I left Milton Abbey, I had no interest in flying or my father’s business, I wanted to go to sea, so I was enrolled at Plymouth Nautical College, Father happy as it was the first time in my life, that he did not have to pay for my education, however he would have preferred that I went to the RBNC (Dartmouth Naval College, where he had connections, due to teaching their midshipmen to fly),
I also had a connection.
A slight deviation, I took part in the 1958 Tall Ships Race, a long story so I will keep it short. My Nautical College had chartered a yacht for some of us to take part in the race as paying guests, my father agreed to pay, so I joined, PSNC (The Pacific Steam Navigation Company), the shipping company with whom I had signed indentures, agreed to my joining them after the race.
The RBNC frigate HMS Carron came along as a guard ship. One of their officers had to return to the UK quickly, as we would get there several days before the Carron, the naval officer swapped berths with my watch mate.
It was in the Bay of Biscay rough, strong wind, heavy swell, I was on a night watch with the RN officer, pitch black and very noisy, loud crack from aloft, the gaff sagged, the shackle (not wired) had come adrift, I got another and climbed up the mast hoops and crawled out along the gaff, a very crazy, stupid and dangerous thing to do, no way would they have been able to recover me if I went overboard. It had to be done and I was on watch, so I did it. Big hero!
Actually I had nothing to worry about I could not drown as I was carrying a caul. Some babies are born with a membrane covering their heads. It is a seagoing tradition, that is if you carried one, (stuck to a piece of paper), that you would never drown. I had one; a rather special one, which was given to my naval grandfather, by his fishing friend, Winston Churchill, it was reported by the grandmother to be Winston’s own. She mentioned that my grandfather was serving on the vessel that Churchill was using as his accommodation during the Yalta conference.
When I took over the wheel later in the watch, I could feel the Dayspring (the name of the yacht, an ex Brixham pilot cutter) thanking me.
The RN officer asked what I was going to do when we got back to the UK, as I was the sort of material that Dartmouth were looking for, (yeah! crazy idiots who had no regard for their own safety), I explained that I was indentured to a shipping company, he replied that was a pity.
This incident was forgotten when we got back to Plymouth when the owner told the head of the navigation school that he would never charter to them again, he had good reason to say this. The head said, “so lads, you had good time”. We had!
When we arrived at Brest where the race started from, destination La Coruña, the skipper / owner gave jobs to do while he and the mate went off ashore. I and one other were detailed to paint the black hull. We were told we would find the paint in the engine room. We found the paint, observing it had a bit of strange smell, but it was black and in the engine room. We inflated the dinghy and got painting. It looked lovely, black and shining, a good job done, or so we thought.
We heard the returning owner screaming from the jetty. Our shining black hull was a dull bitumastic (tar) black and smelly, plus bitumastic on his inflatable. There actually was a pot of black paint in the engine room. After that we were not allowed onboard without him being there, we were heroes. There were other incidents, including a mutiny.
Back to the story
I did a years pre-sea induction course, which entitled me six months reduction from my four year apprenticeship as a deck cadet.
I went for an interview with PSNC and was accepted.
My First Voyage
We had received copies of my indentures which had to be signed by myself and my father in the presence of the Register of Shipping at Plymouth, they would then sign and stamp it. The indentures stated I would be paid at a rate of £120 / year for the first six months, rising to £216 in year four.
By signing the indentures I had agreed to serve three and a half years with them and not to “frequent taverns and houses of ill repute”. I guessed what a tavern was and asked father what a “house of ill repute” was. He replied “never mind”. “Well how do avoid them if I do not know what they are?”. The shipping superintendent said, “brothels lad”. I guess I blushed.
I received a list of the uniform requirements . It was both extensive and expensive. Started with a Cabin Trunk, ‘blue uniform list’, ‘tropical uniform list’, which included ‘number 10’s’, we did not know what they were but Gieves did, so they took charge of the list. It was like going back to a new school all over again. My father had already crossed some items off such as winter underwear. “You don’t need that where you are going”. He obviously had not been to Patagonia in mid winter, an area I visited my during my third voyage with PSNC.
I managed somehow with great difficulty to get myself and the cabin trunk onboard. I was guided to the cadets accommodation where I found a cadet that had already joined.
What is in that f’ing great box, why have you joined wearing uniform?
Why in a f’ing great box?
It’s a cabin trunk, its on the list
It’s not staying in this cabin. What list?
An obvious statement as it took up most of the floor space, it was in fact a f’ing great box.
A person who turned out to be the Chief Mate entered the cabin.
What is in the f’ing great box?
