A Liberty Ship Apprentice
In 1954, the Liberty ship Maplebank set off around the world in an unforgettable trip of somewhat drunken revelry, punctuated by routine calm at sea between ports. In port where drink was available, there were crises after crises as the crew went missing or appeared on deck drunk and unable to work.
The Maplebank was one of a dozen so called Sam Boats or Liberty ships bought into Andrew Weir’s Bank Line after WW2. Previously named Samwash, she was in the fleet for 10 years to 1957 before being sold on to Liberian registry and named ” African Lord” where she had another 12 years before going to the breakers. She had also been at the Sicily landings in WW2.
The author joined her as a 19 year old senior apprentice, in 1954, one of four, later to be three, as one, a Geordie Apprentice, deserted in New Zealand.
The previous trip had also been an eventful one, with the Master sadly disappearing at sea. Also, a fire whilst in the Mississippi River delta was extinguished after she had been beached to enable firefighters to put out the the blaze.
On board, it was quickly realised that standards on the American built war time ships was higher than we were used to. There were no frills, but there was a solid feel to everything, and the most noticeable difference to our usual ships, was in the accommodation. Bunks were wider and better furnished, and the heating was heavy duty. On the bridge, it was functional and a bit spartan, but again, all fittings seemed clunkier. The Maplebank still had the gun Bays on the bridge front to remind of the real purpose of their existence. Down below, a three cylinder steam engine seemed simple and robust, as indeed, they were. It is probably true to say that those who sailed on Liberty’s enjoyed the experience, and the memory of these ships is regarded fondly by many.
It was to be an interesting round the world voyage that would end in Bremen with only one of the original deck crew remaining. Signing off with a bad discharge, a DR (decline to report) he was the Bosun, but had started the trip as an EDH (efficient deck hand) and found rapid promotion as his shipmates deserted around the Australian and New Zealand ports that we visited. It was a bit rough that he was made a scapegoat for the misdeeds of his colleagues, but the Master had been frustrated for 15 months by the antics of them all, and probably felt justified. To my mind it was ironic, and a bit unfair, as he was the only member of the deck crew that had stayed loyal.
We joined on a cold snowy January day in Bromboro dock , where the Maplebank was discharging Copra and heated coconut oil into road tankers, and the pungent and distinctive smell permeated everything. Steam winches were clattering away. To the author it was like home, with a welcoming and familiar smell, but once on board it was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary Bank Boat. In the apprentices cabin a weighted rubber cosh dangled on the radiator, and the companionway up to the officer’s accommodation had a hinged thick steel door which set us all wondering. However, we soon settled in, and started to meet our shipmates. It was mid-winter in Birkenhead and the heating was off due to repairs below, so we trooped ashore to eat in the Lever Bros canteen.
Unlike the Asian crews on most of company’s ships, the Liberty’s had so called ‘white’ crews from the Seaman’s pool, and they were Liverpudlians on this voyage with a rich sense of humour. Many were great seamen. We were to discover that their brand of humour sustained them through all situations, good or bad. They were irreverent fun to work with, tipsy or not, although the fun wore a but thin when we apprentices had to cover for them, either steering, or covering hatches and working long hours.
We loaded in the Gulf Ports of Texas and Louisiana after a ballast voyage from Liverpool. Bulk rock sulphur went into the lower holds, and after levelling, heavy plant like tractors and harvesters were lashed down on top. General cargo of all sorts, barrels, cartons, and bundles filled the tweendecks. It was long before containerisation hid nearly all cargo inside ubiquitous steel boxes. On deck we carried a refinery pressure tank loaded from a floating barge and associated heavy lift crane. The big thick steel tube took up all of the starboard side of the afterdeck and the deck crew quickly decorated it with painted slogans, Kon Tiki, being the most prominent. No thought was given to any views the consignees might have! Amazingly, there was yet no major signs of the boozy mayhem ahead in New Zealand.
We sailed for the Panama Canal, and arriving at Cristobal in the evening, anchored to complete formalities before an early transit the next day. It was magical with coloured lights twinkling ashore, and the cooler air after a tropical day. The crew then disappeared unnoticed after hitching a ride on one of the launches alongside. In the morning, with no sign of the crew, a decision had to be made how to proceed and it was decided that with 4 apprentices, a transit could be made without the majority of the deck and engine room staff. The author spent a few hours at the wheel, spelled by one of the other apprentices, and the pilot, strolling up and down the bridge wing kept up a running commentary with the police ashore as they attempted to find and round up the missing crew members. One of the engineers has also had a night in Cristobal and unfortunately had been stabbed in a fracas, ending up in hospital.
