Category Archives: Cuban Trader

Uplifting Natives

Some of the adventures I had whilst working as a Radio Officer and Purser on various oil tankers didn’t always end like the Cuban Trader. I well remember a much more pleasant trip while working on the S.S IRVINGDALE a small Canadian oil tanker delivering to various oil ports in the Maritime Provinces, but once in a while we sailed off to the former fleshpots of the infamous Pirates of Caribbean.

We were not in search of the gold in treasure ships, but the black gold stored in the smaller oil ports, many of them too small to accommodate the giant oil tankers. Often there were no modern loading facilities, just a couple of flexible pipes from the oil storage tanks into the middle of a small bay, where we dropped anchor and dragged the pipes from the sea bed and connected them to the ship. A quick blast on the ship’s siren signalled the shore crew to open the valves and start filling up the ship.

It was a slow process filling the tanks, but it gave the crew plenty time to relax, enjoy the sunshine and swim in the cool waters of the bay. Usually we were surrounded by native rafts and young boys selling fresh fruit and vegetables while their fathers were clearing away a path through the jungle for more oil pipes. Some of the native boys actually used the scrambling net to climb on board.

I remember one young lad named Pedro who spoke very good English and begged me for some of colourful magazines to take home to his Mom. In the evening the beach was alive with native girls dancing the hula hula and plying the willing crew with native moonshine and jungle juice. Alas I had to stay sober and make sure all the seamen were accounted for the next morning.

Pedro, the young lad, insisted I meet his mother, a jovial woman of about fifty. Being the mother of about ten kids, she no longer had the energy to join the dancing girls on the beach but had a whale of time checking out the advertisements in the magazine, especially a full page color picture of a slender young blonde modelling the latest brassiere. “You can bring back for my mother?” questioned Pedro, grinning. He tore out the page and handed it to me.

I thought about Pedro’s request when we returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since we would be returning to the island again I decided to check out what was available in the local lingerie store. When I showed the assistants the now tattered pictures of the blonde modelling the uplifting brassiere, the gals behind the counter started sniggering.

“It’s for a native woman in Colombia,” I explained, gesturing with my hands about the size she would require. When they were finally convinced I was for real and not some wandering pervert, they decided a Double D Cup would be the size and as an added favour, they gift wrapped it with a pink ribbon.

Back in Cartagena, Pedro was the first one to scramble aboard. His eyes were as big as saucers, when I showed him the package. He thanked me again and again and begged me to accompany him on his bamboo raft back to shore. I remember the crew lining the deck rail watching me hanging on for dear life as the little raft bobbed up and down until it finally scraped onto the beach.

Pedro lived in the middle of the village where most of the huts were made from bamboo poles and banana leaves on the roof. His mother was cooking some kind of stew in a large iron pot on an ancient wood burning stove when we entered. For a few seconds she stared at me holding out the colourful gift wrapped present, then began to wail with excitement, finally hugging me to her monstrous bosom. Suddenly her large family of youngsters came running into the hut from every direction and joined in the celebrations. At first she was reluctant to tear open the pretty package and carefully undid the wrapping, finally holding up the pink silky bra like some movie star clutching an Oscar. Her family cheered and laughed as their mother coaxed her enormous breasts into the cups, and strapped on the bra. Minutes later she marched outside where a crowd of bare breasted native women had gathered to join in the parade through the village.

Pedro looked at me and grinned. “Gracias, Senor Sparks,” he said. “My mother is mucho pleased. What they call it in America?”
“It’s called a Cowboy Bra…”
“A cowboy bra,” repeated Pedro. “Why cowboy bra?”
“Because, my dear friend, it rounds ‘em up and heads ‘em out.”

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The Berlin Wall

East Germans on the Cuban Trader

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

David Hasselhof, who is very popular in Germany for his singing and Baywatch seems to be in constant reruns there (I think the German’s just fancy all those scenes of sunny beaches) is trying to save a remaining mural covered portion of the Berlin Wall which a developer wants to knock down to build luxury housing. Mr Hasselhof, who gained part of his fame in Germany for singing a hit song there “Looking for Freedom” while performing on top of the wall in 1989, which some Germans credit in part for the fall of the wall, would like to see this portion preserved as a memorial. As a reminder, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to separate East Berlin from the west and at one point consisted of almost 80 miles of barbed wire topped concrete encircling the west side of Berlin during the socialist/communist regime. 

But before there was an actual wall, the east and west zones were divided more simply by barbed wire and guard posts, but like the impetus in the US now to “build a fence”, the desire of East German’s to escape to more freedom in the west mounted to a desperate flood. In my time on the Cuban Trader, if heard many of these stories. Young Helmut was shot by the Russian guards while scrambling under the barbed wire. Helmut got thru but his younger brother got caught in the wire concertina coils and the guards dragged him back into East Berlin. Helmet never saw his brother again.   

The crew of the ship were mixed Polish and Germans from East Germany. Many had crossed to West Berlin where there were recruiting agencies for the Liberian ships…usually jobs any experienced seamen wouldn’t take… I took the job because it was almost triple the wages I was getting and in any case Officers were well paid and certainly treated a lot better.

