Castle Roland

The Trader

by Charles Bird


Chapter 1

Posted: 10 Dec 15


Copyright © 2012-2015 by Charles Bird

SS Alpaco

The characters, localities and happenings in this story are the products of the author's imagination or, are used fictitiously. The story is copyrighted and is the property of the author and may not be copied, reproduced or retransmitted without his express permission.


Joe Turner had been an officer in the United States Navy during the war and had been released from service in 1921. He had taken a job with the electric company and, somehow had convinced himself that he could settle down at a job, marry a young woman and they had a boy, they named Toby. It was not a good situation and Joe preferred other men and he could not relate to his wife, although he loved Toby dearly. Joe and his wife, Melissa, fought bitterly and, one day, Joe came home to find the house empty. Both Melissa and Toby were gone. He searched for them for two years, never finding even a trace. Joe resigned himself to never seeing his son, Toby, again and he tried to go on with his life. He just couldn't, he had saved his money and his father had left him a considerable legacy, so he quit his job and headed for Los Angeles. There, he saw an advertisement in the paper for some small ships being auctioned off by the Navy, and, out of curiosity, he went to Long Beach to see what was being sold.


Joe got a pass from the Security Office at Long Beach Naval Shipyard and a paper with the directions to where the ships were going to be auctioned. He was impressed with what he saw and the glimmer of an idea began to form in his mind.

He had been the Navigator on a Destroyer during the war and he was sure he could get Master's papers for a small ship like these. They were all one class of small freighters and he thoroughly explored them.

The ships were all diesel engine powered and were 600 tons, fully loaded. They were about forty feet wide and one hundred feet long, just about the right size to be handled by a small crew in a small, island port.

He had it in his mind to haul freight around the South Pacific. Some of those islands were so small, only a small ship like one of these would be able to get in there.

He spent some time climbing around the several ships and looked at their condition. The one he liked best had been called the USS Camel and the log books said the engine had recently been overhauled.

The ship was fairly clean and all the bridge equipment was included in the sale. He would have to invest in some civilian radio equipment that was about all. _(Author's note: This story was before the invention of Radar)_

Encouraged, he went over to the Auction Office and was told that nobody had responded to their advertisement. Bidding was to close at 10 am and it was quarter to 10 at that time.

Joe put in his bid, it would take a large bite out of his inheritance from his Father, but, if he could obtain the USS Camel, it would be worth it.

Joe's bid was the only bid placed and they told him he could choose any of the ships. He signed the papers taking ownership of the USS Camel and was told he had thirty days to remove the vessel from the shipyard.

He "hot-footed" it into Los Angeles, where the local Coast Guard Headquarters was located and he started the process of applying for his Master's papers.

He had come out of the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander with six years' service. The Coast Guard allowed all his service time to count and told him he could take the examination the next week.

He spent the time reviewing his old books and he had purchased a copy of the current regulations from the bookstore at the entrance to the Coast Guard building.

He had taken a room in a waterfront rooming house near where he had reserved pier space for the Camel.

He liked the name and planned on registering the ship under that name.

He put in a call to several of his old Navy buddies and, pretty soon he had a Mate, two Engineers, a couple of deckhands and the beginnings of an Engineering Crew.

The next week he took the examination for Master, Under 600 tons. Since he was one of only two people taking examinations that day, they scored his test while he waited. _(Author's note – prior to 1945 the under 600 ton class Master's examination was much more simple than it is today)_

A senior Coast Guard officer interviewed him and asked him some more questions before he was issued his papers.

Both his Engineers already had their papers and so also did Paul Gibson, his new Mate. He made Lee Kitto his Chief Engineer and Don Early, Assistant Engineer. He told them to put together their own crews for the Engine Room and he and Paul worked on ideas for a Deck Crew.

They had all served together in the Navy and everyone had ideas on how to contact their old shipmates. Paul had the name of the town where their old Bosu'n was living and Joe got on the telephone to contact Gil Peters.

A tired voice answered the telephone, with screaming children in the background. When Joe told Gil what he needed, Gil didn't ask any questions other than, "Where's the ship?" He later told Joe that he had been living with his sister and her family and he couldn't take any more of her unruly brood of six children, all under the age of fifteen!

Slowly, they put a crew together and made plans to rescue their ship from the Navy Yard before the thirty days was up.


Joe rented a bus from Greyhound to take them all over to Long Beach. They all had their papers and he had spoken with the OIC (Officer in Charge) of Surplus Sales to ensure the Camel had sufficient fuel on board to get her to Los Angeles.

The officer assured them there was sufficient fuel to go as far as San Francisco, if they wanted and that he would see to it the water tanks were all full and there was spare lube oil on board.

