Tramp Steamer Through The Caribbean


Tramp Freighter through The Caribbean

I am sound asleep and then there is a bright light shinning in my eyes. I peer out my small port hole and it looks like the UFO from the ending scene of “Close Encounters” has landed right outside on the water. We are about forty miles from Cuba and about one hundred miles from our next island, Great Inagua. I get dressed and run up top. It is windy and the seas are running in 10-16 foot swells. Standing too close for comfort is a 682 foot cargo vessel lit up like a small city. Off the other side of our boat, about fifty yards away, is a small sailing yacht in distress.

The captain received the SOS at 9:35 P.M., within ten minutes he saw the distress flare arc high into the night sky and altered course to assist. Forty five minutes later a large cargo freighter registered in Oslo, arrives on the scene and provides a lee for the distressed yacht. The sailboat is a 37 foot sloop, tacking to windward enroute to Puerto Plata from Manzanillo. There are four people on board and the Captain has broken his shoulder. The chain plates have come loose from the rough seas pounding the boat. The mast is in danger of falling. They cannot raise any sails and their small engine is not strong enough to overcome the waves and wind to allow them to proceed. We are a 247 foot tramp steamer enroute from Trinidad to Freeport in the BahamasĀ Spanish radio stations.

I go up above the bridge on what is called Monkey Island and I have a perfect view. I can hear the radio. The captain of the sloop is freaked out. You can tell by his tone of voice he is pretty sure he will not live to see the dawn. Our captain directs him to motor alongside and we will take the injured party onboard but as he tries to approach, the ocean swells increase and cause his boat to smash into the side of ours. As his 37 foot fiberglass sailboat slides along the side of our steel hull it makes a sickening sound and then the aft stay, which is the remaining wire holding up his mast, gets caught on our forward upper cargo deck and begins to pull back like a bow being stretched to the breaking point.

Everyone is up and on deck watching. There is no moon. Total blackness. No stars. This is high drama. I turn away for a second and behind me looms the gigantic cargo ship blotting out the darkness with its city of light and below that, stretching for a city block in either direction, is the artificial blackness of its huge steel hull. Everyone holds their breath, sure that the sailboat’s back-stay will snap and pull down the mast but at the last second a wave pulls him away and the stay pops free. A sigh is felt all around, but then what is to be done? The waves are kicking his ass and then the Giant Ship radios that it cannot delay any longer. It has to be on its way. When it pulls off station the wind break which it provided is removed and we suddenly feel the full force of the wind and waves. The second mate has now put on a life jacket attached to a long rope and brave soul that he is, he is going to attempt to jump over onto the sailboat with their next attempt but the waves and wind are too strong. It is looking very bad. The Coast Guard is called, but they are 200 miles away chasing suspected drug smugglers and cannot assist. We simply cannot stand by forever. There is the distinct possibility that the mast on the sailboat will fail, the hull will open, and these four men will die tonight. How odd. One hundred people on a carefree vacation all safe and secure, watching with interested detachment as four men in a small boat fight for their very lives. Finally a solution is at hand. We will throw them a tow rope. They fall back behind us and after many attempts finally manage to grab a light line which is tied to a heavier line with which we will tow them. Everyone heaves a sigh of relief. It has been a long night. And then, when it seems over, the tow rope breaks! Just then a large wave picks up the damaged sloop and pushes the small sailboat up into our stern. The broken tow rope quickly wraps around their prop and kills their engine. Now they have no sails, no engine, a captain with a broken shoulder, high winds and ten to fifteen foot seas. You can see the sailing fantasies of many passengers evaporating in the salt spray.

But why, some of the passengers wonder aloud, does a boat registered in New York City have a Haitian crew and a Cuban captain? This is right after we all read about terrorists shooting 60 tourists in Egypt. Maybe these were terrorists. No one has actually seen the captain with the broken shoulder! And no one on their boat seems to know anything about their craft. They aren’t sure where they are and they don’t even know what a GPS (global positioning system) is! Maybe they have just stolen the boat and tossed the real captain overboard? The imagination reels with speculation as the crew tries one last time to get them a tow rope. Finally they get it! We all let out a cheer and by morning light we tow them in to Great Inagua. They even come aboard for breakfast and a shower and they are treated like honored guests. They are extremely grateful. And so it goes…


I’m cruising from Freeport in the Bahamas to Port of Spain, Trinidad and back on an old British light house tender converted into a tramp steamer. She has accommodations for 96 and a crew of 40. We plan to stop at about twenty islands. Sounds romantic. It is romantic, but being alone on this trip and being of a somewhat eccentric nature I tend to notice things that others might perhaps let slide. Here’s the other side of the story.


