My weekly blog posts about life as a deck cadet in the British Merchant Navy in the 1970s now put together into a short book. Available on Amazon kindle and paperback ($1.14, £0.99)
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.
Had to cut short my wanders due to the health scare so I stayed in all day Tuesday before driving home from London back to the Midlands that night (everywhere was closing down anyway so it’s not as if I made any sacrifice). However, before self-isolating I did manage to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum on Sunday where they had an exhibition on cars and one on Tim Walker, a leading photographer. It was on a visit to the V & A that I first discovered sculpture as they have some works by the French sculptor, Rodin. This visit, I found two sculptures of early Saxon gods, Thuner and Sunna
Visited London for London and South O.U.P.S. Day Conference at the London School of Economics and made a short five day break of it
O.U.P.S. stands for the Open University Psychological Society. It’s main purpose is to provide academic resources for O.U undergraduate students although it also includes members who have graduated (including myself). This year’s conference went ahead despite the current health situation although numbers attending were down on previous years and two of the speakers delivered their presentations through video conferencing. The theme of the conference was Technology, Psychology and Artificial Intelligence.
Also been visiting a few exhibitions and films. no worry about contagion, there were so few people about. This is a picture of China Town in Soho on Saturday night, normally it would be teeming with tourists.
The Wallace Collection
Visited an art exhibition at the Wallace Collection called ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’. Not that impressed with the exhibition but I like the venue (Hertford House, Manchester Square, London) and the permanent free exhibits including Dutch Masters and others, plus a collection of weapons and armour (not as famous as some other venues but well worth a visit).
Denis Scott is an indie author currently writing under the name of E. D. Robson. He is in his sixties lives in the U.K. and is retired (on and off) having left school to work for a few years as a merchant seaman on cargo… The post 7 Questions With Author Denis Scott appeared first…7 Questions With Author Denis Scott — Esther Rabbit
At sea at last
Copyright © 2019 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.
The continued story of my experiences as a navigating cadet in the British Merchant Navy.
My first ship, the M.V. Port Chalmers sailed from Barcelona leaving my first (and to date only) experience of Spain behind. It was, together with its sister ship, the Port Caroline, the world’s largest conventional freezer (reefer) cargo ship and possibly the last built. By then, the early 1970s, containerisation had already taken hold and freezer cargoes had generally transferred to container ships.
My employers, the Cunard Steamship Company was an amalgam of subsidiaries and joint ventures bought together as the shipping industry consolidated. At that time, the QE2 was it’s only surviving passenger/cruise ship and cadets tended to be kept away from it as the regulators (The Board of Trade I believe) would not allow sea time on cruise ships to count toward the qualifying period necessary to become a certified officer. The Chalmers and Caroline were the last two ships built for one of these subsidiaries, Port Line which itself was created by a merger of shipping lines in 1914 (the oldest of which had a history back to 1800). The line mainly transported dry goods out from the U.K. and Europe to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and fruit and frozen meat back (Port Line’s vessels were named after ports in those countries). The two vessels, built in 1968 at the Linthouse Shipyard on the Clyde at Govan, Glasgow were approximately 12500 tons in size. In addition to their cargo capacity, they were also built with accommodation for twelve passengers each including a separate passenger’s bar and mess, although by the early seventies these facilities were rarely required. The trade of the conventional Port Line ships was being strangled by the modern world with the growth of air travel for passengers and containers for cargo. Another part-Cunard joint venture, Associated Container Transport (A.C.T.) took over much of the meat trade, which itself reduced substantially when Britain joined the European Common Market (later the European Union), but more of that in a later post.
For anyone interested to learn more about Port Line and it’s ships, the following website is a useful reference, particularly with regard to the companies wartime history.
