“Where do we think we’re going?”
I’m heading to the ship located about a hundred yards behind us. I once sailed on it as a chief mate and the captain is a good acquaintance of mine, so it will be nice to catch up.
With his chin slightly in the air and hands clasped loosely behind his back, my inquirer— cropped hair, commando jumper, clipped-on tie—impatiently awaits my answer. Shyly I nod towards the boat, where a nice cup of coffee hopefully awaits me. “No helmet?” the man snaps at me. Arguing that I’m wearing my safety shoes as well as the required fluorescent vest is obviously pointless. Just as pointless as mentioning that there are no loading or unloading activities going on. The continuous swaying of the marine lockers makes it clear in no uncertain terms that safety issues are non-negotiable. If I ever wish to enjoy my nice cup of coffee, the best option would be to trot on back to my own ship and just get my helmet.
“Problems with the sheriff of Terneuzen?,” asks Willem, laughing enthusiastically. He shakes my arm, almost dislocating it.
“Well,” I mutter, “I’ve got my passport with me to be on the safe side. Before you know it he’ll turn it into an I.S.P.S.¹ control.”
“Oh yeah, I.S.P.S.,” muses Bruce. “Remember? With Sweetums?” I don’t have time to answer because he’s already started telling the story while laughing to himself.
Somewhere in a southern country, a port security officer came aboard in full military regalia. Bruce and I were clearly visible, but because we were painting the fellow apparently didn’t think we were worthy of his attention. As he headed towards the bridge looking for the captain, Sweetums was there—contentedly chewing on a bone. Sweetums was an oversized, salt-and-pepper Giant Schnauzer that we had bought for a song from a former KGB agent in order to satisfy some cockamamie regulations about having a night watch aboard. We were told that some of his ancestors had received medals for bravery during the Great War, and that Sweetums’s granny had once guarded the Berlin Wall. Loyal to the family honour, Sweetums executed his new security duty with typical German punctuality. Rain or shine, in every port, Sweetums was at his watch starting at midnight. After eight long hours he dutifully and proudly received a well-earned bone. His military moustache and goatee give him an impressive Trotsky-like appearance, and the way in which he bullied anyone who stepped on deck without authorization made even the most experienced sergeant crap in his green army pants.
“I never again found such a dutiful watch guard,” sighs Bruce. “Nowadays the boys have to rotate because, of course, you can’t make them watch guard for eight full hours—they’ll fall asleep.”
With a new pair of pants and a considerable amount of cigarettes, we were able to buy off that little problem with the port security hotshot, but four weeks later we discovered our canine darling chewing on an Italian custom officer’s shoe. Before I go on, let me make one thing perfectly clear: Sweetums is a very good and loving dog. That is, if he knows you... and if you don’t step on his bone. I still miss the overly enthusiastic and especially wet greetings that old friends always received.
The owner of the shoe appeared to be shaking in fear as a result of the sixteen stitches in his ankle, so while sitting next to the man at the emergency room it was obvious that some quick action was necessary if we wanted to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for Sweetums. Luckily, one of Bruce’s mates had his ship moored nearby in the same port, so we put Sweetums—bone and all—into hiding there to await the impending storm. We had to come up with a very creative story to convince the Carabinieri² that his attacker was a stray dog that had somehow climbed aboard. By the time we were finally rid of those bureaucratic windbags, Bruce’s friend had unfortunately already sailed away, with Sweetums as a bonus.
Sweetums proved to be a seasoned flex worker, as a few weeks later we received an enthusiastic email from the crew at his new workplace. They apparently had to pass through the Suez Canal more frequently than they’d wished, so they had whispered a few key words to Sweetums that would certainly be heard during passage. By the time the ship reached the mooring in Port Said, Sweetums snarled and bared his teeth whenever he heard one of these words. There he sat in all his glory on the bridge dressed in a beautiful white uniform, complete with golden braids and medals. The shiny polished maritime emblem on the captain’s cap made the picture complete. Never before were the Egyptian pilots so docile and never before had passages gone so smoothly.
The success was spectacular, and I’ve since been informed that Sweetums is sometimes rented out to captain friends who have to make similar passages. Apparently, at the anchorage he is seen as a true commander; in M.O.³ boats he sails from ship to ship where a mighty welcome awaits him on every deck—one that would turn the world’s greatest admirals green with envy. Portraits of Sweetums even seem to be in circulation where he is pictured in full regalia, his bone clasped like a royal sceptre under his right paw. Evil tongues even suggest that he has driven our crowned royal from the walls of many ships because many captains believe Sweetums does more justice to the glorious motto “Brittania rules the waves”.
What exactly are the key words you ask?
Marlboro, cigarettes and presents...
¹ International Ship and Port Security
² National Military Policy of Italy
³ Man Overboard