THE SLAPSTICK SAGA OFTHES.S.TROPIC SEA
Did mutiny, gunplay and piracy break out on the Spanish Main when the Tropic Sea steamed in from Canada? Those were the rumors that spread in her wake — and for melodrama they had nothing on the real story
THE s.s. TROPIC SEA, 507 tons wringing wet and unsteady as she goes, is the greatest freestyle floating rumor mill since the Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast. Mutiny, starvation and gunplay stalked the Tropic Sea last summer, two Toronto newspapers reported. Later they retracted the reports. Munitions were her real traffic and banana-republic revolution her secret mission, informed men in sensitive positions w'ere said to have revealed in the fall. The revelations were second-hand and the informants anonymous. Charges of piracy, sedition, contempt of authority and armed robbery faced the crew of an American tug that had towed the Tropic Sea from Honduras to Jamaica, a Miami newspaper reported in January. The man who was said to have sworn the charges claimed he'd never heard of them.
Scuttlebutt made the sea. in the sense in which Cecil B. de Mille made the early Christians. But since red tape and daily radio reports reduced most scuttlebutt to statistics, the annals of the sea have diminished in size and gusto. The fast breakaway style of marine reporters like Homer or Joseph Conrad has been cramped in our day into neurotic case histories of men like Queeg of the Caine, brokenly rolling ball bearings between his fingers at the first mild sign of mutiny. The Tropic Sea, it seemed to me, was a throwback to a better time, whether the stories about her were true or not. In March of 1962 1 began looking for the facts, if any. in her baroque new legend.
Documents on file in Canada record that early in 1961 four Toronto men made a down payment on a 42-vear-old former Great Lakes buoy tender named St. Heliers (she had recently changed hands for $5,311). 1 he new owners changed her name to Tropic Sea and her registry to the Republic of Panama. She cleared Halifax on June 13, bound for the Caribbean. Anything else 1 wanted to know, beyond the kind of scuttlebutt that had interested me in the first place. 1 would have to go to the Caribbean to find out. In March 1 flew to Jamaica.
AN OLD SHIP IN PASTURE; A YOUNG MAN WITH AN ULCER
Between Paradise Road and the feudal seawall of Jamaica's penitentiary, in the quarter of Kingston where the police have recently taken to carrying automatic rifles, there is a broken-down dockyard that once belonged to a yacht club and is now' the last stop for ships that have taken one sea too many between the ribs. This is where 1 found the Tropic Sea. She was moored alongside a rusting derelict called the Caymania. which w'as tied to another just like her called the Arminda, which was made fast, after a fashion, to the dock. In this company the Tropic Sea stood out like an honest woman in a Paradise Road cantina. Clean and relatively sound, she had class.
Her captain at this time was Carl S. Stewart, a naturalized Canadian who was one of the Jewish war orphans brought here in 1947. (Sidney Katz described the later lives of some of these children in the Feb. 10. 1962. issue of Maclean's, but he missed Stewart). He is an intense man of thirty with the emaciated body that is common among sufferers from nervous ulcers, of whom he is one. If his own CONTINUED ON PAGE 55
coizzinued froli, page 15
“Do you know how much it costs to have a man killed in Honduras?” he asked. “Twenty lempiras”
account of his recent life is true, he has earned his ulcer.
Within five minutes of our first meeting Stewart described the sudden death by shooting of an assassin who came after him with a machete in Honduras. We were in his cabin aboard the Tropic Sea. and at the word shoot he went to a filing cabinet and took out a .38 Smith & Wesson with a built-in hammer guard. The guard prevents the piece from snagging on his pocket when he needs it in a hurry, he told me. He spun the cylinder, snapped it shut, and buttoned the pistol into his hip pocket. “Do you know how much it costs to have a man killed in Honduras?" he asked. “Twenty lempiras." A lempira is worth about forty-five cents.
During this and later conversations Stewart gave me an account of his activities during Fidel Castro's revolution. He said that the straightforward part of his job was running guns to Castro's forces. 1 he tricky part was getting information back to the U. S. Coast Guard, which had enlisted him as a double agent. He has a letter from the C'oast Guard, thanking him for delicate services performed without pay. On a trip to Cuba after the revolution the army threw Stewart in jail. I asked him how he got out. and he smiled. "If you have a book of matches and some body water." he said, "you can get out of anything."
