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When goodbye is the longest word

One night, I met Brazil’s answer to a young Tina Turner; her name was Rosalinee and she came from a nearby favela to work the bars. We became good friends before losing contact some years later. Like so many of the other girls, she never knew her father and her mother left her to go and live with another man when she was a child. Although she was in her early twenties she already had two children of her own and did not know who their fathers were. After chatting me up over a couple of drinks, she learned that I was looking for work and later took me to another bar to introduce me to some guys she knew who were from a ship that was working off the coast of Brazil. The Captain, a small American guy who resembled a cross between Al Capone and James Cagney but spoke like the Godfather, asked me a few questions, wrote an address on a piece of paper and told me to go there the following day, ask for the boss and tell him that ‘Al sent you’. So, the next morning, I arrived at the offices of an oil service company and managed to get an interview with the manager. He asked me questions, such as whether I had previous experience doing seismographic survey work (‘No.’), had I ever worked on an oil-field support vessel before? (‘No.’) What about operating aqua-pulse equipment? (‘No.’)

‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s ok. You can start this afternoon as an aqua pulse-gun mechanic on our survey vessel – twenty-eight days on, fourteen days off.’ He then told me the wage and off I went.

We did not sail immediately and, as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Rosalinee was not going to let me forget the favour she did for me and so it was difficult for me to visit the red-light area at night without her finding and hanging out with me. Anyone who has worked at sea and hung out in these types of bars will know that there is a communication system just as efficient as the internet or text systems we use today. If a guy goes with a girl from a bar one night and visits another bar the next, before he has finished his first beer the girl has discovered where he is. Now, if he is chatting up another girl then there is a scene. The girl confronts him with tears in her eyes, saying she was waiting for him all day and he is a butterfly and he was the only guy she had feelings for, etc., etc. She is often accompanied by a couple of her friends who try to console her and help her through this terrible ordeal. These are the sort of performances that Oscar winners would be proud of. Well, it did not take long for Rosalinee to find me and we spent a last night together drinking and dancing and doing things that you do on your last night with someone. The next morning, as we said goodbye at the entrance to the docks, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Martin, when ship come back?’ I said in my best Humphrey Bogart voice, ‘I don’t know, Rosalinee. Maybe never.’ And we sadly parted company. However, we didn’t sail the next day either and Rosalinee was happily sitting on the knee of and chatting up some guy in the bar when I arrived the next night. In fact, we didn’t sail for nearly two weeks and we had so many last nights and sad farewells at the dock gates that I think we were both relieved when the ship finally departed.

The vessel was a small, seismic survey ship equipped to collect data that could be analysed to see if oil was present, trapped in rock formations below the seabed. My job was to operate and maintain the eight aqua-pulse guns that were launched over the side by derricks and submerged a few metres in the water each side of the ship. The ship would follow predetermined lines of up to 50 miles or more, backwards and forwards until a whole area was surveyed. The guns were detonated by feeding propane gas and pure oxygen into a cylinder and igniting it. The explosions beneath the ship at 6 to 8 second intervals would cause the vessel to shudder and vibrate. After a while, one got so used to this and the noise that when sleeping you would wake up the minute it stopped.

The explosions must have affected the living sea creatures within the vicinity. In fact, I remember testing the guns as we got clear of Guanabara Bay and a Brazilian Submarine suddenly shot to the surface close to where we were shooting. I imagine the submarine crew shit themselves when we disrupted their otherwise peaceful day sitting on the bottom of the ocean.

The guns work by bouncing sound waves off the ocean floor; the echoes are then received by hydrophones inside a cable being towed by the vessel. The data is recorded and collected by technicians operating equipment in the vessel’s observation room; this information, together with the coordinates, is forwarded to the oil company for their geophysicists to analyse for the presence of hydro-carbides.

The cable we towed behind the ship was astonishing; it was around 3.5 inches in diameter, made up of sections of about 20-metre lengths and strewn out behind the vessel for nearly 2 km. Inside the cable were dozens of small wires connected with small multi-pin sockets at each section. It was filled with oil, so it would float and had remote fins clamped to it for controlling the depth at which it was towed. Regularly, shooting would have to stop because of defects or damage to the cable. It could take hours or days to find a defect in a 1.5 km cable, spooling in one section at a time and checking the terminals with an electrical tester then replacing whole sections if necessary, often working with the ship heaving and rolling and heavy seas spilling at waist height over the back deck. In fact, it was not unheard of to spool the cable out only to have sharks bite and damage it or a large ship pass across the stern and wrap it around its propeller.

The shifts were twelve hours on and twelve hours off, but having worked down engine rooms for the previous nine years, working on deck in the fresh air and seeing Brazil’s magnificent sunrises and sunsets was a bonus. The crew was divided into two – the boat crew and the survey crew – and the operations were supervised by a tough Australian guy who had a Brazilian-Indian girlfriend who had followed the boat the length of the coast of Brazil since it started its work from the Amazon.

In fact, there was a cocktail of nationalities on board: an American Captain, a German mate, Brazilian deck hands, a Singaporean cook, Malaysians, Rhodesians, New Zealanders, Chileans, Israelis and a couple of Brits. I got promoted on the first day when one of the Brits, a gun mechanic, took a swing at the Australian party chief during an argument at the corner bar and got fired.

Whenever the boat came back to port, the whole crew immediately went ashore to the nearest bar, leaving only Oscar, a wild Bangladesh monkey tied to the gangway, as a guard to prevent visitors coming on board. Oscar was a mean animal that would fight and try to shag (have sex with) anything that moved. He would attack anyone he didn’t like; I saw him once trying to get at a guy who was teasing him, knowing that Oscar’s leash was not quite long enough to get back at him. Oscar thought for a minute, shit in his hand and threw it in the guy’s face. There was also a small dog on board that kept well clear of Oscar but Oscar was clever; he would throw bits of food for the dog and when the dog got close, he would jump on it and try to shag it.

Extracted from Martin Oliver’s book ‘The Never Lonely Planet‘. All proceeds of the book will be donated to ECPAT, an organization to combat and End Child Prostitution and Trafficking Worldwide.

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