Rats, Rust, and Two Old Ladies

Rats, Rust & Two Old Ladies
By David Creamer
Whittles Publishing 2008
Dunbeath, Scotland
240 pages (including 8 color photo pages)

International boat deliveries are a full-time business for some firms. In many cases these will involve the delivery of a spanking new vessel from the builders to the new owners who may well be on the other side of the world. With new deliveries there could be warranty issues, but by and large the boats make the trip well. But when a European firm was contracted in 2003 to deliver two aging Louisiana-built tugs from the Middle East to Jamaica, Murphy’s Law reigned supreme.

The tale is told by Capt. David Creamer in Rats, Rust & Two Old Ladies. The two boats, Martha and Justine, were built in the 1960s as typical Gulf of Mexico tugs of that era, although the British author calls them “Mississippi River tugs.†A pair of vintage Detroits that, like the boats, had not been treated with loving care by their owners, powered each of them. The author reports that his first sight of 38-year-old Justine moored at the dock in Bahrain should have warned him away. But he was drawn to the romance of sailing a “Mississippi River†tug across the Atlantic. This allowed him to look beyond the plague of rats that they had to exterminate and the grease-covered galley that the Indonesian cook was able to get to some semblance of order.

Second thoughts emerged when they lost all electrical power and steering in the crowded Strait of Hormuz without backup for even the running lights. Narrowly escaping being run down in the dark by a containership, they carried out emergency repairs on the generator before the venerable little tug and her partner resumed their odyssey.

Doubts continued when the aging vessels encountered their first seas of the voyage. Predictably the rough water brought the sludge from the fuel tank bottoms into the filters. Then the lack of a valve caused the turbulent seas to erupt in the toilet, forcing the crew to resort to a bucket and the author to have third and fourth thoughts about the wisdom of the voyage. Written with good humor, the book shows how to survive adversity at sea without resorting to squabbles.

The voyage followed a route through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean. The insurance required the two vessels to maintain visual contact. That combination of the route and the insurance resulted in extended stops for repairs at Malta and again at Gibraltar. The book gives a good account of shore leave in these ports.

By the time they sailed into the Atlantic, the two vessels were minimally ready for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The actual 19-day crossing was almost anticlimactic and would, with an autopilot, have been a pleasant experience. But Justine did have one distinct similarity to a Mississippi River towboat; she was steered with a stick rather than a wheel. With her rudder indicator lost in a Mediterranean storm, keeping her on course was a full-time job.

The arrival in Trinidad had its own drama and revelations. For anyone familiar with 1960s era tugs or who has worked a less-than-well-maintained vessel, this nicely illustrated book will bring back fond memories. For those who have always had the luck or wisdom to be on up-to-date vessels, this will serve as a reminder of their good fortune. •

By Professional Mariner Staff