Book Reviews


Steaming to Bamboola
The World of a Tramp Freighter

by Christopher Buckley

Review by Richard Sheppard


Christopher Buckley, son of famed conservative commentator, author, and TV-personality William F. Buckley has made a fair name for himself writing comic novels, one of which, Thank You for Not Smoking, was recently made into a movie. Buckley's fiction style might be termed "high sardonic," and shares with P.J. O'Rourke and Joe Queenan an arch tone that's frequently laugh-out-loud funny. In this non-fiction work, Buckley doesn't aim so much for humor as a sense of the insularity among the crew of the title-mentioned Tramp Freighter. The account is true, the names changed.

Much like another book reviewed herein, Crazy Money, Steaming to Bamboola describes an isolated, world-unto-itself workplace and the workers who make it run. Buckley, who like his father WFB has the nautical heritage of an affluent New Englander, has forsaken the family yacht for a refurbished WW2 cargo ship. His narrative covers a round-trip Atlantic Ocean sailing: Charleston to Bremerhaven (West Germany at the time this book was written in 1981) and back. On the way back, they encounter a Force 12 storm coming out of the English Channel. They made their passage safely, but 40 other seaman on various vessels perished, as men do at sea. From the descriptions, you don't want to be on even a large ship in a Force 12 storm. And in general, ship travel contains many hazards and travails not often encountered but nonetheless present even for ignorant super-cruise ship passengers. 

Aboard, you have a Captain and First Mate who can't stand one another, despite serving together for nine years. There's plenty of petty bickering among the AB's (Able-bodied seaman) and Ordinaries (run-of-the-mill gophers), lots of seadog drinking tales, sexual escapades, and gallons of unsanctioned drinking and devil-weed usage. Union rules - again - like Crazy Money. Buckley generally forsakes his trademark humor while recounting these tales, the sense is more of semi-intimate portraits of a strange oceanic breed with motives from working for the fairly good money to running away from life and/or broad problems. Some of these sketches are arbitrarily interesting for what they say about the minds of the men who choose this line of work, often dangerous and at the whim of a shipping company's "go there" randomness. 

Surprising, tried-and-true mariner Buckley doesn't offer a tremendous amount of freighter triviana, although you will learn what a "hawsepipe" and "focsle" are if that's your bag. So while I was expecting something else from this book, Buckey's convetional wit and highbrow ball-busting, turns out to be a lesson in a mostly "men only" workplace, interesting though hardly inspiring.