1950’s snapshots

Joining a Bank Line ship as apprentice

The magic telegram arrives and the anticipation is over. A long leave is ended and a mysterious new chapter is about to begin, and in the mind of the young seafarer this event is a  ‘ Jack and the Beanstalk’ tale, only for real.  Make no mistake, joining a Bank Line ship for a new, likely 2 years trip was not to be taken lightly, given all the unknowns. The telegram with pasted strips of paper from a teleprinter and stuffed in a yellow envelope is short and cryptic -“ join xxx bank with kit at xxx dock on xxx day.  A rail ticket is enclosed.” 

In addition to any possible excitement, a lot of questions arise in our young man’s mind. How old is the ship, and what degree of comfort is there?   Who are to be the shipmates, and who is the Master?  Where might she be heading? And being young – what might the food be like?

A long tedious journey to the port ends with a taxi ride to a dock. The reaction of the driver varies from incredulous to sarcastic as it rounds the shed. The fun begins….    First, the excitement of spotting the bluff bow of the ship, often looming up high, rust streaked, with rat guards hanging loose on the mooring lines.  The smells and sounds from the discharging of the inward bound cargo invade the senses.  There might be a steep, rickety gangway leading to a deck cluttered with pipes and piles of hatchboards, beams, and battens.  It all looks, and is, chaotic. Then, an introduction to shipmates already arrived, and a narrow bunk in a small cabin, larger if in luck and the vessel is a newish building. Pot luck and the whim of the Head Office staff dictates.   Before all the new surroundings can be anything like fully appraised, there might be a call to get into some working clothes and turn out on deck for some real or imaginary emergency or task.   A familiarity with an array of wrenches and spanners, usually dumped in what is supposed to be a study, is a must.  Dirty dungarees and overalls hang there too.

Welcome to the start of something unknown.   With any luck, the sun will soon shine, and flying fish appear.  A port will loom up, and the long trip can begin in earnest.  Here comes another world, another  life.

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U.S. Gulf Port Life

Something special at sea for those lucky enough to enjoy it, was a traipse around the U.S. Gulf Ports and a hectic but funtime  loading schedule.    The smells, sights and sounds, and amazing shore experiences would come together to leave a permanent and indelible place in the memory.

This fascinating Gulf coastline with it’s offshore platforms, heavy with chemical and petro plants, and lit with flares, dotted with ‘ nodding donkey’ oil wells, and soaked in Cajun and western music was an unexplored paradise for any young sailor.  For some, everything about it was special.

It started usually in Texas, anywhere from Brownsville on the border through any one of a number of small well used ports, some miles from the sea, like Beaumont with it’s creeks full of war built Liberty and Victory ships surplus to requirements.   Galveston was a paradise with amazing bars and shops to be explored, and Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama were still to come.    Sailing up to New Orleans and sometimes way beyond to Baton Rouge, the sights and sounds were magnified by the colourful tugs, some pushing and some towing, and the larger than life pilots. They  boarded down in the approaches called ‘passes’, sticking out like fingers into the Gulf.  Often they were men who dominated the bridge,  sporting highly colourful shirts and frequently, but not always, with bull horn voices. They had a commanding manner which delighted  timid and oppressed  boys on the bridge, watching mesmerised as the pilots barked orders into their walky-talky radios.   The best was yet to come and the anticipation was great.    Berthing in New Orleans, the old hands knew that the quayside sheds housed an array of vending machines which would be bombarded with every coin from around the world except the nickels and  dimes that they were designed for!   It wasn’t difficult to extract drinks and candies unknown on the ship.  A shore trip meant an opportunity to buy sought after American high quality shirts and pants, often of ‘ sea island cotton’.    These garments would be treasured and nursed for months or years before a return trip.

After a hectic few weeks the ship would be fully loaded, and carefully down to her marks before sailing for Cristobal in Panama and a canal transit.    The recent weeks would be savoured over and over to relieve the monotony of an ocean passage, and some of the memories would last for ever.

The Australian and New Zealand coasts…

In the days before container ships, or ‘ box boats’, a full programme discharging and then loading around the coasts of Australia or N.Z. for general cargo ships could last 6 to 12 weeks and was some sort of heaven to the young seafarer.     The freedom, the friendliness, the booze, and the girls marked this event out as something special to be enjoyed, and at the very worst it was a pleasant sojourn.

