The less romantic side of seafaring or my first ship
In retrospect, Swiss deep sea shipping in the post-war years can be roughly divided into two eras. Firstly, the reconstruction period, characterised by a heterogeneous fleet of second-hand general cargo freighters of medium size. Most of them were post-war constructions, equipped with pre-war technology and little comfort for the crew. Individual cabins for all seamen were not yet common. Modern newbuilding’s were still the exception. Initially, one sailed without a seaman's book; the legislation on Swiss maritime shipping did not come into force until 1st. January 1957.
The golden age for our merchant fleet began in the sixties. A growing number of modern newbuilding’s, some of them cargo-specific special ships, were put into service. The units, equipped with the latest loading facilities, became larger and larger in terms of tonnage. The comfort on board now kept pace with the times. The introduction of the seaman's book as an official certificate of service finally gave the maritime professions the status they deserved. The number of seafaring Swiss reached its peak at that time. Unfortunately, this has been history since the turn of the century.
Unfortunately, I did not manage to extend my sea time into this modern era and so I was left only with the ambivalent experiences of the fifties.
My first ship
On 15th. May 1956 I went to Genoa full of expectations. I was to sign on as “carbonaio” (wiper) on the MS GENERAL DUFOUR of Nautilus Line. Inspired by earlier incidents, the shipping company let its newly recruited seamen pay for the outward journey themselves for the time being. After some searching in the shipyard area, I found what I was looking for. The MS General Dufour, my new home, was lying in dry dock with the propeller taken off. Her underwater paint was due for renewal and the engine was also due for overhaul. We three newcomers to the engine department: Hans Pflugshaupt and I, both signed on as ''carbonaio'', and the fireman Walter Bützer were immediately put to work after the welcome. On the same day, the formal enlistment and the preliminary sanitary examination took place at the consulate with other recruits. I was also found fit for duty. My upper arms were barely enough to accommodate the many vaccinations I received at the same time. The employment contract with Transoceanic Suisse SA was written in Italian. Despite a short translation, only those who knew this language, knew what they were signing. My wages were Fr. 330.00 / month, the overtime pay Fr. 2.05 / hour.
The maintenance work in the dock was supposed to take about two to three weeks and we had to live with some restrictions and improvisations for that long. For example, food on board could only be taken in shifts, as apparently there was not enough crockery and cutlery. The repair operation was very hectic and difficult to keep track of. One did not know who belonged to the regular crew and who was a shipyard worker. Many of the latter hoped to be hired in case of crew vacancies. There was a lot of unemployment in Italy at the time and we were perceived as competition. It was particularly annoying that with so many foreign personnel on board, many of our cabin doors could no longer be locked. Of course, the ship's hull was badly warped after the docking. The temporary closure of the toilets and showers on board made our daily life even more difficult. Of course we were allowed to use the facilities of the shipyard, but for us comfort prone Swiss we were not used to them. The half-open latrines faced each other in long rows, protected from view only by half-height swinging saloon doors.
We used the long stay in the ''home port'' of the Nautilus Line to explore this port city, which is so important for our country. We chose the establishment ''Zanzibar'' near the port on Via Gramsci as our meeting place and regular pub. Finally, the time had come for my first voyage to begin. The dry dock was flooded and we moved to a harbour pier for loading. The following evening we set sail for Livorno. This short sea voyage proved to be a testing period for both the freshly overhauled main engine and for us new landlubbers. The still largely empty ship was quite restless in the moderately agitated sea. We newcomers were lying in our bunks, fighting the onset of seasickness. But there was no time for that, Hans P. and I were ordered into the engine room in the middle of the night for a special mission. The watch had determined that the bilge could not be pumped. The water level was rising constantly, apparently the suction pipe of the bilge pump was clogged. A special task for the two specialists for the rough stuff. The level of this black, oily broth was already threateningly high. The arm's length was no longer sufficient to reach the low-lying intake manifold, which was to be removed. Blindly, the nuts, which were difficult to loosen, were broken with a chisel and the bolts were loosened. I can't remember how many times I threw up in the bilge during this hour-long ordeal. Hans P. and I were not the only ones to suffer; the fireman Walter B. could hardly part with his cleaning bucket. Seasickness was to accompany me for some time and I often asked myself why I was doing this to myself at all. My new job was interesting and satisfying, but the living and working conditions on board were less so. The two carbonaio, mostly sea novices, were not only responsible for the most unpleasant and dirty work, they were also assigned the hottest double cabin. This was directly above the steam boiler. Standing barefoot on the cabin floor was almost impossible. Baffles were mounted in the portholes to take advantage of the wind for cooling. In the tropical ports of West Africa, even cabin fans did not lead to a restful sleep. Sleeping on deck without a mosquito net was not advisable.
And indeed, the MS GENERAL DUFOUR was completely unsuitable for use in tropical climates in terms of its technical equipment. There was no air conditioning on board and not a single mechanical fan in the engine room. Fresh air was supplied to the manoeuvring station by means of a temporarily installed tarpaulin hose. This only worked satisfactorily when the ship was underway. The aft engine room was very narrow. Temperatures in the boiler area were often around 60° C in port.
