Tales of an accidental life? (11)

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]

Semaphore signaling

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.

Copyright – Herby talk thyme [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Scene of part of Dartmoor National Park, Devon.

Tales of an accidental life? (10)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

Adventures back in the U.K.

Actually the title of this post is somewhat misleading as the first adventure I had on leaving the M.V. Lumen in Ras Tanura was on the connecting flight between Beirut and London Heathrow.  As a side note Beirut is actually the place of my birth although I left there when I was two years old and my visit to the airport transit lounge (twice as you will read) during this trip has been my only return to date.

After a wait in the transit lounge at Beirut we were called to our flight, a Middle East Airlines 707.  It must be borne in mind that aircraft hijackings and the like were at their greatest in that region during the late 1960s, early 1970s and only four years previously, the Israelis had destroyed most of the MEA fleet in a raid on Beirut Airport so any incidents tended to cause some apprehension.  The flight took off.  I sat with Bob.  Given my earlier described fear of heights I am fairly sure that I would have had the isle seat.  Suddenly about twenty minutes into the flight, there was a bang from the rear of the plane and it shook slightly.  The pilot came over the public address system and announced that due to technical difficulties we were having to return to Beirut.  We never did find out what the problem was but I must admit to feeling very uncomfortable, joking to disguise my fear as the plane returned.  Once back at Beirut transit lounge, after a quick alcohol refill to steady the nerves we were embarked back onto the same aircraft and the subsequent flight to London was uneventful.

Middle East Airlines Boeing 707

copyright – Aldo Bidini (GFDL 1.2) Wikipedia

Back home in the village with my family for a few days, I suddenly got very ill one afternoon, vomiting continuously.  My mother called our doctor, an elderly G.P. who gave me a single pill of some kind to settle my stomach, which he told me should hopefully see me through the night.  After hearing that I had just returned from abroad, he took away all my vaccination certificates (including the very exotic Saudi Cholera one I had been given in Ras Tanura which had pictures of palm trees on it, I never saw it again). 

The next morning, following a good night’s sleep, I got up, feeling as good as ever, I washed and got dressed.  I was at in my room when there was a knock at the front door.  My mother answered to find two ambulance men with a stretcher asking if they had the right house for me.  ‘Can he walk?’ one asked.  I came downstairs and was informed that the ambulance was there to take me to an isolation hospital.  I told them there was no need as I felt perfectly well but was advised that if I refused a court order might be obtained (in case I had a contagious disease) ordering my detention in a hospital.  Not having anything better to do (the pubs weren’t open yet), I packed a small bag and ambled out to the waiting ambulance.  I was then conveyed to the Isolation Hospital at the village of Draycott in Derbyshire (long since converted to private homes).

At the hospital I was place in a single room.  There was no door but it was curtained off from the corridor.  Virtually all the other residents were elderly pensioners, many with dementia (including the woman next door who shouted through most of the night).  I was ordered (and it was an order) by the nurse in charge to undress and get into bed until the doctor had seen me.  Once the doctor had finished his rounds I would be allowed to get up and dress but I couldn’t leave my room.  At this stage I felt fairly relaxed, physically healthy with no where better to be I settled in with a good book.  When the doctor finally saw me I was informed that I would remain under observation until some test were completed and the doctors were happy that I wasn’t carrying a contagious disease.  It’s ironic that as I type this, the news bulletins are all about the coronavirus outbreak in China and people being placed in isolation on their return to the U.K.

The first night in hospital, the main lights were switched off at a set time, I seem to remember it being 10 PM. (ridiculously early for a night owl like myself).

 The night shift nurse came to my room and said sweetly, ‘Are we putting our light off in a minute Mr. Scott’ dropping a very heavy hint.

‘No we’re not’ I replied back equally politely.  They soon got used to me staying up late.

During the evening, a nurse came around with a pill trolley, handing out medication to each patient as she went.  She arrived at my room and handed me a handful of large multi-coloured pills.  I have always been a bit wary of medication, although now in my 60s I have had to become used to it (I’m still not sure the side effects are worth it).  I pointed out that I had not been told about anything being prescribed and suggested the nurse check.  She accused me of being awkward and got quite annoyed but stormed off to check when I continued to refuse.  Ten minutes later she came back and apologetically explained that I was right, the medication had been meant for someone else.

