Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Supertanker Memoirs:
OK, I admit it. I have a soft spot for memoirs and a really squishy spot for sailor memoirs. Rarely are they literary masterpieces. I don't care. They convey a story and information and I like that. One can never have too much information on how things work or how people live, or why they do what they do.
Gilbert joined the British merchant marine as an apprentice seaman and was assigned to tankers. That would not have been my first choice since I have an aversion to volatile substances. He and the other apprentices had never been to sea which I suppose one could consider logical or irrational depending on one's prior sea experience.
Tanks had to be cleaned, a procedure never to be taken lightly and it was here that Brightwell, the Third Mate, whose overabundance of energy was usually disdained, was appreciated.
This was a single-bottomed tanker. The entire cleaning procedure was extremely dangerous. First of all the tanks were gas freed with big fans lugged around the deck form hatch to hatch. Then huge rotating wash heads on frames where wheeled around and lowered into the tanks and the tanks were washed. Then men had to climb into the gloom full of walkways which led straight out into the open space when you were walking along them and mop the residues of cargo and fuel up lying between the strengtheners and squeeze the mops into buckets then someone else had to haul the buckets up eighty feet to the deck and chuck the residues over the side. Then you had to unbolt a cover on the stripping system and bolt on a flexible pipe and hoover up the last of it. Tempers frayed. The sailors didn’t like working down there. The nastiest one taking over from the other apprentice had a massive fit because he couldn’t find the bolts to connect the hoover hose to the suction. They were right in front of him on a kind of shelf. When this was pointed out to him he ranted that it was a stupid place to leave them. This was when you really needed the bosun. A big part of his job was to punch out any sailor who moaned too much and this one had a record for performing that duty quite assiduously. The danger came from the lack of oxygen. Basically the whole procedure was equivalent to attaching a fan to the petrol cap on your car’s empty fuel tank and then climbing inside it and cleaning it. There were many incidences of sailors dying down there. Three minutes without sufficient oxygen you were brain damaged, four and you were dead. Warsash had gone into some detail about rescue procedures. “Forget it,” Brightwell said. “If you’re going down a tank in that situation you’re going to bring up a corpse.” Normally, everyone was moaning about Brightwell’s efficiency as it was a pain in the neck. Here they were all quietly grateful for it. He would not send any man down if he wasn’t ninety-nine per cent sure it was safe. You could never be a hundred per cent certain.
Filled with injudicious comments about ports and captains, the writing is either amateurish or Melvillian. You decide:
They did things on tankers that would have made an OSHA inspector blanche. But the flow of oil was not to be stopped and so safety and principles were never allowed to interfere with normal operations. If someone dared to complain, he was reported and his career quickly came to an end. The ship berthed and the Brazilians looked skeptically at the mate’s loading plan. The mate was one of the past it Freemasons and unsackable so it was perhaps well that they did. But they eventually deemed it O.K. and started loading. Generally, apart from Belgium obviously, the terminals were pretty content to follow the mate’s plan except in the United States. There, despite, their girly safety nonsense, when brutal looking Stevedores would throw a fit over the slightest spot of oil on the deck and pronounce it a safety hazard and wait for someone else to wipe it up before they commenced work, the terminals wanted to do their own thing. All American authorities operated on the basis that the rest of the world’s population were complete morons and they were infinitely brainier. A lot of the rest of the world’s population held the complete opposite view but you have to cope with what you have to cope with.
Then again, Australian might be worse: “Once the ship leaves the berth, he doesn’t care if it disappears,” reported the stevedore. Considering that a lot of bulk carriers were disappearing at this time this wasn't a harmless comment. They were sinking all over the place often due to the speed with which terminals insisted on loading them. Eight ships had sunk after leaving Dampier in Australia but the Australian shipping authorities, the most self-righteous in the world, didn’t do anything about slowing things down. Once Australian big business came into play principles were out of the window. Several ships had snapped in two alongside the berth while loading in Brazil. You were taking your life in your hands sailing on them.
I would have enjoyed more detail about his educational experience at Maritime college,but he does provide occasional glimpses into the Alice-in-Wonderland aspects of the shipping world (see also Shipping Man ) For example, when asked to discuss an accident sailors were simply asked to write out a report detailing what happened. This they had to do even at the risk of self-incrimination: You could not claim that you were incriminating yourself because the Government said that you weren't being asked to give evidence against yourself merely to aid the investigators to compile their report. Then once the report had been complied it was promptly used in evidence against you, but the Government insisted speciously that you hadn't given evidence against yourself, the report had.
The last third of the book might be less interesting for some as Gilbert descends to a litany of ports he visited with only brief descriptions of the sailor's view of each and he focuses less on the ships. He eventually earns his master's license and the book then rather abruptly ends.
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