Four Men in a Boat – Chapter 10 by ” Shipmate”

10 CHAPTER TEN (Cold War.)

The voyage back to European waters took them up the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean, as far as Gibraltar where they stayed overnight and the following day, to offload the luggage, post the mail and take on fuel.  Leaving the ‘Rock’ to starboard they began their final lap as they left the warm Mediterranean and entered the Atlantic Ocean.

The weather became extremely cold across the Bay of Biscay and the whole ships company stared suffering from a dose ‘the channels’ as they entered the busiest sea-lane in the world.

Their excitement turned out to be a little premature when they received an order to proceed to Gdynia in Communist Poland where the complete cargo was to be discharged.

To compound their disappointment a heavy fog descended so no sighting of the ‘green and pleasant land,’ was possible.  The nearest they got was on hearing the mournful wail of North Foreland’s fog beacon as they proceeded at half speed in the cold forbidding gloom.

The fog didn’t disperse until they entered the Baltic but the intense cold and restored vision revealed further problems.

Small holes had appeared on the hatch tarpaulins and the Chief Officer who had once been on a ship that had carried a similar cargo was full of foreboding.  It turned out that he was right.

Ice was forming on the deck gear but its presence on the mast was dangerous as it had serious effects on the stability that could cause the ship to roll over.  The whole crew was set to chipping away the ice that would reform in no time.  Ships that frequented freezing latitudes were often equipped with a rubber tube on each mast that could be inflated with super heated steam which would melt the ice and smash any residues clinging to the mast.

The tiny holes in the hatch covers were caused by rats that were escaping from the holds probably due to the absence of fresh water.  The problem was that once the outer cover had been pulled back, the damage to the lower covers was much more extensive, The sewing had to be done by hand with nine stitches to a needle length to ensure the repairs were waterproof.  It proved to be an arduous task as the severe cold made the canvas as stiff as a board and stitching couldn’t be carried out in gloves.  The feeling in the hands was soon lost and it didn’t take long before the knuckles were skinned.  The good news was that because of the cold no pain was felt when sewing, as most of the feeling in the hands was lost.  The bad news was that once it was finished and the repairer returned to his cabin, the moment he started to thaw out he experienced excruciating pain.

Gdynia is a seaport that’s part of Gdansk once known as Danzig and must have at some time been a nice place to live.  However to the ships crew, some of whom had been away from home for over two years, it was a freezing version of hell.

Even without the Communist regime imposed by the Russians, the dreary winter of the Baltic offered little in the way of comfort.

The City had been a cultural and popular center but the persecuted Poles suffered more than most particularly under the imposition of Communism.  Travel was restricted and many people existed just above the bread line.  A deliberate undermining of the old society had taken place and many free thinkers were repressed.

This soon came to light when the ship’s local watchman was caught rifling through the slops.  He spoke perfect English, as he had been a professor at the University before the current rulers gained control.

The official exchange rate was 67 zlotys to the Pound Sterling but for hard currency the exchange rate was over two hundred.  A spare or out of date passport was the most sought after item and had a value around 10,000 zloty.

Two year articles had been signed by most of the British crew, which meant that they were entitled to be repatriated from anywhere in the world after two years.  If they had been to any homeport in the meantime, they would have been paid off earlier.

Since the ship had been sold it was accepted that after the cargo was discharged, they would sail the short distance to Kiel in Germany and ‘pay–off’ there before returning to England by train.  Everyone was overjoyed, especially the Second Engineer who had been married in Cardiff three weeks before starting the voyage and had never expected to be away for two years.

In need of a change of scenery, several of the Officers went ashore on Saturday evening and with the help of the driver of a very ancient taxi, they found one of the town’s few bars.

The bar was in the basement and one could see the feet and legs of passers by through the tiny glass panels that were part of the window providing natural light and was set into the pavement above.

In all probability the rooms had once been coal cellars.

The beer was served in large glasses and was the usual continental lager type that was very good but needed the froth removed as it was poured.  The locals thought the music being played was western decadence which is hardly how anyone would describe Cliff Richards.

At around midnight, just after another round had been set up, the manageress started becoming very agitated with a tirade of Polish accompanied by much waving of the arms.  Not understanding, the sailors carried on as before until a spectacled young student appeared and said in halting English,

“Bar closed.  More drink and dance up stairs after twelve.  You pay five hundred Zloty.”

