TRAMP STEAMERS: Romantic Myths of Sea Faring?

By Bloom, Jim | Sea Classics, April 2010 | Go to article overview

TRAMP STEAMERS: Romantic Myths of Sea Faring?


Bloom, Jim, Sea Classics


Fast disappearing from the world's seaways are a class of sea- going vagabonds that have provided leisurely adventurous transportation to generations of travelers

"Join Merchant Seaman Tonga Jim' Mayo as he struggles to keep his tramp steamer afloat, his cargo holds full and his crew alive, while sailing the fine iine between British Intelligence and his bitter enemies. "

From promotional literature circa 1940

Those two words describing the hero's ship conjured up an intriguing picture of a dilapidated elderly merchantman, lumbering across exotic seas in search of adventure. Their slightly squalid, gritty features epitomize the romance of high seas feats of valor. The socalled tramp steamer occupies a special place in nautical writing and ship imagery. Rarely is the phrase defined precisely in terms of size, form, or capabilities - you simply know one when you see one. The common representation of the tramp steamer is that of a robust, plodding, unsophisticated, old tub that visits the world's most exotic, out-of-the-way ports; a ship thaf s large enough to carry a meaningful payload, but which is small enough to venture into relatively unfamiliar estuaries, bays, and lagoons where the deeper draft merchantmen dare not risk grounding. This is the type of vessel evoked by the term in the minds of most nautical fiction fans. It is illustrated by, for example, the Terry and the Pirates comic strip, The Adventures of Tintin, the Belgian adventure strip circa 1930s (The SS Ramona), Howard Pease's series of novels ofthe 1930s and 1940s set aboard several different tramp freighters, or Louis L'Amour's adventure stories regarding the perilous missions ofthe tramp steamer SS Semiramis.

The connotations ofthe phrase are quite colorful as used in nautical lore and literature. In fact "tramp steamer" is sometime used for any antiquated, spartanly functional but seedy, cargo vessel, whether actually powered by a steam engine, a petrol motor, or a diesel engine. This is because the heyday ofthe ship symbolized by the term encompassed the steam era, roughly from the 1880s through the 1930s.

Most any run-down rust bucket of a cargo ship employed by an archetypal hardboned plug tobaccospitting sea captain is called a "tramp steamer" as if that expression stood for either a certain ship design or merely a nondescript disheveled hobo of a vessel. The phrase conjures up an exotic voyage to South Sea Islands or Latin American tropical ports toeming with color, intrigue, danger, and adventure. The key feature is that the captain seems to have great discretion as to where and when to sail his ship - and so he invariably sails it into dangerous waters where the regular freightliners do not dare, even if their tight schedules would permit.

Before we take a look at how tramp steamers figure in maritime fiction and film and how the vessels have been depicted in art and model-making, we should establish exactly what is denoted by the term. Trie official definition is a tad duller than the popular image, so let's get it over with.

The cold nit-picking fact is that the tramp freighter label does NOT refer to a specific ship configuration or condition, although, as we shall see, certain types are more prevalent within that job classification. The term in fact categorizes the vessels by operating method rather than design. Today, the usual method of operating a fleet of cargo ships and tankers is to work on a long-term contract with manufacturers, merchandisers, or ware housers hauling certain goods from port A to Port C by way of Port B, loading and unloading specific items of freight at each dock on a regular schedule and with a fixed type of cargo. This type of operation is known as freightliner service and the ships employed freightliners. Ocean liners were socalled because they carried passengers on a regular route between established ports.

In contrast, the tramp freighter operates without a specific schedule, going whenever and wherever it is required to deliver its cargoes, often dictated ad hoc by what's available at which port. …

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