I was accompanied by another first trip navigation cadet on this trip, who had joined us in Barcelona. I will refer to him as Fred, plus a cadet at the end of training who I believe was awaiting the results of his examinations before becoming a third officer (third mate). There were no engineering cadets with us; their training scheme involved a longer college period and less sea time. Fred and I were each given our own double ensuite cabins. This was not as impressive as it sounds, although the rooms themselves were large, the beds consisted of small uncomfortable bunks, one above the other. Cadets used the officer’s mess and were allowed into the officer’s bar. The Chalmers also had separate crew and petty officers bars, although the petty officers tended to use the crew bar. The crew was comprised of British seamen which was very rare in the wider Cunard fleet because of wage costs. But again, more of that later.
The two junior cadets were put to work. While the vessel was ‘deep sea’ rather than following a coast or in port our work consisted of manual deck work, painting, cleaning etc. In addition, we had to complete attachments to the engine room. Going in and out of port we were tasked to assist with the tying up of the ship, fore or aft (front or back), the anchoring or assisting on the bridge. We also had to complete a certain number of ‘bridge watches’ (with the officer of the watch while we were still junior). Each cadet was issued with a work book outlining a number of tasks we had to complete successfully and get signed by a supervising officer. These books were to be submitted at the end of our training as part of the qualification procedure. A period of eight hours a week study time for us to work at our college correspondence courses was ‘recommended’ for cadets, subject to work requirements. Whether or not we got the time allocated depended on the attitude of our immediate line manager, the first officer (not that I’m complaining, I probably wouldn’t have used the time constructively anyway).
This was a period when changes in technology were not the only eruption in the tradition way of doing things. The cadets training scheme was the only way to become a certified deck officer of foreign going vessels in the British Merchant Navy. However, concurrent to attaining that certification cadets were to also take an Ordinary National Certificate or Diploma which were academically recognised qualifications. This was supposed to introduce a more professional standing to the occupation. However, at the same time many of the old seafarers continued to treat the cadets as apprentices with the same levels of distain and bullying as existed in every apprenticeship scheme in every industry up to that time (I can do it to you because people used to do it to me when I was in your position). In addition, there were no female cadets and therefore no female officers or captains. The only women on the ships were the partners of officers who were often allowed to travel with their husbands. Obviously this option was severely limited; few people with their own careers, and or caring responsibilities could just drop everything for a few months to wander the world. I remember my amazement when rumours of the opening up of cadetships to females first got out, although I believe that I left the industry at about the same time as the first women were recruited (bear in mind when I went to school boys were not allowed to do cookery and girls couldn’t do woodwork or metalwork). With hindsight, I regret that the shift towards equality came so late; I certainly would have benefited from a wider education in household management, although given my lack of practical ability (as this blog will demonstrate in due course) it probably wouldn’t have done me much good.
Anyway, enough digression, as said, the ship left Barcelona and sailed through the Mediterranean towards the straits of Gibraltar. I had never been to sea before and was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t suffer sea sickness. ‘How do people feel sick in this gentle swaying?’ I thought to myself. Then we entered the Atlantic Ocean! I did feel slightly nauseous, being flung left and right as I walked through the ship’s corridors, but nothing unbearable. Meal time were amusing; I discovered why there were wedges at the table ends, while having to suddenly reach out to grab one’s beer during bar sessions proved a perfect exercise for honing my reactions. Sporting activities on board were limited, especially in bad weather but table tennis and darts were often played. In fact I found that the rolling of the ship was a great help in equalising my performance to those of people with more skill. It was the lack of sleep that caused my biggest problem. I have always been a light sleeper and the sometimes violent rolling of the vessel, despite the amount of alcohol I had usually drunk meant I never really nodded off. In fact, I got into the habit of packing my bunk with my bulky lifejacket and any other spare packing I could find in order to wedge me in.
I recall being on the bridge one day as we sailed past Ascension Island, a tiny British possession of about 800 inhabitants in the Atlantic, 700 miles from its nearest neighbour, St Helena, another British possession and (slightly) larger than Ascension, whose claim to fame was as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile until his death.
After a few days, the ship arrived off Cape Town, South Africa. We did not tie up in port but waited out for a launch which bought mail from the shore. I remember looking over the bridge wing (a narrow walkway extending outward from both sides of a pilothouse to the full width of a ship or slightly beyond, to allow bridge personnel a full view to aid in the manoeuvring of the ship, Wikipedia) to see a seal swimming on its back and looking up at us. A sight I have never forgotten.
