Sea Stories (Chapter 3)

The Philippines – “First Contact”

After fourteen days at sea, the ship finally arrived at Subic Bay, Olongapo City, Philippines. Having never been in a foreign country before, my first impression entering the bay was of a strange, new and exotic world. The large bay was full of seagoing vessels. Freighters, like the one I was on, shared the shipping lanes with seemingly ancient junks, their angular sails straining the wooden masts nearly to the breaking point. Dodging the ships were various small to medium craft. Among these were small outrigger canoes that buzzed in and out of the traffic. These canoes were equipped with powerful outboard motors that allowed the driver to overtake most of the slower moving ships.

Several days before our arrival, I was advised by more seasoned crewmembers to stock up on cartons of cigarettes. When I protested that I didn’t even smoke, I was told that the smokes were for use as barter. Because cigarettes bought from the on board commissary were tax- free, they could be lucratively traded to the locals (who had to endure heavy taxation on imported cigarettes, especially those from the States) for any number of items, particularly San Miguel beer, a locally brewed specialty. In fact, the typical trading value was one for one, one case of beer for one carton of cigarettes, definitely not a bad deal, considering the price paid for the tax-free cigarettes.

Before a ship may enter a port, the wheel must be handed over to the port pilot, who knows the underwater terrain and so is best suited for navigating the waters within the boundaries. Under the pilot’s control, the ship slowed to a cruising speed. Now the outriggers maneuvered into position, allowing them to come alongside the ship and for a line to be lowered. This was a line that had been knotted to create a long loop that the cases could be attached to by twisting the line about them. The cartons of cigarettes could, in turn, be dropped into the canoes from above.

All the while, as these preparations were being made, the Captain strolled the flying bridge (i.e., a deck outside the wheelhouse which juts out over the side of the ship) carefully avoiding any notice of the goings on below at the rail. This activity being illegal (due to the lack of tax stamps on the cartons of cigarettes), the “old man” was averse to actually being a party to the enterprise or even giving the impression he was aware what was transpiring.

Once every thing was set, the transfer began. Cases were hauled aboard; and for each case, a carton was dropped to the waiting Pilipinos. This went on until quite a number of cases of beer had been quickly stacked on the deck. Just as quickly, those who had been involved in the trade spirited these below. When the transaction was nearly complete, the local Philippine Coast Guard appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Everyone had been so involved in the task of loading and unloading that no one noticed when the cutter had started to bear down on the scene.

The looped line was hurriedly pulled back onto the ship and the men in the canoes just as hurriedly started their engines and attempted to flee. In their haste though, they bumped the canoe against the side of the ship causing them to stall and be overtaken by the wake at the stern of the ship. The wake was so large as to cause their flimsy canoes to capsize, and in so doing, dumped all their precious cargo of illegal cigarettes into the churning waters. The Philippine Coast Guard simply eased into the area and began picking up the helpless foundering men. I was concerned until I learned that, as often as not this was the outcome of these transactions. Such is the price of this underground economy.

Vietnam – “Field Trip in Qui Nhon”

Qui Nhon was the first seaport that I visited in Vietnam. At the time of our arrival, it was reported that several days before frogmen had sabotaged a ship, the Green River. The divers had attached explosives to her hull and, after the charges were blown, she sat at the pier listing to starboard, her hull touching bottom. As a precaution, all ships had to spend the night circling outside the bay. At daybreak when the ships were allowed back in, they stood at anchor out in the bay and were off loaded onto launches. Due to the fact that mortars were being launched from hill to hill around the bay, the only units that would deal with this duty were some South Koreans, stationed there as part of the international force. That morning as I looked around at the pockmarked hills surrounding us, I thought these Koreans were the most courageous men I had ever seen, either that or the craziest.

During the day, launches would make the rounds of the various ships to allow for shore leave. This was to be my first time “in country” as the saying went. The ship wouldn’t be setting sail until later that afternoon, so I eagerly clambered down the gangway and settled into the launch. The pilot of the launch didn’t seem to have any logical sequence as to the order of the ships as he made his way around the harbor. You would think he would just circle the harbor going from one ship the next. Instead, the launch zigzagged about the bay with no apparent scheme. It was maddening to me only because all I wanted to do was get ashore.