My parents visited me when I had been in for a couple of days (we didn’t tend to make a fuss about such things in my family), my father, who at that time tended to travel to his employer’s outstations at U.K. airports and abroad had been in touch with the Cunard Personnel Department.  He told me that both his airline and the shipping line were very concerned in case I was found to be carrying anything contagious.  I believe that the hospital closed soon after this time.

After five or six days under observation I was released from the hospital and returned home for the rest of my leave.  The next part of my training involved six months at the Maritime School of Plymouth College as part of my sandwich course.  We operated totally separately from the rest of the college and had no contact with the other students.  We were situated on our own little campus some distance from the main college which was at another end of town. The engineering cadets used to attend the main campus to use the engineering workshops but the deck cadets had no need.  The engineer cadet’s training scheme was different to that of the deck cadets.  Instead of the sandwich arrangement between sea time and college they spent a whole year at the college before going to sea and required less overall sea time before qualifying. In addition, it was possible to become a qualified marine engineer without following that particular scheme, whereas for aspiring deck officers, it was the only rout.  As previously described, we lived together in a single accommodation block (deck and engineers), which had a block of classrooms attached.  There was also a seamanship centre on the coast, situated just outside the historic Barbican and Sutton Harbour where the Mayflower Steps are located, the traditional location from which, the pilgrim fathers left for the Americas in 1620 (although the actual location is now believed to be inside the women’s toilets of a local pub on the Barbican). 

6th September 2020 is the 400th anniversary of the departure of the pilgrims, more information on the events of that day and preparations for the anniversary can be found on the Mayflower 400 website


Copyright – RobertBFC at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA

The Mayflower Steps (visible in the bottom left hand corner).  The flags weren’t there in my day.

One issue that was raised at that time was the fact that all the students at the school had to pay subscriptions to the National Union of Students.  A group protested against this to the college authorities, unlike most of the other students we were attending the college as a requirement of our employers, the unions facilities were not accessible to our location, in fact we did not even receive our membership cards.  However as the largest single block of students at the college we were a consistent flow of income to the Union, plus from their point of view, as we were only there for six months at a time and took no part in college activities we came at no cost.  The college expressed their sympathy for our circumstances and some arrangement was mentioned whereby we would be able to attend the union office to collect membership cards but withdrawal from the union would not be allowed.  In effect the cozy situation between the college authorities and the union continued and the cash cows were instructed to stop complaining.  I believe that such arrangements came to an end with Mrs. Thatcher’s Trade Union reforms in the 1980s.

Our working day at the college was 9 a.m. till 6.30 p.m. with breaks for meals, all of which were taken in our accommodation building, a converted twenty-one story office block.  I shared a room with two other deck cadets on the seventeenth floor (thank god there was a lift).  The room contained a small bedside cupboard and a wardrobe for each individual, a double bunk and a single bed.  As I was virtually always the last one in, I took the bottom bunk.  My two room-mates were both in the same college class as me, one was also a Cunard employee.  I got on with both of them but tended to socialize with others.  There was a common room with a T.V. on every second floor (remember cell phones, laptops and tablets did not yet exist) as well as a laundry room.  Every floor had a shower and toilet block. 

The accommodation was run by a warden (an apt name I feel under the circumstances), who lived in an apartment on the top floor with his family.  Females were not allowed past reception at any time including mothers and other family members.  The door was locked at 11 p.m. by the duty porter.  Any late returnees after that time had to ring the door bell, being careful to get the bell for reception and not the one for the warden’s apartment and sign a late book giving the exact time they had arrived in.  Our rooms were inspected once a week as the cleaners only did the communal areas.  After I had been at the college for a few months, the warden went through the late book and sent for me wanting to know why my name appeared so frequently.  I told him that because the other cadets knew that I rarely went out, they often used my name when signing in to keep themselves out of trouble.  Luckily, on a few occasions’ others had used my name so sometimes I was signed in twice on the same night, supporting my story.  Other frequent names in the book were Q. Cumber and M. Mouse.