The Liberty ships had an upper wheelhouse, a glorified box on stilts which contained a steering console, with a compass, telegraph, whistle lanyard, and a clock. As it was a small area, it was possible for a nimble helmsman to control all three devices, and the author took a great delight in steering, ringing the telegraph, and blowing the whistle when required by the Canal pilot. It was shades of Para Handy on his Clyde Puffer but on a larger scale! The crackly walky talky radio kept us informed as we transited through the Lakes whenever another member of the crew had been located. After we exited we anchored in Balboa Bay, awaiting developments. Finally, the rounded up members were sent out on a police launch. Still feisty, they were handcuffed and released one by one to climb the Pilot ladder on to the deck, where they flung wedges and anything lying around back down on the police boat, which sped away. The police had had enough. Fined by the Master the next day, they claimed triumphantly to us apprentices to have nominated the ” Destitute Master Mariners Fund” as their choice for the deducted wages.
Our deck crew were good seamen, often from families of seafarers, and skills had been learnt which included the sewing of working suits from duck canvas, complete with cap. The young deck boys had trouble reading however, so the apprentices sometimes read out their letters when asked to do so. Crossing the line with this Liverpool crew was quite an elaborate affair, a pool being assembled on one of the hatches, and the court of King Neptune suitably dressed in crown and with a gold trident, presiding over the prisoners.
In New Zealand we discharged around the coast, starting in Auckland and Wellington, and then moving on to Lyttleton and Dunedin in the South Island. The last port was New Plymouth, back on the North Island, where the sulphur was grabbed out into lorries. This was also the port where one of the apprentices decided to leave the ship, and he did so successfully, leaving behind all his possessions. There was a big fuss, being quite unusual to lose an apprentice, and it was made worse because a pact of silence had been agreed among the remaining apprentices in exchange for a few items. This had given him a valuable head start. (Some years later there was a report that his parents had visited New Zealand to get him home again.)
We spent time discharging in the pretty port of Lyttleton in the South Island. Things got bad with the deck crew drinking heavily and being unable to turn to for work. They were having fun ashore, and one morning a battered piano appeared on board, commandeered from a shoreside pub, and slung aboard late at night. It had been wheeled down onto the quay in a prank. At sailing time no one other than the officers and apprentices were available to cover hatches, lower the derricks, and cast off. This was duly done, aided by one or two sober crew members, but once outside of port, a rota had to be drawn up for steering and lookout duties until sufficient members of the crew were available for work. The first man collapsed in a heap beneath the wheel after relieving the exhausted apprentice. Desertions had also started, and in these cases, the agent and the police made up the complement by providing seamen who had been rounded up and caught usually from previous ships. It was a sort of merry go round. The men took jobs, readily available in those 50’s days, of taxi driving, bar work, or labouring in the building trade. Both Australia and New Zealand were much more accommodating than today in how they viewed and treated unexpected arrivals.
Eagerly awaiting news of our next destination, we were told that the Maplebank had been nominated for the ‘phosphate run’. This was grim news, as it was well known that ships loading phosphate in Ocean Island and neighbouring Nauru usually stayed on this run for several voyages. The Bank Line carried phosphate rock for the British Phosphate Commission to supplement the regular carriers, and it went to Australian and New Zealand discharge ports where it was a valuable fertiliser, after treatment. So we commenced running up and down from the islands which are near the Equator, and made several voyages through the Tasman sea in all weathers. It could be very rough. In Ocean Island loading was from barges but Nauru sported a big custom built loading arm which poured the phosphate into the holds, covering everything in dust in the process.
Christmas 1954 came and went, and it was marked at sea in the usual way, but minus any great quantities of drink. We knew where that might lead! In the dining saloon, the stewards went to great lengths to create a festive air. They blew up a box of condoms in lieu of balloons, and we all ate surrounded by a circle of them, suitably painted, but still obviously condoms.
Life on board was routine, and we apprentices shared watches on the bridge, steering and keeping lookout. There was no automatic pilot to take over the boredom of steering which only became interesting for us lads in heavy weather. In the Tasman sea, fully loaded with phosphate we experienced very heavy weather. The Captain had his wife on board, and it so happened that she was well up in her husband’s duties, much to our amusement. The Captain’s first name was Billy, which also happened to be the name of the author’s pet cat, living on the bridge deck. When we heard the Captain’s wife calling Billy, Billy, come here, it was a bit uncertain which Billy she meant. Standing more or less silently behind the wheel, hour upon hour, many incidents amused. On one occasion in heavy weather, the wife summonsed the Captain and said, “. It’s quite bad, Billy, I think we ought to heave to!” Much hilarity by those within earshot.
