A Month On A Slave Ship in the “South-ish” Pacific

I was just about at my wits end!

The situation at my place of employment had deteriorated drastically into a cesspool of petty politics, spite and pure meanness.  It was like getting a sharp stick poked in my eye on a daily basis, and I would joke that there was no more room for any more knives in my back .  It was all because of an organizational merge in which I was just flotsam being pummeled by crashing waves of a badly run organization.  I started looking for relief, if not a permanent remedy, at least a way to escape temporarily in order get out of the line of daily fire and simply reflect on my situation.  I started dreaming of far away lands…

It was a Friday night, and over a couple glasses of red wine I dove into the digital ocean that is the internet, and starting seeking a passage, a ride, or a crew position on sailboat, hopefully in an exotic location, and it didn’t take long to find a potential ride/berth.  A posting on one of my favorite places for hunting for yachts looking for crew – http://www.cruisersforum.com/forums/f30/ 

The post indicated that a 65′ Yacht in the Pacific was looking for crew capable of both sailing and scuba diving, it was located in the Marshall Islands  I whipped off a detailed email to the poster, outlining my extensive sailing, boat maintenance, and diving experience.

I found out in a matter of days that I had floated to the top of a pile of about one hundred other applicants, and after some online research to find out what I could about the boat, I accepted the position.  The deal was that I had to get myself there, but there would be no expenses once on board as we would spend our mornings doing repair and maintenance to the yacht, and spend our afternoons scuba diving and otherwise exploring.

A mere one week after that Friday night searching the net, I was in fact off on a leave of absence for tentatively up to two month, sitting on a flight to Hawaii, Johnston Island, and then to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

“Press ganging” is an old nautical tradition, whereby sailing ships would scour the docks and bars of seaside porting looking for both willing, and in many cases unwilling sailors (e.g. due to being drunk) that they could grab for crew.  What are you going to do when you wake up on a ship and you are already miles offshore?  In this case I had willingly press ganged myself on to what amounted to, as I would soon find out, a “slave ship” as the owner of the boat would often boast.. truly a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire!

The Marshall Island are really quite off the beaten track, it takes some effort to get there… My route was Vancouver to Hawaii, where I spent a few days, and then to Majuro, with a stop at Johnston Atoll (definitely not a travel destination).  The only people stopping at Johnson were US government contractors – noting that one point this place was a top secret chemical weapons facility.  Lots of people in bunny suits still walking around doing god knows what.

Surfer Dude Wipes Out – Repeatedly

I am very much a “when in Rome,…” kind of guy, so here I was in Hawaii, with a few days to kill, and besides hunting down some hard to get supplies for the boat, I has some time free, so why not take surfing lessons?

I must say, generally I “own” the water, it is my natural element in many respects, I literally swim like a fish and I can maneuver like one as well, and I am also smart enough to have the utmost respect for it.  I am also used to being in big waves, usually right up against the rocks where its even more dangerous (just like the reef just offshore from the beach at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica, the reef is called the “Cheese Grater” for good reason, don’t get to close or you will suffer).

For some dumb ass reason though, I thought that surfing mainly required good leg strength – in which I was good and strong, but in fact almost all the work with surfing involves the arms.   In contrast, experienced recreational scuba divers NEVER use their arms or hands to move or maneuver, their hands are normally clasped together in front or around their back to form the least resistance through moving forward, and they use their two legs to move and maneuver around.  Alas, I signed up for surfing lessons in Hawaii, and I had a recent and really painful torn rotator cuff on my right arm – making a lot of arm movement very painful.   So here I am taking surfing lessons with a bunch of twenty some-things, and I am pathetically slow in paddling out and coming back in.. you could literally hear me mutter, “Ow”, “Ow” with the rise and fall of every swim stroke,  I felt like I was the swimming equivalent of a geriatric walker because I was so slow because of the pain..

I must say that this surfing outcome was very embarrassing to me, because when I was in my twenties, I worked as a commercial scuba diver, and that work involved mostly upper body strength, hence my arms were not those of a 98 pound weakling.. after diving all day we typically hand to manhandle 200 or more cages of 50 lbs of clams each.  Lifting them from the bottom of the fish hold up to the top deck, and then onto the dock from one person to the other.   It was the hardest job I have ever done, and those of you who have actually had to do hard physical labour will be the ones who truly comprehend the difference.

