Tales of an accidental life? (5)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

Australia – Melbourne and Sydney

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

Our vessel, the Port Chalmers arrived in Melbourne the state capital of Victoria and berthed in a more central location than our previous harbour.  As the cadet, one of my jobs (like changing the clocks) was to raise the Red Ensign, which is the flag of the British Merchant Navy.  The flag was flown from a flag pole at the stern (back) of the vessel and my orders were to raise it by 8 a.m. and lower it by 8 p.m.

We docked in the late evening and it was my turn to raise the flag the following morning.  After breakfast, I went out onto the afterdeck with the flag which was stored in a locker on the bridge and clipped it to the lanyard (the rope used to secure the flag to the pole).  As I have stated earlier, I was totally unsuited to the role of a seaman.  The main reason being that I am totally impractical.  This is not false modesty or an exaggeration by any means.  I am of an age now where I can recognise and accept my limitations.  When I hear someone say, ‘it’s easy anyone can do it’, or ‘you’ll have no problem’ I cringe (my father, a very practical engineer used to despair of me).  I have a long history of manual work (polishing aircraft fuselages, loading and unloading meat lorries) and used to be very handy with a sledge hammer in my younger days, but anything that requires the slightest finesse and I am lost, as you will realise as you read further into this blog.  On this occasion, when I started to pull on the rope that would raise the flag, instead of going up it fell down into the dock.  I was distraught, if the first mate saw it my life wouldn’t be worth living.  The galley boy came out onto the deck at that time, I got hold of a boat hook (a hook on the end of a long wooden pole) and we attempted unsuccessfully to pull the flag out of the water. It was floating too far out.  One of the young ship stewards joined us, together with a deck boy (trainee seaman).  We managed to unhook the flagpole itself from its mounting on the deck and lower it down, enabling us to catch hold of the lanyard and haul the flag out of the water.  We then remounted the pole, I raised the (wet) flag correctly and the senior officers were none the wiser (I subsequently repaid my assistants in our common currency, beer).

The Red Ensign

When the Port Line ships were in large English speaking ports like Melbourne, every night was party night in the officer’s bar.  The deck cadets had to work cargo watches in port plus be on duty when the ship berthed and departed.  However, the Australian dockers, like the British, did not work nights so we tended to have our late evenings free.  A lot of locals used to visit the ships for the partying and on our arrival in Melbourne an invitation was sent out to the local nurses hostel inviting them to a party (I can’t recall them attending but apparently it was a fairly regular occurrence).  The invitation was made via a landline telephone which was plugged in to the phone system from the dock side (cell phones were the stuff of science fiction).  However, there were other frequent visitors to the ships for entertainment.  I can remember a woman driving me to her house in the suburbs for a party after I had finished my cargo watch one day which I thought was very decent of her as my colleagues had already arrived there earlier.  On route she told me off for not wearing my seat belt in the front passenger seat of her car which quite surprised me as apparently the Australian police were quite strict about seat belts whereas their wearing had not become compulsory in the U.K. yet.

Also while in Melbourne my line manager, the first mate was in a particularly good mood.  I know nothing about horses and horse racing (as you shall see when I describe my time in New Zealand in the next instalment) but while in port, he had placed a bet on a horse which won a race called the Melbourne Cup.  I since discovered that the Melbourne Cup is the richest race in the southern hemisphere.  The date of the race was Tuesday 7th November 1972 so we were still in Melbourne then.  The race was won by a horse called Piping Lane ridden by John Letts.

The Melbourne Cup

Following a few days in Melbourne the Port Chalmers continued its voyage round the Australian coast to Sydney.  We arrived at Sydney Harbour at midnight.  It would have been mid-November by now, well into the Australian summer.  For the berthing, I was on duty with the second mate and crew forward.  I walked out from the accommodation block onto the deck just as the ship was about to go under the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge.  As we went through, to my left was the famous Opera House all lit up (as was the bridge).  In addition all around us were small pleasure craft.  The night was warm and balmy.  It was like looking at the scene from a post card and fond memories return every time I see it on the T.V. or in a picture.

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge by night. Image by Patty Jansen from Pixabay 

(As I type this the latest news pictures I have seen show Sydney under the clouds of bush fire smoke which have already claimed a number of lives and destroyed many communities.  The latest count of animals killed stands at almost half a billion (BBC News 04/01/2020) with many species pushed close to extinction (The Guardian, 04/01/2020).  The smoke from the fires has caused skies in New Zealand, over one thousand miles from Sydney, to turn orange).

However back in 1972, nothing was occurring to my knowledge which compares with the current horrors.  In fact only two events spring to mind from my days in Sydney.  The first was that I discovered that there was an old fashioned ‘sit up and beg style bicycle on board.  I was tasked with taking orders for a Chinese takeaway meal from the officer’s bar, phoning them through to a local takeaway on the docks (once again, we were plugged into the local network via a cable trailed from the quayside) and cycling to collect them (home delivery was a rare event in those days).

The other event was going out for a meal in the city centre with three colleagues which I remember for two reasons, firstly it was the first (and only) time I have had oysters; luckily a colleague was on hand to demonstrate how to eat them properly and secondly, as the four of us were headed into town we stopped at a pub on the docks and one of us asked the bar maid for four pints of Fosters (an Australian beer), her reply was ‘Fosters, you’ll be f… lucky ducks’ laughing loudly.  She then served us before picking up a baseball bat from behind the bar which she used to bash a drunken man who had strayed in, over the head while coming out with a racial insult and dragging him out of the pub by his collar.  We all drank up quickly and left.

After a few days the ship finished unloading its cargo and sailed for New Zealand.

Coming next – I meet a horse and lose a battle of wills.

Author: Denis Scott

I live in the English East Midlands and now write light hearted fantasy stories under the name E. D. Robson although I may branch out to non-fiction (possibly semi-autobiographical) and other forms of fiction. I would like to say that I write full time but I actually spend most of my time either swimming at my local pool or watching television. I have always found that I need to work in fits and starts (catching myself by surprise and getting going before I can procrastinate) although I have found this non method to be fairly successful when people allow me to apply it.

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