Tales of an accidental life? (16)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

The M.V. Maihar

The Seaman’s Discharge Book is an official record of a seaman’s service, along with the seaman’s card it is a requirement for every employee on a merchant ship.  The captain of the vessel signs and stamps the book at the start and end of each voyage.  According to my book on the 11th August 1975 I joined the M.V. Maihar at the east coast port city of Hull in England.  With due apologies to Hull, I must have travelled there by train although I remember looking round the city centre and leaving the port on the Maihar I cannot remember travelling to it at all.

The Maihar was a Brocklebank Line ship, built in 1968.  It was an old fashioned general cargo ship (what the Americans would call a freighter), one of about eight, all with Indian names starting with M.  The word itself comes from the name of a town in India.  These ships usually traded the same routes the company had followed since the days of the Raj, Africa, the Middle and Far East.  This is where my memory becomes a little confused, not in the events that I relate but in the order that the ship visited the ports described.   The cargo loaded consisted of dry general cargo, boxed items, including alcohol, plus some foodstuffs loaded into chilled compartments off the main holds.  Unusually there were three deck cadets and two engineering cadets on this trip.  The two engineers, following a different training scheme to their deck colleagues were on their first trip having spent a year at college already.  The two other deck cadets were also on their first voyage, meaning that I was designated ‘senior cadet’ (not a title I particularly sought).   I will refer to the two engineering cadets as Tim (from the Irish Republic) and Ted from South London; the other two deck cadets were Bill and Ben.  Bill and Ben both had less sea time than me.  Both were slightly older and were enrolled on the HND qualification scheme, a higher level than my ONC.  This led to some friction between us, with them taking exception to my being placed over them in the ship’s hierarchy (not that it amounted to anything at apprentice level).

We were put to work on cargo watches.  I believe that we sailed from Hull after two days.  I was on duty on the bridge as we left port, while Bill and Ben were stationed with the other mates, one forward with the second mate and the other aft with the third mate.  We rotated these positions as we docked and sailed from different ports.  We left the King George dock through a lock to the open sea.  Our next port of call was Middlesbrough in the northeast of England.   I recall Middlesbrough being a pretty standard industrialised town at that time, much like my local town Derby.  I remember having a drink in an establishment called Yates Wine Lodge (part of Britain’s oldest pub chain) and in later years became familiar with the chain’s Nottingham branch.  In the 1970s, I remember it as being rather tired and scruffy.

From there we sailed across the North Sea, to Rotterdam in Holland.  I was really impressed with the sheer scale and modernity of the industrial and shipping approach to Rotterdam.  As a fairly small and rapidly becoming old fashioned cargo ship we tended to berth quite centrally in towns.  Even then, Rotterdam was a major container port apart from being the centre of the world’s oil trading market.  I didn’t have time to see or do much in port (the obligatory beer in a small bar).  We were only there a short while and unlike the U.K. dockers, their Dutch counterparts worked night shifts, speeding the turn round of ships.   On this voyage the captain was escorted by his wife and their daughter who was two or three years younger than me.  I will call her Kath.  I found her in the table tennis room one afternoon and got into conversation which began a friendship which lasted the voyage. 

From Rotterdam, the Maihar sailed back to the U.K. up the Thames Estuary to the port of Tilbury at the eastern fringe of London.  Dealing with the London dockers on cargo watch was a baptism of fire.  We were loading cardboard cases filled with six packs of beer plus foodstuffs for the supermarkets of the Middle East in the chilled lockers.  Once they realised what the food was (margarine, cheeses, bars of chocolate, etc.) some of the dockers began just bringing bread to work for their break and making up their own sandwiches from the cargo.  They also helped themselves to a few bottles of beer each which they drank while working.  I tackled their foremen about this, only to be told that if they weren’t allowed a certain quantity of beer the men would take exception and there could be a marked increase in accidental breakages.  The first mate, a rather strict Scotsman came on deck, saw what was happening and exploded with me (with mature hindsight perhaps his young apprentice shouldn’t have been left in that situation).  I told him what the dockers had threatened and he immediately tackled their supervisor, threatening to call the dock police.  In a nut shell he was told that the police wouldn’t be interested and that if he insisted, the dockers union would ‘black’ all Cunard’s ships meaning that they would effectively be excluded from the entire port of London.  The mate stormed off to call the police.   Fork lift trucks had been lowered into the holds for loading and now their drivers seemed to be having problems steering them, reversing into cases of beer bottles quicker than I could record the fact.  The police attended and basically from what I remember the mate grudgingly backed down in view of the threats of wider consequences.   The company wouldn’t thank him for possibly costing them millions on a matter of principle.   I came to a pragmatic arrangement with the dockers foreman and some order was resumed.  I recall one older docker telling me that the docks were much better run before the closure of the docks upstream from Tilbury in the 60s which had resulted in a large influx of workers from them (and their working practices) to Tilbury.  While in port, I visited the Stella Maris Hotel.  Stella Maris is a Roman Catholic charity with outposts around the world providing pastoral and practical support for sea farers.  The reason I remember the Tilbury one is because there was (to me at that time) an amazing elderly couple (probably in their late forties) jiving on the dance floor.  I was impressed never having seen the real thing performed live before.