The noise and vibration from the engine–(the God that lives three levels below decks and never sleeps), is like some never ending set of Magic Fingers. Your being becomes so in tune with the engine that if its RPM’s change by the smallest number, you wake up. If walking, you stop in mid-stride; if eating, your fork hesitates midway to your mouth. The usual speed is 12 knots, this translates to a slow 200 revolutions per minute. Two large, seven cylinder diesels with pistons like small trash cans turn two ninety foot long stainless steel shafts which in turn rotate two matched bronze propellers each seven foot ten inches in diameter.

After a couple of weeks aboard you feel it in your back, in your bones, in your mind. Constant, like earthly gravity. Like a cross country train doing ninety miles per hour over very bad track, for weeks on end. Like a large plane in severe air turbulence for so long that in the end it somehow becomes normal. You adjust. You nap during the day because deep sleep at night is impossible, especially during rough weather, as you must constantly, at some subliminal level monitor…The Engine. It’s your job! Without your mindful attention, it seemingly might fail, might simply give it up. Like the subterranean God that it is, it demands sacrifice in the form of your attention and it cares not whether you are asleep or awake.

This is an engine that never sleeps, never completely cools down. When I leave this ship they will resupply within twenty four hours and continue on, picking up a new group of passengers. My presence will be missed about as much as a tiny swell upon the surface of the ocean. There will be others, new ears and minds to monitor…the engine. If what I hear is correct these two diesels have been running on and on since the mid 1950’s when the ship was originally built to service English light houses in the North Sea. After the British used it for over thirty years they discarded it and it mysteriously ended up in the Caribbean, still moving through the Great Surround like some mindful leviathan, with the same original two massive seven cylinder diesel engines, the same two, ninety foot stainless steel shafts and the same two bronze seven foot ten inch props turning, turning, turning, since this middle aged old man was a small boy. In storms this gives one pause, as not only do you have to constantly monitor the engine, but–the hull as well.

Sometimes the waves will lift the hull completely out of the water, ( this boat is almost 100 yards long!) you hear the large props bite the air and cavitate and then the bow will break the water again like a giant blue whale and the groan and vibration will oscillate back throughout the length of the ships steel hull. The shudder that is felt is almost orgasmic. How long can this simple steel hull withstand the constant shock. I seem to recall a term called–metal fatigue!

At 3:30 a.m. I calculate, in my half-sleep, that the hull will fracture somewhere just ahead of the pilot house where the decks drop down three stories to the now empty cargo area, which continues down another three levels. That spot is the weak point and that specific point lies exactly twenty feet in front of my head as I lay in my bunk feigning sleep. No time for life jackets, all I will sense is a shift in direction and then a descending blackness swallowing my mind. (The water will be warm. Small consolation.)

The chief engineer is from Bosnia, the other engineer is a Buddhist from Trinidad. We are in good hands. At one point we are offered a tour of the engine room. A small piece of advice. If you are ever on a forty two year old tramp steamer and offered a tour of the engine room…”DON’T GO!”. You really do not want to know. Your imagination, even at its darkest, will paint a prettier picture. The throbbing vibration and the noise…and the heat! What possible compensation could be great enough to inspire individuals to actually seek employment down there? They work seven days a week for five months and then they are given one month off! These are the officers. The simple peons work eight months on and one month off. The mind boggles. For this the crewmen are paid between $150 and $250 per month, plus board and room.

And then one night, I awake with a start! Utter silence, except for the shriek of the wind and the hiss of the waves moving passed the ship’s hull. “God is dead!” I think. I clamor up the stairs to the deck. There are no lights and…no engine noise. Odd sensation. Adrift. Utter silence. I continue to the pilot house and am greeted by a truly odd sight. The captain, first mate and second mate are all standing on the bridge calmly looking forward through the glass, (except for the second mate, he is idly thumbing through a recent issue of Playboy). The silence is eerie. The small emergency battery backup lights have come on. The first mate turns to the Captain. “How come the gyro-compass is out but the other instruments are still working?” The captain shrugs his massive shoulders. “Who knows…”

Slowly, as one, they finally turn and stare at me as if I am an intruder interrupting a private family gathering. Perhaps a funeral. I attempt a casual smile. “I noticed the eh…silence.” “Yeah”, says the captain, “the engine’s stopped.” I want to shout, “But why have the engines STOPPED! I don’t see any dock out here.” but the pervasive calm on the bridge is contagious, instead I merely nod at this sage bit of wisdom and creep away, like a child being gently pushed from the company of adults.

