Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Sinking of the Flor

 --This is another in the continuing story of my adventures in the grain trade.--

Into the 1980s the Portland grain docks would occasionally see an old steamship. Only an expert in maritime finance could explain the reasons why these straggling vessels were still at work and not turned to scrap. But I do happen to know that at that time the U.S. Congress mandated that 25% of the grain that the U.S. was giving away to places like Egypt and Pakistan must be carried aboard American vessels. I assume that many a mothballed ship waiting for the scrap heap was brushed and polished and put into action at that time.
That was before Jimmy Carter embargoed the U.S.S.R. over its invasion of Afghanistan, when the Soviets and all the rest of the world were beating a path to Pacific Northwest ports to load up with grain. Wheat, barley, sorghum, corn (but mostly wheat) was coming into the elevators in anything that would carry it. I have seen belt unloading potato trucks and open top coal cars carrying grain, since there were no other available carriers. The great grain merchants of the world were using anything that floated as well. 

Ships from the grain fleet of the Soviet Union were often seen passing under the Broadway Bridge looking much like WWII era supply ships with a large hammer and sickle on the smokestack. 

Soviet grain ship at Globe (O Dock)

They may have looked militaristic, but these vessels were all named after Russian poets-and they were fun to visit. The vodka usually was flowing and the smells of fresh baked bread filled the halls. These ships had crews made up of both men and women. Sometimes I would run into a woman dressed like a village babushka swabbing the decks. I would have to look back at the elevator and shake my head to reorient myself.

One of the many amusing details of these ships was that inside the main entrance to the superstructure there was usually something that looked like a tract rack in a Missionary Baptist Church. Instead of pious tracts these contained some poorly written, glowing reports of life under communism. They also had booklets criticizing the U.S. for its imperialistic foreign policies and institutional racism. I had a great number of interesting encounters with our Russian customers, and I was sorry to see the last of them.

Of the last of the steamships my personal favorites were the old President Lines general cargo ships. Their cargo areas were made up of midship refrigeration holds, main deck, upper tween deck, tween deck, lower tween deck and orlop. Of course we didn't load grain into the refer area, but we had to keep meticulous track of which parts of the holds received what part of the cargo. I soon learned the difference between an orlop and a tween deck.

General cargo President Liner

Whenever there was a President Liner in town I always hoped to be called upon to inspect her stowage areas. As a young boy I was fortunate to have crossed the Pacific on the S.S. President Wilson--one of the highlights of my childhood. I loved the lovely smell of an American merchant ship. All the ones I have been on have it. That lovely mixture of diesel fuel, fresh marine paint, and grilling steaks. These vessels were left over from the days before containerization. When they came to town carrying break bulk cargo the port could still use one of its old warehouses left over from World War II, such as the long rows of warehouses at Terminal 4, between the grain elevator and Matson Lines dock.

One of my many "duties and responsibilities" was that of inspecting the "stowage areas" of a newly arrived vessels. Usually we would inspect the hold of ships while they were either at anchor in Astoria, or in the Columbia River's Vancouver anchorage, in the waters beyond Kelly Point. This was because the large fees charged to ships for being tied up at a grain dock could run into tens of thousands of dollars per day. The shipping agents had to make sure the vessel was ready to receive its grain cargo before committing to being tied up at the export grain elevator.

Whenever I was on a "stowage inspection" it was a good day. It broke up the boredom of 12-hour shifts pacing back and forth in a cramped grain inspection laboratory, or any of our other mind-numbing services provided to our customers.

I recall one lovely morning in August 1979 when I drove into the parking lot at Bunge Elevator (now Irving) at 800 North River. I noticed an unusual hulk of a ship tying up to the dock-linemen yelling at the sailors and vice versa. I paid it little mind as I was in a bit of a dark mood, looking forward to an entire day in a windowless room, grinding wheat samples into flour to test the protein by use of a crudely high-tech spectrum analyzer. When I stepped in the door of the lab the supervisor told me there was a change of plans. The ship that was tying up had come straight in from sea, and would need to have its holds examined dockside. With an upbeat step I headed out to the dock to join the others from my stowage exam team. I had not seen anything quite like this vessel, at least not in Portland.

All merchant ships loom up from the dock when emptied of cargo and ballast, and even though this was a ship of medium size it was painted solid black which added considerably to its loom factor. While the line crew struggled and shouted, I walked as far to the stern as I could get, stepping out on the catwalk that goes toward the barge unloading dock. There were no stars and stripes fluttering in the breeze, but the name and port of origin was painted midway across the stern:

New York

the name and port of origin was painted midway across the stern

I joined the boarding party again, which by now included the ship's agent.

"American," I said. "We don't see many of those."

The ship's agent, who looked as though he had been up all night drinking coffee and talking on the phone to Kuala Lumpor and Rome, looked at me wearily and said, "It's a steam tanker. A steam tanker!."

I was puzzled for a minute, then I said, "Ah! But it doesn't burn coal--does it?"

"No, it burns diesel--but it's all run by steam. Even the tank covers use steam to open and close. Instead of using steam to make electricity and running the operations off that--it uses steam. You will see what I mean in a minute or two."