I cannot remember how many deck cadets there were in my year in total at Plymouth.  I can recall that at least a third of them worked for Shell Transport, there was a contingent from Irish Shipping, who, although I got on with them when I bumped into them socially tended generally to keep away from the English cadets (who referred to them as the ‘Sinn Fein’ after the political wing of the IRA).  It must be borne in mind that this period was the height of the IRAs terrorist bombing campaign on the U.K. mainland and there was considerable loss of life through the bombing of pubs in city centres and other similar events..  In addition there were a few cadets from Nigerian Shipping who again tended to keep to themselves.  Finally, there were those of us from the smaller shipping lines such as Cunard plus some from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (merchant ships which supplied the Royal Navy warships at sea and were crewed by civilian officers and crew).

Tales of an accidental life? (9)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

Ras to Jas – Work, play and no rest

Google Maps

As far as I can recall, loading and unloading the Lumen only took about forty-eight hours at most for each.  With the journey from Jeddah to Ras Tanura taking less than a week; this meant that each round trip took about a fortnight.  Bearing in mind that the deck officers had to work their normal four hour watches every day while at sea, plus supervising entering and leaving port. In addition cargo watches were worked six on, six off while in port and at sea, tank cleaning was carried out using high pressure automatic hoses while some tanks were loaded with sea water in order to ballast (balance for stability purposes) the ship.

For once, the engineers had an (arguably) easier life.  Shift work was less common.  The modern engine room had its own control room where all the gauges and meters were linked to alarms which sounded in the duty junior engineers cabin if any readings outside permitted levels were recorded out of normal working hours whilst the vessel was at sea.  The junior then had a time limit of a few minutes, I cannot remember the exact number, to get down to the engine room control room, switch off the alarm and investigate its cause.  If they didn’t switch off the alarm in time, an alarm would sound in the chief or second engineer’s cabin.  Which made for a very angry senior engineer.

For the deck cadets life was hectic, we were utilised to the full, especially after my colleague was promoted and I became the only cadet.  In practice, as I became more experienced supervising the tank cleaning by the crew became my responsibility. Plus, with the aid of an engine room fitter, carrying out the ballasting, which was done as soon as we left Jeddah after unloading, was carried out by myself.  Cargo watches also became a regular task although I nominally I was overseen by the second or third officer for those.  The hours of work tended to be a minimum of twelve hours per day, add in socialising time, eating and throw in a bit of sleeping time here and there and everything else (such as study time) went right out of the window as the expression goes.

Socially, the hectic working pace did nothing to reduce my drinking.  The saving grace was the heat I was working in.  I am extremely fair skinned (went from being a blonde baby to a red haired teenager and brown haired adult, now balding grey).  As a result I go from red to blistering at the hint of a ray of sun (more of this in a later post).  Unfortunately for me, the dangers of skin cancer were not widely known at that time and a bronze tan was all the rage amongst young people so I spent most of my time on deck during the day dressed only in shorts.  Over the months, after losing a lot of skin from my chest and back, rather than going brown my body went an insipid sort of yellowish bronze which disappeared with days on my return to the U.K.  I was always amused by the fact that I would be out working on deck in the full sun while the rest of the ship’s company, deck crew included were allowed to stay inside (‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ as the old Noel Coward song goes).

The ship’s bar was still the centre piece of social engagement.  The Indian crew did not have a bar but those that wished it were permitted an allocation of two cans of beer a day.  Film nights were still a major attraction.  I remember the first film I saw at sea was Midnight Cowboy with the theme song by Glen Campbell.  The film was fairly recent and although it sounds ridiculous in today’s age of multi-screen, satellite T.V. and streaming I was really impressed at the opportunity of seeing such a recent film. In addition, ‘horse race’ nights were staged, when giant dice were thrown to move model horses along a marked out course on the floor and small bets were placed. 

This period was also my introduction to the British version of the ‘Indian curry’.  Until this time I was not enamoured of spicy foods.  The British curry of the period usually consisted of some bland curry powder being added to a dish to make it hotter.  On the Asian crewed ships there were two kitchens known as galleys (one for the officers and one for the crew).  The officers meals were served by the Goan stewards and consisted mainly of traditional British fare (but cooked by Indian chefs).  However, every lunch and dinner included the option of a curry as an entrée.  Over the months I got into the habit of having a daily curry as my palette adapted.  These curries were not the same as those eaten by the crew but were similar (though probably milder) than those served by Indian restaurants in the U.K. today.

