April 03, 2009

Mixed nuts

Almost thirty years ago, the last recession was just about to begin. Fresh after my Second Mate’s ticket, I got a job in a foreign company completely by accident. The ship was in Houston, the Chief Officer had to sign off, the Second Mate broke his leg and I was in Mumbai, ready and willing though hardly competent. Anyway, they flew me First Class to Zurich (boy, had this Cadet from a straight laced Indian company finally arrived, I mistakenly thought). It was only on the second leg to Houston, squashed between two large Americans, that I realised I would be flying cattle class for the rest of my life, unless somebody broke a leg and Economy was full from Bombay to Zurich again.

It was an odd ship, as you will see. A European Master, and officers and crew from more than a dozen countries, and then some. A little apprehensive (since all foreigners, to me, were crazy), we sailed for Durban with the Captain and me keeping six hourly watches. I did quite well, though I was flummoxed at the beginning by the Captain drawing a course seemingly at random but long enough for the next few hours, asking me to ‘stay on the line’, and going away (He did this all the way to Durban). There was no attempt to tell me what all the ships and oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were doing whilst handing over watch. Perhaps this was because I displayed remarkable competence, but I doubt it, since I had called him up on my second independent watch at sea puzzled by the clouds showing up on the radar screen. I thought they were uncharted land and that we had discovered some new country, like Columbus. I did notice, at the time, that he did not share my enthusiasm at this discovery at around three in the morning.

Anyway, we made it to Durban in one piece, although two days before arrival, I went up at midnight to relieve him and found him sleeping in a chair near the radar.

This was tricky. Life was more formal then: one did not simply tap a watchkeeping Captain on the shoulder to wake him up in those days. It was clear to me that some greater officer like subtlety was required. Therefore, I rattled the coffee cups loudly as I made my Turkish brew. That did not work, and neither did whistling loudly almost in his ear. Perhaps the beer cans in the bin next to him had something to do with it.

He did wake up an hour later, harrumphed, went to the chartroom and drew his customary line in the sand. He then wrote something in the logbook and went away. Later, I read what he had entered in the logbook. It was this:

“Captain sleeping on watch. Fined one case beer.”

There is a small postscript to this story. Soon after we berthed at Durban, this same gentleman called me to his cabin. In front of him were two piles of around two thousand dollars each and a telex from the company. He told me, in his usual guttural voice, “This is telex. This is shorthand. And this (pushing one pile forward) is for you. Same same for me.”

I went to my cabin and counted the money. My last wages before this ship, a stipend really, were two hundred rupees a month. This was a rags to riches story! So I lit a cigarette with a one dollar note and a shaky hand.

Those crazy foreigners had got to me in the end.

About three years later, I was a Second Mate on a bulk carrier with an Indian Master who seemed to have a running feud going on with the Third Mate. To be fair, things were going swimmingly until the Captain insisted that he be called ‘Sir’, and so the Third asked him, “Why? Have you been knighted?” Things went downhill pretty quickly from there.

Three months later, the Captain’s wife and six year old daughter had joined the ship, and we were approaching Gujarat. The Captain had a habit of leaving his daughter on the bridge, who was fond of going for a walkabout everywhere on the wheelhouse and twirling, turning, pulling and pushing any knobs or levers that she found en route. This had been going on for more than a month.

Whilst on watch, we got used to keeping an eagle eye out for unplanned alterations of course which the little angel instigated. She had a good ROR sense though; she always made broad alterations of course which were clearly visible to other ships in the vicinity, even though it must have scared the bejeesus out of some of them. Funny things happened on our wheelhouse, though. Wipers came on, the Christmas tree was lit up with puzzling lights being randomly switched on, radars were sometimes found switched on or off and so on. Hinting to the Captain that this was a little untoward proved useless; he simply ignored us.

The engine room also got used to sudden engine commands in the middle of nowhere as the telegraph was repeatedly rung. Fortunately for all, it was not a bridge controlled main engine. I suspect, though, that the sudden and rapid blowing of the foghorn at all hours of the day or night on that ship is probably the cause of all my blood pressure problems even today.

The Third Mate finally lost it when the little lady altered course twenty degrees to port with a ship a mile away. When I took over watch from him, he told me that the courses we were steering were unknown to him. He had also logged down appropriately in the deck logbook: ‘Courses to Master’s daughter’s orders’.

She was never brought up on the bridge again. The course recorder must have heaved a sigh of relief.

Then there was, much more recently, the Second Mate I sailed with who I nicknamed Lord Emsworth, because, like the P.G. Wodehouse character, he was besotted with all his pigs back in the Philippines.

Wodehouse couldn’t have done justice to my Lord E, though. Until I put a stop to it with a heavy heart, the Second Mate would whip out a bunch of photographs of his pigs at every opportunity and show them to anybody who happened to be in the wheelhouse during his watch. I admit his commercial piggery back home was top class, but one doesn’t want an officer of the watch telling one how beautiful so and so pig is when one goes up to have a dekko at the chart and the traffic, or to have a cuppa.

The other officers did not seem to mind, although I saw the Chief Officer giving the Second Mate funny looks from time to time. The Chief told me later, “Cap, the Second not married. No good.”

Along with Lord Emsworth and the pictures of his Empresses of Blanding, we had an Indian Jain as a Fourth Engineer aboard that same ship. Very strict vegetarian and a pretty militant one to boot. The Filipino cook used to be reduced to jelly whenever the Fourth’s name came up in Mess Committee meetings; obviously a crazy foreigner cannot be expected to understand what a strict Jain will eat and what not, and which ladle is not supposed to be used to stir which curry, and complicated things like that.

So, anyway, I go ashore in Philadelphia and I see, through a restaurant plate glass, our Fourth Engineer sitting at a table. He is digging into a huge beef burger.

Alarmed that he did not realise what he was eating, I entered the den of iniquity and went up to him. “Fourth, do you know that you are eating beef??!!”

“Yes, I know”, he says, smacking his lips. “But it is not an Indian cow.”