Tales of an accidental life (2)

At sea at last

Copyright © 2019 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

The continued story of my experiences as a navigating cadet in the British Merchant Navy.

My first ship, the M.V. Port Chalmers sailed from Barcelona leaving my first (and to date only) experience of Spain behind.  It was, together with its sister ship, the Port Caroline, the world’s largest conventional freezer (reefer) cargo ship and possibly the last built.  By then, the early 1970s, containerisation had already taken hold and freezer cargoes had generally transferred to container ships. 

My employers, the Cunard Steamship Company was an amalgam of subsidiaries and joint ventures bought together as the shipping industry consolidated.  At that time, the QE2 was it’s only surviving passenger/cruise ship and cadets tended to be kept away from it as the regulators (The Board of Trade I believe) would not allow sea time on cruise ships to count toward the qualifying period necessary to become a certified officer.  The Chalmers and Caroline were the last two ships built for one of these subsidiaries, Port Line which itself was created by a merger of shipping lines in 1914 (the oldest of which had a history back to 1800).  The line mainly transported dry goods out from the U.K. and Europe to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and fruit and frozen meat back (Port Line’s vessels were named after ports in those countries).  The two vessels, built in 1968 at the Linthouse Shipyard on the Clyde at Govan, Glasgow were approximately 12500 tons in size.  In addition to their cargo capacity, they were also built with accommodation for twelve passengers each including a separate passenger’s bar and mess, although by the early seventies these facilities were rarely required.  The trade of the conventional Port Line ships was being strangled by the modern world with the growth of air travel for passengers and containers for cargo.  Another part-Cunard joint venture, Associated Container Transport (A.C.T.) took over much of the meat trade, which itself reduced substantially when Britain joined the European Common Market (later the European Union), but more of that in a later post. 

For anyone interested to learn more about Port Line and it’s ships, the following website is a useful reference, particularly with regard to the companies wartime history.


I was accompanied by another first trip navigation cadet on this trip, who had joined us in Barcelona.  I will refer to him as Fred, plus a cadet at the end of training who I believe was awaiting the results of his examinations before becoming a third officer (third mate).  There were no engineering cadets with us; their training scheme involved a longer college period and less sea time.  Fred and I were each given our own double ensuite cabins.  This was not as impressive as it sounds, although the rooms themselves were large, the beds consisted of small uncomfortable bunks, one above the other.  Cadets used the officer’s mess and were allowed into the officer’s bar.  The Chalmers also had separate crew and petty officers bars, although the petty officers tended to use the crew bar.  The crew was comprised of British seamen which was very rare in the wider Cunard fleet because of wage costs.  But again, more of that later.

The two junior cadets were put to work.  While the vessel was ‘deep sea’ rather than following a coast or in port our work consisted of manual deck work, painting, cleaning etc.  In addition, we had to complete attachments to the engine room.  Going in and out of port we were tasked to assist with the tying up of the ship, fore or aft (front or back), the anchoring or assisting on the bridge.  We also had to complete a certain number of ‘bridge watches’ (with the officer of the watch while we were still junior).  Each cadet was issued with a work book outlining a number of tasks we had to complete successfully and get signed by a supervising officer.  These books were to be submitted at the end of our training as part of the qualification procedure.  A period of eight hours a week study time for us to work at our college correspondence courses was ‘recommended’ for cadets, subject to work requirements.  Whether or not we got the time allocated depended on the attitude of our immediate line manager, the first officer (not that I’m complaining, I probably wouldn’t have used the time constructively anyway).

 This was a period when changes in technology were not the only eruption in the tradition way of doing things.  The cadets training scheme was the only way to become a certified deck officer of foreign going vessels in the British Merchant Navy.  However, concurrent to attaining that certification cadets were to also take an Ordinary National Certificate or Diploma which were academically recognised qualifications.  This was supposed to introduce a more professional standing to the occupation.  However, at the same time many of the old seafarers continued to treat the cadets as apprentices with the same levels of distain and bullying as existed in every apprenticeship scheme in every industry up to that time (I can do it to you because people used to do it to me when I was in your position).  In addition, there were no female cadets and therefore no female officers or captains.  The only women on the ships were the partners of officers who were often allowed to travel with their husbands.  Obviously this option was severely limited; few people with their own careers, and or caring responsibilities could just drop everything for a few months to wander the world.  I remember my amazement when rumours of the opening up of cadetships to females first got out, although I believe that I left the industry at about the same time as the first women were recruited (bear in mind when I went to school boys were not allowed to do cookery and girls couldn’t do woodwork or metalwork).  With hindsight, I regret that the shift towards equality came so late; I certainly would have benefited from a wider education in household management, although given my lack of practical ability (as this blog will demonstrate in due course) it probably wouldn’t have done me much good.

Anyway, enough digression, as said, the ship left Barcelona and sailed through the Mediterranean towards the straits of Gibraltar.  I had never been to sea before and was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t suffer sea sickness.  ‘How do people feel sick in this gentle swaying?’ I thought to myself.  Then we entered the Atlantic Ocean!  I did feel slightly nauseous, being flung left and right as I walked through the ship’s corridors, but nothing unbearable.  Meal time were amusing; I discovered why there were wedges at the table ends, while having to suddenly reach out to grab one’s beer during bar sessions proved a perfect exercise for honing my reactions.  Sporting activities on board were limited, especially in bad weather but table tennis and darts were often played.  In fact I found that the rolling of the ship was a great help in equalising my performance to those of people with more skill.  It was the lack of sleep that caused my biggest problem.  I have always been a light sleeper and the sometimes violent rolling of the vessel, despite the amount of alcohol I had usually drunk meant I never really nodded off.  In fact, I got into the habit of packing my bunk with my bulky lifejacket and any other spare packing I could find in order to wedge me in.

I recall being on the bridge one day as we sailed past Ascension Island, a tiny British possession of about 800 inhabitants in the Atlantic, 700 miles from its nearest neighbour, St Helena, another British possession and (slightly) larger than Ascension, whose claim to fame was as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile until his death.

After a few days, the ship arrived off Cape Town, South Africa.  We did not tie up in port but waited out for a launch which bought mail from the shore.  I remember looking over the bridge wing (a narrow walkway extending outward from both sides of a pilothouse to the full width of a ship or slightly beyond, to allow bridge personnel a full view to aid in the manoeuvring of the ship, Wikipedia) to see a seal swimming on its back and looking up at us.  A sight I have never forgotten.

Image by M W from Pixabay


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