Monthly Archives: September 2019

CONGELLA – 10 years in the Bank Line from 1933 to 1943 when she was sunk by a Japanese torpedo which killed 28 people on board.

History of this ship: Built by Blohm and Voss in Hamburg in 1914. She was the SECUNDUS sailing with Hamburg/America line. Taken by France after WW1. In 1927 sold to Barber S.S.Lines in the USA and named SAGAMI. sold on and given the name MINDORO, before the Bank Line purchase in 1933.

Solafric – built in 1909 and a ship with a history…

Built in 1909 by Barclay Curle in Glasgow and 3487 tons gross. 330ft long. for the East Asiatic Co with the name BANDON. Originally a steamer, the propulsion was changed and she became one of three that had first UK diesel engines fitted in 1914. In 1916 she was sold to a Norway Co and became the FOLKVARD. IN 1927 BANK LINE purchased her and renamed her SOLAFRIC. She then ran for a further 8 years and was broken up in Ghent around 1935.

Kelvinbank – purchased by the Bank Line in 1934. Torpedoed in 1943 by U510 off the coast of Brazil

3/2009 KELVINBANK MV was a British Cargo Motor Vessel of 3,872 tons built in 1921 by William Hamilton & Co, Port Glasgow. She was built as Malia MV for Thos & Jno Brocklebank, Liverpool. In 1927 British & Burmese Sn Co. and Burmah SS Co. (P.Henderson), Glasgow acquired the vessel and she was renamed Daga Mv. Finally she was sold in 1934 to Bank Line Ltd. (Andrew Weir) and renamed KELVINBANK. On the 9th March 1943 when on route from Alexandria , Table Bay & Bahia for Trinidad & Macoris in ballast she was torpedoed by German submarine U-510 and sunk. 28 crew lost from a total of 59. Read more at wrecksite: https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?17499

Four Men in a Boat – Chapter 11 by “Shipmate”

11 ELEVEN (Freetown frolics))

 The shipping company was owned and operated by Unilever who had sighted their head office in Knightsbridge overlooking Regents Park.

Freshly qualified and wanting a change from the ‘Tramp ships’ where he had ‘served his time’, the recently qualified Deck Officer was on his way for an interview with the Marine Superintendent.

The plush reception was extremely modern consisting of a highly polished stainless steel staircase with dome topped balustrades starting at the glass surrounded mezzanine floor and ending in the center of the large reception area.

.  The rope railings gave a nautical feel to the area, as did a wall clocks, displaying the local time of the world’s major cities.  Huge glass windows overlooked Hyde Park and soft leather settees with matching armchairs were arranged in several groups around smoked glass coffee tables strewn with glossy magazines.  The large pale shiny marble tiles reflected the ornate earthenware plant pots and their colourful contents.

Two attractive receptionists dealt with visitors by announcing them and directing them to where they had to go.  In between they also dispensed coffee and advice as well as operating the discreet switchboard. 

Shortly before eleven, which was his appointed time, a petite brunette descended the stairs.  She was wearing a smart business suit, a crisp white blouse and had her hair tied back in a ‘pony-tail’.  She exchanged a few words with one of the receptionists and approached the waiting sailor.

‘Please follow me,’ she said, and was almost halfway up the stairs before he realized that she had been speaking to him.  He quickly caught up and as they entered the lift, he was delighted by the fragrance he noticed that she was wearing.  She seemed to sense his interest and avoided eye contact.  The lift stopped on the fifth floor and he followed her to the left along a passageway with doors leading off of each side.  They carried on until the end of the corridor and entered through glass double doors directly facing them.  The girl seated herself at a desk and picked up the ‘intercom,’ announcing the arrival of the prospective candidate.

‘You may go in.  Captain Henderson will see you now.’

Suddenly her cool demeanor changed and she glanced up with a brief smile.

Captain Henderson had risen at his large glass topped desk and shook hands with the arrival.  His other arm pointed to a chair indicating where his visitor should sit.  He opened a file and spent a few moments silently studying it.  After what seemed an age, he spoke.

“I have all of your details in here and they appear quite satisfactory.  I see you are used to long trips so as most of ours are three months, four maximum, it should present little problem.  So tell me why you chose us as a prospective employer?”

‘Well Sir, first and foremost, apart from a change, I want to continue with a company needing seamanship and cargo handling skills.  That combined with more frequent returns to the United Kingdom and top class ships and pay is what I’m looking for.  In return I pledge a hundred per cent loyalty and diligence.  Having served my time on tramp ships I feel that I can offer a wide range of experience both at sea and in port.  Tankers, passenger ships and bulk carriers are not really for me.”

The Superintendent wrote a few notes in the file before looking up.

“I see you’ve always been with lascar crews.  How do you think you would get on with white crew?  We have quite a mixture, Scots, Scousers, Geordies and the Irish.”

“My elder brother is an A.B. and we get on well.  I’ve never had any problem with ethnics of any kind and am sure that at the end of the day, the crew are just people after all.  If there is ever a problem, like all new experiences, I’ll have to learn to cope.”” 

Further notes were added to the file that was then closed with a flourish; Captain Henderson sat back in his chair that tilted backwards.  He formed a steeple with his hands and said,

“As you know our trade is mainly with West Africa.  There are two main issues.  The oppressive humid heat and the people.  They are very different to those from India and their recent independence causes us to be very careful and co-operative.  Sometimes it’s like walking about barefoot around broken glass.”

He paused to sip from his cup.  “Is there anything you wish to ask or say?”

“I’ve been involved in a bit of diplomacy, indirectly on Unilever’s behalf.”  Volunteered the interviewee.  “We were loading copra in Tonga when the ten-year contract came to an end.  Queen Salote’ in Nukualofa was invited on board to a party resulting in a new period being signed by her, the other signatory was Unilever.  The copra was destined for your factory in ‘Silvertown’.  It was pretty hot in the Pacific Islands and could be very wet too, in the rainy seasons.”

“Well, I think that perhaps concludes the interview – you’ll hear from us in a few days after we’ve seen the others.”

  Captain Henderson stood a smiled offering his hand.  He had buzzed his secretary to show the candidate out and was surprised when the young man confronted him.

“Sir, I’m sorry to appear pushy, but I want a job with you.  I believe I would ‘fit the bill’ and give you no cause for regret.  From my point of view, the job would be ideal.  Is there any chance you could let me know sooner?  I could ring in.  It would save a couple of days waiting for the post.

‘Very well, call my secretary on Friday around noon.  Good luck”

When his guest and secretary left, the Marine Superintendent lit a cigarette and opened the file on his desk.  A rubber stamp mark had been added at the bottom of the application form and contained three boxes.  One said passed, one said failed and the box underneath said signature.

He took a gold fountain pen from his desk set removed the cap and signed the signature box in ebony ink.  He pondered a few moments and finally ticked the box marked passed.

The first thing he noticed when arriving at the berth in the ‘Royal Albert Docks,’ was the huge green palm tree on the funnel and the unusual green hull colour.  The ship was moored near Silvertown, close to where her imported cargo had been destined.  She had already been discharged and was taking on general cargo.  From the look of her draft she was nearly fully loaded.  A number of vehicles were adjacent to the loading area including two heavy locomotives and the new third officer presumed correctly that these would go on last as deck cargo.  The ships own heavy lifting gear, remained secured to the foremast from which he deduced that the shore cranes would be deployed in loading the railway engines that had been covered in grease to protect them from the ravages of the sea.  Four ‘ring plates’ had been strategically welded to the engines to facilitate handling.

The obligatory ship’s watchman manned the top on the gangplank.  Unlike any he had experienced previously, this one was white.  He descended the boarding steps and greeted the Officer by rank.

“Leave your bags Third, I’ll get them sent to your cabin.”

The ‘walkie – talkie’ burst into life and an unseen person responded to the watchman’s instructions.

‘That’s all arranged Sir.  Top of the gangway, head for the bow, fist entrance to port, one fight up, third cabin down the corridor.  Plaque on door will confirm.

“Thank you sailor, you’ve been most helpful.  What’s your name?”  The new Officer asked.

“People call me ‘Scouse’ but my proper name is Hubbard.  George Hubbard.”

“Very good George.  I’ll see you around.”

The Officer had no idea of the protocol but it had seemed only natural to address an experienced and older person in a civil manner.  He ascended the steps and followed the directions.

His cabin was a big improvement from those of any other ship he had seen, from the plush fitted carpet on the deck, to the polished wooden furniture and paneling.  Another door revealed his own private shower and toilet that was tiled all over.  The shower tray was over a half a meter deep that presumably doubled as a  ‘bijou bath,’ and he was surprised to find that all the bathroom fittings were ceramic and not some sort of plastic.

His cabin comprised of a larger than normal bunk with the rest of the cabin being laid out like a day room or comfortable office.  An ample desk complete fronted by a swivel chair with armrests, was sighted along one bulkhead and benefitted from natural light through a gleaming brass porthole.  The desk even displayed a coloured telephone and an ‘angle-poise’ reading lamp.

There was a knock on his door but when he opened it there was nobody to be seen.  However his luggage stood in the companionway so he took it in and began unpacking.

He was stowing his suitcase in the bottom of his wardrobe when there was another knock on the door.

“Hold on I’ll be with you in a moment,” he called.

A short while later he opened his door and an unusually tall figure announced himself as the Chief officer. 

Hello there third, I’m Charles.  Welcome aboard.  If you’re free I’d be honoured to buy you a drink.”

“Sounds good, “exclaimed John, “Lead the way.”

He followed his senior along the corridor and up one flight of stairs that lead to the boat deck where the dining saloon and lounge bar were situated.

The lounge was very comfortably furnished and in addition to armchairs and leather sofa’s a number of oval tables, flanked with chairs, filled the area in front of the bar itself which occupied the whole of the aft end of the room.  As in most ships, the tables and chairs were secured to the deck allowing sufficient room to maneuver.  The concealed lighting, served to enhance the ambience and the thick carpet displaying the company logo contributed to the rather lavish surroundings.

 Only two other customers occupied the bar and both being apprentices who were seated on barstools, stood out of respect for their peers.  The Chief Officer made the introductions and the senior apprentice signaled to the barman to put the round of drinks on his tab.  It was explained that no money exchanged hands and the Officers purchased drinks by signing a chit.  The chits were totaled weekly and the final sum deducted at the end of the voyage.

The barman, who was Maltese, had overheard the conversation and volunteered that it was the least busy bar he had ever experienced.  John politely assured the barman of his regular custom, and the apprentices said they would attend more frequently if there were less lemonade in the shandy.  

The ship left the docks the following afternoon, dropping the Thames pilot off close to Margate before turning to starboard and heading down the English Channel.

Whilst at sea the regular watch keepers limited their use of the bar whose main customers’ were the senior officers and less frequently the Captain.  There turned out to be another reason for the lack of activity that the Maltese barman had complained about.  The new third mate was later to discover the reason when they anchored off of Freetown the capital of Sierra Leone, the first port of their arrival on the West African coast.

Prior to his four-hour evening stint on anchor watch, he decided to down a pint after dinner.  He left the dining saloon and went down to his cabin for a packet of cigarettes.  As he came out again, he literally bumped into the senior apprentice.

“Your in a bit of a hurry,” he said.

“Sorry Sir, just on my way for a wet.” replied the lad.

“Thought you’ve been aboard long enough to know your way around.  You’re going the wrong way!”

“There’s a party in the fourth engineer’s cabin – follow me Sir.”

They both made for the portside corridor and about hallway down they came to the engineers cabin.  From the noise coming from inside, it certainly seemed like there was a bit of a party going on.  As they entered someone thrust a glass into their hands, together with a cold can of beer.

“Top ups are as usual,” said the fourth, passing his cigarettes around even though the air was blue with smoke.

The third mate found a seat on the settee next to the purser and the apprentice squeezed onto the bunk that was already occupied by the radio operator and one of the two fitters.  Jokes were doing the rounds and although most had been heard before, it didn’t seem to diminish the laughter.

After half an hour or so, the third mate became aware that when people had finished their drink they went to the wardrobe for another.  He decided to have one more before his anchor watch and followed the apparently normal practice by opening the wardrobe door.  Like ‘old mother Hubbard’s cupboard,’ it was empty.

“Looks like your out of beer!’ he exclaimed.

It was like someone had switched the sound off as everyone stopped speaking.  A little while later, led by the fourth engineer, everyone started to chuckle.

“Look again third,” he said.

Closer examination explained the popularity of the fourth’s cabin and the reason for the poor attendance in the lounge bar. 

A copper pipe leading from the kegs in the cellar, passed through the wardrobe before ending up in the ships bar directly above.  Nobody knows who was responsible, but a brass tap had been brazed in the line.

His companions convinced the newcomer that due to a reasonable use of the ships bar by those in the know, the tap had remained undiscovered. 

They had only stopped at Freetown to take on bunkers, which due to the low taxes and duty made the port very popular with vessels of all nations.  From his vantage point on the bridge the third officer wondered what it was like and thought it a pity that he wasn’t able to go ashore.

Little did he know that the next time he visited the port it would be under very different circumstances indeed.

He didn’t know the reason but they were unable to go alongside in Takoradi and had to discharge the cargo onto lighters.  Luckily they were moored to large buoys that had been permanently secured to the seabed.

Disaster struck on the morning after their arrival.  The crew had been busy rigging the heavy lift in readiness for discharging the locomotives.  It had been tested and found to be in perfect order.

The condition, however, did not compensate for an inexperienced winch man.

Chains were secured with steel shackles into the purpose built rings that had been deliberately placed to ensure horizontal balance.

As the heavy railway engine was lowered over the side, the engineers flooded tanks on the opposite side to compensate.  All was going well with the ships crew assisting by easing or tightening the guys as appropriate.

All it took was for one of the two winch men to get it wrong.  Instead of continuing to pull the lift over the side to clear the combing, one of the local stevedores started to prematurely lower.  The wheels on the bogey caught in part on the ships railing that buckled on impact but not before interfering with the balance.  Suddenly freed from the obstruction, the engine fell heavily and the momentum was too much for the restraints, which tore out from their anchor points.  The safety wire strop slipped down the body and fell ineffectively over the end and failed to arrest the falling locomotive.  People were running in all directions and a loud cheer went up as the engine hit the water with an almighty splash.

The new deck Officer remained dumbstruck for a few moments and then made a few notes in his deck log.  He instructed the bosun to get a written statement from any crewmembers who had witnessed the catastrophe.

Finally he called the senior apprentice to temporarily take over the cargo watch while he reported the accident to the Chief Officer and made an entry into the logbook.

The Chief Officer commented that it wasn’t the first such incident of its kind and told the watch keeper to write up a full report for insurance purposes.

‘It’s very significant to clearly indicate whether the engine was over the ship or over the side because from what you have told me and as far as the insurance people are concerned, the liability will be determined by this information.”  

The third Officer barely noticed the wink when the Chief Officer emphasised ‘over the side.’

They left unloading the other locomotive until later when the swell had reduced by which time it was no longer the third mate’s watch and all went well as the second railway engine was discharged without incident.

The journey to Lagos was uneventful and they anchored outside while awaiting a berth in the harbor.  Anchor watches were kept but other than periodic bearings being taken to ensure that the anchor wasn’t dragging, there was little to do other than catch up with the post.

Darkness came swiftly in the lower latitudes and it had been dark for all of the third mate’s watch.  He was three hours into his duty when he saw a signal light flashing from ashore.  The international call sign was easy to recognize being the letter ‘A’ repeated several times.

 He was baffled at what followed.

 The shore signalers did very little else but Morse code and as a consequence tended to be very rapid.  Try as he might he was unable to make sense of the speedy transmission especially as he was out of practice with his Morse.  All he was able to decipher was a series of ‘AP’s which he thought related to a code.  There were three large volumes of codebooks in the chart room but after perusing them for a long while he gave up and called ‘Sparks’. 

The radio officer came up onto the bridge smoking a cigarette.

“Hello third,” he said, “ What can I do for you?”

“Thanks for coming up ‘Sparks.’  Wonder if you could decode the shore signal for me.  My Morse is a bit rusty!”

“Sure is rusty,” said ‘Sparks,’ glancing casually at the shore side signal station, 

“It’s not a code.  It says we are docking in Apapa.  Pilot due at seven in the morning.  Do you want me to send affirmative?”

“Great.  I’ll owe you a beer,” said the watch keeper.

Sparks picked up the ‘Aldis’ lamp and replied.

The shore station responded causing ‘Sparks’ to chuckle that denigrated into a coughing fit due to his cigarette habit.  When he had sufficiently recovered he told the Third Officer that the reply from ashore said…’Show off!’

Nigeria was the start of intensive work schedules that consisted of cargo watches during the day with frequent early starts and late finishes.  Often the ship would leave soon after completion of cargo and travel to the next port during the night.  Sometimes it took two or three days between ports but long periods of stand-by contributed to the exhaustion though the main culprit was the extreme heat and humidity.

Once all the cargo had been discharged they headed back the way they had come loading as they went.

The main cargo consisted of ground nuts in sacks, several types of tree trunks, mainly hardwood, weighing up to two tons a piece and other timber products, ranging from plywood to sawn and planed planks.  The latter was a recent innovation from newly erected factories that machined the wood more or less at source and were even capable to producing adhesive backed, parquet flooring.

The heavy trunks were floated down rivers and collected in great rafts before weighing and marking.  Some woods didn’t float and had to be supported by lighter trunks lashed on either side.

Loading the huge trunks could be a dangerous job, particularly in the tween decks where they had to be ‘bulled’ into the corners using snatch blocks and steel hawsers.  Sometimes the hooks slipped or a wire parted with a whiplash crack and wound itself around the nearest obstacle.  Woe betides anyone in the way.

During loading one afternoon the hatches were about to be secured to the lower hold that was fully loaded, when one of the ‘bull’ lines parted.  The steel cable sprang back viciously and severed the hand of one of the native stevedores who was assisting in the tween decks.  He was quickly brought up and the injured arm attended to by the ships Officers before an ambulance arrived.

The severed hand had fallen down the lower hold and after much discussion it was decided to leave it for two reasons.  First and foremost, no facilities existed to unite the missing hand and secondly it would take almost two days to recover it and involve moving several hundred tons of logs.

The normal sea-going routine resumed once all the homeward bound cargo had been loaded.

Everyone welcomed the relief at putting to sea once more and the regular relief of watch keeping coupled with the fresh sea air. 

The new Third Officer felt well integrated and a true member of the ship.

 He had coped with the issue of hardened white seaman reasonably well, particularly in regards to the twenty-two stone ‘Geordie’ who was one of the duty lookouts while under way.

On the way across the Bay of Biscay he had seen a reflection in the bridge windows of the lookout, furtively smoking, on the lee bridge wing.

 How he was to deal with and maintain a certain respect was a quandary.

He went out onto the wing of the bridge but the lookout had hidden the burning cigarette behind his back.  He spent the next ten minutes giving the lookout a lesson about all the stars and planets that they could see.  As he returned to the bridge to check the position, the lookout thanked him being genuinely interested.

He turned and said,

“ We’ll carry on tomorrow night if you like but hopefully there will not be any more things that glow in the night.”  He wondered afterwards, if the poor man had burnt his fingers. 

The message seemed to have got through although nothing was ever said.

But thereafter he looked forward to a dish of hot potato chips that was surreptitiously left in the chartroom whenever the big Geordie who had been on standby, relieved the look out.

One night his pacing backwards and forwards was interrupted by the other lookout that asked,

“Excuse me Sir, is it okay if I see where my relief has got to?  He is twenty minutes late.  Probably dozed off!”

Being reminded that his sustenance was overdue, the Officer agreed to the request.

After a few minutes had passed, the man returned.  He appeared quite agitated and said,

 “I think you’d better come quickly.  There’s blood all over the place.”

What to do?  It could well be a false alarm, as he knew that the crew were not past playing practical jokes especially in retaliation for the cigarette incident.  On the other hand, what if it were true?

He picked up the telephone and dialed the senior apprentice.

“Report to the bridge immediately.  Don’t worry about a uniform.”

After quickly explain the situation to the sleepy apprentice, he followed the seaman to his quarters.

A bank of three shower cubicles contained the bloody body of the Geordie.  He immediately sent for the Chief Officer and gave instructions for a stretcher and medicine kit.

The big man had slashed his wrists and lost a great deal of blood.  There were some white towels in a locker and using these he was able to stem the flow.

A short time later the Chief Officer arrived and with the help of the bosun who had also been alerted, heaved the patient onto the stretcher.  Onlookers became compulsory volunteers and with great difficulty, carried the stretcher to the hospital where the injuries could receive more appropriate treatment.

It was in the early hours of next morning before the Third Officer finally turned in.  He had to make entries into the log, write a report, and fill in the accident book.  The Captain had been in touch with the nearest port, which was about ten hours away.

“I don’t want to pay docking fees so we will just anchor while he’s taken ashore.  Funny isn’t it?  It happened on your watch and it’ll be your watch again when he goes ashore!”

Overcome by tiredness, the Third Officer soon drifted off to sleep blissfully unaware of what was in store for him the next day.

It was important to be dead on time for ones watch when effectively the responsibility for the ship was passed over.  Although the overall responsibility remained with the Master his Officers acted as deputies.

The main information imparted was the course and speed, the latest position, the traffic and the weather.  A pencil line on the chart indicated their destination in Sierra Leonne and happened to be the place that the Third Officer had been curious about on the way down- Freetown. 

They had no trouble finding a suitable anchorage and a tender left the docks and headed their way as soon as the anchor was secured.  The gangway was lowered but it was decided that due to the swell, the stretcher would be lowered using a boom.

On the bridge the Captain was in radio contact with the shore and instructed the duty Officer to accompany the patient to the hospital.

“You’d better take four men to carry him.  He’s a big fellow.”

In hindsight that was where the trouble began.

The bosun appointed his strongest sailors to carry the stretcher.  It just happened that they were the most unruly. 

 Straps bound their shipmate, as stretchers on ships are reinforced with willow stakes and double up as straight jackets.  His bare feet poked out at one end and his head with a strap across his forehead to stop movement, protruded from the other.  He was conscious but drowsy.

The four sailors and the Officer clattered down the gangway and boarded the launch.  As the stretcher was lowered, the sailors guided their friend onto the launch that was cast off at once and headed for the jetty where an ambulance awaited.

Liverpool is renowned for its comedians and two of the party were no exception.  It started when they kidded their friend that they would take his slippers and gradually proceeded from the verbal stage to tickling his feet.

It was hilarious and the patient who was unable to resist was in hysterics’.  Ashore, the ambulance crew that consisted of the driver and a diminutive nurse were unable to move the heavy patient so they all assisted in loading the stretcher and piled in afterwards.

The hospital was situated at the highest point of the town and was once a mission that had been adapted and served both as a morgue and a general hospital.  On arrival, the nurse led the way into a room with a high vaulted ceiling that doubled as an operating theatre and a forensic investigation laboratory.

 At its center was a dark marble platform used as a mortuary slab as well as an operating table.  As a consequence it was chest high but benefited from modern illumination immediately above the table.

Even the fit sailors were unable to lift their burden so high so their spokesman said,

“On the count of three!”

They had positioned themselves at the narrow end of the table and commenced swinging the recumbent man strapped to the stretcher.

With a mighty heave when they reached three they let go as one.  The stretcher complete with its occupant swung into the air and landed on the table.

Unfortunately the momentum and the polished surface, caused it to carry on and in a sort of slow motion it slithered along the table and came to a halt with the stretcher half on and half in mid air.  The onlookers watched in horror as it teetered on the edge and then toppled over the end, crashing onto the tiled floor.  They were amazed that not a peep came from the patient that is until they realized that he had been cleanly knocked unconscious. 

They recovered from their stunned silence together.  The doctor set about stopping the bleeding from the cut caused by the fall.  The nurse helped her boss and the ship’s Officer went off to get some help to lift the injured man back onto the table.  He came back after five minutes with the porter and two gardeners.  It took all six of them to get the stretcher back onto the table. 

 The Third mate was anxious to find his crewmen but he had first to get a signature signing over the patient to the Doctor’s care.

Looking at the marble slab that doubled as an autopsy table, he said,

“At least you wont have to move him again if he croaks it.”

The look on the Doctor’s face made him immediately regret his flippant remark.

He hastily picked up his signed form and headed downhill towards the harbor, in hot pursuit of the missing bearers.

He struck lucky when he heard them holding forth in the first bar he came to.  Problem one had been accomplished but problem two, which was how to get them back on board, was much more difficult.  None of them shared his watch and consequently they had not really come across one and other. 

He felt very self-conscious when entering the bar as he was still in uniform as technically he was still on watch.  It was relatively early so there was not much activity apart from at one table by the sliding window overlooking the harbor.

The four men sat around the table smoking and drinking.  Judging by the empties they had had more than one drink.  As he approached their table they caught sight of him.

‘What have we here?” one of the sailors asked not expecting a reply.

Without a word the Officer pulled up a chair from a vacant table and sat down.  The man that had spoken appeared to be the self appointed leader. 

The officer thought that if he could get through to him that the others would follow.  Hit the ringleader and the rest would back down.  At least that’s what his father had told him.  He addressed the weather beaten seaman.

‘Its alright for you lot, I haven’t any money!”

‘We’ll get you a shandy, that right lads?”  The old sailors remarks caused his friends to laugh.

“No thanks, but I could murder a pint though.”

Two drinks and several jokes later when he judged it to be the right moment, he casually stood up and said,

“We had better be getting back otherwise I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

After a few moments hesitation the old salt also stood up saying, “We wouldn’t like that would we lads.  Getting our drinking mate into trouble?’

They all chorused their agreement and downing the rest of there drinks followed the young Officer out of the bar and into a waiting taxi which dropped them off on the quay near the motor launch.

