I was chatting with a friend of mine who is working in Uganda at the moment. He had just finished a hard day flying and was settling down to a nice cold Nile. His description of the beer; “Cold and sweet amber nectar, moisture is running gently down the bottles exterior. One takes a thoughtful look into a distant horizon, as it gently flows across ones lips. Ahhhhh” reminded me of a similar occasion 20 years ago when I served in Belize. I was responsible for discharging two “Maintenance ships”. These vessels bought all the heavy equipment the forces required to operate, and returned equipment that was damaged or not required to the UK.
Unloading these ships was both challenging and rewarding. The equipment available to us for the discharge was basic, and on both occasions there was a rain storm which made everything that bit more treacherous and difficult.
Two things I remember most about that job, were this sign on the Port gate;
and the tradition of retiring to the beautiful colonial veranda of number 4 Fort Street after the job was done. There the exhausted Ops team sat and drank ice cold Pina Coladas served in what I can only describe as a glass the size of a small goldfish bowl.
The seed for the following poem had been sown;
The Maint. Ship
Harsh dockside lights illuminate the pier sparkling in the heavy tropical rain.
Stevedores wait patiently as Pilot and Master bring her alongside,
scuppers spewing rainwater.
Heaving lines are thrown and caught, hawsers drawn in and made fast,
the Gangway’s lowered. As the Pilot disembarks he shouts greetings
to boarding Customs and Ship Agents.
The Radio crackles, sparking a flurry of activity as stevedores spring into action.
Hatch covers are raised as chain gangs descend on the cargo to un-lash.
High above crane operators peer through the rain - waiting.
The hold reverberates with the rattles and clangs of shackles, chains, strops, hooks,
As they compete with the incessant drum of the torrential downpour.
A torch summons the hook from above.
The hours pass in a flurry of activity, hooks dip into the hold, their chains dangling
Stevedores clamber over the vehicles and ammunition pallets readying each lift
and vital equipment emerges from the hold.
Shore side, high-viz vests and flashing lights dance an intricate two-step
as vehicles are unlashed and driven off, and stores are loaded on trucks
and all the while the rain pours.
The light changes as dawn passes unnoticed and the crews change shift,
tired grease and rust stained bodies exchanged for fresh eager faces.
But the discharge doesn’t pause.
Tween decks are cleared and the hold’s vertical walls disappear into the depths,
The chain gang finishes un-lashing, in the boot deep rain water,
As they clear the dunnage, the last load emerges.
Down on the pier dented, broken or redundant equipment starts to arrive.
and with hardly a pause the re-load commences, equipment bound for home.
And still it pours.
Finally the job is done, formalities complete, customs and ships agents down.
As the pier’s cleared of debris the vessel slips its berth and heads for home.
Suddenly the rain stops.
The troops head back to camp, exhausted but proud of the job they’ve done.
The boss and his ops team retire to the cool veranda at Four, Ford Street
to savour a ‘Pina Colada’ like no other.
John Carré Buchanan
30 July 2011