Copyright © 2019 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.
I got the idea for this blog from the recent tragic news of the volcano eruption on the South Island of New Zealand. I was struck by how an area of such remarkable beauty also carries such danger. It also took me back to my own trip to the Bay of Islands on the north island many years ago, and the circumstances which took me there as a young merchant seaman on his first trip to sea. I hope you find it interesting:
September 1972; I was a seventeen year old merchant navy cadet (apprentice) training to become a seamanship and navigation officer. A role for which I was too immature and totally unsuitable (a surprisingly common theme through my life; I’m beginning to think it must be me rather than everyone else). I had decided that the sea was the life for me through the ambitions of an older school friend whose father had been a Merchant Navy Officer. My father had spent his life travelling the world as an aviation engineer and my mother’s family were dispersed around the world so I had always been intoxicated with the idea of constant travel. As soon as I was able I began applying unsuccessfully for cadet posts with a variety of shipping companies, the most prominent of which was Shell Oil.After three or four rejections I was employed by the Cunard Steam Ship Company, owners of the cruise liner, the Queen Elizabeth the Second (QE2). Although famous for trans-Atlantic passenger liners and one of the last icons of Britain’s imperial days, Cunard by then had become a subsidiary of a large conglomerate called Trafalgar House and its fleet consisted mostly of cargo ships and oil tankers. I had to travel to Southampton for my interview; I honestly believe that the companies personnel manager responsible for cadets, an ex-sea captain employed me purely because he noticed from my application that I had lived in the same village in Derbyshire that his wife had come from and attended the same school. In fact, this is probably my first and last opportunity of networking in life, even though it was an inadvertent example.
The training scheme for ship’s officers at that time consisted of a sandwich course over almost four years split between college and sea time. I was enrolled at the School of Maritime Studies in Plymouth, part of Plymouth College of Further Education at that time and now part of Plymouth University. Our accommodation block was a converted office building in Portland Square built on the site of an air raid shelter where dozens of people were killed by German bombing in the second world war. (see below link to local newspaper video and report).
After a two week induction course at Plymouth, I set off for my first trip to sea. a naive, over confident young man who had never been away from home on my own for more than two weeks before, and with a part Italian fairly old fashioned mother and the ultimate male chauvinist father, having absolutely no idea how to cater for myself (ignorance is bliss).
First step was a train from my nearest home town to London to collect travelling instructions and tickets from the company office at Marble Arch. Then an overnight stay at the Cunard International Hotel in Hammersmith before catching a bus from central London to Heathrow airport. A flight to Paris, then a connecting flight to Barcelona. It was on this second flight where I met three of my new colleagues who were shocked to hear that I had caught a bus to the airport instead of using a taxi (expressions like ‘if the office find out they’ll expect all of us to use the bus.’). Needless to say, from then on I always travelled short distances by taxi.
Barcelona was where my career began to go downhill, bearing in mind that I had not seen a ship yet. On arrival, we were met by the company agent to be told that our ship, the M.V. Port Chalmers had been delayed at Genoa in Italy. We were then taken to a hotel close to the city centre to wait out what became a four day delay for the ship.
A four day holiday in a city like Barcelona on full (admittedly apprentice) wages, this was wonderful. I remember sitting in a bar one night talking to a local man who couldn’t understand my English (he had learnt English in Scotland) while I couldn’t understand Spanish or Catalan. We conversed for some time in french (quite an achievement seeing that I had failed french at school). One of the U.S. Naval fleets was in port on a visit and the bars were full of U.S. sailors but there were no behavioural issues at all that I saw. The following evening I met a local bar maid and made a date with to meet under the Columbus statue near the docks at 4 p.m. the following day. Fortunately or otherwise (I’ll never know) the ship arrived and sailed from Barcelona at 3.30 p.m. I hoped at the time that the young woman never planned to keep our appointment rather than waiting for me.
TO BE CONTINUED/-