Tales of an accidental life? (8)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

Ras to Jas

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

The procedure on returning home for leave after a sea trip was to ring the company’s Personnel office in London on your first full day at home.  The personnel officer would tell you that nothing was available at the moment and they would ring you in a week or so with details of your next ship.  You would try and sound disappointed and then relax at home, learning through experience that it would usually take several weeks before you heard anything more.  The fully qualified officers used to work one day off for every two days on, whereas working hours were much more flexible for the cadets.  

My next ship was the M.V. Lumen, a Moss Tanker.  Like Port Line, Moss Tankers were another subsidiary of the Cunard company, having been taken over in 1964.  By oil tanker standards, the Moss Tankers were considered small in comparison to the ‘super tankers’ of other companies (generally classified as over 75,000 tons), designed to carry crude oil from the major oil fields to refineries around the world.  In contrast, the Lumen was 24,950 tons and was used as a product carrier, carrying refined oil products from refineries to their markets.  The Lumen I sailed on was the fourth ship of that name. The first was abandoned after a fire in 1924, the second was sunk in 1942 by a German U-boat submarine and the third was scrapped in 1962.  The fourth vessel was launched in 1971 so was still modern and fairly cutting edge when I sailed on her in 1974.

On the 23rd February 1974, I travelled down to London by train with my large suit cases, and unlike my first trip to sea, this time I took taxis everywhere and claimed the fares back on my expenses (I was even a generous tipper).  My first stop was the Cunard office at Marble Arch where I collected my joining instructions and airline ticket.  As the nearest city to my home was Derby in the English Midlands, the London centric staff at the office assumed that I must have to trek across some thousands of miles of artic waste in order to reach London.  This meant that they always booked me into the Cunard International Hotel (now a Novetel) in Hammersmith, West London for a night, which suited me fine, although the train journey was only two hours.  The following morning I took a taxi from the hotel to Heathrow Airport and on to a British Airways flight (I believe it was a Boeing 707, most of the flights I made were).  This always created an issue for me, as I have what I consider to be a perfectly rational fear of heights.  My family have always found this strange; my father was an aircraft engineer for his entire adult life, with many years spent as a flight engineer.  As a teenager I was a member of the air cadets (like boy scouts attached to the Royal Air Force) and they often took us gliding in open top gliders.  Despite being terrified I used to go for two reasons, firstly, because my friends did and secondly because it was a new experience for me and in those days I believed that I should experience as many adventures as possible.  Luckily as I have aged I have got over this naive outlook and have learnt to avoid anything which makes me feel uncomfortable.  My dislike of gliders was not helped when I was strapped in to the rear seat of one (it was called a Mark 3 I believe) waiting for the pilot.  When he arrived he asked if I enjoyed gliding.  I replied that I felt much safer with a roof on my planes and the sound of an engine.  He replied that so did he! 

As we will see, most of my journeys to and from ships involved flying.  I coped with this using a form of self-medication.  Large quantities of alcohol coupled with chain smoking saw me through.  A situation which could not exist today given smoking bans and controls on drunkenness on airlines.  On the flight I met a new colleague, whom I will refer to as Bob.  Bob was a Welsh cadet who had completed all his exams to become a third officer.  He was awaiting the results and if he had passed, just needed some extra sea time to qualify.  In the early to mid-nineteen seventies there was a large skills shortage of officers at sea, particularly qualified deck officers, so if Bob passed he would be immediately promoted to third mate on the Lumen and the current third mate would be allowed to go home on leave.

We landed at Jeddah Airport, produced our passports with visa stamps, plus our seaman’s books (seaman books were of a similar format to passports and were generally accepted in the same way as passports in most countries).  However there seemed to be some sort of a problem and we were not allowed through immigration.  We were taken to a side room and sat down to wait, unsure of what the problem was.  Then it was explained.  In order to get our visa’s to enter the country we had been instructed to produce ‘certificates of religion’ to prove our religion.  I had very little religious history post nine years old.  My father was nominally Church of England and my mother was a Roman Catholic.  I was baptised a Catholic in the country of my birth, Lebanon but since then, had attended Baptist Sunday School as a child (not much to do in small Derbyshire villages), a Church of England Primary School for a short while and the very occasional Catholic service in the next village. 

When I heard of the requirement for this certificate I went with my mother to see the elderly Irish priest at the nearest Catholic church to where we were then living and asked for a certificate.  He sat us down, gave me a bit of a contemptuous look and asked if I regularly practised my religion.  I told him no (having never been confirmed or done first communion).  He then inspected my baptism certificate and said, ‘who’s this Monseigneur … then, some sort of priest?’  My mother replied that he was the pope’s representative to Lebanon at the time of my baptism.  This changed the priest’s attitude.  He immediately cheered up, told me it was no problem and wrote out a declaration on the Churches headed note paper that I was a Roman Catholic.  He then signed and date stamped it. 

