The weather continued to be hot and the humidity increased. Every morning gigantic banks of clouds formed and each afternoon they broke their wrath on the ocean beneath them in blinding torrents of rain.
The second morning in the Bay of Bengal a stillness swept the Diane. To Jan-Christer it felt as though he were alone on the ship except for those with him in the pilothouse. He sensed danger. Feeling in his pocket he found the key to the locked gun cabinet in the saloon. He located the bosun and told him to find Rashid and bring him to the bridge. Then the captain returned to his pilothouse, where Teodoro was on duty with a sulking Cypriot. The four men on the bridge silently watched the horizon before them. Periodically Jan-Christer or the bosun took a turn around the bridge deck, since from the pilothouse there was no visibility aft. Mohamed set out on one of these patrols, then almost immediately came racing back to the wheelhouse.
The empty Vätterö sails in Lake Malar after delivering a cargo of grain.
“Captain, you better come look. Men on number three.”
Jan-Christer and Teodoro followed the bosun to the aft rail of the bridge deck. A line of heads appeared behind the No. 3 hatch combing. More men were running, crouched, from the deckhouse on the poop. Two carried rifles.
Jan-Christer turned and looked hard at the first mate. “Are you with us or are you with them?”
The reply from Teodoro was immediate and with conviction. “Of course, Captain, I am with you.”
Jan-Christer gave Mohamed the key to the gun cabinet and told him to bring up the rifle, pistol, and cartridges he would find there. Teodoro ran back to the wheelhouse and returned a moment later with a welcome surprise, a revolver that he had hidden. So at least the four of them would be armed.
The captain saw Mustafa poke a rifle over the hatch combing. Jan-Christer dropped to the deck and a bullet smacked into the smokestack behind him. Then began a war. All the crew must have been armed. Bullets seemed to be crashing off everything, though most of the crew’s fire was very inaccurate. The captain and the first mate lay flat on the deck. Mohamed returned with a Winchester 30.06 and a pistol. Jan-Christer gave the pistol to Rashid and told him to guard the interior stairway that connected the captain’s cabin to the pilothouse. Mohamed kept the rifle.
Teodoro proved to be an accurate marksman. With his second shot he hit a fireman in the chest, bowling the man over backward into a winch platform. Jan-Christer fired his revolver, trying to hit Mustafa. He saw one bullet glance off the hatch combing in front of the engineer, who could not move laterally because of the men around him. The bridge offered the advantage of being able to fire down in the mutineers.
The shooting continued. Suddenly Jan-Christer dropped his pistol and clutched the side of his head. He thought it was on fire. His hands came away covered with blood. Big drops of blood splattered on the deck beneath him. Jan-Christer blotted his temple with a handkerchief and tried to keep firing. Fumbling with bloodstained hands, he reloaded from his box of cartridges. Mohamed’s 30.06 was deafening each time the bosun fired next to him. One of the crew yelped as a rifle bullet hit him in the hand. A minute later, Teodoro, firing slowly but with a steady aim, killed the second fireman.
Jan-Christer aimed at the hatch combing where he had last seen Mustafa. The engineer’s head popped up again and stayed up to train his rifle on the bridge. Jan-Christer carefully took aim, held his breath, and squeezed the trigger. Mustafa half stood up before his legs went out from under him and he toppled over. Even from the bridge there was no mistaking the hole directly above him and between the engineer’s gaping eyes. The mutineers’ firing slowed.
Jan-Christer, wiping the blood from the crease in his temple, called out to the men behind the hatch, “Take it easy now. Three is enough. No more shooting. Put your guns down.”
The men, without their leader, hesitated. Finally all firing stopped. Some of the remaining mutineers put up their hands. A few guns were thrown overboard; the rest were stuck in belts or inside shirts. There was a long silence as the crew behind the hatch and the three men on the bridge stared at each other.
The bodies of the chief engineer and the two firemen went seaside. Three other crewmen had been wounded, but not seriously. Jan-Christer brought up bandages and a bottle of whiskey and passed them around to those in need.
