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Life on Board

There is a famous quote ‘you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough’.

Right from my childhood, I yearned to see the far off beautiful places displayed in magazines. One way of fulfilling my dream was to join a career, which is thrilling, adventurous, and allow me to see the world.

Therefore, when an advertisement for joining Pakistan Marine Academy came into the newspaper, I was the first one to apply for enrolment. After passing all the grueling tests, the day came when I joined the academy as a junior engineering cadet.

Marine Academy operates on the line of armed forces academies with all the ingredients, which include ragging, parade, sports and of course, studies.

Two years at the Academy passed by in a twinkle of an eye. Three more years of professional training and we were assigned a PNSC ship.

I still remember my first day as a fifth engineer joining m.v. ‘Warsak’ in Karachi port east wharf. The day of reckoning had arrived. On a cold January morning, in the year 1979, I, with my suitcase, climbed her gangway for the first time in my life. It is a custom to make fool any new joiner. I was trying to find the location of the engine room when one of the senior crewmembers told me to bring five kgs of steam in a bucket. I found the bucket but how to put steam into it.? That was the dilemma. After being unsuccessful for almost an hour, one God-fearing colleague told me to relax and that it was all a joke.

“A ship is called a ‘she’ because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

M.V. Warsak was a general cargo ship, built in Germany in the year 1967. The total strength of the crew was fifty-five. The ship crew belongs either to navigational or engineering branches. The captain is the Master of the ship whereas the Chief Engineer heads the engineering department. Both wear four stripes epaulets on their uniforms.

As we sailed from Karachi bound for the USA, everything seemed surreal. On the second day, during my watch in the engine room, I saw three burly men, with their faces blackened with soot, tongues hanging out with thirst, coming down the stairs from the exhaust chimney. I was so afraid that in panic, I actuated the fire alarm so that help can arrive.

Ultimately, it was found out that the three men were ‘stowaways’, people who board the ship illegally in order to jump ship in some foreign port. After giving them food they told the captain that some agent duped them and they were told that the ship is going to Dubai and shall reach there in two days. The captain decided to turn back, handover these stowaways to Karachi harbor Police and continued the voyage.

On my first voyage to the USA, we crossed the Equator. Now the tradition is that whosoever crossing the Equator for the first time is given a head shave by the senior officers as a tribute to King Neptune, the ruler of the oceans. I could hardly believe when my stylish and long strands of hair were ruthlessly cut until the time all crop has been rooted out.

On our way to the USA, the ship transits through Suez Canal, a one hundred long canal built-in 1869. This canal shortens the route to the USA appreciably and due to this reason, the transit charges are high. At the start of the canal passage, more than fifty Egyptians board the ship for different jobs, some of which are not even required. Makeshift shops are set on board selling souvenirs’. Once a colleague forgot to lock his cabin. An hour later his camera, tape recorder, and watch were been offered on these very makeshift shops. Arguing with Egyptians is useless and at times, dangerous.

After the hustle and bustle of transiting through the Suez Canal, the loneliness of the onwards voyage becomes ominous. Approaching the Bay of Biscay, the seas are extremely rough and a 200 meter, 70000 Ton ship rolls and pitches like a feather. Only those who have traveled in such situations can imagine the power the oceans wield.

Entering Atlantic, we received an SOS signal. The rule is that whenever an SOS is received, all vessels in that vicinity shall participate in search and rescue missions. We found a young French couple in a small dinghy asking for help as due to stormy weather, their boat’s fuel was contaminated. We replenished their fuel, gave them some necessary supplies, wished them luck and on we moved. Imagine, crossing Atlantic in a small boat. Some guts.

Crossing Atlantic for the first time was so romantic. Sunrise and sunset are a treat to watch. In those days, we used to spend free time singing, playing cards, cracking jokes or simply, pulling each other legs. The dolphins we all saw in the movie ‘Titanic’ tagging alongside the ship is very much a common occurrence in reality also. Whales and sharks are also encountered, but rarely.

To give an idea of ship speed, normally cargo ships travel at about 15 knots which corresponds to about 28 km/hr. For passenger ships, speed is considerably higher.