Never mind, get changed into your working gear, I need you to down the hatches.
I do not have any working gear.
What! Why not?
It’s not on the list
I opened the trunk and handed him the list, which was on top of the clothes as the various items had been ticked off as they were packed.
You mean you have all this?
Bridge coat! Well you probably the only person in the company who owns one. Who do you think you are? Midshipman F’ing Hornblower? You can go shore later and buy working gear.Then to the other cadet
Take him down No.4 hatch, they are loading spirits into the locker.
Apparently I had to prevent a bunch of Liverpool dockers from opening cartons of whisky and stealing / drinking the contents. After a bit I decided it would be best to let them have one carton, or something unpleasant might happen to me.
Later other cadet asked how I had got along, I explained what I had done, he said great I was learning fast, he added that we were only down the hatch, so the company could state that the cargo was being ‘guarded’ when loaded into lockers. Shippers paid additional freight charges for secure lockup storage.
During the lunch break, the now three other cadets watched with interest as I unpacked my clothes into the four drawers that were mine. There were two cabins, each with a bunk bed, (junior on top), four drawers under the bunk, desk with four drawers, two slim wardrobes, brass porthole, forced air vent, (not air-conditioned, blew sotty hot air in the tropics, cold sooty air in cold weather), a wash basin and a bare light fitting. Certain items such as pyjamas (apparently it was a company tradition to sleep nude), I was told to leave in the cabin trunk. The cabin trunk like the bridge coat and pyjamas were probably the only ones in the company.
The communal bathroom had two showers and two toilets, one dhobi bowl, served twelve people. No laundry or drying room. The ‘S’ class vessels each carried twelve cabin class passengers, who had a stewardess to look after them, who sometimes if we were lucky, she would put our dirty clothes in the passengers washing machine. Nowadays things are a bit different, with each crew member having his own cabin with an en suite. Fully equipped laundry etc.
That afternoon I was given time off and a map of where to buy working clothes. I purchased my first ever jeans. Working shirts and what went for ‘trainers’ in the late 50′, plus sandals which were unofficially allowed to be worn with tropical shorts, however white canvas shoes had to be worn with No.10’s. To comply with company orders, we changed from ‘blues’ (actually blacks) to ‘whites’ when the temperature reached 70f at eight in the morning.
I stayed on board my first evening in order to explore the ship fully. The other three cadets went ashore and came back completely pissed. This appeared to be another company tradition. So much for ‘not frequenting taverns’.
The following morning we went to Cornhill to ‘sign on’. This was the first time the crew met. Officers and some PO’s were on a company contract, crew signed on a single voyage basis. As apprentices we did not actual sign on as we were contracted to the company, not the vessel, but we had to be recorded as being onboard.
Liner companies like PSNC referred to their apprentices as cadets, tramp companies like my second company Bank Line called them apprentices. Weird companies like the Blue Funnel Line had midshipmen who lived in the ‘half deck’.
We sailed the following morning for Curacao in the Netherland Antilles where we would bunker.
We entered the Bay of Biscay, it was fairly rough, similar to when we sailed from Spain to Plymouth. At dinner the cadets sat at the Second Mate’s table, with the Radio Officer and the Junior Purser.
The radio officer (sparky) was, as he kept reminding was the only officer on board, the other officers being signed on as ‘master’, ‘mates’ or ‘engineers’ . He was employed by Marconi and ‘hired’ by the company. He was a right prat, he was 18 although younger than two of the cadets, (one of whom was 21), was officially allowed to buy and consume alcoholic drinks, whereas us cadets were not, although we got cans of beer from the passenger bar steward by signing for two soft drinks, same price. He baited us about this and the fact that he was the only ‘real’ officer on board. We got fed up with him, swiped his towel when he was in the shower after locking his cabin door using the passkey from the ‘duty officer keyring’. After sometime and when he was nearly in tears, the stewardess’s handed him a towel. He reported us to the mate, although he had no evidence who the culprit was. The Mate who ignored his complaint. He received further humiliation during the crossing the line ceremony, when he was ‘shaved’ and chucked in the pool, to the amusement of the passengers.
The Junior Purser being a junior head office member who wanted a trip a sea. We also carried seven engineers and two electricians. We were not allowed to fraternise with them, ‘oil and water do not mix’, another company tradition. We did see not much of them, as their cabins were on the main deck, while ours was on the ‘prom’ deck. Officers cabins port side, passengers on starboard side. Only the chief engineer was allowed to dine in saloon, with the officers and passengers. Most of the engineers were ‘army dodgers’, They could do time in the merchant navy in lieu of national service, thus earning more money. Few had uniforms.