Within half an hour they were homeward bound for Tilbury the anchor having been safely lifted and stowed.

The fist thing to be sent ashore on their arrival was the personal effects belonging to their crewmember who had been left in Africa.

During the packing of his belongings, his correspondence was briefly scrutinised by the bosun and Officer charged with the task.  They were looking for a suicide note or any reason why the able seaman had cut his wrists.

They came across the reason early on in the form of a ‘Dear John.’

Most men, away from home in the forces, are aware of the dreaded ‘Dear John’ which usually is from an unhappy wife or sweetheart who has decided not to wait and found pastures new.

They were pleased to find out that their shipmate had made a full recovery and had beaten them home.  Having signed on to their sister ship, he was happily on the way back to West Africa minus his girl friend.

The whole crew were to take their leave at the end of the voyage which necessitated them all staying on until all the cargo had been discharged which would have been for about ten days had it not been for the Easter break and the Strike.  As a result, they didn’t ‘pay off for nearly another three weeks.

The Strike started on the Wednesday before Easter and it was rumoured that it was manufactured to enable the Dockers to get an extra holiday.

The reality was quite different.

Halfway into the discharge of the massive logs from one of the lower holds, a stevedore came across a most unusual item.  He picked it up to examine it having had his attention drawn to it by on of the numerous crabs that came aboard with the logs in West Africa.

To his horror it was a human hand.

He dropped the object of his attention that disappeared into a gap between the logs.

Having been told of the find, the trades union official called an immediate strike until the hand had been removed.

The ship’s Officers were faced with a dilemma.  They were happy with the union’s ultimatum but were in a chicken and egg situation.  They agreed that the offensive item needed removing but of course the only people who could move the cargo to get to it, were the stevedores themselves, who were on strike.

In the event it was felt that everyone off duty should take advantage of the long Easter break.

The Tuesday following Bank holiday Monday saw everyone return to work apart from the stevedores who sat around lighted braziers and chatted or played cards.

The stalemate was finally broken when the Chief Officer told the head Union man that the African was offering one Hundred Pounds for the return of his hand in any condition. 

 Unloading resumed with noticeable zeal as the stevedores competed to find the severed appendage

Later that evening in the bar, the Chief Officer admitted that he had invented the ‘hand–out’ but felt sure that the Shipping Company would cover the reward but couldn’t help wondering at their entry in the expenditure ledger.

 
To be continued………

Four Men in a Boat – Chapter 10 by ” Shipmate”

10 CHAPTER TEN (Cold War.)

The voyage back to European waters took them up the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean, as far as Gibraltar where they stayed overnight and the following day, to offload the luggage, post the mail and take on fuel.  Leaving the ‘Rock’ to starboard they began their final lap as they left the warm Mediterranean and entered the Atlantic Ocean.

The weather became extremely cold across the Bay of Biscay and the whole ships company stared suffering from a dose ‘the channels’ as they entered the busiest sea-lane in the world.

Their excitement turned out to be a little premature when they received an order to proceed to Gdynia in Communist Poland where the complete cargo was to be discharged.

To compound their disappointment a heavy fog descended so no sighting of the ‘green and pleasant land,’ was possible.  The nearest they got was on hearing the mournful wail of North Foreland’s fog beacon as they proceeded at half speed in the cold forbidding gloom.

The fog didn’t disperse until they entered the Baltic but the intense cold and restored vision revealed further problems.

Small holes had appeared on the hatch tarpaulins and the Chief Officer who had once been on a ship that had carried a similar cargo was full of foreboding.  It turned out that he was right.

Ice was forming on the deck gear but its presence on the mast was dangerous as it had serious effects on the stability that could cause the ship to roll over.  The whole crew was set to chipping away the ice that would reform in no time.  Ships that frequented freezing latitudes were often equipped with a rubber tube on each mast that could be inflated with super heated steam which would melt the ice and smash any residues clinging to the mast.

The tiny holes in the hatch covers were caused by rats that were escaping from the holds probably due to the absence of fresh water.  The problem was that once the outer cover had been pulled back, the damage to the lower covers was much more extensive, The sewing had to be done by hand with nine stitches to a needle length to ensure the repairs were waterproof.  It proved to be an arduous task as the severe cold made the canvas as stiff as a board and stitching couldn’t be carried out in gloves.  The feeling in the hands was soon lost and it didn’t take long before the knuckles were skinned.  The good news was that because of the cold no pain was felt when sewing, as most of the feeling in the hands was lost.  The bad news was that once it was finished and the repairer returned to his cabin, the moment he started to thaw out he experienced excruciating pain.

Gdynia is a seaport that’s part of Gdansk once known as Danzig and must have at some time been a nice place to live.  However to the ships crew, some of whom had been away from home for over two years, it was a freezing version of hell.

Even without the Communist regime imposed by the Russians, the dreary winter of the Baltic offered little in the way of comfort.

The City had been a cultural and popular center but the persecuted Poles suffered more than most particularly under the imposition of Communism.  Travel was restricted and many people existed just above the bread line.  A deliberate undermining of the old society had taken place and many free thinkers were repressed.

This soon came to light when the ship’s local watchman was caught rifling through the slops.  He spoke perfect English, as he had been a professor at the University before the current rulers gained control.

The official exchange rate was 67 zlotys to the Pound Sterling but for hard currency the exchange rate was over two hundred.  A spare or out of date passport was the most sought after item and had a value around 10,000 zloty.

Two year articles had been signed by most of the British crew, which meant that they were entitled to be repatriated from anywhere in the world after two years.  If they had been to any homeport in the meantime, they would have been paid off earlier.

Since the ship had been sold it was accepted that after the cargo was discharged, they would sail the short distance to Kiel in Germany and ‘pay–off’ there before returning to England by train.  Everyone was overjoyed, especially the Second Engineer who had been married in Cardiff three weeks before starting the voyage and had never expected to be away for two years.

In need of a change of scenery, several of the Officers went ashore on Saturday evening and with the help of the driver of a very ancient taxi, they found one of the town’s few bars.

The bar was in the basement and one could see the feet and legs of passers by through the tiny glass panels that were part of the window providing natural light and was set into the pavement above.

In all probability the rooms had once been coal cellars.

The beer was served in large glasses and was the usual continental lager type that was very good but needed the froth removed as it was poured.  The locals thought the music being played was western decadence which is hardly how anyone would describe Cliff Richards.

At around midnight, just after another round had been set up, the manageress started becoming very agitated with a tirade of Polish accompanied by much waving of the arms.  Not understanding, the sailors carried on as before until a spectacled young student appeared and said in halting English,

“Bar closed.  More drink and dance up stairs after twelve.  You pay five hundred Zloty.”

The Geordie in their party was normally the silent type but had remarked earlier “Just like Amber Ale man!”

He was now reluctant as most sailors are to leave their drink unfinished and said, “Wai ai me lad, I’ll jooste get this lot doone.’ 

It seemed that his response resembled something disliked by the Poles as all hell let loose.  A short while later, five men were seen running from the club being chased by a screaming woman who was closely followed by two heavies.  The snow underfoot impeded their progress somewhat as, one by one, the last man in the chase vanished.

The Second engineer and the acting Third Officer were left when a black estate car drew up and both men were bundled into the back that had a wire cage preventing contact with the other occupants in the front of the car.

In most of the old Capitols throughout Europe, Central railway stations housed the Police Station and detention cells.  It had evolved that way as Central Stations attracted crime and were areas where prostitutes plied their trade amongst the clubs and districts that were favoured by potential criminals.

The central station in Gdynia was no exception apart from a sizeable military presence.

They were taken to the processing room that resembled a large corridor and were roughed up a little by the armed soldiers for good measure.

The Second Engineer being a big man was unused to such treatment and announced in a loud welsh accent.

“Leave the lad alone, he’s only a boy if you want someone to fight I’m ready.”

He may have got away with it had he not added, “Call the British Consul!”  This generally had a positive effect in some places, namely Commonwealth Countries but it seemed to have the opposite effect and prompted several soldiers to set about the Welshman.  The Third Officer, who was still just under twenty, was pushed into a side room lest he should witness the struggle.

Fortunately, the office window was ajar and not needing further encouragement, the Third Officer escaped and using age-old instincts, returned to his ship.

Next morning the Second Engineer hadn’t returned.  None of the other members of their party had come to any harm having ducked into alleys and eventually arrived back at the ship.

The new Third Officer was in a bit of a quandary.  He had signed indentures that contained the dictum, ‘thou shall not frequent ale houses or houses of ill-repute…’  In spite of his promotion he had certain misgivings.  Did the word frequent mean often?  He thought not.  Did the underground bar fall into the prohibited category?  He thought it might.  Had the engineer been released and gone off on his own mission.  He was after all nearly thirty and had been celibate as far as he knew for about two years.

He decided to shelve thoughts of revealing the possible reason for the engineer’s absence for the time being.

When after three days there was still no re-appearance, he was unable to remain silent any longer and confessed to the Chief Officer who in turn reported the matter to the local ship’s agent.  The Captain was also advised but the Third Officer’s involvement was kindly left out.

The cargo finally became fully unloaded and the ship was made ready for departure.  Two things occurred that demonstrated the benefits of democracy and would have a lasting effect on at least one of the ship’s company.

Nearly all foreign going British merchant ships carried a library provided by the Mission to Seamen.  When the books had been read it was normal for the library to be exchanged with another ship.  Since their ship had been sold, the Officers decided to pass their library to another British ship that lay astern.  It took four men to manhandle the heavy bookcase down the gangway but they were stopped at the bottom by the armed guard.  After a great deal of negotiation and the intervention of the agent, it resulted in two officials arriving.

The rest of the morning was spent sorting through the books and about twenty were put to one side, as they were not allowed to be transferred.

The quarantined books were returned to the Officer’s saloon.

How Enid Blyton, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens could be considered a threat, passed all comprehension. 

The second incident was far more serious.  Minutes from casting off an ambulance screeched to a halt and a stretcher bearing the Second engineer was taken aboard.  Without having time to get a copy, the Chief Officer signed a receipt for the supernumerary.  Before giving it back however, he managed to get the ex Professor acting as gangway watchman, to roughly translate the document.

In essence it declared acceptance of the goods to be in exemplary condition and to absolve the former carers (before the date mentioned) of anything that would otherwise affect the ongoing condition.

Before arrival at the German canal port, The Second Engineer fully recovered and was able to fill in the gaps as far as he could remember.

After the Third Officer had disappeared, all hell let loose with shouting and running hither and thither.  When their efforts proved fruitless the police, aided by the soldiers, responded to the engineer’s jibes rather violently.  He remembered gaining consciousness strapped to a bed and hearing the rattle of the wheels of a railway train.  His next recollection was when he awoke to find himself in an operating theatre and a masked and gowned person injected his neck after which he lost conscious.  He had no recollection of time passing and couldn’t remember eating or drinking or for that matter relieving himself.

It did, he admitted, cross his mind at some stage, that he might be a victim.  He had heard stories of people being sent to Russia for involuntary organ transplants He was amazed to find that the best part of a week had passed since he went missing.

The London Office responded to the Captains request and unlike the other crewmembers that travelled home by train, the second engineer was flown home, to Cardiff via Heathrow, to be re-united with his young wife, courtesy of the Shipping Company.

One thing was certain; his new wife wouldn’t be used to a husband with a broken nose but would be pleased to discover that no other parts were missing or disfigured.  She’d never know how close she was.

The trip back to Kiel seemed to take no time at all, as everyone was full of expectations at the imminent homecoming.

After ‘pay-off’ the, mainly Indian, crew were sent to London to join other ships bound for the East.  They caught the earlier train.

The remaining Officers and apprentices caught a later train and stopped in Amsterdam for the night before heading onto the ‘Hook’ via Rotterdam the following morning. 

They stayed overnight in a small Hotel near the railway station and as a consequence they were able to explore on foot. 

It proved to be an unfortunate twist of fate.  A bunch of sailors without the restraints of belonging to a particular ship had a night to kill.  Not only were they in Europe’s renowned ‘Sin City’, but also they all had a pocket full of money.

As is experienced in any collection of people, various groups of like-minded individuals were formed and tended to stick together.  That is until one of them disappeared to sample the delectable goods on offer by the scantily clad ladies of the night. 

There are different schools of thought about the liberal attitude of the Dutch to these matters but their intentions of making sexual activities legal, was to introduce state control. 

 Health and hygiene was of prime consideration together with monitoring activities by the police, which protected both the girls and their clients from criminal activity.

The sailors were however, not inexperienced and knew they would soon be seeing wives and girl friends and even if they were tempted none of them wanted to tale the risk.

Every port in the World had its fair share of nightlife where the oldest profession is practiced but most of the activity is simply a supply and demand where a need is fulfilled in exchange for money.

 In Amsterdam in the fifties and sixties a revolution had started with such clandestine activities being available in public to the public.

It went so far that a street had been dedicated to the sex trade where shop windows instead of displaying various goods, were places for young women to sit with their assets on show, while awaiting clients.

Various cubs, bars and theatres put on repeat performances of all kinds of titillating activities.

The sailor’s main recreation was drinking and to be able to do this while being entertained was a delight.  The floorshows were unlike anything else they had ever experienced, involving displays that left nothing to the imagination.

“This beats Gdansk hands down,” remarked the Third Officer,

His companion enthralled by the nubile naked girl preforming a seductive routine on a glass tube, said, “What does?

“ Pole dancing,” was the reply. 

They tended to start at the furthest point and work their way back towards the Hotel, visiting the clubs and bars on the way.  A little after mid-night they arrived at their last ‘port of call.’  It was very crowded and across the other side of the room they could see a group of seamen from their old ship who were equally enjoying the drink and the entertainment.  They waived at each other but the crowds made it impossible for them to meet up.

As clubs go they had found one that was halfway to being a theatre combined with a restaurant.  Although entrance was expensive the price reflected the rather superior furnishings and entertainment.  The price and quality of the food was very good but the drinks tended to be expensive particularly the Champagne which was all the girls would drink.  It was probably soda water but formed a substantial part of their earnings.

Draught beer remained the exception and was dispensed at street prices but the British taste still had to adjust to the foamy lager type beer available.  Its fair to say that at those prices it wasn’t for the want of trying. 

The floorshow, performed on the stage of the small theatre was repeated every hour but the introduction of different participants made it seem fresh each time.  Unlike a mere strip club, the audience was treated to an almost professional performance of well-known plays but with the emphasis of the more intimate kind involving the inevitable undressing.  Somehow the less blatant revelations were much more arousing than straightforward stripping.  In both cases the lights were dimmed and the concealed ultra violet lights were very effective in highlighting any white garments including the rather skimpy underwear worn by the pretty young actresses/hostesses.

Just after three a.m. both groups left the nightclub and headed back to their hotel.  Most of them were ‘merry’ and someone stated to sing.

As they had sailed with each other for so long, everyone knew the Emerson, Lake and Palmers song and the other eight shipmates started to join in.

“Show me the way to go home,” resonated around the narrow streets and a passing Police car saw no reason to stop since their liberal laws had remained unbroken.

TO BE CONTINUED……


ARTICLE – “FEEDING THE DEMOLITION YARDS OF ASIA”……………………………………… by “Shipbroker”……..

During the 1960-70s Hong Kong became the world leader for demolition and breaking of ships, with major shipbreaking facilities located at Junk Bay and later at Gin Drinkers Bay (where the container Terminals are now situated). Of course, Japan, Korea and Taiwan also had a share of the market, but they came nowhere close to the dominance of Hong Kong at that time. China was a bit slower off the mark, mainly due to the political unrest that prevailed and backlash of their “Cultural Revolution”. The reality was, not until the beginning of the 1980s did China fully open its door to the commercial world and really start to expand and become a major player in the field of ship demolition.

By the late 1970s Hong Kong had lost its prime position and the pendulum had swung in the direction of Taiwan and Mainland China. This was due in part for the never-ending need in Hong Kong for building and land reclamation. Shipbreaking had previously become an important industry in Hong Kong because the market for scrap was directly related to the building industry, which was very buoyant in Hong Kong during these years, where the demand for mild steel bars was already well upward of 20,000 tons per month. To meet this demand for Steele it can easily be calculated the tonnage of vessels required to be in the process of demolition at any one time. In addition, there was an increasing demand in south-east Asian countries for mild steel rods and bars, which could only be met in part by Hong Kong at that time. The high value placed on waterside land suitable for development and reclamation in Hong Kong soon outstripped Hong Kong’s capacity, so demolition of ships became less practical and moved elsewhere.

Hence Taiwan became the kingpin. In particular, the southern port of Kaohsiung quickly developed into a major base for the industry where vessels could be brought alongside makeshift berths, double and triple banked, then cut down using relatively cheap semi-skilled labor. This was very environmentally unfriendly and dangerous work. Kaohsiung soon became the World’s # 1 graveyard for ships. However, with the increase in environmental awareness and the land supporting these makeshift waterfront enterprises becoming too valuable for demolition, by the late 1980s the mudflats of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh rose to prominence by offering even cheaper labor as well as less stringent environmental regulations and lower taxes. Therefore, Hong Kong as the original destination of choice for ships reaching the end of their economic life and destined for demolition soon faded out in favor of alternative locations within Asia. Eventually Kaohsiung eliminated its involvement as a major player in ship demolition, leaving the Asian market almost entirely to the PRC.

Nevertheless, through the 1980s, Hong Kong was still an active participant in the demolition market, particularly the areas of short-term ship financing in support of Sales and Purchase brokerage, both of which were vital elements for successful deals to be cut.

By the time mid-1980s came around my company which was based in Hong Kong, managed a number of ships; as a consequence we were very actively engaged in all elements of technical and commercial ship management, including such things as insurance, agency, cargo and chartering brokerage, Sales and Purchase, ship financing, crewing and marine operations. The result was that we were suitably connected within the maritime industry which paved the way to become more involved in the shipbreaking sector. It was also a period of major changes within the shipping world, when ship owners were selling off or in some cases defaulting on ship mortgage commitments, mainly due to high fuel costs and rapid movement towards containerization. Many traditional Owners of longstanding suddenly found their tonnage was no longer economic or competitive and sold their ships rapidly at the behest of accountants. The result was that many fledgling shipowners who acquired these ships did not foresee the rapid changes and quickly became burdened with uneconomic tonnage, causing many financial institutions to repossess vessels over which they held security. This development in the shipping industry triggered contact from various major financial institutions seeking consultation on what could be done with vessels on which they were required to foreclose.

We learned details from financiers who had several foreclosed vessels anchored in Hong Kong and Singapore because of delinquency by owners in meeting various financial obligations. The financial institutions sought a “One Stop Shop” solution in terms of technical and commercial management to assist them to overcome the dilemma. They ideally wanted a full package at a fixed monthly fee for Technical and Commercial ship management with such things as insurance, survey, repairs, crew recruitment and wages, brokerages, port dues and taxes, fuel and lubricants, stores etc., being additional but invoiced to them at cost.

Under the proposed arrangement the institutions received an attractive fixed monthly management fee with the headache of becoming reluctant shipowners in which they had no technical or commercial expertise, was eliminated. As owners they retained responsibility for standard operating costs of the ship whilst the ship manager had exclusivity over the vessel until such time as a buyer was arranged, or indeed the vessel went for demolition. This scenario assured a regular monthly income to the ship manager who was also able to claim legitimate brokerage fees on all cargo, sale or demolition of the vessel, recognized as standard within the shipping industry. The nub was, it became a win/win situation.

This type of “One Stop Solution” worked very satisfactorily, with the word getting about amongst the financial houses which lead to further enquiries by others seeking a similar arrangement, and which, over ensuing years became a source of ongoing business.

During this time, it became obvious there was potential for us, as a smaller player, to become involved in the demolition market which was starting to really become established in Taiwan and the PRC (People’s Republic of China). It stood to reason, if, now having built a reasonable working relationship with various Banks through our “One Stop Shop” management solutions, we could acquire tonnage built with good LDT and quality steel (usually European built) with the support of short-term financing, there was every chance of decent profits to be made all round. This could be developed into a worthwhile side business to supplement our core ship management activities. Here is a nice profile image of the ex CMB “Brueghal”, ex “Treasury Alpha” which we took over at Singapore on behalf of one of the financial institutions. We renamed her “Tamaki” and traded around Asia for about one year before we arranged for her demolition in Taiwan. A successful project for all parties concerned.

Credit: CMB Archives

Seen here one of the “Cap San” Class operated by Hamburg-Sud on the N. Europe – South America service. They became known as the “White Swans of the South Atlantic”, due to their sleek design and high speed.

Credit: Hamburg-Sud archives

We purchased 3 vessels of this type direct from the owners, taking delivery in Europe and worked them towards Asia. Eventually we sold them for demolition.

The vessels purchased were “Cap San Marco” re-flagged and renamed “Marco Polo”, and “Cap San Antonio” re-flagged and renamed “San Miguel”. Both vessels were taken over in Europe and worked progressively towards Asia carrying a variety of cargoes along the designated route over the ensuing few months, until eventual arrival at the shipbreakers. The last one of the trio purchased was the “Cap San Diego”. This project had an interesting twist because the ship having arrived in S.E. Asia, pending imminent delivery to the breakers’ yard, received an eleventh hours reprieve. An offer from a Hamburg based ship conservancy group was received to purchase the vessel and deliver her back to Cuxhaven, as she was. Not wishing to see such a fine vessel go to the “Torch” unnecessarily, the offer to purchase her and duly delivered her back to Germany was accepted (luckily for them our contract with the scrapyard had an “escape clause”). The ship which we had renamed “Sangria” underwent a complete refurbishment upon her arrival back in Germany, had her name and German Register reinstated and is now a museum ship at Hamburg. The rest I shall leave to history.

A misty day at Kaohsiung, sometime during the late 1070s – early 1980s showing a crowed scene at a typical Taiwan shipbreakers yard. Demolition focused around economics and expediency with little regard being given to the adverse effects on the environment caused by pollution. At times the ships awaiting their demise were banked up alongside the makeshift wharfs encroaching into the river.

Credit: Unknown Source/Public Domain

In practice, it is a very simple scheme; the way acquisition of suitable tonnage for demolition by scrap merchants worked was by a rate set within the demolition market based on a ship’s LDT. This allowed for a monetary scrap value to be easily ascertained for any given ship provided the LDT was known. LDT is “light displacement tonnage”, which is in simple terms the weight of water displaced by the ship – the mass of the ship excluding cargo, fuel, ballast, stores, passengers, crew, but with water in boilers to steaming level.

Ship Brokers involved in Sales and Purchase nominated suitable tonnage available on a regular basis (Brokers carefully matched their proposals as to the suitability of tonnage against our earlier defined criteria). One of our important requirements was that any vessels proposed to us for sale must still be in good trading condition and currently be in Class with a minimum of 6 months. We were not interested in ships that had been in lay-up or out of service or Class for any period. Ships were subject to prior inspection (by one of our Engineering or Nautical survey members) to ascertain suitability to proceed from Europe towards the Far East under their own power, carrying cargoes along the route. All of which was a critical necessity in order to turn a decent profit, as previously mentioned. The economics did not make sense, for towing global distances for demolition.

Once a suitable ship had been identified, and the economics of the proposed exercise verified, we would attempt to obtain a short period of exclusivity with Brokers pending our offer being proposed. In the meantime, our in – house team set to work sorting the short – term finances and seeking a Contract of Sale with one of our preferred shipbreakers as well as identifying suitable cargo(s). Once having become relatively well known in this sector of the industry matters tended to come together quite rapidly. A company surveyor would be dispatched to inspect the vessel’s condition and suitability, including verification of vessel documentation and Class affairs.

Broadly speaking, the important thing was to get a pro-forma Sales Contract in place for the vessel’s demolition with a wide Laycan (basically an agreed spread of dates between which the vessel may be delivered in accordance with contract) , allowing us a reasonable scope for delivery to the scrap yard.

Once agreed in principal the financial backers knew a sale was imminent and the ship had been inspected and deemed suitable, together with suitable potential cargo(s) to cover costs of the delivery voyage (hopefully yielding a reasonable profit), the short – term bridging finance soon fell into place and the deal was finalized. The Banks were comfortable as they held both the deeds to the vessel and were beneficiaries in the demolition contract, so their risk was substantially mitigated. Our profit derived from surplus remaining once the banks had been paid out from proceeds of the sale. Depending on cargo revenues and modest gain on the sale price, overall profitability for the delivery voyage usually ranged between USD80-120,000, which on 1980 values was quite good for a short 3 months exercise. However, it was not always plain sailing and we did meet challenges along the way from time to time, which we managed to overcome. The prosecution of a successful voyage was not without risk to us; the secrets to a profitable enterprise lay in securing the right ship with reasonable revenue earning cargoes along the way, which was not always easy. It was a good year if we could achieve 2-3 deliveries to the shipbreakers.

The actual delivery and acceptance of the vessel from the sellers varied according to what needed to be done. If it was necessary to change flag and name this usually took a little longer but with good coordination, on average a vessel could be made ready for a demolition voyage within 10 days. This included crewing (we had our own delivery crew consisting of ship Master and senior Officers), Insurances, Bunkers and Lubes, Fresh Water, basic Stores, Victuals, arranging Radio Accounts together with the many other needs to make a vessel ready for a voyage after acquisition.

This type of exercise lasted for about 2 years during which we delivered several more vessels to Taiwan and China shipbreakers. It was a very interesting and exciting period, full of challenges. It yielded a great deal of satisfaction once a voyage had been successfully executed.

It must be said, there was a touch of the maverick doing this kind of business; one felt a little like “James Onedin” of the “Onedin Line” (TV series popular around the time). Take a risk, hold your breath and hope for the best outcome. Fortunately, fate was good to us during the “Golden 80s”, an era only living on in nostalgia, sadly never to be repeated.

