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The Sweepstake by John Martin

When serving on passenger liners one always knew where you were going and when you were likely to arrive. Cruise lines today can even tell you where a ship is likely to be at least a couple of years in advance. When serving in general cargo vessels and containerships one would know which ports you will be visiting, even though there may be some doubt as to when. The cargo manifests determined that. However, if you ship out in the bulk trades on the ‘spot market’, one will not know where you might end up during a tour of duty.

And so it proved joining P&O Bulk Shipping’s gas ships whether carrying LPG or ammonia. There might have been a good bet that the Arabian Gulf would be a destination, but that was not necessarily the case. I joined my first trip with them in Gibraltar, sailing to the Aegean Sea to meet one of Bibby Line’s gas carriers anchored there, to lighten her and take part of her cargo through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara and discharge at Izmit. We did this twice and I’m still not sure why it was necessary to do so, as the ‘Devonshire’ was about the same size as ‘Galpara’. It was quite fun having to use the rope ladder each time passing through the Dardanelles to clear the ship in and out of Turkish waters in a launch that motored alongside, descending with a bag of ‘goodies’ from the bond with the ship’s papers and climbing back again with a lighter load.

I had been recruited as P&O Bulk Shipping traditionally were manned with Indian Catering crew and an Indian Chief Stewards. For their new build gas ships P&O approached the British Shipping Federation for their usual dispensation of having to employ National Union of Seamen. Much consternation when this was declined until they found that Barbados seamen were aligned to the NUS. This also necessitated employing British Purser/Catering Officers as well. I was asked to stand-by the last two new-builds and help bring them into service. When the crew joined, they naturally wanted to know where we were sailing to. All I could tell them for certain was that we would be going from Bremerhaven to Cuxhaven, further up the River Elbe for vessel pressure testing!

Yes, we did go to the Gulf occasionally, but in my time with Bulk Shipping we went through the Bosphorus to Yuzhny in Ukraine a couple of times; to Ventspils, Latvia in the Baltic; to Japanese ports; to the US ports of Newport RI, Savannah GA, Lake Charles LA and Port Arthur TX, up the Mississippi past New Orleans to Donaldsville LA, and the rivers of San Joaquin to Stockton CA and Columbia to Portland OR; to South American Ports of Maracaibo, Venezuela and Cartagena, Colombia as well as European ports in the North Sea or the Mediterranean. Passages through the Suez or Panama Canals as well as trips into the Black Sea could be anticipated when one joined a ship.

A visit of GALCONDA to Portland, Oregon. 78 nautical miles inland from Astoria after having to wait at Longview while the Columbia River had to be dredged after Mount St. Helen’s had ‘blown its top’ in May 1980 and deposited a huge amount of ash, not only in the river, but across hundreds of miles of countryside.

For one voyage we were in San Diego when we had instructions to ‘sail mid-point Pacific at most economical speed for orders’. The Chief Engineer’s idea of most economical speed was two days at 12 knots and one day drifting. We did so for nearly three weeks, apart from a diversion toward Hawaii. Two engine room hands had a disagreement. One came off the worst. Having managed to stitch up most of his cuts, I was concerned that one of the chest wounds had nicked a lung and he should be medevacked.

However, Hawaii was not on the Sweepstake’s list. Where was our next cargo to be loaded? The list included ports in Australia, Asia, Arabian Gulf, back to West coast of the States or through Panama to the US Gulf or East coast, South America. Surely, they would not take orders for back in Europe. In the event ‘orders’ came for the Gulf. As I had done over four months, they let me off in Singapore.

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