Unfortunately Bob was a Congregationalist from a small chapel in Wales.  His pastor had signed a similar declaration for him but had no official stamp or paper.  The Saudi authorities at the airport at that time had never heard of the Congregationalists but certain groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses and Scientologists were banned.  This was what was causing the delay.  After a few questions we were allowed into the country.

The company’s agent in Jeddah was waiting for us and we were driven to the docks to join the ship.  The Lumen never tied up ‘alongside’ in Jeddah.  It used to anchor out in the harbour and a flexible floating pipeline was winched up and connected to the ship’s cargo pipeline system.  We were taken out to the ship by a small taxi boat.  All the time we spent in there two armed guards were stationed on the vessel.  We were introduced to our line manager, the first mate and the other senior officers.  There were also two of the younger officer’s wives on board. 

The crew of most of the cargo ships apart from Port Line in the Cunard fleet were south Asian, Indian or Bangladeshi.  They were split between engine room and deck crew.  Each of the two groups had a ‘Serang’ who was the bosun or foreman of the crew, plus a ‘Tindal’ who was a quartermaster or storekeeper.  In addition there were the ‘Secunnys’ who acted as look outs on the bridge and steersman when required.  The reason for foreign crews were twofold; firstly, Brocklebanks, one of the constituent parts of Cunard (actually the company had been known as Cunard-Brocklebank at one stage) had been in existence since 1786 and associated with Cunard since 1912.  The line had inherited much of the shipping business of the famous East India Company in 1815, when that company, which had been responsible for Britain taking over the sub-continent, lost its monopoly over trade.  So since that year, Brocklebanks had had a strong connection to the Indian sub-continent and the fortunes of the British Empire in general.  This meant that generations of sea farers from that part of the world had worked with the company.  Work on British and western ships in general was considered highly desirable for Asian sailors. 

The Lumen had an Indian crew, mainly Muslim although the stewards who served at meal times and cleaned the officer’s accommodation were all from Goa; Roman Catholics with Portuguese surnames (virtually all seemed to be called ‘Mr De’Silva’).  Once I had told them that I had been baptised a catholic I was well looked after by them, however, I came unstuck when I ordered bacon for breakfast during Lent, the steward serving me was quite shocked.  The second reason for Asian crews was economic, although unionised, their salaries were a tiny percentage of that of British crews.  They were also more disciplined; some may say exploited.  They were employed for eleven month trips away from home and were recruited from a pool (register) of applicants (the pool system also worked for U.K. merchant seamen up to about that time).  I was told that bribes were paid to get work on the British ships but that it was worth it to them.  There was definitely an overt current of racism to varying degrees still in existence at that time, from both sides.  I recall the crew being very belligerent toward an Indian deck officer who joined the ship while I was there because some believed that they shouldn’t have to take orders from a fellow Indian. 

The ship’s laundry was an adventure in itself.  My lack of practical ability extends to the domestic sphere.  I managed to develop a working relationship with washing machines after flooding the laundry room at my college in Plymouth but ironing was (and remains) an alien concept.  I had been raised by an old fashioned father with very strict opinions on the role of men and women workwise.  In addition my mother was of Italian descent with the old fashioned stereo-typical approach to care of their sons.  I overcame this by purchasing non or easy iron clothing as far as possible and doing the best I could with irons otherwise.  However, the Lumen’s laundry really threw me.  The washing machine was some sort of industrial unit and the irons were like nothing I had seen before.  My first week on board, I had completed my washing on an earlier occasion (somehow losing a sock in the machine) and returned to do some ironing.  The two officers wives on board also happened to be in the laundry at this time.  I switched the iron on, laid out my white uniform shorts, put my hands in my pockets and observed the iron.  I picked it up and started to use it, but it obviously was not hot enough yet so I put it down and continued to observe it.  After a few repeats of these actions, one of the young wives pushed me out of the way, ‘I can’t stand it any longer’ she shouted in an exasperated voice and ironed the shorts for me. 

You may think that I had cynically engineered this situation but I can assure` you I hadn’t.  I was well aware how fortunate I was to get such assistance from this person.  Luckily, I then discovered that the laundry man on board (known as the dhobi wallah) ran a side line in doing officer’s laundry for which he charged a pittance (two British pence for each shirt, laundered ironed and starched, five pence for a pair of trousers or shorts).  I was really sickened when I was leaving a ship later in my service to discover that some officers had left the ship without paying their laundry bills.

Modern Oil tanker

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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