This is the first post on my blog as a self-publishing author. Thanks for visiting (apologies for the photo, unfortunately I’ve never been very photogenic).
My name is Denis Scott although I publish under the name of E.D. Robson. I have chosen to do this as I am currently writing fantasy novels but may choose to add other forms of fiction or even non-fiction in the future under my real, or another name.
I will be using this site to include information about my writing, such as ideas, progress and giveaways plus anything else that catches my attention. I welcome your questions and responses (although talking to myself is not a new experience to me).
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…
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.
The continuing story of my experiences as a navigating cadet in the British Merchant Navy.
Our vessel, the Port Chalmers arrived in Melbourne the state capital of Victoria and berthed in a more central location than our previous harbour. As the cadet, one of my jobs (like changing the clocks) was to raise the Red Ensign, which is the flag of the British Merchant Navy. The flag was flown from a flag pole at the stern (back) of the vessel and my orders were to raise it by 8 a.m. and lower it by 8 p.m.
We docked in the late evening and it was my turn to raise the flag the following morning. After breakfast, I went out onto the afterdeck with the flag which was stored in a locker on the bridge and clipped it to the lanyard (the rope used to secure the flag to the pole). As I have stated earlier, I was totally unsuited to the role of a seaman. The main reason being that I am totally impractical. This is not false modesty or an exaggeration by any means. I am of an age now where I can recognise and accept my limitations. When I hear someone say, ‘it’s easy anyone can do it’, or ‘you’ll have no problem’ I cringe (my father, a very practical engineer used to despair of me). I have a long history of manual work (polishing aircraft fuselages, loading and unloading meat lorries) and used to be very handy with a sledge hammer in my younger days, but anything that requires the slightest finesse and I am lost, as you will realise as you read further into this blog. On this occasion, when I started to pull on the rope that would raise the flag, instead of going up it fell down into the dock. I was distraught, if the first mate saw it my life wouldn’t be worth living. The galley boy came out onto the deck at that time, I got hold of a boat hook (a hook on the end of a long wooden pole) and we attempted unsuccessfully to pull the flag out of the water. It was floating too far out. One of the young ship stewards joined us, together with a deck boy (trainee seaman). We managed to unhook the flagpole itself from its mounting on the deck and lower it down, enabling us to catch hold of the lanyard and haul the flag out of the water. We then remounted the pole, I raised the (wet) flag correctly and the senior officers were none the wiser (I subsequently repaid my assistants in our common currency, beer).
When the Port Line ships were in large English speaking ports like Melbourne, every night was party night in the officer’s bar. The deck cadets had to work cargo watches in port plus be on duty when the ship berthed and departed. However, the Australian dockers, like the British, did not work nights so we tended to have our late evenings free. A lot of locals used to visit the ships for the partying and on our arrival in Melbourne an invitation was sent out to the local nurses hostel inviting them to a party (I can’t recall them attending but apparently it was a fairly regular occurrence). The invitation was made via a landline telephone which was plugged in to the phone system from the dock side (cell phones were the stuff of science fiction). However, there were other frequent visitors to the ships for entertainment. I can remember a woman driving me to her house in the suburbs for a party after I had finished my cargo watch one day which I thought was very decent of her as my colleagues had already arrived there earlier. On route she told me off for not wearing my seat belt in the front passenger seat of her car which quite surprised me as apparently the Australian police were quite strict about seat belts whereas their wearing had not become compulsory in the U.K. yet.
Also while in Melbourne my line manager, the first mate was in a particularly good mood. I know nothing about horses and horse racing (as you shall see when I describe my time in New Zealand in the next instalment) but while in port, he had placed a bet on a horse which won a race called the Melbourne Cup. I since discovered that the Melbourne Cup is the richest race in the southern hemisphere. The date of the race was Tuesday 7th November 1972 so we were still in Melbourne then. The race was won by a horse called Piping Lane ridden by John Letts.
Following a few days in Melbourne the Port Chalmers continued its voyage round the Australian coast to Sydney. We arrived at Sydney Harbour at midnight. It would have been mid-November by now, well into the Australian summer. For the berthing, I was on duty with the second mate and crew forward. I walked out from the accommodation block onto the deck just as the ship was about to go under the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. As we went through, to my left was the famous Opera House all lit up (as was the bridge). In addition all around us were small pleasure craft. The night was warm and balmy. It was like looking at the scene from a post card and fond memories return every time I see it on the T.V. or in a picture.