About the Marshall Islands

Johnston Atoll sounds pretty spooky, but the Marshall Island themselves were not untouched either by the Military-Industrial Complex and the Cold War.  In the 1950’s Bikini Atoll was one of the US Governments nuclear test sites.. the population of Bikini (yes the bathing suit was named after it) was relocated to other nearby atolls.  And the US Military still maintains a significant presence at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshal Islands..  The atoll is the largest in the chain, and its interior is shallow, making it the perfect nautical “catchers mitt” in which to recover test missiles and other space related transport systems..

The Marshall Islands were one of the contested areas in the Pacific during World War Two, with the Marshall Islands being occupied by the Japanese.   One can still see crater holes from US bombs on the atoll landscape, are there are sunken and beached Japanese shipwrecks that can be seen and found.  One day when I was snorkeling across the bay inside Jaluit Atoll (I was on my way to go spearfishing over at the wreck of a beached Japanese freighter that had been bombed), I passed over a coral head and there was a perfectly preserved brass shell casing roughly 6 to 8 inches in diameter, and about a foot in height sitting in plain view.  Its still there I imagine, as artifacts are protected as they should be.

Rusted Japanese gun emplacement, Jaluit Atoll, Marshall Islands

Geographical Note:   Despite the ad for crew wanted saying the boat was in the South Pacific, it was the Marshall Islands which are above the Equator, roughly between 5 degrees and 10 degrees North latitude, so close to the South Pacific, but not quite, hence the “South-ish” in the title.

From the Museum in Majuro

Arrival

Stepping out of the plane, onto the small bit of tarmac, something was immediately amiss, unnatural.. I struggled for a moment to figure out what it was that felt so strange, and then it literally hit me again, a raindrop, but not just any raindrop, but a “warm” raindrop… something that a simple Canadian lad like me had yet to experience (okay, when I was a kid I spent some time in the Caribbean – Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, but I don’t recollect warm rain). I met the owner of the boat down at the dock by the main store and we went out to the boat by zodiac.

It was a 65′ ketch (two masts, big one in front), constructed out of aluminum, and in fact built in my home Province of British Columbia, Canada.  It was bigger than anything I had been on or worked on before (the 2nd largest being a 50′, Japanese built fishing boat that had been retrofitted as a hooka-rig geoduck harvesting dive boat).

The owner was a fifty something American doctor, who had quit her medical practice to go sailing around the world with her partner – lets call her Ms. R.  (the partner subsequently deciding that the sailing life was not for him), but she just continued on.. this is a common situation in the sailing/cruising world,  but normally the genders are reversed.  Her new “partner” was the official 2nd mate, and thirty-something Brit with some kind of engineering background, lets call him Jr. A.   The other pickup “slave” crew besides me, was a semi-retired Australian Engineer, who, along with his wife, had volunteered to assist with various projects in the Marshall Islands, whom we shall refer to as Mr. Green, and I was nicknamed Mr. Black.  The last two nicknames came about due to the colour of the piece of tape we put on our respective drinking glasses in order to identify them.  So, in fact we had on board a fairly decent representation of a good portion of the English speaking world, a Yank, a Brit, an Aussie and a token Canuck.  In terms of age distribution, the Aussie was in his 60’s, the Yank was in her 50’s, I was in my 40’s, and the Brit was in his 30’s.

Ms. R. loved to joke that she was running a “slave ship”, based on the deal that she was offering pickup crew.. and to some extent she was right, certainly the food that was provided (she covered all the cost and selection of provisions) – didn’t include a lot of protein – we wound up eating tons of cabbage, and rice was a staple was well.  We had to catch fish in order to pad out the protein levels, and we all took turns cooking – One day I make fish, Tahiti style, i.e. raw fish, marinated in lime juice overnight, and served with coconut milk.  It was okay actually.    Being inside this boat in the tropics was not particularly pleasant temperature wise.  It was damn hot inside, like being in the sweat box of a prison…  and cooking in the galley made it even worse in terms of heat retention.

We spent the next morning provisioning up, and transporting it out to boat, and then off we went, departing from the Capital, Majuro, heading off to another more isolated atoll by the name of Jaluit.   For anyone contemplating a nautical life, and wanting to get experience, take note, there are conventions on how boats are rigged, mostly depending on how many masts it has, and whether the biggest sails are in the front or at the back half of the boat, but in reality, every boat is rigged unique to its layout as well as the gear it has on board, so even if you are a very experienced sailor, you will still feel like a bit of an idiot until you figure our their rigging and approach to manage sailing.. and you might even start to think they are crazy in some thing, and brilliant in others.  Its always a learning experience, if not about boats and sailing, most certainly about people.