Picture this:    It has been a month at sea. The ship is painted down totally and the monotony is nearly at an end as the coast approaches. Already the music stations are flooding in on the medium wave radio channels and the announcements are heady stuff with an obsession for sport of all kind, horse racing, trotting, cricket, etc,  laced with weather forecasts and a variety of tempting fixtures for the weekend ahead.  It was another exciting world, eagerly embraced for the duration of the stay.   Regulars knew that loading and discharging stood a good chance of being satisfactorily slow as strikes and disputes were frequent. Whole days would likely occur where all the cargo gear stood silent and idle, while the life ashore buzzed along nicely.   Soon, the ship was berthed, and the wharfies or stevedores were aboard, probing the gear and taking issue with some features on safety grounds.   Wire cargo runners were replaced on request, and other issues resolved, just in time for the first morning break — and so it went on.     If they were lucky the apprentices and sometimes the Mates were offered the chance to earn astronomical sums helping the wharfies as ‘ sea gulls’ , or temporary workers to make up numbers and to avoid any permanent outsiders joining this elite band.  An apprentice earning a few pounds a month on indentures could find an eye watering wad of notes stuffed in his hand at the end of a desultory shift which could only be described as  treasure!    The excellent wharfies pay was inflated heavily by a variety of ‘ extra’ payments on account of hardship like having to stoop, smell unpleasant smells, or work with dirty cargo.  It was fantasy land, and keen types who protested that they hadn’t done much were soon put in the picture by the steward or foreman who patiently explained why this was in everyone’s interest.  To add to the enjoyment, any real work between stoppages was seasoned with great humour.  Then, soon after the gangway had been lowered, a telephone would be brought onboard for general use.   Old hands, used to the delights of the coast would soon be calling the local nurses home, or ladies guest houses, with an open invitation to a party — yet to be organised.  It never failed, and quite often led to life-long marriages.

Ashore were more delights, including cold lager, and the ubiquitious ‘Penfolds’ wine, easily obtainable.   Viewed from a seaman’s perspective, everything seemed to be geared to booze, sport, beach, and leisure.    It was a memorable, almost guaranteed experience leaving pleasant lingering memories.

Cuban Idyll

A young mariner eager and curious to experience life would have unknowlingly hit the jackpot when his ship arrived in Cuba, pre Castro times.   The memories  would remain seared in the brain forever.

Berthing in a remote town on either coast to load the ubiquitious sugar in 2 cwt sacks, the pace of life, and the constant rhythmic pounding of the catchy Latin music would dominate his thoughts for some time to come.   The sea-going and rather predictable life would be put on temporary hold and in it’s place would be a whirl of intoxicating shore trips, fuelled by white Bacardi rum ready to catch out the unwary and careless, with penalties too graphic and stark to recount!

Picture this.   A long and mundane sea journey is finally over. It is evening, with all the beauty of a tropical sunset . The water is pristine clear. Balmy weather and a little humidity dominate the moment as the ship slowly approaches a T jetty without the aid of tugs. A tough looking Cuban pilot with a small metal megaphone is pacing the bridge wing, yelling at the boat to take the lines.  Finally, the ship is alongside and the gangway goes down, and the nearby town beckons.  It looks dusty and unhurried, but already music can be heard from a cantina/bar alongside the railway track leading to the jetty.   Young children plus chickens are scampering around the tables set up outside.  A couple of locals, shabbily dressed,  are nursing small bottles of white rum which they are drinking from.  On board, stevedores arrive, many bow legged from years of humping the heavy sacks of brown sugar.  It’s not long before they are fishing from  the seaward side where the water is teeming with fish.   It is evening time. The haunting music can still be heard from up the street leading from the jetty, and a shore trip calls as the sun finally sets.  Five minutes up the railway track leading down the dusty street, several bars with coloured lights look tempting. Prices are low. Locals wave good naturedly and beckon the group in. Several girls appear, reeking of garlic, laughing and making unmistakable gestures as they sidle up close.    Soon, a party is in full swing with impromptu dancing around the tables and spilling out onto the street.  The locals dance with a minimum of effort, barely moving and shuffling their feet in an impressive erect display of rhythm, and before long the rum has taken over completely. For the unwary seafarers it all becomes an intoxicating blur, and if and when they make it back onboard the night’s events are more than a little hazy.   Despite this, they all are eager for a repeat performance, and Cuba has made it’s indelible mark!    

South America bound….

For many regular, or even casual visits to South American ports, our young seafarer would feel the pulse quicken when the itinery was announced.  The music, the mystery, the girls, and the sheer excitement and exuberance  of the  anticipated visit dominated. The big cities, Buenos Aries, Montevideo and more held out wildly imaginable prospects, and the smaller loading and discharging ports all around the coasts had their own intimate charm.  Less variety perhaps, but often they offered quirky fun with piano bars, impromptu singing, friendly girls, and more, much more.

Picture This:    A sunny morning.   The loaded ship with a pilot on board is slowly moving through the brown sluggish water of the mighty River Plate with a low strip of land on the horizon ahead. Outward-bound vessels are gingerly passing on their way to the open sea .  The mood is upbeat. The bridge teams wave to each other.

