15 June, 2010

My first encounter with the US Immigration was in the summer of 1966. I was on my very first ship, a bulk carriers named “Har-Sinai” (Hebrew for “Mount Sinai”) as a deck cadet, we we have just arrived at Mobil Alabama, with 30,000 tons Iron Ore from Venezuela.

As happens with every ship arriving at any port, US Customs and Immigration were the first to board the ship with the local ship-agent as soon as the ships is moored. The two US Immigration officers checked the Crew-List against their “Black Book”, a very thick book with black cover that contained thousands upon thousands of names of people who are not permitted to enter the USA. If your name is not on in the black book, the immigration officer would then look at your Seaman’s Book (equivalent to Passport), see that it is current, ensures that the photo in your Seaman’s Book , matches your face and hen he would consult his “Green Book” to see whether you have been in the USA before and if so, whether  there are any marks against your name.

Only when you pass such scrutiny the officer will stamp your pre-printed shore-leave pass which entitled you to go ashore, be legally in the USA, but only within an specified area only and only whilst your ship is in port.

When all the shore-leave passes have been signed and stamped and after other customs and quarantine formalities are finalised the customs and immigration issue a clearance certificate for the ship, meaning stevedores (longshoremen) may come onboard, cargo work can commence, and crew may go ashore.

The immigration officers would then leave the ship with all the seaman’s book and passports (if any) that will be returned to the ship just before the ships sails and after ensuring and everybody is actually back onboard.

As this was my first time in the USA, I was finger-printed and photographed, just a standard procedure, I became another file number somewhere within the US immigration system. What about my “human right” I hear? Well, frankly it had never occurred to me; of course I could refuse, but it would have simply meant that I could not go ashore (and possibly raise some suspicion as to why I refuse to be figure-printed).

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US Seaman Shoreleave pass

But there was another snag; one of the other Israeli seaman onboard, let us call him Shlomo (I cannot recall his actual name), also a first timer in the USA, was declined a shore-leave pass, the reason was that the immigration officer discovered a person with an Israeli nationality by the same surname as Shlomo’s in the Black Book — It transpired that Shlomo’s brother had jumped ship some two years earlier, subsequently captured and deported.

That was a sufficient reason to decline Shlomo’s a shore-leave pass. When Shlomo attempted to explain that he played no part in what his brother had done thus he should not be punished for it. The immigration officer explained that there is nothing in USA Law that says that he, the immigration officer, must grant shore-leave pass to anyone by right, shore-leave pass is purely a privilege, that he may grant or not and in fact he does not even required to have a reason for declining. Our ships-agent confirmed that there is no legal avenue by which the Immigration can be forced to grant a shore-leave pass. We are not US citizens, thus the protection of the Constitution of the USA does not apply to us (or words to that affect), It is the same way that any US Consulate anywhere in the world can, at least those days, decline entry visa into the USA at its sole discretion, he added.

As harsh as it was, it made perfect sense to me. I also knew that the slightest breach of the condition of the shore-leave pass will result in my name being placed in the “Black Book”, with all that that entails.

Shlomo was not allowed to leave the ship and indeed the Immigration turned up onboard a couple of times whilst we were in port to ensure that Shlomo is in fact onboard.

(I bumped  into Shlomo a few years later in a street in Haifa and he told me that, after I left the ship and after a few subsequent calls of his ships in the USA, he was finally granted a shore leave pass because of his “good behaviour”, meaning he did not try to leave the ship without a shore-leave pass).

* * * * *

Some two years later, I was already the Second Officer of another ship, a banana boat named “Har Bashan”. We were employed in the (Chiquita) bananas trades mostly from Central and South America to the US Gulf, US East Coast and Europe. The fact that I regularly call in US ports as an officer entitled me to permanent shore-leave pass  which somewhat simplified the immigration procedures I had go through when my ship call in US ports.