Once we sailed from Tilbury we went ‘deep sea’ headed for the east.   The first area we visited was the Red Sea area around the Horn of Africa.  This is where my confusion about the order of places we berthed comes in.  The first port of call I believe was Aden at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.   Until 1970 Aden had been part of a British colony and capital of the British created ‘Federation of South Arabia’.  It was a historically prosperous trading post, seized by the British to protect the trade route from Britain to its Indian possessions because of its strategic position at the entrance to the Red Sea.  After a bitter rebel insurgency independence was granted to the territory and it became independent in 1967.  As British power rapidly waned in the ex-colony the influence of the communist rebels and their Russian backers rose, with the name changing to ‘The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen’ in 1970.  When we arrived, five years later, we were unable to communicate with the port authorities by V.H.F. radio.   I remember it was night and I was on the bridge with the captain and deck officers.  A flashing signal lamp was used from the shore to message us with Morse code which made for an entertaining half hour trying to interpret it.  The next morning a local pilot came out to us and we were taken into harbour.  Once in port armed guards were placed on the gangway and none of the ship’s company were allowed ashore.  There was definitely an official suspicion toward us as British but the quiet reaction of the dockers was quite amiable.  Today the former colony is part of the Republic of Yemen, merged with its northern neighbour and embroiled in a bitter civil war between Saudi Arabia, The U.A.E. and Iranian backed factions.

I believe that our next port of call was Aqaba in Jordan.  As we approached the port I was again on the bridge with the captain, first mate and the Jordanian pilot, plus a steersman and lookout from the crew.  Bill was aft with the third mate but the second mate who was forward (the bows at the front) radioed that there was no sign of the other deck cadet, Ben who should have been there.  I was asked in an accusing manner why he was not at his post (the mate obviously considered me psychic).  I was sent to find him.  I went to Ben’s cabin and found him in his dressing gown, sat on his bunk with a gin in his hand.  The conversation went something like this; Me: ‘What do you think you’re doing? The captain and mate are going made, thrown your overalls on and get forward fast.’ Ben: No Den, I’ve decided I’m going home.  I don’t want to be here and I’m not doing it.’  The conversation carried on in this vein for a few minutes before I returned to the bridge and informed the senior officers of the situation.  Ben continued to take this approach, initially refusing to work, and eventually not even interacting with the rest of us to any extent.  He was clearly very unhappy and his mental health was suffering.  It got to the stage where he was placed in his own cabin with a twenty-four hour watch kept (by his cadet colleagues) for his own safety.   While in Aqaba a group of us including the wives visited a beach side hotel where we tried camel steak and a few drinks.  Unbeknown to me at the time, someone spiked my drinks (someone told me this later) which resulted in my being seriously unwell on my return to the ship.  Despite this, I still had to ‘turn to’ for work when we left port a few hours later.

Our next port of call was Hodeidah, the main port of Yemen.  We could not sail straight into port as they were not ready for us so we had to wait at anchor with other vessels for a day or two.  While at anchor I was placed on anchor watch to give the mates a break.  All this basically involved was being on the bridge to monitor the V.H.F radio for communication from shore or neighbouring ships, keeping a look out for possible hazards and making sure that the ship did not slip anchor and drift.

The company’s local agent came aboard and the captain and chief steward made arrangements for Ben to be taken off the ship the following morning and flown home to the U.K. as his medical condition warranted.  I was on the bridge when the time came for him to leave.  I saw Ben and the agent, accompanied by his assistants leave the Maihar on a small launch, bound for a Greek ship anchored nearby where the agent must have had business.  Moments later a call came over the radio.  It was Ben, he had jumped off the agent’s launch onto the Greek ship.  Run to their bridge and seized the radio, ‘I’ve changed my mind Den I don’t want to go’ he shouted to me.  I pointed out it was a bit late for that and he was pulled off the other ship’s bridge back to the launch.  A few days later the captain informed me that Ben had arrived back at Heathrow Airport safely and was in the care of his family.  I never heard of him again but I sincerely hope that he got himself back on his feet and has had a fruitful life.  When we finally docked in Hodeidah I was too busy to go ashore.  The one thing that struck me was the armed tribesmen wandering the docks with automatic rifles and long swords. 

The next stop for the Maihar was the port of Djibouti, which together with its hinterland made up the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (French Somaliland).  A group of us went ashore and I bought a t-shirt with the above name on it plus a train of camels (didn’t actually wear it once I got home).   I can’t explain why I bought it, this sort of souvenir hunting isn’t my normal behaviour and I wasn’t drunk, perhaps it was the heat.  The other event I recall is that as soon as we left the ship we were followed by waif like children shouting ‘Baksheesh’ at us, begging for alms.  This was my first experience of such ‘in your face’ poverty, in fact it was my first experience of seeing people beg, the pastime still being viewed as socially unacceptable in Britain at that time. 

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