Tales of an accidental life? (6)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

New Zealand – The Bay of Islands

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

The Port Chalmers had now unloaded its cargo of boxed goods (plus a few cars, secured by chains in the cargo holds and a couple of containers loaded onto the decks) in Australia and carried on to The Bay of Islands on the north island of New Zealand.  I cannot remember the exact time but my birthday would have taken place around this time.  Although I have not made a big deal of birthdays since about the age of twelve, viewing them pretty much as just another day I’m sure it would have been celebrated in style, purely because any excuse for a party was celebrated.  It was about this time that the profits of the officer’s bar (which, as I have previously stated was run by the officer’s themselves as a club) had risen so much due to the Australian experiences that we dropped all alcohol prices by fifty percent.  Bear in mind that alcohol and cigarettes were already ridiculously cheap.  Buying a round of drinks was no problem even for me on the first year apprentice wages and if a colleague ran out of cigarettes lending them a pack of two hundred was the normal procedure.  The only fly in the ointment was if someone asked for a soft drink, or a tonic with their gin, a few of those really used to hurt the pocket.

One lasting effect of my raucous social life at this time was an addiction to certain Dean Martin songs.  Although we were traveling the world we were still cocooned in a very British environment, in fact on the Port Chambers it was mainly a Geordie (north-east English centred on Newcastle Upon Tyne) society, often revolving around alcohol.  This view of Geordies was reinforced many years later when I went to a show from an upcoming young American folk singer touring as a support act to Martha Wainwright in London, who told the audience how shocked she was when performing at Gateshead (a town next to Newcastle) because many of the female members of the audience were already drunk when the show started at 7 P.M. 

On the ship, the senior electrician, known as ‘the sparky’ on merchant ships although the term is more generally used to refer to the radio officer in other organisations, was accompanied by his wife.  The couple had completed many trips together on different ships.  She had a cassette tape of Dean Martin Country and Western hits which she insisted we play continually on the bar’s sound system, usually with a collection of drunken revellers singing along (before karaoke became acceptable).  ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’ was the favourite, so as a result of continually having these songs pounding away in my head, I became classically conditioned to enjoy hearing them, much like a Pavlov’s dog affect.  One thing about leaving home in my late teens and being thrown into such a diverse mix of ages was that my music tastes which were largely of the Led Zepplin and Moody Blues style, opened up to a wider appreciation.  The same could be said with regard to films and books.  Video’s and satellite television were not yet available, let alone kindle’s or internet streaming (I was still impressed by colour T.V.).  For non-alcoholic entertainment, we used to set up old fashion projectors in the bar and show reel to reel films on a screen.  Film nights were extremely popular and attended by all who weren’t working, although the officers and the crew did not watch the films together.  The first film I ever saw on the Port Chalmers was ‘Midnight Cowboy’ starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.  It was common to swap films with other ships when you were in port.  The Port Chambers also had a small library, of mainly paperbacks that people left behind when they left the ship.  I read a number of books I don’t think I would have considered otherwise, including a number of western genre paperbacks by Louis L’amour.

The Bay of Islands is just that, a jagged shaped bay with a number of inlets and 144 islands at the eastern top of the north island.  It contains a number of small towns and villages and is a major fishing and tourist centre.  The ship moored in Opua, a geographically large settlement but with a population of only a few hundred people during the night.  All was in darkness except for the immediate area of the quay, which just fitted the ships length. 

I was woken a few hours later with the sun streaming through my cabin’s port hole and a lot of noise from outside.  I looked out to see a number of cars parked at the beach next to the quay and school children being seen off by their parents into a flotilla of small boats which conveyed them down the bay to the school.  Again, like the view of Sydney the first sights of the bay have remained in my memory, only this time the sights were natural rather than man made.


Freezer ship loading lamb at Opua

The cargo we loaded in New Zealand was lamb destined for the U.K.  The lamb was transported to the wharf in rail wagons, manually loaded into hoisting nets and loaded into the ship’s holds using the ships own cranes and derricks.  The dockers (also known as stevedores) were a mixture of white and Maori New Zealanders.  The lamb had to be loaded in strict alternative layers to allow for air circulation in the freezer holds.  Of course, today the cargo would arrive already packed and locked into temperature controlled containers. 