It was a 24 hr passage, and we took turns at the helm… normally just one person steering and adjusting sails in the night, with the other two down below on 1st standby and 2nd standby should the wind or sea conditions require it.  At night we also had the advantage of radar to keep an eye out for oncoming freighters or other large radar targets, complete with proximity alarms.  This boat was impressive with the range and intricacy of its systems, but that also proved to be part of its Achilles Heel – it had too many systems too maintain.  Other than a few squalls, the passage was relatively uneventful from a sailing point of and we entered into the center of Jaluit Atoll and found a suitable anchorage.

Was I Capable of Killing a Dog?

We had three inititally, and then just two other souls aboard that boat besides the Yank, the Brit, the Aussie and the Canuck, in fact we started out with one cat and god forbid, two dogs…  Don’t get me wrong, I am more of a dog person than a cat person, but a dog on board is totally unnatural, and two dogs on a boat are an abomination.. truly,, I am not making this up.

In the middle of our passage from Majuro to Jaluit, the cat died.  He/she had been off its food while in Majuro, and the doc. Ms. R was keeping a doctors eye on it, but the cat expired on the way and we had a emotional burial at sea midway.   Ms. R. had my utmost sympathy for the loss of her feline companion.  Wait, before you get the wrong impression, Ms. R. was no nautical crazy cat lady, she was one of the most competent sailors I have ever sailed with..  and we were compatible also in terms of diving style as well, in that I wasn’t worried she was going to get herself killed, and/or take me out in the process.

That may sound a bit extreme of a measurement, but I have spent far more time underwater working alone, than I have spent recreational sport diving with a “buddy”, and when I was with a “buddy” the odds were significantly higher that they were going to get me “in trouble” rather than they would be of them helping get me “out of trouble”.

The other two “souls” were the hounds from hell, a dumb-stupid, mouthy lab cross named Leah, and a miserably mean terrier named Sophie.  Dogs do not belong on a sailboat.  Indeed they are good security, especially when cruising in dangerous areas, but that one advantage is easily outweighed by the all the disadvantages and problems.  In this case, the problem animal was Leah, the big dumb stupid dog.  One day I was fishing, and had a hand line streaming out behind the boat as we moved along, with a large lure at the end full of big and sharp hooks.  It had caught a bit of weed on the end, so I was pulling it in to clear it off.. at the final few feet the lure  popped out of the water and was bouncing around a bit as I tried to grab it.  Leah sees this lure and weed and must have thought it was a fish, so she starts lunging for the lure trying to bite it, but I am doing my best to keep it out of her reach, so as she lands back on the deck with her untrimmed toenails, except she is landing on my bare feet sending me hopping around on the deck in pain, and still the lure is flopping around as she tries to bite it.  Thank god I kept it in play and out of her reach, it would have been a horrible bloody situation to have to deal with if she had managed to get her snapping jaws on it.  This mutt was starting to really drive me crazy!

I was starting to fantasize, what if Leah slipped overboard “accidentally”?  But that was something I could never do, put it did prompt me to ask Ms. R. why in fact she put up with such a dumb stupid dog, and that’s when I learned the background story..  Ms. R. readily admitted that Leah was a complete pain, but a few years back while Ms. R. was making a solo passage by herself, with only Leah on board.. Ms. R. had needed to get some sleep while underway well offshore due to the length of the passage.  She went down for a nap, but was woken up by Leah barking.. coming up on deck, Ms. R. had to act right away to change course to avoid being run over and sunk by a freighter heading right at the sailboat on a collision course.  Ok got it, that dog saved her life.

Leah going after a freshly caught Barracuda

Jaluit Atoll – The Coral Garden Paradise

We had the place to ourselves in terms of other boats or foreigners, and the scuba diving was pristine.. I was sure that many of the reefs we explored had never been explored by divers before.  On a daily basis we would do repairs and maintenance on the boat in the morning, and then spend our afternoons exploring the atoll and its various entrances and passages, but truly we had the best diving just a short zodiac ride from where we liked to anchor.   We also liked to anchor in a bay close to the main settlement on that side of the Atoll, so that we could go ashore and interact with the locals.

There was in fact on Jaluit, a bit of a village on side of the atoll.  It even sported its own police station, and when the sole police officer was on his rounds by boat to other parts of the Atoll, he would use a pair of handcuffs to lock up the front doors of the office and jail.