A query many ask is how the ship navigates in vast oceans? Well, unlike the GPS we now have, in those days an instrument called ‘Sextant’ was used to take sights of celestial objects and determine ships position where there is no terrestrial object in sight. During cloudy weather, which at times stayed for days, the Master must have some sleepless nights as the position of the ship cannot be determined. Also when navigating in shallow waters, the ‘Depth Finder’ was a tool that prevented the ship from running aground.

A ‘Pilot’ boards the vessel when the ships are about to enter restricted waters. He is the person who has vast knowledge and experience of navigating huge ships in the narrow passageways and is generally a senior Masters’s.

A ship’s life is so demanding that crew duties are segregated in two shifts of four hours each. Imagine a 20000 hp engine propelling the ship in high swells in the Atlantic or Pacific. The crew experiences, say, minus 30C in Russia to plus 45 C in the Red Sea, all within a span of fifteen days.

Seeing the lights of New Orleans harbor was a sight never to be forgotten. As soon as the ship docked and after clearing immigration, we donned our best attire, sprayed ample Eau de Cologne, and off we went to the discos and bars. However, the life of a sailor on shore is a subject so vast that it requires a separate article or maybe many. In the western world, every port has a Seamen’s center where sea weary crew can have a drink, post letters, have a couple of dances with pretty girls. They also have a priest who can counsel you in times of crisis. There is a special mention of taking care of seamen in the Bible.

Another question asked frequently is,’Do you get permission to go ashore’? Yes Sir, we sure do. The immigration staff is the first to board the ship and after scrutinizing the crew papers, are given shore passes.

However, one serious issue on third world countries vessels is the jumping-off ships by crew members, especially in western ports. This has given a very bad name and even today, many join the ship with the sole aim of jumping it.
Crossing the Panama Canal is also worth mentioning as it is nothing short of an engineering marvel. This is a 50 miles waterway connecting the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The much talked about the Bermuda Triangle was an anticlimax for us as I have crossed it many times. Nothing untoward occurred, contrary to belief.

Pirates in those days were active but not very high-tech. The ship staff uses to rig cargo lights and charge fire hoses in order to deter the pirates in dangerous waters.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties, we used to carry cargo for either Iran or Iraq. In both instances, the ship had to pass through ‘Shat-ul-Arab’, a dangerous six hours passage. The chances of being struck by a heat-seeking missile were quite real. These monster missiles targeted the Engine Room where due to propulsion engines, the temperature was comparatively high. Many mariners died due to these missile attacks on various ships.

Once we were to load ammunition from the USA bound for Kuwait after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The safety regime was so intense during ammo loading in Wilmington, North Carolina in the USA that compliance was very hard to achieve. However, no respite was allowed by the US Coast Guards. The ammo, comprising of missiles and bombs, used to come from an underground facility that was fully camouflaged from above. The same cargo, when discharged in Kuwait, was totally bereft of safety protocols. The crane operator was lifting the missiles and bombs from the cargo holds like bales of cotton, all the while smoking a cheap cigarette. We all heaved a sigh of relief when the discharging was complete without any accident.

There are so many words in English, which have their roots with the shipping industry. For example, the word ‘Posh’ is an abbreviation. In olden days, during trans-Atlantic crossings, there was no air-conditioning on ships, the wealthy passengers used to pay extra for a Port (Left) side cabin for an onward voyage and a Starboard (Right) side cabin for the homeward voyage so that the cabin keeps ventilated with an ocean breeze. The clerk, while booking cabins, used to write ’Posh’ against these passengers’ names. Hence the word “Posh’ means affluent or fashionable place.

Similarly, in the days of yore, some wooden ships sank in high seas. Upon inquiry, it was found out that while carrying manure at the bottom of the cargo hold, it used to mix with the seepage seawater and resulted in a weak acid being formed. This acid used to erode the bottom planks thus causing the boat to sink. Subsequently, whenever manure was shipped, the cargo manifest had a remark: Ship High In Transit, hence SHIT.

Names of things onboard are different from those onshore. For example, access ladder to the ship is called a gangway, Drawing Room is called a Smoke Room, a room is called a Cabin, Kitchen is called a galley and aisles are called alleyways.