End

Four men in a Boat – Chapter 9 by ‘Shipmate’

9 CHAPTER NINE(Presumed Dead.)

On leaving China, no final destination was available so the Captain was instructed by the London Office to head for European waters.  With a full cargo of rice the ship seemed to enjoy the prospect of heading home and was coping with the heavy seas with ease.  Everyone aboard was affected at the prospect of returning to Britain and although several weeks remained until they arrived, a general feeling of euphoria prevailed.

During the night, the ship turned into the Malacca Straits and just after four in the morning the Chief Officer sent for the senior Apprentice.

“I want you to wake the Serang and your two buddies and do a thorough search of the ship from stem to stern.” 

 He restlessly paced the bridge and pulled deeply on his ever-present cigarette.

“ When I came onto the bridge at the start of my watch, the Second Officer was nowhere to be seen.  We are now on a reciprocal course and I’ve doubled the lookouts and reduced speed.”

It took over two hours before they were certain that he was not on board and the Serang reported that his efforts had also been unsuccessful.  As daylight came it was hoped that something would be seen but nothing was spotted.  Searches were continued and earlier radio contact had been made with the Singapore Coastguard who had alerted all ships in the area.

The original course was ordered by the Captain to be resumed at the last known position where the Second Officer had taken over the watch from the Third Officer at midnight.

As the Third Officer was the last person known to have seen the missing man, he had to make a written report to that effect including comments about The Second Officer’s state of mind amongst other things.

The morale was affected but life had to go on and nobody relished entering the Second Officers cabin to deal with his belongings, although his desk had been searched in case some sort of letter had been left.

The immediate effect did have some rather paradoxical benefits, which, in the circumstances were hardly welcomed.  The Third Officer was promoted to Second Officer and the senior apprentice became the acting Third Officer.

The less junior apprentice became the senior apprentice.

It is probably for Insurance purposes that most Officers sail at a rank below their Certifications thus promotion is made easy and serves to satisfy the Company’s Insurance requirements.

Later in the passage the personal effects of the missing Officer were packed up.  The packing was duly carried out by the Chief Steward with one of the deck Officers present, who recorded the contents in a logbook as they were packed.  Once the packing was completed the cabin was sealed and the luggage was put into storage until a homeport was reached. 

The new Third Officer was very aware of his elevated status and carried out his duties in a most conscientious manner.  He was able to put into practice a lot of the theory that he had learned at pre-sea training school.  He was to find however, that most of the four hour on and eight hours off watches at sea, consisted of endless scanning of the horizons.  As a consequence he had plenty of time to recall his erstwhile friend and shipmate.

He had first met Jenk’s, as the late Second Officer had become known, when he joined his previous ship in Rotterdam.  They had both been transferred from Newcastle in New South Wales to the Tealbank but at slightly different times.

On first meeting Mr. Jenkins appeared unusual in many ways.  He was extremely refined, well bred, and courteous but quite elderly for a Second Officer though he had once confided that he had once been Captain of King Faisal’s Yacht.  This bit of information however, was taken with a pinch of salt.

He seemed reserved and didn’t drink but spent much of his spare time listening to classical music; particularly to the violin that he proudly explained was played expertly by his daughter. 

Their previous Captain had been a great friend with his Second Officer, presumably because of their similar ages and status.

Having recorded the late Navigator’s belongings the previous day, the Third Officer felt that the answers to certain questions no longer remained elusive.

On their previous ship, quite out of character, the Second Officer had joined the Radio Officer for a “Jolly” whilst in South America, which resulted in the hapless Irish Sparks being replaced.  The then senior apprentice wondered how the Second Officer had avoided a similar fate, a question whose answer now became obvious. 

The one lapse was now thought to indicate that the former Second Officer was suffering from some sort of alcoholic denial.  His reprieve, following the mis-conduct, seemed to have been because not only was their Captain a good friend of his gentle navigator but also, that they were both Freemasons.  Unable to receive similar sympathetic treatment from the new Captain and faced with the prospect of some sort of enquiry back in England, he had apparently taken what he thought was the easy way out.

His lifetime’s personal belongings were packed away and listed.  They included his uniforms and other clothing, and a jacket wrapped in polythene sheeting, complete with Masters insignia.  A trunk contained his collection of classical tapes, an old violin, a bundle of letters tied in a yellow ribbon and the clandestine regalia required for Freemasons.  Among the classical music was a tape of a violin concerto that had been known to reduce the departed gentleman to tears.

In his Journal were three recent letters.  The first, a single page from his ex wife.  The second letter was a much longer letter from his daughter, whose return address suggested that she was a senior violinist on tour with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The final letter was dated July 1958 and remained unopened.  It was post marked from Baghdad.

The Chief Steward placed the unopened letter on the Chief Officers Desk.

“I’ve been through all of the possessions except this Sir,” he said.

The Chief Officer took the letter and examined the envelope noting its origin as Iraq.  He saw it was addressed to,

 Captain.  D. Jenkins. 

 C/O Merchant Navy Officers Club,

 Pall Mall London W.C.1.                                ‘Kindly forward Urgent.’

“Anything else Chief?” asked the Chief Officer.

The Steward replied,

 “ We went through everything as much as possible and read extracts from other random letters.  Apart from what we already know there was nothing to indicate any reason for a deliberate action on his part.”

“Thanks Chief,   ” the Captain’s deputy replied, “leave it with me.”

The Chief Officer was aware that many freelance Officers left details of their whereabouts at the Officers club for forwarding and noticed a scribble in pencil directing the letter to the Company’s Head Office in London.

He vaguely wondered why it hadn’t been opened and left it to one side until later.

There were forms to fill in and a report to write and whilst he had to stick to the facts, in the rare instances he had to deal with such matters, he tended to hint at misadventure rather than suicide because of insurance and pension provisions but mainly with the feelings of the relatives in mind.

It took nearly three hours to complete the report and fill in the necessary forms that also required the Captains signature.

He had written a letter to the late Second Officers daughter and a more difficult letter to his wife who was still listed as his next of kin. 

He poured himself a scotch and eyed the unopened letter for several minutes before he decided to open it.  It was dated 13th July 1958

It began, 

                                                                         Royal Palace

                                                                         Baghdad.

                                                                         Iraq.

Dear Captain Jenkins, 

I’m sure you know that the situation in the Middle East has become very volatile since President Nasser came to power in Egypt and commandeered the Suez Canal.  The resulting turmoil worldwide is affecting all Arab Countries and I am forever looking over my shoulder. 

The ‘Aliye’ should now be waiting in Turkey and I have been persuaded by my cousin King Hussein of Jordan to take temporary refuge aboard until the present unrest dies down.

I have been meaning to write to you since your departure as ‘Captain’ of the Royal Yacht early in 1957 but firstly and most importantly the purpose of this letter is to request that you once again take command of the Yacht.  On receipt of this letter, wherever you are, telephone the Embassy in London who will arrange First Class Air tickets.  Your salary and conditions will be as before plus half as much again and this of course also applies to leave and pension entitlements.

The unfortunate incident that led to your departure has now been clarified and you are completely exonerated.  Had I have been aboard at the time, matters would have been very different but those responsible could be excused at their unbending interpretation of Sharia Law when considering alcohol.

You will, without doubt, remember those wonderful times when we both enjoyed wine, women and song, ashore as well as on board the Yacht.

There has been a string of Officers since you left but none have really suited, mainly because unlike you they did not speak the language and had little control over the crew.

My dear friend (yes I must call you that) I look forward again to sharing the relaxing evenings especially listening to your violin.

  With the hopes that it may ‘swing the balance,’ and help you make a positive decision, I have arranged for a very special present that awaits you and is locked in the safe of your suite on the “Aliye’. 

 I’ll give you one clue before closing.  It was purchased in Lombardy in Italy at a place called ‘Cremona.’

Your humble and respectful friend,

Faisal.11 Ghazi

The Chief Officer sat in contemplation and topped up his glass.  He remembered the headline well.  He had spent some time on oil tankers before being flown out to join the ship in Freemantle.  Just before he left, the item about Iraq had particularly interested him, as it was a place he regularly visited.

The headline in the ‘Times’ newspaper was in bold letters had proclaimed one word.  Massacre.  The whole Iraqi Royal family and their servants had been slaughtered in a military coupe on July 14th 1958.

After a while he picked up his letter to Jenk’s daughter and placed it together with the letter from Iraq into another envelope which he addressed to Katherine Jenkins care of: –

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall

89 Albert Embankment

London SE 7 TP

England. 

The ship docked in Gibraltar, late in the evening so that any business had to wait until next day.  On his way back from the Post Office next morning, the Chief Officer passed the Library and on an impulse entered its quiet and cool interior.

The staff obligingly set about to retrieve the journals and newspapers he had asked for.

Lloyds lists is a journal, published in London, that records the whereabouts of most of the World’s shipping especially those insured through Lloyds.  The Chief Officer was intrigued as to what had happened to the Aliye and had decided to carry out investigations as soon as they reached port.  He had intended to wait until they were back in England but his spontaneous decision to enter the library was partly out of burning curiosity and partly to avoid the burning midday sun.  He also wanted to confirm her location on the 15th July 1958 and the yacht’s latest known position including under whose flag she was now registered.

His researches revealed fairly sparse information as though the World’s press had agreed to restrict detailed particulars.

The best account that he had been able to discover was published in the Unites States in the ‘Sarasota Herald Tribune’ dated July 20th 1958 under the heading: –

TURKEY HOLDING FAISAL’S YACHT 

Istanbul (AP).  After a reported fight amongst the Iraq crew, Turkey took protective custody, Sunday, of a yacht, which belonged to the late King Faisal 11 of Iraq.

Two navy gunboats moved alongside the luxurious vessel, the ‘ALIYE’, anchored in the Bosporus and kept all other craft from approaching.

The ‘ALIYE’ had been anchored here several weeks, awaiting the ill fated King and his Uncle Crown Prince Abdul Ilah who intended to board last week for a Mediterranean cruise.

Reported scuffles among the crew were scanty and unconfirmed but crews of vessels anchored nearby, said there had been some disturbance.

The Chief Officer looked up at the library clock and saw it was approaching noon.  Soon the customary changing of the guard would take place a practice that dated back to 1728 and was one of Gibraltar’s main attractions.

He still had some time before he needed to get back to the ship so he continued with his investigations.  He desperately needed a cigarette but decided to leave it for the moment as he was enjoying the cool breeze from the large overhead fan, it was one of those lattice types often found in the tropics and its large blades made up for its slow rotation.

He had to wait for the librarian to return from the archives with a copy of the Washington post dated July 18th 1958.  He felt flattered that she was helping him so much and thought it a shame that she looked like a stereotype of her profession, right down to having her hair in a bun and wearing thick framed glasses.

The headline was in bold letters right across the whole front page: –

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS  

The UN Security Council is to convene members of the General Assembly to discuss the crisis throughout the Middle East and the effects it is likely to have on oil supplies.

The troubles started in Iraq with an armed take over of the Government that saw the brutal murders of the complete Royal family.

A BBC reporter sent the following dispatch before taking refuge at the British Embassy in Baghdad.

An armed insurrection took place just after dawn and all strategic government buildings including the media were taken over.

Forces were sent to the Palace where they met with little resistance and during the assault King Faisal 11 was shot dead.  His uncle Crowned Prince Abdul Ilah was wounded and then towed behind an army vehicle before being hanged in public from a prominent building.

During the unrest a serving British Army Colonel was shot dead outside the British Embassy.

Prime Minister Nuri, who had just past his seventieth birthday, was caught while trying to escape, dressed as a woman.  The new ruling party executed him without trial.

John Snow Baghdad.

Out in the sunshine and fresh air, the Chief Officer deeply inhaled his cigarette.  He reflected that fate, luck, or whatever you called it was unpredictable.

One minute you’re a King and own Palaces and a magnificent yacht, and the next minute your dead.  Thank goodness, he thought to himself that these things didn’t seem to happen to ordinary people.  He truly hoped that both the King and Jenk’s had had some great times aboard the yacht.

Four Men In a Boat .. Chapter 8 by ” Shipmate”

8 CHAPTER EIGHT (Chinese Riddles.)

Most of the passage to the Orient was given over to getting the holds ready for the expected cargo.

Diligent sweeping and removal of residues of the grain preceded washing down with supercharged hoses that needed three men to operate.  Two men restrained the hose while the third directed the nozzle.  From time to time they had to stop washing down to clear the ‘strum’ boxes.  The ‘strum’ boxes were sort of strainers in the bilges that helped prevent the pumps from becoming blocked.

Due to the large amount of water used, the holds became quite flooded and the cleaning party had to be on constant guard against the bulky timbers floating in the floodwater.  The danger was increased as the ships continuous rolling caused the water and timbers to surge from side to side, crashing into anything in the way.

It took three days to complete the cleaning and all the holds were pumped dry.

  The weather was fine and sunny providing ideal conditions, so some of the hatches were propped open to help dry the holds in addition to the breeze from the ventilators.

 Their passage took them into the Andaman Sea and through the Straits of Malacca where just beyond Singapore the helmsman was ordered ‘hard to port’ bringing the ship round to a course that would lead between the Chinese mainland and Formosa, a large island, which was to become the Taiwan that we know today.

After the customary weekly inspection by the Captain and the ship’s Officers, to break the monotony, the apprentices decided to pass the rest of the Sunday fishing.  It was fishing in no ordinary sense.  A length of wire rope about twenty feet long was fastened at one end to a large coil of rope.  A meat hook fashioned with a barb, was secured to the other end.  Fixed to the hook was a large chunk of meat and a heavy shackle was used as a weight on the rope.  The whole length of the line was paid out astern to compensate for the ships speed.  The line was then fed over the ships railings and wound round the windlass drum.  A bit of rag was tied to the rail beneath the rope to reduce chaffing.  To alert them to a ‘ bite’, a metal bucket of water was suspended from the line between the ship’s rail and the windlass.

The bucket moved in time with the ship’s motion on the waves but when the bait was taken the line would become rigid causing the water to spill from the bucket that would noisily rattle around indicating a catch. 

After waiting patiently for several hours, during which time they often had to re-bait the hook, the bucket started clattering about.  There was little finesse.  Using the electric windlass the line was hauled in.  A large object could be seen threshing about and jumping or being pulled clear of the water.  The threshing stopped as soon as it became vertical.  It was a hammerhead shark about ten feet long.  The line continued to be remorselessly wound in by the windlass that was stopped just as the shark reached the railing.  Excited lascar crewmen explained that once vertical, a shark became almost paralysed by its organs pressing on one and other.  Boat hooks were used to drag it aboard.  Having regained the horizontal it also regained its strength and began writhing about and aiming bites at anyone who approached.

The Chinese ships carpenter decided to act.  Using a twenty-pound sledgehammer he subdued the predator with a single blow and finished it off with a second well-aimed hit.

Whether from a nervous twitch or from temporary recovery, two days later, as one of the seamen passed, it lunged in his direction.

This time the Carpenter made sure and dined on a favourite Chinese dish – ‘sharks fin soup.’

They finally became aware of their imminent arrival when the sea changed from the deep clear blue of the East China Sea to an opaque muddy yellow of the vast estuary of the river Yangtze.

After a busy passage up the river they arrived at the port of the City of Shanghai.

A mid stream berth between heavy wooden piles became their temporary home as they awaited loading.

Not unlike many river ports throughout the middle and Far East the banks were used to raft-up multitudes of small boats, which were used as ferries and lighters by day, and to house families at night.  The river was teeming with traffic with little regard for minimizing pollution. 

The next few days were something of an anticlimax as the authorities used every trick in the book rather than admit that they were not ready for loading.  Chinese Officials in white overalls inspected the holds and shook their heads when any European was present.  They picked up imaginary bugs and sealed them in glass tubes before leaving to return later with notices printed with Chinese characters in bright red.  They pasted the notices at the entrance to each hold and although nobody understood the writing, a crossed out staircase was difficult to ignore.

It was a blatant attempt to avoid demurrage but having no choice the holds were once more washed down before a repeat performance by the health inspectors condemned the ship yet again.

This time the Captain and Chief Officer strenuously objected and the result was a compulsory fumigation scheduled for the following Monday.

The crew and Officers alike were delighted but no doubt the owners took a different view.

The fumigation process involved a complete evacuation of the ship causing all of the personnel to be billeted and fed at an Hotel nearby.

Poison gases were sealed in the holds for thirty-six hours and a further thirty-six hours was allowed for the gas to disperse.

The unsuspecting deck and engineering Officers went ashore in a coastguard launch and were escorted to the Astor Hotel where they had been allocated shared rooms.  The less revered Asian crew were given opulent suites to themselves and provided with winter clothing for pre-arranged cultural trips.

The Captain avoided sharing a room with the Chief Officer by bribing one of the staff with a bottle of Scotch and they both managed to spend their days away from the Hotel on the pretext of ships business.

The Astor Hotel was once a premiere Hotel of the Far East along with ‘Raffles’ of Singapore but was taken over by the PRC (Peoples Republic of China) in 1947 and due to diplomatic tensions between Britain and China it was later ceded to the Shanghai Institution Business Administrive Bureau before reverting to an international Hotel after refurbishment in 1959 and became known as the Pujiang Hotel.  It’s situation near the North end of Waibaidu Bridge on the North Bund, offered a strategic location fairly close to the port.

During the period shortly before the ‘fumigation incident,’ the Hotel had been requisitioned as a dormitory for the Chinese Navy’ and used for foreign businessmen but it had become a little run down and poorly staffed.

The Ship’s Officers assumed the guards on the doors were to prevent entry but it later became obvious that it was to stop exit.  That they were virtually under house arrest didn’t bother the sailors overmuch.  Due to their relatively short stay and the hotel facilities, which included free beer, it was much preferred to what little sight seeing was available at that time.  They quickly noticed that apart from the bar staff, the other Hotel staff went home at around seven in the evening, leaving the sailors alone.  This had certain disadvantages such as the heating being shut down but it took a long while for the water and rooms to cool down.

One evening, the apprentices explored the cellars and came across a locked door. 

Curiosity got the better of them so they found a large box of keys at the reception and kept trying until at last the door was opened.  They returned the rest of the keys and used a torch they had found to locate the lights.

An amazing sight greeted them.  There were three cellar doors in all and judging by the absence of dust on two of the doors they decided that those two were probably used for storage.  The third cellar stretched the whole length of the building with great brick pillars acting as foundation supports and the complete area was covered in dust and cobwebs.  Further exploration suggested some sort of shooting gallery as one end was stacked with sandbags and four unhindered lanes each contained a continuous wire that held a frame for mounting targets which could be wound back to the firing bench.

In the vicinity of the bench area were three locked cabinets that were easily opened by the smaller keys on the bunch borrowed from reception.

To their delight two of the cupboards contained 0.22mm rifles and the third had several boxes of cartridges and cleaning equipment.  The rifles had been taken to pieces and heavily greased and packed in oiled waterproof cloth.

They decided there and then to get the gallery working.  The two junior apprentices went off in search of industrial cleaners.

By eleven o’clock when the lights went out most of the cleaning was completed.  The senior apprentice had removed the preservers and assembled four of the rifles that he put back into the cupboard and locked the door.

The next day the time dragged and to avoid suspicion they attended the bar before the evening meal taking care not to over indulge.  True to form the staff left for the day apart from the bar staff that were kept busy by the new residents and visiting sailors who were mainly Chinese together with occasional Swedes and Americans.

Luckily the bar was situated on the top floor so the chance of being heard was remote.

The senior apprentice had done some shooting on a range and was conversant with safety practices so to start with they decided to use a single gun.  A drawer was opened in search of targets and they came across the club membership book.

It proved very useful as the first nine pages contained the membership rules.  The body of the Journal held records of achievements including dates and scores.  The last entry was dated September 1953.

The back pages were given over to the names and addresses of the former members.

They started at night using a single rifle and when they left nearly three days later, all four lanes were in use by all the ships Officers, pretty much throughout the day.

On the last night they cleaned all the equipment and dissembled the guns stowing them packed in oilskins as they found them.  The cellar was locked and the keys returned.

As it was to be the last evening they celebrated and lit candles when the lights went out at eleven.  Staff joined in the party, which must have gone on late before the cold started to creep in.

The Senior Apprentice was woken in the early hours to find that his bath had a thin film of ice forming on the surface.  He leapt out having sobered up and hastily dried before diving beneath the bedclothes.

The return to the ship was a bit of an anti-climax.  Nothing had apparently changed.  It was all systems go on the loading front and a shore berth had been allocated for immediate loading.

It was while making ready to move that the discovery was made.

Hatches are secured once the tarpaulins are in place by metal hatch bars being laid against the covers on ‘u’ shaped cleats.  Wooden wedges are hammered between the cleats and bars, forcing the bar to tightly grip the canvases.  The wedges always are pointed aft so any wave effect only drives the wedges in further.

The wedges hadn’t been moved.  Neither had the canvas covers that were placed over the ventilators, as it was unlikely that the securing knots had been replicated or that the vent covers had been replaced following ventilation from the supposed fumigation.

Of course all this was reported to the chief Officer who said, ‘so what,’ or ‘I’m not surprised,’ or words to that effect.

Within ten minutes of tying up ashore the first sacks of rice started to load.  Labourers teemed aboard like worker ants and the complicated loading continued around the clock.

The rice is loaded in half-hundredweight sacks.  There are two requirements.  It has to be kept dry and it has to breathe.  The first requirement is necessary because any damp will cause the rice to swell up and erupt from its confines in the holds.

  Complete ventilation is achieved by building timber airways as loading progresses.  In the absence of adequate ventilation, heat can build up, resulting in deadly internal combustion.

A third unwelcome effect from carrying rice is often experienced and would later create a good deal of unpleasant work for the apprentices and crew.

In all it only took three days to complete loading, thanks to the hoards of shore people used in stowage and the erection of the vent tunnels.  From the last empty sling returning to the quay it took only about twenty minutes before the ship was underway and headed down river towards the open sea. 

As the senior apprentice carried out his duties on the bridge he reflected that it was less than ten years earlier that the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Amethyst had fifty four men killed after being attacked without provocation, by the PLA (peoples liberation army) during the Chinese civil war.

H.M.S. Concord had approached Shanghai from Nanking at 27 knots and attempted to tow the stricken Amethyst without success.

Later Amethyst managed to escape down river and out into the estuary and was immortalized when in 1958 she was used in a film of the incident, starring Richard Todd.  As she had been imobilised her sister ship was used in the recording of moving shots.

Hong Kong was the Far East base for the Royal Navy who sent two ships namely, H.M.S London and H.M.S. Black Swann, to escort the stricken Amethyst.  They were fired upon with casualties and were subsequently ordered to return to rejoin the fleet.

Amethyst was held to ransom for several weeks while the PLA unsuccessfully attempted to get a signed statement that the ship had fired first.

One night she slipped her cable and headed for the estuary producing prodigious amounts of black smoke to confuse her aggressors.

Once safely clear of the estuary she signaled to H.M.S.Concord, which is remembered in the service, as a typical example of British understatement.

‘…have rejoined the fleet to the South of Woo sung…No casualties…No major damage…GOD SAVE THE KING’.

A Tribute to the incident is to be found in the Memorial Grove at the National Memorial Arboretum.

It is represented by four Ginkgo trees to honour the four ships that took part.  Seventy-Six Euphorbia shrubs encircle the trees: one for each life that was lost.

The Memorial has been sculpted with a moving description, which reads,

‘Yesterday is history, Tomorrow a Mystery, but today is a gift, that is why it’s called the Present.  (Anon.)

TO BE CONTINUED……..

“FOUR MEN IN A BOAT”. by ” SHIPMATE”. …….Chapter 7

7 CHAPTER SEVEN (Gratis Grain.)

The rail journey from Sydney to Perth whilst being extremely long was very tedious due to the rather barren and little changing landscape.  So in contrast the relatively short leg from Perth to Freemantle was invigorating with its glimpses of the deep blue Ocean and wide white sandy beaches.

The recently promoted senior apprentice new better than to have undue expectations but nevertheless he felt a certain glow of anticipation at the prospect of joining a different ship.  He thought that any ship must be an improvement on the ship he had recently left in Newcastle NSW.

Just as he arrived at Freemantle, his previous vessel, the Comliebank’ as it was named thirty five years before, left Newcastle light ship with a skeleton crew on its final journey to Karachi before being scrapped.

‘Tealbank’ was the name of his new vessel.  She was a “Sam; boat or to be more correct a ‘Liberty Ship’.

 Many of these ships were built in world war two by the Americans for the sole purpose of freighting men and goods to England to assist in the struggle against the ‘Nazis’.  They were constructed in a continuous length with a bow and stern added later.  Their all welded construction made them unique in their time, as did their three-cylinder triple expansion steam engine that proved satisfactory in many ways.  After the war was over, many of the surviving ships were turned into general freighters and were in service for many years where they were well received by crew due to the comfortable American requirements for accommodation and ablutions. 

He was met by one of the two junior apprentices who carried his luggage to his new cabin.

“I’ll be getting along so I’ll leave you to unpack.  My name is Andy Rutherford and if there’s anything you need to know – give me a shout.”  John simply replied, “Cheers.  I’m John.”

It was the first time he had had his own cabin and in fact his own room since, as long as he could remember, he had to share with one of his brothers, sometimes both.

Before he unpacked he discovered a door, which led to his own toilet and shower, a legacy of American requirements that the British were slow at catching up.  His pleasure was further heightened when he noticed that his bunk was as half as wide again than his previous berth which being to the ‘Board of Trade’ standards was very minimal. 

It seemed that the standards applied only when building the ship and not, when revised, to current usage.