Wind of Stewart's work with the cloak and dagger later reached Nassau, it seems. Stewart says the security branch of the Bahamas police sought him out and asked him to break a ring that was smuggling guns and narcotics through the islands. He did the job by posing as a gunrunner. He has a letter from the security chief, once again thanking him for confidential services rendered without pay. Not long after this he went back to Toronto. It was his ambition to become the founder of a shipping line, like Aristotle Onassis before him.
In Toronto Stewart met Fraser Faillie, a young man of means. Fairlie's possessions include a forty-foot schooner. At that time he sailed the boat on Lake Ontario with alternate crews, an all-girl crew of three for light sailing and a male crew of two for heavier going. The male crewmen were two young immigrants, Peter Stahmer. from Germany, and William Van Stygeren, from the Netherlands. Faillie. Stahmer and Van Stygeren became Stewart's partners in a new shipping company. “We spent a lot of time and money checking out Stewart's stories about himself." Van Stygeren once said. “They were true.”
Stewart took charge as president and trouble shooter. For their flagship the partners bought a hundred-foot diesel yacht in Miami. They say that it turned out to have a rotten hull, and they are still suing for their money. The next ship they bought was the St. Heliers, a retired 190-foot steamship with a registered cargo capacity of 422 tons. She was then lying on Lake St. Clair near Wallaceburg. Ont. In May of 1961 she steamed down the St. Clair River, bound for a kind of glory.
She sailed without Stewart, who was in Miami assembling a crew. In Wallaceburg his partners passed the word that the St. Heliers’ week-end cruise to Toronto would be a gay one, and anybody who didn’t mind doing a tap of work on the way was invited. This turned out to be a fast and cheap way to recruit seamen, amateur and professional. Two ticketed captains shared the bridge. The town undertaker took over the galley. Nineteen more Wallaceburg businessmen manned the deck and engine room.
Sand bars gave them trouble at first.
They ran aground twice, and backed off both times. In midpassage they ran out of fuel. For a while they lost control of the ship, and all hands got cold. "You never saw it so cold,” Van Stygeren said later. Thinking on his feet, one of the captains gave the order to take up the deck planks and burn them. Hot grog flowed again. Belching wood smoke, the St. Heliers
steamed into Toronto Bay and dropped her hook in the mouth of the Don River.
In Toronto the ow ners named her Tropic Sea and ran up the flag of Panama. (Canadian seamen are regarded by Canadian shipowners as ruinously overpriced union labor. In recent years most owners have switched their vessels to the flags of nations that have weak maritime unions or none
at all.) Stewart flew in from Miami with a dozen black Central Americans who signed the Tropic Sea's articles for wages of between $120 and $150 a month. The officers were white: two engineers, a mate, and a sick bay attendant, down on the articles for between $350 and $400 a month. The captain was Herbert W. Browne, late a lieutenant in the RCNR
but for sixteen years a jack-of-all-trades ashore. At fifty-eight, Browne looked upon the cruise of the Tropic Sea as his great chance to become again an officer and leader of men. His pay was $400 a month.
The ship’s company aboard, Stewart Hew back to Miami to press his lawsuit against the previous owners of the weak-bottomed yacht. In any case, his partners believed, his ulcer made him a bad medical risk for a long voyage.
On June 5. 1961, the S.S. Tropic Sea stood out from Toronto for the Welland Canal. All the outfitting the owners could
afford had been carried out at Toronto Dry Dock Co., Ltd., and the ship had been certified by a Panamanian inspector. She ran easily until dark, when Browne found that the bulbs in the new compasses wouldn’t light. The navigating lights blew out as soon as they were turned on. A yellow fog and the Tropic Sea drifted together into the Welland Canal, a waterway Browne had never sailed in his life. He went in blind, like a poker player down to his last blue chip, and steamed all the way through without hitting a thing.
The next day he loaded 250 tons of flour
at Humberstone, Ont. That night he came back down the canal the same way he went up. On Lake Ontario, in dense fog, the steering gear slipped a pin and the Tropic Sea was adrift without lights. Browne gave an all-hands call. The hands stayed in their bunks. They had been on their feet for thirty-six hours, and nothing Browne said or did could rouse them now.