Two days later when the ship docked in Calcutta, Jan-Christer packed his suitcase and walked off the Diane. He never looked back.
With grave misgivings Jan-Christer watched the new men come aboard. They were mostly Cypriots, Moroccans, and Algerians, and they looked as if they had been recruited at the local prison. The Diane completed loading and with a partial cargo sailed for Calcutta. It was clear early on that many of the new men had little or no experience at sea. Still, the crew seemed competent enough to enable the ship to reach her destination.
The first incident came four days out, in the Red Sea, that oppressive body of water surrounded by the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. It was a typical inferno of an afternoon. There was no air to breathe, only a suffocating fog of condensed water vapor. A blistering sun hung over the ship as if some fool had nailed it atop the mast. The captain watched some of the crew approach single-file across the afterdeck. It occurred to him that he might be watching a mirage. The chief engineer, a swarthy Moroccan by the name of Ibn Mustafa, led the motley contingent of seamen, firemen, and two stewards to the bridge. Even Dimitri, the second-mate, hovered in the background. Jan-Christer looked at faces intense with greed and, worse, determination. Mustafa, the spokesman, wasted no time getting to the point. “The owner has us to put this ship down,” he began. “We are taking over this ship, but we want that you help us.”
The vacuum pipe is steadied and moved around the hold by the crew, who control it with a portable switch.
“You can’t. You don’t have to—you can’t take over any ship from me,” Jan-Christer stammered, his English failing him in his anger.
He was about to go on, but Mustafa interrupted him. “Don’t be stupid. It’s a lotta money. You be a rich man.”
Jan-Christer found himself. “The money, yes, but you have to think a little longer. When all your money is finished, what do you do then—and maybe you be in jail. What about that?” He tried to reason with them and saw it was not working. “Besides,” he added, “I’m not going to do it.”
Mustafa was resolute. “Yes, you have to do it. We help you,” he half pleaded, half ordered.
“No, never.” The normally calm Jan-Christer almost screamed his reply, “Never. I am the captain of this boat and you do as I say.”
The response was that of uneducated, unprincipled men. They cursed and heaped blasphemies on him. They wanted to kill him then, but they were too unsure of themselves. The group left the pilothouse, still threatening and swearing.
For the next three days nothing happened. A heavy air of hostility permeated every corner of the ship. The crew came together in small groups, meeting usually in the engine room, in the mess, or on the fantail. Jan-Christer took to wearing, even sleeping with, a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson. The Diane passed Aden, rounded the Arabian Peninsula, and headed east into the Arabian Sea.
On the third evening after the argument, Jan-Christer was on his way to the saloon, two decks beneath the bridge, to have his supper. Mustafa, Dimitri, and the youngest steward, a tough Algerian, cornered him in the narrow passage beneath the ladder from the boat deck. They probably could have killed him there. Perhaps at that point they thought he could still be persuaded to join them. No doubt they realized that if Jan-Christer were dead, they would have to explain both his death and the ship’s sinking to the authorities. Better to have the captain on their side, to have him explain the ship’s sinking. Finally, though, they must have concluded that further talk was useless. They simply threw Jan-Christer against a bulkhead and started beating him, two working at once, smashing him in the stomach and face. The space was so cramped that he could not draw his revolver or do much except try to cover himself. Finally Jan-Christer managed to catch the second mate’s arm. Dimitri, off balance, was spun around into the other two men while his arm was pinioned behind his back. A furious Jan-Christer, using all his strength, thrust the arm upward until there was a dull crack. The second officer’s scream filled the passage. The engineer and steward started to close in but stopped when they faced a cocked revolver. Jan-Christer dumped Dimitri on the deck and went back to the bridge.
Jan-Christer began having all his meals brought to his cabin or to the pilothouse. He still did not know how many of the crew had been bribed by the owner, how many were conspiring against him. He considered sending a radio message, but to whom and saying what? With the owner and the crew implicated, and having no witnesses, everything would simply be denied. He also knew that a captain who informs on a ship’s owner has a hard time finding another berth.
