Bar brawl in Bahia Blanca
Blow by blow - for the records

Every family history is unique and the brutal bar brawl detailed in this seaman’s story came after a month of fierce Atlantic gales that drove Tyne-based cargo boats 100s of miles off-course, flying the signal “Not under command” because “we could just not steer”… They were heading for the Eastern seaboard of the USA, but finished up in Bahia Blanca, the first peaceful haven for our author’s ship in 45 days. The port, known as “The Gateway to Patagonia” was about to have its own “Perfect Storm”…

by Bob HarrisonAS80420248 minute read

Bahia Blanca is in Argentina. What a place and how lucky we were that the dockworkers decided to call a strike. In Argentina, everything was state-owned in 1958. The dockworkers went on strike so everyone else did too. So our cargo boat was trapped in port and, as its radio officer, so was I.  We were there for about a month and the only ship that managed to get away was a German twin-screw vessel that did not need tugs to get off the quay.

There were several other vessels stranded in port and a great camaraderie was all about the place. I hardly ever ate onboard. The morning would be spent poking about catching up with corrections – the bane of an R/O’s life.

Come noon it was my habit to disappear ashore to a local cantina just outside the dock gate and tuck into a “bife de lomo completo con heuvos y patatas fritas” – along with a bottle of the local vino tinto.

Sometimes I had company; sometimes I managed to meet up with one of the other R/Os later on. But, whatever, I never managed to make it back aboard that same day. I would sit for a good while over my meal and then wander down the road to another cantina for a beer or two.

Free plates of local gambas

One never seemed to get too drunk – there were always things to eat. All bars automatically put a soup plate of large prawns (gambas) on the table as soon as you ordered a beer and these were renewed regularly.  They were caught locally and cost next to nothing. My lunch of steak and wine cost around 2/6d (around 12 pence)!

The other choice for the languid days was to catch the bus up the road to the Bahia Blanca town, but one had to be a bit canny getting back.  There was a rush hour and unless you had good elbows and no manners there you stayed until later.  The night usually ended in the local nightclub to watch Paula who could do quite amazing things with various parts of her body.

Then back to the ship to repeat the whole thing the next day. The second local cantina was the scene of one of the most amazing bar brawls I have seen. It happened on a day that everyone from the ships had decided was to be a “day off”.

These days seem to happen on ships and occasionally seem to happen to all ships at the same time. So the bar was quite full of all nationalities and the beer was flowing. A perfect storm was forming…Bar brawl family history coming up.

Bit of slap and tickle

About halfway up the wall in one corner they had a square balcony platform. An attractive girl was stationed on the balcony to play record requests. Or, just what she fancied. Unfortunately, what she fancied most was a bit of slap and tickle in the many intervals…

This particular afternoon there were two hombres involved. One would give her the wink and she would manufacture an interval and return a few minutes later dabbing at the make-up. Then the other guy would become interested and the same procedure would follow.

Of course, the inevitable happened and through an alcoholic haze, the signal winks coincided. Both hombres retired behind the cantina with spectacular results.

A bar brawl kicks off…

Round one – Brief fisticuffs
A fight ensued between the hombre rivals, but this was quickly suppressed by amigos on both sides. That, however, was not to be the end of it. A bar brawl is about to be added to my family history.

Round two – DJ senorita’s treachery
As the day progressed and the beer flowed, the two aggrieved hombres rallied. In fact, in a way, they had joined forces. They were equally aggrieved at the senorita’s behaviour – nay treachery! Soon, Spanish comments were directed to the stage. Then came the derogations…

Round three – Pump the bilges
Now, the two-timing senorita was right in the line of fire of insults from both hombres and their supporters. Finally, the nail in the coffin. “Puta!”

A hush descended on the cantina. Fists, bottles and glasses were in suspended animation. Several faces disappeared into beer glasses and other men decided too much had gone on and it was necessary to ‘pump the bilges’.

Round four – All hell from the balcony.
Quite what was being said was not clear, but the general meaning was understood by all. Especially when a 78-rpm gramophone record was launched like a spinning frisbee and headed into the crowd below. Do you remember 78s?  They could decapitate a drunk if one landed in the right (erm, wrong) place.

Round five – Risking life and limb
Now was definitely the time to take cover. The 78-rpm records were coming thick and fast, as the DJ senorita worked her way through the cantina’s library.  Tables were put on their sides to provide cover.  Those 78s that survived impact – surprisingly, many did – were hurled back to the balcony. The launching punter risked life and limb in the process. The air filled with whirling missiles.

Cantina’s record library fully weaponised

Opening salvo: Eve Boswell’s Pickin’ A Chicken With You on Parlophone skimmed over the contestants, followed by She’s My Baby by Tennessee Ernie Ford on Capitol Records. 

Then, flying across the cantina in quick succession came Got A Head Like A Rock by Josh White and Rumble Boogie by Roy Vaughan’s Boogie Trio, both on the Jazz Parade label.

Another salvo included Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra’s I Get A Kick Out Of You on Capitol Records. Then, music aficionados noted new platters flying into the crowd. These included Things Got Worse and County Jail Special recorded by Champion Jack Dupree.

A salvo of Argentinean tango band 78rpm records was launched from the balcony. These included a rare recording of La Yumba by Orquesta Osvaldo Pugliese – an indication shellac ammunition was running low at this stage.

Round six – Flying platters of prawns
Bottles, records and fists, as weapons, gave way to platters of prawns flying through the air. Followed by chairs and anything else detachable. Crewmen from the many nations were now in newfound alliances and slugged it out mainly with fists and chairs. It was getting hairy with groaning victims in recovery mode.

Round seven – Enter the cavalry.
My party decided to make for the door in an honourable retreat and started a move to do so. Suddenly the doors burst open and our chance was gone. Someone had called the police. Without warning, enormous horses complete with riders burst through into the cantina, long batons waving. They do not take any prisoners down in Bahia Blanca. 

Round eight – Western-style exit
When I last saw the DJ girl she was directing operations from on high…I did a spaghetti western exit from a window into the street. Later, the brawl survivors gathered in a bar up the road and spent an enjoyable session recounting, with increasing elaboration, the afternoon’s main event. A family history bar brawl confirmed by all of us…

The sequel – Sentry boxed
Some Dutch seamen returning to their ship in the early hours of the next day decided to comment on the police action. It was not until the shift change that they found the policeman on gate duty, still in his sentry box. It was horizontal, lying with the door down on the ground. Heavy things them! 

The author has only a vague recollection of the name of his ship in Bahia Blanca. It was one of the so-called “Greyhounds of the North” cargo ships owned by Chapman and Willans of Tyneside, England. This firm of ship-owners had a reputation for “running a tight ship”. Tyne folklore suggests every “Greyhound” in the fleet was painted grey to save on paint costs. All the ships included in the fleet had names ending in “ton” so it is assumed that this was the company naming convention. Their crews had to learn how to steam into the River Tyne backwards and reverse onto the berth. This was to avoid paying for a tug on the way out.          

Ships’ radio was used for the safe navigation of vessels and for making distress calls in emergencies. It enables communication with coast stations, port/harbour authorities and with other vessels. On many of the author’s ships, there was only Morse code signalling and Aldis lamps for shore and nearby shipping. Chief navigation aid was the sextant invented in 1731.

Watch video: Bahia Blanca – Gateway to Patagonia

Another maritime family history story with a twist

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