Having said that my work on the tanker was arduous is not a complaint.  My lack of finesse and coordination was not an issue in a world of giant valves, pipelines and shifting hammers.  I had finally found something practical that suited me in life.  I have discovered over my lifetime that understanding flows comes fairly naturally to me.  The layout of the vessel’s cargo pipeline system (a reaches b via c), the location of junction valves and the measurement of oil or water levels in tanks quickly became second nature.  This coupled with the absence of mundane tasks such as clock changing and chipping and painting doors or lifeboats made my working time on the Lumen really satisfying.  As a teenager I felt like a valuable cog in an international chain (fossil fuels had not yet become the work of the devil).  In addition, the heavy workload meant that my supervision was limited.  On my first trip on the Port Chalmers, the cadets cabins used to be inspected three times a week by the senior officers when at sea.  One first mate used to leave a small coin on top of a door in our cabins and then put on his white gloves to see if it was still there on his next inspection to make sure we had dusted every nook and cranny.  There was none of this pettiness on the Lumen, the workload pressures were too great.  I also found that my preference for night work also meant that supervision was limited.  As long as I handed everything over correctly to the next watch in the morning, everyone was happy.

There were a few mishaps in the work over the months.  On one occasion, we had a first mate whose first action on waking up was to reach over and get a cold beer out of his fridge before getting out of bed.  Ballasting involved filling the cargo tanks with water, making the ship settle lower into the sea thereby making it more stable.  The pumping of water was controlled to try and balance port and starboard equally as the ship went lower.  Too much of a tilt one way or the other had two results, firstly the ship was momentarily less stable and secondly and in terms of my survival and future career more importantly, it used to result in the mate’s fridge switching itself off.  In the Gulf this meant his beer got warm very quickly.  I was on deck, controlling the pumps and valves for ballasting with the fitter early one morning before breakfast when the mate came running out from the accommodation, red faced with exertion and rage.  He screamed abuse at me, pointing out that his fridge had shut off.  He made it plain that such an action meant that I was a total incompetent.  I made matters even worse by explaining that as a teenager on his second trip to sea I had discussed my actions with the deck Serang (a respected seaman in his fifties).  The mate exploded, not only had I ruined his first drink of the day, I had also undermined the whole British Empire.  He returned to his cabin and a hearty English breakfast accompanied by an ice cold beer, following which, all was forgiven and forgotten.

On another occasion we were loading mogas into some of the ship’s cargo tanks.  Rather than electronic gauges, as the tanks filled we would stand by the outlet at the top and lower an ullage stick in to it (a rigid length of wood or other material, usually graduated in units of volume, for measuring by ullage the quantity of liquid in small tanks which have been …, Cross Dictionary.com).  As the height of the oil rose in the tank, the person dipping the stick into the tank would shout out the reading to someone standing by the valve ready to close that tank when it was full.  I was standing holding the stick as the gas of the fuel we were loading rose out of the tank.  Suddenly I heard a shout and stepped back as mogas shot out of the top and hit me.  I had become ‘high’ on the petrol fumes and forgotten what I was doing.  I still get a little nostalgic occasionally when I am filling my car with petrol.

The regular journey from Jeddah to Ras Tanura and back took us from the red sea, along the southern coast of the Arabian peninsular and in to the Persian Gulf, through the now famous Straits of Hormuz.  The straits are a narrow bottle neck through which almost 20% of the world’s traded oil passes in tankers (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2019).  At its narrowest, the straits shipping passage is only two miles wide which is a negligible distance in modern terms.  The current political situation highlights the importance of the straits with the main islands there belonging to Iran.  Ras Tanura was, and still is one of the world’s largest oil refineries, although we never left the ship there.  Whether that was because there was nothing to look at, or because we weren’t allowed, I don’t know.   

One incident that did occur to me in Ras Tanura involved the local doctor, or rather his absence.  My cholera vaccination which lasted for six months was due for a booster jab.  I was instructed to go to the ship’s bar where the doctor had set up his equipment to vaccinate various crew members.  When my turn came, I approached him, sleeve rolled up and received my jab (if you haven’t already guessed I’m a bit of a wimp over such things.  It’s not a matter of pain but it’s the idea of voluntarily allowing someone to stab me in the arm.  I am a total control freak).  He gave me the injection, which seemed a bit brutal and over vigorous to me.  I sat in the bar and chatted to a Dutch tug captain who worked at the port.  After the doctor had packed up and left the tug captain said to me ‘he was a bit rough wasn’t he?’