The Geordie in their party was normally the silent type but had remarked earlier “Just like Amber Ale man!”

He was now reluctant as most sailors are to leave their drink unfinished and said, “Wai ai me lad, I’ll jooste get this lot doone.’ 

It seemed that his response resembled something disliked by the Poles as all hell let loose.  A short while later, five men were seen running from the club being chased by a screaming woman who was closely followed by two heavies.  The snow underfoot impeded their progress somewhat as, one by one, the last man in the chase vanished.

The Second engineer and the acting Third Officer were left when a black estate car drew up and both men were bundled into the back that had a wire cage preventing contact with the other occupants in the front of the car.

In most of the old Capitols throughout Europe, Central railway stations housed the Police Station and detention cells.  It had evolved that way as Central Stations attracted crime and were areas where prostitutes plied their trade amongst the clubs and districts that were favoured by potential criminals.

The central station in Gdynia was no exception apart from a sizeable military presence.

They were taken to the processing room that resembled a large corridor and were roughed up a little by the armed soldiers for good measure.

The Second Engineer being a big man was unused to such treatment and announced in a loud welsh accent.

“Leave the lad alone, he’s only a boy if you want someone to fight I’m ready.”

He may have got away with it had he not added, “Call the British Consul!”  This generally had a positive effect in some places, namely Commonwealth Countries but it seemed to have the opposite effect and prompted several soldiers to set about the Welshman.  The Third Officer, who was still just under twenty, was pushed into a side room lest he should witness the struggle.

Fortunately, the office window was ajar and not needing further encouragement, the Third Officer escaped and using age-old instincts, returned to his ship.

Next morning the Second Engineer hadn’t returned.  None of the other members of their party had come to any harm having ducked into alleys and eventually arrived back at the ship.

The new Third Officer was in a bit of a quandary.  He had signed indentures that contained the dictum, ‘thou shall not frequent ale houses or houses of ill-repute…’  In spite of his promotion he had certain misgivings.  Did the word frequent mean often?  He thought not.  Did the underground bar fall into the prohibited category?  He thought it might.  Had the engineer been released and gone off on his own mission.  He was after all nearly thirty and had been celibate as far as he knew for about two years.

He decided to shelve thoughts of revealing the possible reason for the engineer’s absence for the time being.

When after three days there was still no re-appearance, he was unable to remain silent any longer and confessed to the Chief Officer who in turn reported the matter to the local ship’s agent.  The Captain was also advised but the Third Officer’s involvement was kindly left out.

The cargo finally became fully unloaded and the ship was made ready for departure.  Two things occurred that demonstrated the benefits of democracy and would have a lasting effect on at least one of the ship’s company.

Nearly all foreign going British merchant ships carried a library provided by the Mission to Seamen.  When the books had been read it was normal for the library to be exchanged with another ship.  Since their ship had been sold, the Officers decided to pass their library to another British ship that lay astern.  It took four men to manhandle the heavy bookcase down the gangway but they were stopped at the bottom by the armed guard.  After a great deal of negotiation and the intervention of the agent, it resulted in two officials arriving.

The rest of the morning was spent sorting through the books and about twenty were put to one side, as they were not allowed to be transferred.

The quarantined books were returned to the Officer’s saloon.

How Enid Blyton, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens could be considered a threat, passed all comprehension. 

The second incident was far more serious.  Minutes from casting off an ambulance screeched to a halt and a stretcher bearing the Second engineer was taken aboard.  Without having time to get a copy, the Chief Officer signed a receipt for the supernumerary.  Before giving it back however, he managed to get the ex Professor acting as gangway watchman, to roughly translate the document.

In essence it declared acceptance of the goods to be in exemplary condition and to absolve the former carers (before the date mentioned) of anything that would otherwise affect the ongoing condition.

Before arrival at the German canal port, The Second Engineer fully recovered and was able to fill in the gaps as far as he could remember.

After the Third Officer had disappeared, all hell let loose with shouting and running hither and thither.  When their efforts proved fruitless the police, aided by the soldiers, responded to the engineer’s jibes rather violently.  He remembered gaining consciousness strapped to a bed and hearing the rattle of the wheels of a railway train.  His next recollection was when he awoke to find himself in an operating theatre and a masked and gowned person injected his neck after which he lost conscious.  He had no recollection of time passing and couldn’t remember eating or drinking or for that matter relieving himself.

