Oceans and Seas

the work of author Michael Krieger

Vätterö: Mutiny and Murder – The Captain’s Story: Part 2

Posted on Jun 30, 2017

Vätterö: Mutiny and Murder – The Captain’s Story: Part 2

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.

grain

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.