– One of my many non-careers –
Just out of highschool – I think it was barely a few days after graduation – I went to Hamburg and looked for a job on a big ship. “Where do you want to go, young man?” they asked, looking me over with a knowing smile. “As far away as possible.” I said, “and how about tomorrow?”
This was my ship: MS Regenstein.
(Norddeutscher Lloyd – 12740 TDW – 1960 Stückgut – Australien/Deutschland)
And Australia was the destination.
The roundtrip was going to take almost half a year.
My first day out on the ocean (English Channel). I had already traveled quite a bit (click here for more) but never been on a real ship before. I was so excited, I somehow forgot to get seasick. Later I did a bit, but it was never a problem.
The first stop was Rotterdam; at the time the biggest harbor of the world. Look at the forest of cranes; all the cargo, boxes, crates and pieces had to be lifted and lowered into the holds of the ships one by one. The big universal containers were not around much yet.
Cargo came often in barges from all the rivers in Europe.
My bunk bed for about half a year.
Learning to be a sailor involved many things…
My work was simple but very diverse. Washing dishes was about the least favorite one. I was a “Moses” – a disparaging term for the lowest member of a crew, a ‘go-for‘ who was supposed to do everything, if it wasn’t quite clear if it was really my job it was mostly considered to be at least good to learn.
Washing the deck, cleaning gear and greasing cables…
… was much more interesting.
The engine room was fascinating, but my job was always only the dirty work. I didn’t mind, I learned a lot.
A little fire in the engine room while we were riding out the first storm off France in the Bay of Biscay. The engine actually broke down several times during the entire trip and we sometimes floated helplessly for days before it was repaired.
The rocks of Gibraltar. Entering the Mediterranean Sea.
Marseille /France. So much to see. A new world in each port.
Genoa/Italy. Markets, strange fruits, noisy people I couldn’t understand. I remember when my new friends of the crew introduced me to a transvestite in the streets. I had never even heard of something like this and simply thought they were all pulling my leg, until the poor “guy” who looked so absolutely feminine showed me his penis. A powerful lesson!
Livorno /Italy and of course the leaning tower of Pisa near by where I pretended to be a tourist.
So far I’d only read about volcanos. At the southern end of Italy, entering the Strait of Messina, we sailed by the little island Stromboli where its volcano was just erupting. I couldn’t take my eyes off this show.
At Port Said we entered the Suez Canal.
You could see big ships as if they were sailing through the sand.
The elegant Arabic dhows down in the Red Sea.
And then, past the sweltering heat in the Red Sea – the first time I ever experienced real heat – past Aden and then the last tiny island of Socotra we moved into the vast Indian Ocean.
Clouds: More than the vastness of the ocean the immense cloud-scapes traveling over the sea took my breath away. We could see torrential down pours from far away coming toward us, drenching us that you barely could see 30 feet or so, and wandering off, giving room for sunshine within 20 minutes.
At first we had calm days and incredibly still nights. In those nights – all the stars were completely unfamiliar for me down there in the southern hemisphere – something changed in me for ever. I slept outside on deck, but I couldn’t sleep, I was so profoundly affected by this unimaginable space around me. I saw bioluminescence on the Indian Ocean, a milky, eery glow on the ocean as far as the eye could reach, fantastic gigantic glowing geometric patterns, moving like “Aurora Borealis” (Northern Light), miles and miles across. Something I hadn’t even heard of ever. We sailed right through it, leaving a luminous trail behind us, glittering stars above and below. The slow pace of the ship, the ceaseless slow movement, the constant low vibration had become part of me by now. There was the ship, our little world, and the horizon, far away, never-changing, no matter how we traveled, how days and nights came and went, the horizon: illusive, a fictive limit, following you like your own shadow.
Then the wind came. Somewhere near the equator.
Wind that broke all the rules I had known until then. Our steady, docile ship became a helpless cork, tossed around in gigantic waves, shivering from bow to stern when it slammed violently into mountains of moving water. It was scary, to be honest, especially when I saw the serious look on our captains face. But it all only added to this new feeling of oneness with the universe in me.
I even secretly climbed up on one of our masts to get more of the violent movement, I got soaking wet even up there.
* * *
After 12 days beyond Cape Guardafui of Somalia, continuously surrounded by empty horizon, we finally arrived in Fremantle, the port of Perth in West Australia.
And across the Great Australian Bight we did business in all the ports and reached Sydney.
We got a star-docking-place right next to the harbor bridge.
This was 1966, the great Sydney opera house was still under construction.
Australian soldiers coming home from Vietnam. They were treated a bit better than Americans coming home then.
We went around all the way to Brisbane. I managed to take a few days off and did some exploring inland (hitchhiking). For the first time I saw these strange black people who fascinated me:
* * *
On the return trip, almost a professional by now in all my little roles on the ship, we hit another hurricane. Out in the flying seawater all the time I caught a serious eye infection. In the little port of Bunbury on the west coast they dropped me off and left me in a hospital. Suddenly all by myself at the end of the world, pretty miserable with one eye shut down, I felt a bit lonely and depressed in my bed. The young nurse who cared for me in these few days must surely have seen this. I couldn’t communicate much with her, my English was still very poor. One night she came over and kissed me and laughed and left. Wow, this was pretty sweet, I thought, and my blues vanished completely! Each time then when she came to carefully put some drops into my eye she sealed it with a kiss. She wasn’t there when I left to get on a bus and catch up with my ship in Perth.
I kept the label of the ointment as a lovely souvenir.
* * *
Then, one day, Australia disappeared behind that horizon again. I should come back much later when this amazing life unfolded and check it out a lot more. (click for ‘Australia V‘ and previous, plus ‘Celebrating a Place‘)
The long haul back lay ahead. I was a full crew member now, still a “Moses” when it came to receiving orders, but belonging to the crew, to the ship.
This was one of the officers I made friends with.
The boatswain. More my boss than a friend, but he treated me well.
A sailor from Portugal who showed me many tricks how to take it easy.
A guy from Bavaria who wanted to treat me like a dog until I took the courage to explain a few things to him.
This was the radio operator, a soft-spoken, pensive man; he would sit in his shop in lonely nights and listen for distant SOS calls.
Hein from the tiny island Amrum off the northwestern coast of Germany.
* * *
Back home I didn’t wait long to head out for another adventure, not by ship. All this was just a chapter, an episode in this great story called life. It was not the outset of a career, I’m not cut out for careers, I never really aspired for any career, I always found it confining. But it was all this too that set the tone for things to come. In those starry nights on the Indian ocean I felt the ultimate freedom to choose my life, to cast my fate into the wind and not be afraid of this freedom.
Here is a link to some great stories – in German – related to the Regenstein shortly before my time, written down by Kapitän Jochen Pahl: http://www.kapitaen-jochen-pahl.de/?page_id=787
Klaus September 8. 2011