“We were a hazard to other shipping and in danger ourselves,” Browne said nine months later. “An all-hands call is the most serious order a ship’s master can give. They gave me cause for a mutiny
charge that night, I can tell you. But I didn't lay any charges then, and I didn’t lay any charges later, though I may have mentioned mutiny a few times.” Browne and the engine-room chief, a hale seventyyear-old named Amos Rothe, found the slipped pin themselves before the ship hit anything. They steered for the St. Lawrence.
Stewart, who wasn’t there, says lightning hit the Tropic Sea before she reached Montreal. This may account for the trouble Browne began having with the navigating instruments. Browne, who was there, says the only trouble with the navigating instruments was that they were no damn good—an old fire, he says, had burned out the sonar dome and the radar would only bring in static. He says none of them ever did work for more than four hours at a time.
Whatever the condition of the instruments, an extract that Browne made from the log entry for June 1 1 reads, in part: Off Anticosti lost steam again, then engines stopped. FulI gale northwesterly, ship tossing and drifting. Stove broke loose in galley, danger from propane. Heavy rolling in trough of sea. His entry for the 13th reads: Arrived Halifax, dense fog, no radar, no radio direction finder, no echo sounder. Sailed 1700 for Nassau.
Browne is still astonished that he found Halifax by dead reckoning under these conditions. “I think th,.t was the first time God put his hand on the ship.” he said later. Accordingly, after sailing to Nassau shipping heavy water in a full NE gale, he mustered the crew on Sunday morning for a three-minute prayer service. "We gave thanks for bringing us through what had been a tight little cruise,” he told me later. The mate, a sea-wise Norwegian named Skold-Pettersen, said no thanks when Browne invited him to pray. He caught the next plane for Toronto.
Browne’s next problems were administrative. He couldn’t find an agent to unload his cargo of flour—he had allowed it to leak out that Carl Stewart was an officer of the company that owned the ship, and the reputation Stewart had acquired during his undercover work made almost everybody in Nassau leery of having 'anything to do with him. Nor could Browne pay his crew—he was broke. One of Stewart’s partners, Van Stygeren, flew to Nassau with a cheque on a Canadian bank. He swears nobody would cash it. The unpaid crew stopped working. This got them no rhoney. They broke out the fire axes and hacked up tanks and barrels during most of one afternoon. This got them no money cither. Browne fired six men. Of mutiny on the Tropic Sea, Stewart now says this was the first outbreak. He claims that Browne filed a formal master’s protest charging the mutiny, but Browne denies this.
Van Stygeren, meanwhile, had flown to Miami to cash his cheque. He came back with real money. Now Browne found an agent to discharge his cargo. He paid his crew. He hired back five of the men he had fired — there wasn’t a seaman to be found on the Nassau waterfront to take ship aboard the Tropic Sea — and spent the rest of the money on engine-room repairs. On June 24 he put out for Miami.
Captain Browne was approaching his finest hour. An entry in the ship’s log states she listed eight degrees as she lay at berth in Miami harbor. A U. S. Coast Guard commander came alongside. “He bawled the hell out of us,” Browne says. “I told him some ballast was all we needed. He shouted back, i don’t care what you need. You’ve got to get that thing out of here.’ ”
The commander left, promising to return. Browne ran a hose from the dock to the lifeboat on the ship's high side. He began pumping water into the lifeboat. It
was a twenty-four-foot boat: by the time Browro had run a few tons of water into it, the weight of the water had bobbed the Tropic Sea back to an even keel. The lifeboat was full of holes, but by regulating the pump Browne kept the water running into the boat slightly faster than it leaked out.
The Coast Guard commander came back late the next day. "I'll never forget him standing there,” Browne said later. "WatcT from the lifeboat was running down the davits and dripping on his head. ‘I don't know' how you did it,’ he said, ‘but you’re all right.’ ”
Word of the commander’s earlier remarks about their ship reached the Tropic Sea’s owners. They threatened to sue the Coast Guard. In the end. Browne says, “I’m damned if the commander didn’t have to write a letter of apology to the Panamanian consul.”
Later, by adjusting the levels in the port and starboard tanks, Browne corrected the list in a less temporary manner. On July 6 at 1400 hours he sailed for Belize, the capital of British Honduras. Accounts of his departure vary.
