I’ve been all over the place with music lately so it is hard to pick a song for the blog.  I think you would agree that you can never go wrong with Eric Clapton.  Let’s go with Running on Faith

“Lately I’ve been running on faith.

What else can a poor boy do?

But my world will be right

When love comes over me.

 

Lately I’ve been talking in my sleep

Can’t imagine what I have to say

Except my world will be right

When love comes back this way

 

I’ve always been

One to take each and every day

Seems like by now

I would have found a love who would care…care just for me.”

 

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Every time I decide that I am simply not writing blogs for a while because I want to work on my book, spend time exercising, I am pouting because nobody reads them, or any other reason, a port like Douala comes along and I have to record it for myself if nothing else.

First, let me take all suspense out of the blog and let you know that pirate waters were dull in the extreme.  No attacks.  A few sightings but they were scared off by the sight of guns.  The most intense parts were the drills when I had to suit up in body armor, which I still think was pretty cool.  As much as I like exciting times and good stories I have to admit that I didn’t want to be kidnapped by Nigerians so I suppose I should be happy with how things worked out.

We knew Cameroon would be a pain in the ass because all African countries are a pain in the ass.  The officials are so corrupt that they just make life difficult.  As we got close we were informed that there was port congestion and we would have to float on the hook, maybe for a month.  Yay.

Twenty four hours later some money must have changed hands because we got moved to the front of the line and were told to heave the anchor and head in.  You can only sail into Douala twice a day on high tide because some corrupt official had most likely made off with the money earmarked to dredge the channel and it was not quite as deep as a kiddy inflatable wading pool.

Luckily for us we had little cargo and were running high in the water with about the shallowest draft possible for our ship.

Not so lucky for the ship in front of us was the fact that they were sporting a healthy draft of 8.4 meters.  And while the Douala pilots said that there was plenty water to accommodate them, I am not sure that anybody actually bothered to check the tide table.  What I am sure of is the following:

The ship ran aground.

She ran aground right in the middle of the channel.

We were the next inbound ship.

You know, cruising up the channel to go to the dock.

With, as I have previously pointed out, a ship aground in the middle of the channel.

I don’t really know how to paint a clearer picture.

We hear on the radio that other ships behind us are being ordered back to anchor so the Captain tells me to bring her to the right so we can find a safe spot to drop the hook.  No sooner had we found our new resting place when the pilots came across channel 12 and told us we could head on in as there was plenty of water for us on the starboard side of the grounded ship.

The Captain looked back at me and I shrugged my shoulders.  I mean, these decisions are above my pay grade.  The Old Man thought for a second, told me to make a round turn and we headed back in.

We were inching our way up the channel with a wicked current coming on our port quarter.  The Captain would run without engines which meant I couldn’t steer because I had no water being pushed past the rudder.  Right when I would start to lose control he would kick it to dead slow and I would have control for a second.  Basically he was trying to give me just enough control to stay between the buoy and the grounded ship.

Just because things weren’t interesting enough there happened to be an outbound ship that was going to pass the ship aground right before we did.  They were passing on the port side of the ship.  Then we found out that our pilot was on that ship.  After passing the grounded ship he would get off onto the pilot boat and come over and join us.

The outbound ship past the ship aground and now was astern of us and we were probably three ship lengths from the grounded ship when our pilot came over the radio freaking out.  “What are you doing, Texas?!?!  No water on starboard side!!!  You must pass on port!!!”

That is exactly the opposite of what we had been told.

So, with the current pushing us to the right we had to swing the rudder hard over to the left, kick the engines on – but not too much because if we went outside the buoys on the other side we would run aground also – pass under the stern of the grounded ship by about 100 meters, hard back over to the right and then in a masterful display of helmsmanship I had to steady her up in a crazy current with no water under the keel, hardly any water flowing past the rudder and a big ship heeling over within spitting distance on my starboard side.

Whew!!!

