I was sitting on the balcony of a ninth floor condo at Orange Beach a few weeks ago, staring out to sea, watching a small, nondescript ship crawl eastward across the horizon, and I got to thinking about the disappearance of the tramp steamers or freighters. They were once ubiquitous, crowding the far ends of the cheaper, desolate wharfs in faraway places, taking on and unloading the odds and ends of miscellaneous cargo that more legitimate carriers distained to handle.
Until relatively recent times, before the massive container ships and the Panamax oilers, there was still a place for them in the world’s ocean commerce. In fact, I submit that the “supply chain” would not be so “backed up” as we are told if “tramps” still sailed the seas. There was a time, even as late as the 1960s, when much of the transoceanic cargos of coal, ores, grain, and general cargo were carried in comparatively small cargo ships, often owned by single, independent operators rather than large corporations such as the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company which was based in New Orleans. I saw their ships all over the world, and remember them well because most were named after women: Charlotte Lykes, Stella Lykes, Ruth Lykes, Adabelle Lykes, etc. Tramps were often in need of paint, and sometimes held together by rust, and gained their nickname perhaps because their unkempt appearance and wanderings paralleled those of that lonesome fraternity of homeless men known by the same name.
You’ve read about them in literature. For example, in “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad’s novel of 1899, Jim, the protagonist, serves as first mate in the SS Patna, a tramp steamer carrying 800 Muslim “pilgrims of an exacting belief” on hajj to Mecca. Somewhere in the Red Sea, the ship strikes an unknown object, and the crew, thinking that the ship is sinking, abandon the pilgrims to their fate. As it turns out, the tramp doesn’t sink; the pilgrims are rescued by a French navy ship, and Jim spends the rest of the novel trying to salve his conscience and clear his name. Beyond fiction, during World War II, the German Navy actually utilized warships disguised as tramps to surprise and sink unsuspecting Allied shipping.
The tramp freighter market was very competitive, with owners often low bidding each other for cargos in spot markets. Their advantage was that, having no fixed schedule, they were free to call on any port where cargo might be obtained. By their very nature, they generally carried comparatively low unit value commodities and operated at the lowest possible cost, with bare bone and often partially unlicensed crews. Administratively, there are three basic types of charters: by the voyage, for a certain amount of time, and by what is referred to as “demise,” in which the charterer gets the ship but provides the crew and everything else.
When I was much younger, most ambitious men my age planned to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or other successful professionals; my dream, however, was to own a tramp freighter of my own. When you are sitting around off watch, and nobody back in the world knows or cares that you are alive, you need to have a dream or you will go crazy. While I was planning my career as a freebooting entrepreneur, my chain of command was on me to “ship over” or reenlist for four more years, offering me advanced electronics schools and the ship of my choice upon graduation – IF it met the needs of the service. Rudyard Kipling’s line “If you can dream, and not make dreams your master” came to me as I turned down that proposition. Have you ever noticed how there’s always a big “if” in life? Anyway, I did want to sail the ocean blue; to stride across my own deck; to pull up or drop anchor when and where I got good and ready, but only on my own terms. I was tired of saying “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir; whatever you say, sir,” to every fresh-caught, daft boot Ensign who happened to be my boss at the time. Later on, when I became an Ensign myself, I resolved to treat everyone with respect. When I was contemplating owning my own ship, however, I knew I should enroll in one of the public state maritime academies, like Texas has in Galveston, or maybe Massachusetts Maritime Academy, at Buzzard’s Bay; but I had about as much chance of getting into one of those elite schools and paying for it as I did the Sorbonne in Paris.
I had watched tramps for years, steaming in and out of ports like Marseilles, Casablanca, Istanbul, and Alexandria. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that England was “la nation boutiquiere,” the nation of shopkeepers, belying its maritime heritage and strong navy, but I probably saw more tramp freighters plying the Thames and its estuary, headed to London, than any other place.
I first noticed one in Guantanamo City, Cuba, before Castro closed the gate and isolated the Naval Station - a few crewmen unloading stalks of bananas by hand in the noon day sun. I could almost hear Harry Belafonte singing “Day O” and see the workers looking back on their shoulders for the “deadly black tarantulas” in the green banana stalks. I saw them in Tangier and all across North Africa. I even knew a lady in Hong Kong who made her living painting them with an all-female gang of painters.
