In 1954, the Liberty ship Maplebank set off around the world in an unforgettable trip of somewhat drunken revelry, punctuated by routine calm at sea between ports. In port where drink was available, there were crises after crises as the crew went missing or appeared on deck drunk and unable to work.
The Maplebank was one of a dozen so called Sam Boats or Liberty ships bought into Andrew Weir’s Bank Line after WW2. Previously named Samwash, she was in the fleet for 10 years to 1957 before being sold on to Liberian registry and named African Lord where she had another 12 years before going to the breakers. She had also been at the Sicily landings in WW2.
The author joined her as a 19 year old senior apprentice, in 1954, one of four, later to be three, as one, a Geordie Apprentice, deserted in New Zealand.
The previous trip had also been an eventful one, with the Master sadly disappearing at sea. Also, a fire whilst in the Mississippi River delta was extinguished after she had been beached to enable firefighters to put out the the blaze.
On board, it was quickly realised that standards on the American built war time ships was higher than we were used to. There were no frills, but there was a solid feel to everything, and the most noticeable difference to our usual ships, was in the accommodation. Bunks were wider and better furnished, and the heating was heavy duty. On the bridge, it was functional and a bit spartan, but again, all fittings seemed clunkier. The Maplebank still had the gun bays on the bridge front to remind of the real purpose of their existence. Down below, a three cylinder steam engine seemed simple and robust, as indeed, they were. It is probably true to say that those who sailed on Liberty’s enjoyed the experience, and the memory of these ships is regarded fondly by many.
It was to be an interesting round the world voyage that would end in Bremen with only one of the original deck crew remaining. Signing off with a bad discharge, a DR (decline to report) he was the Bosun, but had started the trip as an EDH (efficient deck hand) and found rapid promotion as his shipmates deserted around the Australian and New Zealand ports that we visited. It was a bit rough that he was made a scapegoat for the misdeeds of his colleagues, but the Master had been frustrated for 15 months by the antics of them all, and probably felt justified. To my mind it was ironic, and a bit unfair, as he was the only member of the deck crew that had stayed loyal.
We joined on a cold snowy January day in Bromboro dock, where the Maplebank was discharging Copra and heated coconut oil into road tankers, and the pungent and distinctive smell permeated everything. Steam winches were clattering away. To the author it was like home, with a welcoming and familiar smell, but once on board it was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary Bank Boat. In the apprentices cabin a weighted rubber cosh dangled on the radiator, and the companionway up to the officer’s accommodation had a hinged thick steel door which set us all wondering. However, we soon settled in, and started to meet our shipmates. It was mid-winter in Birkenhead and the heating was off due to repairs below, so we trooped ashore to eat in the Lever Bros canteen.
Unlike the Asian crews on most of company’s ships, the Liberty’s had so called ‘white’ crews from the Seaman’s pool, and they were Liverpudlians on this voyage with a rich sense of humour. Many were great seamen. We were to discover that their brand of humour sustained them through all situations, good or bad. They were irreverent fun to work with, tipsy or not, although the fun wore a bit thin when we apprentices had to cover for them, either steering, or covering hatches and working long hours.
We loaded in the Gulf Ports of Texas and Louisiana after a ballast voyage from Liverpool. Bulk rock sulphur went into the lower holds, and after levelling, heavy plant like tractors and harvesters were lashed down on top. General cargo of all sorts, barrels, cartons, and bundles filled the tweendecks. It was long before containerisation hid nearly all cargo inside ubiquitous steel boxes. On deck we carried a refinery pressure tank loaded from a floating barge and associated heavy lift crane. The big thick steel tube took up all of the starboard side of the afterdeck and the deck crew quickly decorated it with painted slogans, Kon Tiki, being the most prominent. No thought was given to any views the consignees might have! Amazingly, there was yet no major signs of the boozy mayhem ahead in New Zealand.
We sailed for the Panama Canal, and arriving at Cristobal in the evening, anchored to complete formalities before an early transit the next day. It was magical with coloured lights twinkling ashore, and the cooler air after a tropical day. The crew then disappeared unnoticed after hitching a ride on one of the launches alongside. In the morning, with no sign of the crew, a decision had to be made how to proceed and it was decided that with four apprentices, a transit could be made without the majority of the deck and engine room staff. The author spent a few hours at the wheel, spelled by one of the other apprentices, and the pilot, strolling up and down the bridge wing kept up a running commentary with the police ashore as they attempted to find and round up the missing crew members. One of the engineers has also had a night in Cristobal and unfortunately had been stabbed in a fracas, ending up in hospital.
The Liberty ships had an upper wheelhouse, a glorified box on stilts which contained a steering console, with a compass, telegraph, whistle lanyard, and a clock. As it was a small area, it was possible for a nimble helmsman to control all three devices, and the author took a great delight in steering, ringing the telegraph, and blowing the whistle when required by the Canal pilot. It was shades of Para Handy on his Clyde Puffer but on a larger scale! The crackly walky talky radio kept us informed as we transited through the Lakes whenever another member of the crew had been located. After we exited we anchored in Balboa Bay, awaiting developments. Finally, the rounded up members were sent out on a police launch. Still feisty, they were handcuffed and released one by one to climb the Pilot ladder on to the deck, where they flung wedges and anything lying around back down on the police boat, which sped away. The police had had enough. Fined by the Master the next day, they claimed triumphantly to us apprentices to have nominated the “Destitute Master Mariners Fund” as their choice for the deducted wages.
Our deck crew were good seamen, often from families of seafarers, and skills had been learnt which included the sewing of working suits from duck canvas, complete with cap. The young deck boys had trouble reading however, so the apprentices sometimes read out their letters when asked to do so. Crossing the line with this Liverpool crew was quite an elaborate affair, a pool being assembled on one of the hatches, and the court of King Neptune suitably dressed in crown and with a gold trident, presiding over the prisoners.