The Old Voyager
by James Dona
The giant cruise ship Infinity pulled alongside the dock in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Standing on deck, I noticed that we were near the little downtown airport. There, across from the airport, was the long pier where the SS Olde Voyager had docked so many years ago. A rusty old freighter sat alongside that long dock, about where we had tied up then. Could it really be 45 years ago? I was just a young seaman at that time, and it was my only trip to Puerto Rico.
When the Olde Voyager returned to San Francisco that trip, we were sailing up the ship channel to Alameda when the steering gear failed. The chief electrician and I were out on deck, anxious to get ashore, when the ship made an abrupt right turn and came to rest on the mud-bank at the edge of the channel. We both ran back to the steering gear room, assuming that one of the main steering pumps had failed and we needed to change over to the other one.
When we got down to the steering gear room, the motors were all running. Then we noticed oil sloshing around on the deck, below the slatted floor boards. George said, "The hydraulic line broke. They can't control the rudder from the bridge."
I looked at the valves and saw that we could shut off the control lines and steer with the emergency hand-wheel. The rudder control quadrant showed that the rudder was now all the way starboard, which explained why the ship had turned into the mud-bank. I closed the main steering control valve and opened the auxiliary, while George called the bridge on the sound-powered phone. He told the captain what happened and explained that we could operate the rudder from the steering gear room.
George relayed orders from the bridge, and I operated the little valve wheel to set the rudder at the requested angle. Of course they called in a couple of tugboats for security, but we steered the ship off the mud-bank and on into the dock. My only chance to steer a ship, and I couldn't see where I was going.
The hydraulic line was repaired, and we later sailed the ship up the coast to the Columbia river, where we took on another load of lumber. There weren't any more interesting adventures before I got off the ship to go back to college.
Several years later I heard that the ship was sold to another company, and its name was changed to SS New Voyager. The new company was hauling grain to India, and I had seen enough of that long run from the Gulf to Calcutta. I wouldn't sail on that ship again.
I was shocked to hear that the New Voyager broke up and one end sank in the stormy North Atlantic on one of its trips. Several crew members were lost.
Now my curiosity drove me to get off the cruise ship and walk down the long pier to look at the rusty old freighter tied up there. It was hard to read the name of the ship's stern in the gloom of evening, but it actually looked like it was SS Olde Voyager. Of course that couldn't be right. My eyes are getting weak in my old age.
I walked along to the gangway, and looked up to see several men hanging around up there on deck. It actually looked like Chang, the one-eyed Chinese cook, Joe, the Hawaiian Portuguese who should have still been in San Quentin, and Herbbie the Bos'n. They looked down and saw me and motioned for me to come aboard. I didn't see a gangway guard, so I started up.
"Must have fallen in. Probably came off that cruise ship. Don't know what he was doing out here on this empty pier."
"Someone on the ship saw him keel over and fall in. They called us right away, but it was no use. The poor old fellow must have had a heart attack. Probably walked out on the pier to get some exercise"