He decided to take a shower and wash off the grime of the journey and marveled at the abundance of hot water.  Hitherto heat and quantity had been strictly controlled by the engineers and subject to availability, whereas due to this ship being steam powered, a plentiful supply of hot water was normal. 

Freshly showered, he reported to the Chief Officer who welcomed him aboard and excused him of duties for the rest of the day but advised him to turn to at six thirty the following morning as the ship was due to sail at midday.

That evening after a few beers ashore the apprentices joined in a game of cards in the Officers Lounge and from the banter between the players the new senior apprentice gleaned that their full cargo of grain was a gift from Australia to India and as a consequence their departure had been delayed for a blessing from an Indian Holy man who was arriving with the Vice Consul from Sydney.

Sure enough at 10 o’clock sharp, a brass band turned up and began to play.  A short while later the Indian parties arrived accompanied by several uniformed dignitaries.  A brief ceremony took place with various people signing the ‘manifesto’ and the Holy man throwing handfuls of grain into the sea.

The ceremony duly completed the participants repaired to the Captains Quarters for refreshments.

In what seemed a fitting tribute, the brass band solemnly marched off and adding to the occasion in true Australian style they played, ‘Waltzing Maltilda.’

The ship sailed right on time bound for Singapore where they were due to pick up fuel.  They were hoping to take aboard sufficient to enable them to reach Shanghai after they had discharged the grain in Southern India’s main port of Madras.

It was unusual to find out their destination so far in advance but there being only one port of discharge, assisted in forecasting loading schedules.  It was rumoured but unconfirmed that they were to load a full cargo of rice in China bound for Europe.

The trip to Singapore was uneventful, with the apprentices being occupied with the lifeboats and hosing out the anchor locker.  Years of mud and debris needed removing to ensure that the anchors didn’t jam when needed.

After the anchors had been weighed and stowed, the hawse pipes were stuffed with sacking and sealed with cement plugs to prevent the chain lockers from flooding.  Frequently, debris entered the lockers when the anchors were used so periodically they needed cleaning out.

It was when engaged in dealing with the lockers that one of the apprentices noticed a two-meter square manhole that appeared to have been closed for a very long time.  They decided to investigate.  Between their other duties it took four days to unscrew the ninety-six ¾ inch bolts as it all had to be done by hand.  At last the final bolt was unscrewed and the heavy rusty lid was pried open. 

It was pitch black and a bit spooky when they peered down and they tossed a coin to see who would go down the iron ladder disappearing into the gloom.  The cargo clusters of lights wouldn’t reach and nobody could bother to get an extension lead.

Andy had lost, so armed with a feeble torch he made his was below.

Watching from above, they could just make out his movements as he descended.  A great cry of horror came from below followed by an un natural silence.  The weak illumination had disappeared.

Suddenly Andy’s head poked out off the darkness and he was grinning like a ‘Cheshire Cat.’

“That frightened you I bet.”  He climbed over the coaming and sat on a pile of rope to light a cigarette.

“What did you see?” asked John.

“Nothing much, just a big pile of wire netting and as far as I could see nothing else.”

“Suppose we’d better tell the Mate,” offered the junior nicknamed ‘fatso’ because he weighed about ten stone and was a little over six foot tall.

It was the duty of the senior apprentice to report to the Chief Officer at the end of each day’s work, to update him as to progress.  During his debriefing the apprentice told the Mate of their discovery.

“ That’s interesting – must have been there since the war.”  Said the Mate.

“  Probably anti torpedo netting, they used to hang the nets over the side so that any torpedo’s hit the net first thereby protecting the hull.  How many were there?”

“Not sure Sir,” replied the apprentice, “What do you want us to do?”

“Tomorrow first thing, get them up to the tween deck and let me know when you’ve finished and I’ll take a look.”

It took them all morning to get the nets out.  There were ten all told, each about twelve meters long by six meters wide.  The top had large brass shackles on each corner and the bottoms had hefty ringbolts woven into the netting.  In one corner of the now empty locker were twenty concrete weights each having a polished metal hook somehow secured to the weight.  They were to find out later that the shiny hooks were stainless steel and that the enormous shackles were solid bronze.

The Chief Officer arrived just as they had retrieved the last net.

“Well done lads.”

He examined the find and turning to John, he instructed,

“Replace the lid and secure the bolts.  You’ll need a bit if grease.  We’ll get rid of the nets in Singapore.  They’ll not be needed now.”

They arrived at Singapore and berthed along the fuelling jetty that was several miles from town.  This hardly mattered since the bunkering would only take a few hours and would be completed before dawn the next day when they would immediately sail for Madras their port of discharge.

Just after arrival the Chief Officer sent for the senior apprentice.

“I’ve arranged to get rid of those nets.  A lighter should arrive around midnight.  It needs to be done by hand so as not to disturb anyone.  Make a note of how long it takes and you can have the same time off tomorrow.

When it’s finished, the shore wallah will give you a package which you can hang on to until after we have left in the morning.”

As the apprentice was about to close the door, he added,

“Call me if necessary but remember I don’t like to be disturbed.”

Just after midnight the apprentice awoke to a tapping on his door, ‘Sahib, there’s a man asking for you.”  Said the Goanese night watchman.

He called his juniors in the cabin next door, quickly dressed, and accompanied the watchman to the foredeck where his visitor was waiting.  A whispered greeting passed between them and they made there way to the forecastle.

It worried him that the transaction seemed so clandestine.  He appreciated the need to keep noise to a minimum but his naivety had suffered since coming to sea and his experiences had made him much more worldly wise.  This was tested a little later when they were lowering the nets into the lighter and the deck floodlights suddenly came on.

One minute he was lowering and the next he was pulling on the net and shouting.  “Stop thieves.” 

He felt a mixture of foolishness and relief when the Chief Officer appeared and enquired, “Everything alright?”

It took nearly two hours before the last net was safely aboard the lighter, which disappeared into the darkness.

As arranged the Boss man gave John a thick package and swiftly made for the gangway. 

The three young apprentices made for the pantry and brewed a pot of tea.  Bread was toasted and the welcome ‘supper’ served to replenish the energy lost in dealing with the nets.

  The junior apprentices were very curious as to the contents of the ‘package’ and were told it contained the specification sheets and the shipping documents but everyone suspected that the contents were more interesting.

After a cigarette it was decided to turn in, as they would be on duty when the ship sailed early in the morning. 

The arrival in Madras was a bit of a let down.  No fanfare or welcoming committee.  It was almost as though they were unexpected as they were directed to a rather isolated berth against a deserted shoreline

The Captain went ashore to complete the formalities and returned an hour later looking like thunder.  He summoned the Chief Officer to his cabin where they spent the next couple of hours.

The Chief Officer eventually returned and called a meeting attended by the Chief Engineer, all the deck Officers, and the senior apprentice.

“ The Captain has given me certain instructions that will involve all of you so please pay attention.” 

He passed round a newly opened pack of cigarettes and took one for himself, which he lit before continuing.

“It seems that as we weren’t carrying a commercial cargo, nobody reserved a berth or unloading facilities which would mean us having to wait for a further ten days before we started discharging.  The Owners would not be happy, as the Port, in the circumstances, will not accept de-murrage.

The Captain has liaised with the authorities and arrived at a compromise.  There are no railway wagons available or any shore side stevedores, so we will unload ourselves.  Everyone directly involved will receive an extra payment of five Pounds a day with a bonus of £2 and ten shillings a day for completion in less than two weeks from the start of unloading.”

 He took a deep pull on his cigarette, which was shortly followed by a slow exhalation of a cloud of blue smoke.

“ We will be provided with steel grabs for each hold and the wheat can be piled on the quay for later removal.  Any questions?”

The Chief engineer spoke first.

“For my part I don’t have a problem.  A full watch of engineers will have to be maintained including the fitters and electricians.  I will need the Captain to sign off on any overtime if applicable.”

“Understood and agreed Chief.”

The Chief Officer slowly looked round the room and asked,

“Any one else?”

Everyone murmured in surprise when the senior apprentice answered.

“Yes Sir.  Will we be working round the clock?”

“Good question,” the Chief Officer acknowledged, “I have yet to decide on final details, but a lot will depend on two things.  Firstly, how many grabs are available and secondly the progress.”

His telephone shrilled and he listened, occasionally nodding and finishing up with ‘Very good Sir, I can’t see any problem.’

“We have five holds holding roughly a thousand tons each.  Eight days gives us about a hundred and twenty five tons per day per hold.  Two shifts results in sixty-two and a half tons per hold per shift.  Therefore the discharge rate is a little less than eight tons per hour per hold.  There should be ample time given that the grabs hold approximately a ton and a half each.”

Nobody could find fault with the math’s but the more experienced knew that the theory does not take account of heat, fatigue and breakdowns.

All the apprentice could think of was the extra money and he couldn’t wait to tell his mates.

The Second Officer was more wary.  He asked,

“This extra payment – will it be on top of overtime and will it be an ex gratia payment or subject to tax?”

Without hesitation, the Chief Officer answered.

“Three yeses and a no.  The extra payment will be in cash being paid by the Indian government.  It will be in addition to and will not affect overtime.  Any more questions?”

He didn’t wait for a reply and said to nobody in particular, “ I need to sort out the bosun,” as he left the room.

The discharge began at ten next morning.  A barge containing eight steel grabs arrived at first light and having sufficient gangs of workers on board they had unloaded the grabs and manhandled them into position on the quay long before the crew had rigged the derricks for discharging,

 Meanwhile the apprentices had removed the three heavy tarpaulins and stacked the hatch covers on the outside of the deck.

Once everyone had got used to the idea it had been decided that there would be two shifts of six hours each starting at seven in the morning and finishing at seven in the evening.

A gang at each hold comprised of two winch operators and a foreman.  No tallymen were necessary as the complete cargo was to be unloaded.

The apprentices decided to work both shifts and take turns at being the winch instructor.  They had agreed to start at six thirty and finish at seven thirty to enable a break for breakfast and lunch.

Before starting, they rigged up the best hatch tarpaulin with one side secured to the deck coaming and the opposite side tied ashore so that any spillages would slide onto the jetty rather than between the ship and the quay.  Seeing how successful this was the Chief Officer instructed this to be deployed at the other hatches.

At first there appeared that little impression was being made and even with all five holds discharging it seemed a very daunting task.  Slowly the pile started to rise as their targets were met.  The apprentices were relentless, having youth on their side as well as a keen desire to finish first.  Taking up the challenge, the crew at the other hatches fought for supremacy, being secretly encouraged by the Chief Officer.

On day three an ancient bulldozer trundled along the quay and tidied up the pile to form a single mound.  It was to stay on the job until complete.  The driver wanted to know what the sign bearing two large H’s implanted in the grain adjacent to the apprentices hold meant.  The apprentices said they had expected to discharge in Calcutta so the sign was ‘ Hooghly Heap,’ whereas the more abstruse explanation for the repeated letter ‘H’ was later admitted and revealed as ‘Hungry Hindu’s’.

Divine assistance was sought several times a day as work stopped at other hatches while the prayer mats were laid out in the direction of Mecca.

In recognition and ‘out of respect’, they said, the apprentices stopped as well and used the break for visiting the loo, smoking and taking tea and toast known as ‘tabnab’s’.

No divine assistance was available for the three lads, however they were friendly with the electricians whose expertise ensured that the winches where the apprentices operated, were much faster than normal and a lot more responsive.

However this was countered by some of the crew who had been assigned to shovel grain from the corners into a more accessible pile.  Their deliberate lack of speed tended to hamper the rate of discharge until the Chinese carpenter was allocated to their team.

The humble Indian sailors suspected the Hong Kong carpenter to be a member of the ‘Triad’s’ and having heard the rumour that the next port was Shanghai they became quite subdued.  The rumour was enough and didn’t need reinforcing but they eyed the carpenter’s leather belt containing a heavy hammer and a curved sailors knife, with a degree of apprehension even though not a word was exchanged.

The ship completed discharge a day before expected and within two hours put to sea bound for China.

After clearing the estuary the whole crew including the apprentices but excluding the watch keepers were given the rest of the day off.

 A very generous gesture had it not been Sunday.

Eighteen months and another ship later the apprentice, now recently promoted to third officer, once again arrived in Madras, berthing at a regular berth in the City’s teeming docks.

On the first Sunday afternoon, accompanied by the Second Mate he decided to stroll to his previous location.  It took over an hour in the stifling heat and to his dismay the mountain of grain still lay untouched on the quay.  Most of the surface had started to grow but judging by the smell the core had started to decay and was undoubtedly unfit for consumption by humans.

He was mortified to think of the extremely hard work they had put in to unload the grain not to mention the futile efforts of the Australian farmer workers.  He considered the ill fed and mostly starving local population before deciding that it really was true that there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch.’ 

“Four Men in a Boat” by “Shipmate” – Chapter 6

6 CHAPTER SIX (New Year) Korea

The ship rendezvoused with the pilot vessel and picked up the waiting pilot who skillfully guided it between the netted entrance of the river delta.  It was on its way to discharge at a little known port in North Korea.

The date was New Years Eve 1961 and the United States of America military, virtually controlled all of the sea passages and airways in the vicinity.

The temperature had fallen to minus 20 degrees Celsius but fortunately the wind had dropped leaving an eerie silence, the sounds becoming masked with the heavy snowfall. 

Many of the crew, although on standby, sheltered in the doorways and alleyways in small clusters to smoke and chattered in hushed voices.  Their mood seemed to match the somberness and the gloom.

Occasional glimpses of a watery sun did little to lift their spirits, as nearly another two hours would pass before they docked at their destination.

Most of the standbys were nearly frozen to the bone when they finally arrived at their objective although some had noticed with envy that the crew of their naval escort had been provided with thick fleeces, furry hats and leather gauntlets. 

A routine swung into action that was second nature to the seamen tying up the ship and the rattle of the steam winches echoed in the otherwise silent atmosphere.  The clouds of steam from the winches mingled with the thick snow becoming lost in a hazy cloud. 

Experience had told them not to touch metal surfaces at such low temperatures, for fear of their hands becoming stuck.  As a consequence, they all wore gloves that had rags wrapped round them for further protection.

The ship was slowly winched alongside with the aid of two ancient tugs that were pushing and belching thick black smoke that soon became indistinguishable from the darkening skies.

Shortly after tying up, the ships hatches were opened and the start of discharge of their cargo began.  By nine in the evening just over a hundred tons of wooden crates had been unloaded.  Only the Captain’s manifesto, gave full details of the contents, which were listed as weapons and ammunition and were accompanied by the necessary licenses and other paperwork.

Unloading completed, the ship was due to sail on the first tide at six next morning and a pilot and naval escort had been booked accordingly.  The Captain was advised that the anti submarine nets were only open for one hour either side of high tide, twice a day to allow entrance and exit to the port.

In spite of being New Years Eve no shore leave was permitted.

You could almost cut the smoke with a knife in the fourth engineers cabin.  It was filled with many of the off-duty officers, who were having a New Years Eve celebration.  Cans of beer were drunk in quick succession resulting in the engineers bunk becoming strewn with empties.  Jokes were exchanged and even though most of them had been heard before, everyone laughed as though it was the first time they heard them.  It didn’t take long before the singing started.  The second mate was noted for his only song and began his rendition of,

‘Where be that blackbird?  I know where he be,

He be up old ‘worsell’ tree and I be after he…’ 

Everyone joined in the chorus with gusto as they vied to begin the next song.

Sparks, the radio officer, the third officer and the junior apprentice were perhaps the youngest of the group.  In fact the third mate had had his twenty first birthday shortly before their arrival.  Coming after Christmas day, it had passed without notice. 

 His companions didn’t need much encouragement and were as game as he to celebrate properly. 

 So leaving quietly and unnoticed, they slipped ashore to explore, having taken care to be wrapped up warmly.

Money was in short supply but together they had managed to assemble about thirty U.S. Dollars and three Five-Pound notes.  Both currencies, they knew were usually good tender anywhere in the world.

The small town was as dreary as the weather but after about ten minutes they heard the sounds of revelry coming from one of the wooden buildings halfway down the deserted high street.  They decided to explore.

A bare unlit passage full of overcoats, led them to an inner room that was surprisingly brightly lit.  The occupants all stopped talking and turned to look at the new entrants.

On one side was a small well stocked bar adorned with Christmas lights and a half dozen bar girls sat sipping various drinks.  ‘Sparks’ thought they were the most unattractive hostesses he had ever seen and whispered to his friends,

‘They look like Eskimos,’

Dominating the center of the room was a large pot-bellied stove that was responsible for the comforting warmth of the room.  Around the stove a number of American Military personnel were clustered and it was evident from the burn marks in the shape of a footprint that someone had tried to thaw his feet on the stove’s belly.  The Yanks, ever gregarious, welcomed the newcomers as a kind of diversion and ‘shouted’ a round.

 Introductions were made and everyone settled down to a cheery chat as they downed their beer and swapped stories.

Unusually, the girls didn’t make an attempt to join the men and Wing Commander Al Grayson junior explained why.  Being at the end of the month, their pay advances had yet to come through and the hostesses generally confined their advances to the otherwise neglected locals.  New Years eve however, saw most of the locals at home with their families. 

As mid-night approached the money was running short for both the Air force men and sailors alike.

Al Grayson reluctantly eased himself off of his seat by the stove and spoke to the residual customers.  The three sailors remained and two Americans, including himself.  They had pooled their resources that turned out to be rather limiting.

“Why don’t we find somewhere a little cheaper?  He said.

In unison they left the Bar saying their farewells and putting on their topcoats.  A small scruffy boy of about ten years old came running up to greet them.  He was obviously known to the Americans and it seemed like he acted as a sort of guide being a local but also fluent in a kind of ‘Pigeon’ English.  The fact that he wouldn’t get paid didn’t seem to bother him neither did the lateness of the hour.  He told one of the sailors later that the Americans would be more than generous when their pay cheques came through.

The next hour was quite disconcerting but nothing compared to what was to occur a little later.

They followed their guide from establishment to establishment all the time getting further out of town and away from the docks.  It appeared that wherever they went they hadn’t enough money between them.

At one place because of a slight misunderstanding, the Madame paraded all of her hostesses like some sort of Middle Eastern auction but luckily even if they had the money, there were no takers.

Leaving the town behind them they climbed a rather steep track in the snow, made by other local pedestrians.  It seemed that the vehicular road had petered out.  Great drifts of snow were piled high at the sides of the walkway and the going became more difficult as they scrambled towards the top.  Buildings on either side became sparse.  The higher they climbed, the more they panted with exertion, causing clouds of vaporized breath to be expelled from their mouths.  Only one of the party appeared not to notice the struggle.  It was the small boy whose name according to the Americans was ‘Yu’.

At the very summit was a large traditional building that boasted of an American bar and the almost compulsory bar girls.  The Airman told their guide that they weren’t worried about girls and just wanted to drink and possibly a doze.  The boy began a long negotiation with the ‘madam’ and a compromise was eventually reached allowing them to enter the bar.  The walls of the building were constructed of a type of ‘papier- mache,’ with very low ceilings to help to keep the heat in.  Sparks speculated that the low ceilings may have been due to the fact that the people were generally short in stature but conceded it was more likely to help in preserving the heat coming from beneath the floor.

  The house was built on a kind of platform and heated by a slow burning fire in the cavity under the floor.  In all, it was very effective although there seemed to be only one temperature.  Hot. 

The American Bar was a disappointment as the only thing American was chilled Budweiser beer.  A lot can be said for the ingenuity of the Koreans.  To achieve chilled beer, they simply left it outside.  An ancient duke-box played records of Bill Hayley and Buddy Holly without needing any money and a worn dartboard was hung low on one wall with double three at the top.  Half of the bar girls had gone to bed happy to have a night off and the remainder stayed hopefully in the bar.  Their perception of westerners preferences erred in that they thought that the more buxom the better, resulting in the girls that remained resembling a female tug of war team.

The local lad ‘Yu’ who had been given a free beer by the ‘madam, explained that there weren’t any rooms in the place other than those of the girls.  But because of his negotiations, they could share the girl’s rooms at no cost, especially as no ‘hanky-panky’ was envisaged.

The price for any ‘hanky-panky was up for negotiation but fortunately everybody pleaded that they had made a New Year’s resolution.

  They drank until their money ran out and on a promise of payment later from the Americans, continued well into the night, singing in accompaniment to the ancient ‘Duke’ box.

The third mate always woke early in the morning no matter how much he had had to drink or how late it had been before he turned in.  His first impression on waking was how low the bed was.  He remembered getting up in the night to answer a call of nature and had burnt his bare feet on the floor, only to have them frozen later as he tried to write his name in the snow.

He was totally dismayed when he lit his lighter, to see what looked like a Sumitomo wrestler asleep beside him.  He dressed quietly so as not to disturb his bedfellow lest she demand some sort of payment.  In one corner there was a tiny shrine comprising of a Buddha, a vase of plastic flowers and a piece of broken mirror to ward off the evil spirits.

He needed to comb his hair and took his comb from his pocket and lit his lighter in front of the mirror.  He stooped to see his reflection in the flickering light and unfortunately set light to the plastic flowers.

He remembered a bucket in the outside passage placed for the girl’s use in the night and careful not to spill its contents returned to his room.

By now the fire had started to take hold so without a moments delay he hefted the contents of the bucket.  Bingo!  The fire was extinguished and darkness returned out of which a blood-curdling scream pierced the gloom.  His bedfellow, who was not normally woken by being doused with the dubious contents of an icy bucket, reacted rather noisily, which, in the circumstances, was quite understandable.  Thankfully, her scream also woke the other deeply sleeping visitors who all hastily dressed.

As the visitors swiftly left, the town clock chimed six but dawn was still a little way off.

The young boy appeared out of nowhere and spoke rapidly to the grinning Grayson.  He seemed to be greatly enjoying himself but then he wasn’t late for sailing.

“Yu says that the best way down is to follow him.”

The boy pulled a plank from the fence and proceeded to use it like a one legged like a scooter.  The others soon followed suit.  After a few minutes they all got the hang of it and their downhill progress on the icy surface, was remarkably speeded up.

It may have had something to do with the Irish in him, but ‘Sparks’ experimented with using both feet and cried gleefully, “look at me,” as he sped downhill like an express train.

 They rounded a bend and all that was visible was the Irishman’s wooly hat.  In many ways he was lucky that the snowdrift had stopped his progress, as there was no telling what would have happened once he reached the road.

By the time they reached the bottom of the hill it showed a quarter past six on the Civic clock so they broke into a run.

As it turned out they need not have bothered.  The ship had left and was steaming out of the harbor, accompanied by the two tugs and naval escort.  Arriving at the empty berth, the sailors looked on in dis belief and were overcome with a great sense of loss.  After waiting a while for something to happen, when nothing did, the Wing Commander, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, invited them back to base for breakfast.

Their guide “Yu’ said he would remain at the docks.  Surviving on his wits he knew that another ship would soon be docking to take the place of the ship that had just left.  Their crew would need escorts!

During breakfast at the air force base consisting of a heap of waffles and grits and lashings of hot fresh coffee, the sailors asked Al where the nearest British Consul was.

“My guess,” he said, “Is probably Tokyo.” 

Naively, the third mate said, “that’s great.  It’s where the ship’s headed.”

“Hold on buddy.  You can’t just take a bus or train.  Not only is there a war going on.  Japan is an Island and Tokyo is on it”

Of course the third mate already knew this but not wanting to belittle his host he said, “really!”

“Really,” Al confirmed, “maybe I can fix you a lift.”

Hours later as they flew over their ship on the way to Tokyo the absentee sailors reflected on their good luck and were forever grateful to the beneficence of their American friends.  Alas, they had no money, no Passports and worse still no form of identification.

As it happens, they needn’t of worried because the American occupation of Japan since the Second World War provided that U.S. bases were considered sovereign territory and therefore not subject to normal immigration procedures.

The journey took a little less than four hours and the American’s faultless hospitality extended to transport in two jeeps accompanied by an armed escort.  Their destination was the British Embassy in central Tokyo.

Established in the times of the former Empire, the embassy could be mistaken for a grand Regency House and was entered through ornate wrought iron gates with sentry boxes on either side complete with soldiers in uniform carrying automatic weapons.

The reception was quite overbearing and more like the lobby of a luxury hotel.  After waiting what seemed like nearly an hour, a bespectacled, tall thin man appeared and led them to a sparsely furnished office where he took details.

Another long wait and finally a girl entered the office or rather bustled in.  She was England’s equivalent of the third mate’s nighttime companion in Korea.  She squeezed into a chair opposite the three men and eyeing them from under her glasses, she rather haughtily addressed them.

“ Your Shipping Company’s agents details are on this paper,” she said,

 “ It’s Saturday now so you should contact them on Monday when their office is open.  Your ship won’t be here until Thursday as she is calling at Kobe first.”

“You’ll need to sign these,” she said passing some duplicate papers across. 

 “They are your I/D’s and carry Japanese translations.”  She put the signed copies and receipts into her file.

“I have arranged your accommodation and there is some money in the envelopes.  You need to sign another receipt so we can claim a refund from the Shipping Company who will no doubt deduct the amounts from your wages.” 

 They couldn’t help thinking that she was enjoying it and contrasting it with the superb treatment they had received from the Americans.

“Finally,” she said, “here’s a map which shows the bus routes to your accommodation.  I am so pleased to have been able to help you.”

Without another word she was gone.

They all started to laugh but there joviality was short lived when they discovered that the accommodation was at the YMCA and their subsistence amounted to the equivalent of twenty-five Pounds in Japanese Yen.

Later while waiting at the bus stop, they realized that their experience at the Embassy had taken almost as long as there transfer between different Countries. 

 Whether it was the long wait for a bus or exposure the previous night, he didn’t know, but the third mate was inflicted with uncontrollable shivers and debilitating chest pains upon arrival at the Hostel.