Conversation at dinner the second night at sea:-
Where is the other cadet?
Cleife, don’t you feel seasick?
This was a stupid questions as I was on my third or fourth course, but his Irish brain could not register this
Are you sure you do not feel seasick?
I do not, I crossed the bay a few days ago in a small yacht, it was really rough then (exaggeration of yacht size and weather conditions) and I was not seasick, so I do not think this slight motion will make me seasick.
Laughs from the others, big embarrassment to second mate. I could feel his hate vibes hitting me.
This baiting of me continued, when at dinner a few nights later, I had had the soup and had moved on to the entree, asparagus.
Cadet you eat asparagus with your fingers, not a knife and fork.
You are wrong, you are referring to fresh green asparagus.
No! You are wrong.
Fresh green asparagus has tough stems which cannot be eaten. This is white tinned asparagus where the whole spear can be eaten, I pushed it a bit too far saying that I thought tinned white was inferior in taste too fresh green.
How come you know so much?
We grow it at home, I eat a lot, do you grow it?
The Captain on the adjacent table who had overheard this interchange
Cadet, use your fingers
Steward, finger bowl please.
Using fingers to eat all types of asparagus appeared to be another company tradition, along with no pyjamas, not speaking to the engineers and coming back on board pissed after a night ashore.
We were heading for Caracas Bay in Curacao. Curacao is in the Netherland Antilles, and is the C in the A B C Islands, the others being Aruba and Bonaire. All have refineries for processing Venezuelan crude oil.
Later when we arrived at Caracas Bay (Curacao) I was sent to the poop to ‘help’ with the mooring . In reality I stood there without a clew on what to do until I was told by the second mate, “not to stand around like a spare prick and help with coiling the ropes”, he seemed to have taken a disliking to me, following the seasick and asparagus incidents.
It was around about this time when I found I had a language problem, I could hardly understand a single word the Liverpool crew said, I apparently had a typical prep / public school accent and they could not understand me. One of the other cadets was a scouser, so he helped.
pronounce the double o as oo
so its cook and book with an ‘oo’ sound
I told him that was logical but not correct. He gave up.
Looking back on this now, what a conceited twit I was in those days. Typical public school product I guess. I have heard of worse, such as one first trip cadet, English but brought up in Chile, was instructed to by his Chief Mate to make tea his first time on the 4-8 watch. He put some leaves in a mug (no tea bags in those days), added hot tap water, gave it a quick stir and handed it to the mate. “Haven’t you made tea before?”, “No, the nearest I got to it, was goosing the maid which makes it at home”. Not bad for a first tripper.
Carrying cabin class passengers meant the food was very good. Cadets were the only people who could go through the menu. Most PSNC vessels carried passengers, in First or Cabin on some vessels and in the case of their liner RMS Reina del Mar, 207 first, 216 cabin and 343 Spanish class passengers. Spanish class was for passengers picked up at Vigo in Galicia and taken to South American destinations, they were fed Spanish food and were looked after by Spanish stewards. It was a higher standard than tourist class on other liners.
At sea the Chief Mate always had a cadet on his 4-8 watch. His duties were to make, tea, wake up the stewards, wake up the deck crew and perhaps, but unlikely learn a bit of navigation. Calling the stewards could be hazardous, as some bed sharing was going on, suggestive calls to join them in bed etc, a bit of an eye opener. Crossing the Atlantic the other three cadets also kept the 4-8, freeing the normal watch seaman for daywork, overhauling the cargo gear on the westbound crossing and painting on the eastbound. In later years the NUS (National Union of Seamen) stopped this practice, as it was depriving their members of overtime. Watch duties was one steering (no automatic in those days), one on lookout the other on standby, usually holystoning the boat deck and putting out the passengers deck chairs and cleaning the brass in the afternoons.
There is nothing in Caracas Bay except the oil jetty, an old castle and 100’s of hummingbirds. We explored the castle, skinny dipped, dried off in the very hot sun and went back on board to find some shade under the boat deck awnings. A little girl passenger came over and said, “we watched swimming”, this was accompanied by a giggle. “So what of it”, she ran off.
We had a portable pool on board, it was setup on the main deck by No.4 hatch, when the sea water was warm enough and stayed rigged until the first time that No.4 hatch was worked, usually Guayaquil in Ecuador, but sea swimming was better.
A lot of husbands flew to new jobs and their families travelled by sea, it was cheaper in those days and the baggage allowance was unlimited.