It did, he admitted, cross his mind at some stage, that he might be a victim.  He had heard stories of people being sent to Russia for involuntary organ transplants He was amazed to find that the best part of a week had passed since he went missing.

The London Office responded to the Captains request and unlike the other crewmembers that travelled home by train, the second engineer was flown home, to Cardiff via Heathrow, to be re-united with his young wife, courtesy of the Shipping Company.

One thing was certain; his new wife wouldn’t be used to a husband with a broken nose but would be pleased to discover that no other parts were missing or disfigured.  She’d never know how close she was.

The trip back to Kiel seemed to take no time at all, as everyone was full of expectations at the imminent homecoming.

After ‘pay-off’ the, mainly Indian, crew were sent to London to join other ships bound for the East.  They caught the earlier train.

The remaining Officers and apprentices caught a later train and stopped in Amsterdam for the night before heading onto the ‘Hook’ via Rotterdam the following morning. 

They stayed overnight in a small Hotel near the railway station and as a consequence they were able to explore on foot. 

It proved to be an unfortunate twist of fate.  A bunch of sailors without the restraints of belonging to a particular ship had a night to kill.  Not only were they in Europe’s renowned ‘Sin City’, but also they all had a pocket full of money.

As is experienced in any collection of people, various groups of like-minded individuals were formed and tended to stick together.  That is until one of them disappeared to sample the delectable goods on offer by the scantily clad ladies of the night. 

There are different schools of thought about the liberal attitude of the Dutch to these matters but their intentions of making sexual activities legal, was to introduce state control. 

 Health and hygiene was of prime consideration together with monitoring activities by the police, which protected both the girls and their clients from criminal activity.

The sailors were however, not inexperienced and knew they would soon be seeing wives and girl friends and even if they were tempted none of them wanted to tale the risk.

Every port in the World had its fair share of nightlife where the oldest profession is practiced but most of the activity is simply a supply and demand where a need is fulfilled in exchange for money.

 In Amsterdam in the fifties and sixties a revolution had started with such clandestine activities being available in public to the public.

It went so far that a street had been dedicated to the sex trade where shop windows instead of displaying various goods, were places for young women to sit with their assets on show, while awaiting clients.

Various cubs, bars and theatres put on repeat performances of all kinds of titillating activities.

The sailor’s main recreation was drinking and to be able to do this while being entertained was a delight.  The floorshows were unlike anything else they had ever experienced, involving displays that left nothing to the imagination.

“This beats Gdansk hands down,” remarked the Third Officer,

His companion enthralled by the nubile naked girl preforming a seductive routine on a glass tube, said, “What does?

“ Pole dancing,” was the reply. 

They tended to start at the furthest point and work their way back towards the Hotel, visiting the clubs and bars on the way.  A little after mid-night they arrived at their last ‘port of call.’  It was very crowded and across the other side of the room they could see a group of seamen from their old ship who were equally enjoying the drink and the entertainment.  They waived at each other but the crowds made it impossible for them to meet up.

As clubs go they had found one that was halfway to being a theatre combined with a restaurant.  Although entrance was expensive the price reflected the rather superior furnishings and entertainment.  The price and quality of the food was very good but the drinks tended to be expensive particularly the Champagne which was all the girls would drink.  It was probably soda water but formed a substantial part of their earnings.

Draught beer remained the exception and was dispensed at street prices but the British taste still had to adjust to the foamy lager type beer available.  Its fair to say that at those prices it wasn’t for the want of trying. 

The floorshow, performed on the stage of the small theatre was repeated every hour but the introduction of different participants made it seem fresh each time.  Unlike a mere strip club, the audience was treated to an almost professional performance of well-known plays but with the emphasis of the more intimate kind involving the inevitable undressing.  Somehow the less blatant revelations were much more arousing than straightforward stripping.  In both cases the lights were dimmed and the concealed ultra violet lights were very effective in highlighting any white garments including the rather skimpy underwear worn by the pretty young actresses/hostesses.

Just after three a.m. both groups left the nightclub and headed back to their hotel.  Most of them were ‘merry’ and someone stated to sing.

As they had sailed with each other for so long, everyone knew the Emerson, Lake and Palmers song and the other eight shipmates started to join in.

“Show me the way to go home,” resonated around the narrow streets and a passing Police car saw no reason to stop since their liberal laws had remained unbroken.


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