The tiny Japanese receptionist at the YMCA was like a breath of fresh air.  What’s more she spoke perfect English and not only ensured that they had reasonable accommodation, but was able to arrange for the third mate be seen by a doctor, at the large General Hospital that was only a couple of blocks away.  The receptionist had detailed one of the hostel’s petite and pretty female interpreters to escort the patient.

The third mate’s companions were anxious to accompany him particularly as the interpreter could have been straight out of ‘Madame Butterfly’ displaying the same charm, beauty and grace. 

The walk two blocks away didn’t take very long but they arrived at the hospital with Sparks obviously becoming besotted.

Unlike Western Hospitals where patients received individual attention, the patients who were waiting to be seen, all lined up together.  There were in fact two lines rather like a passport check except that here most of the people had some sort of infliction.  Many were radiation victims, some were amputees but whatever your problem you still had to join the end of the queue.  The translator spoke to one of the Doctors for what seemed like five minutes which didn’t stop him from continuing to dress the stump of a one legged man.  As a result the third mate went to the front of the queue.  He found out later that all she said was that the British Embassy would pay.

Just like immigration at Airports, there was a white line on the floor where you waited your turn.  The stump was re-dressed and its owner bowed gratefully and retreated leaving the Doctor to focus his attention on the European.

The translator went into another long account of the problem.  Finally she finished and the Doctor whispered something to the nurse who left and disappeared behind a screen.  The Doctor peered at his patient from behind his utility-rimmed glasses and his face was deadpan.

The nurse returned, carrying a large syringe, the sort used by vets on horses.

A murmur of expectation came from the waiting queues.

Still expressionless, the Doctor took the massive syringe and mimicked throwing a dart and said something.  At which point the translator said to the third mate, “open your shirt.”

He chuckled and decided to go along with the joke .He felt privileged and was normally average height at home but knew they saw him as being quite big and strong looking.

The nurse even pretended to swab his chest.

All of a sudden, Wallop!

The next thing, before he had time to react, the Doctor was pulling the plunger and drawing off a clear fluid tinged with spots of cloudy red.  Leaving the needle in place, the Doctor unfastened the full syringe and screwed on a fresh one and continued with his quest.  He nearly filled the second before withdrawing the large needle and sticking a plaster over the exit.

The apprentice nearly passed out but Sparks was built of sterner stuff and started to clap.  Both queues joined in, including the nurses who beamed in amusement.

A faint grin crossed the otherwise inscrutable features of the Doctor as he continued with his next patient.

Back at the Hostel the third mate took to his bed to recover.  The apprentice, who shared his room was from one of the remote Scottish Islands and consequently was unfamiliar with remote TV.  He was fascinated with the in-room facilities and spent hours surfing the programs.  Sparks disappeared and was suspected of trying to do a line with ‘Madame Butterfly.’  They later became married and she got a job at the Japanese Embassy in Dublin though he continued to work for Marconi at their shore based telegraphy school where he entertained the students with stories of his exploits.

Thursday saw the three absentees waiting at the docks for the arrival of their ship.  Eventually she berthed, the river pilot disembarked and the Shipping Agent preceded them aboard.

They arrived at the top of the gangway and were met by the duty officer.  He directed them to the Chief Officer’s quarters where they were invited to be seated in his day cabin.

He turned to the apprentice first.

 “I am prepared to accept you were led astray by people who should know better,” he said.  “Anything to say?”

“No Sir,” came the reply.

“Shore leave in Japan cancelled.”  The first Officer made a note in his journal, “Dismissed.” 

Next he turned to Sparks the Radio Officer,

“I know you are not a direct employee of this shipping company,” he said,

“but sailing without a qualified Radio Officer voids the insurance and is a very serious offence.  Anything to say?” 

 Sparks answered,

 “I didn’t realize the time.  My watch is always on GMT.”

“Okay, a repeat performance will result in a logging,” replied the Senior Officer.

 “A hundred and fifty years ago it would be a flogging.”  Spark’s Irish blood was up.  Bits of spit had accompanied his response.

The Chief Officer, somewhat exasperated, retorted.

“One hundred and fifty years ago there were no Radios and thankfully no Spark’s to flog.”

 Without another word, the Irishman left the room and took the stairs to his cabin that was next to the chartroom.

The Chief Officer turned to the remaining delinquent who had fully recovered from his bout of pneumonia. 

“I’m disappointed in you third,” he said, “anything to say?”

“I fell in love with a Korean girl.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“No, I am not.”

The older man sighed stifling a grin,

“You were told we were sailing at 0600 hours.  The logbook records our actual departure as 0556hours so technically you are not in breach.”  He gave a distant smile as though remembering his youth.

“Another time you’d be for it.  I’ve squared it with the ‘Old Man,’ you owe me one.”

The third mate felt a great wave of gratitude towards his shipmate and was determined to repay the kindness threefold.  Little did he know this was to happen sooner rather than later.

“Four Men in a Boat” by ‘Shipmate” – Chapter 5

5 CHAPTER FIVE (Thailand).

 (There but for the grace…).

The prison’s reputation was not unfounded and accordingly, in his judgment, it was probably the most frightening experience he had ever had in his life.  The immediate lack of communication left him with a fearful dread of the future and the total incomprehension of how he came to be incarcerated in one of the world’s most notorious jails.  Nobody knew where he was and he certainly had little idea either but was quite sure that to his custodians, his welfare was the last thing that they would be concerned about.

A solitary naked bulb dimly illuminated the surrounds.  Total darkness may have been preferable to the wretched scene about him, strewn with ragged and pitiful bodies of indeterminate gender.

No furniture of any kind.  No Bunks, no beds, no tables or chairs.  Just thick rusted iron bars and dividing stonewalls containing double locked doors.  The lack of windows of any kind was oppressive and the vile smell of sweat from unwashed bodies added to the stench of sewage that lay thick in the sparse air.

He closed his eyes and thought back to his most recent recollection, trying to ignore the almost unbearable hangover that was making him feel nauseous in the stomach and uncharacteristically insecure.  He felt his head was about to split open.

He remembered going to the tailors with his shipmate to collect his friend’s three-piece suit, that he had ordered a couple of days earlier.  It was a blisteringly hot and humid day and when they arrived only the trousers and waistcoat were ready.  Apparently, the tailor explained, three different seamstresses produced the suit and one item was late.  The tailor dispatched a small boy to collect the missing item and dealt with the delay by producing cold beers for the waiting customers.

He recalled that after the third beer he had become restless, particularly as the tailor’s shop did not benefit from air conditioning.

He told his friend that he didn’t want to hang around any longer and would wait for him in the small air-conditioned bar, over the road

On entering, the barman, who immediately perceived a profitable interlude, met him with a friendly greeting.

Hitherto the bars only customers were a couple of locals drinking the cheap Cava beer whereas the European would surely be drinking expensive imports.  The barman’s expectations were confirmed when several ‘San Mig’s’ were ordered by the newcomer, in quick succession.

Scandinavian seamen are forbidden any sort of alcohol on board their ships and as a consequence once they are on land they tend to let loose.

The door to the bar burst open admitting a blast of warm air and five Swedish sailors who entered as though they owned the place.  The barman welcomed the unaccustomed activity, and his new customers who had obviously been celebrating elsewhere and seemed determined to continue.

It is a custom of the sea for sailors to mix cordially with one and other and join in with each other’s songs, jokes and games.

Inevitably, the Swedes lost at darts which not being their normal game saw them defeated by the sole Brit, so when it came to their turn to choose, he could hardly refuse.

It was a drinking contest.

Language was a barrier but the Englishman was familiar with such competitions and was known to drink a dozen gin and tonics with little immediate effect.  Besides the Swedes were well oiled and were only occasional drinkers.

The rules, as translated inaccurately by the barman, were simple.  Each party would have ten drinks before them and on the word ‘go,’ called out by the barman the race was on.  The first to finish won and the barman’s say was final as he also acted as the adjudicator and held the fifty-dollar wagers.

The inaccurate bit, as it turned out, was that you couldn’t select your drink.  Whether the barman had a surfeit of ‘Parfait Lamoure’ or whether it was the Swedish contestant’s choice was unknown but both parties were confronted with a tray, each containing ten glasses of the purple liqueur that had been poured with a generous hand.

Counting down from ten in ‘pigeon’ English, the barman missed out two so his ‘go’ was a little early.  The finesse was lost on the Swede who started immediately on the word ‘go’ and rapidly downed the drinks one after another.

The hesitation and the surprisingly vile drink slowed the Englishman down but he wasn’t far behind and was pleased to have come second.

The barman passed over the money to the Swede and everyone was apparently happy but, as it turned out, apart from the barman.

The sailors didn’t notice at first being preoccupied with shaking each others hands and toasting Rolls Royce and Sandvik, but eventually they all became aware that the barman wanted paying for the liqueur.

The lone Englishman recalled never ordering the noxious stuff and said that as the Swede had apparently ordered the drink that he should pay out of his winnings.

It’s difficult to win an argument when the odds are six to one, but he certainly tried, which is probably what led to the barman furtively ringing for the police.  The curious thing was that before the police arrived, the barman carried on pouring drinks, collecting money and genially acting as the host as though nothing was amiss.

Meanwhile the jacket of his friend’s suit remained illusive.

Provided you cooperate with them, English Police are firm but fair and use the minimum of force.  Not so in Thailand.

Two vehicles screeched to a halt outside and the drinkers innocently observed their entry.

Suddenly about a dozen armed Policemen in battledress uniform rushed in through the door shouting loudly and urgently as they came.

Rapid conversation from the barman resulted in rifles being used as clubs and the last thing he remembered was being bundled into the cage of the arrest wagon having been beaten about the head by a rifle butt.

He had obviously been unconscious and wondered how long ago it had been.  He noted his pockets were empty and his wristwatch was gone.  A cold shiver of fear ran down his spine at the thought of having no documents or proof of identity.  His qualms were somewhat tempered by a desperate need to relieve himself.  Recumbent bodies were all around him and looking about he found he was propped up against the only respectable looking person he could see.

“Do you speak English?” he asked.

To his relief the reply was indeed English.  “Yes.”

“Can you tell me where the toilet is and how one gets there?”

“With great difficulty.” was the reply.

A long whispered conversation followed.  It appeared that his new acquaintance had stopped off for a Friday night drink on the way home from work and got mixed up in a drug bust.

The arrest squad targeted anyone and everyone.  He was not only totally innocent but also almost driven out of his mind with worry at the anguish his wife must be suffering.

Anxious to befriend his Thai-speaking companion, the sailor confided in him that he had a hundred dollar bill in his sock as was his covert practice learnt long ago from an old hand on one of his earlier ships.  With his new friend’s translation abilities and by using the money, he hoped that they would survive the weekend until the Court opened on the following Monday.  The Thai spoke quietly to his neighbour.

A ‘babble’ passed along the corridors a bit like ‘Chinese” whispers and a little later a huge slightly deformed figure appeared out of the gloom.

The conversation appeared to be all one sided with his Thai friend doing most of the talking that was punctuated by the occasional grunt from the ogre.

“We have no choice – give him the money and he will protect us until Monday and stop the guards and the other prisoners from touching us.”

Reluctantly, knowing he couldn’t ask for change, he removed his shoe and sock and passed over the hundred-dollar bill.

He decided it was time to test their purchase and asked to be shown the toilet.

“Follow him.”

Fearful he would be jumped any moment he trailed along behind their ‘minder’.

The same key, which the minder kept on a chain around his waist, accessed every door.  There was no sign of prison guards’ as they passed through at least six gates before entering a large semi open courtyard.  At its center was a hole in the concrete about eighteen inches across surrounded by indescribable filth.  The stench was overpowering although the minder didn’t seem to notice as he loitered waiting for his charge.

Nature’s call was not to be denied any longer so trying not to tread on anything or breathe in; he relieved himself from quite a distance from the hole.

The return journey was more comfortable and he noticed how the other inmates cowered from his escort and he felt ever grateful for his old sailor’s habit.

The minder saw him back to his place of origin and disappeared locking the door as he went.

As he settled down next to his new friend he reflected how terrified he had been when he had awoken and how devastating his position had seemed.  Now he already felt a kind of improvement.  He had a translator, a minder, he had relieved and compared to the utter squalor he has just seen, his confined space was bordering on the almost luxurious.

“If we need our protector,” his Thai friend said, “we just call out “Griff” and he will come.”

Just then a terrible scream followed by desperate sobbing could be heard in the distance that immediately conjoured up visions of torture taking place.

‘What do you think that is?’ asked the sailor.

“I don’t know,’ was the reply, ‘ perhaps its just some poor anguished sole full of demons.’

Confronted with a feeling of despair and abject misery he grasped the Thai by his shoulder.

“Promise him some more money,” said the Englishman.

  “Tell him I’ve got an American Express Gold card and will sort him and the warden out if they can get us both out.”

“Griff!”  The call was passed on by other inmates and got fainter the further it went down the corridor

They could hear the clang of the doors a long way off, conversely getting louder as the keeper got nearer.

Eventually, out of the murkiness their benefactor appeared and the single bulb suddenly illuminated his face.  An angry ragged scar ran from where his left ear should have been, down across his shoulder finishing at his elbow.  His right eye was missing too.

After an earnest conversation between the two Thai’s, the ‘trustee’ led the way.

He motioned them to follow him through a maze of iron clad corridors past resentful looking internees who they knew that, had they not had their escort, the surly prisoners would not have thought twice before assaulting them in more ways than one.

All through the long journey, they did not see a prison guard even in the heavily shelved storeroom.

It didn’t take the ogre long to locate their belongings, each in a cardboard box with their names scrawled in marker pen.  The names of previous users of the box were scrawled through and he noticed a shaky signature after each name or sometimes just a thumbprint.  Their personal items were returned to them.

 The translator turned to the Englishman who thought that the Thai would translate the five-minute exchange with ‘Nelson’ as he mentally referred to their helper.  All he said was, “We must sign for our things.”  He passed across a paper, presumably written in Thai with a dotted line for a signature.  He duly signed it ‘Mickey Mouse’ and endorsed the box with the letters MM.

Extraordinarily, the sailor found his wallet in tact, complete with credit cards and money, so he took out the equivalent of thirty Pounds Sterling and gave it to ‘Nelson’ who removed a cigar case from his nether region, unscrewed the cap and added the notes to his secret hoard before replacing it without a hint of embarrassment.

Three dimly lit corridors later; they came across a solid steel door with a small opening containing a ‘Judas’ window.

Nelson produced another key from a secret hiding place and without farewells they were set free.

Both men were elated and the sailors’ companion flagged down a three wheeled passing taxi rapidly giving directions in the local tongue.

“Thank you so much, without your money I may have remained unaccounted for and forgotten.”

“Don’t mention it,” said the sailor, “without your language, God knows what would have happened to us!”

Before they parted to go on their different ways, they stopped at an open-air café for some food and a drink.

The Englishman proposed a toast, raising his livener and clinking the beer bottle against the Thai’s teacup.

“To Nelson who I hope will continue to keep his eye on things.” 

 In replying, the local grinned and said,

 “Put a sock in it.”  He seemed a bit fixated. 

 “Sock it to me,” and then,

“I will always remember to keep some money in my sock.”

A fond embrace and the two men went their separate ways.

On returning on board he was met by his shipmate who said,

“It’s alright for you going off on a spree.  When my jacket eventually turned up, it didn’t even fit properly.”

He decided not to comment but instead said, “What are you going to do about it?”

“They’re going to have it ready for Monday lunchtime.  Do you want to come?”

“No thanks, I couldn’t take anymore local hospitality!”

“Four Men in a Boat” by ” Shipmate” – Chapter4

4 CHAPTER FOUR  (Give me a ring.)

The Temple of the Golden tooth is in a town that once used to be the Capital of Ceylon, Kandy.  It lies to the South of the present Capitol Colombo and the Island Country is now named Sri Lanka. 

The ancient relic arrived from India early in the millennium and is probably the most sacred antique of the Buddhists. 

The Country benefits from many religions including ancient Indian beliefs to more modern Christianity brought by colonialists, especially Catholicism by the Portuguese.  Both the Catholic and Protestant churches have established missions to spread their beliefs and are currently represented by sailor’s missions known as ‘Stella Maris’, which relates to the Catholics and ‘Flying Angel’, the Protestants.

Two sailors awaited transfers to other ships bound for the U.K and were put up in the GOH, as it was known, or to give it its proper title The Grand Oriental Hotel.

At the time, in the summer of 1960, top rated hotels in Colombo amounted to only two.  When the seamen transgressed the Grand’s Victorian rules they were moved to the ‘Galle Face’ a luxury hotel built by the British before the arrival of the railways.  The contrast between the two venues was quite extraordinary.  The GOH came over as very Colonial and quietly very grand whereas the Galle Face was much more modern and purpose built with luxury and comfort in mind overlooking the Indian Ocean and enjoying the superb sunsets. 

Prior to their transgression, the young sailors were in a bit of a dilemma.  On one hand they were accorded all the facilities of a top hotel but on the other they had little money to enable them to reap the benefits of their stay.  The fateful day coincided with the arrival of Peninsular and Orient’s latest Cruise Liner, the Canberra.

The lads were cooling off with the breeze from one of the giant fans in the bar early that morning, when a shore party arrived.  Wearing Canberra hats and carrying balloons and streamers the excited party livened up the bar when after a few beers, they started to sing to a tune played on the hotel piano by one of their crowd.  A couple of girls joined the sailors at their table, telling them all about the wonderful new ship with it’s bar dispensing draught beer and depicting the Lords cricket tavern.  Somehow after celebrating their time ashore, the revelers gained two extra in their number as they returned to the launches taking them out to where the great ship was anchored.  Along the way, both men had acquired ‘kiss me quick’ type hats and easily got included in the party. 

Once on board the Canberra they readily made their way to the ‘Lords Tavern’ and joined in with the merriment.  Strangers were shouting rounds and competing with one and other so no one noticed the two extra people.

Towards evening, through the mist of his alcohol-induced torpor, one of the sailors heard the ships siren sound its not unattractive bellow in communication with the tugs.  He was further alarmed to hear the muffled thump of the engines.  They were underway and bound for Australia completely in the opposite direction they wanted to go.

He nudged his companion and they swiftly made their way to the boat deck stopping only to retrieve a young child they found wandering about.  For security, and not wanting to add a ‘drunk in charge’ complaint, they left the lost child in the First Class passengers lounge with some of the bewildered occupants and hastily made for the boarding ladder.

The pilot boat converged towards the boarding gangway.  It was bouncing and pitching into the troughs made by the bow waves caused by the big ship’s motion.  The pilot threw his bag over after attaching it to a heaving line and nimbly jumped across the gap avoiding the splashing waves.  He was quite alarmed to be followed by two men, a little worse for wear, who landed on either side of him.

“Sorry we should have returned ashore earlier,” they announced, and quickly made for the stern.

 On arrival at the jetty, the two jumped ashore and disappeared amongst the crowds without further explanation.

The main bar at the GOH was in full swing and the pair managed to catch the barman’s eye.  Between serving other customers he pulled a couple of pints and passed them over adding the price to an already lengthy tab. Singing had started and it promised to be a very lively evening.  The pianist in his immaculate dinner suit much preferred to play modern music as compared to the ‘Palm Court’ variety that he had to play on the terrace in the late afternoon.  A drummer and a double base accompanied him and they soon had the guest’s attention.

All was quiet when he awoke.  ‘Mac,’ his friend, slumbered in an armchair on the other side of the ornate stone fireplace.  An urgent call of nature needed answering so he made his way to the ‘gent’s’ along a carpeted corridor leading to the main stairway.  For a rupee he was able to get a toothbrush kit from one of the dispensers and set about his ablutions.  When he returned to his sleeping companion he felt much improved and decided that a livener would fit the bill.  Mac stirred and his eyes gradually focused.

‘How are you going mate?  I just need to go to the loo.’  His friend disappeared through the double doors,

Access to the bar was prevented by a metal grille, which became hidden at opening times.  However due to the positioning of the overhead fans, the grille didn’t quite reach the ceiling.  John conferred with Mac, who had returned to the bar and they decided to help themselves to a drink or two but intended to leave a note for the barman who had become a bit of a friend.

The night security patrol took their details having discovered them attempting to enter the bar.  Mac was anchorman and John had placed a bar stool onto a table and was just negotiating the gap when they were caught.  Unfortunately, the arrival of the security man disturbed his concentration and he slipped grabbing hold of the fan blade for support.  The screws that held the fan to the ceiling were not designed to accommodate a further twelve stones so the hapless sailor and dislodged fan, both crashed towards the floor.  As sometimes happened to John, who was a ‘Capricorn’; Lady luck was around to help.  Although the hard wooden dance floor lay almost directly below, the fan and the man landed in a heap on a large comfortable sofa with hardly a sound.

A promised bribe did not deter the night watchman from scribbling their details in his log although things may have been different had the fan remained in place.

The following morning the shipping companies agent found them regaling the previous nights events to the barman.  He accepted a coffee and tactfully broached the subject of their imminent transfer to the Galle Face Hotel.

‘You will like it there much better,’ he said, ‘It overlooks the sea and is much more modern and the other guests are younger and a little less, how do you say it?  Stuffy.’

He omitted to say that the Galle face was out of town and neither did he tell them that the manager of the GOH had called him that morning and told him in no uncertain terms that as a result of the previous night’s activities, the rooms had to be vacated, since they were unexpectedly full.  The agent had already sent a message to the Shipping Companies head office in London advising them of the circumstances and requesting sanction for his proposal.

Somehow, probably in the translation, the message had been a little jumbled.

The head of the personnel department was under the impression that ‘Fans’ were the reason for the hotel being full and causing the need to move his charges.

As he signed the ‘Approved,’ box he idly wondered whom the attraction was.  He knew ‘Canberra was on its maiden voyage and assumed that the ‘Fans’ were to due to publicity at the arrival of some famous personage.

In any event it wasn’t anything to bother the company’s Senior Marine Superintendent about.

The agent settled their bill and speculated how wonderful it would be to be taken care of as these sailors had been.  Little did he know that all the expenses, other than the basic living charges, would be deducted from their salaries.  The two men placed their luggage in the boot of the agent’s car and climbed in for the short journey to the ‘Galle Face Hotel’.

‘Any news of our ship home?  John asked.

The agent replied.  “Only another two to three weeks when it will be arriving.  Maybe stay here for three days.”

Both men were given rooms overlooking the Indian Ocean, complete with ‘en suits’ facilities and to their joy- air conditioning.  Whist the fans at the GOH were effective they tended to be noisy.  Though they had discovered that an additional benefit of the fans could be gained by placing a small torch taped to the ceiling immediately above the fan.  Insects and particularly mosquitoes would be attracted to the light and a satisfying ‘ping’ could be discerned as they flew towards their goal.

Unpacked showered and changed, they met up as pre-arranged in the terrace bar noted for its chequered tiles.  After a couple of welcome pints of cold lager, they decided to explore.

Lack of funds prevented the use of a taxi, so they walked the along the promenade, conscious of the blistering heat.  At the end of the walkway they met the main road that led into town.

As they entered a familiar suburb, John suddenly exclaimed that he knew where they were and led the way to a dingy but cheap bar used by the locals.

‘How come you know where we are?  Asked Mac.  Before he started to drink the unchilled beer straight from the can. 

‘My friend’s office is around here,’ informed John, ‘It’s a bit of a funny story.’

Mac was all ears as he listened to a tale of how John was on a regular run between Ceylon, India and South and East Africa when he became involved in a lucrative trade.

He would buy precious stones such as sapphires and emeralds in Ceylon and sell them in Africa.  From the proceeds, he would buy diamonds and bring them to Colombo for sale to his contact.  Over time the trade grew and his knowledge of the dealers and stones improved.  Funds were strictly limited so the trade was never a business but more of a way to get a little extra cash, however he made a lot of contacts in various foreign places, and the dealer in Ceylon became a very close acquaintance if not a friend.

They finished their drink and decided to stay for a rudimentary lunch before deciding to call on the dealer, as they were close by.  It was approaching three when they finally left the tiny bar. 

The short journey led them through the labyrinth of back streets and alleyways and their fair skins attracted furtive glances by locals unused to foreigners in their domain.  Taxis vied with rickshaws adding to the chaotic bustle around them.  Clad in their brightly coloured Sari’s, women joined the men selling almost anything from tiny market stalls which at times, spread into the road.

They reached their objective that was a six-story building and entered through the pavement door.  Beneath the stairs an old man dressed in a dhoti and wearing a headscarf attended an ancient photocopier and apparently ran a small business dealing with stationary etc. from the diminutive location. 

Their destination was on the third floor.  To reach it they had to pass the second floor containing both a tailors and a dental studio.

Heavy iron grids prevented unexpected entry so John spoke into the intercom announcing their presence.

A loud click gave them access through the door and Mac gasped at the sight that John had seen many times.

 They saw in front of them, an unanticipated oasis residing amongst the general squalor they had just witnessed.  Through the open door was a beautifully appointed room, full of antiques.  A rich heavy carpet softened any sounds and carefully sited gilded lamps gave the room a welcoming glow.

Seated at a carved wooden desk, sat an elderly man clad in a one-piece garment coloured white that matched his beard.  He stood and extended his hand to John and bringing John’s hand to his breast as though to touch his heart.

‘How very good to see you John, I thought you had disappeared.’

John introduced his friend who was told by the elderly man that,

“Any friend of Johns’ is a friend of mine, Please be seated, both of you.’”

The old man pressed a buzzer on his desk which resulted in an elegant secretary in a floor length gown of green and gold, entering the room from a subtlety disguised door that opened as part of a bookcase.

She nodded as their host spoke rapidly in the local language and left to reappear later with a silver tray of coffee brewing in a samovar.

