From Cuba at Sea by Ron Ridenour*
HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 20 — My first sailing mission intent was not with the Seaweed. I came to the Seaweed because the first tanker I sought to sail with, the Shark, was crippled and under repairs between periodic short-distance exercises during the six weeks I was aboard. The Shark was my first objective because its captain, Antonio García Urquiola, had infiltrated the CIA as a double agent for the Cuban government. He had formed part of my book, “Backfire”.
The empire’s covert warriors thought it had recruited the Shark’s captain in 1978. They thought they had bought his aid in their efforts to sabotage his country’s maritime economy, even his assistance in assassinating Fidel. Unbeknownst to the pernicious CIA, Urquiola was already “Aurelio,” an agent for Cuba’s state security.
Bright and early on the 4th of July 1990, 214 years after the newly formed United States Congress announced the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain’s colonial power, I swung up a gangway onto the Shark. I was exhilarated, launching into this adventure, the very first citizen of the United States to have been accepted by the Cuban government to board a Cuban vessel and the first foreigner seeking to make the bojeo. It was a most appropriate day to celebrate, defying the nation of my birth, whose neo-colonial empire had placed the country of my choice under its canon.
Guillermo, the second mate, greeted me. He took me to the berth where I would be staying. I put down my gear and opened a port hole. Then Guillermo took me on a tour of the ship that would be my home for the coming weeks, most of it anchored at Havana’s harbor. I would periodically return to my apartment since the Shark seldom sailed out more than a few sea miles.
The Shark was one of five Rumanian ships that Cuba bought in 1987. They were of the same build: 102 meters long and 16 meters wide, and carried 4,000 tons of petroleum. The crew referred to these tankers as “Rumalas”, roughly translated to mean “bad Rumanian”, because they are the result of shoddy work designed for the “socialist camp”.
Unlike on other tankers, the tanks were on deck and oil was always slopping out making the deck slippery and dangerous. There were many other complaints: the berths were extremely small; the laundry machine was always breaking down; the air conditioning only worked sporadically; the DDR-built engine valves frequently stuck, which was the current cause of this breakdown.
Crew members often smoked and watched TV in the officers’ lounge where we gathered after lunch. “Here, it don’t matter who you are. You can use either lounge as long as you come in clean,” explained Zenia, the chubby chambermaid.
After coffee, Guillermo took me to the captain’s cabin, a spacious spick-and-span, two-room “apartment” complete with kitchen and bathroom. The captain sat at his desk bent over paperwork; a photo of Fidel hung on the wall behind him. When he looked up, he smiled thinly and extended a long arm to shake hands. His squinting eyes and hesitant manner indicated curious skepticism about my presence. We had only met once nearly three years before when I had interviewed him.
The pilot arrived as we stood searching for words. The relieved captain invited me on the bridge to observe the test maneuver. All equipment is checked during test maneuvers. The radio and telegraph bip behind the wheelhouse. Water valves, hoses and fire extinguishers are inspected. The sticky engine valves were to be retested.
On the bridge, the pilot leaned over the starboard bulwark and called to the helmsman, “Dead Slow.” Rafael raised the engine telegraph forward one notch from “Stop,” which sent a mechanical signal to the engine room to engage the engine. When the dial logged in at “Dead Slow”, Rafael called out: “Dead Slow.”
The slim helmsman wore dark sunglasses over mustachioed thin lips. Rafael was known as “the “teacher”, because he had taught English in high school and later to naval officers. He changed careers to get away from the “boring routine of teaching and to earn more money”. As a helmsman he earned double what teachers do.
After casting off, I climbed down into the engine room. It was so noisy I couldn’t hear the men speak. A thermometer registered 45 degrees. Only the central control station was air conditioned. The engineer and an oiler were awaiting instructions from the bridge to move the telegraph to the speed ordered. All velocities were tested during the maneuver we made by the coastline. When we were several miles out, the pilot ordered “heave to”, and the ship slowly came to a halt.
I rushed up to the bridge to find the captain three sheets under the wind, “cussing like a sailor”.
“Those fucking `Mechanics´! What the fuck good are they? They are trained in Rumania, that’s where. Incapable, that’s what their socialism is!”
The chief engineer explained that the maneuver showed that the engine was still not functioning properly. A main valve kept sticking, causing the engine to start and stop, “when it fucking well pleases”.
“Turn this fucking tub around and dock the bastard,” the captain boomed. Rafael signaled the telegraph and shifted direction. He and the others on the bridge did not show disrespect for the captain but it seemed that they did not wish to hear his diatribe.
The chief engineer spoke again.
“No one is sicker of it than I am. We’re had the valve out time and again, and now it has to be pulled out again. But I’m not going to touch the prick. The company is going to have to send real mechanics who know this engine. They’ll have to get parts from somewhere. There are none here.”
“Imagine!” the captain responded. “We had the fucker checked out in Romania just last month. It is only three years old and fucked already. Romanians were not real socialists! They never were.”
*To purchase a copy of Cuba at Sea you can place an order with Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk/Cuba-at-Sea-Ron-Ridenour/dp/0906378028), Socialist Resistance (www.resistancebooks.blogspot.com/http) or write the author at Soderupvej 1, 4330 Havalsoe, Denmark.