I'm only telling this because I've noticed people thought it adventurous. It wasn't; at least, it didn't feel so at the time. But it does give a fairly good impression of what went on with small craft around here. I was staying in the Curaçao Stella Maris Sailor's Home. This was the catholic one; there was another not-so-religious one, internationally famous as the Nuthouse. Stella Maris overlooked the harbor. A three weeks' stay there has given me more material on working conditions for sailors in the service of for example Holland-America Line and Shell Tankers, Great Britain, than a fervently socially-conscious journalist could handle for your entertainment in many full-color Sunday supplementary editions.
Anyway, my friend Erwin Koenze suddenly turned up and asked if I'd like to go to Bonaire, first island to the East, with a boat carrying fruit. Of course. I just hopped aboard, we left the harbor and off we went. The boat had this diesel engine with an unblimped exhaust. It was noisy. So it actually was a relief that it started having problems and we ran into one of the last inlets on our way, Santa Barbara Beach, inlet of the Spanish Water. After the skipper had finished cleaning the fuel filter, we were on our way again, diesel noise and all. Now the Trade Wind is always from the East, unless there's a storm brewing. There thankfully wasn't, but it meant a long trip with a lot of beating against the notorious choppy short Caribbean waves. After a couple of hours, the Captain gave the wheel to his apprentice and disappeared in the forecastle - well, that's a pretty big word - to take a nap, after having pointed out a light the guy should steer to.
I don't remember if we even had a compass aboard, but you really didn't need it. First, there was the wind. Then, you only had to keep the Isla refinery to your back, plainly visible by an enormous orange-red glow in the sky. So even to me, it was obvious that the Second Officer at a certain point changed course. But who was I to comment? The skipper, however, woke up immediately as the character of the boat's motion changed. He came out, and the boy explained he'd just decided to steer after another light which looked just as good to him. The skipper then explained some things to him. And we weren't lost, after all. But boy, did I have sore buttocks upon arrival! Then, we had to sleep on deck in Kralendijk harbor. Boy, was it cold. Boy, was I stiff and even more sore, or sorer. It felt all the same to me. (The return trip took about half the time, but was just as noisy).
Not a Voyage, a Trip
Some travel agency dealing in the cheapest tickets around had sold me one, by way of London to Trinidad by BWIA and then on to Curaçao by ALM. First, of course, I had to get to London. Only, my ticket hadn't come in yet. The travel guys swore that everything had been arranged and it was ready for me at Heathrow. The cheapest way to get there was the Hoek-van-Holland (Hook) to Harwich night boat. Willy took me there in one of the worst storms in years. Our Estafette at times was almost blown of the road running on top of a dyke. Darkness and driving rain. But we made it.
I hadn't realized it before, but the crossing had to get to be pretty rough in the circumstances. That's putting it mildly. I don't want to brag, because I have been very seasick indeed on many a memorable occasion (buuuh), but this time I had no problem whatsoever. When I had to take a leak I walked into the toilet and I swear the whole room was as good as covered with vomit to shoulder height. Several times, the captain tried a different course and had to give up as the ship's bow started smashing into waves so hard, it really sounded like we got smacked with a concrete wall swung by some jolly giant.
Well, we got there all right and, fancy that! BWIA as a matter of fact did have a ticket waiting for me. Only, their 707 couldn't leave and we had to wait for 24 hours. They did put us up in a hotel and we left only next day in a chock-full plane with overly tired cabin attendants and irritated passengers. It was in Port-of-Spain, staying at the Erroll J. Lau Hotel, as Caribbean as you could hope to get, that I met a Chinese who had escaped from China by swimming across the Yellow River. He told me "China no good. Everybody must work for the government."
About my ALM flight Trinidad-Curaçao I can only say it was about the smoothest, nicest, quietest and most relaxed flight of my life.