The next twenty minutes were spent drinking coffee and acquainting each other with events since they had last met.

John explained that he had paid off of his ship on the East Africa run and was waiting for a company’s ship returning to the U.K.

Once back in England he was hoping to get engaged but he wanted to pass his exams first.

The Jeweler was delighted.  To him, the English man was not only a business acquaintance but also a member of the people who he much admired in the long years of his youth when Ceylon was a part of the Empire.  He thought them to be firm but fair and somehow their profiteering seemed preferable to the corruption practiced by some of the new politicians of the country, since its independence. 

He left the desk and adeptly attended to the combination tumblers on a large built in safe.  The door swung open and he removed a tray covered with black velvet.  He locked the door and returned to his desk placing the tray beneath a bright desk light.

Like a conjuror, he dramatically pulled the velvet cover from the tray revealing its precious contents.

Hundreds of sparkling jewels reflected their beauty in the intense bright light of the Jeweler’s desk lamp.

‘Choose one,’ said the old man, a smile lighting his features.

John apologetically protested that he wasn’t yet in a position to buy anything.

‘You cannot refuse my wishes to give you a lasting token of our friendship.”

The Jeweler selected a stone and scrutinised it through a special monocle before passing it to John.

John took it and viewed it closely noticing its rich deep blue colour that was much darker than any he had ever seen.  It was simply stunning.

“ Centered between two diamonds it would be a symbol of eternity.”

John replied, ‘I would pay for the mount but forget the diamonds as they would take me an eternity to pay for them.’

The old man laughed and said, ‘ You pay for the gold but gems are my life’s business and will be my pleasure to gift.’  Without another word he replaced the tray and relocked his safe.  He buzzed his receptionist who escorted them to the security door.  They turned to say thanks and goodbye and the Jeweler smiled and directing his words to John said, ‘Same time next week, large size.’

 John corrected him saying that his girlfriend was of average build whereupon the Jeweler gave a knowing wink and said, ‘ Average here would be your small size, but if you can get a proper size it would help.  Give me a ring.’

Back on the street Mac, who had remained almost silent, grasped John around his shoulders and said.

 ’You’re a dark horse talk about a crown among the thorns.  I hope I’m as lucky when I get a ring for my fiancée whoever she is!’

During their visit, darkness had descended and the whole area had changed and seemed to have come alive.  Colourful lights were everywhere and the smell of street cooking was mouthwatering.  Smoke from open fires wafted in the breeze carrying exotic aromas of spices and faint eastern perfumes.  The warm weather encouraged people out into the open and whole families strolled through the market place.  Strange music and singing could be heard from several of the brightly lit market stalls, yet in spite of being amongst foreign people and in an alien place, they did not for one moment feel uneasy.

They hailed a passing rickshaw and returned to the ‘Galle Face’ at leisure if not in style.  Mac gave the owner of the rickshaw ten rupees having been asked for eight and the man was most appreciative and was grinning as he passed the waiting taxis.  Mac wasn’t so familiar with barter and had used up their remaining funds.  They had nearly a week to wait before they were due another sub so they were a little daunted to have to rely on the Hotel for food and drink for the time being.

After their excesses of the previous day they decided to turn in early.

John woke to the sound of waves on the beach and pulling his blinds he was greeted by delightful birdsong and cloudless skies.  It was a Saturday.

After a hearty full English breakfast where they ate as much as they could since lunch was doubtful, they decided to attend one of the seaman’s missions and had heard that the Flying Angel had a pool.

The morning was spent swimming and sunbathing accompanied by a friendly man with a slightly deformed right arm.  His deformity did not prevent him from participating in water polo or any of the other activities involving a fairly large crowd of Merchant Seamen.  If anything the deformity seemed to help with the accomplishment of several sports from snooker to darts.  When they were chatting in the bar after, he stood them a drink and to their complete surprise they found out he was the resident clergyman.

‘If you come to the service in the morning,’ he said, ‘You’ll qualify for a sausage sizzle before going by coach to Kandy.  All for gratis.’

Unable to shout their round, they softened the blow by agreeing to attend.  After adding their names to the list they returned to the hotel for supper and a nightcap or three.

Rising early was never a problem for either seaman and as they walked the near empty streets only the absence of cries from the minarets replaced by church bells, served to remind them, should they need it, that it was Sunday.

A modicum of regret at their hasty promise was tempered with the thoughts of a succulent sausage sizzle.

A battered bus stood outside the mission, which did not bode well for their journey.

It proved to be an abbreviated service and the litany was familiar to both men who were equally taken with the sermon.  Afterwards everyone enjoyed the well-attended breakfast and were advised that the sausages and bacon had been flown straight out from England, a treat not to be missed. 

At nine o’clock they piled aboard the rather ancient bus, which set off for the three-hour drive up into the hills to the old Capitol.  Having been fed and possibly due to the early start, a lot of the trippers slept.

Depicted on a well known brand of tea is a picture of sari clad damsels gathering tea leaves in huge cotton bags on their backs.  The terraced hillside is verdant with a clear blue sky in the background.  Whoever originated the artwork for the cartons must have visited this part of Sri Lanka duplicating almost the same scene viewed through the bus windows.

Their rise in altitude was fairly gradual and hardly noticeable until looking down from whence they came.  About halfway, they had a comfort stop and noticed that the air had thinned considerably.  It was here that the first wild elephants were seen being chased by a throng of barefoot children.

They arrived at their destination a little after noon and the first thing they noticed was the freshness outside even though they were only just over 1500 feet above sea level.  Although the air seemed quite a bit thinner, the altitude provided a much cooler atmosphere that was extremely pleasant to experience particularly after the journey in a non air conditioned bus.  The town itself had evolved on a flattish plateau that rose to one side and was where the Temple had been built.

 The Royal Palace dominated the town and fronted a huge ornamental man made lake.  In the past, the Rulers believed that control of the relic gave them automatic ascendency so Palaces and Temples are often seen together.

The Vicar chatted good humoredly to the people nearest to him as he led the party towards the Temple.  He had been several times before and knew the drill.  Prior to entering the holy place it was necessary to remove one’s shoes although a dispensation had been made for foreign visitors who, having left their shoes, could continue across a lawn taking advantage of the cool grass rather than the hot stony pathway.

The stone building was splendidly carved and was the home, as well as the place of worship, of the Buddhists Monks.  They entered the sacred chamber with no preconceived expectations but were slightly disappointed to see just a silver cask beneath a gold canopy with two monks in attendance.  It was only later on the bus that the vicar enlightened them that the silver cask contained another cask, which in turn contained another cask and so on like the Russian doll figures.  Apparently there were seven casks in all but only three keys.  One key could open the first, third and fifth box and another the second, forth and sixth box.  The remaining key was only able to open the last box containing the tooth.

Returning to the entrance, the Vicar was quite non-plus when his party remonstrated that their shoes were missing.  The sailors on the other hand were a little less civil and made a considerable fuss.  However it seemed to be the custom as all the shoes were discovered for sale on a market stall only a few hundred yards away.  The paltry price for their recovery was preferable to trying to argue about their loss in another language. 

Some people, possibly Ceylonese speaking, had thought differently as many of the stallholders, although quite humbly dressed, wore quite new looking expensive shoes.

Situated less than five miles from the Temple is a large Botanical Garden.

A legacy of the relatively recent British influence was its scientific development that made good use of the existing tropical plants.  In 1901 King George V and Queen Mary, planted a ‘Cannon Ball ‘ tree that even today can be seen with fruits looking like cannon balls.  Lord Louis Mountbatten in World War Two famously used the gardens as a base for the South East Asian command.

Kew gardens were responsible for introducing many of the diverse horticultural specimens now used extensively in medicines throughout the world.

At the gardens, they saw a number of elephants that were kept for religious festivals such as ‘Perahera’, which formed part of an annual sacred ceremony, attached to the Temple.

Some of the animals were not particularly well treated by their mahout’s but many of the mahouts themselves were less than revered by the local population.  Others faired better and happily allowed several of the party to participate in elephant rides under supervision.

At five o’clock it had been stipulated that everyone should meet back at the coach in good time for the return journey.  Two people were missing from the head count so the vicar set about trying to identify the absent persons.  It was no surprise to him, as it had happened before although it was normally in a city where there were plenty of diversions such as bars.  Just as he had started to check the names they appeared panting from their exertions and settled into their seats having placed their bags onto the overhead storage rack.

 Back at the Botanic garden an attendant in the hot house couldn’t understand what had happened to the plants he was about to water.  They had been growing hemp for research purposes in hope of establishing a high fiber plant free of THC or other narcotic derivatives.  It seemed they had been moved.

 The bus left Kandy only ten minutes late and a short while later the vicar stood and faced the mixed bunch of seamen and thanked them for joining him.

‘I hope you’ve all had a great day out and one things for certain.  You may not have realized it but you’ve been nearer to God.  About 500 meters nearer.’  

He sat down well before the clapping stopped.

Their proximity to God appeared to turn events in their favour as the following morning after breakfast a tall slim man stopped them and asked if they spoke English. 

“We are English ‘”said Mac, and the newcomer asked where he could find a guide.

“Try the concierge,” said Mac.

“I already have but apparently all the official tourist guides are booked for the cruise ship that’s due in.”

“We’ve been here for weeks and pretty well know our way around.”  Answered Mac, “John’s been here several times before so if there’s anything specific and we can help, we will.

“I’m an author,” replied the man, “and need to absorb as much local colour as I can, before I return to the States.”

Sensing a deal the two sailors suggested a drink by the pool to discuss matters further.  They proposed that for ten dollars an hour between them they would be the American’s guides.  As part of the deal, he would pay for all transport and any other expenses including drink and food.  They proposed starting each day at eleven in the morning.

The tall American thought it over and agreed with one stipulation.

“What’s that?  Asked John.

“A trial period of one day for which there will be no payment other than expenses.  If I continue with your services, you’ll get the withheld payment at the end of the agreement.

“Done.”  Said the sailors.  “Except if we get transferred before you’ve finished, you pay us for the missing day.”

‘Agreed”

Their first days work started easily enough and was probably predictable as it involved a rickshaw ride to the GOH for drinks in the swinging cocktail bar before lunch.

The regular barman greeted them like long lost friends and to the delight of the tall American, included him in the round of free drinks and intimate chatter as though he had been known as a regular and frequent customer.

“I’ll get used to this I hope,” said the American, lifting a pint pot to his lips and downing a good slug of the amber liquid as he had seen his companions do with practiced ease.

The bar started to get quite busy for the lunchtime trade so they took their drinks out onto the verandah and settled into the comfortable cane loungers beneath a giant sunshade made of platted palm leaves.

“I haven’t really told you about myself,” the American exclaimed.

My pseudonym in Billy Bates or W.E. Bates to be precise but you can call me ‘Gee’ short for Gary as most of my friends do.”

John passed around his cigarettes.  Mac took one and passed it to Gary who refused saying he didn’t smoke which, he felt, allowed him to pursue his other vices.

“I write pretty much anything but have been commissioned by the Tourist Board of California to do a piece on Ceylon.”

He took another pull on his pint, this time only using one hand, as he seemed to be getting familiar with the large glass.

“My chosen subject at college was psychology and I got an A plus for my thesis”

“Have you read Marks?” asked John.

“Yes,” replied his fellow apprentice, “It must be these damned bamboo chairs!”

The quick exchange of humour was almost lost on Gary and a minute or two passed when suddenly he stared to chuckle as he recognized the joke.  In the coming days, he never quite got used to the rapid repartee between his two English guides.  Although, he came to understand and appreciate most of it, he sometimes felt on a different wavelength.

They opted for a bar snack at the table where they sat and the pretty sari clad waitress served what was known as a summer curry.  It consisted of a bowl of fish curry and rice and a platter of fresh salads and tropical fruits including flaked cocoanut and deliciously refreshing marinated ginger.  A raffia basket arrived containing warm Chapattis that were to be crunched and sprinkled over the food, as was the local practice.

“It would help if you gave us an idea where you’d like to start,” offered Mac ordering another round to help wash down the lunch.

Gary considered for a while before replying.

“I rather think that a good guide needs to include a bit of everything for everybody.  So it really comes down to Religious and ancient places, other points of special interest, the Port, the beaches and other places for families.  A section on good food and nightlife is a must and a few pages advising on Currency exchanges, Banks, Embassies and a street guide for shopping and gifts.

Forty years later and his services would practically become obsolete being virtually replaced by what would become well known as the ‘internet’ with Ceylon becoming Sri Lanka. 

John stretched, yawned and rose from his chair.

“I suggest we start properly tomorrow and in the meantime we’ll prepare a list based on your requirements Gee.  This afternoon we’ll introduce you to the ‘Flying Angel.’  You probably wont include it in your guide but I’m sure you need a break too and we can take a swim in the pool and play snooker.”

Gary got up signaling his approval and called the waiter over for the bill.  Mac disappeared to the toilet and returned just in time to hail a passing cab.

The week that followed was packed with activity as the three men toured Ceylon in a variety of vehicles.  They visited temples, Churches and on Wednesday the famous street market that trebled the size of the normal market and was very popular with the tourists especially from the luxury liners.

  A whole day was spent travelling to the ancient capitol of Kandy to visit the renowned Buddhist’s most sacred place and the Zoo with its unique collection of working elephants which they all rode and managed to stay on in spite of a liquid lunch.

Friday evening of the second week saw them gathered round a low table in the veranda bar of the Galle Face overlooking the sea with its spectacular sunset.

“You guys have done me proud,” exclaimed Gary.  “I’ve got three tapes of notes and enough information for two books, so I’ve booked a flight back to the States for Monday morning.”

“Thanks Gee,” said Mac.  “Perhaps we should take you on one last fling.  Not for your work, just for you!” 

“What do you think John?’

“Good idea.  We haven’t really shown Gee any of the forbidden nightlife,” said John.

He had a good idea what Mac had in mind and was looking forward to the rest of the evening.

“Just so you know it will probably cost about a hundred and fifty dollars for the three of us all in.  As far as fees go, the clock stops ticking right now.”

It was about ten when they left the Hotel.

The doorman shielded them with his umbrella as they entered the taxi as it had started to rain.  A prelude to the start of the monsoon season John thought.  The taxi dropped them outside the GOH now a familiar location for them to start from.

Gary even referred to it as his favourite ‘watering hole’, which indicated to his guides that he had taken in at least some of their idiosyncrasies.

The original barman was on duty and greeted them all; including Gary, like long lost friends and the first round was on him.

As they took their drinks to be seated in the crowded lounge, Gary remarked that he would never forget this place where drinks on his first day and nearly his last, were on the house.

It was around eleven when they left and they were all feeling happily mellow.  The wet weather had passed and it turned out to be a glorious night with clear skies that revealed the brightly shining stars.

A rickshaw took them the short journey to their destination. 

 Isaiah’s bar was approached from a narrow alley in a labyrinth of tiny unnamed streets backing on to the market place.

The colourful neon lights flashed invitingly, an oasis in the otherwise gloomy surroundings.  A few men and one or two hippy looking women sat around smoking and chatting outside.  Judging by the aroma they weren’t smoking tobacco. 

The three men entered the dimly lit club.  Western music was being played by three locals dressed in tuxedos and their singer, a beautiful coloured woman sang in almost perfect imitation of the latest hit in the international charts.

They were ushered to a small round table near the tiny stage and the scantily clad waitress took their order.

A couple of strippers appeared when the musicians had their break and performed a ballet routine ending up completely naked.

 After the musicians returned, the same girls could be seen cavorting with and being bought drinks by well-dressed customers.  A little later they all disappeared through a door marked ‘private’.

Gary noticed that his companions seemed to have slowed down their consumption, which was indicated by the several full glasses on the table.  When he questioned this, he was told that the bar only served beer until midnight and only spirits or champagne was available there after.

“Whatever you do, don’t have the Champagne,” advised John, “It’s only apple juice for the girls and they charge the equivalent of five pounds a glass!”

The American seemed in his element and regardless of the cost was drinking ‘Bourbon on the rocks.’

He seemed to enjoy joining in with the singer and one minute he was near the stage and the next minute he had completely vanished.

Mac, who had seen him pass through the door marked ‘Private’, assumed he had gone to the toilet and it wasn’t until nearly another hour had passed before they really missed him.

The place was at full swing and the comings and goings added to the confusion.  Not wanting to disturb other clientele, they had decided to collar the Madame to find out Gary’s whereabouts, when Gary suddenly appeared, looking a touch worse for wear. 

 Just because they were officially off duty didn’t stop them from feeling responsible for their companion who, over the last few days had become a friend.

They escorted him back to their table and saw him safely seated where he started to slumber, periodically awakening with a start as he began to lean over.

“I remember he referred to his other vices,” said Mac, “I hope he’s not been ripped off by one of the girls!”

John got up and made his way through the bustling crowd to the bar and engaged the ‘Madame” in a long earnest conversation.  From where Mac sat he could see the ‘Madame’ gesturing with her long cigarette holder towards the private door.

John returned rather gleefully carrying two pints of beer.  “What’s going on?” asked Mac.

“She’s slipped us a couple of pints on the house.”

“Not that.  Where’s he been?” he asked, indicating the sleeping American.

“Not to worry,” said John, “He’s been on the ‘Wacky Baccy, that’s all.”’

It was with much relief that they bundled the sleeping author into a taxi.  It was four in the morning when Mac paid off the taxi and tipped the night porter for opening the American’s room.

They put him to bed fully clothed having tried to remove his teeth unsuccessfully.  They were more successful in taking his ankle length cowboy boots off and remembered to put his wallet and watch into his safe.

He didn’t appear again until dinnertime that evening, when rather sheepishly the American joined them at their table.

“Hi boys we must have had a great night judging by my head, but I can’t remember much about the end of it.  My mouth’s sore.  Who hit me?”  Gary asked.

“Nobody”, said Mac.  “It’s probably where we tried to take your false teeth out.”

“I don’t have false teeth,” said Gary with a look of confusion.

What time did we get back?”

John replied, “We put you to bed a little after four.” he added rather impishly, “just after she left.”

Mortified the American said.  “She.”

“Sorry I meant, he,” said John.

“Oh my God.”  Cried the forlorn author, “Who was he?”

“The Night porter,” John replied.

They watched the heavy ‘Jumbo jet’ slowly lift off on it’s way west towards the rising sun.  It was Monday morning and the two sailors had just said their goodbyes to their new American friend.

Mac turned to John and said, “I don’t want to make an issue, but you forgot to give me my half of the first day’s fifty bucks!  I don’t mind the night porters tip and the taxi fare, that’s written off.”

John replied, “ The Gunge Gunge cost a hundred Dollars.

I felt it was best not to argue.  Let’s call it quits!”

They shook hands and called a rickshaw telling the runner their destination.

“Seaman’s Mission please.  I’ll pay,” they said in unison.

“Four Men in a Boat” by “Shipmate” story – Chapter 3

The Comliebank – where most of this chapter takes place

3 CHAPTER THREE (Calcutta)

The East India Company controlled most of India on behalf of the Colonial occupiers, namely the British Government.  During the late Victorian period, sea entry was r5rf lucrative area.

Lord Inverforth sought access for his cargo ships known as ‘Bank Line’ and eventually was granted some of the less direct routes mainly from Africa, Australia and other colonies including certain parts of the America’s.

This trade eventually developed into a very significant part of “Andrew Wier’s shipping interests and Calcutta became, next to London, the company’s most important center of commerce and trade.

As a consequence, the Senior Marine Superintendent was stationed in Calcutta that became the homeport of many of the cargo ship and the place where their coloured crews were signed on.

The Chief Officer of the Comliebank was very conscious of that fact when ordering stores whist they were unloading on the East coast of Africa.

He had been notified that they were to load certain cargo for India that would undoubtedly mean the usual gunny and tea would be carried from Calcutta.  Their normal maintenance supply of paints had been heavily increased to enable the vessel to be gleaming for her arrival at their Eastern homeport.  Having loaded the requisite stores in Durban, the ship departed and the crew had a little over thee weeks to scrape off the rust and apply a coat of red lead followed by the seawater resistant top coat.  The outer hull had been painted whilst in port so the rest of it was to be smartened up before their arrival in Calcutta.  Luckily there were only three colours, black, white and buff.  For some reason, the funnel had to have special paint, the undercoat being yellow chromate and the topcoat, the most expensive of all, was heat resistant and consequently the purchase had been limited to one five gallon drum.

The storekeeper on an Indian crew ship is known as a ‘cassab’ and favoured his own kind, paricularly when it came to issuing anything even down to cotton waste.  The apprentices were given worn out brushes and soiled rags with the new brushes being reserved for the ‘collassies’ as the deck crew was better known.

To get round this, the apprentices had procured a spare key to the stores but still went through the charade of always complaining about their equipment.

It so happened that during Ramadan (an Indian holiday), to play a joke on the Cassab, the apprentices had taken the much-prized drum of funnel paint and perched it on the gunwhale capping.

The crew all had the day off so the storekeeper was quite put out at being disturbed by having to open up.  He was dressed in his best gear and set out from his accommodation in the after peak at a snails pace.

 To the Cassab, slowly approaching from the after deck, it looked as though the apprentices were about to push the cherished tin of paint over the side.  In fact this is precisely what they did.

The Cassab was horrified.  He turned and rushed back down the deck to report the incident – first to the Serang and then together to the Chief Officer.

Unnoticed by the Cassab, the apprentices had tied some line around the handle and passed it over the side and back through a scupper before securing the end to a bollard. 

They intended to retrieve the paint and return it to the stores and innocently deny all knowledge of anything unusual, when the Serang and Cassab arrived, accompanied by the Chief Officer.

Sadly the lanyard, when pulled in, had only the handle attached so they did the first thing that came into their heads by locking themselves in the store and keeping absolutely quiet.

The old tin of partially used funnel paint seemed very thin when applied later, which was probably due to the turpentine, added by the apprentices in trying to cover up for the missing paint.

Arriving at the forepeak, the Chief Officer was puzzled that, contrary to the Cassab’s insistence, there was no sign of any problem so he put it down to a minor breakdown in relations between the crew and the apprentices who had been working together for some time.

 His solution was to split them up and the following day he instructed the apprentices to clean out the lifeboats, repaint them and repair the covers, a job that would last at least a week.

All went well at first.  The apprentices were pleased with the task especially as they were rewarded a shilling for each rat they disposed of.  The lifeboats were renowned as a hiding place for these rodents who would make nests out of bits of rope and canvas so it wasn’t unusual to achieve a count of thirty or so from each boat including the contents of the nests.  The ‘modus operandi’ was fairly simple.

One apprentice, armed with a broom, would disturb the rat and the other apprentice would dispatch it using a large spanner as a club. 

 The problem came on the second day.

The crew were painting the funnel from stages hung from the top.  The apprentices were clearing the last boat of the vermin and were unsuccessfully chasing a large wily rat that had long sparse hair like a porcupine and it proved very illusive.  The broom man had it cornered in the bows of the lifeboat when, to avoid capture, it suddenly it leap into the air.  His fellow apprentice threw the heavy spanner straight at the escaping rat.  He missed and by pure accident, hit one of the men painting the funnel in the back of his head. 

In spite of profusely apologizing when the crewmember regained consciousness three hours later, both apprentices found themselves to be ostracised.  It didn’t help, however, when shortly after, one of them inadvertently trod on a prayer mat that hadn’t been put away.

Both of them were very relieved that the crew would be replaced as soon as they reached Calcutta.

It is probably unfair and certainly politically incorrect these days, but it has been said by seaman that the River Hooghly is the ‘arsehole’ of the World and that Calcutta is a hundred miles up it.  This of course is quite untrue as Calcutta is at least one hundred a fifteen miles from the sea.

THE BORE

A fifty-ton slab of steel and concrete was sunk into the riverbed and secured to a four-inch chain, itself weighing several tons.  The chain culminated at a conical shaped floating buoy some six feet diameter and ten feet long.  A huge ring was tethered to the buoy to facilitate mooring and a similar buoy was attached at each end of a ship to prevent swinging.

Vessels were moored so their bows were pointed in the downstream direction; ready to face the ‘bore tide’ experienced in these waters every neap and spring tides.

Garden Reach is situated on the River Hooghly about four miles from Calcutta and one hundred and twenty miles from the Delta.  The great river sweeps round the last bend before Calcutta and widens into a wide natural bay used for loading and discharging cargo of all descriptions.

Machinery and foodstuffs from Africa and in return, tea, jute, and bales of gunny with smaller quantities of aromatic herbs and shellac produced by drying beetles wings which is destined to become household varnish or furniture polish.

  The riverbanks are lined on both sides with factories and warehouses and are used to tie up lighters and various craft of a multitude of shapes and sizes.  The river teems with boats most of which apart, from being used to convey cargo and people, are floating homes for living and sleeping on by their occupants.

Bore tides are not uncommon around the world and are caused mainly in areas of a large rise and fall of tide coupled with a swift flowing river with a wide estuary or basin.  At high tides the natural river flow is prevented by the incoming tide causing a wall of water to build up and travel upstream as the tide builds to high water resulting in a wave that increases in height as the river narrows.  By the time it arrives at ‘Garden Reach’, it sometimes approaches ten foot high causing utter chaos in the river and along its banks.

Luckily the event is predictable and well known.  Precautions are taken on the river and all along its banks.  Hundreds of boats leave their moorings for the relative safety of open water and a general atmosphere of carnival abounds.

Large freighters moor-up by detaching the anchor and using the anchor chain to secure to the buoys.  Their crews, on stand–by, take various preventative actions, the main one being to let out about three to four meters of anchor chain, which is then tied to a bollard with a two inch restraining rope.  The idea being that once the bore hits the initial shock is taken up by the restraining rope, which eventually parts, but not before absorbing the initial impact.  The slack is then released and the anchor chain takes up the strain again, easily coping with the diminishing forces.