Although many of the old hands rarely left the ship when in port, I was determined to see as much of the world as I could whenever the opportunity presented itself, often at the cost of sleep time.  The first day in Opua there was no cargo work (it may have been a Sunday) and the captain arranged for a group of us, including the wives on board and the two cadets to lower one of the ship’s lifeboats and travel down the bay to one of the larger settlements, I believe it was the town of Russell.  There, we tied the boat up outside a pub and went in for a drink.  One of the junior engineers on board the Port Chambers was a young New Zealander and he accompanied us on this trip.  This pub introduced another new milestone in my life, my first experience of being served beer in jugs rather than pints or half pints.  We sat round two or three tables, joined by the pub’s owner and began our afternoon’s recreation.  The problem was that people kept topping up the glasses before they were empty and refilled jugs of beer kept appearing on the tables.  It meant that I had absolutely no idea how much I was drinking.  Sometime later, and considerably more cheerful, we returned to the Port Chalmers in our lifeboat.

In addition to the Port Chalmers I can recall a sailing vessel associated with the protests against the French nuclear tests at the Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia being tied up at Opua.  These protests resulted in the foundation of the environmental protection group, ‘Greenpeace’ and the sinking of ‘Rainbow Warrior’ a Greenpeace vessel by the French Secret Service some twelve years later which led to the death of a crew member.  One evening an American couple and their children who had given up their routine lives in the states to travel the world visited the Chalmers and in return, hosted us on the sailing vessel the following evening.  I cannot recall the vessels name but it may have been the Fri or the Spirit of Peace, both of which were part of a protesting flotilla intercepted by the French within their testing area in June 1973.

The below link to radio New Zealand gives more information on the incident;


Having been in a number of serious incidents through life I now have to describe what is possibly the most traumatic to date; my attempts at horse riding.  I have already described my lack of finesse and practical ability, the incident I am about to describe demonstrates that this handicap extends to dealing with horses.  I had the afternoon off from cargo watch one day so a group of us (me, the deck boy and the younger seamen and stewards from the crew) took the lifeboat to an island the centre of which was a tall hill/low mountain.  A riding school run by a Maori woman and her family was situated at the foot of the hill.  I had never ridden (or been near a horse before).  My father told me that he used to ride regularly as a boy and I know that his grandfather was a stable master on large English country estates; on my mother’s side, her cousin was a race horse trainer but I can categorically confirm that such skills are not hereditary.  Everyone was allocated a horse.  I took mine, and after I told anyone who would listen that I had never ridden before I was given a short introduction.  This consisted of ‘lean back, pull back on the reins and say wow’ when I wanted to stop’ and ‘Lean forward, say ‘gee up’ and kick your heels in’ when I wanted to go forward.  No one wore riding helmets or other equipment.  Off we went up the hill towards the sunshine at a brisk pace.  I was towards the back but my horse happily followed his comrades.   We trotted away a little too fast for my liking but I soon realised that my wishes were irrelevant.  My horse steadily fell to the back of the cohort, going slower and slower till we reached the top of the hill and lost sight of the others galloping away.  The horse then stopped.  He refused to move.  I tapped him with my heels and said ‘gee up’ he took no notice.  He began to eat grass.

We remained like that for a few moments, the horse totally ignoring me until eventually I dismounted.  I looked at him, he continued to ignore me.  I remounted and attempted to walk him on.  He took no notice.  I dismounted again.  I tried speaking to him.  I asked nicely, I raised my voice and finally I swore at him, all to no avail.  I found a stick on the ground, if I hit him with it would it cause an injury?  I didn’t want to hurt the animal (although my concern for his welfare was becoming less important to me the more arrogant the grin on his face appeared).  I tapped him very lightly on the rear, I didn’t want him running away altogether.  He ignored it.  I sat on a rock to consider my next move, I didn’t want to walk down the hill and abandon the horse.  I stood up again, took hold of the reins and pulled the horse forward; he began to walk so I tried jumping on while he was still moving.  He stopped immediately and began eating grass again.  Finally, after more cursing and praying I gave up all together and sat on the rock to wait.

After about half an hour or so, the owner of the stables appeared coming up the trail.  I explained to her that the horse had just decided to stop and I couldn’t do anything about it.  She said something to the effect that he was renowned for being awkward and she should have realised and given me a livelier horse.  She took me and told me to ride hers down the hill.  I climbed on and my new mount was off immediately.  Galloping down the hill.  I now had the opposite problem.  From a horse that wouldn’t move I was now riding one that was too fast for me.  I leaned back calling ‘wow’ but the horse took absolutely no notice.  It galloped down the slope in about five minutes; my body bouncing up and down like a novice in the saddle (which I was).

So I survived that adventure.  However, being a slow learner I returned with my comrades to the stables the following day.  The stable staff gave me a better behaved horse which ran with the rest of his herd (again, my wishes as to pace were irrelevant).  I finally finished the session very sore; my riding technique had not improved in the twenty four hour interlude, but otherwise in one piece.  That was my last riding experience for approximately twelve years when I was tricked into a much less arduous event (but that’s another story).

I believe we spent almost a week in Opua.  It is a place I would like to revisit one day.

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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