I am sound asleep and then there is a bright light shinning in my eyes.
I peer out my small port hole and it looks like the UFO from the ending
scene of "Close Encounters" has landed right outside on the water.
We are about forty miles from Cuba and about one hundred miles from our
next island, Great Inagua. I get dressed and run up top. It is
windy and the seas are running in 10-16 foot swells. Standing too close
for comfort is a 682 foot cargo vessel lit up like a small city. Off the
other side of our boat, about fifty yards away, is a small sailing yacht
The captain received the SOS at 9:35 P.M.,
within ten minutes he saw the distress flare arc high into the night sky
and altered course to assist. Forty five minutes later a large cargo freighter
registered in Oslo, arrives on the scene and provides a lee for the distressed
yacht. The sailboat is a 37 foot sloop, tacking to windward enroute to
Puerto Plata from Manzanillo. There are four people on board and the Captain
has broken his shoulder. The chain plates have come loose from the rough
seas pounding the boat. The mast is in danger of falling. They cannot
raise any sails and their small engine is not strong enough to overcome
the waves and wind to allow them to proceed. We are a 247 foot tramp steamer
enroute from Trinidad to Freeport in the Bahamas.
I go up above the bridge on what is called
Monkey Island and I have a perfect view. I can hear the radio. The captain
of the sloop is freaked out. You can tell by his tone of voice he is pretty
sure he will not live to see the dawn. Our captain directs him to motor
alongside and we will take the injured party onboard but as he tries to
approach, the ocean swells increase and cause his boat to smash into the
side of ours. As his 37 foot fiberglass sailboat slides along the side
of our steel hull it makes a sickening sound and then the aft stay, which
is the remaining wire holding up his mast, gets caught on our forward
upper cargo deck and begins to pull back like a bow being stretched to
the breaking point.
Everyone is up and on deck watching. There
is no moon. Total blackness. No stars. This is high drama. I turn away
for a second and behind me looms the gigantic cargo ship blotting out
the darkness with its city of light and below that, stretching for a city
block in either direction, is the artificial blackness of its huge steel
hull. Everyone holds their breath, sure that the sailboat's back-stay
will snap and pull down the mast but at the last second a wave pulls him
away and the stay pops free. A sigh is felt all around, but then what
is to be done? The waves are kicking his ass and then the Giant
Ship radios that it cannot delay any longer. It has to be on its way.
When it pulls off station the wind break which it provided is removed
and we suddenly feel the full force of the wind and waves. The second
mate has now put on a life jacket attached to a long rope and brave soul
that he is, he is going to attempt to jump over onto the sailboat with
their next attempt but the waves and wind are too strong. It is looking
very bad. The Coast Guard is called, but they are 200 miles away chasing
suspected drug smugglers and cannot assist. We simply cannot stand by
forever. There is the distinct possibility that the mast on the sailboat
will fail, the hull will open, and these four men will die tonight. How
odd. One hundred people on a carefree vacation all safe and secure, watching
with interested detachment as four men in a small boat fight for their
very lives. Finally a solution is at hand. We will throw them a tow rope.
They fall back behind us and after many attempts finally manage to grab
a light line which is tied to a heavier line with which we will tow them.
Everyone heaves a sigh of relief. It has been a long night. And then,
when it seems over, the tow rope breaks! Just then a large wave picks
up the damaged sloop and pushes the small sailboat up into our stern.
The broken tow rope quickly wraps around their prop and kills their engine.
Now they have no sails, no engine, a captain with a broken shoulder, high
winds and ten to fifteen foot seas. You can see the sailing fantasies
of many passengers evaporating in the salt spray.
But why, some of the passengers wonder aloud,
does a boat registered in New York City have a Haitian crew and a Cuban
captain? This is right after we all read about terrorists shooting 60
tourists in Egypt. Maybe these were terrorists. No one has actually seen
the captain with the broken shoulder! And no one on their boat seems to
know anything about their craft. They aren't sure where they are and they
don't even know what a GPS (global positioning system) is! Maybe they
have just stolen the boat and tossed the real captain overboard? The imagination
reels with speculation as the crew tries one last time to get them a tow
rope. Finally they get it! We all let out a cheer and by morning light
we tow them in to Great Inagua. They even come aboard for breakfast and
a shower and they are treated like honored guests. They are extremely
grateful. And so it goes...