(As I type this the latest news pictures I have seen show Sydney under the clouds of bush fire smoke which have already claimed a number of lives and destroyed many communities. The latest count of animals killed stands at almost half a billion (BBC News 04/01/2020) with many species pushed close to extinction (The Guardian, 04/01/2020). The smoke from the fires has caused skies in New Zealand, over one thousand miles from Sydney, to turn orange).
However back in 1972, nothing was occurring to my knowledge which compares with the current horrors. In fact only two events spring to mind from my days in Sydney. The first was that I discovered that there was an old fashioned ‘sit up and beg style bicycle on board. I was tasked with taking orders for a Chinese takeaway meal from the officer’s bar, phoning them through to a local takeaway on the docks (once again, we were plugged into the local network via a cable trailed from the quayside) and cycling to collect them (home delivery was a rare event in those days).
The other event was going out for a meal in the city centre with three colleagues which I remember for two reasons, firstly it was the first (and only) time I have had oysters; luckily a colleague was on hand to demonstrate how to eat them properly and secondly, as the four of us were headed into town we stopped at a pub on the docks and one of us asked the bar maid for four pints of Fosters (an Australian beer), her reply was ‘Fosters, you’ll be f… lucky ducks’ laughing loudly. She then served us before picking up a baseball bat from behind the bar which she used to bash a drunken man who had strayed in, over the head while coming out with a racial insult and dragging him out of the pub by his collar. We all drank up quickly and left.
After a few days the ship finished unloading its cargo and sailed for New Zealand.
Coming next – I meet a horse and lose a battle of wills.
The continuing story of my experiences as a navigating cadet in the British Merchant Navy.
The dual nature of the cadet’s training and work is reflected in their alternative titles, deck cadet or navigating cadet. As such, our time at sea was divided between the two. There was a saying that no one should be in a position to instruct someone to do something that they couldn’t do themselves. While the Port Chalmers was ‘deep sea’ in decent weather we were tasked with stripping the wooden decks and bannisters around the accommodation block and re-staining them. In addition, our line manager, the first officer was a great believer in ‘red lead’, a poisonous paint primer, very effect at reducing rusting and coping with the effects of salt water on metals. Being a traditional cargo ship with holds, the ship was equipped with small fixed cranes, winches and derricks (a lifting device similar to a crane), plus having steel hull and decks so our instructions were simple, ‘If it moves, grease it, if it stands still, paint it.’ This meant we spent most of our working days lugging around paint pots, rollers, brushes and grease guns. Being the sort of person who manages to make a mess just by being there, I usually ended the day covered in whatever substance I had been working with and have subsequently wondered what damage I may have caused to myself as a result (nothing evident to date, fingers crossed). These activities were also what engaged most of the able seaman who were not involved in watch keeping duties during the trips. However, there were two further tasks which I discovered were usually reserved for the cadets; repainting the ship’s swimming pool and repainting and checking the provisions inventories of the ship’s lifeboats.
When not engaged on deck work, we were put onto the bridge with the officer of the watch. While at sea, the bridge was continually staffed by a deck officer. The watches (shifts) consisted of three split shifts, 4 till 8, 8 till 12 and 12 till 4. Traditionally the first mate (who was the captain’s deputy and directly responsible for cargo and the maintenance of the deck side of things) took the 4 till 8 slots. The second mate (responsible for navigation charts etc.) took the 12 till 4 and the third mate, the 8 till 12 (responsible for safety equipment). It was at this time in my life that my status as a night owl was confirmed. I far preferred the 12 till 4.
In addition to the ‘officer of the watch’ and possibly a cadet, there was also an additional watch keeper, a seaman who would normally stand out on a bridge wing keeping a look out for other ships or potential hazards. Navigation deep sea was carried out using a sextant. This is an instrument which measures the angle between a celestial object and the horizon. This measurement, by use of trigonometric calculations and tables, plus allowances for time distances from G.M.T. enables the position of the ship to be pinpointed. When possible, at midday as many of the deck officers as possible would gather on the bridge wing and individually use their sextants to calculate the ships position by taking the sun’s angle relative to the horizon. The average figure of the result would then be used in order to reduce human error. A similar process was carried out by the first mate on the 4 to 8 watch, but with just one individual calculating the position by taking a ‘sighting’ of a number of stars. Of course, unlike using the sun, the problem with star sights is that you have to know which stars you’re looking at (something I’ve never mastered and never been too concerned about I must admit). I had to learn the necessary calculations for a sun sight and work them out long hand, although my qualified superiors had started using new fangled modern machines called ‘pocket calculators’. I was banned from doing so as I needed to know the calculations for my navigation exams, in addition to which I was told, ‘calculators were so expensive you may not always have had one available.’
