I began my career in the U.S. Customs Service in the Money & Accounts Section of the Collector of Customs office in Rochester, NY. My work did not involve me directly with operational activities, such as international flights at the airport or vessels arriving at the port.
I really envied the Customs Officers who were part of the boarding parties for foreign vessels arriving at the port during the part of the year when the St. Lawrence Seaway was not frozen. Most of the ships were British, German or Scandinavian – occasionally there was one from Japan. Their tales of those boardings were what made me so jealous. They described these ships as almost always spotlessly clean and that they treated boarding parties royally, with gourmet food and fine wine served in the Captain’s quarters.
Moving forward in time about 15 years, I was stationed at our Regional Headquarters in Miami, FL, where one of my duties was to perform financial and internal control reviews at the field offices. On one of my trips to Charleston, South Carolina the Chief Inspector asked me if I would like to be part of a boarding party. I eagerly accepted! Finally my opportunity had arrived!
Instead of driving to the Port the Chief Inspector drove us out of the city to a remote area on the shore, parking in a small lot next to a short pier, where we were met by the rest of the boarding party, representatives of Immigration, Agriculture and a public health official. Naturally, I asked the Chief: “Where’s the ship?” He pointed out to sea and replied: “Out there.” All I could see was the Atlantic Ocean! I started to think that this was not going to be quite as neat an experience as I had anticipated.
In a few minutes a small launch arrived at the pier. We all climbed aboard and off we went on a somewhat choppy sea. After a few miles our destination came into view – an ugly looking giant rust bucket – a freighter under Liberian registry.
We pulled up next to the ship and a long ladder thingy was dropped over the side for our use to get on board. How to get on board, you ask? Climb out onto the bow of the launch while it was bobbing up and down and side to side , now bouncing against the side of the ship, then three or four feet away. So I am standing on the bow with nothing to hold on to, feeling like I’m on a bucking bronco trying to figure out how I was going to grab hold of the ladder and avoid ending up in the drink or crushed against the side of the ship. By some miracle I did it. When I got on deck my feeling of relief lasted only seconds, because I realized that in order to get back on the launch I was going to have to reverse the process!
The ship was filthy! It looked like anything you might touch would be sticky. The crew, as well as the captain and officers were also filthy. They all looked and smelled like they had not bathed, shaved or changed their clothes in weeks. They appeared to be southern Europeans – Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese. The captain was pissed off. Apparently they had run very low on water and had restricted use of their dwindling supply to drinking and cooking for the past two weeks. He was annoyed that they had been required to remain offshore a few days instead of being cleared to come directly into the port where they could get water. I don’t recall the reason for that.
We were brought into what I believe was the crew’s eating quarters where we sat on dirty metal chairs at a long dirty wooden table. Before papers were to be exchanged, and the crew lined up to be interviewed by Immigration and checked by the doctor, we were offered something to drink – beer, coke or coffee. Since I don’t drink anything with bubbles I requested coffee – big mistake! I was later told that on ships like that you never drank anything that was not in a sealed can or a bottle. Imagine making a pot of coffee and leaving it on a hotplate for a couple days . It was thick, almost like syrup and after just one sip I forgot totally about my apprehension about getting off the ship onto the launch. I was totally concerned with keeping the contents of my stomach in my stomach. I think you could have removed paint with that stuff.
I didn’t pay much attention to the official procedures since I was concentrating on my queasy stomach. It was rather boring anyway. Except when the Immigration Officer announced that he was going to confine the crew to the ship because some Portuguese crewman from another ship that he had recently permitted to come on shore had not returned. One of the crewmen pulled a knife on him, and luckily was restrained by others in the crew – so no blood was spilt.
Finally, going down that ladder to the launch was even more terrifying than the climb up, but I made it. My feeling of relief when at last getting off the bow and into the launch was overwhelming and indescribable.
Often the most horrifying experiences in our lives become humorous after the passage of time. I often visualize myself in my mind, clambering over the bow scared out of my wits, frantically grasping for the moving ladder , sitting at that table fighting to keep from disgorging my lunch, and at the bottom of the ladder trying to time my jump onto the bow which was bouncing up and down on and back and forth – while dressed in a business suit, with my matching cuff links and tie pin, wearing my cordovan wing tip dress shoes. It is absolutely hilarious! But I assure you it wasn’t at the time