Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.
The syllabus at Plymouth was a mix of academic and vocational, in line with the twin qualification we were entered for as deck cadets, an O.N.C. (ordinary national certificate) and a second officer’s certification. Mathematics and physics to the English A level standard were included, plus ship construction and management, navigation, signals and seamanship. In addition, there were some general studies lessons, physical education and swimming. Other compulsory activities consisted of a survival course, a fire fighting course and passing our ‘efficient deck hand’ and ‘lifeboat cox’ Board of Trade qualifications.
I found the mathematics and physics difficult. In the case of mathematics, as you would expect from a vocational navigational course, the basis of the mathematics was trigonometry (angles and the like). We all had to have passed what was then a G.C.E. ‘O level’ in maths, and one ‘including the use’ of physics in order to start our course. Unfortunately for me, my school had adopted a syllabus known as SMP (school mathematical project) which omitted a lot of traditional subjects from its content, including the trigonometry which was considered a prerequisite for my O.N.C. (Instead of dwelling on ‘traditional’ areas such as arithmetic and geometry, SMP dwelt on subjects such as …(Wikipedia)). Ironically, pupils taking the lower rated C.S.E. still studied traditional maths. I was the only student on my course who took SMP and my Plymouth tutors could not believe that someone could reach my stage with no knowledge of sines, cosines and the like.
I found ship management and construction incredibly boring. I can only feel sorry for the poor tutor tasked with delivering this subject. I recall falling asleep and falling off my chair in his class once, probably after a pub lunch (he ignored it). Having spent some time in later years teaching teenagers in a variety of subjects, when I encountered ignorant behaviour I can only think back to my own behaviour at that time and consider it poetic justice.
The signals lessons were delivered by (to us at that time) an old Royal Naval Yeoman of Signals. He taught us Morse Code using a flashing light, and semaphore (signaling with two small flags). No one in the merchant navy had actually used semaphore in years to our knowledge but it remained on the syllabus. At the start of our first lesson I headed for the back row of the narrow classroom. We sat at long benches, four or five across. I was hoping to be in a position where I could see over the shoulders of the students sat either side of me. That plan didn’t prove very successful. After we had all sat, the instructor made the front row swap places with the back; his words were something like, ‘I want the idiots at the back to come to the front where I can see them, swap places with the creeps at the front who don’t need watching.’ He was fairly merciless in his sarcasm and abuse towards us. Luckily for me (or so I saw it at the time) there was an American Irish student in the class (described as doubly unfortunate by the instructor) who was the butt of most of the instructor’s comments. (Not said with malice but they would rightly be considered totally inappropriate in this day). I was okay with Morse Code but semaphore was harder. For our final signal’s exams (not due till our final college period) a Board of Trade examiner would sit in on the assessment. Our instructor would then deliver messages to us using the two methods which we would be expected to interpret and write down for later marking. He told us that during the semaphore section, when he was waving the two flags about, if he looked at the floor he was signaling a ‘Q’ and if he looked at the window it was a ‘W’.
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Javier Capella [Public domain]
Our lifeboat cox qualification was taken in a rowing lifeboat which the college kept at the seamanship centre. We would each take it in turn to be cox, steering the boat and calling out instructions to our classmates who would be the oarsmen. The main part of the assessment involved the instructor throwing a floating dummy into the sea and the cox manoeuvring the lifeboat and using a boat hook (a long pole with a metal hook at the end) to rescue the dummy. It was necessary to place the boat a few yards ‘downstream’ of the dummy and wait for it to float toward you rather than risk running it over and ‘drowning’ the person you were supposed to rescue (I managed this correctly, the fact that I managed to spear the dummy in the neck with the hook while rescuing it caused much amusement but was overlooked by the examiner).
Another qualification we had to pass was that of ‘efficient deck hand’ (EDH). This involved a verbal and practical examination with the assessor. The candidate would be questioned on various seamanship skills, asked to tie certain knots in front of the examiner and produce an ‘eye splice’ in metal rope that had been prepared earlier. I managed to bluff my way through the questions and tied the knots successfully, however, given my total lack of practical skills my eye splice failed. This meant that I would have to retake the assessment in two weeks’ time. As I left the workshop at the seamanship centre to tell my compatriots that I had failed, one went to an old tea chest, where those splices which had passed muster had been discarded. He handed a good one to me and told me to submit it next time. I protested (genuinely) and was told it was what everyone who failed did. I will leave it to you to decide what I did with it, but I can say that two weeks later I was a qualified EDH.
