In The Navy – Esmeralda
Today I picked up a couple of hitchhikers, two girls – one was from Germany and the other was from Chile. Immediately I got to talking to the Chilean and I mentioned about how when I was in the Navy I spent a week on the Chilean Naval Training Ship Esmeralda. It was back in 1991 when I was still a Midshipman Under Training and a bunch of us were flown to Wellington to join Esmeralda who was undergoing a world cruise ‘flying the flag’.
Completed and launched in 1953, Esmeralda was a four-masted barquentine (basically a square-rigged sailing ship) and at the time the second tallest and longest (50m high and 115m long, 3700 tons – this made her about the same dimensions as our Leander-Class frigates) of her kind in the world. She has had a somewhat chequered career, being handed over to the Chilean Navy as part reparation from the Spanish from the Spanish Civil War and being used (supposedly) as a ‘torture ship’ under the reign of Augusto Pinochet…which is why we had to deal with protests when we boarded her alongside Wellington by demonstrators from families from Chile and Amnesty International.
But if that was the case, what we experienced on board gave n o clue to her past. The crew, made up of about 300 crew plus about 100 Midshipmen, were the most pleasant and warming people I think I have ever met. While we were expected to pull our weight with sailing the ship and carrying out day by day chores, we were given the full hospitality and respect including being invited to dine with the Captain at his table for lunch one day.
Actually it was during this lunch where me and the CO became friends – it seems to be tradition with Chile (as it is somewhat with all Navies) that alcohol is served with meals. I must admit having a liqueur which resembled Drambuie served at midday seemed a bit much, but as mine was poured I pulled my Zippo out a set my shot alight as I had been taught years before by my father (which was told to him by his, himself an ex-Navy man). The Kiwi Officer in charge of us shot me a glance that I can only describe as requesting my court-martial before the CO asked me why I had done this and I explained as it was a Navy tradition passed on, which he shook my hand and lit his as well. Apparently (unknown to me) Latinos do this to ‘burn off the bad spirits’ and to do so ensures a safe passage for the ship.
So moving on, we sailed the Esmeralda north to Auckland up the east coast looking to berth alongside Princess Wharf on the Friday morning, and every day had routines – raise the sails, drop the sails, clean the brass and wooden decks, work below decks, above decks, etc etc etc…and what an experience it was! Every morning, for example, partly as training, partly as discipline, partly to keep up the physical requirements from sailors, we had to get out of our bunks and climb over the ‘trinquete’ (sic) which is the tallest of the masts (I think the second aft from the bow) – this stood at about 50m above the water line, and there were no safety harnesses to keep you attached, simply if you lost your handling, you would plummet back to the deck, or if you were lucky, into the rigging. Climbing over the part we know as the Crow’s Nest was the difficult part as reaching over the top was completely blind and was done by feel and gut only…coming down was as hard as going up.
So, we ended up at Alpha Buoy (the official entry to Auckland Harbour) on Thursday afternoon so we anchored up of the back-end of Rangitoto and a party was officially called for. We ended up below decks with the Chilean sailors who pulled out the largest stash of booze I have ever seen and put on a party that I have not seen the likes of before, or since. Their last ‘stock up’ was in Sydney, so their booze consisted of VB, of which most of them showed no interest in…so we obliged by helping ourselves, thankful to be allowed to get stuck in without the watchful eyes of our Divisional Officers, only to see them pull out their own drink of choice – whiskey. And they were drinking, nay sculling glasses of this stuff way quicker than we could drinks our cans of beer!!! And all the time they asked us about Kiwi women, how they thought they were so beautiful, hot, and sexy. Without upsetting the local Wahines, we couldn’t understand this as they had all shown us photos of their own girlfriends back home – imagine the inside of every locker having pictures of women looking like Selma Hayek, Eva Longoria and Megan Fox!!!
So, the night turned to drunken debauchery, well we couldn’t be ride to our hosts! Needless to say, our condition when retiring to our bunks (after the obligatory haka) was the worst for wear! And did that bite us in the arse…
The following morning at 0600 (6 in the morning for those who cannot read Army time) we were awoken from our slumber and ordered back over the trinquete as part of our routine before climbing back up the masts to unfurl the sails for entry into Auckland Harbour…shit! But, we did it, never ones to use our semi-drunken states to shy away from our jobs…I remember one of my mates commenting to me (as he came down one side as I was still going up how I managed to survive considering I had a the point of the Crow’s Nest had both hands off the rigging!!!! But one of us was missing…big Brad, at over 6 foot tall, a favourite with the ladies in ports was still curled up in his pit (bed, also called a ‘farter’) and we were ordered to go over the same mast again, and again until he joined us…thankfully someone snuck away to drag him out before we attempted a third climb…but as the photo shows, he didn’t come without making his mark!
I think at the time I was, or may have been about to become single, but the next two nights on the town with the Chileans (who must be said are as good-looking as their girlfriends) helped us boys with the girls, like how fat ugly women seem to have good-looking friends. I even remember one of us (I shouldn’t say his name, I’m sure he was as good as engaged at the time, of darker ilk, even spoke with an accent to pull the ladies!
A once in a lifetime experience, a nice bunch of lads, and a very special lady of the sea…