Soon the gangway was in place at a precarious 45 degree angle. Slowly the boarding crew climbed up, holding onto ropes, panting like Labradors all the way up into the strange world of the S.S. Flor.

The entire deck area was covered in plastic garbage bags full of refuse. Most of the sacks were either open at the top or split open, spilling their contents of rotted lettuce leaves, empty milk cartons, coffee grounds, cigarette packages, orange peels, egg shells, etc., all over the deck. The sailor standing guard at the top of the gangway was in some sort of snit, ignoring the normal pleasantries directed at him by the new arrivals. He wore an earth tone stocking cap on top of his boney skull and a disconcerting scowl making him look a lot like Dr. Suess's Grinch.

The first mate came towards us, kicking garbage out of his path as he walked. He was a man in his late 60s with obviously accelerated arthritis in his knees. As he led us to the ship's office I asked, "What gives with the garbage?"

The story was a long one. It had to do with U.S. Coast Guard regulations and lack of facilities to comply with the same. I was still being filled in on the details when we arrived at the ship's office up three flights of stairs.

The ship's office was also the captain's office, with lots of natural light and tasteful, hardwood paneling. There were framed maritime scenes on the walls and colorful curtains by the port hole windows. The ships library seemed to be made up of about three decades of Lloyds Registry of Shipping, all neat and in order behind the glass doors of the bookcase. Sitting at a green leather-top desk was the captain. He was a gentleman of 70 or more years. His hair was white, his eyes were a watery blue, and his nose was a matrix of ruddy veins along the line of W.C. Fields. On the table was a fifth of cheap bourbon with four fingers left, and next to it a water glass full of unwatered booze.

He was an easy man to get along with--quiet, polite, and undemanding. He said this would be his last sea voyage as a ship's master, then he would retire for good. He spoke of roses and a place in New Hampshire. I needed him to sign papers giving me and my fellows access to his vessel before inspecting the holds--which in this case were tanks for transporting petroleum and other chemicals.

I didn't have much hope that this apparent garbage scow would pass anything--let alone a readiness to receive a grain certificate. Stepping out on the deck, I noticed that steam pipes were running every which way--boiling hot to the touch and some even blowing dangerous geysers of steam out of rusted spots. Just before reaching the butterworth (tank inspection hatch), I saw the furry butt of a rat scurrying into a nearby garbage pile. According to the regulations, the rat has to be inside the stowage area to turn it down, but somehow none of this felt right.

I climbed down into the darkness of the tank fully expecting filth and disgustingness. The only other tanker I had been in at that time was a supertanker loaded in freezing weather with Alaskan crude warmed to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to accommodate the flow. The result was about 12 to 16 inches of paraffin stuck to the steel tank walls of the ship, over an area the size of Notre Dame cathedral. It all had to be scraped out by hand like scraping candle wax off the living room floor.

The previous cargo had been "sweet crude" from Malaysia, a high quality, low sulfur crude oil that cleans up pretty well. Down in the tanks there was the lingering smell of petroleum, but not bad enough to turn the tanks down for "commercially objectionable foreign odor." I kept looking for the rats that I was sure were there (which would have failed the vessel), but they must have made a deal with the crew, laying low until we left. The old tankers, with small, round butterworths are slow loading, with grain loaded by pipes attached to the main spouts from the shipping gallery above. The "Flor" would be there for at least a week.

Several days later I was working supervising the weighing in the control room--a room that looks like the flight deck of the starship Enterprise. It has large picture windows with a view of the shipboard activity. About mid-morning the door to the control room was thrown open with a crash. In lumbered a giant of a man, bearded, wearing a flannel shirt, his dungarees held up by working man suspenders. He was apparently stone deaf, for he had only one volume to his gruff, nerve-racking, ear-splitting shout.

"Can I use the telephone?" he shouted, causing the secretary to jump, spilling her coffee. "I am an able-bodied seaman. I need to call my business agent in Seattle!"

It became apparent that whatever business the seafarer had with his business agent, none of it would be private.

"Halloo, Mike! Derosher here! I'm down here in Portland! You've got to take me off of the list for this Flor! What's that? No! No! No! Not that! They are going to sink her!"

There was a minute of silence.

"That is what I said, they are going to sink her, over in Indonesia, or somewhere! For the money! There is money in it for me, but I don't want any part of it! It stinks!"

After shouting a few more business arrangements the sailor left--the longshoremen, Bunge managers, and I looked at each other with something akin to shock, then we all continued on, loading tons of sweet American prairie wheat on to the doomed ship aware that it sounded as though it was destined for the bottom of the South China Sea.

Eventually the ship moved on to Terminal 4 for more cargo before sailing for Asia. Others came and went, the days passed, each one bringing a fresh Oregonian with a fresh New York Times crossword puzzle. In early September I noticed a small paragraph somewhere near the obituaries. An American steam tanker, the Flor, had gone down somewhere near Indonesia. All the crew was accounted for and there were no injuries. No injuries--just 5 or 6 million dollars worth of wheat gone from the world food supply.