In the version that traveled the grapevine to Toronto, Browne took the Tropic Sea out of Miami harbor at full speed, rammed and sank the main channel marker buoy, and narrowly beat a U. S. Coast Guard cutter in a race to the three-mile limit.
According to Carl Stewart, the ship hit the buoy hard enough to damage it and steamed on. ignoring wireless orders from the Coast Guard to stop and account for the collision.
Browne says he dropped his pilot at the buoy. He naturally bumped his ship’s strake against the strake on the buoy— that’s what strakes. or bumpers, are for. If he had ignored an order from the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard would have stopped him—they had reason not to like him anyway.
Which version comes closest to the facts is anybody's guess.
Four days later the Tropic Sea entered the harbor at Belize. Browne's sailing orders called for him to pick up a cargo of lumber here. Instead, he took one look around and steamed out to sea. His problem, Browne says, was that he had just enough fuel to get to Puerto Cortez, across the border in Spanish Honduras, where there is a fueling dock. He didn’t have enough fuel to load in Belize, where there is no fueling dock, and still reach Puerto Cortez. Stewart says, in effect, that Browne
had fuel to burn. He did reach Puerto Cortéz, on the twelfth of July.
A month later, the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Star both reported that the chief engineer of the Tropic Sea had been shot in Puerto Cortez and her second engineer gravely wounded. The second engineer, a profane but cheerful Scotsman named George Nicol, recalls the incident clearly. He says it was a disagreement on the dock between the chief and a deckhand. The chief, a Dutchman named Hendrick Burchartz. had been drinking rum that night and riding the deckhand for
smoking marijuana. Possibly the deckhand felt he was losing the argument on points. He took a gun out of his waistband and fired twice into the dock planks. In the scuffle that followed the chief was gashed in the hand. Nicol had his face laid open along the side of his nose. Together they bounced the seaman’s head on the dock several times, causing some abrasions. The shots woke Browne. He came down to the dock in his pyjamas and was unsettled by the sight of prone bodies and blood. His subsequent letter to his wife in Sudbury was the basis of the newspaper reports of
shootings, although Browne says he didn’t use the word. 1 have avoided using the deckhand’s name on the off-chance that the stories about him are true. Stewart says the man was once an armed bodyguard for a South American dictator. “I guess you'd call him, in polite society, a hired trigger.” Browne has heard the man is wanted for murder.
Most of the men aboard the Tropic Sea were irritable in those days, largely because they hadn’t been paid. Stewart says any talk of starvation is idle gossip, but Browne’s log gratefully records an advance
of fifty loaves of bread from the ship’s agent. The sick-bay attendant, Dezso Schonberger, wrote Stewart: “What the heck is going on, you all know very well that we are stranded, penniless, without food, without water, almost the same situation as it used to be in the concentration camps, being the only difference that we did not take the job by free will then. So now is the time w'hcn the foolplay must be ended.” Schonberger ¡.; Stewart’s older brother; he retains their family name.
In many ways the foolplay had just begun, but Stewart arrived soon after his
brotheT wrote. He had some of the company’s money with him. The men’s morale improved. Not so Captain Browne’s. On the same day that Stewart’s brother had written home, Browne had written the High (sic) Commissioner of the RCMP: “I am stranded here with S.S. Tropic Sea . . . I am unable to pay off crew', the ship is on emergency rations, water is not available to ships on anchor. This is extremely urgent . . .” Browne went on to ask the RCMP to investigate Stewart. He is not sure, even now, what he thought the RCMP could do for him.
On August 8 the Tropic Sea began to take on a cargo of lumber that filled her hatch and piled up five feet high on deck. As the yellow pine stacked up toward the boom, Stewart says Browne began predicting that the Tropic Sea would sink within forty-eight hours. Browne says he merely pointed out that the ship had no ballast, and would list dangerously with a high deckload. Stewart says he fired Browne. Browne says he quit. When the Tropic Sea moved to the fueling dock on August 10 Browne was on his way to the airport to catch a plane for Canada. Stewart says Browne filed a second master’s protest charging mutiny before he left. Browne says he may have called the crew mutinous dogs a few times, but he filed no charge.
George Nicol, then the second engineer, has described the trip across the bay to the fueling dock. “When we came about she started to roll, but not like any other ship. Eerie, like she was just going to keep on rolling till she was bottom side up.”