When they arrived, the OIC, Lieutenant James Bickely met them at the gate and escorted the entire crew to the wharf, where the Camel was tied up.

As they were checking over the sale items, James Bickely asked Joe, "Captain, I am getting out of the Navy next week, do you need a Business Agent or a Purser?"

Joe replied, "Well, we are headed for the South Pacific and Asia.. .."

James interrupted, "Sir, I don't have any family that would claim me. There is nothing here for me or to keep me from going."

Joe looked the young man over and had his suspicions, but asked only, "If you can get your papers, yeah, we need a Purser."

James replied, "Captain, I already have my papers, how about I come aboard next Monday, I get out of the Navy on Sunday."

Joe handed him a piece of paper with the pier number on it and told him he would see him next Monday morning.

They took possession of the Camel. The Navy had painted out the military hull number up on the bow and the "USS" of the ship's name on the stern.

They spent the day on the ship and the next morning, they started the main engine. It was a big, six cylinder Cooper-Bessemer diesel engine. They had started the generators earlier and built up starting air pressure for the main engine.

Joe took the "CON" on the bridge. Gil was acting as helmsman until they could hire and train more people.

Joe ordered, "Astern Slow". Gil rang the Engine Order Telegraph and waited for Joe to give some helm orders. Joe hollered, "Take in one and two fwr'd"! As soon as the stern had hinged out into the bay, he called for the forward lines to be taken in. Joe, then swung the bow, pointed at the bay and conned the Camel away from the pier and took her out into the harbor before giving the order, "Ahead Slow, Rudder Amidships."

Carefully, they eased the Camel out of the Naval Shipyard and rounded the point before heading to Los Angeles Harbor. Joe carefully conned the ship into the busy harbor to their rented pier. He already had the Navy's Hull Report, to there was no need to drydock the ship for a hull inspection.

It was with some relief when he ordered, "Finished with Engine"!

They spent a month converting their ship from a Warship to a Cargo Ship. James Bickley proved his worth, while they were fixing up the Camel to more fit their civilian lifestyle and he hustled up a cargo bound for the Territory of Hawaii.

They signed on four seamen for the Deck Crew, two enginemen and two wipers and a helper to round out the engineering department. _(prior to WW2, small cargo ships worked just two twelve hour shifts per day)_

A steward, cook and three helpers were hired for the galley and room cleaning crew. The ship did have a laundry, though Joe didn't think there was anyone who could operate the monstrosity.

He was wrong, one of the galley helpers had been a laundryman in the Navy, so they were assured of clean clothing and sheets & towels.

James had nearly filled their two small cargo holds with crated machinery and sugar mill parts for Oahu Plantation Sugar Mill. They were loaded right down to the "Loadline", it was fortunate their fuel and water tanks had already been filled, otherwise they would have been overloaded.

Their insurance agent came out once, after they were loaded, to deliver their insurance certificates and they had to wait for the Marconi Radio Operator to arrive before they could sail.

Shortly after lunch, Captain Joseph Turner conned the M/S Camel from the pier and out the breakwater, setting course to Honolulu.

The Camel plodded along, like her namesake, making eleven knots. The engine made a comforting, regular thump, thump, thump ….. as they crossed the Pacific Ocean. At this stage of their new lives, there was no boredom, most everything was new to them and they were busy settling in and making the Camel home.

One thing Joe had insisted on was that the Camel was going to be a good feeder. He knew from experience, there was nothing that turned a crew sour faster, than bad food. James and the Cook, Terry Watson, planned innovative meals.

Both men were happy on the Camel and had every intention of making it their home.

Joe knew the dangers of his fascination for other men and he made himself a promise that he would never approach a member of his crew. It was a promise he never broke, even in later times when it would have been welcomed.

It just was not going to happen.

There were many nights Joe lay in his bunk, weeping in frustration and also for his lost son Toby. He had no idea where Melissa had taken him or, even how to go about looking for them.

They plodded their way out to the Territory of Hawaii _(Hawaii did not become a state until 1959)_ and made landfall at Diamond Head right on schedule. The Toby and subsequent other ships in their small fleet would make their reputation with "on time deliveries"!

Joe conned the ship to the Customs Pier, where they had to be inspected for snakes and pests before they would be allowed to land their cargo.

It had been a profitable trip and went a long ways to replenishing the funds Joe had expended getting the Camel ready for sea.

They took on a mixed cargo of bagged sugar, canned pineapple and several large trucks and some automobiles. The entire cargo was consigned to a Dillingham subsidiary in Darwin, Australia.

Joe had the fuel and water tanks topped off and James had food and ship's supplies delivered to the pier.

As soon as everything was loaded onboard, Joe conned the ship from the pier and headed out to the open ocean. It was a long and boring trip, with nothing to see and no ports to make until they got to Darwin on the north coast of Australia.

