Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved
Napier and the Panama Canal
The continuing story of my experiences as a navigating cadet in the British Merchant Navy.
The next port of call for the Port Chalmers was the New Zealand North Island town of Napier in Hawke’s Bay where the remainder of the frozen lamb cargo was loaded. The ship was in port for ten days, a period unheard of in this modern age of automation, containerisation and quick turn rounds but quite common for traditional ships.
The ship docked some distance from the town centre, I would estimate slightly over a mile so taxis were the main form of transport in and out for most of the ship’s company. However, as I was rapidly spending my apprentice level wages I generally walked in unless sharing a taxi with someone else. I didn’t wander the world wearing rose tinted glasses even at the age of eighteen however I particularly remember the friendliness of the New Zealand people. One evening I was walking down the coast road when a taxi driver who had been called to the ship stopped on his way back into town and gave me a free lift as his fare had not materialised.
I remember Napier as a nice town, not large, nice and tidy but not panoramically scenic like the Bay of Islands. I went to a pub called the leopard Inn, (one of only two or so at that time I believe) owned by Lion Breweries. I was particularly impressed that it had a bar and pool table ground floor (first floor in the U.S.) with a night club type lay out on the next level. (I was easily impressed in those days). You may have got the impression that I was obsessed by alcohol, but I did have another craze which Napier catered for, hamburgers. I had always had a taste for the traditional American fast foods of hot dogs and hamburgers, mainly because of rarity value. Except on special trips, the only version of a hamburger available in my home area in those days was from a Wimpey Bar. Wimpey were supposed to be the British answer to Macdonald’s but in reality most of their outlets were laid out more like old fashioned waiter service tea rooms with uniforms and a bit more colour added. However, Napier had a takeaway burger bar that served every version I could imagine, Cheese burgers, chilli burgers, bacon burgers, steak burgers and more. I ate there most evenings.
Nothing particularly eventful happened to me in Napier. I went to the cinema one evening and saw a film called the Adventures of Barry Mckenzie based on a comic strip written by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries who went on to develop one of the characters he played as Dame Edna Everage and achieving international success. The plot of the film was about a young Australian (Barry Mckenzie) visiting London and consisted of a running joke at the expense of the ‘Poms’. Although dated now the film was very funny and the audience burst into hysterics at every joke at the expense of the British. I kept quiet and hoped no one noticed my accent.
In addition to the cargo, two passengers joined the ship for the voyage back to the U.K. a retired vicar and his wife, taking a leisurely route for a visit home after many years in New Zealand. The passenger accommodation had to be opened for them and staffed, including the dining room and bar. After the first day they asked the captain if they could join the officers for meals and bar drinks rather than sit alone. This was readily agreed to. A side effect of this was that I had to unpack my brand new white uniform mess jacket, black bow tie and cummerbund which we were instructed to wear for evening dinner every day the passengers were on board. It was quite amusing that the first time these two unassuming people entered the mess for dinner, the captain made us all stand up. They were casually dressed and were a little embarrassed by the scene, but as the captain told them, they had paid for this formality in their fare and it was his job to make sure it was delivered. They later told us that they weren’t even sure they would be fed on board (the Chalmers being primarily a cargo rather than a passenger or cruise ship) and had loaded a tea chest with tea bags and cans of baked beans. At least my formal clothing got a few weeks use as I never had need of it again.
Fully laden, we sailed from Napier across the Pacific on our return trip to the U.K. and home. That year (1973) was a year of industrial and economic instability in Britain which continued into 1974. The Conservative government under the Prime Minister Edward Heath was having to contend with rampant inflation and threats of industrial action from the National Union of Mineworkers (who eventually bought the government down). These problems, partly created by the oil crisis initiated by an oil embargo by OPEC, the oil producing states in response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, led to the imposition of a three day working week to conserve power. This went on from about mid-December 1973, with a break over Christmas, followed by a resumption through January 1974. I was amazed when I finally got home to find that the whole country was not in a state of absolute collapse. I got my information about the events back home from Australian and New Zealand newspapers and radio and was still young and naive enough to believe what I read without allowing for sensationalism. I recall sitting in the sun with a cool can of beer by the ship’s swimming pool (which I had recently painted) reading an old (by a few days) newspaper describing Britain in terms of doom and disaster.
The trip home was fairly uneventful; you could cross the pacific without even seeing the lights of another ship for days. We sailed past the Hawaiian Islands in the distance and I remember feeling a bit disappointed. Looking at the nearest island through binoculars on the bridge wing, I expected the island I saw to look much more tropical and exotic then it did. Having gone over the international date line, the clocks continued to be altered daily.
Socially, life continued to revolve around the ship’s bars. Christmas fell during this period and we must have celebrated it although I cannot remember anything special. The cadets work revolved between deck work and bridge watches. A few days before we reached Panama I was on the 12 to midday watch with the second mate on the bridge when he told me to go to the fog locker and collect a long wait. Even though I was slow to catch on with many things, I was well aware by then that there was no ‘fog locker’ on the Port Chalmers and that I was the object of the sort of prank that used to be inflicted on apprentices in the work place. I tried to argue with the second mate but the poor man was so adamant that I gave in and went off for a walk round the ship just to humour him. My colleague, Fred was given a different task. He was instructed to visit the galley (kitchen) daily for about three days before we reached the Panama Canal to collect left over loaves of bread to be used for feeding the mules that pulled us through the canal. He was also sceptical but the senior officers insisted he do it. On arrival at the canal, he was told to bring his stale bread out on deck, ready to throw it to the mules.
The mules in question were large electrical locomotives which ran on tracks parallel to the canal and were attached by lines to the ships as they passed through. The ‘mules’ don’t pull the ship through the canal. The vessels progress using their own engines while the mules hold them steady and also serve as a brake, performing a similar function to tug boats guiding a ship into harbour. The journey through the canal is directed by a ‘pilot’ familiar with local conditions although the ship’s captain still retains command. In 1973 the canal zone (an area approximately five miles wide on either side of the canal) was under the jurisdiction of the United States and had been since Panama achieved its independence from Columbia in 1904 with U.S. support (supplied mainly to ensure that the Americans could control the canal as a strategic interest). In 1979 the canal zone was returned to Panama and in 1999 control of the canal itself was handed over.
The Panama canal
The Port Chalmers finally docked in Liverpool on Monday 31st December 1973. This was of vital importance to the owners, Cunard. Tuesday 1st January (the next day) was the day Britain joined the European Common Market (which developed into the European Union). As such, high new duties were placed on non-Common Market agricultural produce including New Zealand lamb. By docking the day before, the cargo of the Port Chalmers escaped these duties and Cunard were paid a substantial bonus as a result. It is rather ironic that 44 years later, while I sit and type this the U.K. is due to leave the European Union in 2 weeks’ time.
However, I had greater worries then the state of world trade and the British economy. As a non-driver I had to get myself home to Derby before the bank holiday started and everything shut down. I got a train from Liverpool to Crewe, where I found myself standing on a deserted platform in the cold fog, waiting for a connecting train to Derby with all my worldly belongings contained in two large suitcases beside me. In the short space of just over three months, I had literally been round the world.