THIS THOROUGHLY interesting and entertaining

little book is the story of a few weeks in the life of an American freighter, the S.S. Columbianna, an ungainly but serviceable vessel carrying, from South Carolina to the German port of Bremerhaven, a motley cargo consisting of "flatbed trailers, station wagons, a Lincoln Continental, a Toyota that ended up rather more compact than it started out, six buses, submachine guns, grenades, tractors, 'sensitive weapons' locked tight inside a container, two dozen M-60 tanks, thirty-six refrigerators, pumps, radar sets and 200 cases of bourbon whiskey." But it is not the cargo that concerns Christopher Buckley; his eye is on the ship and its men, all of whom emerge in his account as certifiable and memorable characters.

The Columbianna (its name, like those of the members of the crew, has been changed) made this particular journey in the late fall of 1979. It was yet another trip in a series of hundreds that began when the ship was launched 35 years before. The Columbianna had, by this point, seen better days:

"Her decks were covered with over two hundred layers of paint. By digging into them with a knife, a person could tell what colors had been laid on, all the way back to 1945. Great, lichenous flakes of smokestack carbon adhered to everything. The decks were cobwebbed with antennae wires that generations of crewmen had strung from the potholes up onto deck. By the time a new crewman had memorized where they all were, he had been garroted several times while walking the deck at night. Because of irreparably clogged drainpipes, there were areas in her superstructure that collected rainwater and spray. When she rolled more than ten degrees, someone having a quiet smoke could get sopped with warm brackish water."

She is "an old tramp steamer, ready, as one of the crew said, to take on any port in the world, but living on borrowed time." She is not a vessel for which any of those who sail her appear to have any deep or abiding affection. Many of them, in fact, have no affection for the sea or anything that sails it; many are lonely, desperate men--outcasts, really--who seem to have been sucked inexorably into a life at sea, against all their desires and tastes. That they hate it is understandable:

"Seafaring is a rough life that ages a man quickly. Though immeasurably improved since the old days, the illness and injury rate is still remarkable. Since the mid- 1950s, it has ranged from a high of ninty-one percent to a low of sixty-five percent among deep sea merchant seamen. By the end of the seventies, seven out of ten seamen became sick or were hurt on the job. The total V.D. rate, however, is less than one percent."

A fair amount of that injury is caused by violent encounters among crew members, often fueled by drug and/or drink. Though both narcotics and alcohol are forbidden, they are freely and widely available--and consumed. One crew member is described as having "enough grass . . . to keep a small high school stoned for a week," another as, in the watering places of Bremerhaven, "balancing beer (for bulk) and whiskey (for kick) until the desired level of toxicity had been reached, somewhere between Unconscious and Fatal." Add these substances to the close quarters in which the men live and the independent dispositions characteristic of seamen, and the ingredients for injury are all present. That every member of the crew survived the journey is, perhaps, miraculous.

The crew is, on the whole, a bunch of wild and crazy guys, but as portrayed by Buckley a far from unsympathetic group. The captain, who took to the sea a year before the Columbianna was launched, is a humorous, world-weary fellow who has learned to ride with the punches: "Human error, frailty, mental fatigue, idiocy, storms, corruption, illness, coffee stains on the bridge, union dues, theft, madness, collision, war, taxes, Iranian holy men--it was all part of the 'Whaddya gonna do?' It was his gestalt." A 31-year-old crewman named Higgin, "Born into a blue-blood, green money Kentucky family," is "the only man aboard--maybe the only Able- Bodied seaman in the world--who went ashore dressed in tweed jackets, ties, penny loafers, and blue and pink cotton button-down shirts." Of the 40 members of the crew, half are orphans:

"In this regard seamen have not changed much since Melville's day. Melville found a lot of orphans adrift. They made up one of his central themes. From Arrowhead, his Massachusetts farm, Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces.' In the book he had recently finished, Moby Dick, he had written, 'Our souls are like the children of those unwedded mothers who die in bearing them. The secret to our paternity lies in their graves, and we must there to learn it.' "

Buckley--now firmly back on land writing speeches for the vice president--has a nice ear for dialogue and a discriminating eye for anecdote, and into the bargain he is quite genuinely a witty writer. He's done his research carefully, with the result that he has come up with a great deal of fascinating, refreshingly useless information, ranging from an extended divagation on the naming of ships to an explanation of the difference between Able-Bodied and Ordinary seamen: "An AB is supposed to be competent to perform any task except engineering and navigation. An Ordinary is not required to climb rigging. The Coast Guard insists that an Ordinary have one year of sailing before he can sit for his AB examination."

Steaming to Bamboola (the story behind the title is amusing, and I don't propose to give it away) is not exactly a travel book, unless an armchair guide to the bars and brothels of Bremerhaven is what you have in mind, but with the best of that genre it has a common characteristic: it takes the reader into a new and unknown world, on a painless and vicarious voyage. It's a funny, high-spirited and immensely enjoyable book.