Midway in the fueling, the crew heard a noise like metal rending, which nobody has yet been able to explain. The ship rolled heavily over on her side. The gunwale smashed the low dock. Some of the seamen jumped for safety. A few minutes later the ship began to tug herself upright, and in half an hour she was back on an even keel. The seamen on the dock came back aboard. She then rolled thirty degrees in the other direction, stopped, and began rolling upright again. She swung this way, like a pendulum, for the rest of the afternoon. Four deckhands announced that the ship had a ghost. They packed their gear and left. Stewart and the remaining men shifted the deck cargo all afternoon. By nightfall the ship was holding an even keel, more or less. They went to anchor in the middle of the bay.
Early that night an onshore wind rose and matured into a hurricane. At eleven o'clock the Tropic Sea fell over on her side again, twenty-five degrees to starboard. The seas ran in at the scuppers and began to break over the wall. Mixto Gomez, the twenty-one-year-old mate who had become captain when Browne signed off, gave the order to abanden ship. Stewart asked Gomez to change the order. They argued. Gomez finally agreed to stay aboard for one hour while Stewart took everybody else ashore in the longboat.
Ashore, Stewart roused the port captain and a local official known as the labor master and demanded permission to take volunteers back out to the ship. Meanwhile two local boats were being blown ashore dragging their anchors, and the Tropic Sea was listing farther than ever. The officials eventually gave Stewart the permission he wanted, provided he could find the volunteers. They pointed out that if even one of the men was injured, Stewart would do six years in jail.
Five men went with him. During the night they threw overboard between 10,000 and 40,000 board feet of yellow pine, depending on whose estimate is accurate. By morning the hurricane eased and the Tropic Sea began to straighten up.
“The next day we were ready to go to sea,” Stewart says. “Then the legal hassle started, and that was the livin’ end.” A shipper customarily pays ocean freight charges in advance, as soon as the bills of lading are signed. Stewart and his partners wanted their money. The owners of the lumber, on the other hand, said they now believed the Tropic Sea would sink not long after she cleared the harbor head. They wanted their lumber back. Both sides brought suit, while the Tropic Sea lay at anchor in the bay, awaiting the outcome in the courts. She waited six months, and the legal stalemate isn’t broken yet.
“That’s real mañana country down there,”
George Nicol said later. In the Tropic Sea's six months in port, the local pace picked up. One night. Stewart says, he heard a man on the run behind him. He turned and saw a Negro swinging a machete. In Stewart’s own version of the encounter, he grabbed the man by his right, or machete, arm and hit him in the face. Stewart was still hitting him when he heard another set of feet approaching the encounter from the rear. It was a dead ringer for the first man, machete and all. “Hell, I wasn’t going to argue with him.” Stewart says. He took his .38 out of his pocket and shot the man in the head. The police loaded the casualty on the back of a wooden truck. He died later, at the station.
Stewart also spent some time in the capital. Tegucigalpa, where his account of himself impressed the authorities favorably. They appointed him Honduran consul to Toronto and General Purchasing Agent for the Republic of Honduras in Canada. The idea. 1 gather, was that with Stewart's background he would be able to negotiate the legal sale of arms to Honduras. His shipping company would transport the weapons. This is probably the origin of the rumors that the Tropic Sea was secretly dealing in revolution. Stewart did make some calls on arms suppliers and civil servants in Canada, but no weapons have left the country.
In Miami, on his way back to Puerto Cortez from Canada. Stewart hired a tug to tow the Tropic Sea to Jamaica. His experience with the Honduran courts had not been encouraging so far, and he wanted to try British justice. The Tropic Sea couldn't go anywhere under her own power — neither boiler was in condition to raise steam. The U. S. tugboat Southeastern V came into Puerto Cortez bay on January I I in heavy weather. The day before, Stewart and a skeleton crew of seven had made ready for sea.
The cook. Stanford Solomon, made several trips ashore by canoe in a high wind, loading provisions. On the last trip of the day the load was heavier than usual — he was carrying Stewart and Nicol, who had spent the afternoon ashore, and Stewart’s personal belongings, which he had months before moved to a room in towm. They pushed off into a gale toward the Tropic Sea 1.200 yards offshore. A hundred yards from the beach Nicol advised Stewart to turn back. “I’m taking her through,” Stewart said.