Soon, the ship is berthed and the stevedores arrive.  The pace of life is noticeably slower than expected, and this is confirmed on the first shore trip, when families are surprisingly seen eating meals and relaxing, well after midnight.  The city starts to buzz and most bars and restaurants have a tango band, giving out a magic ambiance to appreciative visitors and locals alike.  Near the docks, the bars are noticeably more wild and unpredictable. The music louder.  Many ‘girls of the night’ are working the floor like enticing vultures.  They drift in and out, and it’s  near to paradise for any randy seamen!  Up in the city centre, outside tables are near full, and the famous ‘ beefsteak de lomo’ is a favourite dish accompanied by heady local red wine.

Later, the ship visits out of the way grain loading ports, where the pace of life is amazingly slower still.   Work is desultory and the port stay extended, leading our young seaman to worry about the cash he can draw.  No thought here for the ship owner. The bars ashore are numerous, and most have ancient pianos playing nightly and some are strangely situated on a platform elevated above the floor, possibly to avoid troublemakers.  The lady pianist takes requests, but only for music! The night wears on and dawn breaks.  South America has left it’s mark.

Japan calls

Shortly after WW2 a visit to Japanese ports was a fascinating and somewhat exciting time for a young seafarer.  Still teeming with USA forces, the cities and ports were intriguing  places, offering a variety of activities and plenty of bars, girls, and restaurants  to satisfy the most needy seaman.

Picture this:    The fully loaded ship is anchored in the wide Tokyo Bay. Cargo work with ship’s gear goes on frantically night and day, so there is not much time to lose for the hedonistic ‘Jack the Lad’.  Barges slowly take the cargo to a wharf in Yokohama port nearby.   From the ship, a tempting glow of coloured neon lights ashore flash and wink invitingly.  Frantic efforts are made to get time off and sample the goods, real or imagined, and the desire is overwhelming.  Once achieved and safely ashore, the reality more than meets expectations and the night begins in a bar chosen at random.   All have catchy names like, “ The bar 9 of Hearts”.   Beautiful young girls act as hostesses and magnets for the willing young seafarer who has stumbled through the door.  Tables inside offer the chance to engage with the girls and play games accompanied by a variety of drinks.  ‘ Strip Poker’ is immensely popular and causes much hilarity.  The night passes quickly and there is not much enthusiasm for a return to the anchored vessel sitting at anchor in another world.

Ashore during the day, lots of new and intriguing gadgets are on sale. Japan has embraced the electronic world and new transistor radios are for sale at reasonable prices with Sony leading the way.  Binoculars and optical goods of all sorts are for sale, but unfortunately the unwary buyer finds that the lenses fall out rather quickly, having been glued in.  It will be some time before standards rise, and meantime the temptation  cannot be resisted.   Seamen are are good customers.     Shops and restaurants abound, and here the American liking for ‘fast food’ has already made its mark with burger bars plentiful.   Uniformed  service personnel abound. 

The ship moves on around the ports, and the attractions remain with everything a visiting seaman might want.  Cultural sites are well down the list of things to do, and Japan has made its mark for ever.

Up the Hooghly to Calcutta

This is not a visit to get the pulses racing, but it is memorable and unforgettable for a variety of other reasons.

Picture this:    The ship slows without any obvious purpose. Overside, the water colour is mudlike and fast flowing, and there is no land in sight. Still, a pilot boat approaches.  We are at Sandheads, the station for arriving and departing vessels, and it has a long and fascinating history of pilotage involving protracted voyages often taking 2 days or more to reach moorings or the docks in Calcutta.   The pilot boards accompanied by many bags. They contain his overnight wear plus all the things necessary for days on board, and more, often including golf clubs or other strange items not immediately asociated with pilotage.   It is a tradition steeped in time.  Once underway, and informed of the draft, he describes the passage ahead, usually involving an overnight safe anchorage.   He is a skilled and experienced pilot.

Finally, when the river narrows, and the banks close in, the ship approaches a busy built up area with  many boats, and oceangoing ships hanging on buoys midstream, surrounded by dozens of barges.  There is a bustle as sampans and haybarges manoevre in all directions across the river, which is very fast flowing.  Most are crabbing sideways in the racing water, defying the force of the flow. Overhead scavanging hawks are circling and watching.

Our destination is a berth midstream, calling for the unshackling of anchors and the use of the chains to moor to  buoys.

Later, drydocking occurs, and a repair schedule commences, the owners taking full advantage of the ample cheap labour on offer. The noise is intrusive.  Sleeping bodies litter the decks.   Ashore, children of all ages are begging cheerfully and forcefully for coins. They chant melodious ditties.   Ashore at night, smoke rises from compounds near the dock, and  lilting Indian music fills the air.   Calcutta is weaving its unforgettable spell.

