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Seaspray and Whisky Paperback – 5 Aug 2010
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A truly superb book which I only wish had been longer and I had written it myself! For those who have not been at sea the story may seem almost far fetched, but from fond memory I can find nothing unbelievable in it. I have not seen 960 bottles of whisky disappear but do not doubt for one moment that even the smallest detail in this book is absolutely true. Truly un-put-down-able! a must for ex sailors and all who wish to re-live life at sea as it was not so long ago.
A truly superb book which I only wish had been longer and I had written it myself! For those who have not been at sea the story may seem almost far fetched, but from fond memory I can find nothing unbelivable in it. I have not seen 960 bottles of whisky disappear but do not doubt for one moment that even the smallest detail in this book is absolutely true. Truly un-put-down-able! a must for ex sailors and all who wish to re-live life at sea as it was not so long ago.
The ALLENWELL was crewed by the assortment of misfits, drunkards, wasters, hard cases and oddities that one would expect on a ship of her type. Just to take the senior officers: the Captain was a rough, foul-mouthed egalitarian, who went ashore on drunken sprees with the cooks and whoever else he could find, usually ending up in trouble with the police; the Chief Engineer suffered from advanced emphysema which had prevented him from going ashore or entering the engine room for the last two of the eighteen years he'd spent on the ship; the Mate fully lived up to his nickname of Misery. Not surprisingly, given the absence of any leadership and control from the top, the scratch crew quickly succumbed to the temptation of broaching the cargo of Vat 69 whisky. They didn't pilfer; they broached it to the tune of no fewer than 80 cases, or 960 bottles for a crew of 45, at least 15 of whom were not involved.
The signs of increasing drunkenness began soon into the voyage, as the ALLENSWELL headed out into a typically stormy N.Atlantic crossing, just before Christmas 1961. After a brief stay in New York, during which the Captain disgraced himself during an appalling visit to a Cunarder docked astern of them, the ship arrived for a fortnight's stay in New Orleans, where the crew went wild; bartering (two bottles "short-time", five all night), selling and drinking whisky for all they were worth. Their crime was discovered by the shore authorities only after their arrival in the final port of discharge, Houston. Lack of co-ordination between the Texas and Louisiana police forces and FBI incompetence left the ship free to return to New Orleans for loading, where, just before the FBI pounced, all the remaining bottles were reluctantly thrown into the Mississippi - all, that is, except for the naïve Third Mate's, the only crew member to be arrested and imprisoned. During the voyage home, the Chief Steward's drunken incompetence resulted in a shortage of food, and more importantly to the sozzled crew, a premature end to the beer supply.
But this book is more than just a good yarn about a farcical voyage. First of all, a summary suggests a clear-cut, black-and-white picture of incompetence and roguery. The author rises above that. The Captain is an excellent and careful seaman; the Chief Engineer is a self-taught and widely-read scholar, full of wise reflections. The loss of the whisky and then the beer frees the crew from their servitude to alcohol, and even the worse cases, like the Bo'sun and Chief Steward, restore themselves to a measure of health, dignity and competence. Only Misery the Mate remains resolutely one-dimensional.
There may be Irishmen who don't have a way with words, but Mr.Freeman isn't one of them. He writes evocatively of the "thin metallic beeswaxy smell of radio gear" and the "twittering tin-whistle orchestra of the Morse-world wavebands". The dialogue is unerringly authentic in its turn of phrase, often humorous ("This is the time to bring out the fur-lined French letters," says the Old Man, as the Atlantic weather turns bitterly cold), and bizarrely scatological ("Any girl that pulls nails out of a board with her a**e?", asks the same character, as he searches New Orleans for a well-remembered night-club act of "anal dexterity" from the War years). Best of all, the language is gloriously and authentically "politically incorrect": here, whores are whores, not "working girls"!
This isn't a book about what it was like to be a radio officer, though there are plenty of references to experiences unique to the trade: the rash of Christmas emergencies, the thrill of hearing for the first time US pop radio stations, late at night or early in the morning, with their advertising jingles and non-stop hits, instead of the boring old calling and distress frequency. No - this is a book which celebrates the old MN just at the end of its Golden Age, when ships could spend two and a half weeks berthed alongside the French Quarter of New Orleans, and men could choose to spend a third or more of their working lives aboard one ship. Above all, it's about that wonderful "floating theatre where comedy, slapstick, tragedy, music-hall turns and generous dollops of low farce (were) performed regularly", in the words our author gives to the wise old Chief Engineer.
Finally, Mr.Freeman exemplifies the best qualities of the old R/O. A detached observer, who sketched the faces of his fellow crew men in his notebook, and noted down their doings and sayings, he is the sympathetic outsider, doing a job no-one else aboard understands, aware of the romance of the sea at the same time as he is planning a future with greater stability, prospects of advancement, and dullness, ashore. Buy this book, and buy it soon!
It brought my spirit some "souvenirs" that I lived myself !!......50 years ago !!
The only somewhat unbelievable part is that in my 40 years at sea I never came across a teetotal Irish sparks!
Definitely recommended reading and looking forward to the West African voyage.
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