I'm cruising from Freeport in the Bahamas to Port of Spain, Trinidad and
back on an old British light house tender converted into a tramp steamer.
She has accommodations for 96 and a crew of 40. We plan to stop at about
twenty islands. Sounds romantic. It is romantic, but being alone on this
trip and being of a somewhat eccentric nature I tend to notice things
that others might perhaps let slide. Here's the other side of the
The noise and vibration from the engine--(the God that lives three levels
below decks and never sleeps), is like some never ending set of Magic
Fingers. Your being becomes so in tune with the engine that if
its RPM's change by the smallest number, you wake up. If walking, you
stop in mid-stride; if eating, your fork hesitates midway to your mouth.
The usual speed is 12 knots, this translates to a slow 200 revolutions
per minute. Two large, seven cylinder diesels with pistons like small
trash cans turn two ninety foot long stainless steel shafts which in turn
rotate two matched bronze propellers each seven foot ten inches in diameter.
After a couple of weeks aboard you feel
it in your back, in your bones, in your mind. Constant, like earthly gravity.
Like a cross country train doing ninety miles per hour over very bad track,
for weeks on end. Like a large plane in severe air turbulence for so long
that in the end it somehow becomes normal. You adjust. You nap during
the day because deep sleep at night is impossible, especially during rough
weather, as you must constantly, at some subliminal level monitor...The
Engine. It's your job! Without your mindful attention, it seemingly
might fail, might simply give it up. Like the subterranean God that it
is, it demands sacrifice in the form of your attention and it cares not
whether you are asleep or awake.
This is an engine that never sleeps, never
completely cools down. When I leave this ship they will resupply within
twenty four hours and continue on, picking up a new group of passengers.
My presence will be missed about as much as a tiny swell upon the surface
of the ocean. There will be others, new ears and minds to monitor...the
engine. If what I hear is correct these two diesels have been running
on and on since the mid 1950's when the ship was originally built to service
English light houses in the North Sea. After the British used it for over
thirty years they discarded it and it mysteriously ended up in the Caribbean,
still moving through the Great Surround like some mindful leviathan,
with the same original two massive seven cylinder diesel engines, the
same two, ninety foot stainless steel shafts and the same two bronze seven
foot ten inch props turning, turning, turning, since this middle aged
old man was a small boy. In storms this gives one pause, as not only do
you have to constantly monitor the engine, but--the hull as well.
Sometimes the waves will lift the hull completely
out of the water, ( this boat is almost 100 yards long!) you hear the
large props bite the air and cavitate and then the bow will break the
water again like a giant blue whale and the groan and vibration will occilate
back throughout the length of the ships steel hull. The shudder that is
felt is almost orgasmic. How long can this simple steel hull withstand
the constant shock. I seem to recall a term called--metal fatigue!
At 3:30 a.m. I calculate, in my half-sleep,
that the hull will fracture somewhere just ahead of the pilot house where
the decks drop down three stories to the now empty cargo area, which continues
down another three levels. That spot is the weak point and that specific
point lies exactly twenty feet in front of my head as I lay in my bunk
feigning sleep. No time for life jackets, all I will sense is a shift
in direction and then a descending blackness swallowing my mind. (The
water will be warm. Small consolation.)
The chief engineer is from Bosnia, the other
engineer is a Buddhist from Trinidad. We are in good hands. At one point
we are offered a tour of the engine room. A small piece of advice. If
you are ever on a forty two year old tramp steamer and offered a tour
of the engine room..."DON'T GO!" You really do not want
to know. Your imagination, even at its darkest, will paint a prettier
picture. The throbbing vibration and the noise...and the heat!
What possible compensation could be great enough to inspire individuals
to actually seek employment down there? They work seven days a week for
five months and then they are given one month off! These are the officers.
The simple peons work eight months on and one month off. The mind boggles.
For this the crewmen are paid between $150 and $250 per month, plus board
And then one night, I awake with a start!
Utter silence, except for the shriek of the wind and the hiss of
the waves moving passed the ships hull. "God is dead!" I think.
I clamor up the stairs to the deck. There are no lights and...no engine
noise. Odd sensation. Adrift. Utter silence. I continue to the pilot house
and am greeted by a truly odd sight. The captain, first mate and second
mate are all standing on the bridge calmly looking forward through the
glass, (except for the second mate, he is idly thumbing through a recent
issue of Playboy). The silence is eerie. The small emergency battery
backup lights have come on. The first mate turns to the Captain. "How
come the gyro-compass is out but the other instruments are still working?"