I walk back along the deck, the other passengers are up now, wandering around in the dark inquiring of each other, “What’s happened?” “The engines stopped”, comes the mumbled reply. A restating of the obvious seems to be a natural human response when faced with a crisis. If the ship were actually sinking I am sure people would greet each other on the tilting deck and say “the ship is sinking.”

The winds are picking up, about thirty knots, and we have been motoring parallel to the swells, so now we are taking the wind and waves on our starboard side. It is stupendously–quiet, aboard the old tramp steamer that night. I have visions of Gordon Lightfoot singing about the wreck of the “Edmond Fitzgerald”. Somewhere out off the port side lays a reef or a sandbar, we are now in the Bahamas. This is a zone of shallow water. Andros Island, far off in the distance, might turn out to be our final port…A large powerboat without power is infinitely more vulnerable than a sailboat without sails, for even without sails, a deep keel boat has at least some small way to maintain direction. A large power boat does not and is totally at the mercy of the wind, waves and current.

Eventually, the engines do come back to life. No reason is ever given why they stopped and although each and every passenger inquires why, the captain only smiles and shrugs.

In some ways this voyage is like having a party, only none of your real friends show up, only casual acquaintances and strangers, older strangers, perhaps friends of your parents. You have a pleasant enough time, you eat, drink too much and go to sleep. The next morning you step from your room ready to meet and greet the day and…”My Gawd they’re all still here!” For twenty six mornings, they are all still there, all 140 of them. They always smile and nod and it seems at least half of them even remember my name. After a while it just becomes a blur of tan faces, green islands, and blue, blue water.

This seemed to be an old peoples boat. Out of ninety passengers perhaps twenty were under sixty. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. These were some “activated” elders. These people reminded me of the elderly in the movie “Cocoon” after they went for their swim. Although there were some broken ribs, a broken wrist and assorted cuts and bruises from being tossed about, fully thirty percent of the passengers were repeat customers. A few had returned as many as twenty times! These are what is known in the trade as cruise-aholics.

Watching these elderly couples was very touching. Watching couples who have been together for half a century or more, who have been betrayed by their bodies, who were no longer the flowers of their youth, but who were still, none-the-less, alive and vital, and out there, doing it while still being loving and attentive to their mates, was an inspiration. I heard no bickering on this boat. By now the battles had all been fought and the fallen and the victorious had exchanged uniforms many times. Now the men all seemed extremely kind and the women seemed very understanding. The gentility encountered was moving. These people had raised families and buried close friends and they all seemed to be so–respectful of one another. In fact it seemed as if most of the women really went out of their way to see to it that their mate was happy and well served. Very refreshing. I would recommend this trip for any young couple contemplating marriage. Watch and learn. Observe and see what traits are required and which last the test of time.

I remember sitting on the top deck one night in the dark watching the stars stream over-head, speaking with a couple of elderly women. In the darkness the years dropped away and it was like speaking with immortal spirits telling of past lives and trials long endured. It would seem we are all ageless beings trapped but momentarily in these cumbersome envelopes of flesh.

One couple aboard had been on the road continually for eleven years! They each carried one bag, and had no home, no RV, no storage room secreted away. These people had truly made some sort of break. The only two constants in their migratory patterns were three weeks with a daughter in Newfoundland and three months in an apartment in Turkey every spring. Outside of these two points of reference they were indeed, free spirits roaming the earth.

My roommate for the entire cruise was an interesting man. An Australian. An utter stranger assigned to the cabin by the purser. Retired after forty years in some middle management job with Shell Oil. Now he traveled and supported 27 adopted children around the world. He was a fine example of an Aussie gone Brit. His two conversational rejoinders were “Hmmmmm” and “Yessss”, with a rising inflection over the final three “s’s”, which meant he didn’t agree with a word you said but was much too polite to contradict or argue. An altogether nice man. Extremely neat, tidy, and private. I liked that.

He had but one rather odd habit. Long about five in the morning, in total darkness, without warning, would come a loud mechanical buzzing sound from across the cabin, from the Aussie’s bed, accompanied by wild flailing arms. In the half light streaming through my port hole, it looked as if my roommate was having a death struggle with some alien life form! Or perhaps his pace-maker had malfunctioned. And then suddenly it would all subside and things would grow quiet once again. The first time this happened I jumped up from a dead sleep, “What the hell was that?” Turns out that my cabin mate, being a seasoned traveler and hating to waste time or motion, shaved in bed, in the dark, every morning, before first light with a battery operated shaver and then promptly went back to sleep. After the first time, when I inquired “What the hell was that?”, he explained and said he hoped it wouldn’t be a bother. “Bother?” I answered, “don’t give it a thought.” After the first dozen times I slept right through it.