A mood of anticipation is felt awaiting the arrival and the balmy warm tropical air carries a mixture of aromas of spices, cigarette smoke and Indian cooking.

As if by common consent, chattering ceases and a rare hush descends upon all those in the vicinity.

After waiting expectantly, a sudden a cacophony of ships sirens and car horns shatter the peace warning of the approach of the bore.  It moves up river at between five and ten knots, oblivious to everything in its path and leaving debris and flotsam in its wake.  Nothing is spared from its powerful onslaught and both large ships and houseboats alike are lifted and dashed down like toys.  After the first wall has passed secondary peaks follow with the effect like a giant ‘Mexican wave’, adding to the mayhem before the surrounding upheaval eventually subsides.

Chaos is everywhere, but people, being used to this periodic event, go about their business of clearing up, in harmony with their neighbours who have suffered similarly.  People have been thrown into the river, others have jumped and they all laugh cheerfully as they splash around in the turbulent water-awaiting rescue.

The bore moves upstream preceded by the warning sirens that seem to give off a higher note as they fade into the distance.

For some reason lights are turned off at the approach of the bore.  Presumably, this was to afford a better viewing of the wave.  After it has passed, lighting is switched back on and having secured the vessel, everyone stands down.

A party mood prevails as witnesses share a common experience and having remained awake and alert, people take the opportunity to eat.  drink and make merry well into the night.

In spite of the late night activities normal work continues on time and the usual hustle and bustle is the order of the next day.

The Chief Officer was a very portly Scot’ from Fife and had called on his tailor to make some new tropical whites consisting of two shirts with breast pockets and epaulets and two pairs of shorts to match.  The tailor had certain misgivings because due to the officers proportions a great deal of material was needed which ate into his meager profit.  Nevertheless with dignified aplomb he called out the measurements to his assistant who noted them down in a cheap exercise book.  A deal was done and the garments were to be completed in two days, just prior to sailing.

On the morning of departure, two Indians bearing a large paper package turned up and advised the gangway guard that they had a package for the chief officer and it was important that they see him.  They waited outside his dayroom and after a short while he appeared.  He took the package to try his new clothes for size and when they proved satisfactory he paid the men and contrary to common belief that Scot’s are mean, he even gave a small tip.

Three quarters of an hour before the ship was due to sail, a rickshaw was seen to halt adjacent to the ship on the Chow Ringey side of the river and the occupants hurried to board a tiny ferry to bring them aboard the ship.

Stevedores were frantically loading the remaining cargo.  The crew was making ready to sail and the engines were being tested in advance of them being used.

The gangway watchman reluctantly escorted the two men to the Chief Officer knowing he is very busy.

“Who are you’?’ asked the Chief Officer.

“We bring your white goods Sahib,” said one of the two men.

“You already delivered them!” the Chief Officer exclaimed.

‘No, they are in here,” the man replied indicating the package.

“Follow me,” instructed the Officer leading the way to his quarters.

He went in and came out a few moments later bearing the package delivered earlier.

A puzzled expression appeared on the face of the tailor as he examined the contents.  After a while the frowned and then his eyebrows lifted with enlightenment, he turned to his assistant and in a high-pitched tirade appraised him of his conclusions.

For the benefit of the Officer, he translated his speech into English.

“ When I called out your measurements to my very able assistant, Rabul Haque was hiding nearby and noted them down.  He must of rushed away and made the garments quickly.”

The two men returned to the shore minus their package and were no longer in a hurry.  They appeared to passers by to be somewhat downhearted

On the other hand, the portly Chief Officer had acquired an extra set of tropical whites at half price, because it was very unlikely that anyone would match his measurements

No one will ever know whether or not he had orchestrated the entire episode but he was known to boast that, “I’ve seen it all before”, having spent many years travelling to the Sub Continent.

After casting off from the buoy, accompanied by two ancient tugboats, the ship headed downriver towards the sea.  The European pilot explained that the treacherous sandbanks in the river often changed position, causing constant updating to be required.

The ship successfully entered the Bay of Bengal and having dropped the pilot off came round to starboard on a southerly course bound for Madras where final loading would take place.

From Madras their passage took them in a southeasterly direction towards Australia, entering the Straits of Malacca and stopping at Singapore for bunkers.

The first port of call in Australia was Brisbane, which although humid, still made a welcome relief from the monsoon climate experienced in India.  On the downside, Australia still had restricted licensing hours and the evening session became known as the ‘seven o’clock’ swill.

The Dockers had limited time to slake their thirst, when finishing their day’s work and tried to drink their sufficiency in a relatively short time

The bars near the docks had few seats and were a totally male domain.  There were no tables,’ just shelves around the walls and the draft beer would be dispensed by the barman using a petrol-pump type nozzle at the end of a long rubber hose which avoided delays in getting refills.  Often the noisy Stevedores were double and triple banked and as can be imagined, the gatherings were sometimes far from peaceful.

The ship unloaded all around the East and South Australian coast ending up at Newcastle about 200 miles north of Sydney, where it was decided by the London Office that the time had come for her to be scrapped. 

Most of the Officers and crew were to be transferred leaving a skeleton crew to take the ship to the breakers in Karachi.

A temporary but very amicable relationship had been built up between the Officers on board the ship and the girls from the Seaman’s Mission.

It was therefore decided to celebrate their imminent departure with a dance and party.  It would start with a procession from the ship to their favourite ‘watering hole’ where they would gift the ship’s large brass bell to the local pub.  After sufficiently ‘christening ‘ the bell they would move on to the mission for the remainder of the evening, eating, drinking and dancing with their hostesses.

Even the best of plans can go wrong.

The large engraved brass bell was lashed between two oars manned by a person on each corner in the manner of natives carrying something through the undergrowth of the jungle.

The Mission band had been encouraged by free drinks to precede the procession that was followed by the sailors dressed in bizarre costumes and accompanying the musicians with a ‘squeeze box’, flute and a dustbin lid being rather tunelessly played by the inebriated Radio Officer using a sash brush.  Their arrival at the hostelry was met with a suitable round of applause by the clientele who joined in the fun and stood the first round of drinks or in Aussie parlance, the first ‘shout’.  A heavy session had begun as round after round followed in rapid succession

It wasn’t until about nine in the evening that someone remembered the dance and they all piled out into three taxis.

Their arrival at the hall caused something of a stir mainly due to the fact that the band were supposed to be performing earlier.

The exhausted disc jockey was extremely pleased and relieved to see his colleagues.

An alien from outer space would have looked on in bewilderment at the scene that was not uncommon in those days.

All the men were congregated at the end near the bar, laughing and telling stories and jokes.

Some of the girls were dancing with one and other while others sat and watched while occasionally sipping their drinks.

At the interval, records were resumed and many of the girls, including a few boys, jived to the latest hits from England and America.

Food was passed round and as the dance progressed well into the evening a sort of ritual pairing began.  It was unusually subtle at first, as Australians are not noted for their finesse.  Nevertheless it was only about half an hour until the last dance before the dance floor became packed.

The second tripper was in his element.  He was young, fit and presentable, as well as being almost sober.

He had noticed a particular girl jiving with her female friend during the interval.  She was tanned golden brown by the sun, which had bleached her long fair hair that was held back in a ponytail by a white silk elasticated bow.  He couldn’t help being smitten when she swirled to the music and her dress momentarily rose up to permit a glimpse of her brief white underwear, which matched the silk bow in her hair.  Her ponytail seemed to dance in rhythm and keep pace with the tempo of the music. Her shapely bronzed legs danced in perfect time to the music.

He chose his moment perfectly.  The live band were playing Glen Millar’s wartime hit titled,  ‘In the mood’.  Couples’ had paired off and were smooching and shuffling around the floor.

“Would you like this dance?”

“Why not!”

They made a handsome couple.  She was delighted to find that his quickstep was surprisingly good.

As they chatted it got even better when he discovered that not only was she a qualified nurse at the ‘Mater Misericordiae’ Hospital but also she had the following day off.

They were partnered for all of the remaining dances and he ignored the jibes from his less fortunate shipmates as they passed.

He knew from experience at the Church Hall dances back in England, that the last dance was the best time.

Tom Jones song ‘ ‘the last waltz with you,’ echoed around the hall.

She smiled, revealing even white teeth as she accepted his invitation to the last dance.  Her emerald green eyes were sparkling with pleasure when he swung her around as they neared the band.

“Can I pick you up about ten tomorrow?” he asked.  “I’ll know where you live after I’ve taken you home.”

“Yes, that would be lovely.”  She said.

“We could go for a swim and perhaps to the Cinema after dinner.”

“I can’t make it in the evening,” she said.

“My boyfriends’ home on leave about seven.”  Her lips pouted briefly,

“His ship gets in at five and all the Marines have been given a month off in recognition of their six month’s in Korea.”

He couldn’t face his mate’s derision, so he went out on his own the rest of their time they were in Newcastle which fortunately was only three more days before he received orders to join another ship in Freemantle.  His presence aboard for the final trip was not needed either!

Chapter 2 of ” Four men in a boat” by ” Shipmate”…”

Tielbank was the ex Samburgh. She served from 1947 to 1960 (2 years after when this story was set) She then had 2 years as the Italian ” Giacomo” and a further 7 years on the Liberian register as “Sorrelhorse”.

2 CHAPTER TWO (Queer Folk)                                        

 Nineteen hundred and fifty eight was not a remarkable year for most people but for the young sailor it was quite memorable as it marked his second trip to sea.  He would remember it for other reasons, but being over thirty-four years old, the ship he joined in Rotterdam was exactly double his age, which was barely four months past his seventeenth birthday.

The deck Officers, apprentices, and engineers had travelled together from London to join the ship in Holland’s most prestigious port.  The crew, both deck and engine room, were already aboard being mainly Indian, and had been signed on in Calcutta the year before.

Arriving at the busy docks, a tender took the men out to their ship that was moored to a buoy.  Some of the older hands were heard to skeptically comment that the reason that the ship was midstream was to discourage the newcomers from deserting.

As the launch rounded a flotilla of naval vessels, the name of the ship became visible on her transom.  A mood of resigned apathy settled on the group at the sight of their future home, which was by far and away the oldest ship in the harbour.

The bow was straight up and down with the deck crew’s accommodation in the forecastle.  Their galley chimneys were soot blackened ‘H’ stacks that together with the outdated girder derricks did little to enhance the ships superstructure.  The wrought iron hull was of rivet construction that had become obsolete since the Second World War.  The main deck was sheathed in teak in the traditional fashion, probably a legacy from sailing ships and served to keep feet from burning in the tropics.  On the downside, they constantly needed cleaning by scrubbing with a ‘holy-stone’ and coconut husks, an unwelcome chore for both the crew and the apprentices.

The accommodation proved little better with no running water or central heating and the small electric blow heaters provided, were noisy and often inadequate.

The Captain and senior officers luckily enjoyed running water of sorts when the apprentices, using a relay of buckets from the stern fresh water supply, manually topped up the ‘monkey island’ water tank, before breakfast each day.

A strange device was located in the apprentices cabin.  It consisted of a piece of bent copper tube with a brass connector brazed on one end.

Its true purpose came to light before going ashore during the voyage. It was a magical device that provided hot water for washing and shaving.  All one had to do was fill a five gallon drum with fresh water hand pumped from the after peak tank.  Having carried the drum to the boat deck the rest was simple.

  The engineers were cajoled to put steam on the winches and the resulting hot water was bled from the cylinders.  When all the water had been drained off and just steam was evident, the copper tube was fixed to the drain cock with the screwed connector.  The free end was submerged in the cold water and in no time at all the bubbling steam heated the water to perfection.  That is after the scum of grease was skimmed off the surface.  Either the Italian coffee machines were centered on this method or some earlier crewmember had cleverly adapted the principle as the only means for sprucing up in case of a liaison with the opposite sex.

Discharging and formalities complete, the ship sailed from Rotterdam at first light next morning.

The trip across the North Atlantic was wet from both the constant squalls and heavy sea’s that came aboard from time to time but the passage enabled the ship’s compliment to get to know one and other and settle into routines familiar to vessels all over the world. 

The, otherwise uneventful crossing, saw them arrive on the American eastern seaboard about to pick up a pilot.

Ahead of them, a luxury liner entered the estuary and at her reduced speed was still travelling faster than the ancient cargo vessel.

The apprentices rigged up a ‘pilot ladder’ and stood by to assist the pilot from the approaching launch.  A heaving line was tossed to the pilot boat and used to retrieve its headline, which was secured to a bollard.

John, the junior apprentice was amazed.  The pilot nimbly scaled the ladder and waited while the apprentices hauled his bag aboard and cast off the pilot boat.

The pilot was unbelievably different from his European counterparts, who were usually ex-ships officers and wore smart uniforms and conducted themselves with dignified aplomb.

The man being escorted to the tiny wheelhouse was a huge Texan wearing a florid and brightly coloured shirt, wide brimmed Stetson hat and ornately engraved leather boots.  Taking his ever-present cigar out of his mouth, he shook the Captain’s hand and looking round said, ‘What museum did this come out of?’

The Captain, momentarily lost for words, ordered ‘full ahead’ and the engines responded to the telegraph’s instructions by belching a dense cloud of black smoke from the tall narrow funnel.

European pilots seldom conversed with junior ranks when the Captain was around but the Texan was not so inhibited, particularly as he sensed that he had got off on the wrong foot with the Captain.

The pilot commented to, no one in particular, that ‘had I not got stuck in the traffic this morning, I would be having breakfast on the bridge of the Liner instead of this rust bucket.’

He appeared oblivious to having hurt the feeling of those around him but little did he know what fate awaited him, perhaps in retribution for his careless comments.

Another difference the junior apprentice noticed was that, in his rather limited experience, pilots communicated with the tugs by whistle.  Either the pea variety used by referees and policeman or by using the ship’s whistle situated on the funnel and operated by a lanyard.

  The Texan, however, was using the latest technology.  As they approached land, he produced a ‘walkie talkie’ from his bag and commenced a conversation with the skippers of the tugs, mainly centered around the baseball game of the previous evening. 

 A short lived calm settled on the bridge whose occupants included the Captain, the pilot, the helmsman, and the two watch keepers consisting of the officer of the watch who was the third mate for berthing and the apprentice who recorded all orders.  His responsibility was to make handwritten notes that included the time and various instructions.  In addition, he made written records of notable points such as lights or recognisable buildings including the time they passed abeam. 

With hindsight, the problems all began when the pilot, in an act of high spirits, decided to signal with the ship’s whistle to the coast guard station as they passed.

  Had he consulted those around him things might have turned out differently.  As it was, he tugged on the lanyard and a surprisingly loud series of three long blasts, more in keeping with a great ocean liner, echoed around the port.  The reason for the unusual loudness was that the whistle was not the customary steam type but activated by compressed air. 

Unfortunately the air tank became totally depleted and was to have a devastating affect on later events.

It was thought that the ship was approaching the quay rather rapidly although only at eight knots that was almost her maximum speed.  In any event, everyone thought that the pilot was fully in control which in all fairness, probably would have been the case, had he had a modern and responsive vessel.

The concrete quay was lined with expectant handlers and Stevedores.  Railway trucks, full of cargo were waiting to be loaded, but were partly obscured by giant cranes whose jibs were raised in readiness.

The pilot, noticed their rather rapid approach and ordered, ‘full astern’.  Nothing happened.  The order was repeated and the third officer, once again, rang the telegraph but was left unrewarded by the lack of an answering signal from the engine room. 

The hitherto calm of the bridge deck was shattered.  The Captain picked up the ancient telephone to the engine room.  He violently wound the handle that caused the connection to ring below.  Perhaps it was his haste that was responsible for the instrument becoming dislodged from the bulkhead but there was little doubt that the weight of the telephone itself caused the wires to part as it fell heavily onto the deck.  The Captain, who was known for his quick thinking, grasped the ‘voice pipe’ and blew with all his might causing a backfire of years of dust to fill the air. 

The slow drawling Texan started speaking excitedly into his ‘walkie talkie’ but realizing that the battery was now flat due to his long chat about last night’s game, he bellowed loudly to the Chief Officer manning the windlass in the bows.

‘Drop the left hook’, he ordered.

The chief Officer, a Yorkshire man, was from Hull on Humber or so he told everybody and was a bit deaf.  Nevertheless he would have picked up the instruction had it been – ‘Let go Starboard anchor”.  He stood looking towards the bridge with his hand cupped to his good ear and shouted ‘Eh?’ 

The junior apprentice was trying hard not to laugh and wanted to ask what he should record.  He decided that in the circumstances he had better keep quiet and instead, to write everything down which, after the event, proved to be a very useful record.

Seeing the gap between the bows and the concrete quay swiftly diminishing, the Captain raised the electric bridge megaphone to his lips and cried, ‘Let go the anchor.’

The crowd of onlookers waiting on the shore could hardly believe their eyes at the sight of the rapidly approaching vessel.  It was if they expected some sort of intervention, divine or otherwise.  Almost as one they started to run to escape from the imminent collision.

The pilots frantic whistling was lost in the noise that followed.  Three things occurred almost simultaneously.  The solid wrought iron bows ploughed into the Quay.  The Chinese carpenter released the brake on the port anchor, which fell onto the dock and became entangled with the string of railway coaches.  The engineers finally engaged the engines astern causing the funnel to belch clouds of, soot laden, black smoke. 

There was plenty of slack on the anchor chain allowing the ship to steadily move astern, dragging the railway coaches with it which became snarled up with a crane whose driver just had time to jump clear before the crane was dragged unceremoniously into the water, together with the several cars that had been parked beneath it.

The pilot was beside himself and had removed his Stetson and was holding his arms out in a silent plea to the Captain as though to say, ‘What have I done wrong?’

Meanwhile, the current had caught hold of the ship and slewed her round parallel to the quay.  The tugs were unable to push her alongside because the wrong anchor being dropped too late and the pile of debris that was dragged into the water prevented any progress.

The harbour authorities, the Longshoreman’s Union, the shipping company’s agents and the Insurers later took independent statements. 

 The pilot blamed the Captain who blamed the engineers for not going astern.  The Chief engineer, an irascible Scot, in turn blamed the pilot for using up all of the compressed air.

  ‘We had to wait for the tank to recharge,’ he said, ‘before we could engage the engines astern.’ 

 He correctly asserted that the telegraph was still calling for reverse movement when the engines finally responded.

After several meetings between the various parties at the Insurers palatial offices in downtown Houston, a conclusion was finally arrived at and the Chairman scribbled his signature beneath the four words at the end of the lengthy report.

’ An act of God.’

 After the repairs had been carried out, the ship loaded her cargo without further incident and left Houston heading south towards the Panama Canal, bound for Australia.  Prior to her passage through the Canal she received a message from Head Office to call at the nearby Port of Brownsville to take aboard a number of wooden cases containing scientific instruments.

Brownsville is largest southern City in the United States of America and lies on the Rio Grande where the great river enters the sea.  It is also close to the bridge forming a border crossing between Mexico and the United States.

The port is just a few miles from the center and was where they were due to load the last minute cargo.

They arrived around breakfast time on the Saturday before Easter.  The customs and health authorities cleared the ship but they had to await loading until the following Monday morning.

The junior apprentice had requested a day’s leave as he wanted to go into town to buy a birthday present and ‘take in a movie’, as the Americans would say.

When he had asked the Chief Officer’s permission to go ashore it was suggested that instead of taking the bus that perhaps the ships agent would give him a lift by car when he shortly returned to town.

The apprentice had freshly showered in the Officer’s shower and was waiting by the gangway when the agent who had agreed to transport him, had finished his business and was ready to depart.

As they drove towards the town the agent engaged the young sailor in conversation.

“Where are you off to lad?” he asked.

“Just to get some shopping Sir.”  Came the reply.

The agent raised his eyebrows – he couldn’t remember the last time he had been called ‘Sir’, if ever.

But then, he’d never met a rather unworldly English lad before.

“Do you like a bit of fun?” the agent asked, “What’s your name?”

“John.  Yes Sir, I do.”

“Well,” the agent said, “I’ve just got to call on my friend and being Saturday I’ve got the afternoon free so we can have some fun!”

They drove to what looked like a business park and pulled into an almost empty car park.

“Come on in John and meet my friend Ralph.”

They entered a large warehouse full of furniture of all kinds but nobody seemed to be about.  A lone figure appeared from the rear of the store where he had been locking up.  It was Ralph. 

The two men greeted one and other, hugging like long lost friends.  The agent disengaged and introduced John to the storekeeper.

“John’s off of a ship.  We’re going to have a bit of fun.  Shall we go to your place?  He can meet the dogs.”

John got into the back of the large American car and was asked by Ralph, “Do you like dogs?”

John replied, “Yes.  We used to have a dog but we’ve got a cat now at home.”

“And where’s that?” asked Ralph.

“England”, came the reply.

“Oh, that’s why you talk so funny!” commented Ralph.

John kept quiet but fleetingly thought that Ralph also spoke a bit weird with his high-pitched voice.

Ralph’s ‘place’ was a large remote single story house surrounded by a wire net fence about five feet high.  The garden was not particularly interesting being mostly covered over but was paved at one end containing a built in barbeque.

 “What’s that?” asked John pointing to the barbeque, a feature that had yet to be exported to Europe.

The dogs went mad at their arrival but soon became quiet when they saw who it was.  The pair of Rottweiler’s slavered all over the agent and their master but hardly acknowledged John’s presence.

Ralph said, “You’ll be perfectly safe with us here, they only become upset when people try to enter and funnily enough, leave.” 

Ralph disappeared through a door and the dogs followed him, presumably to be fed.

The agent said, “ would you like a drink?” and without waiting for a reply he poured half a glass of Vodka in each of three glasses adding ice that chinked and crackled as it met the spirit.

  He passed a glass to John and said,

“It’s a pity John, you haven’t a friend who likes a good time, – we could’ve made up a foursome.”

Ralph returned without the dogs and announced.

“Let the party begin!”  He downed a large swallow of Vodka and grimacing said,

“That’s better, I’ll put on some music.”

Elvis Presley’s dulcet tones filled the room as ‘Love me tender’ began to play from speakers concealed in each corner of the room.

After they had listened to the singing for a while, he turned to John and asked,

“Have you got a stiffy?”

“Yes thank you, I’ve got a large Vodka,” answered John politely, thinking he was being asked if he had a ‘stiff’ drink.

Young inexperienced and naïve he might have been, but alarm bells suddenly started to ring in John’s head.

The choice of music brought it home to him, and the term ‘Stiffy’ that he felt may have another meaning.  Coupled with Ralph’s vocal intonations, he started to get quite worried.

His immediate problem was how to get away especially now he was aware of the guard dogs.

In addition, he felt he couldn’t challenge his new acquaintances for fear he may have misread things. 

His brain was working at full speed when a way out occurred to him.

“I’m supposed to meet one of the other apprentices at five to go to the Pictures,” he paused.  “We could all go together!”

“Sounds good to me,” the agent said, “Don’t you just love that accent Ralph?”  He started to go through the motions of Jiving.

“By Pictures he means movies,” said the gyrating agent.

Ralph replied,

“‘There’s a lousy film on at the moment, wouldn’t your friend like some fun instead?”

John said that the other apprentice loved a bit of fun and that they would certainly take on board Ralph’s views regarding the film.

They finished their drinks simultaneously with the end of the record and Ralph cuddled his dogs as though he was going to be away for weeks.

This time Ralph sat in the back of the car where there was space for the other apprentice.

It was ten past five as they arrived at the Cinema that was situated in a busy thoroughfare in the center of the town.

“I’ll see if he’s there,” said John.  “He may have got impatient and gone in already as it may have started.”

With that he casually climbed out of the car and entered the Cinema.

The foyer was empty: he knew it would be, as his supposed meeting was imaginary.  Nevertheless he continued with the charade.

The girl in the sales kiosk could hardly understand the smart young chap who was saying something about meeting someone.

When he asked if it was all right if he took a look inside, she nodded her head and wondered what the lucky girl looked like.

He quickly pushed through the double doors and for a moment couldn’t see a thing until his eyes became adjusted to the darkness.

A dim light marking the ‘fire exit’ stood out at the bottom of each row.

Careful not to disturb anyone, he made swiftly for the exit and was soon out in the clean fresh air.  Without glancing back he ran two blocks before entering a drug store and mingling with the customers.

When he judged that half an hour had passed he ordered a banana split with a coke and asked the waiter to call a cab, which arrived just as he finished his food and drink.

The relief he felt to be on the way back to his ship and safety, turned to mirth when the talkative driver told him the name of the movie showing at the only Cinema in town.  It was the latest release entitled, 

‘Close Encounter.’

                                     —       —       —

“Hello honey I’m home.” the agent called as he entered the house from the garage.

His wife came through from the kitchen where she had been preparing a pot roast. 

“You’re late, have you had a busy day dear?”

He took the can of Miller’s she had given him, popped the ring pull, and swallowed the ice-cold beer, before answering.

“Not really, I finished at the docks early and knowing you’d be at the hairdressers, I went round to see Ralph.”

She added some bay leaves to the dish and slid it into the oven and said,

“ How is he getting on after the operation?  If it’s not one thing it’s another.  Bad enough loosing his wife and only son in that boating accident.  Probably the stress manifested itself and that’s how he developed the growth in his throat.”

He sat down at the kitchen table and rested his feet on a stool.

“Some people are very strange.” He said.

