THE SOUTH AMERICAN ADVENTURE.
This all started on a cold January day, after having just spent my first Christmas and New Year off in 34 yrs of tugboating.
My sister received a phone call at my home from SEALIFE CREWING SERVICES a maritime industry agency based in Southampton. The call was duly answered and Sealife told me I was to phone a Captain Alan Cruse of J.P.Knight’s Ltd., at Rochester at the first opportunity.
I went to Rochester for an interview on Tuesday January 12th, a very wet and miserable day, and was really impressed on my arrival at J.P.K’s office when their first action was to reimburse me for my expenses. If only other employers were so thoughtful it would save us potential employees endless agonising on trains as to whether to eat or not.
After a very lengthy interview I was offered a Masters job with JPK’s Guyana operations, subject to my certificates being validated.
Anyway, Wednesday the 20th and I am on my way to Heathrow on the 0730h from Swansea High Street and have to hurriedly depart the train at Cardiff when I realise that the train doesn’t stop at Reading for my connection. What a good start to a four and half thousand-mile jaunt.
Now a real part of the adventure starts, a flight with British West Indian Airways aka BIWI. Their fleet consists of mainly 30year old Tridents and as one can imagine a very colourful clientele and a most gregarious cabin crew, yes they really do exist! There really was a mixed bunch on the flight and half way through the flight I adjourned to the smoking section at the rear of the plane and got involved in a wonderful sporting conversation with an East Indian from London and a very sports minded Rastafarian who had lived in both Sweden and Canada for many years. The conversation was assisted by numerous cans of CARIB the local in-flight beverage. After eight hours we landed at Antigua and even people like myself who were flying on to Port of Spain in Trinidad were allowed off the plane for forty five minutes and it was a very welcome stretch of the legs. After leaving Antigua, another hour saw us arriving at Port of Spain airport. A two-hour wait in P.O.S. and I am off again, this time the last airborne part of my journey to Guyana and sixty minutes later the plane arrives at Cheddi Jagan airport.
This airport was named after President Cheddi Jagan who died in office in March 1977 and apparently ran the country with an iron hand and was involved in all sorts of corruption. His widow Janet is President during my brief stay, enough said!
After clearing customs and proceeding outwards I am so relieved to see a big guy holding up a board with my name on it and he informs me that he is taking me to a hotel in Georgetown the capital and I will be getting picked up at eight thirty local time.
After checking in to the hotel and having a half hour wrestle with the air conditioning unit I manage to get a few hours sleep and was woken about five o’clock by torrential rain, was it a good idea packing suntan lotion?
After a light breakfast and a shower I take a walk outside the hotel and I am amazed at some of the architecture on view. There are some wonderful wooden buildings in Georgetown and probably none finer than the Anglican cathedral, seen below, and admiring these buildings it is very easy to transpose oneself to the days of colonialism. There is a wonderful mix of British and Dutch architecture on view as both these nations had colonised Guyana through the years.
St. George’s Cathedral Georgetown
I am experiencing difficulty with the appearance of the locals as most of them do not look of Afro-Caribbean descent so after some enquiries with an ex-pat staying in the hotel he tells me that 51% of the population are of East Indian origin, having been brought there as indentured slaves in the previous century(history now tells us that this was a very British way out of The Abolition of Slavery Act), 43% are of Afro-Caribbean origin with the remainder, 4% Amerindian(the indigenous locals) and 2% Chinese. Well, if the Chinese can penetrate the upper reaches of the Rhondda valley with a takeaway restaurant then anything is possible.
THE TAXI RIDE
As arranged I was picked up by taxi at 0830am and taken to JPK,s office in Georgetown to lodge my passport and fill in a few forms. There is no escape now as my employee has my passport.
I was very fortunate in having a taxi driver who would have no problem in becoming an official guide to Guyana and he really was a fountain of local knowledge. He informed me that he was taking me to Rosignol, which is on the other side of the Berbice River to New Amsterdam. The map below will hopefully give you some idea of my location at the time.
As we left the centre of Georgetown and headed out in to the country the condition of the roads became worse. We encountered dead sheep, dogs, goats and even a horse. The potholes were many and deep and coupled with no street lighting this must have been a positive nightmare whilst driving in the dark. I should imagine that Valium sales are pretty good with the small motoring population out here.
Just a brief insight into the infrastructure of this country to give you a better idea of the way of life,
RAILWAYS--------88 kilometres, all of which is on mining property
PUBLIC TRANSPORT---------No recognised bus service but sporadic private Mini-bus service. Taxi service if you are brave enough in Georgetown.
There is a regular air service to other Caribbean countries and the U.S with the ports of Georgetown and New Amsterdam being the two main maritime arteries in Guyana.
