MANY cargo ships carried 12 first class type accommodation passengers (“pax”), who preferred the relative isolation compared with cruise liners. More than 12 needed the presence of a permanent doctor among the crew. The crews would take the issue of pax two ways. Firstly, these ships always included two to three stewardesses in the crew, normally with accommodation amidships. Often they were young and good looking, and became outright beauties in the eyes of the crew, as the voyage dragged on. This would easily lead to jealousies and associated conflicts.
Secondly, pretty young passengers would equally create unrest, even if the ships’ officers were the lead contenders in that field. Very often would the dishonest conclusion be spelled out, “that women on board only invite trouble”. For myself, when a single person, I was strongly in favour of them all. But as chief officer or captain, one had to eat and mix with the pax while at sea, and I recall some evenings being forced into bridge games with ladies of one’s grandmother’s age, and/or to listen to gossip or complaints about the food, all of which I had to endure in mind-numbing boredom or, worse. For example, typically after four p gins, they would make a pass at you with a wild look behind the heavy mascara. But we always had the knack of maturely taking the bad with the good it seemed. If you really had to make a run for it for your own safety’s sake, the prearranged hand signal to the waiter would lead to you being called away for some fictitious medical emergency.
Some officers would be hunted down with varying degrees of reluctance and succumb to the advances of the younger ladies. Often this officer would disappear from sight during his off-watch hours, every day, and towards the end of an Atlantic crossing he would gradually look pale and worn out.
They came in two main categories: the “involuntaries”, and the serious ones.
The former were often just crewmembers from another ship, who had found themselves on the hospitality side of the ship from other crews they had met and drank with ashore. A late night could lead to falling asleep and not waking up when the host ship sailed at midnight. Seafarers meeting in say, Fremantle, could be from one ship just in from Europe with Sydney the next port of call and another ship due to sail for London.
So it happened that two youngsters found themselves in the morning heading northwest on a Norwegian ship, while being declared missing on their own vessel. There was no way any captain or shipowner would take the cost of returning to port, and in those 1960s days, helicopter transport wasn’t an option.
Anyone “joining” a US-flagged ship in this fashion would be considered a felon on arrival in the American port, probably be handcuffed by the draconian US Immigration officials and serve some time in jail before being deported and banned for life from any future visit to the US.
The voluntary stowaways were most often people who tried to escape their homeland due to political atrocities or simply because of desperate starvation.
I experienced the latter at age 12 when we departed from Cameroon in West Africa and discovered five people hidden in the ship’s forepeak without any water or food and under a closed manhole hatch from where they would be heard only by accident. Efforts to offload them at subsequent ports in Ghana or at Dakar were fruitless, so they had to stay until the UK, where the British would take them in.
There was a horror story making its rounds along the West African ports, how a local stowaway was found dead on board a British ship with all its sailors being Gold Coast (now Ghana) natives. The crew did not report the find to the ship’s command. The escapee was seemingly known to some of the crew, and it was agreed that they would bring the body back to Takoradi for the family to bury it.
The crew had their own provisions, galley and cooks, and they intended shipping the body wrapped in a corner in the crew’s spacious food freezer. However, after arrival at Cardiff they discovered that very little remained of the body (no prizes for guessing), and its leftovers were disposed in a weighted bag into the harbour. Due to its “complexity” nothing from this story was reported to anyone, and nothing appeared in the media.
World War II
My father, in command of a cargo ship visiting Hamburg three months before the end of World War II was aware that three British prisoners of war had been successfully smuggled on board for the trip to Sweden. The Germans were sure that their pre-departure Gestapo inspection of every ship would find any wannabe escapee.
My father invited to his cabin the Gestapo officer in charge well prior to the inspection. They had met before and Dad filled him up somewhat with the fierce Swedish Aquavit schnapps.
The Gestapo was a librarian in civil life and said he was looking forward to returning to the job after the approaching end of the war. My father told him that this may not be so easy, given the record of the Gestapo and the certainty of post-war tribunals by the Allies. It was also suggested to him, that there should be no need for any inspection this time, and that if the Gestapo man agreed, this would be in his favour after the war, my father promised him. It seems that, the hideous uniform notwithstanding, the officer wasn’t of the worst kind.
My father took a huge risk; if the inspection had been carried out, invariably finding the three POWs, they would all four have been shot and the ship interned. The drunken officer agreed not to inspect, the ship sailed with its human cargo and, yes, my father delivered on his promise, and the Gestapo man received a much reduced sentence when his time came in court in 1946, and back to his library or whatever was left of it. He met my father again a few years later and thanked him for having saved his life.
The Eastern Bloc
Fast forward to the 1960s and the then Communist East Germany.
No ship was allowed to leave port until it had been searched by the Volkspolizei’s Vopos, a poor man’s Gestapo and way ahead of their Soviet uncles in terms of cruelty and arrogance.
The routine called for every crew member being herded into a crew’s day room and kept under armed guard while the ship was searched, a total breach of International Law, but Sweden had no diplomatic relations with East Germany to which we could complain.
There was a rattle and German commands being shouted outside, and the Captain and I waved aside the guns and went to check it out. The Vopos had found an old tally clerk with a heart attack, accused him of trying to escape as a stowaway and dragged him feet first over the deck and down the gangway. My complaints in harsh German only resulted in three submachine guns in my face. The last I saw of the man was when he was bundled into a car and they stole his new shoes off his feet. I had given them to him earlier during the day.
They created a kind of reverse crew transgression problem and were a permanent pain for the foreign European vessels visiting Australia in the 1950s-1960s era.
If a deck crew lost two to three of its full complement, it would have consequences like in six-hour watches (instead of four) and generally a higher workload, which was already at stretching points while in port doing cargo work around the clock.
Typically, the escapee would confide in very few and leave the ship in the small hours the night before departure. In the morning he would report to any police station, get registered and provided with a permanent visitor status, which usually would be converted to permanent residency and naturalisation not far behind.
Scandinavian sailors had a good reputation for reliability and work ethics and had no problem finding a job, usually before the jump.
Australia was the most attractive place on earth in the views of many plenty of work available and an ideal country to settle in and live a normal life with family and home.
Part of the background to this was absurd situations, when crew aboard some Swedish ships doing runs between California and Australia would have to wait for 21 months before they could get leave to expensively visit their homes in Sweden. Quite often the stress was worse when the sailor came home to find a small child that he couldn’t remember, either in its appearance or creation.
A young kid with black hair and brown eyes with two nominal “Aryan” – Swedish blond and blue eyes parents, or a dark-skinned type baby, would at least plant a seed of doubt in the homecoming dad’s mind, never mind his wife’s explanations about divine influences, maybe even Virgin Birth like? Marriages had a hard time surviving 21 months of such separation.
The best result would be if the family moved to Australia, and sometimes the shipping lines would allow the wife to sign on as stewardess just for that purpose.
Typically, the ship jumper would show up when his old ship visited six months later, displaying his FJ Holden ute and pregnant wife and invite his old crew mates home to his weatherboard “2 B/R + L-shape living room” home.
There were never any hard feelings after the healing passage of time since his desertion. Most made a terrific life in Australia and contributed greatly to its society.
From the print edition August 31, 2017