I had just caught my breath when the 4×8 AB came to relieve me at the helm.  Of course he came just as things got easy but that is how it works sometimes.  Instead of getting a break I had to go out on deck and pull lines.  You see, most of our mooring lines are kept below decks on long sea passages so we have to pull them out the day before we get to port.  We didn’t pull them out early in Cameroon because in Africa they will sneak aboard your ship, tie off one end of your line to a little boat and race off with them.  We had planned on pulling them our last day at anchor but of course now we were going in with no notice so we were racing to get things set up.

We just barely had the lines in place when the Captain came across the radio to send the first line.  I am the one that throws the heaving lines so I got everything ready.  One problem – we had also not had time to remove the razor wire that was covering every inch of the fantail.  That meant I got to cut my arms to shreds as I tried to tie lines together and somehow throw the heaving line out through little gaps in the razors.

Somehow we got it done.

Naturally, because I am such a lucky fella, it was my watch right after we had tied up so I was on the gangway when every “official” in Cameroon descended upon the ship looking for a bribe.

First was Quarantine in their official looking uniforms.  Then Customs.  Then Immigration.  Then the Fire Brigade.  At least all these guys were in uniforms and had some sort of official purpose.  They would get all the documents they needed and then come off the ship 15 minutes later burdened with cartons of cigarettes and cases of soda.

If you are wondering why we give out cigarettes and soda, well, all I can tell you is that we would still be in Cameroon if we didn’t.

After the first gang of looters were done we soon got the second wave.  This is where it got suspicious.  Some guys would stroll up wearing a colorful African robe and flip flops and announce they were customs.  They would have one piece of notebook paper that meant nothing and insist they needed the Captain to sign it.  My favorite guy was a hugely fat man whose name was, I swear, Mo Mo Fatso.

Me – “We already had customs here.”

Mo Mo Fatso – “I am second customs!”

Me – “I think you ate the first customs.”

Mo Mo Fatso – “Funny Americans!  Hahahaha.  I must see Captain.  Very important.”

Me – “So, you work with the guys who were here before?”

Mo Mo Fatso – “Yes, yes.”

Me – “Or are you from a different agency?”

Mo Mo Fatso – “Yes, yes.”

Me – “You just want some cigarettes, right?”

Mo Mo Fatso – “Yes, yes.”

He only got one carton but also a case of Root Beer.

I got a break from the gangway to get some water and had to escort the Health Inspectors onboard the ship.  This absolutely kills me.  These guys who live in squalid filth, haven’t bathed since Jesus walked the earth and don’t even have a health code in their own country are going to come and inspect our ship for cleanliness.  They make the ship dirtier just walking aboard.

Well, the only thing they wanted to check was the galley and this was because they wanted ice cream.  I gave them each a Klondike Bar and Creamsicle which seemed to please them and then the Captain came down to sign their papers.  When they met the Captain they demanded cigarettes.  At this point of the evening the Captain was fed-up and pointed out that they already had ice cream and weren’t getting smokes.

One of the guys pulls out a white glove, puts it on, reaches under the sink, wipes his finger across a pipe or something, pulls his hand out and then almost throws up in disgust when he sees his finger has a smudge of grease on it.  He shows this to his companion who shakes his head in amazement that any ship could be so filthy.

“This is a big problem, Captain,” says the inspector.  “A BIG problem.”  Then they started pulling papers out of their briefcase and began proceedings to arrest the ship for being so disgusting.  Thirty seconds later they were happily disembarking the ship laden down with Marlboro Reds.

All told we gave out $1,100 worth of cigarettes, which may not sound like a lot until you realize that for us a carton of smokes is $14.  No tax out here, folks.  It is all such a stupid game.  It would be so much easier if we could just have $1,500 in cash at the gangway and hand it out before they ever got on the ship but everybody has to pretend like they are actually doing a real job.

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While I was at the gangway a steady stream of guys were coming up and introducing themselves as representatives of the Seaman’s Club.  I found this strange as I knew the Seaman’s Club was closed (I had been corresponding with the Pastor who runs the place via email) and they could not provide us any transportation to town at the late hour we would need it.