Anyway, the taxi driver was very clued up on the history of Guyana from the time it was a British colony then a Dutch colony and finally a British colony before eventually gaining independence in 1966.It was quite obvious to see the Dutch influence on the country and some of the measures taken to regain land from the sea were obviously Dutch, something they are renowned and respected the world over for.
It was a most enjoyable and informative taxi ride even though the taxi driver insisted that he helped me to get rid of twenty cigarettes on route.
The Stelling at New Amsterdam
I was duly taken to the Stelling (Dutch for jetty/ferry landing) at Rosignol where I was met by the Marine Superintendent based at New Amsterdam and then transported across the Berbice River in a crew boat belonging to J.P.K aptly called the “KNIGHTMARE”. From here a visit to the office in New Amsterdam, signed a few documents and was then told that the original plan of me spending two weeks training at the “Basin” with another Master had gone out of the window because of local leave requirements. By now I was getting very hungry and all I was offered was a cup of coffee.
A boat collected me from some creek and took me to the basin where I joined the KINLOCH. This was an ex harbour tug from J.P.K.s Sheerness fleet and had been modified for pushing by adding push-knees on the bow and a monkey house on top of the mast.
The outgoing Master was a Guyanese who looked more than relieved to see me as he was already a week overdue for leave. After a brief tour of the vessel I check the Master’s handover notes and get an explanation of why there is no cook on board and instructions on how to treat her (the cook) when she returns. I am introduced to the crew who are, Alan Holt-Chief Engineerliving in Conway.Moppy-the Mate, who lives in New Amsterdam, Rudolph,
O/S/, living in New Amsterdam, Irwin, O/S/- New Amsterdam, John Muir-living in Linden. I am told the cook’s name is Olinda Gordon who has been sick for a few days suffering a reaction to continual complaints from the Master and apparently she will be returning at 0700h tomorrow. Oh dear! At least they all speak English.
THE “KESSOCK” PUSHING A LOADED BARGE DOWNRIVER.
Five of these barges were converted North Sea barges 300ft. x 90ft. with the other three being slightly smaller but just as unwieldy .Any barges that were moored on the buoys at the basin had their draughts checked at 1700h each day to make sure they were not making water, one barge sank about a year before and this daily draught reading was now part of the standing orders. All these tasks came under the workload of the “KINDEACE” the largest of the tugs at the basin which was under the command of a guy affectionately known as D.J. There were extra crew on the Kindeace to allow for draught readings, mooring parties etc.,The Kindeace was an ex Moray Firth tug having being used in J.P.K’S Hound Point operations and incidental North Sea work that arose. At the basin she would always take the bow end when docking and undocking the bulk carriers and her added horsepower was really useful with a six knot tide running across the river mouth.
THE “KINDEACE” ASSISTING IN BERTHING A BULK CARRIER.
The entrance channel to the Berbice River was eight miles long and the buoyage consisted of perches made from the branches of stout trees and a few buoys. Some of these markers were lit but most were unlit. The entrance channel was full of twists and turns and without an Admiralty chart navigation was extremely difficult.
There was a Dutch dredger working in the channel non-stop for the period of my stay and I believe that this was an all year round operation.
A steel latticed tower with a long defunct RACON beacon marked the seaward end of the approach channel. This channel was to provide me with some of my most uncomfortable moments in my seagoing career. As stated the tide runs across the entrance to the river at about six knots and this could cause a problem with the relatively underpowered smaller tugs and keeping position whilst pushing alongside required a great deal of awareness.
The evenings aboard the “Kinloch” became somewhat routine, with a shower after the evening meal, a couple of hours reading/paperwork and then adjourn to the tiny messroom to watch the T.V which screened the worse films ever made. Guyanese T.V. adverts are probably the funniest ever owing to their amateurism. Anyway, these evenings were not dry and we had a good supply of Banks Beer on board . This was a local beer made in Georgetown and a very pleasant drink .My drinking partner was Alan, the Chief Engineer, who was a really nice guy, but an inveterate nose picker. I found out where to sit to my advantage in the messroom so as not to find this habit too off putting.
The Bulk Venturer at her moorings at St. Andrews Basin with Kindeace on right
THE MARINE OPERATION.
The whole operation consists of transporting bauxite from the mine at Aroima to the basin, a journey of one hundred and twenty five miles. There is a bulk carrier permanently moored at St. Andrews basin and the barges from the mine are unloaded into the holds the bulk carrier, which is named the “Bulk Venturer ”’ When the work really starts going then it is possible to have a barge either side of B.V. and two or three barges on the mooring buoys waiting to go alongside. The incoming vessels are berthed alongside the Bulk Venturer and loading usually takes a couple of days.
I spend two weeks aboard the “Kinloch” down at the basin, involved in putting barges alongside the bulker. On the second Saturday I am there I get to meet the Master and Chief Engineer of the “'Rennet” a small American built pushing tug and the pride of the fleet. The skipper came on board to borrow a chart for the passage to Georgetown where they were to dry-dock the following day. We exchanged pleasantries and they were on their way. A straightforward passage once clear of the Berbice Channel.