One of the cadets got friendly with a wealthy ranch owning Chilean family, especially with their gorgeous ginger haired teenage daughter, it got serious. I met him a couple of years later asked him why he wasn’t living in luxury in Chile, he replied the whole family got wiped out in the Concepcion earthquake. More of that in Part 2.
Our first proper port was Cristobal at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal.
We called there to take on drinking water and await our turn to transit the canal. The taking on of water is usually supervised by the ships carpenter. He on this occasion told the mate he had a serious attack of toothache and headed off to the bars, to get it seen too. The cadets were therefore given the job, they gave it to me and headed off to the bars. We were filling the forepeak tank, the largest water tank. I took soundings for an hour, worked out it would take a further three hours and headed off into the town. I returned at midnight when shore leave ended to find water pouring down the ships side. In my calculations I had allowed for a boxed shaped tank, it wasn’t. Hell was let loose when the mate was presented with a bill for double the maximum capacity of the tank. In spite of the enormous rainfall and freshwater lakes, drinking water was expensive in the Canal Zone.
Our transit through the canal was interesting, we anchored in Miraflores lake, barbecue lunch was set up and we dived or jumped off the bridge into the fresh water lake, then headed off in convoy through the Culebra cut the narrowest part of the canal, one way traffic.
We passed through the final two locks and entered the Pacific. We passed at BI training ship Chindwara heading east. It carried thirty nine cadets and classrooms, instructors, yuk! Just like being back a college. There was a cricket match taking place on the boat deck as we passed.
100’s died due to malaria and accidents during the construction of the canal. It was fairly narrow this width when I passed through it for the first time, it has now been widened. I have transited the canal on 31 different occasions.
Our first South American port was Buenaventura in Colombia. Cadets were not allowed to go ashore as it was considered to be dangerous. A few years later when I was a 3rd mate, I was sent ashore to the bars to round up the crew as sailing had been brought forward. I check the outside toilet in one bar, there was a male corpse lying there. I knew it was male as it had been robbed of its clothing. I informed the barmen, he replied, “So! It’s not my body”. Yes! A dangerous place.
Our first main port where we had a decent amount of time was Callao, the port for Lima. I knew all about Callao as I had read Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki Expedition. The Kon Tiki had sailed from Callao 28th April 1947. The only reference I saw was a bar called the Kon Tiki. No one seem to know what the Kon Tiki was.
We had to do cargo watches until 2200 hours when the stevedores finished, a quick shower, then ashore. The idea of cargo watches was to stop the stevedores from pilfering the cargo, also it was to allow us to look for valuable items we could take and flog to finance our trips ashore. We knew from the shipping marks which cartons were likely to contain small floggable items, such as bottles of Yardley products, a popular brand in South America. On one ship a cadet sold a car in Havana destined for a south American port, he would have got away with it if he hadn’t tried to sell two. The duty officer spotted the second one being discharged, a check was made and the first car was recovered and the money handed back.
Our favourite bar was the called Yacht Club, (I informed my parents I had joined the Callao Yacht Club, they must have been proud of me, if they only knew it was full of whores doing business, “Johny do you wants a short time?”), It had live music. The band was on a twelve foot high platform supported by bamboo stilts. If they refused to play our requests, we shook the stilts until the platform collapsed. There was no law there, fights broke out regularly between our crew and Norwegians off the Bakke boats. If the police intervened the fight would stop, the police were chucked out into the street, the fight was resumed.
Our favourite music played by Yacht Club band was Perez Prado.
A few voyages later, I heard Perez Prado play live on the terrace at the Mylebank Hotel overlooking the harbour at Kingston Jamaica. Harry Belafonte and his wife were staying there on holiday. They were spotted and a song requested. They sung “a hole in my bucket”. A great evening.
Our favourite juke box song was ‘Seemann’ a German song, Petula Clark sung an english version. It was played a lot, as it was popular with all vessels of all nationalities. South American radio stations played Constantia Francisca (Connie Francis) non stop. Between adverts for Cerveza Cristal.
Our number two was :-
After Callao we carried on down the coast, stopping to discharge cargo and pick up passengers at Arica. The first port Arica and last Punta Arenas in Chile were duty free, so Chileans went on mad shopping sprees in Arica and used us to carry them and their goods to and from Valparaiso. These passengers had to be entertained.
The Mate came into the cadets accommodation after sailing from Arica, I was the only one there.
Mate to me. You are calling the tombola numbers in the passenger lounge tonight.
I thought ok, (the word cool was not used in those days), under such circumstances, a blind eye was turned to us drinking drinks given to us the passengers
He left then returned after a few minutes
Bye the way, you are calling in Spanish as well as English
I had the afternoon to learn Spanish numbers, I asked one of the other cadets how many numbers are called in tombola, the shit said ninety nine.
