May 06, 2010

The Odd Couple

“The Old Man is ok,” the Filipino Chief Officer told me cryptically. “But there is a problem when he drinks with the Old Woman.” The Old Man was obviously the Captain, and the Old Woman not so obviously his wife, who was a broad shouldered thirty something year woman who was hardly old, or even frail, as I found out to my cost later.

The problem, the Chief explained, was this: The couple used to get sozzled late at night and roam around the accommodation alleyway on the Captain’s deck. Bare assed naked. At sea and in port. Sometimes looking for a book to read in the smoke room, sometimes just out for a walk. Nude. Like that Emperor with no clothes.

The duty officers at night therefore had the additional responsibility of keeping a good alleyway lookout by sight and hearing and all other means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions, and, if the circumstances of the case admitted, shepherding the two back into their cabin, locking the door (a key to the Captain’s cabin was kept standby on the bridge at all times) and, since their cabin door could be opened from inside even when locked, tying up the door handle in the alleyway with rope such that it couldn’t be opened from within. A rope with a spliced eye was kept standby in the alleyway fire hose box.

This is why Indians stay put in domestic shipping companies, I said to myself, mentally rehearsing the knot I would use on that emergency rope. This was around thirty years ago, and I had just signed on my second foreign ship as a Third Mate. The idiosyncratic old men and women I was used to at sea thus far usually had their clothes on even when they were going crazy.

Ten days later, we reached La Guaira, Venezuela. I was on cargo watch at around 0100 next morning when the Turkish AB came up to me at No. 2 hatch with a gleam in his eye. “Captain, wife, no clothes,” he informed me laconically but with the same gravity that he used on the bridge to report a ship sighted suddenly in the open sea.

Like a fool, I rushed into the accommodation at a time when angels should have feared to tread. One deck below ground zero, I found half the crew groggily but excitedly gathered around the companionway door leading to the Old Man’s deck, too scared to go up and too excited to sleep or miss the fun. On the Captain’s deck, I found the Old (and Odd) Couple rummaging through the medical locker searching for condoms. Starkers. Not a stitch of clothing on them, although the Captain was at least wearing his whiskers.

I took off my working gloves. This job would require delicacy, precision, diplomacy, speed and the ordinary practices of seamen. Also a strong nose, because both of them were reeking of whisky and unwashed sweat.

I bravely caught the Captain’s arm. “This way, sir,” I told him, pointing towards the open door of his cabin, with the flourish, I hoped, of a Maître D' indicating the direction to the best table in the house.

The Captain shook off my hand angrily. “Where are the condoms?” he demanded, looking accusingly at me as if I had stolen them all in a burst of misplaced optimism.

“They were here last week”, the wife added, looking at me with unfocused and puzzled eyes, alarmed, no doubt, by the possibility that the damn things were independently mobile. Meanwhile, I was trying to stay focused, looking into the Captain and his wife’s eyes with great concentration, partly because I was too scared to look anywhere else.

I was also flummoxed. They should have a course on this during Pre-Sea training, I thought. Our education does not prepare us enough in practical watch keeping. We need additional training in nude crowd control.

I decided to take the mare by the horns. I grabbed the lady’s arm, planning to lead her to her cabin and hoping that her faithful husband would follow. She whacked me immediately; a roundhouse that came from nowhere and split my upper lip, which, much to the crew’s delight remained swollen for a week. “Don’t touch me,” she screamed, much like a Bollywood heroine does as the villain advances lecherously towards her.

I panicked. I was in trouble now. No way was I was going to be sacked for assaulting a nude Old Woman. If I was going down, I would take others with me. So, in my best commanding voice, I called for reinforcements from the deck below.

Surprisingly, there seemed to be no shortage of volunteers; the operation was completed quickly and cleanly, partly because the Captain went suddenly sheepish as he realised, even in his inebriated state, that the show, almost private so far, now seemed to be going public.

We shooed the two lovebirds into their cabin, locked, and tied the door. I kept the Turk on guard outside the rest of the night for good measure, despite his alarmed protests.

Even later, the Captain never once asked me why my famous stiff upper lip was swollen.

(Footnote: Some stuff has been changed to protect the guilty)