A week passed. Mohamed, the Nigerian bosun, and a Pakistani sailor by the name of Rashid came to him with their concerns. They had both been approached but wanted nothing to do with a mutiny or the sinking of the ship. They were afraid. Jan-Christer tried to reassure them. The Diane was then in the Bay of Bengal, only four days out of Calcutta.
Teodoro, the chief mate, was another unknown. The usually good-natured young Greek had been very quiet and nervous for the past few days. He might be involved with the others, but Jan-Christer didn’t bother to ask him. If Teodoro was with the crew, he would only deny it. Of the thirty-one-man crew, Jan-Christer had only the bosun and one sailor that he knew to be on his side. That left as many as twenty-nine men against him. He refused to think about the odds.
For four years the young Swede sailed native coasters all over the Indonesian archipelago. It was a life straight out of Joseph Conrad. Jan-Christer, acting as captain, bosun, and cook, was the only European on board the vessels, usually with a crew of ten or twelve Indonesians. Communicating with the crews was, at best, a difficult proposition. However, with a shrug, he explains, “I speak no Indonesian—just a few words. I speak English to them sometimes. Well, I have not so much to say to them. They come up at seven in the morning, have their coffee, and then they do their job. They are good seamen. They know their work. Yes, these places were very interesting. It was a good life, then.”
Jan-Christer returned once more to his native country. This time he stayed long enough to marry a young woman he had met in a restaurant. Then he was gone again, sailing as captain on a Greek ship heading to the Far East. During the next nine years he captained both Greek- and Panamanian-registered freighters, usually sailing to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Japan. It was during this period that the mutiny occurred. Finally Britt-Marie, his wife, prevailed on him to work closer to home, and he set out to buy a small vessel with which he could make a living in Swedish waters.
Long shot of vessel from above: A large vacuum is used to suck the grain out of the hold. A small vessel like the Vätterö can discharge its entire cargo in three or four hours.
The Vätterö (pronounced Vah-teer-u) was built in 1916 on Lake Vattero, southwest of Stockholm, for Vielle Montange Limited, a large steel producer. She carried steel from the company’s plant at Ammeberg to Stockholm, Göteborg, and other cities connected by Sweden’s extensive lake and canal system. She continued to carry steel for a second owner until Jan-Christer bought her in 1984. In all that time, he says, her only extensive modifications were the addition of electric steering and the replacement of her original steam engine with diesels. Her three-ton derrick was removed and the hatch size increased. Much of her original interior pine paneling and hardwood furniture remains.
Now the Vätterö carries grain eight months a year under contract to various flour mills in Sweden. Most of her trips last only two or three days. The work is steady and during the sailing season Jan-Christer has little time to spend with his family. In order to be together, Britt-Marie, a nurse, and their two small sons sometimes sail with him during the summer. Jan-Christer says he is happy finally to be working in Sweden and he is happy with his life. What else could a man ask for? Probably Jan-Christer should be happy just to be alive.
During the nine years that Jan-Christer was captain of Greek- and Panamanian-registered vessels, he sailed for a Greek who owned an old freighter. Jan-Christer had already taken this vessel, the Diane (as I will call her), to North Africa and Asia and was scheduled to make another trip on her. Just prior to his next departure on the Diane the owner called Jan-Christer into his office. It was time of scarce cargoes and an overabundance of hulls. Owners with idle vessels were insuring them to the hilt, then having them torched or sunk. The practice was becoming almost common. Marine insurance companies were furious as they paid out huge sums in claims, but they could seldom prove the acts were deliberate, since the evidence was normally covered by one or two hundred fathoms of water.
The meeting began with the owner lamenting the difficulty of making good profits with an old vessel. Even a captain sailing an old freighter could rarely make a good living, he added.* Eventually the owner said, “Maybe you could fix something for me and make yourself much money, too.”
Jan-Christer asked what it was the owner wanted fixed. The reply was, “I want you to sink the Diane. I’ll pay you three million drachs if you take care of this thing for me.** You can easily make it look like an accident, and with an old ship like this the crew will never know—no one will ever know…It’s a great deal of money. What do you say?”
