Joining the WESTBANK


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 on a number 141 bus.

 He stopped occasionally to put down his burden for a brief respite and 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, his manner came across as somewhat bored.

Although he 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 taught all 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 had different agendas for their cadets and apprentices, which varied from cheap labour to uniformed petty officers or something in between.

Unfortunately, the excitement was soon to be tempered by being in the former category although at sixteen, adventure of any kind is still exciting, particularly if you are unaware of any other options.

He knew the funnel markings of the shipping company he was about to join and armed with the directions 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 he climbed the gangplank, mindful of the murder and 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 and never spoken to one.

‘‘Thank you,’ he replied, ‘I am the new apprentice.  Where do I go?

‘To see the Chief Officer in his cabin, 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.’

‘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 his surname.  Alternately as Sir or by their 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.’

They returned to the main deck and the Chief Officer peered down the hatch immediately forward of the accommodation.  A wooden ladder disappeared below and 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 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,’ 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 steps at the rear end that led up to 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 he had finished, about five thirty the another lad arrived and introductions were made to the person he would be sharing his room with and working alongside. His cabin mate escorted the new arrival on a cursory exploration of the 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 both of 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?”

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 had.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. Cook now crook.”

He laughed at hos own joke.

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 continued, “ 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 quite mildly.”

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 Anker’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. They had talked him into trying some beer, the fact he was unaccustomed to alcohol had the effect of making him quite gregarious.  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 especially when they discovered the extent of his, later to be depleted, funds.

When they returned to the ship a little after midnight all that remained of his father’s 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 take on the last of the cargo and some stores and were due to remain for less than 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 (mainly chipping and painting) 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 tab nabs, 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 had a connection to the lascar crew.

He soon learnt that a bosun was called a ‘serang’, a storekeeper ‘a cassab’, and so on.  Then there was jargon where an electrician was ‘Sparks’ and a carpenter was a ‘Chippy’.

Hull seemed an interesting place and is situated on the River Humber. In many ways it was quite behind the times as compared to the part of London where John had grown up.

Mac helpfully showed him the ropes (literally) as they tied up and informed him that had been given the task of taking on the stores. He explained the task was merely to make sure the goods weren’t damaged and matched the receipts. The crew would take care of loading and storage. 

He smiled and said ‘A cushy number, the mate must have a soft spot for you!’

Later on Mac was proven wrong.

The stores arrived in dribs and drabs through out the day. Luckily it was cold but the rain had kept off and good progress was made in loading the remaining cargo.

The trouble arose later when John asked the serang who had busted the bags of cement. These would be used later for stopping up the hawse pipes prior to crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Imagine John’s surprise when the serang pulled a knife on him! 

As he timidly waited outside the Chief Officers cabin, John thought that it didn’t bode particularly well that just the third day on board he had had an altercation with the crew.

The Chief Officer had heard him out and sent for the serang telling John to wait outside.

The cabin door finally opened and John entered.

The Chief Officer looked somewhat bemused and the Serang had his back to him looking out of place in his drab khaki wear.

The Mate advised, 

‘I’ve got to the bottom of it. The serang apologises – he thought you called him a b…ard. I explained the word busted meant broken.’

Now shake hands.’

The serang turned and came over to where John stood. He didn’t shake hands but put his arm around John’s shoulder before nodding to the Officer and retreated to carry on with his duties.

Before dismissing him, the Chief Officer gave John some good advice.

‘ They are not the same as us so when dealing with them you must learn to think like them and then there will be no further troubles. In the meantime take care and keep out of trouble.’ 

As they steamed east down the English Channel the new apprentice found himself full of mixed feelings. The excitement of at last being at sea and about to cross the Atlantic Ocean for the United States was mingled with nostalgia as he glanced for the last time that year at the land that had been his home.

It was also very different from what he had imagined.

Studying charts on the bridge in his smart new uniform whereas the reality was that he was freezing cold with the strong westerly wind spraying seawater in his face while he soogied the port alleyway on the main deck. 

His reminiscing and homesickness were soon replaced by physical discomfort as the icy cold washing water tricked down his arm inside his oilskins when he reached up to wash the deck head.

 Even though he felt like crying, he simultaneously wanted to laugh with joy and anticipation, as he felt overcome by a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation of what was in store. Little did he know!

Many thanks to John Wale for this ‘story’ based upon real events long ago!

all comments welcome!

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