The recruitment agencies in West Berlin usually promised these ignorant, desperate youths all kinds of perks, showing them pix of luxury passenger cruise ships, then signed them for two or three years  (without passports) shipping them like cattle to the Dutch West Indies…Curacao near the Panama Canal. Then, any ship, especially Liberian or Monrovian (flying flags of convenience because they ignored the basic safety rules of the sea) which needed a crew member, radioed to the “Office” in Curacao and they would bring out the seaman on a launch. Many of the crew jumped ship and disappeared, especially in South America. The American ports were always very vigilant and rarely let them onto the dock. They had no passports, no I.D. and usually no money. To paraphrase a line from “Around The World in 80 Days” “You like America, but you have no money, America no like you…”

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My First Ships – The Assorted and the Sordid

British Scientist

British Scientist

I’ve written of my experiences as a Radio Officer on the Cuban Trader in my book, but I had sailed on a series of ships before that. The BRITISH SCIENTIST was my first ship, she was an oil tanker plying between Scotland and Stockholm, Sweden – also sailing the Mediterranian to Sicily where we could see the volcanic Mount Etna smouldering.  The ship would traverse through the Suez Canal to Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait many times until our last trip through the desert after the Egyptians under Colonel Nasser nationalized the canal … The Egyptians took over control from the Brits and the French, but really and had no idea how to run it…so it silted up and ships had to go around the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town) as they had done before the canal was built.

I was also Chief Radio Officer on the RMS HINEMOA – a New Zealand Overnight ferry between the North and South Island)  I also worked on the original QUEEN ELIZABETH ocean liner of Cunard.  I was about the 14th Radio Officer on this ship as she was aging. When her passenger days were done she was sold to a Chinese entrepreneur who turned her into a floating a college campus until she mysteriously caught fire and sank in Hong Kong Harbor.

I was on the SS IRVINGDALE (a ship of Irving Oil in Canada trading between various oil ports in the Caribbean and then unloading in Nova Scotia or Rimouski in Quebec.  On the IRVINGDALE the Captain’s wife often came along on voyages with us. She was a prudish bible punching bitch who almost demanded the crew attend prayers on deck before I was allowed to pay them their shore money. We docked once in in Cartagena, Columbia,  right next to the port whore house where a red neon sign showed a naked women lifting her leg up and down and showing her black bushy money maker. This drove the captain’s wife nearly insane … And for one of his birthday presents she bought the captain a Cadillac which was loaded on board as deck cargo…but when we arrived at foreign ports there were rarely any cranes capable of lifting it onto the dock.  It was sheer madness.

Empress of Scotland in WWII

Empress of Scotland in WWII

I was on the EMPRESS OF SCOTLAND, the second one. The original was first launched in 1906 as one of the great transatlantic liners before the Titanic. My Empress was the second, built for the Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) launched in 1930. She was originally named the Empress of Japan, but World War II put an end to that and she was rechristened as the 2nd Empress of Scotland. She carried troops in the war. In 1958, after I signed on the Trader the old Empress was bought by the Hamburg-Atlantic  Line and renamed again, the Hanseatic carrying passengers until the 1960s. These huge transatlantic passenger ocean liners were fun, but it turned out one spent all one’s wages in the bars, having a good time. And I needed to make some $$$$. The Cuban Trader was paying triple the wages, but who would have  thought I’d only have to put up with the smell of molasses…

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My Hollywood Arrival

I don’t remember the year, but I do remember it was Friday the 13th when I first landed at Burbank Airport in-bound on a “puddle jumper” from Philadelphia. I do remember the first two hectic days very well. The first night, armed with my camera, I was strolling along Hollywood Boulevard hoping to take some pix of the film stars when I was suddenly pushed into a dark alley, beaten up and robbed – no  film stars, no wallet, no camera and a lot of bruises. The only film star I saw the first day was a famous Witch, Margaret Hamilton the Wicked Witch from Wizard of Oz who had the mail box number 628 next to mine at the Hollywood 28 Post Office on Bronson Avenue.

While moaning to some of the guys at the YMCA about my painful “Welcome to Tinseltown”  they advised me to go to the Chaplin Studios early in the morning and apply for work as an EXTRA.  Me?  Work in a film Studio? Wow! Only one day in Hollywood and I was already on my way to stardom! I was outside the Chaplin studios at 6 am, all polished up in my best clothes. There were about ten of us, we were quickly ushered passed the main gate into room and asked if we spoke any foreign languages or had special skills. I casually mentioned I was former Marine Radio Operator and could send Morse code and I could. . .

. . . Morse Code must have been the magic word because I was hustled across the lot to the sound department where they needed to dub over some footage of a British spy sending a coded message to London during the war, and gave me my “script” to look over.

So there was no make-up, no sound stage, no film stars just an ordinary looking desk at the back of the recording studio with an old brass Morse code key. When I finished tapping away, the Sound Engineer asked me where I had learned to send Morse code so fast, it was a wonderful opportunity to tell him all about my life of hell on the CUBAN TRADER and my adventures in the Cuban Revolution.

*Excerpt from my autobiography “Asquith in Tinseltown” –  in progress

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