 “ I picked up a lad from the ship.  I reckoned I would show him a good time.  Thought Ralph might like a change.  Hardly sees anyone and just lives for those dogs since the accident.  Took the lad with me and it seemed to cheer Ralph up.  He even put some music on.  First time since, you know…”

He lit two cigarettes and passed one to his wife.  “Third today, how about you?”  He exhaled deeply.  Without waiting for a reply, he continued,

“ Ralph joined the mood and I think the lad reminded him a bit of Jimmy as he even looked forward to some fun for once.  Thought we’d take the boy to the funfair or maybe the recreation park but all that the English lad wanted to do, would you believe, was to go to the movies.

Anyway, he disappeared inside.  We waited for over a quarter of an hour and then got moved on by a traffic cop.  We didn’t see him again.”

“That’s a shame dear, particularly for Ralph, after all he’s been through.”  She said, stubbing her cigarette out.

“Mrs. Wilkinson told me that when she was walking her poodle in the park she saw Ralph with his two dogs.  He was chatting to that fancy stuck up widow on the corner.  “ They seemed to be getting on very well, if you know what I mean,’’ she said. 

‘Well, would you credit it.  I suppose it takes all types,” her husband responded.

Back on board the ship the apprentice pondered his recent experiences.  Starting with the pilot and then the agent and his friend, he thought that the people he had met in America were a very queer bunch indeed.  Perhaps it was because they were too casual and over friendly and in some ways, unworldly.

 He decided that he would wait until Adelaide where his brother lived before going ashore again.  After all the Australians were more like the English or so he had heard and especially as he was now broke and had to save up some more money. 

A TIELBANK (LIBERTY SHIP) TALE………. THE TITLE IS ” FOUR MEN IN A BOAT” written as a novel, by “Shipmate” Chapter 1

1 CHAPTER ONE  (All at sea).                                         

It was with excited anticipation that the apprentice joined his first ship.

He said goodbye to his father at the dock gates not wanting his new colleagues to think him in need of support. 

 Unknown to him, it would be last time he ever saw his father.

Everything was new to him including the uniform he was wearing and the contents of his second hand kit bag.  Finances didn’t permit so they had arrived at Rotherhithe Docks in London on the top deck of a number 141 bus.

 He approached the Dock gates, stopping occasionally to put down his burden for a brief respite and while resting, was able to look around the busy docks where ships of all kinds were loading and unloading their different cargoes.  He was completely taken in by all the activity and wondered what his first ship would be like.  The gateman had given him directions and although he was not unfriendly, he came across as somewhat remote and pre-occupied.

Although the apprentice had been to a Nautical School since the age of eleven, he had little idea of what to expect in spite of passing GCE exams in navigation and seamanship as well as several other topics.  His school had taught all the usual subjects but seemed lax in equipping leavers with the knowledge of practical matters relating to the theories that they had learnt.  In their defence, it’s fair to say that different shipping companies, who employed the school leavers, had different agendas for their cadets and apprentices, which varied from cheap labour to uniformed petty officers or something in between.

Unfortunately, his excitement was soon to be tempered when he discovered that he was in the former category.  Although at sixteen, adventure of any kind is still exciting, particularly if you are unaware of any of the other options.

He thought he was sure to recognise the funnel markings of the shipping company he was about to join and armed with the directions that the gateman had given him, he continued his search for the ship. 

Murders were very rare in London in the fifties so he had been shocked to read in the evening newspaper the night before he was due to join, that there had been a murder on board the ship that was to become his home and first place of work.

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that having found his ship he climbed the gangplank, mindful of the murder and being somewhat apprehensive about what to expect.

At the top of the gangplank an Indian man met him with a casual salute and said,

‘Welcome aboard sahib.’ 

As well as murders being rare at that time, so were dark people and he had hardly seen any before and never spoken to one.

‘‘Thank you,” he replied, “I am the new apprentice.  Where do I go?”

“To see the Chief Officer, sahib.  I cannot leave my post, but if you enter the accommodation through the starboard door, his cabin is at the top of the stairs to the right.”

The watchman scribbled something in a notebook and said,

 “Leave your bags Sir, I’ll send them up.”

He followed the instructions, eventually ending up outside of a door with a sign that read – Chief Officer.

He knocked and a deep accented voice said, “Enter.” 

 He pushed open the door.

‘You must be the new apprentice,’ the Chief Officer said, rising from his chair with an out stretched arm.  ‘My name is Peterson. 

 Mr. Peterson or Sir to you.  Anyone of a higher rank than you is always addressed by the term Mister, followed by his surname or alternately as Sir, or by his rank.  Got it?’

‘Yes Sir.’

‘Good.  Come along with me and I’ll introduce you to the other apprentices.  John McDonald is the senior and you should do whatever he tells you to.’

He followed the Chief Officer out onto the boat deck and down the steps to the main deck.  They headed forward to the hatch in front of the accommodation block.

A fixed ladder led down to the tween decks and another ladder disappeared through an aperture encircled by bolts that would eventually be used to secure the steel lid.  A short while after Peterson had called down, a fair-haired youth in his late teens appeared from below.  The first thing the new apprentice noticed was the absence of uniform.  The second thing was the cheeky grin and the third thing was the grime.

Peterson made the introductions and instructed the senior apprentice to settle the newcomer in.

‘As it’s a bit late in the day,’ he said, ‘he can unpack ready to start work at seven in the morning.’

‘Aye, aye Sir.’  McDonald responded, but the Chief Officer had already headed back the way they came.

John McDonald called down to someone below that he would be gone for ten minutes.

He then offered his hand saying,

 ‘That’s ‘Scouse’ the other apprentice.  We’re cleaning and securing the deep – tanks.’

McDonald having proffered his pack to his fellow apprentice lit a cigarette and deeply inhaled. 

‘I don’t smoke.’  The newcomer responded, ‘and by the way my name is John.’

‘Touché, so is mine.  You’d better just call me Mac.  Most people do anyway.’

‘The Chief Officer said to call those above me Mister or Sir,’ John said.  Mac gave one of his winning smiles,

“We’re all apprentices so that doesn’t count and neither does it with any one else except the deck Officers and perhaps the Chief and second engineer.’

 They made their way back to the accommodation but this time they used the stairs at the rear end that led up to the port side of the boat deck.

A watertight door containing a fixed porthole provided entry into the corridor after they had stepped over a nine-inch threshold designed to keep the water out.

McDonald, as senior apprentice, had a cabin to himself overlooking the boat deck and another porthole on the outer bulkhead overlooked the sea.  Next to his cabin was the double cabin for the junior apprentices.  Although it was small it was perfectly adequate and sharing was not a problem as the new apprentice had shared his bedroom at home with two elder brothers.

The cabin had two wooden bunks, one on top of the other, two lots of drawers, a double, wardrobe, a chair and a desk that turned into a washbasin when the top was lifted.  Natural light was restricted to a single porthole that looked out onto a lifeboat hanging from davits. 

Ablutions were shared and in a separate shower room together with two W.C’s. just along the corridor. 

Pointing with his cigarette, MacDonald stood in the doorway and said,

‘Tom sleeps in the bottom bunk so yours will be on the top.  I’ll leave you to unpack and see you around five thirty.  You game to go for a beer after dinner?’

‘Urr, I don’t drink either but will be pleased to come.  What shall I wear?’

Before he left, the senior apprentice told John to stay in his uniform for dinner and change after into something casual like jeans and a sweater.

John unpacked and stowed away his gear in the spaces left by his roommate.  He climbed the short wooden ladder to test his bunk that, apart from creaking a bit, was surprisingly comfortable.  Though he didn’t know it at the time, it was to be his bed for over half a year and it would serve him while he travelled completely around the world.

Shortly after five thirty the two other lads arrived and introductions were made to the person he would be sharing his room with and working alongside for the rest of the voyage.  Luckily, immediately they met they felt comfortable with one and other even though ‘Scouse’ had a strange accent.

The other two went off to shower and John, the new apprentice, made a cursory exploration of the other public accommodation.

It didn’t take long as the only two rooms that were not private, were the dining saloon and the officers lounge where he was to spend many an evening either reading or playing cards.

He returned to his cabin to find that the other two apprentices had decided to skip dinner and head for the shore.  Naturally he was invited.

“ Love to.  Hadn’t we better let them know?”

“Not necessary.”  The senior apprentice said, “How much money have you got?”

The new apprentice quickly changed into something more suitable and the three of them headed for the shore.

Their first stop was a pub’ called ‘The Bricklayers Arms’ where they ordered two pints and a coke for John who was paying.  The Twenty Pound note his father had given to him for ‘rainy days,’ was already starting to diminish.

As they sat near the dartboard, John took a pull on his coke and asked of nobody in particular,

“Did you see anything of the Murder?”

MacDonald, who had sailed on the ship on its last trip, seemed pleased to have been asked.  He entered into an account of what had happened with a certain amount of relish.

“ The Chief Steward, called a ‘Butler,’ on our ships was approached by one of the cooks who complained that the food was inadequate.  Anyway, the Butler apparently told him if he wanted anything else he could eat his ‘p…k.’ Sometime later when the Butler was asleep, the cook castrated him and stuffed the separated parts into his mouth.  Bloke bled to death and wasn’t found until too late next morning.  The police were all over the place, when we docked.  They took the cook away.”

The new apprentice was dumbstruck and the second apprentice, who had no doubt heard the story many times before, added,

“ You see the Butler has an allowance of so much a day for each person from the shipping company.  There is a legal limit.  If the Butler can save on the allowance, he keeps the rest.”  He drank deeply from his tankard and added, “ These Indian people don’t have the same standards as us and are all religious fanatics who don’t just rear up when a problem occurs but will sneak along in the dead of the night and think nothing of stabbing the person who has upset them, even if it’s only a mild misunderstanding.”

This information was quite alarming to the sixteen year old who had been rather sheltered until then, but he was determined to learn so asked another question,

“I thought the articles we signed said something about…not frequenting alehouses or houses of ill repute…doesn’t that mean pubs?’

Mac explained that the articles were old fashioned and drafted in the eighteenth century so it didn’t really apply.  Alehouses no longer existed and neither did houses of ill repute.  He omitted to mention to the newcomer, that today’s favourite haunts of sailors of all nationalities were the modern equivalent known as BB’s.  Not bed and breakfast but bars and brothels.

Someone selected a disc on the ‘Juke Box’, a new innovation to England in the 50’s being a legacy of the Americans.  Paul Anchor’s ‘I’m just a lonely boy’, resonated around the bar causing John a moment of depression and nostalgia which fortunately, soon passed.  A pool table, another American introduction, attracted the sailors.  The two elder apprentices were first to play with John taking on the winner.  The wager was half a crown that wouldn’t have been unreasonable had John played before but as Mac said, “ you have to pay to learn.”  John hoped this wouldn’t apply to everything! 

As the night wore on, John’s ‘fail-safe’ got smaller and smaller, but needing to be included he didn’t complain.  In fact he was unaccustomed to alcohol and the half pint that followed his coke had the effect of making him quite gregarious, especially on an empty stomach.  Although it was a bit out of character, he soon found himself chatting to strangers and even young ladies, a thing he had never done before.  Of course he was eventually to realise that ‘Ladies’ wasn’t quite the appropriate word for the young women, especially when they discovered the extent of his now depleted funds.

When they returned to the ship a little after midnight all that remained of his fathers’ last gift was a five-pound note and a few coins.

At some time during the night they had sailed.  John awoke with the first hangover in his life and in sailor’s parlance had a ‘Technicolour yawn.’

His cabin mate was nowhere to be seen though his wristwatch indicated that it was only six thirty a.m.  He knew from the evening before that they were bound for Hull to unload the last of the cargo and take on some stores and were due to remain for about a day.

The door opened and his colleague returned, draped only in a wet towel, obviously having just taken a shower.

‘Good morning mate, how are you feeling?” enquired his roommate.

‘Touch fragile,” replied John.

“You’ll feel better when you’ve showered.  You’d better hurry up though; we turn to at seven sharp.  By the way, we seldom wear uniform.  Just working gear – jeans and a jumper, will be good.”

Visions of wandering around the ship’s bridge in full uniform, faded as reality took their place.

A routine had begun that would hardly vary for the months to come, apart from when they were in port.

It consisted of starting deck work at seven.  Breakfast at eight thirty until nine and working throughout the day until six in the evening.  Apart from lunch between one and two, there were only two other breaks.  These were for a quarter of an hour each and called ‘Smokoe”, when they would take tea and tabnabs, a euphemism for toast or some kind of rock cake.

The new apprentice was to learn many new words apart from bad language and although some were nautical expressions, most of it had a connection to the lascar crew.

He soon learnt that a bosun was called a ‘serang, a storekeeper ‘cassab’, an ordinary seaman a ‘collassie’ and so on.  Then there was jargon where an electrician was ‘Sparks’ and a carpenter was a ‘Chippy’.

Hull turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax being a provincial City with much of the center being constructed pre World War Two.  They were only in port for one day to discharge the balance of their timber cargo and to complete loading the hardware stores.

The junior apprentice was allocated the task of checking the stores on board against the requested list and was particularly looking out for compliance of both quality and quantity.  It was not an onerous task, except that many of the items were new to him, such as tallow and tepol, so being a diligent person he had to take great care in cross referencing with the ships original order.

He wondered what ten bags of cement was for and found that several had been torn, spilling some of the contents.  He knew not to directly question the crewmen who were engaged in the loading so he decided to take it up with the Indian bosun who could speak reasonable English.

The next minute he was spun round with a long slim knife at his throat and the ‘Serang’ was gesturing excitedly causing a spray of spittle to fill the air.

The Chinese carpenter brought the conflict to an end  by disarming t Serang and escorting the two protagonists to the Chief Officer’s cabin.

The Chief Officer remained seated but swiveled his chair so it was facing the three men standing side by side in front of him.

Addressing the Serang he said,

“ What have you got to say?”

The Serang was hardly in control and blurted out in a mixture of Hindu and English that he had been woefully insulted.  The new apprentice had called him a ‘B…. rd’. 

“That’s totally untrue Sir,” the apprentice exclaimed.  “All I said was …. Serang who busted the cement bags?” 

 The Chinaman stifled a grin as the Chief Officer directed him and the apprentice to wait outside in the passageway.

A little later the Serang sheepishly appeared and avoiding the apprentice said to the Chinaman, “Both go in.”

The Chief Officer patiently explained what had apparently occurred.  He said it would take some time to adjust to cultural differences but in the meantime asked the ‘Chinese Chippy’ to take the ship’s youngest recruit under his wing.

“What will we do about the cement Sir?” asked the petulant apprentice.

“Tell him Chippy,” said the Officer.

“Sign for it damaged and keep the peace,” responded the carpenter.

The first lesson in democracy had been learned.

The carpenter took the apprentice to his workshop in the tween decks below the galley.  It looked a comfortable workplace and at one end was a desk with two chairs arranged around it.  Photographs of Chinese people were secured to the bulkhead.

The workshop was kept clean and tidy and contained several racks of different sizes and grades of wood.  A large pile of marine plywood was stacked in one corner and bags containing sawdust had been made ready for any oil spillages.  One bulkhead had been completely taken up with pigeonholes containing a variety of nails, screws and nuts and bolts of various lengths and gauges.

He invited the apprentice to sit down and made a pot of tea using his own electric kettle.  A tray containing two mugs, spoons and a jar of sugar, sat on a shelf above a small recessed refrigerator containing the milk.  They both sat drinking tea while the carpenter lit a cigarette and appraised the young apprentice with the way of life aboard ships such as the one they were on.  The Carpenter opened his desk drawer and took out a package, which he gave to his new charge.

‘You’ll find this very handy to keep with you for all kinds of things like undoing shackles, and splicing etcetera.”

It was a leather sheath containing a sailor’s sharp spike and a double-edged knife.

The Chinese answer to democracy was perhaps not so subtle. 

TO BE CONTINUED……..

Hong Kong ” Dustbins” by Geoff Walker – ex Bank Line and long time Master in the Far East…..

Hong Kong Dustbins of the South China Sea

By the mid 1950’s the world’s shipping fleets were recovering after the high losses during WW 2. Europe was building new and more modern tonnage at quite a rapid pace, and the Europe to Asia shipping trade was also entering a period of renewed expansion. This gave opportunities to Asian corporations that were inclined towards ship owning, to enter the market and develop their business. This was made easier for them because of the abundance of older tonnage that was becoming available on the market at cheap prices. In most cases the ships were old and well worn, but still with a few years life remaining.

As a consequence, the 1950-1960s saw a large number of these older vessels finding their way into the hands of Far Eastern owners. Hong Kong was an attractive location for many of these fledgling ship owners to establish their business Head Quarters and develop their fleets. Hong Kong offered stability of government, a competitive commercial environment, and a vibrant shipping register that provided an air of respectability due to the fact that it was closely fashioned on that of the United Kingdom. There were those however, who registered their ships in Panama and operated their ships from Hong Kong, under the notion that Panama may be a more flexible register for the ageing ships, and there was less transparency for companies when registered in Panama. Some of the more dodgy operators looking upon this as a convenient means of avoiding liability in the eventuality of financial delinquency or mishap linked to their vessels. All said and done, and in reality, a Panamanian Company was nothing more than a brass plate on the door of an attorney’s office in Panama.

Hence, there was a “Boom” in the number of shipping enterprises and vessels being registered in Hong Kong during this period. Many of the shipping companies traded their vessels within Asia, particularly those countries that were within relatively close proximity to the South China Sea, such as Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan (aka Formosa), Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaya as it was then known. These old vessels were very dominant in the waters around these areas. The term “Hong Kong Dustbin” evolved due to many of the early owners just painting their vessel’s funnels all black – somewhat resembling and upturned dust bin. Henceforth, the name stuck. It would also be true to say that there was a fair share of shady ship operators around in those early days of development that may not have been so enthusiastic in openly advertising their company insignia or identity, for reasons best known to themselves. 

The only real way of identifying these “Hong Kong Dustbins” was by the Union Flag prominently painted on each side of the vessels hull, with the ship’s name in Chinese Characters, likewise displayed. It would be true to say that this was primarily to facilitate ease of recognition as there were a number of open conflict zones about the China Seas around that era, such as China and Formosa, North Korea and Vietnam. Restrictions of trade applied between some countries, a good example of which was between Formosa (Taiwan) and China with most commodities being transshipped via Hong Kong on what were loosely defined, but not strictly correct, neutral tonnage. In the mid- to late 1950s the Formosa Straits was notorious as a conflict zone between China and Formosa (now known as Taiwan). Similarly, North Vietnam became a “War Zone” in the mid 1960s, when numerous vessels were mined or bombed.

It was only around the mid-1960’s that many of the allegedly dodgy shipping companies, threw off their shady veils, and started to take a pride in vessel ownership and display company Motifs and Logos on vessel funnels. This period was also a golden age for numerous ship management concerns that managed the various vessels on behalf of beneficial owners, another way of masking true ownership in many cases.

Sometimes, these old ladies would anchor for weeks either at Yau Ma Tei or Western Anchorages, to await the opportunity of suitable cargoes. In the event of an approaching Typhoon they often shifted to a more sheltered area of Hong Kong known as “Tolo Harbor”, which was often the scene of numerous groundings following a Typhoon.

During the first half of 1960s there were lucrative cargoes available for ships willing to trade to North Vietnam, namely; Haiphong and Port Campha, situated at the head of the Gulf of Tonkin. Port Campha was a port known for its coal exports. This was a temptation for some owners of “old ladies” of the sea. By paying ship’s crews so called “Danger Money” they were attracted to this trading area which resulted in a significant number of vessels becoming casualties, due to bombing or mining.

One of the dangers associated with remaining in Hong Kong Harbor during a typhoon was, the serious consequences of dragging anchors in Typhoon conditions. This seriously increased the danger of collisions between vessels and also the high risk of dragging anchors across the telephone cable reserves and snagging the various marine cables that linked Hong Kong with Kowloon, as well as internationally. The Hong Kong Marine Department was therefore, very actively engaged in implementing the “Typhoon Regulations” applicable to ships and raised the alert at an early stage once a pending Typhoon became imminent.

Of course, Hong Kong had its share of long established and more traditional ship owners. This included, amongst others, China Navigation Company, Indo-China SS Company (Jardines), John Manners Group and its various shipping subsidiaries, Williamsons and their Douglas SS Company, Harley Mullion and Company, 

Moller Shipping, Wallem and Company, to name but several. These entities were the backbone of Hong Kong shipping during the early and mid 1960s, prior to the advent of many newcomers which are household names in Hong Kong shipping circles nowadays.

Hong Kong was also an attractive management base for Euro-continental ship owners who had traditionally operated regionally around the Far East, such as Thoresen, Wrangell, and Bruusgaard of Norway, Jebsen of Denmark

Gallary of typical “Hong Kong Dustbins” during the 1950-60s

Thank You Geoff – Author of ” A Tramp for all the Oceans”


A Bank Line account from….

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Middle-aged, Free and Single

MIDDLE-AGED MEMORIES

Supernumerary in the South Pacific – Fiji

Posted by 58ANDCOUNTING on SEPTEMBER 15, 2019

ON A BIT OF A LIGHTER NOTE THAN MY LAST COUPLE OF POSTS…

THIS IS THE THIRD IN WHAT I’M GRANDLY CALLING AN OCCASIONAL SERIES, ABOUT MY LIFE AS A WIFE IN THE MERCHANT NAVY, WITH MY FIRST HUSBAND. IT WAS ALL A LONG TIME AGO – THE EARLY 80S. LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY. I FEEL LIKE ALL IT HAPPENED TO SOMEONE ELSE, SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW A LONG TIME AGO.

I WAS OFFICIALLY LISTED ON THE PAPERWORK AS A ‘SUPERNUMERARY’ – SOMEONE SURPLUS TO REQUIREMENTS, NOT NEEDED. THANKS GUYS. 

WE’D SAILED FROM Hull, stopped off at the European ports and headed for Panama, then we spent time in Tahiti

We left Tahiti at six in the morning, having seen diddly squat of the island – but just sailing around it was amazing. Sunrise in the South Pacific. 

I liked to be on deck when we sailed. There would be a change in the engine noise, then almost imperceptibly the ship would start to move. There was something about leaving the land behind and watching it disappear over the horizon – a sense of perspective, a sense of just how small we are. 

Next stop was Fiji, and the port of Suva. We arrived during daylight, there was money on board. We could go up the road!! Yay!! 

A quick word about money – the guys had their salaries paid in two amounts. An amount went into their bank accounts in the normal way, and another amount was paid onto the ship to cover day-to-day expenses. But every country has its own currency, so the Shipping Agent in each port would bring cash on board which could then be taken as required, like a mini bank.

We had money, and we had daylight, and I was determined to make the most of it.

After discharging and loading cargo in Suva, the ship was going to sail around the island to the second port of Lautoka. We had passengers on board, and they’d found out that they could get a bus across the island (a 6 hour journey), arriving in Lautoka at the same time as the ship. It sounded like a great idea – and I’d arranged to go with them. 

In the end, they decided not to do it, which left me with a dilemma. Should I just go back to the ship with them, like a good girl – or should I take the bus anyway? I was aware, even at the time, that this was truly, probably, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. 

I decided to do it, and I asked them to tell my husband what I was doing. 

I’d like to say it felt like an adventure – but really, to begin with, it just felt like a bus ride. It was a normal service bus, full of people who take the trip across the island all the time. A few more chickens than on a normal service bus in the UK, but other than that, nothing out of the ordinary. Well, not until we got out of the town anyway. Then the metalled road ended and we were on a dirt track, surrounded by rainforest. Small villages, trees I’d never seen before, birds I’d never seen before. And one particularly narrow bridge, where even the locals sat up and took notice.

I got chatting to a student from the States who was on a gap year and heading for the airport. He was studying botany, so I asked him what all the trees were that we could see. ‘I’m not that sort of botanist’, he said. 

We stopped at the market in Sigatoka (pronounced Singatoka), where there was the opportunity for a hole-in-the-ground break. I bought some Ugli fruit to eat (like a grapefruit, but sweeter). 

My friend, the wrong-sort-of-botanist, disembarked at Nadi (pronounced Nandi – I don’t know why they do that). Then next stop was Lautoka. It was dark by the time we arrived. Darkness happens quickly, and early, in the tropics. 

When I arrived, the ship was standing off – I could see her in the distance, lit up. It was the first time I’d seen her properly. In port, you only really see half a ship – a bit like trains if you only ever see them from the platform. 

I chatted to the dockers while I waited, and politely declined their offer of betel nut to pass the time while the ship came alongside.

It was only when I got back on board that I discovered that the message that I would meet the ship in Lautoka hadn’t got through to my husband, or anyone else. This was 1980 – no mobile phones. The ship had had to sail without me… 

There was a fair amount of explaining to do.

Regardless of the fact that I’d effectively jumped ship, should I have gone on my own? Had I taken a huge risk? I don’t know. It certainly never felt like a risk. 

But I do know that if I hadn’t done it, if I’d just meekly gone back to the ship, I would have regretted it then and I would still be regretting it now. 

You only regret the things you don’t do.

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Supernumerary in the South Pacific – TahitiIn “Middle-aged memories”

A Supernumerary at SeaIn “Middle-aged memories”

Physically fit at 58In “Middle-aged me”Merchant NavySouth PacificTahitiFijiSuvaLautokaSigatokaNadi

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4 CommentsADD YOURS

  1. JOAN MUDD says:September 15, 2019 at 12:08 pm Fabulous!LikeReply
    1. 58ANDCOUNTING says:September 15, 2019 at 5:31 pm Thanks hun!!LikeReply
  2. OLDHOWIE says:September 15, 2019 at 6:37 pm Lovely story did… but… you missed the ship so what happened next? On the edge of my seat here lolLikeReply
    1. 58ANDCOUNTING says:September 15, 2019 at 6:43 pm Haha – I crossed the island from Suva to Lautoka, and the shipped sailed round the island from Suva to Lautoka, and came alongside – and I got back on board. Then there was hell to pay. Hey ho.LikeReply

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