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Har Bashan - Pueto Cortez, 1967

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Carlos was one of the Able Seamen (AB) on the “Har Bashsan”; a Spaniard in his late thirties, a conscientious seaman and, by all accounts ,a dedicated family man. As the one who made the payslips onboard, I knew that Carlos withdrew just small amount of pocket money each (monthly) pay day whilst the balance of his wages was sent to his wife in Spain.

Carlos was also my semi-permanent lookout on my night watches on the bridge (from midnight to 4 am) when we were at sea. His main duty was watch for other ships and take the wheel if needed him to do so. On my daylight watches (noon to 4 pm) when the weather was fine and there was no or very light  shipping traffic around, Carlos would work on deck with the rest of deck crew whilst I was on bridge on my own; I could call on Carlos at any time to come up to the bridge, for a additional lookout or take the helm (wheel) if circumstances demand it. This was the procedures that was followed by all cargo ships those days (It was and is different for  passengers ships)

Carlos did not speak a word in English but with my pigeon Spanish we manage to communicate. We spent long nights on the bridge in “palavra” (seamen’s small talk) when there was nothing else for us to do apart from watching the empty sea and sky. We talked about our respective homes, ships that we had sailed on, places we had been in and so on. I would not describe our relation as “friends” by any mean but there was a definitely a mutual affinity between us.

On one of our call to the port of Baltimore, we have just completed discharging a ship-load of some 120,000 cartons of bananas and were getting ready to sail. Immigration were on board as usual, attempting to ensure that everybody is back onboard for sailing, a pure routine until we discovered that Carlos is not back onboard.

If Carlos had jumped ship, he would not be the first or the last to do so, nor  would he even  be the first on this ship, but knowing Carlos as I did, I told the immigration officer, that as the officer who is the closest to Carlos than any other officer onboard, it is totally out of character for Carlos to jump ship, something must have happen to him I speculated.

Using my Master Key, we entered Carlos’s cabin and inspected it; there were no signs that he had gone; in fact all signs pointed to the opposite. Carlos’s wife’s and kids’ photographs and a small Jesus on a cross icon were still next to his bed. His suitcase was there as what appeared to be all his cloths.

By then I had inspected enough cabins of seamen who had jumped ship to know the signs and what to look for. There are a number of tell-tell signs, profile if you wish, of people who jump ships; they are usually professionally unqualified, they “travel light”, they joined the ship recently and they jump ships on the first opportunity. In many cases they also leave a large unpaid “slopchest” (the ship’s duty-free “shop” for the crew) account behind them.

None of these tell-tell signs applied to Carlos. If anything, Carlos was the complete anti-thesis to a ship jumper.

True, it is not an exact science nor is it a conclusive proof that Carlos did not “do the run” but it was certainly put a great dent in the probability that he did. The immigration office who accompanied me to Carlos’s Cabin seemed to agree with my conclusion, although he did not actually say so.

The immigration officer then proceeded and called whomever he needed to call  and after a while he informed us that all the checks with all the police stations and hospitals in the Baltimore areas turned out nothing, no Carlos!

If Carlos had jumped ship he could never enter the USA again, that may also have severe implications of his ability get future works on other ships, Carlos had been at sea for long enough to realise the consequences of jumping ship, it simply made no sense.

After a short consultation with the Captain, he agreed to put back the sailing time by one hour — so long as we remain alongside the wharf, Carlos cannot be declared an illegal alien, his shore-leave pass is still valid. We hoped that somehow Carlos would turn up within the hour.

An hour turned into two, still no Carlos. The ship is now “off-hire” meaning the company that had hired the ship, United Fruit Company (UFC), is not paying hire for the ship itself,  the fuel we are burning or the port charges we incur whilst waiting for Carlos – it is now all on our shipowner, our employer’s, account.

We could wait no longer, not only we jeopardising UFC’ schedule, cost our owner money, but there was another ship waiting for our berth, meaning soon our owner would start paying the delay of that other ship too.