Our first incursion into the village required the utmost diplomacy..  we had to quickly find the village elders to present ourselves to, and one problem we had – in the eyes of the locals at least – was that our head honcho, our leader, our skipper was woman, Ms. R.  This was totally opposite of their culture so it took quite a bit of finessing on the introductions to work past this fact.   We came across two sea turtles that had been captured by the villagers and subsequently turned on their backs and tied up – soon to be feasted upon.  I was quite uncomfortable  about the thought of turtles being eaten as food, but clearly this was a cultural practice and since I saw plenty of sea turtles while scuba diving, their status as a food source in the Marshall Islands apparently did not endanger them in terms of their numbers locally.

Initially I gave high marks to our skipper, Ms. R. because she went out of the way to offer her medical services to the villagers, especially the women, who may have never had past exposure to a female doctor with whom they could discuss sensitive women’s issues and medical problems with.  Indeed, when asked or permitted she would venture into communities looking for patients in need – there is no argument.  But both myself, in the persona of Mr. Black and Mr. Green chatted about this and what her motivations were all about.  Mr. Green and I both  came to similar, but unflattering conclusions on this matter.

 

AilingLaplap Atoll

My X-ray Vision In the Haunted Channel..

We had just arrived at a new atoll, Alinglaplap was its name, and we pulled into one of the channels that led into the interior of the atoll, the skipper Ms. R. decided that we would try to find and anchorage in the channel, and sent me up to the bow of the 65′ yacht to scout out a suitable place to drop the anchor.  What I was looking for was a brighter reflection off the bottom to indicate that there was sand below to give the anchor a great place to take hold, as opposed to a rocky bottom.  As we circled the anchorage like an old dog looking for a comfortable place to sit down and sleep, I was up on the bow, trying to spot the optimum spot that we could set the anchor.  At one point, I caught a glimpse of a fairly bright yellow patch, but unusual in that it was a straight line – totally unnatural.  I told everyone on board that I had seen something unusual down there, and since the depth was 60 ft, no one believed me, as no one thought it was possible to see down that far with any kind of detail.  Eventually we did find out sandy patch, and dropped the anchor.  The skipper, Ms R. wanted someone to check the anchor visually to see that it was properly set and not going to foul on any rock outcroppings as the boat swung in the tide.  Normally we would use scuba, but no tanks were full of air, so I elected to free dive by holding my breath.  I jumped in the water, hyperventilated for a bit, then used the anchor line to pull myself down as fast as possible.  The anchor was good, and made a beeline for the surface as fast as I possibly could as my lungs were burning by that time.. I must have popped out the water like a cork I came up so fast (this is not an issue when you hold your breath from the surface, but not something you can do using scuba).

That afternoon we took the zodiac to shore, and I asked the locals if there was something on the bottom in the area I had been looking, and they confirmed that a 60 ft motorized Japanese barge had been bombed and sunk in the channel in WWII.  So of course we had to go back, find it, and dive on it.  What I had spotted from the surface, was the stern of the sunken boat (hence the straight line), covered in bright yellow sponge.   The other bit of excitement on that dive was when my dive buddy (this time Mr. Green), lost his weight belt..  I was looking at the wreck when I heard a bunch of sounds underwater coming from Mr. Green, he was floating up to the surface – not able to control his buoyancy, as his weight belt had came off and dropped into the wreck.

I looked at up him to gauge his speed going up, looked down into the wreck to see the distance to his weightbelt, and made the decision to first swim up to him and grab him, then tow him down to the wreck, and got him to hold on to it while I went back down and retrieved his weight belt, and got it back onto him and secured.

Local Fisherman in his outrigger, was selling fish

 

Diving with The Dangerous

The next day we decided to better explore the channel where we were anchored, but it would be a dive with current.  I was paired up with Ms. R. and Mr. Green was paired with the Brit Jr. A.  Because of the current running, we needed to tow the zodiac inflatable boat along with us in order that we could get back to the boat, and I drew the short straw so it was up to me to tow it while it floated on the surface, using a long line, while we dove along the bottom and the wall of the channel.  I was the slowest person because I had the zodiac.  As it should be, Ms. R. stayed right beside me, and as the current picked up, I moved over to the wall in order to use it to hang on so that we had some time to actually see things (like sea turtles lurking around), rather than shooting quickly through the channel at the mercy of the current.  Was shocked me, was that Jr. A. and Mr. Green were way off in the distance heading off into the abyss of blue green water as they had decided not to stay with me or the zodiac and were making no attempt to even try.  I certainly was not capable of catching them, as I had the drag of the zodiac to contend with.   Ms. R and I surfaced shortly afterwards separating from the other two, got into the zodiac, and then went to search for our idiot companions.  They finally surfaced about 15 minutes later, way inside the middle of the Atoll.  When we recovered them, there were considerable words between Jr. A and myself, as what they had done was dangerous.   Jr. A fancied himself a “Dive Master”, but when I started querying him about his experience, or lack there of, I found out that he had done less than one hundred dives in his life, so he was in fact a beginner (in contrast, I quite counting decades ago once I hit five thousand hours underwater).