Another ship, another trip I was stuck playing bridge with three passengers, I was the only other declared bridge player on board. I did not want to play as I was not much good at it and had to get up at 4 in the morning to go on watch. After four days of sleep deprivation, I decided to play so badly, the game would be disbanded, it worked.
It was around about this time that I was called up to the captain’s cabin. The company had received a letter from my parents saying that had not heard from me since I caught the train to Liverpool, was I all right. They were assured them that I was ok and they would get me to write to them. I had to then and there, I told them I had written, but the post office had been burnt down in a revolution, they had lots of them in South America and that I was ok and had joined a yacht club. My parents very rarely wrote to me even when I was at prep school aged 8-13, I only used write to ask for more tuck and to have my Eagle comic sent.
After Arica we carried on down the coast the next major port was Valparaiso, the chief port of Chile.
I had had some trouble with one of the saloon stewards Murphy. We had silver service, he was giving me a very small portions of vegetables, I asked for more, he refused, this happened the next day, on the third day he refused to give me the fish course. I had had enough, I stormed out of the saloon, went to the pantry door and informed them that I would be taking all future meals to my cabin. Later I was called up to the Captains cabin and asked for an explanation. It ended with the Murphy being logged and having two days pay deducted.
We went ashore to the seamen’s club to see Miss Guthrie and wait for things to liven up. At about midnight we went to the Scandinavian Bar known to everyone as The Scandy. The first person I saw was Murthy sitting on a stool at the far end of the bar, he got up and came towards me ‘daggers drawn’ as they say. It was looking very ugly, until four of our AB’s stood up and told me to go and get lost. Next time I saw Murthy he was in a bad state, he face had suffered badly, bruises and black eye. He looked a right mess and as such could not serve in the saloon, so was demoted from saloon steward, to the engineers mess steward. It seemed that he had been threatened with further violence, if he ever came near me during the remaining six weeks of the voyage.
Our final discharge port was Talcahuano a few hours south of Valpo. We then turned around a headed north calling at various ports to load, nitrate, copper, cotton, and tin. Our final port was to be Nuevitas in Cuba to load bulk raw sugar for Tate and Lyle at Royal Docks London.
This was 1958 when Fidel Castro was still a bandit.
We anchored off the port and waited for the pilot. The ship’s agent boarded and told us that Castro and his chums were going to burn down the jetty that night, he had nothing against the British, so he (Castro) had suggested that we did not berth.
The following morning the jetty was still there undamaged, so we berthed. The jetty was over a mile long, a railway system brought sacks of sugar alongside, they were loaded into tween deck, opened and the sugar poured down into the holds.
We went ashore that night, got a bit pissed and lost one cadet, we assumed he had gone ‘bagging off’. We returned to the jetty half way along we found the cadet lying on the ground pissed and surrounded by large land crabs. There were hundreds of the things. We knew we could not leave him because the crabs would have him, we were too pissed to carry him, so dumped him in a railway wagon safe from the crabs.
The following morning he was not back onboard. We looked at the jetty it was empty, no wagons, they had returned to the depot to load sugar. He arrived with the next load of sugar, not remembering a thing other waking up in the wagon. He had then hid until the train left.
We arrived back at Liverpool, I was looking forward to some leave after the three month trip. However it was not to be. Two cadets had to stay on board for the coastal trip to discharge the bulk sugar at the Tate and Lyle berth in the London docks. We also had to discharge some nitrate at Plymouth on the way back to Liverpool.
At Plymouth I managed to persuade the company to let me go on leave from Plymouth. I would easy to get the f’ing great box home. The berth was occupied, so we had to anchor in Sound for two days. I sighted the Navigation School whaler, I called them up on the Aldis and invited them on board for a look around.
The Captain for the coastal trip, was one ‘borrowed’ from RML (Royal Mail Lines), our sister company. It was the norm on these coastal trips, for the cadets to have time off outside bridge watches to do our compulsory correspondence course. This guy had us remove the numerous brass name plates from above doors, remove the paint, polish them, paint the embossed letters red. A completely pointless thing to do. The next job he gave us was to remove the black paint from the balls (quadrantal correctors) on the monkey island compass binnacle and paint them red and black, We did, the starboard one red and the port green. The Captain registered his complaint with the Chief Officer. Later we found a case of beer in our accommodation.
My mother came to pick me up, first thing she did was to inform me she was getting married at nine the next morning and I was the best man. When she woke me the next morning, she was told to f++k off, “W’ll have none of that seaman language here, thank you”.