Two and a half hours after the original departure time, our ship was cleared to sail after we had gone through the formalities declaring Carlos as “missing seaman on departure – reason: unknown”. Pilot and tugboats were ordered, lines (the ropes and wires that tie the ship to the wharf) were off and we were on our way.

However, there was still one last chance, albeit a slim one; the geography of Baltimore is such that we still had about 12 hours steaming time down Chesapeake Bay ahead of us before we reach the open ocean, about 200 miles down the Bay, not far from Norfolk and Virginia Beach (Virginia).

Before they left the ships we had advised the immigration officers, that on the off-chance that they find Carlos within the next 10-12 hours and he is medically fit to re-join the ship, we were prepared to stop the ship, wait at a rendezvous place in the Bay and pick him up.

A few hours into our steaming down Chesapeake Bay, whilst I was on the bridge with the American Bay Pilot (who guided ships through the bay) and another seaman who  took Carlos’s place at the wheel, The pilot suddenly turn to me and asked if we are missing a sailor. When I confirm that indeed we do and gave him Carlos’s full name, the pilot advised that the immigration have got Carlos and they wish to bring him onboard. I immediately called the captain who was not on the bridge at the time as this was beyond my authority to agree or otherwise.

The captain came up to the bridge, gave his agreement and the pilot proceeded to arrange the rendezvous over his walky-talky.

We change course in accordance with the pilot’s advice and headed toward the rendezvous point. Some 45 minutes later, the pilot pointed at a Customs Boat, amongst the endless number of small boats and yachts in the vicinity of our ship, that was heading in our direction and said: “Here is you man, on that boat”. 15 minutes later the customs boat was alongside us and we could see Carlos standing on its deck, clearly with a sheepish look on his face, he knew that all the binoculars on the bridge are focused on him.  Carlos climbed the pilot ladder (a rope ladders usually used by pilots to get on and off ships) and got onto the ship’s deck.

He immediately proceeded to the bridge where the captain and I were waiting for him. He appeared highly excited, obviously embarrassed, perhaps worried about the consequences of the “troubles” he had caused, talking… well, sort of talking; “Santa Maria”, “Jesus Christos” and some other unmentionable words were only ones I could decipher from his hundred miles per second Spanish.

Eventually Carlos calmed down a bit and told us that he had gone ashore a few hours before we were due to sail to buy something in plenty of time to return to the ship before Sailing.

Not speaking English, Carlos did what he had done “Un millon veces antes” (millions times before) in every non-Spanish speaking port that he had ever been; He would write down the name of the wharf where the ships was as he left the ship and when the time comes for him to back to the ship he would get a cab and give the taxi driver his piece of paper with the name of the wharf on it and let taxi bring him back to his ship.

“Pero este taxista americano estupido” (But this stupid American taxi driver) in Carlos’s words, could not find the ship. After about two hours looking for the ship in all over Baltimore, Carlos realised that he was not going make it to the ship in time. He managed somehow to get the taxi driver to drop him at a police station where he found someone who spoke Spanish.

There was only one aspect in Carlos’s story that, that seemed stange to me. The wharf that we had just left did not have a name, just a number, it was called Pier 34 . “Carlos” I said “El muelle del barco en Baltiomre no tiene nombre, solo numero, numero treinta quatro, donde mirar el nombre?” (My Spanish for: “The wharf where the ship was in Baltimore does not have a name, just a number, number 34, where did you see a name?”)

“Por supuesto que tiene nombre” (Of course it has a name) Carlos objected, sounded slightly insulted that I doubt his word, “Hay una cartelera bien grande… justo afuera de las puertas de entrada… con el nombre… escrito en letras rojas…. es imposible de no verla… aqui, mirala por tu mismo!” (There is a big sign … just outside the gate … with a name .. red letters … you cannot possibly miss it …  here, look  for yourself!)” he said as handed me a piece of paper.

I took one look at the paper and could not hold myself, I burst into an uncontrollable laughter; on the paper, in Carlos’s handwriting were two words: “No Smoking”.

© Copyright Jacob Klamer 2010

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