Basically, I got off work at midnight and we were sailing at 0330.  That meant that callback to the ship was 0230 which gave me (do the math) 2 hours and 30 minutes of late night carousing in Douala.  There was no way I was passing that up.

The Captain was none too thrilled I was going but he can’t stop me.  The Cadets begged to come along because they are too young and stupid to know better so I offered to let them keep me company.  The first order of business was finding transportation.

Well, these guys who had lied about being from the Seaman’s Club where actually just drivers wanting to charge us to have them drive us anywhere we wanted to go.  There was an all out brawl on the dock between the guys as they fought over our business but we managed to choose the oldest most trustworthy looking guy, which isn’t saying much.

His car was a small hatchback of indeterminate make and model that was minutes from totally falling apart.  Everything that could creak creaked.  Everything that could rattle rattled.  Everything that could groan…well, you get the point.  He seemed confident we would get to our destination, wherever that was, so we just let Jesus take the wheel and enjoyed the ride.

Here was our conversation on our short road trip.

Me – “We want to go buy souvenirs.”

Driver – “No problem.”

Me – “And postcards.  I want to buy postcards.”

Driver – “No problem.”

Me – “Do you know what the fuck a postcard is?”

Driver – “No problem.”

Me – “How much is it going to cost me to buy you a new car to get me back to the ship when this one falls apart?”

Driver – “No problem.”

Me – “Are we going to get murdered tonight?”

Driver – “No problem.”

Our fascinating conversation was occasionally interrupted by the 47 road blocks that materialized out of nowhere by people wanting bribes.  Our driver would scold them in whatever African dialect they speak and eventually we would be let through.  From what I gathered, we would pay him at the end of the trip and then he would pay all these guys off.

It didn’t take long until the car pulled into this street that lined with small bars, people cooking food on the street, little “casinos” where they just basically put a gun to your head and take all your money as soon as you walk in (the Las Vegas Gaming Commission has never heard of this place, believe you me) and people walking around with wicker baskets on their heads full of everything for sale from cigarettes to dead chickens.

The driver parked his already dying car on a heap of twisted scrap metal, hopped out, opened the doors and starting ushering us to the busiest of the bars.  “What about our souvenirs?”  I asked.

Well, he claimed that all the stores were closed (his English had improved immensely) and that he had a souvenir guy who was going to come set up shop at the bar, just for us.  I had my doubts but I am not one to turn down and adventure.

In the bar we walked.

Two seconds later I had the unique, and surprisingly unpleasant, sensation of fifty women suddenly grabbing every inch of my body at one time.  My hand went straight to my wallet and I warned the cadets to secure their belongings.  The bar was about the size of your average living room and packed with about 20 dudes and 300 gals, all fighting for over the three Americans that had stumbled into their midst.

Our driver went over and started screaming at these three big, muscle bound scary dudes to give up their couch and surprisingly they did.  We sat down and within half a second had three women each in our laps.  Women crawling over the couch behind us.  Women touching every exposed area that they could get to.  Women were whispering in my ears that they wanted to do things I had never considered doing with a woman, and still am not sure if it is physically possible.

Now, I am a single guy and I can do anything I want on the other side of the world and not tell you or anybody else about it.  Having said that, the following is the truth.

Some of the women were pretty.

Some of the women were strikingly beautiful.

90% of the women had awful body odor.

I don’t know this for a fact, but in my mind 95% had AIDS, although at one point my driver told me he could provide medical records for the woman of my choice.  All part of the service, I guess.

Most importantly, I almost exclusively choose to be attracted to women who I never get to actually spend time with, who have given their hearts to other men, who live on the other side of the world or who simply don’t love me.  And I have found over the years that avoiding AIDS infested hookers causes them to love me just as little as they do now and for some messed up reason that system works for me.

This was the kind of place that I could have a great time if I was going to slam about 20 of the local beers.  If I could go in, drop what to these people is a year’s pay on drinks for everybody, dance on the table tops and in general make an American ass out of myself, then this might have been an epic night.

