June 10, 2010

The Tapioca Girl and the Dirty Old Man

Almost fifteen years ago, a shipping company I was sailing with asked me if I would go for two months on a ship chartered by them plying in Southeast Asia. My job, a Cargo Superintendent’s, was to oversee the operations in all the ports that she called. This was a liner service where we did our own cargo bookings and so greater involvement was required from people on board; involvement we Masters sailing with the outfit were used to. You know, liasioning with customers and the office, managing last minute cargo changes to bookings, stowage, lashings, stability and such stuff. Additionally, that ship was taking twice as long in Bangkok as our own ships did for the same cargo movement; I was to ensure a faster turnaround.

That assignment (I returned there a few times, sometimes for just two weeks) turned out to be the most entertaining one of my life.

On our first call to Bangkok, loading Ro-Ro cargo, tapioca and steel on that multipurpose ship, I discovered that the Chief Officer would close the hatch covers at the first sign of approaching clouds, claiming that it was going to rain. Only at night. He would then retire to his cabin with a girl who was part of the stevedore gang brought in by us to load bagged tapioca. The Captain did not like it when I woke him up at midnight and told him that the charterers were not paying stevedores to have a good time with the Chief Officer, and neither were we running an escort service gratis for him or his crew. He liked it even less when I slipped a letter under his door an hour later (he wasn’t answering the phone) informing him that his ship was off hire because the hatches were needlessly closed and the tapioca girl was still missing.

I discovered that partying on board in the evening after closing the hatch covers (rain! rain!) was a daily affair (another off hire letter the next evening handed over to the Captain while leaning over a couple of painted women and tripping over a couple of beer bottles). Besides, every usual trick in the book was used to delay the ship in Thai ports. It got very annoying, and made a policeman out of me for a trip.

They were dangerously sloppy in other ways, that crew. About ten miles from Singapore, at full speed, I heard the rattle of the chain as the anchor was let go ‘by mistake’. I still don’t know exactly what happened; the Captain told me later that the Bosun had let go the anchor while taking off the lashings. Some Bosun. In any event, they got another letter from me, because it took them a few hours to pick up the anchor from 50 metres of water, the windlass being almost as weak as the crew was. The incident cost them a fair bit, because Singapore pilot rebooking charges and stevedore waiting costs can be heavy, and so can off hire. Lucky they did not damage anything major or lose an anchor. Or a man or two.

Anyway, after seeing all this drama- and more- for about a fortnight, I vowed to get more tough with the ship the next call Thailand. (My boss in the office was even more exasperated and blunt, and told me that my first job was to ‘straighten that #$%@#& out’; he was talking about the Master). However, as it turned out, I did not need to do much at all, because two things happened in Bangkok soon after arrival next call.

The first: Two hours after berthing at Klong Toey, the tapioca girl’s husband landed up and threatened the Chief Officer, shouting Thai abuses at him from the quayside. In turn, the Chief Officer and one or two crew, all with more bravado than brains, rushed down the gangway to confront the husband ashore, who promptly pulled out a revolver and fired two warning shots in the air. That got everybody’s attention; it also got their testosterone levels down with a thump. The crew rushed back to safety inside the accommodation. Tapioca girl problem solved.

The second incident was even more interesting. Asleep in a cabin late that night, I heard a god-awful ruckus and came out groggily to find the Chief Officer holding a smallish metal box in his hand and banging mightily on the Captain’s locked door. “Big problem, he told me hopefully. “Captain not answering. Mebbe he dead.” Two other crew with him nodded unsympathetically in agreement.

Turns out the Captain had gone to a seedy bar ashore and returned with two seedy girls (I promptly dubbed him Dirty Old Man). A couple of hours later, one of the crew saw the girls going down the gangway with the metal box and challenged them, whereupon the ladies dropped it and took off. The box was found to contain all the crew’s passports.

Anyway, we broke open the Captains door and we found him lying on the carpet in a small pool of blood with a smashed temple. After he was brought to, he told us that the girls had probably slipped something into his drink and, after he was groggy, smashed his temple (dangerously close to his left eye, he was very lucky) with a glass ashtray. The DOM had a swelling the size of two golf balls for weeks, and was blind in one eye all of that time.

Nothing else was missing, but the metal box used to have eight thousand dollars and a Rolex watch in it, which were now gone with the perfumed wind.

No more girls allowed on board. Banned by the Captain next morning. Party problem solved.

As for the tapioca girl, she returned every voyage to work in the stevedore gang, but I never saw her going up to the Chief’s cabin again. I did see her sneaking a wistful look at his bridge front porthole once or twice, though.