After having our few nightly beers, the Chief Engineer and myself called it a night and turned in about midnight. The duty sailor was on radio watch on the bridge where I would relieve him about 7a.m.
I was awoken at 6a.m. with the sailor calling “Cappy, Cappy, come quick, the “Rennet” is sinking”. What a way to be woken up. After going aboard the “Kindeace” to confer with JJ it was decided that we would sail in the “Kinloch” to render assistance as the “Kindeace” had one of her engines in bits. It was my Mate Moppy’s night off and he wasn’t due back for another hour and JJ kindly lent me his Mate who also knew the Berbice entrance channel well.
After clearing the channel, it was about another hour before we established radio contact with the “Kennet” and after our initial conversation it seemed as if we would be to late to be of any assistance. It appears that seawater had contaminated the fuel causing the main engines to stop. Remember, the freeboard on these vessels is about 6” maximum. The “Kennet” was now powerless and drifting inshore towards shallow water quite rapidly. A further conversation took place about 15 minutes later and the Master and Chief Engineer were now the only two people on board, the rest of the crew having attracted the attention of a passing fishing boat, decided to abandon ship of their own accord. The next report we had was that the water on board the “Kennet” was entering the wheelhouse and the two remaining people on board were now in the monkey house, with a fishing boat standing by to take them off when the need arises. The engineering superintendent was at the scene when the vessel grounded and he boarded her and with the assistance of the Master and Chief Engineer removed whatever navigational instruments and valuables that they could. The security of the vessel was now the major concern and contact was made with the owner of the dry-dock in Georgetown (who also owned the local T.V. station) and he sent some small craft out to the scene well equipped with some local heavies.
I was instructed to stand by at anchor off Georgetown awaiting instructions and the following morning received orders to proceed back to New Amsterdam..
We arrived back at the basin about 1900h and all had a well deserved meal, the first all day, owing to the incapacity of Olinda, our intrepid cook who had not enjoyed her few hours at sea at all.
The next day it was all action stations,with our Operations Manager in Guyana, who was home on leave in the U.K. at the time of the grounding, being hastily returned. Now some serious questions were being asked with regard to the preparations made for sea aboard the “Kennet” prior to sailing. The only good thing that came out of it for me was finding out that an old shipmate from my Alex. days, by the name of Richard Smith, in Swansea was now the superintendent up at the mine, and after we first made contact on the radio we used to have a daily chat, something we both really looked forward to.
After some hasty re-scheduling of the dry dock diary, it was decided that between now and the next suitable tides for refloating the “Kennet”, they would dry dock the “Kamarang”,the biggest of the pushing tugs, and a giant of thing which was built for working on the Mississippi.
A few days later they had a partial shutdown at the mine, which meant a bit of a gap in the river traffic and a chance to shoot the Kamerang up to Georgetown. After the goings on with the “Kennet” they thought it would be safer if the “Kamerang” had an escort to Georgetown and this task duly fell to us aboard the “Kinloch”.
This turned out to be a most uneventful passage and after delivering the “Kamerang” to the small floating dry dock in Georgetown and putting our very seasick cook ashore to find her own way back by road, we left Georgetown to return to the basin..
The photograph below shows the “Kennet” outside the dry dock after being refloated and towed into Georgetown.
The Second Engineer came on the bridge during the passage back to Georgetown and asked what I wanted to eat. He promptly knocked up some fish and chips and after going without food for about eight hours it went down a treat. We arrived back in New Amsterdam in the small hours and I managed a few hours sleep before having to shift some barges mid-morning.
During the day I was informed that I would be leaving the Kinloch in two days time and transferring to the Kamerang in dry-dock at Georgetown.
It was with mixed feelings that I received this news and I now knew that I was going to get pilotage training on navigating this river for real, training with Captain Paul Bender, the most respected of the Guyanese skippers. Paul was born in one of the villages bordering on the river and he knew every twist and turn, along with every homestead on the river.
The view from the monkey house, proceeding up-river towards the mine at Aroima.
I did one more run up river to relieve the Kessock at Itumi, an important bend in the river, where it is at it’s widest. I left the Kinloch with mixed feelings and once again I had my Guyanese taxi driver/guide to take me to Georgetown dry-dock. This proved to be another wonderfully illuminating journey and probably the biggest surprise of the journey occurred when arriving in Georgetown. There staring me in the face was a large van bearing the name of ‘Evan Rees Butter’ St. Clears, Carmarthenshire. It all seemed so surreal and the taxi driver told me the van had been there for quite a while. It’s something I never really got to the bottom of.