Once the vessel got to a coast line other forms of positioning became available. Automatic direction finders (A.D.F.) involved listening on a receiver for a radio signal beamed from shore as Morse code. When you could pick the signal up clearly you knew that your vessel must lie along a particular line from the shore. The final and most useful of aids were lighthouses. There were enough along the southern coast of Australia to use the ships compass to take bearings and draw a line on your chart from more than one lighthouse at the same time. This allowed you to pinpoint your position to the place on your chart where the two (or more) lines met (triangulation).
Nowadays sextant’s and A.D.F.s are largely redundant thanks to G.P.S. which first became widely available in 1983, some ten years after the time I am writing about. The idea of sat-navs in motor vehicles or on wrist watches was the stuff of science fiction in the early 1970s.
Our first port of call in Australia was Port Adelaide in the state of South Australia. I remember the port as being quite isolated from anything of obvious interest to me. I felt a sense of disappointment walking off the ship onto a grassy area and thinking I’d come half way round the world to look at an area more boring than my parent’s back garden at home. A recent internet search describes Port Adelaide as a rejuvenated industrial area about nine miles from the city centre of Adelaide itself. I had obviously arrived, pre-rejuvenation.
While in port the cadets were allocated to cargo watches, basically observing and supervising the stevedores unloading the cargo. Usually at main ports, large dockside cranes were used for unloading, driven by the dockers rather than the small ship based equipment. In addition, fork lift trucks were lowered into the cargo holds. Often, the deck officers would take actual or nominal responsibility for a cargo watch and then delegate it to the cadet. However overall responsibility rested with the first mate.
Two things come to mind about Port Adelaide. The first was the customs inspectors. There was a customs officer’s training centre situated there and we were warned before the ship berthed that such places meant that customs checks were often carried out with more rigor and enthusiasm then in other places. At the time, I believe that Glasgow was the U.K. equivalent port. I remember a young officer entering my cabin and searching everything, throwing my clothing about (not very funny considering that my relationship with an iron was like that of a blind person with portrait painting) and barking questions at me. With the benefit of age and experience, I realise now that the young man may well have been acting as he had been instructed and come over as aggressive because he was more nervous then I was, not that I was doing anything wrong.
The second thing that struck me was the arrival of prostitutes in the crew’s bar and accommodation. For a teenager from a small community in Derbyshire who had never been away from home for more than a week before this was a total eye opener. The existence of these girls on the docks was a complete sub-culture. I don’t know if nay pimps were on the scene, I imagine they must have been somewhere although there was no obvious evidence. The women tended to use nicknames and I discovered that certain girls were associated with certain ships and lines, serving the same customers each time the ship returned. I recall having a drink in the crew bar one afternoon and speaking to a young woman known as Bunk. Bunk was a total and obvious alcoholic (plus whatever other substances she may have been taking). She was a well-known character but none of the crew were showing any interest. She appeared to be hanging around for the cheap or free drink available. She got morose as she drank, telling me that she had a boyfriend who was a married German ship’s officer. He had offered to put her up in her own flat and keep her but she’d refused as she valued her independence (who knows?). As she drank she pulled an old crumpled little black and white photo out of her pocket. It was of a baby boy. In tears, she told me that he was her child and had been taken away from her by the authorities as she was considered unfit to care for him properly. Soon after that meeting, I got talking to the dockers foreman. He told me that he’d been eating his sandwiches at his desk the previous day when a woman’s voice said, ‘Hi I’m Bunk’, he looked up from his newspaper to see a scruffy young woman holding up her top, showing her bare breasts. As he froze, his visitor grabbed his sandwiches from his desk and ran out. I have no idea what became of Bunk, it would be nice to think that she turned her life round, but not very likely.
I think we were at Port Adelaide for three or four days before the ship sailed for Melbourne.
The continuing story of my experiences as a navigating cadet in the British Merchant Navy.
Prior to arriving at Cape Town, Fred and myself plus the ‘galley boy’ and one of the officer’s wives on board underwent a ‘crossing the line’ ceremony as the Port Chalmers crossed the equator south bound. I cannot remember the details of exactually what occurred, I seem to recall that in the case of the two cadets it involved having some disgusting substance thrown over us and being thrown into the ship’s swimming pool amongst other things. Wikipedia describes the ceremonies as;
‘… an initiation rite that commemorates a person’s first crossing of the Equator. The tradition may have originated with ceremonies when passing headlands and become a “folly” sanctioned as a boost to morale or have been created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Equator-crossing ceremonies, typically featuring King Neptune, are common in the navy and are also sometimes carried out for passengers’ entertainment on civilian ocean liners and cruise ships. They are also performed in the merchant navy and aboard sail training ships.’
