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Contributor : Captain McDonnell ("The Freighterman!!")

In several of my stories I have mentioned Hans, the second mate on the "American Robin". We were shipmates, and sailed together for a few years in the early 1970's. I have sailed with many people over the years I would consider to be friends, but Hans is the only one with whom I have stayed in contact. I told him about my web site, he agreed, somewhat hesitantly, to share the following story with those interested in tales of the sea, provided, however, that I didn't mention the names of the principal characters. It is neither his intention, or mine, to cause pain or embarrassment to anyone we sailed with, their family, or friends.

Hans was raised on the sea, coming from a large family of seafarers on the Island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Sweden. Like me, he is retired and married, living with his wife of many years (a Dane) in Florida. He has two grown sons, who were youngsters when we sailed together. I remember Hans carving a beautiful toy Sloop for them out of dunnage and material found aboard the "American Robin". He is a fine seaman and navigator.

After the incident which he records here, you may understand why he has had no aspirations to command a freighter after his brief command of the ship in this story. It's too bad, we really could have used a man of his ability and wit instead of the many less competent who made it to the top. The story involves, as many of mine do, the excessive use of alcohol. In addition, it involves mental illness, possibly caused by the use of alcohol, and involves more than one person at a time. I have mentioned before that it is difficult for the crew to cope with medical emergencies at sea. It is worse when it involves the captain. It creates trouble of epic proportions when it involves the mental illness of the captain and a few of his fellow crew members.

Hans had recently come to U.S. ships from foreign vessels at the time of the this incident. He was a licensed chief mate, familiar in the operation of ships, but not U.S. flag ships. This is the situation he had to face, and is told in his own words.

Before quoting from Hans' report, I will offer an excerpt from another account of the same incident written by one of Hans' shipmates on this unfortunate voyage. It provides some insight into the captain's personalty and character: "Before I took this relief job, I was warned by my predecessor that the captain was an unusual character. I was told that he was extremely unsophisticated, totally unlearned in any field other than the sea, strongly opinionated despite inadequacy of facts, and as a result, obstinate and unreasonable whenever he felt he was being criticized or corrected." Hans feels that this description was too harsh, but I feel it was appropriate based on my reading of his report.

The ship was a 25 year old freighter, built during WWII. It was owned and operated by one company, but time chartered to another, which contracted with the Government to carry military cargo to Vietnam. With this in mind, I will begin quoting from Hans' report to the ship owner.


The break-bulk freighter, a West Coast C-2 that had seen it's better days years before, sailed from San Francisco on September, 27th, for Qui Nhon, South Vietnam, with a full load, including a 600 ton deck cargo. Because of the deck cargo, she rode comfortably, being neither stiff or too tender. We were looking forward to a pleasant voyage with a seemingly good crew.

Through the first ten days out the captain kept complaining of stomach ulcer symptoms. He hardly slept or ate. His appearance was sickly and he appeared somewhat shaky. Questioned about his stomach troubles he told me that he did not drink (alcohol); he instructed me not to mention his condition in the medical log, even though he experienced the same type of problem on the preceding voyage and even a while before that. I assumed that he was perhaps his normal self except for a case of bad nerves caused by the various aggravations common to a ship master, during a busy coastwise trip. I had joined the freighter just a few days prior to the voyage. I did not know the captain prior to that time.

The trip outbound was uneventful except for the chief steward bothering the captain at all kinds of hours, day and night, with disciplinary matters concerning crew members. These were things of small or no importance. The steward seemed to have a great deal of influence over the captain. He was always ready to listen to the steward's complaints and backed up the steward one hundred percent.

The steward was no doubt in the right in some instances, but the fact remains that he was the sole cause of a lot of friction. He was a constant aggravation to the master. He seemed to be forever prowling around on the officer's deck, as if eavesdropping. No officer except the captain could tolerate the steward by the end of the trip. Among the crew there was not one man who had anything good to say about the him. The steward, a burly, ruddy German from the Bronx, treated all unlicensed men with typical Prussian arrogance. In spite of this, the steward received a fair amount of backing from the officers in his disputes with the crew, mainly because he was alone against so many.

I found the captain to be a very stubborn man, whose course of action was unchangeable, unless of course he could be persuaded that he initiated the change. He would often reject suggestions before he had heard what they were. It was against this background later events have to be viewed, such as why more strenuous objections were not made against the master's actions, which ultimately lead to the encounter with the Chinese Navy off Hong Kong.

This is illustrated by an episode on the trip to Vietnam: On the evening of October, 17th, the captain laid out a course straight for the dangerous Bombay Reef, in the South China Sea, expecting to get there the following morning. A tropical storm was brewing a couple of hundred miles to the South, boosting the already strong NE monsoon and causing some shower activity with reduced visibility. Due to the threatening weather and unpredictable strong currents in the area, I suggested that we pass twenty miles NW of Macclesfield Bank and then give Bombay Reef a 25 mile berth after that. This would not only be a safe route in rough weather, but would also save us 4 miles in distance. As usual, the captain refused to consider the proposal. When I asked him why he wanted to put on extra mileage to get close to a dangerous reef early in the morning, he answered that "he just wanted to see it". Why, I do not know. We had multi-star fixes every evening and morning up until then, and we were not in doubt as to our position.

We arrived at Qui Nhon on October, 19th. We could not enter the harbor until the evening of the 20th, due to aforementioned tropical storm. The stay and discharge of cargo at Qui Nhon was routine and without hitches, that is until the evening of October, 25th. We were on the last leg of discharge and with cleaning of holds well underway. It seems as if the 2nd Mate, who had the 1600 to 2400 shift, let a bottle of booze take precedence over the cleaning of holds, thus causing a short stoppage.

At 0718 the following morning we left the pier to secure for sea at the outer anchorage. Tugs assisted forward and aft. There was a delay in moving away from the dock, but from my station on the bow I could not tell why.

After anchoring I was told by the 2nd mate that the aft spring line was caught in the screw during undocking, and that he had cut it with a fire axe, leaving about 40 feet of Dacron line wrapped around the propeller. I was very angry because there seemed to have been no attempt to pull the line free of the propeller with the winch, while reversing the screw slowly. This surely should have been tried as we had two tugs holding us in position.

I approached the captain about this and got the impression that he considered a line in the propeller an every day affair. He shrugged it off with "She'll probably throw it off after awhile." I assume he referred to the line, and not the propeller. The sea was running very high in the anchorage, but no attempt was made to look at the propeller. At noon we were secured for sea and weighed anchor for the trip to Hong Kong.

To my knowledge the captain never reproached certain people on the vessel for foul-ups. It appeared rather as if he preferred such persons to those who were on the ball and kept their noses clean. Why this was the case I'll never know.

For chapter 2 of this yarn, click the link "The Contributor" above

Quo Vadis? Where do you want to go?

The Contributor - Captain John McDonnell - Read the rest of the story Here.
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