But going back was another story again. Willy's uncle who was supposed to take me to the airport completely forgot, so I got there much too late and this time missed my ALM flight. Result, I had to spend extra money to fly to Caracas first and take it from there. This turned out, too late, to have been unnecessary: In Caracas I heard that all BWIA flyers had gone on strike; they figured the time was well-chosen as it was right before Carnival and all Trinidadians wanted to fly over there. So it was almost impossible to get on a flight to Port-of-Spain. I've never seen anything like it; it turned into a complete riot with armed soldiers having to keep order among passengers waiting, not what you'd call in line either. Strange enough, I was helped to a seat on an Aeropostal flight.
Never again! Don't fly with those guys, even when as desperate as I was. The door to the cockpit was standing open all the time and during landing the Fasten Your Seat belts sign wasn't lighted, which means the cockpit crew did not use their checklist. (I much later heard Curaçao tower personnel joke about it not being necessary to warn Aeropostal pilots if a wing or so fell off during take-off, as that was such a boringly commonplace thing to happen. This may be a slight exaggeration, but their engines always trailed intense smoke, which is a sure sign of sloppy maintenance.) In Trinidad, no ongoing flight to London of course. Virgil, aka Hollis, a sort of cousin took me out of my this-time-more-expensive hotel to stay at his place, and I even enjoyed a Trinidad calypso carnival. I'd never heard before and I've never heard again how a big steel band is really supposed to sound - not the sharply articulated notes you always hear on recordings, but like waves of sound going up and down in the melody. Really surprising. But of course, a carnival is wasted on me.
After a couple of days, I got a seat on a Caledonian flight chartered by the Trinidad government. It was as good as empty. (I later heard all striking flyers have been sacked and replaced.) On my way from Heathrow to Harwich I arrived in the Liverpool Street Station at the top of the rush hour. Coming from Trinidad at Carnival time, quite a contrast, to see those streams of practically identically dressed pale guys with February winter faces flowing through the station, over stairs and elevators.
The trip back was across a North Sea as smooth as I've ever seen it, before or after.
The Crude Carrier That Tried to Climb Aboard
It was a gig for Jan Hermans, old friend from my boy scout (really - scout's honor) days. Curaçao Oil Terminal had started a new service, as their piers were working to full capacity and an extra buck is always welcome. This was called S.T.S. for Ship-to-Ship transfer. It meant that two tankers, one VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) and a smaller one that could get into regular harbors, were coupled together in full sea and crude was pumped over from Big Brother into Little Sister. They needed a movie to sell the service. Money was no object, of course. So I hopped aboard a Smit Int'l tug with a Cine-Special II and rolls of film, was taken over to the VLCC drifting along the Curaçao south coast and climbed aboard by one of those flimsy ladders, camera case around my neck. You have seen photos of those babies but they can't possibly do justice. They are BIG.
The whole procedure boils down to this. The two ships are laid side to side, with giant fenders in between (these were then made in Japan only). Hoses are coupled up and pumping starts. This takes long. Because the sea is so calm here, in the lee of the island, this is one of the few locations in the world they dare operate like this. But even then, it's risky:-
In the afternoon the wind usually starts to act up and waves get choppy. What happened at this particular occasion was that the small ship started trying to climb aboard the large VLCC. If she had succeeded, it would have resulted in nothing less than an all-out disaster. Captain and pilot were getting extremely nervous about this possibility but had to finish the operation. Their anxiousness grew so palpable that I left the last half meter of Kodak Ektachrome 16mm film unexposed, figuring I could take photographs with the single-frame button if such a disaster actually should occur. It didn't. The Torey Canyon would have been nothing compared with what could have occurred here. Of course, it would only have been the north coast of Venezuela in this case. O yeah, forget my own name next, and the white beach of Aruba, spoiling all fun for the tourists and their industry. What I want to say, never be so foolish as to trust the It's all under control reassurances of those guys who're out to make an honest buck. Several bucks. I never saw the movie, as usual.