Ships That Pass In The Night

Over the next years I was drawn into the lives of men who had survived the war’s coffin boats and convoys; many of these sailors had been captured by the armies of the Reich. Lives of many of us were filled with drama. The pugilistic frightfulness of the liner’s boatswain caused even the shipping line’s commodore and his officers to roll their eyes and turn away when he brutally and publicly exacted revenge on a foe during boat drill.

At the ship’s wheel, a 16-year old doesn’t question the course given by the officer of the watch. It was a quiet midsummer dawn as this great ocean liner swept silently along the southern Irish coast. Calmly, the 1st Officer instructed me to steer a course that brought the leviathan at breakneck speed just half a kilometer from the Emerald Isle’s coastline. I could see early risers on land but could only imagine their expressions. I reasoned afterwards that the officer had always desired to carry out the marine equivalent of flying under the Tower Bridge. On that morning the conditions were just right. The same officer put me on a direct collision course with a pod of whales making the way south in the Atlantic. I will never forget his look of quiet satisfaction when our plunging liner separated one of these beautiful creature’s heads from its body.

I never questioned it. Everything to me back then was normal. To save precious time the Spanish skipper of the Ibadan Palm would ram the ship’s bow into the muddy banks of Africa’s jungle creeks. By using this strategy the river’s current swept the stern round to negotiate each bend more quickly than by steering the ship around the bend. The same skipper used his 6-cell torch to publicly beat the living daylights out of an African stowaway. The generation of sailors prior to mine hurled such unfortunates into the Atlantic.

Never to be forgotten was the drowsiness of a day sailing off the Mexican coast. This hapless teenager was on the wheel when, in the distance, taking an interest in our ship, was a U.S. destroyer. Quite incapable of making an independent decision and unable to rouse the ship’s mate I stubbornly steered the course given earlier. I dread to think of the consequences had the American warship’s captain not blinked first and moved smartly out of the way of our careering cargo liner.