‘I thought so’ I replied.

‘The doctor’s much more professional’ he said.

I was shocked, I told him I thought that the person who had injected me was the doctor.

‘Oh no’ I was told, ‘that was the doctor’s Indian driver.’

As you can see, I lived.

Back in Jeddah, despite the workload I made sure to pay a few visits ashore.  One of the things I bought (apart from vast amounts of pistachio nuts; I loved them and they weren’t generally available at that time in my area of England) was a Toshiba radio cassette player.  Up until then I had nothing to listen to music wise.  Now my world opened up.  I am amazed that in the space of my life time, entertainment has gone from large vinyl record turntables and sound systems to cell phones and tablets working as computers.  Even the cassettes I started to carry round in my luggage are an unnecessary burden today.

Jeddah itself was a vibrant and wealthy city even then.  It has a long history as a wealthy Red Sea port.  The wives on the ship also used to go ashore there.  Local women tended to be few and far between but the reception the women received was always polite.  The only advice they were given was not to wear trousers and to keep their elbows and knees covered.

One day, together with the two wives I visited a Swedish ship berthed in Jeddah.  The ship’s chief steward (purser) entertained us with fresh seafood he had bought from the marketplace and other items.  That evening, I was due to start ballasting the Lumen after we had sailed but I felt violently ill.  I told the fitter I was working with (George) to keep an eye on things for me as I was going to bed and to wake me in the early hours when things on deck got busy.  This was and is unheard of for me.  I have never been certified sick in my life and have missed less than a day a year from work through my working life because of sickness.  I went to my cabin, waking sometime later.  It was pitch dark, it should have been day light, about 4 A.M.  I checked my watch it was 9.  I was baffled for a moment, why was it dark at 9 in the morning?  Then I clicked.  It was 9 the following evening, I had been out of it for about 24 hours.

I got up and went down to the deck control room where I found the fitter to demand he explain why he hadn’t woken me.  He told me he had tried, then, to keep me out of trouble he had gone to find the third officer (Bob, the cadet who had joined the ship with me and was now promoted having passed his exams).  They had both pulled me from my bunk onto the floor and tried to wake me, even bouncing me on the floor to no avail.  Bob, concerned for my survival had then gone and called the chief steward, who was responsible for medical matters at sea.  He had notified the captain.  I was returned to bed, still unconscious, and left to recover.  I now felt perfectly okay.  I went, somewhat apprehensively to apologise to the captain.  He was very good about it, he had spoken to the two wives and stated that he was satisfied that the seafood must have disagreed with me.  The chief officer (of fridge fame) was less forgiving and banned me from the bar for a month.  The result of this was that my cabin became the centre of parties on the ship for the next two weeks before the chief officer relented and the ship’s social life returned to the bar.

On the 14th July 1974, Bob and I left the Lumen at Ras Tanura and were taken by taxi through the desert to the local airport at Dhahran.

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

Tales of an accidental life? (7)

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.

Napier (Wikipedia)

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.

Image by Steve Barker (Pixabay).

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.

7 Questions With Author Denis Scott — Esther Rabbit

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

Tales of an accidental life? (6)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

New Zealand – The Bay of Islands

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

The Port Chalmers had now unloaded its cargo of boxed goods (plus a few cars, secured by chains in the cargo holds and a couple of containers loaded onto the decks) in Australia and carried on to The Bay of Islands on the north island of New Zealand.  I cannot remember the exact time but my birthday would have taken place around this time.  Although I have not made a big deal of birthdays since about the age of twelve, viewing them pretty much as just another day I’m sure it would have been celebrated in style, purely because any excuse for a party was celebrated.  It was about this time that the profits of the officer’s bar (which, as I have previously stated was run by the officer’s themselves as a club) had risen so much due to the Australian experiences that we dropped all alcohol prices by fifty percent.  Bear in mind that alcohol and cigarettes were already ridiculously cheap.  Buying a round of drinks was no problem even for me on the first year apprentice wages and if a colleague ran out of cigarettes lending them a pack of two hundred was the normal procedure.  The only fly in the ointment was if someone asked for a soft drink, or a tonic with their gin, a few of those really used to hurt the pocket.