I struggled to get my rather large holdall up and down the narrow ladders providing access to the small floating dry-dock, and once aboard I was shown to my cabin and introduced to the rest of the crew.
The Floating Dry Dock at Georgetown
Loading bauxite aboard barge at Aroima
A church on Berbice River
The Chief Engineer was a smashing guy called Jim, a native of Scotland, who had worked for J.P.K. in Guyana for about five years. He always had a supply of cold beers in his cabin and quickly became a good pal. The rest of the crew were gathered in the large wheelhouse during the evening, sharing a few beers and assorted spirits. Even though all these people were native Guyanese, they would not venture the short distance into the centre of Georgetown because of the violence that took place there on a daily basis. Some of the stories that were told were really frightening.
The mouth of the Demerera River with Georgetown on left.
On the second day in dry-dock, Jim informed me that he usually went ashore to one of the larger hotels for a decent meal, (another crap woman cook on board) a few beers and an early return to the ship by taxi. I was asked if I would like to join him and we had a good couple of hours ashore and a few beers aboard when we returned to the dry-dock.
The following evening Jim and I were invited ashore by the English surveyor who was overseeing the dry-docking and treated to a slap-up Chinese meal and free bar, along with our Marine Supt. Capt. Ian McDonald.
The downside of an otherwise good evening ashore was receiving bad news regarding a family illness and after a great deal of soul searching I made the decision to hand in my notice at the first opportunity and return to the U.K.
The following day the dry-dock was flooded and we sailed from Georgetown at 1310h. The Kamerang had 3 radars on board, with 2 situated in the main wheelhouse and the other in the monkey house. A technician had been aboard on the previous afternoon and the morning of our sailing to attend to 2 problematic radars and when he went ashore everything was in working order. As usually happens when the vibrations experienced in a seaway start to take effect, one radar packed up, followed not long afterwards by another. The next thing to pack up was the echo sounder and about halfway into the passage back to New Amsterdam, the 3rd radar gave up the ghost. After a few conversations when in V.H.F. range with the Kinde ace, one of the Beaver boats was sent out to the outer perch to escort us up the 8-mile fairway. We eventually arrived in the basin at 2350h and this was one of the most unpleasant afternoons of my time at sea.
During the 5 days aboard in Georgetown, there were 5 people murdered, one of these being a five-year-old child thrown from a moving car, along with 2 bodies being removed from the Demerara River. The crew's decision not to frequent the town seemed perfectly justified and subsequent stories made Georgetown a very, very violent place to be.
The following day I met up with Richard Smith, who had served as a second engineer with A. T. C.L. in Swansea and someone I had met socially on a number of occasions. I was given a tour of the mine site and mining village and its wonderful little bar at Mapletown.
The Chief Engineer was a fountain of knowledge and because of the excessive noise aboard the Kamerang he told me that the best place for some peace and quiet was up on the bow of the barge when transiting the river. Every lunchtime we would take a dozen bottles of cold beer aboard the barge and it really was a most enlightening and thirst-quenching experience, being at peace with the world and being able to appreciate the vast amount of wildlife on display. This rapidly became the highlight of the day and something we both looked forward to.
After much soul-searching I handed in a written letter for one months' notice on Sunday February 7th and was later told I would be flying home on March 11th. On Wednesday February 17th I was informed that the plans had now altered and I would be flying home the following day where I would
be leaving the Kamerang when passing New Amsterdam and overnighting there and travelling to Georgetown the following day to fly back to the U.K. On the basis of this information Jim and myself had a considerable farewell drink aboard the barge at lunchtime and I went back on board for some food and promptly jumped in my bunk. The next thing I knew, I had been woken up by Paul the skipper, and told that things had altered once again and I would be taken off the Kamerang further up the river and taken to Rosignol where a taxi would be waiting to take me to the hotel in Georgetown for a few hours before being taken to the airport. The crew boat came alongside and I chucked my hastily packed bags aboard and off we went.
I was met by my friendly taxi driver at Rosignol and after another informative journey we arrived in Georgetown at 2015h. I checked into the hotel and then went next door for a Chinese meal and back to the hotel for a few hours shuteye.
The taxi was arranged for 0220h to get me to the airport for a 0620 flight to Port of Spain, where I would have a 10 hour wait for my flight back to the U.K.
I arrived in Heathrow at 1000h on Friday February 19th and eventually reached Swansea at 1500h, very tired and very hungry.
Another little adventure over.
Myself & Richard Smith at Aroima
Authorities in Guyana reported nearly one dozen cases of robbery from fishing boats in rivers or off the coast, and the killing of one robber aboard a ship moored at Georgetown (06-50N 058-10W). On a single day in August six fishing boats working within a 50 km sq area were robbed of engines, fish catch and equipment and left adrift while the robbers fled toward Venezuela. The robbers reportedly work from border towns in Suriname and Venezuela.