While many are by now familiar with the late Consuela Ebanks’s collection of stories from The Southwell Years, published by the Cayman National Cultural Foundation for the country’s quincentennial in 2003, the tales have recently been given new life on Radio Cayman. Some of the seafarers have read their own stories for broadcast in the coming weeks, while other entries were read by local storytellers and members of the community.
Some of Cayman’s seamen, or their relatives, share memories of their adventures and the hardships – and their emotions – as they revisit the Southwell Years.
When a 710-ton nuclear breeder reactor needs to be moved, a special vessel – and captain – are needed for the job.
In 1974, Captain Hurlston, in command of the M/V Inagua Sound since 1969, was ordered to head to Chattanooga, Tennessee, by way of New Orleans, up the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers to load the top-secret cargo. So secret, in fact, that Capt. Hurlston had to attend two weeks of meetings with the manufacturers and representatives from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, all of whom emphasized how important it was to keep the information secret.
Since the Inagua was registered in Panama, officials had to ask the U.S. Congress to waive the Jones Act, which prohibits a foreign-flagged vessel from “coastwise trade” – a voyage that begins at any point within the United States and delivers commercial cargo to any other point within the United States.
Security checks? “Oh, did they!” says Capt. Hurlston. “Thirty days before I started that voyage, no one could sign on or sign off. We all had to be checked out in D.C. They went through the ship with a fine-toothed comb.”
The huge and heavy reactor, which was in five sections, “was meant to create more energy than it burned,” Capt. Hurlston said, “and the technology was to be kept secret.
“It was stressful.”
The Inagua had Coast Guard escorts down the Mississippi River, and Capt. Hurlston had orders not to pass within 30 miles of Cuba as he made his way through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal and on into the Pacific to the northern state of Washington.
“I even had a CIA man to ride the ship to Longview, Washington,” the captain recalls in the book. “The U.S. Army stood guard when I transited the Panama Canal, and the Coast Guard greeted me at the mouth of the Columbia River. I had a Navy commander breathe down the back of my neck for four days, quizzing me about what I would do should an accident happen. Thank God, I delivered it safely.
“This trip was on of the highlights of my career,” Capt. Hurlston says in the book. “I felt very honored to have been chosen for the job.”
Today, Capt. Hurlston is not much interested in traveling anywhere. He enjoys working in his yard, and of course, reminiscing.
He was just 15 when he first set out to sea in 1945, and he remained at sea for four-and-a-half years. Like most of the young seamen, he was reluctant to return to Cayman sooner, since he could not be sure when he would be hired again. And the stakes were high. There were no jobs back home, so the men jumped at the opportunity to earn money to remit to their families.
At the time, “Cayman was very primitive,” Capt. Hurlston says. “All the young men of my age were ambitious to go to sea.
“It was what I wanted to do, but it was all there was to do.”
All six of his brothers went to sea. The eldest, John, was a captain and taught his siblings navigation. Other skills were acquired as a matter of necessity on island. As a boy, Capt. Hurlston recalls, he and his friends and siblings used to go to Smith Barcadere, as it was known, with a watch, a quadrant and tide tables, spending hours taking sights and making observations to determine the correct time. Since they knew the longitude of Smith’s Barcadere, they could start from there in their calculations. Each boy also knew how to sew canvas and splice ropes.
Through the years, Capt. Hurlston literally and figuratively paid his dues, climbing the ranks from able seaman to captain. Ports of call included places familiar and exotic, including New York; Lagos, Nigeria; Helsinki; Szczecin, Poland; Rotterdam; Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela; Liverpool; Bandar Marsur, Iran; Tripoli, Lebanon; and Mina al-Ahmadi, Kuwait. Among his favorite ports: Santos, Brazil, and ports in Trinidad and British Guyana.
Eventually, Capt. Hurlston was ready to return to dry land. “I’d been in storms, hurricanes, on fire, in collisions, and aground.” In August 1988, he retired after more than 40 years at sea.
Capt. Miller reiterated what virtually every seaman said about the maritime opportunity: “One thing going to sea did for my generation was to instill a sense of responsibility. It disciplined you.
“Plus, we needed the jobs. That was the main reason.”
His first job with National Bulk Carriers in 1954 was as a housing officer, which meant he made up beds and cleaned rooms. He was then moved up to the deck as an able seaman, which involved more back-breaking work. In addition to the labor were the long stretches without communications with the family – 33 months at one point.
Yet, the excitement was there from the beginning.
“I’ll never forget that first chance to go to sea!” Capt. Miller says in the book, a recollection he read for broadcast on Radio Cayman. “Capt. [Merril] Southwell was on the island recruiting seamen in the old, small building just west of the General Post Office and a whole bunch of men were lined up waiting for our names to be called. After what seemed like an eternity, my name was called. My brother Rex was standing next to me, and he just followed me inside. As we entered the room, Mr. Ernest Panton, who was assisting Capt. Southwell, said, “I only called Ned,” to which Rex replied, ‘Well, if Ned is going, I’m going too.’
“Capt. Southwell looked at Rex, then said to Mr. Ernest, ‘If he’s that determined, sign him on.’
“Needless to say, that elated Rex, albeit we ended up on different vessels.”
He traveled to ports in Japan; Hamburg, Germany; Naples and Kuwait, recalling one trip where he took “the heavy lifter” from Mt. Vernon, Indiana, to the Persian Gulf, a total of 42 days at sea, in part because he had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope as the Suez Canal was closed at that time. En route, near Jamaica, the vessel were caught in a seaquake, which he described as the ocean “opening up” and the ship dropping dramatically for about 10 seconds. “All the doors opened and came unlatched,” he says, and it took about 20 hours to relash the huge crane on board. “The damage was significant.”
