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Merchant Marine Memories

Reading Ralph Bostrom’s interesting letter about sailing with the merchant marine service to Curacao, I was reminded of my own experiences with the Seamen's International Union on board a freighter bound for Saigon in 1968.

We left Richmond running light to Long Beach, where we were loaded with a full cargo of beer and cigarettes. A few days out I found I had the crabs and, without a proper remedy on board used a mixture of DDT, used for pest control on ships at the time, and flour — 1:4.

It worked just fine.

Half way across the Pacific, some of the veteran sailors broke into the hold and stole numerous cases of beer. A huge party ensued until the officer on watch ruined the party when one drunken sailor attacked him with a knife. I guess the officer was pissed he hadn’t been invited.

On arriving at the Bay where the Saigon River runs into the South China Sea, we were required to anchor to wait for a convoy to run up the river 20 miles to Saigon. Four very boring days later we followed a bunch of small warships and freighters up the river as an occasional ping of small arms fire kept us below decks. The jungle on both sides of the river was completely decimated as far as you could see, probably from Agent Orange.

Saigon in those days was quite beautiful, with a very French flavor to the architecture. Numerous canals branched out from the river, and our ship lay alongside for unloading. It took 3-4 days, and in the meantime the crew was allowed to roam the bars, nightclubs, and Opium dens in the “Chinese” sector of the city, which was off limits to the military personnel, and said to be controlled by Viet Cong. Of course, it was the “Chinese” sector where myself and my buddies wanted to hang out. As we passed through “Checkpoint Charlie” we were warned by the Marine on duty that we were on our own and that they could not protect us if we entered. We did so anyway.

Later, while strolling along one of the aforementioned canals, I came across a small double-ended sailboat of about 30 feet, anchored fore and aft in the canal. Sitting on deck was an attractive woman in a bikini, seemingly unaware of the wrestling match taking place on the after deck between a German Shepherd and a small bear. Such were the incongruities of wartime Saigon. 

Many years later I owned an identical boat, a Tahiti Ketch, one of the most traveled sailboats in the world.

The tallest building in Saigon at the time was three stories, with a bar and restaurant on the roof. A popular place for foreigners, one could “watch the war” while having a beer or cocktail, as Vietnam in that sector was completely flat and one could see bomb flashes and aircraft operate many miles away. A sobering sight if ever there was one. I didn’t go back.

Our return was via Okinawa and Yokohama. Passing across the South China Sea took us through one of the largest and most dangerous typhoons on record at that time. We were forced to “turn tail” and run before the storm for a couple of days until able to proceed to Okinawa. It was said that some 300 ships and boats were lost or abandoned as a result of that event.

In Okinawa and Yokohama we loaded huge earth moving equipment tires to be taken back to the U.S. for re-capping. Most were said to come from the war effort in Vietnam, and provided needed ballast for our return trip.

While entering Yokohama shipping traffic was intense, with dozens of large and small vessels all around, making navigation exhausting. As there was no dock space we again had to anchor, and were loaded by small lighters, coming and going day and night. 

Luckily, we managed to find time ashore for a couple of days. A shipmate and I rode by train to Mount Fuji, intending to climb to the top, but ran out of time and had to return to the ship, or be left behind. On reflection, not a bad outcome. In the North Pacific we encountered the after effects of a large storm, creating monstrous seas more than a quarter-mile between sets. Our voyage ended back in Richmond. After we were paid off I hitchhiked to Mill Valley where I began, and then ended my merchant marine service. Suffice to say, strange events are experienced while sailing the seas.

(Richey Wasserman is a Point Arena City Councilman)

One Comment

  1. Donald August 2, 2022

    Nice to hear some sea stories. I have some to share. Somehow I became interested in going to sea. It probably came from reading Melville, London, “Two Yeats Before the Mast”, Karoac, Steinbeck, and even Lenny Bruce. They all talked about the magic of “going to sea”. Uncle Merrit encouraged me too. He was one of those marines who went through five major campaigns in the South Pacific before he was wounded and sent home. One of those marines left ashore when a Japanese flotilla showed up at Guadal Canal. Uncle Merrit knew the value of just being alive. He told me how beautiful it was to go out on deck at night when the ocean was glassy smooth, the moon was reflecting off the ocean, and a flying fish would take off and skim across that moonlight. I wanted to see that and I did.

    This was the early 70’s and shipping was winding down after the end of the Vietnam War. No chance to get work on an American ship. Somewhere along the line I ran into a young guy who told me that the Scandinavians hired foreigners and they had a hiring hall on Embarcadero. They posted the openings mornings at ten and I was there when the job for a deckhand on a Swedish oil tanker came up. They sent me down for all my vaccinations and flew me into Seattle tp pick up the ship. It was running a very high grade of oil from Arica, Chile to a refinery in Anacortes, Washington. We did several of those trips before going through the canal and picking up a load of oil in Venzuela. This oil was very low grade, looked like it was ready to pave roads, and had to be kept heated all the way across the Atlantic.

    I learned that the deck hands are primarily there for letting go and docking. At sea you occupy yourself with chipping rust and painting. I also tool the life boat drills seriously. Docking is not easy. This ship was small by oil tanker standards but it carried 36,000 tons of oil and that was also about what the ship weighed. So the deck hands are using those big 4 inch nylon ropes on big winches to move more than 70,000 tons into position.

    The ship went into dry dock in Portugal and I got to spend two exciting weeks in Lisbon. Seaman ashore know how to have fun. From there we crossed the equator into Gabon, Africa and then back across the Atlantic to Porto Rico. It was the ugliest, smelliest oil refinery I saw anywhere. A large number of smoke stacks burning off excess natural gas 24/7. Then things took a turn. The seamen had always said that when there was no oil to be bought elsewhere, the ship would go to the Persian Gulf. Two months into Karg Island, Iran. The heat was unbearable and we were only allowed to go to the seaman’s club where I occupied myself with guzzeling beer. We did hit some big seas coming out of the Persian Gulf and into the Indian ocean. We were headed directly into waves that were about 50 feet high. When they are loaded oil tankers ride very low in the water. The bow of the ship would bury itself in the base of these waves, the big propellers on the back would lift out of the water, and the whole ship would shake. I was glad to get around the cape. Two months later the ship delivered the oil to Houston and I paid off. Four months at sea was enough of the real seaman’s life for me. I later went back working on Norwegian Cruise ships for several years. Glamour ports and beautiful Scandinavian women on the crew made for a different experience. I landed on six continents, did cruises all the way around South America, all over Europe and up the coast of Norway, and down through the South Pacific and over into the orient. I went into China when it first opened up and they were still wearing Mao hats. I also lived in Sweden for a year and crossed the Atlantic on a tug boat pulling a barge. I have wanted to write the tugboat story up for years because the contrast between the unionized Scandinavians and the free spirits out of Morgan City, Louisiana is startling. Believe it or not, to get the job I had to sign an agreement never to write about it. There is more to tell at another time.

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