A Tropical dawn at anchor

All is quiet, all is still, and it offers magic moments for those sensitive to their surroundings.   The ship is anchored in a tropical bay in the stillness of early morning. The sea surface is like glass, with only the sound of birds diving for fish, and making a distinctive ‘ plopping ‘ sound as they pierce the surface.   It is a fascinating spectacle.  The first rays of a burning sun are stealing up over the palm lined shore and reflecting on the crystal clear water.  

On board, nothing stirs, and the steelwork is damp to the touch from the night-time dew.  The ship lays silent and asleep, but these moments are to be short lived as the sun and warmth stirs the daily activitives into life.   Below in the sea, shadows of big fish can be seen gliding, and nearer to the surface  smaller species are scavanging for food and waste from the vessel.

In the stillness of the morn, the smallest sound carries far and wide,  and soon faint cries can be heard as boats slowly make their way from the shore, the occupants shouting commands.   Another cargo barge heavily laden with drums appears in the distance being slowly towed towards the vessel, but still the questioning voices are far off.   On deck, and closer to the observer, a rich, pungent smell is being given off by bundles of Greenwood dunnage lying in untidy heaps for use in the loading.  They are piled up at each hatch, competing for space with the boards and beams strewn around earlier when the hatches were readied for cargo.  It is an evocative aroma unlike anything else, and becomes a repelling and almost repulsive smell close up.

Quite quickly the ship springs to life and the spell is broken.   Steam winches start their wake up routine, the pipes cracking and banging, and with hot water spurting out of leaks.   Drain cocks are opened to allow the pure steam to reach their destination, and the first hesitant clanking awkwardly begins as the drums jerk reluctantly round.  Soon, they will be racing unhindered, pure steam feeding the cylinders.  More stevedores swarm aboard, and the daily cacophany begins. The brief magic spell is well and truly gone, but is not at all forgotten by those who savoured the precious moments.

The sad farewell….

One of the common experiences of  a deepsea mariner that leaves lasting memories, is the one of departing from a beautiful and special port call.   This sad feeling may of course been due to an ad hoc romance, or more generally, just a wonderful few days or weeks enjoying good company, fine food, music, bars, or whatever, but the painful business of sailing out from port, especially in the evening at sunset and leaving it all behind was not something to be forgotten easily.    The failing light often complimented the mood, with a receeding shoreline astern getting smaller by the minute, marked with twinkling lights and a flashing beam or two. With it went the newly adopted lifestyle with all the pleasures that were just becoming normal, and which were still fresh and vivid in the mind.   It could be Durban, Fremantle, Auckland, San Francisco, or any one of  number of worlwide ports where the sea buoy signalled the start of a deep Ocean passage.

Picture this.      The pilot, that last contact with civilisation in the mind of the young seafarer, has made it safely to the launch which turns away back to shore. He gives a thankful hand wave and steps into the cabin.  The pilot boat rises up and down easily riding the swell.  Looking back wistfully from the forecastle, the so welcoming shore is spread wide and bright astern, getting smaller by the minute. The bows are pointing inexorably seawards and the first big ocean swell starts to lift the foredeck, as a puff of smoke signals the engines firing up and the ship slowly surges ahead, pointing out to sea.  The fading evening light lends some magic to the scene, and thoughts turn to food and the evening meal as the swell deepens and the bows lift higher.  Time to get down the foredeck before it becomes like a fairground ride.  Chippy is quickly mixing cement to seal off the chain locker below the windlass, and  in certain anticipation of solid water coming over the bows.

Yet another passage has begun, and life reverts to a familiar, if dull, routine, leaving only fond and lasting memories, and tempered a little by the mystery of ports to come. 

The Pacific – Heavens Above

A lasting and deeply moving feeling, if only brief, is the magic of a clear sky above a ship in the mid Pacific ocean.  Best seen on a moonless night.  When conditions were right, and they often were, it was stunning and unforgettable, verging on breathtaking.

Picture this.    It is the the Middle watch of 12 to 4 am at night.  The sea is calm, the sky is cloudless, and the ship’s motion is smooth with just the rhythmic dull throb of the engines.   Up above the wheelhouse, on the Monkey Island, there is a panoply of breathtaking proportions waiting to be viewed.    Billions of twinkling stars of all different intensities, from horizon to horizon, overlaid by deep belts of intense lights of different hues like a crazy artist’s old apron form the sky.    Flares burst out briefly.   Shooting stars erupt and race across the whole backdrop, before fading.   Studding the whole sky are the prominent stars and planets making a comforting and familiar pattern, little changed for billions of years.   Some stand out with a burning intensity.   The tiny human viewer feels irresistibly humbled by the majesty of it all, and for most feeling people, it triggers little used emotions, and those thoughts we all have from time to time about the very meaning of life.    A deep feeling of gratitude to the almighty can be common.

A mundane return to the wheelhouse below fails to erase the experience, as normal routine resumes.  However, a lifetime memory that will never fade has been indelibly burned into the subconscious.