Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mariners in Review: Steaming to Bamboola: The World Of A Tramp Freighter

Christopher Buckley, son of National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr., is best known in his own right as the author of humorous political novels like Thank You For Smoking. In 1982's Steaming To Bamboola: The World of a Tramp Steamer, Buckley recounts a 1979 trip aboard the tramp steamer Columbianna, where he served as a merchant seaman.

Buckley paints the crew of the Columbianna with spot-on yet hilarious strokes. The captain and chief engineer who hate each other, the deckhands with their minor rebellions, the room steward who gets a little too nosy are all familiar types to merchant mariners. In fact, several reviewers of Steaming to Bamboola claim they knew one or two of these guys. Even if they didn't, they knew someone like them.

A lot of Steaming to Bamboola describes a world now long gone, of tramp steamers and strong maritime unions and ships that could load and unload their own cargoes. Some things never change, though, whether on clipper ships or container vessels: time is money, the weather frequently sucks, your shipmates can be hugely and disproportionately irritating. The book is mainly 200-plus pages of sea stories, some grim, some hilarious, including, I was surprised to find, the origin of an urban legend still passed from deckhand to deckhand:

Jones...could walk a cup of coffee (intended for one of the bridge officers) from the galley up the ladder to the conning tower without spilling a drop. The officers all marveled at this, and said, "Jones, how do you do it?" And Jones would say, "Shucks, I guess I was just born with sea legs, or something," and went on carrying cup of coffee without spilling a drop, and even went on to become a minor hero for it, until one day someone discovered Jones's secret. He would take a big gulp of coffee at the foot of the ladder, hold it while he scrambled up, and just before reaching he top, spit the coffee back into the mug. Jay-sus, said Higgin, was the captain in a mood when he found out about that."

There are similar helpful hints elsewhere in Steaming To Bamboola.

The book is out of print at the moment, but maybe with the success of the film version of Thank You for Smoking and a film version of Boomsday in the works, there may be demand to bring some of Buckley's older works back into print.

Similar first-hand accounts of modern merchant sailors include The Last American Sailors: A Wild Ride in the Modern Merchant Marine by Michael R. Rawlins and writer (but not professional mariner) Richard Pollak's book The Colombo Bay.

Buckley's father was an avid recreational sailor. When he died last year, Christopher wrote a touching and funny essay for the National Review called "My Old Man And The Sea." Find it at The elder Buckley himself wrote three books on sailing, the best being Atlantic High. The others are Airborne and Racing Through Paradise.


  1. I'm presently re-reading Steaming to Bamboola. As Capt Earle says, it's a funny, compelling read about ships and those who sail in them. The ship Buckley sails on is the Columbianna,ex Marine Bobcat, which Buckley assures us isn't its real name. A bit of research reveals the ship is almost certainly the real-life Transcolumbia, ex Marine Lynx, built in 1945 as a US Navy C4 transport ship and sold and converted to a general cargo ship in 1967. The give-away in the pictures is the three huge Stulcken derricks fitted during the conversion which, as Buckley says, makes the ship look like an upturned cockroach....

  2. I JUST received this book on loan through the library and am heartily looking forward to it!

  3. Haven't we all sailed aboard The Colombianna whether she be the Saratoga or MV El Paso? As a CTO on the Swinging Sixty From Dixie, my SSES space had a big round metal ball welded in the overhead. Every 4-6 seconds the ball would roll back and forth with increasing speed and WHACK. We all know the tyrants, the "special people", and the superstitions. My copy is stamped USNavy so it is very special to me. In 1990 it was on a cart given to me by one of the happy people with bug juice and crafts that roll through the naval hospitals. Over 20 years later I still laugh so hard that I almost quit breathing. I've been told the urban legend as well. In the op center it was tradition to dirty dick the captain's coffe mug when you left. All the officer's cups hung on a peg board just inside the hatch. I doubt the skipper ever actually drank out of it. It still amazes me that when we'd get in trouble we were punished by being sent to the officer's mess. They played hockey with frozen sliders and put bacon on the rabbi's burgers. Armpit burgers were the norm. The mess was run by a drunken p.o. 1st class. I miss those days on some rum filled nights but you couldn't drag me back in a thousand years.