ever heard him raise his voice, or say a word in anger. He was a good shipmate and I enjoyed his company.
Although I have not mentioned it so far, we did actually have a Chief Engineer on board as well. He was in his early sixties and I am not sure that I ever saw him in the engine room during my whole time on Viajero.  He spent much of his time in his cabin reading and was known by the other three engineers as Seldom Seen.  The skipper referred to him as The Guarano Kid, an unkind reference to Venezuelan berry which was regarded as a strong substitute for caffeine. Looking back, these comments are all probably most unfair; for all I know he may have had a wonderful career and we caught him at the end of it. He was certainly not an unpleasant individual and someone had to sign our overtime sheets.
As small as the ship was, we also had two or three passenger cabins, and so it was that on most trips we had a couple of supernumeraries on board.  Sometimes we might have a couple of missionaries on their way to an Amazon outpost - we took quite a few down to Brazil, but I never remember bringing any of them back. Hmm, I wonder.
On my first voyage on the river, we were accompanied by a delightful couple of retirees from Greenville, Ohio who were doing a round-trip holiday. Mac and Suzie were in their late seventies, and they were doing something, which may be common now, but was certainly not in the 1960s.  Mac was very fond of his corn-cob pipe and he would join us most evenings on deck where he would sit puffing away on his pipe and telling us tales of his war years.  He made the pipes himself, and had brought a few with him to share and it wasn't long before we were all smoking corn-cob pipes and staring out across the ship's rail like Sanders of the River. Suzie told us that they didn't have a modern car, or any fancy household gadgets, but what they did each year, was go off to some far corner of the world and do their best to learn more about the world outside their rural corner of the US. I exchanged Christmas Cards with Mac and Suzie for many years after I left the river, and they would tell me of trips to China and Nepal - what great ambassadors they were.
I'll go back their one day soon.  It won't be the same, I know - but the river is still there in all its steamy magnificence.  I would just like to see it before there are too many more roads and bridges carving their way into the rainforests.

Muito obrigado pelo seu tempo...


  1. another interesting read, what about writing that book

  2. Again read with great interest, Mike. Have also sent the link to Pete in Sao Paulo.