The captain shrugs his massive shoulders. "Who knows..."
Slowly, as one, they finally turn and stare
at me as if I am an intruder interrupting a private family gathering.
Perhaps a funeral. I attempt a casual smile, "I noticed the eh...silence."
"Yeah", says the captain, "the engine's stopped." I want to shout, "But
why have the engines STOPPED! I don't see any dock out
here." But the pervasive calm on the bridge is contagious, instead I merely
nod at this sage bit of wisdom and creep away, like a child being gently
pushed from the company of adults.
I walk back along the deck, the other passengers
are up now, wandering around in the dark inquiring of each other, "What's
happened?" "The engine's stopped" comes the mumbled reply. A restating
of the obvious seems to be a natural human response when faced with a
crisis. If the ship were actually sinking I am sure people would greet
each other on the tilting deck and say, "the ship is sinking."
The winds are picking up, about thirty knots,
and we have been motoring parallel to the swells, so now we are taking
the wind and waves on our starboard side. It is stupendously--quiet,
aboard the old tramp steamer that night. I have visions of Gordon Lightfoot
singing about the wreck of the "Edmond Fitzgerald". Somewhere out
off the port side lays a reef or a sandbar, we are now in the Bahamas.
This is a zone of shallow water. Andros Island, far off in the distance,
might turn out to be our final port...A large powerboat without power
is infinitely more vulnerable than a sailboat without sails, for even
without sails, a deep keel boat has at least some small way to maintain
direction. A large power boat does not and is totally at the mercy of
the wind, waves and current.
Eventually, the engines do come back to
life. No reason is ever given why they stopped and although each and every
passenger inquires why, the captain only smiles and shrugs.
In some ways this voyage was like having a party, only none of your real
friends show up, only casual acquaintances and strangers, older strangers,
perhaps friends of your parents. You have a pleasant enough time, you
eat, drink too much and go to sleep. The next morning you step from your
room ready to meet and greet the day and..."My Gawd they're all still
here!" For twenty six mornings, they are all still there, all 140
of them. They always smile and nod and it seems at least half of them
even remember your name. After a while it just becomes a blur of tan faces,
green islands, and blue, blue water.
This seemed to be an old peoples boat. Out
of ninety passengers perhaps twenty were under sixty. But this is not
necessarily a bad thing. These were some "activated" elders. These
people reminded me of the elderly in the movie "Cocoon"
after they went for their swim. Although there were some broken
ribs, a broken wrist and assorted cuts and bruises from being tossed about,
fully thirty percent of the passengers were repeat customers. A few had
returned as many as twenty times! These are what is known in the trade
Watching these elderly couples was very
touching. Watching couples who have been together for half a century or
more, who have been betrayed by their bodies, who were no longer the flowers
of their youth, but who were still, none-the-less, alive and vital, and
out there, doing it while still being loving and attentive to their mates,
was an inspiration. I heard no bickering on this boat. By now the battles
had all been fought and the fallen and the victorious had exchanged uniforms
many times. Now the men all seemed extremely kind and the women seemed
very understanding. The gentility encountered was moving. These people
had raised families and buried close friends and they all seemed to be
so--respectful of one another. In fact it seemed as if most of
the women really went out of their way to see to it that their mate was
happy and well served. Very refreshing. I would recommend this trip for
any young couple contemplating marriage. Watch and learn. Observe and
see what traits are required and which last the test of time.
I remember sitting on the top deck one night
in the dark watching the stars stream over-head, speaking with a couple
of elderly women. In the darkness, the years dropped away and it was like
speaking with immortal spirits telling of past lives and trials long endured.
It would seem we are all ageless beings trapped but momentarily in these
cumbersome envelopes of flesh.
One couple aboard had been on the road continually
for eleven years! They each carried one bag, and had no home, no RV, no
storage room secreted away. These people had truly made some sort of break.
The only two constants in their migratory patterns were three weeks with
a daughter in Newfoundland and three months in an apartment in Turkey
every spring. Outside of these two points of reference they were indeed,
free spirits roaming the earth.