“Yes, of course it is a lot of money,” Jan-Christer countered, “but I have my job. This is not my job. And, okay, three million drachs, maybe I have it [can live on it] about five years and what shall I do after that time, when the money is finished? And if I sink the ship, people will know [guess what happened] and nobody will like to hire me for master.” Jan-Christer paused, then shook his head. “No, I won’t do it.”
The owner persisted and Jan-Christer continued to refuse. The meeting ended, and a week later Jan-Christer and the Diane sailed for Cyprus. When they arrived in Limassol, the shipowner’s agent informed Jan-Christer that the crew was being put off the ship and would be sent back to Greece. A new crew had been hired and would be signing on the following day.
*A captain often receives a base pay plus a share of the profits his vessel makes.
**Then, three million Greek drachma would have been about $27,000 US dollars.
The following story is so incredible that at first I did not believe it. However, the way it unfolded, simply, and as just one episode in the life of Jan-Christer Sjööh, was convincing. Captain Sjööh was reluctant to describe his experiences, yet when questioned he provided answers and details without emotion and in a manner that suggested to Judy* and me that he was telling the truth.
Profile of Jan-Christer: Jan-Christer Sjööh, captain and owner of the Vätterö, entertains guests in his cabin. The enigmatic captain leaves the impression that people are an imposition that must be put up with during his life but that he will never feel comfortable around.
In answer to three intense hours of questioning, most but not all of the details held together. A few details would naturally be confused or forgotten given the stress resulting from the mutiny and murders. Captain Sjööh asked that the names of ship, owner, crew members, and ports visited be disguised. The reasons for this request will be obvious upon reading the story. I have put the occurrences down largely as they were narrated, though because of Jan-Christer’s mediocre command of English and because the story came out in bits and pieces, certain elaboration was necessary to provide cohesiveness and aid understanding. Still, all the important points are imparted as they were communicated to us. I will leave it to the reader to judge the veracity of the captain’s story.
The life of Jan-Christer Sjööh, captain and owner of the Vätterö, is almost as fascinating as his tale of mutiny, so it is the place to begin. He was born in 1951, in a small town in central Sweden. His father had been a captain on a sailing ship, and from the time Jan-Christer was five he wanted to sail as well. At fifteen he got his first berth on the 2,300-ton freighter Marie, bound for Italy, Greece, and North Africa. Jan-Christer worked as a deck boy doing, as he says, every dirty job on the ship. After eighteen months he left the Marie in Genoa and took a job on a vessel heading to the Far East.
Eventually Jan-Christer put ashore in Jakarta, Indonesia, at the age of seventeen. He says, “I was there [stranded] for two weeks looking for another berth. I would go first to one ship, then another. The first night out in Jakarta I have to go to town. I have a drink, maybe two, maybe three, and see some Indonesian girls, and good-bye to my money. Then I had no money so I slept in the streets. I had almost nothing to eat for the last ten days. Finally I got a job as carpenter on an old steamer, the Golden River, twenty-seven hundred tons, built in 1918. She was sailing between Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, carrying mostly timber. The captain was an old Englishman, Captain Jackson, who was sailing in the Far East for forty-five years. He was eighty-two then, but he looked like fifty. I left the Golden River and later signed on again as third mate. From books I teach myself navigation. The other officers were English and Swedish, the bosun was Finnish.
“Captain Jackson was like the devil himself—of the military style, very strict. Some days he would never talk to us. He would only say, ‘You have to do that, that, and that.’ Then he would go to his cabin and read or listen to music, Beethoven, Mozart, some things like this. If the crew doesn’t obey, he just puts them ashore—anywhere.”
Jan-Christer worked his way up to second mate, then chief mate. After six months he left the Golden River in Yokohama and flew home to Sweden. It was not long before he was at sea again, this time on a new Swedish motor ship sailing to the United States, Southeast Asia, and Japan. After a year he found himself back in Yokohama, where he was hospitalized for five weeks with pneumonia. After recovering, Jan-Christer found a small Indonesian ship bound for the Javanese port of Surabaya.
*Judy Howard, former Newsweek photographer with whom I was working.