In my youthful naivety, I never put much thought into how I would finance such an operation because, in reality, I could afford to buy a ship about like I could afford to buy the condo where I wrote this column – not even a parking space. Actually, I had a plan for that. I was going to buy a World War II surplus “Liberty” ship on the cheap. I understood maps and nautical charts; I had a pretty good handle on electronics, because that was my training and rate; I knew the nautical “rules of the road” from standing countless bridge watches underway; I figured all I needed was to learn about engines and, being raised on a farm, I knew about tractors and machinery , and my first car was a truck, so how hard could that be? While the tragic “Infernal Triangle” between the United States’ east coast, the Caribbean, and the west coast of Africa of pre-Civil War days was certainly not my business model, I thought of hauling wine from France, exchanging it for olives in Italy, trading them for oranges in Spain, and starting over in France. I might even peddle a few used cars along the way. What could be easier? - my own triangular trade. Aah, sweet bird of youth.
During World War II, American shipyards turned out 2,742 so-called “Liberty” ships, named “Ugly Ducklings” by President Roosevelt, to transport soldiers and war material to the battle zones. Built by shipyards on both coasts, many controlled by the industrialist, Henry J. Kaiser, the ships were the largest number of standardized vessels ever constructed, coming in at 441 feet long, displacing about 14,000 long tons, and capable of a plodding 10 knots. By the end of the war, we were building an average of three ships every two days, and many shipyard workers were women – giving rise to the popular image of “Rosie, the Riveter.”
After the war, these ships were declared surplus and were sold for pennies on the dollar, serving as the backbone of the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet for many years. I am aware of only one still being in existence, based in Baltimore, which takes an annual fund-raising cruise, manned by many octogenarians who actually sailed in them back in the day. When their construction ceased, Henry J. Kaiser began building automobiles, including the upscale “Kaiser” sedan, and the first real “compact” made in America, the rather egotistically named “Henry J,” unless you want to count such odd candidates as the Crosley or the American Bantam.
So, on my first ship, which was homeported in the Mediterranean for three years, I started keeping a notebook, my version of a business plan, to help accomplish my goal; of course, when you are self-educated, you keep notebooks on lots of things. For example, in Greece, I drew pictures of dozens of marble columns in order to learn the difference between Doric and Corinthian, but I never became an archaeologist. Considering a musical career, I bought an old guitar off my Division officer, a Boston College graduate who fancied himself a folk singer, but I never got past a real slow version of “Wildwood Flower.” After a six-month punitive tour cooking in the galley, where the only way I got out was by being promoted to third class petty officer, I sure knew that I didn’t want to be a chef or own a restaurant. I also bought and read all the books I could find on astronomy, but I didn’t have a telescope. It wasn’t until I focused on learning languages that my efforts became worthwhile: “la patience est amere, mais son fruit est doux” (“patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”).
Although I never owned my own tramp freighter, I did serve for ten years in the Navy’s version of small, itinerate ships, operating independently, with undependable schedules and long periods underway – destroyers and destroyer escorts. I can say that I rode them through hurricanes where even Jim Cantore wouldn’t have shown up; transited the Suez Canal in the middle of summer; sailed past the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) without falling off the edge of the world as the ancients predicted; and even sailed around the world twice on the most tramp-like Navy ships you can imagine, but it wasn’t the same as owning one.
Before the pandemic, I read that a person could be on a perpetual cruise, from one cruise ship to the other, and still save money compared to the yearly cost of a typical nursing home. Naturally, this piqued my interest. What better way to close out a life for a fellow whose chosen epitaph is “Home is the sailor, home from the sea?” Although, I do admit that I stole that from the poet, Robert Lewis Stevenson, whose grave I once visited on American Samoa.
Unfortunately, my gut tells me that, today, a tramp’s primary cargo would be emigrants, human trafficking in the unfortunates fleeing the danger and misery of their war-torn countries for the relative safety and economic stability of Europe. Although, as a business model, hauling emigrants was the money maker for the major steamship companies from the turn of the last century up until World War II. For example, if you examine the passenger list of the ill-fated and “unsinkable” SS Titanic, which hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland (Leonardo DiCaprio was not onboard), drowning 1500 souls, you will find that the largest number of passengers were classified as “Steerage,” the cheapest ticket available.
Such passengers, also known as “Third Class,” were almost always emigrants enroute to America via Ellis Island, and had to endure abysmal living conditions far below the main deck. Surprisingly enough, many are on record as having enjoyed the rather plain food that was served, saying it was so much better than what they were used to. Significantly, of the 2,358 passengers onboard when the Titanic sank, 709 of them were steerage passengers. Of these, 537 died because they did not have access to the few lifeboats available. There’s certainly nothing “romantic” about that vision. Perhaps it’s best, in the final analysis, that my dream of owning a tramp steamer can be summed up like this: “Every star that shines will one day die, every journey comes to an end; And there are some things that we’ll never know, though it helps us to pretend.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.