Petit Piton, at Soufriere, St Lucia. Long ago a large volcano blew out its side into the ocean and now, just before the sun is due to come up, we cruise inside this old caldera as the ship’s stereo plays a bagpipe version of the song “Amazing Grace”. As we enter it is dark and I have no idea what to expect and then, as in the opening of some epic movie, the music starts and the bagpipes, with their unearthly drone, actually make the hair on the back of my neck stand and then there are the first rays of the sun and–my lord what an awesome sight. At the entrance, on each side of the opening, are two 2,400 foot plus, pitons or natural pillars. It looks like one of the seven wonders of the world. A huge crater framed by mountains of jungle growth opens before us and we slowly cruise inside.

At the very back of the crater in its own private little Eden is a small, very expensive resort. It is new construction. They are just in the process of opening for business and in front of the place at the waters edge, are huge piles of perfectly white sand. There is no white sand on this volcanic island. These people have imported hundreds of tons of perfect white sand to create a perfect beach within the caldera of this sleeping volcano.

This is where the films “Romancing The Stone” and “Dr. Dolittle” were shot.


This morning the Captain gave us a briefing on volcanoes and tsunamis. Apparently an underwater volcano called “Kickem’ Jenney” is set to take out the entire southern Antilles. We are due to pass directly over it this afternoon. It has grown over the last few years to where it is just a couple of hundred feet below the surface. If (when) it blows again, they predict it will break the surface and set off a tsunami that will be truly devastating to the entire region. We are to pass over this future disaster on our way towards a drive-by volcano on the island of Montserrat.

Tsunamis travel at around five hundred miles an hour and can reach 130 feet or more in height as they near a lee shore.


It’s ten thirty at night. I am alone on the upper deck listening to the ships stereo system playing a Bob Seger song “Fire Down Below”. It is 74 degrees and the sky is utterly clear. There are so many stars in the sky it looks like we are in danger of sailing off the earth. On my right is the island of Montserrat. Many lights on the island. Heavy ash cloud hovers low over this active volcano. I can taste the sulfur ash in the air. It is beginning to coat the boat. We are only about a mile offshore. Bright half-moon. The seas are very calm. Everyone is one deck below, hanging over the railing, silent, staring…at what? Hoping for…what? A sign of inner earthly life. Everyone is mildly disappointed that no red glow is detected as we slip by in the night. Everyone secretly hoped for an eruption.


Pulled into Trinidad today. As you come in towards the harbor of Port of Spain, you smell it first and then begin to see the debris floating in the water. All sorts of junk, garbage and waste. The odor of raw sewage becomes stronger and then you begin to see the wrecks. Six large wrecked ships in varying positions and varying degrees of decay mark the entrance to Port of Spain, Trinidad. The ultimate navigational aid. Nothing gives one pause and sends the eye to the depth sounder as quickly as a 300 foot freighter flipped over on its back looking like a huge wale beached in the mud. There are over 17 large ships wrecked in this harbor.


End Thoughts on Travel

Since returning I can observe my trip memories condensing before my mind’s eye like droplets of water on a window. By the end of the month my experience has become a blur and a wash like rain on a moving vehicles windshield. Now that I’m back home, the vehicle has stopped and the moisture of experience is beading up into isolated patterns of memory and image, that in the future will constitute my recollection of a tramp steamer voyage through the Caribbean.

This is a process that everyone goes through in their life, constantly culling, sifting and editing memories to fit in with the imaginative experience. Distilling the gross mass of total input into a handful of concise mind pictures which upon recollection we will call “Our Life”, for above all things we are more than mere adventurers in reality, we are true co-creators.

One purpose of travel is to give us a bushel basket of new experience which we may distill down and drape over our total life experience like a template or a blanket, for future examination. This is certainly nothing that we couldn’t have accomplished at home. Goodness knows we all have more than enough experience in our day to day lives. But habit can often become a predator stealing our attention and keeping us at bay, virtual prisoners in our own reality.

Once we grant ourselves the option of taking time out, going on “Vacation”, we suddenly become lighter, freer, more frivolous beings, more uninhibited, more playful–and more human. But in the end a vacation is nothing more than a temporal refocusing of the life experience. Sort of like taking off our glasses for a while and glancing up from the printed page for a slow glance around the room in which we live. For in the end we all inhabit but one place and that is…the present moment.

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