After the scenic tour, the launch finally gained the shore and I disembarked. Qui Nhon at that time was a medium sized city and teeming with life, particularly down by the docks. This is true of most seaports but as this was a culture entirely foreign to me, it seemed even more boisterous than most. I started to walk about the street taking in all the sights, sounds and smells. Down by the docks, again as in most ports, there were men hustling all sorts of wares and services. I was ignoring most of these until a young man on a moped approached me.

In Vietnam at this time, gangs of youths traveled around on mopeds in packs of seven of eight and were known as “cowboys”. I had been warned about these guys but this one was offering what was euphemistically called “contraband”. Having tasted some of this country’s wares in the past, his offer definitely piqued my interest. As in all my experience in foreign lands, there was a certain barrier to communication. He spoke a very limited amount of English and I no Vietnamese. I attempted to inquire as to the price but he only patted the back of his cycle. I realized this was an invitation to ride but I was somewhat wary. I was alone and, though he and his friends were young, I was outnumbered. I thought about it (for a couple of seconds) and hopped on board. In hindsight, I wasn’t really thinking about anything, least of all my safety, outside of the commercial transaction we had discussed.

My new group of friends and I sped down the dusty dirt roads, swerving this way and that to avoid the crowds of pedestrians in the packed streets. People, poultry and other living creatures scattered out of our way. The driver turned back to me and, with a broad maniacal grin, started chattering about something that I wouldn’t have understood even if I could have heard him. After a time, we turned off the main roadway and entered a labyrinth of alleyways. Through open doorways I could see people in their shacks going about their daily routines: bathing in the open using small plastic bowls to scoop water from rain filled barrels; sweeping the dirt from the inside to the outside of their of their meager homes; going about their gardening as chickens squawked and pigs rutted.

Just as I was beginning to wonder where the hell we were going, the cycle pulled up and we dismounted. We had stopped at what appeared to be an outdoor billiard hall. Instead of billiards or even pool as I knew it these men were playing a game completely incongruous to me. Just like traditional billiards tables, there were no holes, only solid rails all around; but, as I watched the racking of the balls, I could see that all the balls were red with only the cue ball white. As they made the break, these red balls would scatter triggering much cheering and gesturing. Fascinated I watched them play for a while as my newfound friend opened discussions with some of the spectators. The players would make “en masse” shots and the red balls would fly about the table with no apparent rhyme or reason, but to those standing about every clash of balls or carom off the rails had some deeper meaning.

I stood transfixed until I was abruptly revived from my puzzlement by a tap on the shoulder. It seemed my tour guide had been successful and he pointed the way towards the back. We slithered down some more even narrower back alleys, once again getting a little more up close and personal with the locals than made me, or (as I discerned from the looks on their faces) them for that matter, comfortable. Finally, we had come to our destination and, ushered into a small one-room home, it took a minute for my eyes to become accustomed to the darkness.

When I could see a little more clearly, the sight I beheld took me aback for a moment. There before me was a woman who was approximately my mother’s age! She was dressed in a simple cotton housedress and looked, for all the world, like a house frau. I had been to other Asian countries before but this was not the typical Mama San associated with the “tea bars”. She had none of the cheap clothing, make up and just plain attitude of those women. This looked like an ordinary housewife ready to serve the midday meal to her family.

My new friend spoke quickly and quietly to her and she disappeared down a lane behind her abode. We all stood about somewhat uncomfortably as she had left us alone in her home. Only two or three of the “cowboys” had come with us from the poolroom and these chatted among themselves. My friend kept smiling at me and saying “OK Joe?” I smiled and fidgeted nervously as the adrenaline rush of the whole experience up to this point started to wear off and I began to survey my situation.

Just as I was beginning to experience the first cold sweat of real unease, the woman returned carrying a bulging paper sack. In minutes the deal was done, we were down the lanes and back out to the street. We hopped on the bikes and the “cowboys”, shrieking now like banshees, returned me to the docks without further incident. With a jolly “OK Joe!” from my entrepreneurial friend, and backslapping all around, I was left standing with my sack as they rode off with the whir of their mopeds and their shrill cries ringing in my ears. I was in Qui Nhon for several days but I never saw that particular posse again. Only later, far out at sea, as I enjoyed the fruits of my wild excursion, and as the effects brought to mind all sorts of possible outcomes, did I realize how amazingly naïve I had been.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Sea Stories (Chapter 3)

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

First Contact – Chapter 3 of Sea Stories


sea stories

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