The young Bert Weber
> ADVENTURE AT SEA
After war and shipwreck, just in time for the birth
Seafarers experience quite a few things out at sea and in port. For Bert Weber, now retired, this was no different. He could write a book about it! And to think he only sailed for a relatively short time: from 1958 to 1967, the year his eldest son was born. Even his very last voyage turned out to be full of adventure. 'I was working for Royal Rotterdam Lloyd and my last voyage was on the Doelwijk, a bulk carrier. We left in April 1967 and I was the steward on board.'
Shipwrecks The ship set course for the Middle East, for the Persian Gulf to be precise. It was a long and adventurous voyage, round the Cape of Good Hope. The usual route through the Suez Canal was too dangerous due to tensions between Israel and neighbouring countries. In June 1967, those tensions in fact led to the Six-Day War. 'After that, the Suez Canal was completely inaccessible because it was blocked by all the bombed-out shipwrecks.'
Chinese cook On his last voyage, Bert had a Chinese cook alongside him for the first time in his seafaring career. That took a bit of getting used to, but Bert soon forgot about it. 'He’d worked on Dutch ships since before I was born. That guy was a fantastic cook: he could serve a traditional Dutch pea soup that was more delicious than any I’ve ever had since.' There was one slight problem though: 'The language barrier meant that it took several hours to put together the weekly menu,' says Bert with a smile.
Smoke bombs Once in the Persian Gulf, the next adventure presented itself at the end of July. A dhow loaded with cement and en route from Iraqi Basra to Dubai, had sprung a leak. The ship had 37 passengers and crew on board. The crew had first tried to throw the cement overboard, but that didn’t help anymore. Everyone on board went into the water, in a pretty rough sea. Another ship from our company happened to be nearby and we went there too. Because the sea was so rough, a Royal Air Force plane which happened to be stationed there dropped smoke bombs into the water, close to the people who were in danger of drowning. That made it easier to find them from our sloops.'
Laughable 'We picked up five people. Some of them were more dead than alive, because of the sun and the salt water they'd been in for more than sixteen hours.' Some of those rescued were wearing life jackets, 'but they were laughable,' says Bert, 'even back then. They were made of kapok and were really heavy because they were completely soaked through. It was Bert's job to look after the people rescued. 'They were given a cabin, food and drink, cigarettes and as far as possible dry clothes.'
Wooden bench The Doelwijk set course for the coast of Iraq to drop off the people it had rescued. This was no easy matter, because the local authorities didn't want to accept them. 'The captain managed to negotiate an agreement, and I went ashore with them. I was the only crew member who was due to be discharged because my wife was about to give birth.' But while Bert was given a bed in the ship agent's house in the village, the shipwrecked people had to spend the night on a wooden bench. 'They had to sleep outdoors! I still remember how outraged I was about that.'
Four days in the swimming pool The next day, Bert took a taxi across the desert, to a hotel in Basra. Once there, he discovered that there were no flights to Western Europe because of the Six-Day War. 'The atmosphere in the hotel wasn't much fun either; any non-Arab was taken for an Israeli or American. So I couldn't go outside the hotel.' After about four days in the pool, Bert received word that a flight had been arranged. 'Via Baghdad and Frankfurt, I finally landed in Amsterdam in the evening of 7 August. That same night, seven hours after I landed, my son was born.'
A life jacket filled with kapok. Bert: 'They became as heavy as lead in the water.'
Bert Weber has set up a Facebook group to get in touch with former colleagues: Vrienden van de Koninklijke Rotterdamsche Lloyd. You can sign up in Facebook, or you can contact Bert directly at firstname.lastname@example.org