When there was time to return home, however, all was well. Capt. Miller notes that he and his wife Mary have been married for 60 years, and are the proud parents of Ezzard, Mary Lou, Jerris and Suzanne.
Finally, after 20 years at sea, Capt. Miller decided it was time to come home for good “because jobs were available here.”
Looking back, one of his proudest moments – and an emotional one for him as he read the excerpt from the book – was when he was promoted to 3rd officer.
One evening while transiting the Panama Canal, he went forward to lower the flag. “I was wearing a pair of cowboy boots I had just purchased that day that really made quite a sound as I walked on the deck. On my way back, the captain was on the bridge looking down on me. He signaled me to come to the bridge. Of course I hastened to get to the bridge, not expecting to hear what I heard.
“He said, ‘Mr. Miller, you walk on this ship as if you own it.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’ll change the shoes,’ to which he replied, ‘It’s OK, I have something to say to you. How would you like to become an officer on this ship? I am promoting you to 3rd officer!’
“No one but me will ever know how I felt at that moment.”
When Mr. Pierson read his recollection for broadcast, it brought back both sad and pleasant memories of his year at sea. He was 19 “with very little experience of sea life” when he was hired by National Bulk Carriers’s Ore Convoy. He was transferred to the ill-fated Sinclair Petrolore. On Dec. 6, 1960, when the ship, with its load of crude oil, was about 950 miles from Trinidad, there were four explosions on board within a span of about 30 seconds.
“The ship was on fire, and we tried desperately to fight the flames, but to no avail,” his account in the book says. “Finally, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. We took to the lifeboats. After we were in the water, we took a count but found that two of our crew were missing.”
Two of Mr. Pierson’s good friends were killed, including Alvey (Watson) Smith, a Caymanian.
The sorrow was mixed with happiness that so many men were spared, he says, “but the memories of that eventful, terrible day will never be erased.”
Yet the lure of the maritime job was strong when Mr. Pierson came out of high school with a desire to further his education. His parents couldn’t afford to send him away, and scholarships were hard to come by, he says.
“It was acceptable at that time [to go to sea]. You were very happy – including the parents – that you could get this opportunity,” says Mr. Pierson, whose father also was a seaman. “I was really, really happy to get that opportunity for hard work. I started as a mess man and … washed the dishes and served the officers.
“That’s why today I’m so happy I can help my wife in the kitchen!” he jokes.
Soon he was promoted to able seaman, helping to keep the deck rust-free and painted.
“It was a good learning experience, and it was good to get that experience because it prepares you for life,” he says.
After his year at sea, he pursued his education abroad and eventually became the first Caymanian to qualify as an accountant. Not one to slow down, after his retirement, he spent seven years of study to attain his master’s and doctorate degrees.
“I laid this to my foundation of hard work, but also to my home foundation that there was honor in hard work.”
In fact, Mr. Pierson says (echoed by other seamen), “One of the reasons why Caymanians were so sought after was because of our attitude toward life, our hard work and our belief in discipline and respect … Those key things made us stand out from any others.”
Stories of the seamen are very familiar to Lemuel Hurlston, whose father John Emerson Hurlston was Paul Hurlston’s brother. He read for broadcast the entry What the Records Say by the book’s editor (and Caymanian Compass reporter) Carol Winker.
The first story Lemuel recalls is that his father told him he should never consider a career as a seaman.
Born in 1951, he was among the first generation of Caymanians who typically did not go sea. “It was becoming less desirable in my age group,” he said, noting they had better education and more opportunities.
He recalls that on one hand, the work of a seaman was perceived as being glamorous, but on the other hand, it was understood to be very difficult.
“There were cultural differences, working with so many other nationalities as crew,” he says. “The stories they told when they came home provided Caymanians with a good balance of firsthand knowledge of the world. It set the tone for why Caymanians say the Cayman Islands are different from other Caribbean islands.”
Far from the perception of a glamorous job, Mr. Hurlston recalls, “There was a time in my life when I didn’t see my dad for five years, and then only for moments on the south side of the island where my family lived, and they could bring the ship close enough to shore that we could see him and wave handkerchiefs.
“You can imagine how emotional that was.”
The only other way young Hurlston could communicate with his father during those long years of absence was through short-wave communication. “Earl Long, an American, lived in a little trailer house on South Church Street and he was a short-wave radio hobbyist. Sometimes I would have the privilege of going there to talk to my dad,” he recalls.
“I remember talking to my dad in 1973 from a ship docked in George Town harbor. I was going to England to study and my father said, ‘Do your best,’ and I said I had no intention of going that far and not succeeding.”
When Capt. John Hurlston retired at age 65, after 50 years as a seaman, “he and I had a lot of catching up to do,” says his son.
“I had a habit of leaving early on a Friday afternoon and sitting and talking with him for hours.”
His father died at age 85.
Lemuel Hurlston says he “got a little bit emotional” when the book came out, since both his father and his uncle had long careers at sea and both were very good friends with Gwen Bush, affectionately known as the “mother” of National Bulk Carrier’s Caymanian seamen.
“My dad would say, ‘Please don’t allow Miss Gwen to trick you into going out to sea.’ I was flirting with the idea, but my dad was insistent.”
Lemuel Hurlston stayed on land and worked his way up to become chief secretary to the deputy governor.