As the ship was equipped to carry passengers the captain was able to present us each with an ornate certificate issued on behalf of ‘Neptune’ (which I have now unfortunately lost somewhere).
From Cape Town the Port Chalmers continued round the Cape of Good Hope towards Port Adelaide in Australia. As we rounded Africa, the seas became rougher. Apparently that area of the Indian ocean is famous for what is termed ‘rogue’ or ‘freak’ waves. There have been a number of cases of damage to ships around the world and many deaths over the centuries involving these waves and I was informed that on its maiden voyage, the Port Chalmers had been hit by one, causing such damage to the thick steel area at the front of the vessel known as the forecastle or the fo’c’sle head that the ship had to abandon its voyage and limp into a nearby port for repairs. This bought home to me the power of the sea, even in relation to what I considered to be a large and modern vessel.
One of my duties on the voyage was adjusting the ships clocks. They were old fashioned quite attractive time pieces mounted on the wall in various rooms around the ships accommodation. Unlike today’s modern clocks, every time the time zone changed as we travelled around the world, the clocks had to be manually altered. Fred and I performed this duty on alternate days, after the evening meal. The ship’s local time was usually changed by an hour every twenty-four hours. There were clocks in all the senior officer’s cabins, plus all the bars and messes, the bridge, engine control room, galleys, deck office, messes and bars. A total of fourteen rings a bell from somewhere so it was quite a time consuming task after what was often a twelve hour day. One evening, I was in the officer’s bar when someone told me that the captain was querying why his day room clock had not been adjusted yet. It was Fred’s turn to do the clocks that day so I set off to find him. Unlike myself, Fred was a sensible, intelligent and responsible individual. He didn’t smoke and drank moderately. I by contrast, have always had great difficulty with ‘m’s and moderation unfortunately is an ‘m’ (in later days, I used to have the same problem with motivation). I can understand the theory of all things in moderation, but unfortunately have always struggled to put it into practice. Although I didn’t smoke before going to sea, I had been bought up in a smoke filled atmosphere, my father was famous for always having a cigarette in his mouth. Once I realised the relative cheapness of duty free cigarettes (they were sold to us at cost price with no duty) I began smoking enthusiastically. In my defence I would say that the anti-smoking health campaigns had not really taken off then, but to be honest, I wouldn’t have taken any notice anyway. In your late teens thirty is a lifetime away.
Alcohol was a different matter. Unfortunately I have always had the ability to consume vast amounts of the stuff before becoming outwardly inebriated. Most British flagged cargo ships at that time had officer’s bars on board. Those with British crews also had crew bars (a distinct separation). I was informed that the bars were introduced because of the number of seamen with depression or other mental health issues, often compounded by isolation from their loved ones for months at a time who would lock themselves in their cabin’s and then drink alone. There were many deaths, both accidental and suicidal which resulted in the introduction of bars. The rationale being that in a public venue at least one’s colleagues could monitor their drinking and behaviour. Soon after I left the sea, I believe that bars were removed from most vessels.
Back to Fred and the clocks. I headed for his cabin and found him sat in his shower, fully clothed if I remember. The shower was on and he was soaked as the water poured over him. He was also mumbling to himself, hopelessly drunk. I turned the water off and asked him what he was doing. He told me that it was his birthday and that when he got to the crew bar to adjust their clock, some of them insisted that he have a drink with them before continuing, then another and another. I pulled him out of the shower, took the clock keys from him and completed his round, mentioning his condition to a couple of the junior engineering officers and their wives, who put him safely to bed.
Like cigarettes, alcohol on the Port Line ships was duty free. However, on the Port Line vessels the bars were unusually run by the staff themselves as clubs rather than the company. This meant that the alcohol was even cheaper. The crew and officers tended to keep to their own bars however the cadets tended to be tolerated in both. I used to plan my evening clock adjusting rota with the bars as my last ports of call. Most of the Port Line engineering officers were Geordies with some Scottish Clyde siders. Many were from the town of South Shields. Unlike the deck officers the engineers were not obliged to follow the strict Board of Trade training scheme. Most of them completed engineering apprenticeships in the ship yards of the north-east before going to sea, either for better pay or because the yards used to train more engineers than they required. Such men (and they were all men) tended to have a culture of work hard, play hard and had a reputation for heavy drinking (verging on alcoholism in some cases).
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.
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.