My roommate for the entire cruise was an
interesting man. An Australian. An utter stranger assigned to the cabin
by the purser. Retired after forty years in some middle management job
with Shell Oil. Now he traveled and supported 27 adopted children around
the world. He was a fine example of an Aussie gone Brit. His two conversational
rejoinders were "Hmmmmm" and "Yessss" with a rising inflection over the
final three S's, which meant he didn't agree with a word you said but
was much too polite to contradict or argue. An altogether nice man. Extremely
neat, tidy, and private. I liked that.
He had but one rather odd habit. Long about
five in the morning, in total darkness, without warning, would come a
loud mechanical buzzing sound from across the cabin, from the Aussie's
bed, accompanied by wild flailing arms. In the half light streaming through
my port hole, it looked as if my roommate was having a death struggle
with some alien life form! Or perhaps his pace-maker had malfunctioned.
And then suddenly it would all subside and things would grow quiet once
again. The first time this happened I jumped up from a dead sleep, "What
the hell was that?" Turns out that my cabin mate, being a seasoned
traveler and hating to waste time or motion, shaved in bed, in the dark,
every morning, before first light with a battery operated shaver and then
promptly went back to sleep. After the first time, when I inquired, "What
the hell was that?" he explained and said he hoped it wouldn't be a bother.
"Bother?" I answered, "don't give it a thought." After the first dozen
times I slept right through it.
Petit Piton, at Soufriere, St Lucia. Long ago a large volcano blew out
its side into the ocean and now, just before the sun is due to come up,
we cruise inside this old caldera as the ship's stereo plays a bagpipe
version of the song "Amazing Grace". As we enter it is dark and
I have no idea what to expect and then, as in the opening of some epic
movie, the music starts and the bagpipes, with their unearthly drone,
actually make the hair on the back of my neck stand and then there are
the first rays of the sun and--my lord what an awesome sight. At the entrance,
on each side of the opening, are two 2,400 foot plus, pitons or natural
pillars. It looks like one of the seven wonders of the world. A huge crater
framed by mountains of jungle growth opens before us and we slowly cruise
At the very back of the crater in its own
private little Eden is a small, very expensive resort. It is new construction.
They are just in the process of opening for business and in front of the
place at the waters edge, are huge piles of perfectly white sand. There
is no white sand on this volcanic island. These people have imported hundreds
of tons of perfect white sand to create a perfect beach within the caldera
of this sleeping volcano.
This is where the films "Romancing The
Stone" and "Dr. Dolittle" were shot.
This morning the Captain gave us a briefing on volcanoes and tsunamis.
Apparently an underwater volcano called "Kickem' Jenney" is set
to take out the entire southern Antilles. We are due to pass directly
over it this afternoon. It has grown over the last few years to where
it is just a couple of hundred feet below the surface. If (when) it blows
again, they predict it will break the surface and set off a tsunami that
will be truly devastating to the entire region. We are to pass over this
future disaster on our way towards a drive-by volcano on the island of
Tsunamis travel at around five hundred miles
an hour and can reach 130 feet or more in height as they near a lee shore.
It's ten thirty at night. I am alone on the upper deck listening to the
ships stereo system playing a Bob Seeger song "Fire Down Below".
It is 74 degrees and the sky is utterly clear. There are so many stars
in the sky it looks like we are in danger of sailing off the earth. On
my right is the island of Montserrat. Many lights on the island. Heavy
ash cloud hovers low over this active volcano. I can taste the sulfur
ash in the air. It is beginning to coat the boat. We are only about a
mile offshore. Bright half-moon. The seas are very calm. Everyone is one
deck below, hanging over the railing, silent, staring...at what? Hoping
for¾what? A sign of inner earthly life. Everyone is mildly disappointed
that no red glow is detected as we slip by in the night. Everyone secretly
hoped for an eruption.
Pulled into Trinidad today. As you come in towards the harbor of Port
of Spain, you smell it first and then begin to see the debris floating
in the water. All sorts of junk, garbage and waste. The odor of raw sewage
becomes stronger and then you begin to see the wrecks. Six large wrecked
ships in varying positions and varying degrees of decay, mark the entrance
to Port of Spain, Trinidad. The ultimate navigational aid. Nothing gives
one pause and sends the eye to the depth sounder as quickly as a 300 foot
freighter flipped over on its back looking like a huge wale beached in
the mud. There are over 17 large ships wrecked in this harbor.