The Port of Darwin was pretty primitive and it was fortunate that the Camel was as small as she was, otherwise she would have never fit alongside the pier.

There was not sufficient outgoing cargo even to fill the Camel's small holds, but Joe rounded up a cargo at Perth and they set sail for that port on the east coast of Australia.

Over the next several months, they managed to keep the Camel busy, some voyages were more profitable than others, but they managed to keep fuel in the tanks and the crew was paid regularly.

Joe tried to stay away from the Southeast Asia ports, most particularly those near the Malacca Strait. He did accept a cargo to Singapore, hoping to get a return cargo to Sydney. Unfortunately, no eastbound cargo was to be had and the only cargo he could find was to Goa on the west coast of India.

He held a meeting with his crew and laid out the dangers of the Malacca Strait and the fact that there was a considerable premium being offered to haul the cargo. After discussing all the pro and cons of the voyage, they all agreed to make the run through the pirate infested waters of Malacca Strait.

The British Authorities in Singapore told him that most of the pirates were using sailing vessels and that ships traveling that route usually ran at night at full speed. _(Author's note: This part of the story takes place before radar was invented)_

The Camel departed Singapore and publically announced they were sailing for Sydney, Australia. As soon as they were out of sight of the coast, Joe altered course to the northeast and headed for the Strait.

It was already dark and he told Lee, The Chief Engineer, "Cram the throttle of that old Cooper Engine and, for God's Sakes, don't let it stumble."

Wide open, the Camel was good for about fourteen knots. Her bottom was relatively clean and Joe was taking star sights almost continuously, making sure they did not pile up on the rocks.

At one point, he had the Camel making fifteen knots good, through the water!

All off duty crew members were on deck all carrying rifles, but the Gods of Poor Sailors and Small Ships looked down on them favorably and they encountered no pirates. That is, until they reached Goa and there, Joe had to fight shipping agents who were worse than any pirate.

At one point, he had to threaten to sail without discharging the cargo, he said he could sell the cargo in Europe and still make a profit! It would have damaged their reputation, but he was not going to pay the usury the Goa Authorities wanted to allow the cargo ashore!

It was a stand-off, Joe actually had the engine started and the seamen had dropped the mooring lines in preparation to sailing when the British Authorities stepped in and ordered the cargo off-loaded.

It was their cargo!


They took on a British Army cargo, destined for Cairo and they sailed west, around Arabia for the Suez Canal. It was a hot and dreary trip, fortunately Lee had gotten the evaporator to working and they had fresh water for showers and the laundry. They were a little cautious makes drinking water until they became more familiar with the Low Pressure Evaporators.

Two weeks later, they entered the Gulf of Suez and north to the Canal. They had to wait two days before they were allowed through the Canal.

Their cargo was for the British Army at Port Said. It was all in sealed crates and the British Authorities insisted their soldiers be on board while the cargo was off-loaded.

Joe had sent a radio message to their factor in Cairo and he had obtained a cargo for them for the French Army in Saigon. It filled their holds and several large crates had to be stowed on deck.

They topped off their fuel tanks, collected the mail and Joe made a cash run to the Royal Bank in Cairo just before they departed. He had promised himself that his crews were going to be paid at every payday, ON TIME! Even if they were at sea.

It was a long, hot and hard trip back and they made Saigon in three weeks. They ended up turning right around and headed back to Cairo. They knew their way now, and had no problems on the return voyage.

The British Army kept them busy running cargo between Cairo and Athens in the Mediterranean. They saw a few ships that matched the description of Arab Pirates, but they were not bothered by any of them.

For all the stories they had heard about the pirates in Southeast Asia, the only pirates they had to contend with were in the Greek Islands. They had to fight them nearly every time they sailed for Athens and the Greek merchants were as bad as the pirates, everything required a bribe.

It would be late in 1925 before they could finally see the end of Greece and Egypt. They collected a cargo destined for Sydney and they departed from Leghorn, Italy on their way to Sydney with a cargo of farm machinery.

It was a relief to be in the cooler waters around Australia and speaking a language more like their own. The Aussies had a few peculiar words and pronunciations, but they were not hard to figure out. Besides, they people were so friendly, an explanation was easily obtained.

It was in Sydney that Joe received a letter forwarded to him by his bank from his ex-wife, Melissa. The letter included a photograph of their son, Toby, who was now four years old.

Joe sat at his desk and wept, not for Melissa, but for the little boy he was sure he would never know.


Our sailors spend several years running cargoes in and about Australia and New Zealand before they make a fortuitous trip back to Honolulu in the next Book of "The Trader" The love of a sailor for his son or daughter is one of the most powerful of human emotions.

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