One lasting effect of my raucous social life at this time was an addiction to certain Dean Martin songs.  Although we were traveling the world we were still cocooned in a very British environment, in fact on the Port Chambers it was mainly a Geordie (north-east English centred on Newcastle Upon Tyne) society, often revolving around alcohol.  This view of Geordies was reinforced many years later when I went to a show from an upcoming young American folk singer touring as a support act to Martha Wainwright in London, who told the audience how shocked she was when performing at Gateshead (a town next to Newcastle) because many of the female members of the audience were already drunk when the show started at 7 P.M. 

On the ship, the senior electrician, known as ‘the sparky’ on merchant ships although the term is more generally used to refer to the radio officer in other organisations, was accompanied by his wife.  The couple had completed many trips together on different ships.  She had a cassette tape of Dean Martin Country and Western hits which she insisted we play continually on the bar’s sound system, usually with a collection of drunken revellers singing along (before karaoke became acceptable).  ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’ was the favourite, so as a result of continually having these songs pounding away in my head, I became classically conditioned to enjoy hearing them, much like a Pavlov’s dog affect.  One thing about leaving home in my late teens and being thrown into such a diverse mix of ages was that my music tastes which were largely of the Led Zepplin and Moody Blues style, opened up to a wider appreciation.  The same could be said with regard to films and books.  Video’s and satellite television were not yet available, let alone kindle’s or internet streaming (I was still impressed by colour T.V.).  For non-alcoholic entertainment, we used to set up old fashion projectors in the bar and show reel to reel films on a screen.  Film nights were extremely popular and attended by all who weren’t working, although the officers and the crew did not watch the films together.  The first film I ever saw on the Port Chalmers was ‘Midnight Cowboy’ starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.  It was common to swap films with other ships when you were in port.  The Port Chambers also had a small library, of mainly paperbacks that people left behind when they left the ship.  I read a number of books I don’t think I would have considered otherwise, including a number of western genre paperbacks by Louis L’amour.

The Bay of Islands is just that, a jagged shaped bay with a number of inlets and 144 islands at the eastern top of the north island.  It contains a number of small towns and villages and is a major fishing and tourist centre.  The ship moored in Opua, a geographically large settlement but with a population of only a few hundred people during the night.  All was in darkness except for the immediate area of the quay, which just fitted the ships length. 

I was woken a few hours later with the sun streaming through my cabin’s port hole and a lot of noise from outside.  I looked out to see a number of cars parked at the beach next to the quay and school children being seen off by their parents into a flotilla of small boats which conveyed them down the bay to the school.  Again, like the view of Sydney the first sights of the bay have remained in my memory, only this time the sights were natural rather than man made.


Freezer ship loading lamb at Opua

The cargo we loaded in New Zealand was lamb destined for the U.K.  The lamb was transported to the wharf in rail wagons, manually loaded into hoisting nets and loaded into the ship’s holds using the ships own cranes and derricks.  The dockers (also known as stevedores) were a mixture of white and Maori New Zealanders.  The lamb had to be loaded in strict alternative layers to allow for air circulation in the freezer holds.  Of course, today the cargo would arrive already packed and locked into temperature controlled containers. 

Although many of the old hands rarely left the ship when in port, I was determined to see as much of the world as I could whenever the opportunity presented itself, often at the cost of sleep time.  The first day in Opua there was no cargo work (it may have been a Sunday) and the captain arranged for a group of us, including the wives on board and the two cadets to lower one of the ship’s lifeboats and travel down the bay to one of the larger settlements, I believe it was the town of Russell.  There, we tied the boat up outside a pub and went in for a drink.  One of the junior engineers on board the Port Chambers was a young New Zealander and he accompanied us on this trip.  This pub introduced another new milestone in my life, my first experience of being served beer in jugs rather than pints or half pints.  We sat round two or three tables, joined by the pub’s owner and began our afternoon’s recreation.  The problem was that people kept topping up the glasses before they were empty and refilled jugs of beer kept appearing on the tables.  It meant that I had absolutely no idea how much I was drinking.  Sometime later, and considerably more cheerful, we returned to the Port Chalmers in our lifeboat.