However, I really try not live that way these days and even if I did I was steering out of that tricky channel in two hours and being half in the bag on Cameroonian beer would get me fired with a  quickness.  The deck cadet couldn’t drink because of work and that left the engine cadet as the only one really having fun.  I basically just looked after the youngsters and made sure nothing bad happened them.

It came time to go and the souvenirs had never showed up.  We went out front and the crowd had tripled.  People were running all over the streets like wild animals and we were the only white faces anywhere to be seen.  Everybody was cool though, and I never felt in a bad spot.  At least until I got pissed.

I had told the driver I wanted to leave by 0145.  At 0140 I asked the driver to get our bar tab.  It was $105.  I had one bottle of water and bought one beer for a particularly pretty gal.  The deck cadet had two cokes and bought two beers.  The engine cadet had four beers and bought two.  For $105 I should have been able to buy the bar.

Whatever.  I gave the guy $120 and told him with the change we wanted some meat from the street vendors.  The next thing I know I see our driving heading off at high speed on the back of a motorcycle with our money clinched in his hand.

I was pissed.

I told the cadets we would give him till 0200 to make it back and then get a cab.  The women had chased us outside and I had gone from amused to annoyed.  I just wanted to be back on the ship.  Right at 0200 the driver shows up.  I all but yanked him off the moped and lifted him up by his shirt demanding to know where he was running off to with our money.  I don’t think the locals had seen too many white guys manhandling one of their own in the middle of a busy street at two in the morning.  They were a little shocked but fortunately found it amusing.  At least nobody came to his defense.  It turns out he was off changing our money to local money.  I didn’t feel too bad about losing my temper because I am sure he pocketed half the cash.  I told him we needed to leave now.

Just a minute he says.  He ran down the street and came back with a something wrapped in brown paper.  It was our street meat.  It was little chunks of what I thought was goat that you stabbed with tooth picks and dunked in a pile of spice.  It was ok.

As soon as all the women got a whiff of the meat they descended on it like ants at picnic.  It was crazy.  The drunk engine cadet was trying to fight them off but it was like trying to hold back the tide.  We finally just gave them the stuff, said hasty goodbyes and went back to the ship.

Man, I am getting tired of typing.

We made it through all the road blocks, and one stop at a gas station in the hood, without incident.

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Of course the trip wouldn’t have been complete without almost killing one of the Africans.  We brought up the gangway.  This is a big steel staircase thingy in case you weren’t aware.  When it is all the way up it is flush with the ship.  You put out hooks and tighten them with giant wing nuts to hold it in place.  I had put my hand out to put a hook in place when my finger almost gets ripped off.  I barely had time to say, “Owww!!” before I heard, “Boooom!!!!”   The gangway wire had snapped sending it plunging back to the dock.

Where it missed crushing a longshoreman by about two feet.

We had about twenty minutes before we would miss the tide so we had to frantically hook up a chain fall and sling to get it high enough off the dock to sail.  This is worth a more detailed telling but I DON’T WANT TO TYPE ANYMORE!!

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Just before casting off we made a tug fast on the stern and I was making turns around a bit when the tug took a strain on the line and almost removed my hand.

It was one of those kinds of nights.

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I rush to secure the stern for sea, cleaned up and went to relieve the helm.  As I took the wheel I got this feeling of Déjà vu.  There was a ship in the middle of the channel.  It was not going anywhere.

THE SAME SHIP HAD GOTTEN STUCK IN THE SAME SPOT!!!!!

An inbound ship was about to meet us at that exact spot.  Three ships.  One little spot.  Shallow water.

Good times.

It was the same thing in reverse that I told you about at the beginning of blog.

My fingers hurt.

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I hope everybody had a wonderful New Year’s celebration and that 2014 is a prosperous and healthy year for you and your entire family.

I wish I could hang out on the couch, eat some nachos and watch football with you cool cats tonight.

Stay Groovy.   Always.

 

Russell Yale

 

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