Sailing with stowaways

Sailing with stowaways

9 February 2023

I experienced the following while travelling with my partner, Captain S M Ross, whose ship MV Snow Delta was carrying fruit from South Africa to Europe, fruit many readers will be used to eating, without knowing its back story or one of them.

When they dragged him out and laid him on the deck he was just a heap of rags. Then his head twitched and he collapsed again. Suddenly the bosun and three able seamen picked up his long, strong limbs and started to carry him towards the accommodation. ‘Don’t throw! Don’t throw!’ he managed to croak in English, his head swivelling in alarm. He had no way of knowing he was safe. On some ships they drop stowaways over the side. No evidence. No further problems.

We were two days out of Cape Town where we had loaded South African fruit for Europe. Fruit ships are hard for stowaways to resist; port security can be poor, no armed guards at the gangway, and stevedores not carrying identity cards, which means almost anyone can board and size up a hiding place.

As a result, picking up stowaways with the fruit is not unknown, so when someone on the dock reported that two dodgy characters had boarded and disappeared, a thorough search began. Not surprisingly, nothing was found; this ship is big for a reefer (14,500 gross tons), and illegals can quickly find a hiding place in the huge engine room, the accommodation, inside the funnel or, if they have bribed a stevedore, down a hatch with the fruit, on their way to an early death and impossible to find, which is exactly why Max escaped detection and why he was nearly dead.

When he wandered onto the dock wearing light clothing and carrying only a bottle of cola, a jar of peanut butter and a packet of biscuits, he was not dressed for twelve days in a fridge. But it didn’t stop a dockworker taking his last 500 rand, eulogising about the riches in Europe and abandoning him in a tiny empty square in the middle of the pears in the top deck of Number 3 hatch. He did not tell him that constant cold air at one degree Celsius would blow over the fruit once we were under way. Two days later, after he had knocked and knocked and shouted himself hoarse, and with hypothermia creeping up from his feet, he started a fire with the wood used to secure the cargo.

Fortunately this is not easy, but he made enough smoke for the fire alarm to empty the saloon at breakfast, and to have every man running about, leaving no space unchecked, while I watched from the bridge, hoping they would find it before we were all engulfed in smoke. I needn’t have worried. Even before I had tied the last string on my lifejacket, the captain’s walkie-talkie crackled and the chief officer said: ‘Stowaway found, Sir. Number 3,’ leaving me to wonder whether I were dreaming. But no, the captain was saying: ‘Thank goodness it isn’t a fire,’ and this was one more chapter in the increasingly perilous and bizarre life of the modern seafarer.

Max, as we came to know him, turned out to be a fairly typical stowaway: male, urban, aged between 16 and 30, with some education but no papers—and a heart-breaking story. Two years previously he had left his wife and child in Brazzaville in the Congo—after rebels had attacked his family and burnt down his home, garage and paint-spraying business—and had begun his walk south, hoping to restart what had been a successful life. But, with unemployment in South Africa running at 40% and the number of illegals rising, it didn’t happen, so—without giving the practicalities enough thought—Max wandered onto the dock and took his chance.

Apart from the obvious crime of stowing away, he was adamant he was no criminal, nor did he want handouts—just the chance to work and rebuild the life his family had enjoyed before he was forced to flee. And despite his destitution, he was certainly not drug running; the small amount of hashish found in his tatty leather backpack, along with a few pitiful possessions (letters, rosary beads and his last 160 rand), was for personal use and not enough to use as currency to start his new life.

Literate in both French and English, Max had polished manners and a sharp urban mind. He was a Catholic and a ‘very religious man’, who constantly and dramatically repented of his crime, even offering to jump over the side once we were nearer land so that no further trouble could come to the ship and its ‘fine officers and crew’. But it was too late for repentance; the captain had had to inform the owners, the managers and the insurers. They foot the bill; they decide what must be done, and disappearing was not an option, attractive though it may have sounded.

For the captain especially, illegal boarders create endless paperwork, plus the worry that they will smash their way out of their quarters and either go on the rampage, or hide until they are near enough to land to swim. Even when they are quiet, they are still desperate people with nothing to lose, and will try to endear themselves to the captain, hoping to be so trusted they will be allowed to work, which is when they suss out all the possible hiding places for the next time. But possibly the captain’s greatest worry is arriving in port and being accused of cruelty, or even murder.

A few years ago, four Fijians attempted to swim ashore from a ship near Seattle and when they all drowned in the freezing water the master was accused of forcing them overboard to save the company the huge fine which goes with landing illegals in the US. And last year on this ship two illegal boarders—one very violent—constantly threatened the crew, completely trashed the cargo office, and, on arrival in the port of Sheerness, told the police there had been three, a charge which the captain and the chief officer spent many hours refuting.

Max turned out to be a relatively easy detainee and it was impossible not to be moved by the hopelessness of his lot, to empathise with his faraway family, and give credence to his stories of torture. Life at sea is hard these days; but no-one on board complained for a while after seeing someone who, through no fault of his own, had landed up with no money, no family, and no future. Not that Max saw it that way; he still believed that with a combination of prayer and hard work he would make out.

He begged to be allowed to work—not just because he was bored silly in the spacious cargo office, peering all day from the two windows, gathering what he could from the stars, the sun and passing heads—but also to pay his way. Of course that was not possible, but he was given playing cards, paper and a pen, plus the regulation three meals a day, a daily shower and a morning walk about the deck with the chief officer—Max with the gait and bearing of a prince, his eyes darting about snapping at the details of his environment like camera shutters, the chief officer beside him listening intently, as though they were friends from way back.

Max was denied entry into Belgium as he had applied for asylum in South Africa, so was with us for the five-week round trip. When they drove him away in Cape Town we suspected with heavy hearts they would return him to Brazzaville. Although he sent his deepest apologies to the captain daily, and was a model stowaway, there was no way we could help him.