The further we moved away from Europe, the more monotonous and worse the food became. Unlike other companies, our shipping company did not hire its own galley staff. They hired a third-party company that took care of the catering, including purchasing, for a fixed rate per person per day and also provided the galley crew. This company also worked for other shipping companies, so we also received meat that had already been on several voyages on passenger liners. So it was largely inedible. We Swiss also had to take note of the fact that at the request of our Italian colleagues, and they were in the majority, the usual bread breakfast was abolished. They wanted to see money, as we were told. If you still felt hungry early in the morning, you could go to the galley. There, the cook would pop a handful of oil sardines from the big barrel onto your plate, accompanied by pre-sweetened milk coffee. I never saw any eggs or fruit on this hunger steamer. But 'C'est la vie', we novices had no experience and for the time being no means of comparison. So we were prepared to overlook a few things for the start of a new career.
A later intervention with the ship's command, the Italian captain, was of course unsuccessful. On arrival in the port of Genoa, the ten of us Swiss ultimately demanded a visit from a representative of the Maritime Shipping Office. The ship inspector of the shipping company and the man from the said office listened patiently to our complaints. The inspector, however, thought our demand for an improvement on the catering front was a bit exaggerated. But they finally agreed on a compromise. Three to four times a week we were to receive a nutritious Swiss breakfast, i.e. bread, coffee and a guaranteed 20 g of butter. So what is a daily standard in every family at home was the now approved exception in our hard job. And it came as it had to come. No sooner had we left Gibraltar behind us on the following voyage than this concession was already forgotten.
The ship had not been fumigated for some time and so the cockroaches had already reconquered the galley. During the daily bread baking, they now fell into the cook's dough trough. The laborious cutting out of the beetle corpses from the bread slices was now part of the usual ritual at the main meals. The tea in the tea chest also had legs.
The biggest annoyance after the inadequate and poor rations, however, was the constant lack of fresh water on the return trips. The water quality of the fresh water was already highly questionable, and it was also rationed. Only one pail of this precious water was distributed per man and day. This allotment had to be enough for drinking and daily personal hygiene. Out of this necessity, we machinists invented the ''3-step body cleansing''. First, pre-cleaning with diesel oil or petroleum, then sparing washing with water and soft soap. If shore leave was announced and the water ration was sufficient, a fine wash with toilet soap was added. For some of the engine crew, however, this procedure was too strenuous. They showed up for dinner unwashed and cleaned their greasy hands with the inside of the fresh table rolls. This outrage was quickly stopped by the Swiss crew.
Today's advertising for mineral water recommends a daily consumption of two to three litres, which is necessary for good health. Of course, we were far from that. But necessity is the mother of invention. Following the old ''limey'' seafaring tradition, we added lime juice to our ''drinking water'', which was enriched with cement waste from the tank lining. Limes were cheap in West African ports. Drinking beer was not an alternative, because our Italian beer was only ice cold and with suppressed taste buds enjoyable.
I can't shake off the suspicion that this water shortage was deliberately brought about in order to be able to take on more cargo. Of course, it was also known on the bridge that the freeboard mark was not officially checked until the first European port and that the fuel and water consumption could be calculated until then. For general reassurance, the majority of our cargo consisted of tropical timber.
Particularly unpleasant and discriminatory, however, was the proven unequal treatment with regard to the crediting of overtime. Overtime had to be worked for the ship's maintenance. They also formed the flexible wage component, which could be planned and controlled. However, we had long been convinced that our Italian colleagues were overriding this vehicle in their favour. The African service was exhausting and energy-consuming, so the Swiss crew did without overtime on Sundays and holidays as much as possible. A normal working day easily comprised twelve working hours. Not so our southerners, who worked until they dropped, which happened often enough. The person concerned then took a break for a few working days. The total working hours, especially of the deck crew, often exceeded the maximum possible number of monthly working hours. When it became known that the ''bedridden'' were also credited with the lost overtime, when in bed in their cabins, the cup was full. All the more, as we Swiss had previously been reprimanded by the shipping company because we were apparently not prepared to work more overtime than the Italians. We demanded strict equal treatment from the ship's management. We left it up to our superiors to decide how this should be done. However, it was not to be to our detriment.
A lot of things settled down in the meantime, only the food didn't get any better. What did work well, however, was the delivery of the daily wine ration. Malicious tongues claimed, however, that this red wine had never seen any grapes. As self-supporters, we stocked up on vitamin-rich fruit at the ports of call. Quantities of limes, oranges and pineapples as well as whole banana bunches were dragged on board. The latter, however, had the disadvantage that all bananas ripened almost simultaneously. Two to three were nutritiously filling, but more had the opposite effect.
All seafarers in those years, who were away from home on long voyages were really away. Contact with their relatives was usually only possible by mail. What happened on the world stage was only heard with a long time delay. One was not yet ''online''.
Those who decided to remain on this steamer for further voyages in spite of the abuses described were tough and probably remained in seafaring for some time. However, I was able to see for myself during visits to the MS MALOJA and MS CARONA that there were more pleasant ships for the crew in the same years. On my second ship, the MS SUNAMELIA, there were only single cabins and the catering was excellent. The maximum of twelve passengers received the same food as the crew, but one course more. Eggs for breakfast and a snack during the breaks were normal here.
Heinz Läuffer, 26th. April 2019