Two hundred yards out Stewart threw his typewriter overboard. About halfway out a sea broke over the bow and swamped the canoe. The cook hung on at the bow, Stewart and Nicol along the thwarts. Stewart’s leg cramped in the water, anil Nicol helped him throw it across the canoe. The wind was driving heavy rain flat across the surface of the sea. Almost out of sight at the bow. Solomon sang out that he was going to swim for the ship. “He would have drowned without making ten yards,” Nicol said later. He told the cook he was crazy. “Our only chance was to hang on and hope the wind would ride us up on the beach.”
Nicol is not sure whether they would have made the beach or not. but they were still afloat when a large fishing canoe passed them, running for shore. The fishermen heard them shouting and picked them up. They towed the swamped canoe in on a line.
Later that night Solomon reached the Tropic Sea in the small canoe, traveling alone. He left one man aboard and came ashore in the sound lifeboat with the other four men pulling at the sweeps, f hey picked up Nicol and Stewart and what was left of Stew'art’s gear and pulled for the Tropic Sea. The next day. a smoother sea running, the Southeastern V put a tow line aboard and stood out for Jamaica.
A patrol vessel came after them. Too far away to hail the ship or the tug, the patrol boat sprayed a few rounds of rifle fire over the tug and bounced two bullets off the hull of the Tropic Sea. “They damn near bust my eardrums in the engine room,” Nicol said later. Stewart ordered the men below. The patrol boat came alongside. Don Ruban, chief of police in Puerto Cortéz, asked Stewart what he meant by leaving without a clearance. Stewart said he had a clearance. A second launch with fifteen armed men aboard, by Stewart’s count, came alongside too. Don Ruban asked Stewart what the tug meant by leaving without a clearance. Stewart said the tug didn’t need a clearance. She hadn’t been in the harbor for forty-eight hours, and hadn’t docked. Don Ruban said okay and both launches dropped away. 1 asked Stewart why. if their errand had been a formality, the Hondurans had shot first and asked questions later. “Everybody down there owns a gun and shoots it off every chance he gets,” Stewart said. “The Hondurans like noise.”
Three nights out of Puerto Cortéz the Southeastern V hove to for repairs to a fuel-line valve. The wind had risen to more than thirty knots. The Tropic Sea swung broadside to the gale and began, once more, to roll over on her side. This time even Stewart thought she was gone. He ordered the crew into life jackets and issued flares. All eight men roped themselves together to avoid being scattered when they took to the water. The gunwale on the low side dipped to the level of the sea. “By all mathematics she should have gone down that night,” Stewart said later. He stood on the canted deck waiting to give the order to abandon ship. One of the seamen tried to untie himself and make his jump alone. Stewart says he told the man he’d shoot him in his tracks if he took two steps toward the gunwale. The
ship was floundering but still afloat v/hen the tug got under way again. With her bow set to meet the gale the Tropic Sea righted herself, and two days later she came on the end of her line into Kingston Bay. The bailiff placed her under admiralty arrest.
Captain Quigley of the Southeastern turned back to Puerto Cortéz to pick up another tow. The port authorities there served him with a warrant charging piracy, sedition, contempt of authority and armed robbery. They threw Quigley and all six members of his crew into jail. Stewart says the lumber company that loaded the pine aboard the Tropic Sea laid the charges. James Davis, the chief officer of the lumber company, says he never heard of any piracy charges.
THE TROPIC SEA is still afloat and will doubtless sail again, but under other owners. The charges against Captain Quigley and his men have been dropped by the Honduran courts one by one — it has been a long time since the Hondurans made a piracy rap stick. After almost three months in jail, the American sailors had only a customs violation charge to face and their chances of being home for Faster were good. Captain Browne is home, in Sudbury, but he has fallen seriously ill and no longer feels strongly about his recent command. “I brought her through," he said to me one night not long ago. “For what? For four hundred dollars a month and board.” Stewart's company has liabilities of about a hundred thousand dollars. The assets are a few score lawsuits. The two partners who are not wealthy are looking for work. Carl Stewart is staying with his ship until the courts sell her. When they do, he says that he will come back to Canada to grubstake another ship. He could be around any day now, a lean young man with an ulcer who always wanted to be a shipping tycoon, -fa