One of my most enjoyable experiences during this college period was a two day fire fighting course with the local fire brigade at Camel’s Head Fire Station. The first morning of the course we set off on a bus from our accommodation to Camel’s Head (a suburb of Plymouth close to the Royal Naval dockyards at Devonport). We were each supplied with a packed lunch and told to take our sea boots (heavy wellington boots) and oil skins with us. On arrival, we were told to put our sea gear on, each of us was given a breathing apparatus set to breath through and taken for a run around a rugby field. The air tanks contained thirty minutes air in them under normal conditions. A low alarm was set to ring when the air was down to its last ten minutes. The run around the field took only a few minutes but by the end of it virtually all of air tank alarms were ringing. This was done to demonstrate to us how much air we would use in the circumstances of fighting a real fire at sea. The rest of that morning consisted of class work following which the next day and a half involved practical exercises using different extinguishers, breathing apparatus and best of all, high pressure hoses.
Near the end of our six months, we had to take a survival course (I believe surviving meant that you had passed). The first morning we were taken to the seamanship centre in our oilskins and sea boots. The instructor asked for the strongest swimmer to volunteer (definitely not me). One hero duly put his hand up. He then asked for a weak swimmer to volunteer (I felt more qualified this time, but again, not knowing why they wanted a weak swimmer I kept inconspicuous). We were then all taken out to sea in a small launch. We were told that the water in Plymouth Hoe was now warm enough for human survival. A life raft was inflated and thrown into the sea upside down. In our lessons we had been told how to right a life raft which landed in the sea the wrong way up after being thrown from a ship. The strongest swimmer then jumped in (fully kitted out plus wearing a heavy lifejacket), swam to the life raft and righted it by laying on the air bottle on its underneath and pulling the raft on to himself, jumping clear at the last moment. The rest of us were then forced into the water (under some protest) and had to swim to the life raft and get in. The instructor remained in the launch, well wrapped up and equipped with a megaphone through which he shouted instructions.
There was a bit of a problem. The volunteer weak swimmer got into the water last, he was in full gear and lifejacket, as were the rest of us. His instructions were to just float in the sea as a casualty until rescued. The strong swimmer, once the rest of us had reached the raft was supposed to get back into the water, swim to our floating colleague and attach a line to him, which the rest of us could use to tow the casualty to the raft. The problem was that we were all so cold, miserable and uncomfortable that we had forgotten our floating colleague. The megaphone rang out, ‘what about the casualty’ at which the strong swimmer jumped back in and the rescue was effected. We had been taught to sing in order to keep our spirits up in such conditions. The megaphone rang out again, ‘come on boys, sing.’ A chorus of abuse was shouted back by the occupants of the life raft as we huddled together for warmth. After a set time (I can’t remember exactly but I believe it was an hour or two) we were allowed back into the launch.
The rest of that week was taken up with the second part of our survival course, camping on the Dartmoor National Park. We were split into small groups of five and driven in Land Rovers onto the moors. A number of items including tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking utensils were unloaded and we were told to select which items and how much we wanted to carry. It was a matter of first come, first served for the selection. Each group were taken to a different start point, given a compass, a map and a set of map coordinates to make for, and sent on our way. We were to spend three nights (four days) out on the moors, hiking to a different location each day from which we would use a public call box to ring the college and be given the next day’s location coordinates. As we had to be near a phone box, every overnight stop was in or near a village. The person reporting in would be asked questions about what they could see from the box to make sure we had gone to the right place.
Bear in mind this was pre-mobile phone and sat-nav days. Driving in the seventies in the U.K. was much less common than today. You could not get your license until you were seventeen and none of us would have been over nineteen year old. Only about three of the cadets had passed their test and owned cars. By the end of the first day I was cold, wet and thoroughly miserable again. My idea of survival would be to not go hiking Dartmoor in the first place (I don’t do discomfort very well, don’t mind a nice relaxing walk through the countryside but miles through rough scrub land in the cold and wet isn’t my cup of tea). Luckily, one of the cadet’s who could drive lived in Plymouth and had the use of his mother’s car. The first night of camping he rang his mother, arranged to get the car and enabled the other drivers to collet theirs from the college carpark at Plymouth. We still had to hike but headed for the larger villages as a large group. Spending the evenings in pubs and camping in their carparks. The drivers ferried about individuals from each of our groups to their official rendezvous points so they could report in. We got the impression that such behaviour was regular during these courses as the instructors didn’t ask too many questions.
Scene of part of Dartmoor National Park, Devon.