Me Towing the Zodiac while diving in the channel

So I called where we anchored at AilingLaplap the Haunted Channel, because it was actually a bit spooky of a place, shortly after anchoring, a fantastic rip tide hit us, going from flat calm to huge waves throwing us about..  and causing quite a bit of consternation on our boat as to what to do..

It was also getting a bit dangerous in terms of the diving protocol in my mind at least as noted above, and even some issues with snorkeling.. like the day we were snorkeling quite far from our anchor point.  We had went by zodiac, and then jumped in the water to explore areas by snorkel, likely never seen ever before by anyone, and we hung together loosely, as after all it was just snorkeling, not scuba, and we were all good swimmers.  Hmm too good in fact, Mr. A. and I wound up back at the zodiac at roughly the same time, and couldn’t find Ms. R.  We waiting a while, then started the zodiac and started a search pattern.  We looked for a considerable time, then decided we needed to get back to the boat for gear like binoculars to better assist.  But to our astoundment, Ms. R. was back on the boat lounging around.  She had decided to get some extra exercise and swim all the way across quite a large bay to the boat – and DIDN’T TELL US.  Lets just say that we had words.

Personalities

I got along fine with everyone, with the exception of Mr. A.   He quite the little Nazi, and we had more than a few run-ins.  In contrast, Mr. Green, who was a pretty affable Aussie, was having considerable trouble with “both” of the other two.  For example, he was sleeping in the aft cabin, which had its own “head” (the name for a marine toilet). For some reason, the head plugged up, and Mr. Green was blamed for it (i.e. using too much toilet paper etc.).  He wanted to disassemble the head and through hull valve to fix it, but quite rightly, Ms. R. would have none of that, we were thousands of miles from a marine ways to haul the boat out, so it would be very dangerous to start messing with the through hull valve without having a backup plan/method to fix it if things went inadvertently went wrong.

Sidenote: Although it is true that I once actually cut a 1″ hole in the very bottom of my own boat in order to install a depth sounder transducer – while the boat was still in the water – but I had a plan, enough engineering knowledge to know about coffer damns and maintaining floating infrastructure (I had worked as the head diver at an aquarium for a while), and with two of us experienced at repair and diving to do it, I reckoned the risk was actually low, and we were tied up in a city with haul out facilities if needed in an emergency.

I found out later from Mr. Green that he had heard later after our stint on board, that they did figure out the problem – someone (we figured a previous crew member who was disgruntled) had put a number of AA size batteries down the head in order to sabotage the boat, which neither of us was particularly surprised at, especially given how Jr. A and Ms R. had treated both of us – being just pickup “slave” crew to be abused.

One morning not too long after, Mr. Green and I were working on cleaning the sides of the hull while sitting in the zodiac, and he confided to me that he just could NOT take those two other people any longer, and so he was giving me a heads up that he had decided to leave the boat, flying out from the atoll as soon as he could get a flight.  My immediate reaction was one of shock, I had found it  told him that I didn’t want to be left on that boat with just the two of them.  I wasn’t prepared to stay on, as I expected the abuse to then focus on me totally.  So I told Mr. Green that I was going to try to escape the same time he did.  The excuse I gave was that an infection I was suffering from due to a cut, had gotten a bit out of control, and that the heat combined with the infection was getting to me, not being able to sleep etc etc..  The next morning we did an expedition onshore to get get tickets for the next flight out, which was thankfully the day after!

Reflections on My Escape

The Marshall Islands was an incredible experience, and I was grateful for the opportunity to see some of it, the diving was top notch, quite literally the best in the world that I have ever experience, both before and after.  Despite being saddled with having to deal with Mr. Jr. A. who was particularly miserable, I am glad that I had done the trip.

Our escape vehicle – not really legal to be taking off and landing on a grass runway, but I wasn’t about to argue about it, I wanted out!

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