The temperature is seventy degrees Fahrenheit, there is the sound of the ships powerful engine pushing us ever onwards towards our next port of call, Lome in Togo, West Africa. An occasional flying fish commits suicide by landing on the main deck and is unable to take off again. Porpoise match the speed of the ship, jumping and cavorting with a seemingly everlasting smile on their faces.
I wonder do they know what day it is.
The watch keepers on the four to eight watch on the bridge and engine room have been relieved, have had their breakfast and are now in their bunks catching up on their sleep. The day workers in the deck and engine room departments, not assigned watch keeping duties are the only crew members with no work for the day.
It is Christmas Day at sea. The catering staff have been down in the depths of the ship looking for dust covered Christmas decorations; these are hung from the deck head in the officers saloon and crew mess rooms. The Chief Cook and his right hand man the Second Cook and Baker have been busy for the past few weeks making the Christmas cakes and mince pies. The main Christmas fare, the turkey and ham had come on board at our last port of call Curacao, and are ready to be devoured.
The main Christmas dinner is served at two o’clock for the majority of the crew, excepting the watch keepers who would have their dinner earlier so they could relieve their shipmates on time, at the end of their watch.
On Christmas day the captain sanctions extra rations of beer for the crew and also a double tot of the finest Jamaican Rum. Some of the crew have saved up their usual Sunday ration of a tot of rum, and would have nearly a half bottle of rum to celebrate with. Saving your tot like this requires a lot of will power, when you consider on some ships a sailor might only be allowed six cans of beer a week.
After the main meal has been served the catering staff is served their meal by some of the ships officers, as a Christmas treat. During this traditional ceremony there is usually great merriment and laughter. When all the feasting has been done a buffet is laid out for the evening meal, this means the catering staff can finish early and enjoy the festivities. There are no Christmas presents or Christmas cards; a telegram from the ships owners is posted on the ships notice wishing all on board a Very Merry Christmas.
We are in the South Atlantic approaching the Gulf of Guinea and Lome. All crew members gather what ever alcohol they have and visit each other in their cabins and drink their rum and beer, or maybe have a game of darts in the recreation room. As we sit and, drink and chat, in our hearts we thinking of our families back at home, and looking forward to our next mail delivery in Lome. The night passes and our celebratory alcohol is consumed, time for bed and dreams of going home soon. Tomorrow is another day, St Stephen’s Day, but it doesn’t exist for us here on the “Amastra”. It will be a day like all days, a working day for all at sea.
On the eleventh of April Nineteen Sixty seven we sailed along the coast of South Vietnam approaching Nha Trang. I went on deck at seven o’clock to watch the early morning mist clear from the mountains, a first glimpse of this country so much in the news for so many years of war. Mid day came and we finally reach our destination in the large bay of Nha Trang. We will not be tying up alongside a jetty; instead we will be anchored and connected to a submarine pipeline where we could remain for anything up to four weeks acting as a floating storage depot for the American air force. It appears they think the fuel oil will be safer stored on board the ship than in storage tanks ashore. I and all the crew certainly hope so. Because we are now in a war zone there will be no shore leave, and as we have only been at sea for five days we really don’t mind.
In Singapore we had exchanged our movies for new ones; we are allowed three per month by the company. These nearly new release films are looked forward to by the crew. A couple of cans of beer and a movie, what more can a fellow ask for? Who cares about getting ashore in a war zone anyway; at least for tonight? Our movie finished at about ten thirty, I helped bring the reels of film and the projector back amidships where they are stored.
The discharge pipeline is connected, the main deck lights are on, twinkling lights can be seen ashore, and otherwise the night is inky black. I returned to my cabin to play with the dials of my brand new Phillips World Receiver, I have had it now for five days, listening to local stations and of course the BBC World service, our only source of news from home and around the world. Tonight I have tuned into the American Forces Network. They are broadcasting the Oscar ceremonies live from Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The nominated films are Alfie, Sand Pebbles, A Man for all Seasons, The Russians are Coming, and Virginia Woolf. I never got to hear the final winner of the Oscars as it had been a long and exciting day and soon I was in my bunk with lights out. But not for long.
I was rudely awakened by a dull thud and vibration that shook my bunk and cabin; this was quickly followed by the ships alarm bells being sounded. I was out of my bunk as quick as cat chased up a tree by a bulldog.
Alarm bells don’t usually go off at twelve fifteen a.m.
I was sleeping in my underpants and tee shirt, I dragged on my trousers and shoes and one other very important thing, my life jacket, for I could not swim an inch. Upon opening my cabin door I was met in the alleyway by my fellow Irish ship mate John Young.
”What’s happening John?”, I said. Before he could answer the third engineer who had been on watch in the engine room came running down the alleyway shouting,
“Get out quick she’s going down” . Myself and John dashed along the alleyway and up the companion way to the deck where we found the crew mess man cowering down behind the ships steel bulwark. I asked him what had happened; he replied
“We might have been fired on from ashore, I don’t know for sure”. Just as he answered, the ships lights went out and the abandon ship signal was sounded. An eerie silence settled about the ship as we stood rooted to the deck in the dark of the night.
The Amastra had been built in 1958 and was 19000 tons weight. As with most tankers built in those days she had a separate bridge and accommodation section amidships.
My life boat station was unfortunately amidships, while my cabin was down aft at the stern of the ship, I now had to make my way along the catwalk above the cargo tanks of jet fuel oil in order to reach my boat station.