April 22, 1997
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column continues a series about a Merchant Marine voyage the author made at age 17.
Let me present a voyage from Vietnam to Okinawa directly, just as I recorded it in my "log" each night on the rickety fold-down desk in my fo'c'sle on the SS Del Valle.
Log entry, Sunday 17 August 1969: "Best guess now is that we'll be back in the States within a month. We'll finish backloading in Okinawa, then head back to some California port, probably Long Beach. So now we are (almost) homeward bound.
"Of course, it couldn't be this simple. By this afternoon, we'd slowed to less than eight knots. Word came down that there is a typhoon tearing up the South China Sea between us and Okinawa. The captain wants to avoid it at all costs and who can blame him? Waves the size of six-story buildings are no fun. But here where we are now, the sea is pretty and calm, though the weather is hot."
Log entry, Monday 18 August: "So we're still stalling and trying to wait out the typhoon just to the north (named Cora, they tell me). Seas not so calm now - big brawny swells running at eight to twelve feet. Once again we have to pour water on the tablecloths and stow the silverware in racks. This doesn't save us entirely - inevitably, we'll hit a swell that will send plates into laps and tea glasses crashing. Then the guys cuss me like I was the one who caused it!
"The Steward came into the messhall this afternoon with the news that a hurricane is headed for Mobile, Biloxi, or Gulfport. Hope it misses, because the steward says it is a really bad one. Bet the surf is good at the jetties...
Log entry, Tuesday 19 August: "Found out the news this morning from the Steward. He said the hurricane, which is named Camille, hit Biloxi and Gulfport and completely leveled them with 195mph winds. Pascagoula, Bay St. Louis (where Louis the Ordinary lives), New Orleans (Jerry) and Mobile all received a share of the devastation, but the worst by far is in Mississippi. Louis is terribly upset. We kept the death toll from him so he wouldn't worry so much about his mother and little brother. I realize Mobile didn't get hit as bad, but I still have my fears about the flooding, the brittle old pecan tree in our back yard, and about Sand Castle [my grandparents' house at Gulf Shores], not to mention the safety of everyone back home. Maybe I can try to call when we get to Okinawa - if we ever get there, slow as we're going!
"The seas seem to have calmed a bit. We're passing the Philippines again to starboard. Really beautiful, the sunsets in the South Pacific."
Log entry, Wednesday 20 August: "Guess who's gonna join us at Okinawa? Pee Wee and Vince! I forgot to mention that they missed the ship when we left Saigon, just as they missed it when we left Subic Bay. Maybe it's true, what they told us about being on the lam after doing a hit for the New Orleans Mafia - maybe they just don't want to go back to the States. Anyway, they are supposed to be waiting for us at the dock. The authorities wired ahead to find out how much money they had coming - they're gonna get hit with some hefty fines, I guess.
"The weather's still beautiful, although Typhoon Cora is supposed to be raging somewhere nearby. But it looks like we've waited her out. We are now steaming full ahead for Okinawa and should be there by noon tomorrow."
Log entry, Thursday 21 August: "It had already started when I woke up. In fact, it was what woke me up. I jumped out of my bunk and was immediately dumped on my rear. The next thing I knew I was ducking the trash can, which was hurtling from the opposite side of the fo'c'sle, which was so sharply angled that the opposite wall was almost a ceiling, The trash can crashed against the door, and when we rocked the other way, it went banging back to where it started, spilling paper and coke cans all the way. I grabbed one of the pipes and hung on to stand up. Were we capsizing? No, it had to be Cora.
"In the other bunk, Jerry was laughing like a hyena. For him this was great fun, but I could already imagine the scene that awaited me in the crew messhall. I dressed hurriedly (all the while dodging the trash can and the stool which were navigating all around the fo'c'sle) and steered myself down the passageway toward the messhall.
"Now I finally learned why they call it a messhall! The condiment cabinet had turned into a Dew Drop hotdog; all the jars and bottles had crashed together into a single gloopy mess. The coffee pots still percolated in their racks (coffee is endless on a ship, a 24-hour procession of fresh pots), but the coffee cans and sugar jars atop the coffee bar were on the deck, along with an assortment of forks, spoons, broken glass. What was going on?"
I went back out into the passageway and looked through the porthole of the door leading to the forward deck. Couldn't see much at first, just gray blurs of water, but it was obvious we somehow had gotten into huge weather. As I looked, I could see the bow of our 455-foot ship nose completely under an oncoming wave that looked like a mountain range. It rolled across the deck and the bow burst through the other side in a terrific mass of white spray, hung mid-air, and in a kind of mammoth slow motion, fell back into the trough.
I stayed at the window, mesmerized. The Steward's voice behind me broke the spell: "Well, son, typhoon or not, we're gonna have to serve breakfast. Come on."
I turned. The Steward had jammed his ample girth into the pantry doorway. "Are we really in that typhoon?" I asked. Then: "How can we serve breakfast in all this?"
The Steward re-lit the cigar stub he usually held clamped in his teeth. "Naw, this ain't Cora, not exactly. Else, it's just the tail-end of the typhoon. The topside people say we couldn't avoid this part of the weather. Should be out of it by this afternoon." As usual, the Steward was the most reliable pipeline to the officers, who ate in a separate messhall a deck above us. "And yes, we got to serve breakfast. So come on."
Back to the log entry: "I cleaned up as best I could. Wet down the tablecloths again, stowed the silverware in glasses, which were left in the glass-rack. Tree the Pantryman (his job was to help serve and also wash dishes) had a tough morning. I don't think he's clumsy, but he just couldn't seem to stay on his feet longer than about five minutes. Maybe it's just that the pantry floor was so slippery from spilled coffee grounds, jelly, soap, and other stuff. Anyway, whenever we'd take a good roll to port, Tree would come crashing through the pantry door into the messhall, sliding and flailing, grabbing at chairs or people to try to keep his balance. Poor Tree, trying to wash dishes with one hand, while holding on for dear life with the other!
"We took three terrific rolls while I was in the galley waiting for an order. Garbage cans slid across the floor with leg-breaking force, weights for the scale were shooting around, and boiling water and scalding grease from the stovetop spilled and sloshed onto the deck. I jumped up onto a counter to escape certain death while the Baker and the Third Cook calmly held jars and bottles on the shelves, and the Chief Cook held onto hot skillets with pot-holders until the rolling subsided. Then I carefully stepped my way through the pantry debris back toward the messhall and saw Tree huddled over in a corner with his eyes wide as pies. Somehow the messhall wasn't too bad, although one guy's grits had landed in his lap. I did notice that we'd lost about half our customers - or course, they weren't seasick or anything. (Right!)
"The Steward says this little blow was nothing - wait till we hit the stuff in the Great Northern Circle on the route back, he says."
(to be continued)