The stays in Australia were the highlight on this otherwise monotonous service, and our Liverpool lads made up for lost drinking time – as you do. On our final run, they exceeded themselves and stowed away lady friends, ( and a male friend), for what was expected to be a routine round trip. They stayed more or less hidden in the accommodation, but It was an open secret and seemed to work with our guests staying discreetly in the crews quarters. The Liberty ship design had all the accommodation in a central block with the galley handy for all. It was useful for the apprentices and others on night watches to snack when the need arose. Disaster struck however, when we were redirected to New Zealand on one particular voyage, and the Customs rummagers there discovered the extra hands. More fines. Regular fining was a double edged sword for the company, as the crew had little incentive to stay onboard if their cash account was nearly always empty.
Ocean Island had a resident population and a club for the benefit of the British Phosphate company staff, and they challenged visiting ships to both cricket and football. We arranged teams, and for cricket a mixture of odd looking whites were worn to conform to as near as possible to traditional cricket garb. One oddity at Ocean Island was the outfield which consisted of very deep ravines where Phosphate had been mined earlier. Any ball crossing the boundary was likely to be permanently lost.
Eventually, we were relieved of our phosphate duties, and proceeded to the Spencer Gulf in South Australia to load bulk grain for India. In Port Lincoln more crew deserted. In these ports like Wallaroo, Port Pirie, and Port Lincoln, it was the often the author’s job to go around the nearest pubs to persuade the crew to return to the ship. It was not unusual to see them working, serving drinks from behind the bar. The success rate was close to zero, and a few choice but humorous words were often added. The Bosun, a good natured man and a true seaman, also decided to try his luck ashore in Australia during this visit, and left us for good.
Meanwhile, some of the apprentices and the Maltese carpenter together built a sailing dinghy, and sewed a set of sails. It was a bit basic but gave hours of fun, being slung over by derrick on the after deck, and sailed in the sheltered waters of the Gulf. Eventually, it was lost on a trip that proved to be a tad too adventurous.
The run up to India was uneventful, and we made the usual tortuous passage up the Hooghly river to Calcutta. After discharge, we went onto the buoys in Calcutta, and moored alongside another company’s vessel with an Indian crew. Looking down on them, some of the Liverpool wags were heard to say, “. Look at them savages, not like us white savages! “
Having Discharged in Calcutta, we then loaded for Buenos Aires in Argentina, and everyone decided we had hit the jackpot at last! Jubilation all round, with the old hands describing the delights of this notorious haven for seamen, still under Juan Peron when we visited. He was to be deposed later in the year in a coup d’etat.
Loading bales of gunnies in Calcutta and in Chittagong took some time but eventually we set off for the Cape of Good Hope and onwards to South America without any major incidents.
Down in the BA docks, there was a notorious area at the time, known as the ‘Arches’ where cafes and bars, dance halls and clubs were flourishing, and it was a magnet for visiting seamen. On our visit, the atmosphere on shore visits was charged up, especially for us young apprentices, ignorant but game as we were. Expectations were high as we set out to taste all the delights on offer, and there was a distinctive musical background with orchestras belting out tangos and the loud piano bars wherever we went. There was a fascination which has lasted to this day. The Argentinians only got going late on into the night, and it was quite usual to see families with young children dining in the city around midnight or later. As a result of the late hours, some of us took a rest in the evening, and went ashore better prepared for an all night foray.
There were many highlights of this visit, or possibly low points, depending on your viewpoint. On one occasion in an upstairs dance hall, there was the usual music, drinking, and dancing, and some of our crew were seen hanging on to girls on the dance floor and generally having a good time. Some of them however, the worse for wear, were also spotted urinating in the corner of the room creating damp patches in the ceiling below!
Our discharge alongside took two riotous weeks, and near the last night, shots were heard from the shore in the early hours. It turned out that some of the returning crew had been fired on by the port police, after they had kicked over bins, and generally created mayhem as they staggered back on board. There was a breathless discussion in the mess room afterwards as they re-lived what had happened. It had been a memorable port stay that had fully lived up to expectations.
Next stop was Vitoria in Brazil to load iron ore for a homeward run. This was completed without further incident, the loading going very quickly, and giving no time for high jinx ashore. Only the rhythmic music flooding the radio waves told us what we were missing.
In Bremen, we all left the ship to travel home in the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. Our crew at the end of the voyage were a mixed bag of seamen that had been recruited or obtained in various ports around the world. They were replacements for those that had signed on in Liverpool. Some were hard cases, with a story to tell, and there were more incidents on the ferry as drink and freedom took hold. The author’s last recollection of this trip, was an AB with a bird in a cage covered by a cloth. We were boarding the train in Harwich. Responding to requests to see the bird, the owner lifted the cloth only to see the parrot laying flat on it’s back in the bottom of the cage with it’s feet in the air. It was somehow symbolic of the whole unforgettable trip.
Alan A Rawlinson
Author of ” Merchant Navy Apprentice 1951-1955″