In addition to the Port Chalmers I can recall a sailing vessel associated with the protests against the French nuclear tests at the Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia being tied up at Opua.  These protests resulted in the foundation of the environmental protection group, ‘Greenpeace’ and the sinking of ‘Rainbow Warrior’ a Greenpeace vessel by the French Secret Service some twelve years later which led to the death of a crew member.  One evening an American couple and their children who had given up their routine lives in the states to travel the world visited the Chalmers and in return, hosted us on the sailing vessel the following evening.  I cannot recall the vessels name but it may have been the Fri or the Spirit of Peace, both of which were part of a protesting flotilla intercepted by the French within their testing area in June 1973.

The below link to radio New Zealand gives more information on the incident;


Having been in a number of serious incidents through life I now have to describe what is possibly the most traumatic to date; my attempts at horse riding.  I have already described my lack of finesse and practical ability, the incident I am about to describe demonstrates that this handicap extends to dealing with horses.  I had the afternoon off from cargo watch one day so a group of us (me, the deck boy and the younger seamen and stewards from the crew) took the lifeboat to an island the centre of which was a tall hill/low mountain.  A riding school run by a Maori woman and her family was situated at the foot of the hill.  I had never ridden (or been near a horse before).  My father told me that he used to ride regularly as a boy and I know that his grandfather was a stable master on large English country estates; on my mother’s side, her cousin was a race horse trainer but I can categorically confirm that such skills are not hereditary.  Everyone was allocated a horse.  I took mine, and after I told anyone who would listen that I had never ridden before I was given a short introduction.  This consisted of ‘lean back, pull back on the reins and say wow’ when I wanted to stop’ and ‘Lean forward, say ‘gee up’ and kick your heels in’ when I wanted to go forward.  No one wore riding helmets or other equipment.  Off we went up the hill towards the sunshine at a brisk pace.  I was towards the back but my horse happily followed his comrades.   We trotted away a little too fast for my liking but I soon realised that my wishes were irrelevant.  My horse steadily fell to the back of the cohort, going slower and slower till we reached the top of the hill and lost sight of the others galloping away.  The horse then stopped.  He refused to move.  I tapped him with my heels and said ‘gee up’ he took no notice.  He began to eat grass.

We remained like that for a few moments, the horse totally ignoring me until eventually I dismounted.  I looked at him, he continued to ignore me.  I remounted and attempted to walk him on.  He took no notice.  I dismounted again.  I tried speaking to him.  I asked nicely, I raised my voice and finally I swore at him, all to no avail.  I found a stick on the ground, if I hit him with it would it cause an injury?  I didn’t want to hurt the animal (although my concern for his welfare was becoming less important to me the more arrogant the grin on his face appeared).  I tapped him very lightly on the rear, I didn’t want him running away altogether.  He ignored it.  I sat on a rock to consider my next move, I didn’t want to walk down the hill and abandon the horse.  I stood up again, took hold of the reins and pulled the horse forward; he began to walk so I tried jumping on while he was still moving.  He stopped immediately and began eating grass again.  Finally, after more cursing and praying I gave up all together and sat on the rock to wait.

After about half an hour or so, the owner of the stables appeared coming up the trail.  I explained to her that the horse had just decided to stop and I couldn’t do anything about it.  She said something to the effect that he was renowned for being awkward and she should have realised and given me a livelier horse.  She took me and told me to ride hers down the hill.  I climbed on and my new mount was off immediately.  Galloping down the hill.  I now had the opposite problem.  From a horse that wouldn’t move I was now riding one that was too fast for me.  I leaned back calling ‘wow’ but the horse took absolutely no notice.  It galloped down the slope in about five minutes; my body bouncing up and down like a novice in the saddle (which I was).

So I survived that adventure.  However, being a slow learner I returned with my comrades to the stables the following day.  The stable staff gave me a better behaved horse which ran with the rest of his herd (again, my wishes as to pace were irrelevant).  I finally finished the session very sore; my riding technique had not improved in the twenty four hour interlude, but otherwise in one piece.  That was my last riding experience for approximately twelve years when I was tricked into a much less arduous event (but that’s another story).

I believe we spent almost a week in Opua.  It is a place I would like to revisit one day.