While serving in a foreign shipping company notorious for not paying salaries for months, a very tragic episode occurred. One member of the crew approached the Captain and requested that he be paid his pending salary as his family was in dire need of money. Captain politely told him that he would try to get his salary in the next port of call, which was five days afar. As luck would have it, the same crewmember died due to natural causes.

After fulfilling all associated rituals, his dead body was placed in a white shroud at the front end of the ship, pending repatriation. The Second Officer, who is also the medical officer, was the lead officer in this entire affair. As he was performing his routine duty on the bridge, he saw the same deceased person, in his white shroud, begging for money. The scene was so scary that the poor Second officer started to shiver and pressed the fire alarm.

In no time, the ship staff came to the bridge including the Captain. The poor lad was incoherent with fear. After calming him down, he was asked what was the issue. He told everyone astonishment about the dead man asking for money. Everyone present consoled him that he must be hallucinating and that such a thing was not simply possible.

The Second officer kept on insisting that he was telling the truth. Finally, it was decided that at sunrise, the Captain along with the officer would go to ascertain that the body is still lying where it was stored. Come sunrise and the staff went to the forecastle, or the bow of the ship, joking on the way as to the second officer immaturity. Lo and behold, the motionless body was lying where it was put. Then someone notices that the dead man’s shroud was covered with rust over his two feet as if he walked all the way through the rusty deck up to the bridge.

This new evidence created a panic situation. In order to keep away from the dead man’s wrath, all hands contributed money so that his salary was also sent along with his dead body.

Another incident, which occurred in one of the ships, is worth mentioning here. It so happened that the Engine Room boiler tube leaked during operation. The Chief Engineer requested the ship to be stopped, allowed some time for the boiler to cool down reasonably and sent a mechanic to plug the leaky tube. Despite the cooling down period, the boiler was pretty hot from inside and the mechanic was constantly gulping down cold water in order to quench his thirst. After two hours of labor, the culprit tube was finally plugged.

The mechanic, while trying to come out of the manhole found that he is unable to come out of the boiler as his stomach had bloated due to drinking excess water. Nobody was prepared for this dilemma. No solution was in sight as the poor mechanic kept on gulping down water due to excessive heat. As the delay in restarting the engine lengthened, the Master, a bulky European person, came into the Engine Room and inquired regarding the delay.

On being told of the situation, he, in a very innocent manner, told the Chief Engineer to refit the manhole door and fire up the boiler, leaving the poor mechanic inside, as the ship sailing cannot be delayed anymore. Hearing this, the bloated mechanic mustered all his strength and made his way past the manhole door, grazing his shoulders and knees in the process. Afterward, the ship’s company had a big laugh and agreed that this was the only way to get him out of the boiler.

Another interesting episode is regarding the scuttling of ships. Some greedy ship-owners, hand in glove with some ship crew, decided to sink the old rusty bucket and claim insurance. At the appointed time, the ship was deliberately sunk and the order to ‘Abandon Ship’ was given by the Master. All crew boarded the lifeboats and proceeded towards the shore which was about fifteen miles away.

A board of inquiry was constituted by Lloyds Register of Shipping since the ship was insured under their name. Upon crew interviews, nothing important came out which could have shed some light on the sinking. However, when the Chief Cook was summoned and asked about what happened that fateful night, he replied that he was very tired due to extra job given by the Chief Officer. Asked by the inquiry board as to what was the extra job given, the cook replied that he was asked to prepare sandwiches and to keep two cases of cold drinks chilled.

This revelation alerted the inquiry board and subsequently, it was finalized that some senior officers knew about the sinking in advance and even ordered drinks and sandwiches so that the crew will have a comfortable and enjoyable passage in the lifeboats. That no insurance was paid and the licenses of those involved revoked go without saying.
As Mark Twain said,” Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Well, I explored, dreamt and discovered over eighty countries around the world. What more could one ask for?
It’s now over twenty years since I called it a day and bid farewell to the roaring waves, yet whenever my wife and I have had too much of each other, I know I have a refuge readily waiting for me with open arms. The sailor in me persists and sometimes I ponder:

I must go down to the seas again,
To the golden seas and the sky,
and all I want is a tall ship,
and a star to steer her by

The writer has sailed on ocean-going ships from 1974-1995, currently works in ICI Pakistan Ltd in Lahore.


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