George Booth (70) has battled storms and dictatorships, lived with his young family on ships sailing the world, and slept on Mt Tongariro as it erupted.
The latter adventure occurred in 2012 when George and his tramping companion, Anthony Wright, decided to show a French visitor some New Zealand sights.
Tongariro volcanic activity warnings were increasing from level two to three, but the two friends weren’t fazed.
“We thought, ‘oh well, it’s not too bad’.”
However, the weather was bad that August day and after viewing the Emerald Lakes, the trio returned to the mountain’s western side to sleep – Anthony and the tourist in a hut and George outside under the eaves.
About 11.50 p.m., there was a massive shake and Anthony emerged to see if George had felt it, then both went back to sleep. They hadn’t heard any explosion.
The next morning, they saw men approaching and, thinking they must be keen hikers, prepared to brew them coffee. However, the men had arrived to rescue the trio from the mountain’s first volcanic eruption in 115 years!
George offered them breakfast.
Once the rescuers returned the trampers safely to civilisation, they were interviewed for television, during which George enthused that an eruption would have been an exciting way to die.
Driving north, he saw volcanic dust 5 to 10 cm deep. The eruption had destroyed a hut on Tongariro’s northern slopes.
If we had of been in that, we would have died.”
George is Zimbabwean and grew up in Zambia. He attended a South African nautical college then worked for Safmarine for 10 years, qualifying as a master mariner in 1978.
The company’s 50 vessels included seven tankers, three super-tankers, passenger, bulk carrier and container ships, and refrigerated ships carrying cooled and frozen cargo.
They transported various goods, including in the South African off-season taking potatoes from Duluth in Minnesota, USA, to Algeria, then sailing to France to pick up apples for Iraq.
“You go all over the place,” George says.
Safmarine owned two of the world’s largest salvage tugs. Whether working on a normal or salvage ship, rescuing people at sea was commonplace, as were storms.
“We had our fair share of those, we had our fair share of scary moments.”
Memorable moments also occurred when their tug towed an exploratory oil rig from Port Arthur in Texas, USA, to the Strait of Magellan in South America.
This trip took two-and-a-half months as gales blew them backwards during horrendous storms.
To best utilise voyage time, the US employees worked on their rig and had to endure reheated frozen meals, while the tug’s crew enjoyed the luxury of chef-cooked food.
In the evenings, the tug crew would drop back 1.5 km in an inflatable dinghy and bring two rig workers aboard for a decent meal and alcohol, which wasn’t available on the US vessel.
“Unfortunately some of them would get absolutely plastered.”
About 10 p.m., the dinghy would deliver the drunk sailors back to their rig. It didn’t have alcohol but did boast an ice-cream machine.
“So, in return, we had the most delightful, delicious ice-cream.”
A change in direction
In 1976, when George’s ship was in Japan, a US missionary asked to leave Good News Bibles on board. George read it in four weeks and the book was so impactful that, via postal letters, he and his wife, Carolyn, reassessed their outlook.
We realised that life was a whole lot more than trying to be wealthy.”
Combining a sea career and marriage had proven difficult, particularly once their daughter Shirley was born in 1977. George intended to give up the waves for a land job, however the young family all went to sea instead.
The Booths worked as unpaid volunteers for the non-profit Christian organisation, Operation Mobilization (OM), continuously from January 1979 to August 1989.
They served on the ships Doulos and Logos II, which carried novels, Bibles, educational, general interest and children’s books to countries where often people were learning to read but didn’t have enough books.
The vessels visited Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and the later Logos Hope also sailed to Central America, and the Middle and Far East.
George says the boats faced opposition, including from Latin American dictators and vested commercial and religious interests.
During Argentina’s military dictatorship, after struggling for permission to dock at Buenos Aires, the Doulos opened daily at 10 a.m. to find a 5 km-long queue of people wanting books.
“We had that port after port after port.”
George served as both Chief Officer and then Captain on the ships, which were staffed by many international volunteers. The Doulos usually had 340 people on board.
During the Booth family sea-faring years, son Rolfe was born in Colombia in 1980, and Philip in Spain in 1983. However, as the children grew older, Carolyn and George realised they needed more stability.
In 1989, they migrated to Auckland, where George continued volunteering for OM and still does to this day. He ran its New Zealand office until the end of 2008, occasionally filling in as ship’s Captain in the 1990s, and now develops courses for its maritime training school.
The septuagenarian still trains others, even getting up for 3 a.m. meetings.
Asked about his approach to life, George says joy in Christ is important to him.
You meet Christians who seem to be baptised in lemon juice, they’re so sour!
“But, Christ brings joy.”
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