Life at Sea: don’t forget to look out the window
Jodie O’Keefe is a cadet training at Warsash Maritime Academy, sponsored by BP Maritime Services. She has just completed her first sea phase.
Seafarers are the engine that drives the global maritime sector. Without them our shops would be empty, our cars kept idle and our lights and heating turned off. For too long has their contribution to the global economy been misunderstood and misrepresented. Here we allow seafarer’s voices to be heard. Share your story with us at: email@example.com
Life at Sea: don’t forget to look out the window
I served my mariner apprenticeship during the 1950s trading between the North Sea and Australia or New Zealand. As our ships only made about two round voyages a year, we soon came to know ‘down under’. As seamen, we were kindly received – provided we accepted jokes about being Poms.
We took an interest in the cargoes we loaded – mostly wool and refrigerated produce. We visited wool stores and saw the bales being compressed, went to orchards and ate the apples – so much better tasting than they would be after six weeks in our holds, saw cheese being made and sheep being herded.
However the lasting memory was of our visits to the Brisbane River meat works of Thomas Borthwick & Sons and the Queensland Meat Industry Board. These works had refrigerated stores on the river bank with piers stretching into the river where our ships loaded frozen beef.
As we approached these piers, the river was sluggish and muddy. The river banks were dried brown mud with gum trees. Their leaves hung listlessly in the still air. The smell struck us – unlike anything we’d ever known. And the colour of the river turned from brown to dirty red – for the floors of the slaughter houses were washed into the river.
On going ashore, we saw the nearby land was fenced into small fields that huge trucks kept pretty full with cattle. Hands, with electric prods, herded the cattle into the works in single file. The beasts lowed and bellowed mournfully. Once inside, each beast was prodded into a pen barely big enough to hold it and, once within, the end door was slammed shut.
A well muscled sweating slaughter man would be waiting on the top of the open pen – straddling it in his firmly placed boots. Once the beast was in, the slaughter man raised his sledge hammer, as high as he could, when he drove it downwards, with all his might, into the beast’s forehead. If his aim was good, the beast bellowed and collapsed. But, if the aim was poor or the beast moved its head, the slaughter man made a second, even a third, attempt. Once the beast had collapsed into the bottom of the pen, he pulled a lever to drop the floor of the pen open when the stunned carcase fell out across the floor. A worker hooked a chain around its hind legs, the twitching carcase was hoisted aloft, its throat cut and its heart speared through the gaping wound. Now, death was certain. The carcases were dismembered, cut up, boxed, bagged, frozen and loaded.
After such visits, we stuck to pudding for lunch – usually a variation of stodge with or without raisins and cold custard. However, we would soon be away, down the muddy river and out to the open sea when the fresh Tasman breezes would allow our memories to fade – but never completely. Even now, I tend to avoid roast beef.
Needing summer work in 1965, I sailed as an ordinary seafarer on the Southampton sand dredger Pen Arun (311 grt). It was managed by Seabourne Aggregates of Chichester – a business that had developed the idea of dredging for aggregates on the seabed.
Life on a sand dredger running out of Northam, in Southampton, into the Solent, during July and August, was pleasant, even enjoyable. It carried a crew of seven. It was immediately apparent that, as the sand dredger masters had to find their own cargoes, the job demanded skill and experience for not only had they to find the cargoes but they had to do so quickly and with the minimum consumption of fuel. Recognising this, the company tailored our terms of employment to encourage productivity.
Thus the ship followed a routine based on a weekly schedule set by the tides. We sailed on the high tide from Northam on Sunday nights, taking two hours to run down to the Solent dredging grounds off Newport on the ebb tide. Then, on the low tide, we dredged to fill our hold in the least depth of water: it took some six hours. By then the flood tide would have started, which carried us back to Northam to berth near the top of the high tide when the quayside crane would be ready to unload us in readiness to take the full ebb tide back to the Solent. Thus the ship made two cargoes every lunar day.
For the first cargo of the week every one aboard, in addition to the standard wages, was paid a bonus of two and sixpence. This bonus was increased, by this sum, for every cargo during the week till Saturday night when the ship was tied up on Sundays in Northam ‘for maintenance’. By then, just this Saturday cargo – hopefully the twelth of the week – would have earned each of the crew a bonus of one pound and ten shillings. Then on Sunday night, the cargo bonus reverted to two and sixpence. To ensure the bonus, the entire crew turned to maintenance whenever required, even on their Sundays off, as any malfunction threatened our ship’s performance and our bonuses. Rarely was a ship more carefully tended than the Pen Arun.
However the real skill lay in finding the precise grade of aggregate the company wanted for each cargo. The master would have to know where this material lay on the seabed to suck it up quickly to allow us to keep our schedule. He had a system of transits and bearings for guidance. Curiously, the ship was always navigated on the quarter points of the compass.
Of course the schedule was often delayed by weather and defects. Then it would sometimes be required to deliver its cargoes into Cowes or Littlehampton.
When I left the sand boats, never to return, I did so with an abiding respect for their crews and their dedicated service.
SOUTHERN SKIES was a splendid wee ship. Of only 711 gross tons, she was Dutch built in 1950 with two holds and hatches. The master and mate lived amidships with the passengers below the bridge whilst the rest of her crew and the machinery were aft. I was her master. Living amidships in silence, she was a pleasure to be aboard though a bit basic in her fittings – the only electrical appliances on the bridge were light bulbs.
Usually she ran as a liner between Tanzania and Somalia but, for this voyage, we had a cargo of 500 tons of bagged cement from Mombasa for the Seychelles. As it was my first voyage in the company, I was unfamiliar with the waters. Surprisingly, the company suggested that my wife should sail with me, which meant bringing our eleven-week old son.
On 22nd March 1967, we cleared Mombasa, having also loaded a satellite radar in a huge air-conditioned crate on the after hatch. An American engineer accompanied it – to see it safely commissioned on a Seychelles mountaintop. Firstly though, we were bound for the island of Aldabra.
After four days at sea, we anchored off Aldabra for 24 hours to load our cargo of 36 live giant tortoises, all over 150 years of age – apart from some babies, 61 live sea turtles, some bags of sea shells and charcoal and wooden poles along with 4 saloon and 24 deck passengers. Without a certificate, I had been reluctant to accept the passengers but, as they had an interest in the cargo, it was all-or-nothing! Most of them camped on the forward hatch under a tarpaulin and played dominoes – noisily.
In addition to our crew, all from Kenya and the Seychelles, we had six infant children, all less than six years of age, several chickens and a pussycat. Rats ate our son’s food but he thrived on his emergency tinned rations.
Shortly after sailing from Aldabra, the chief officer inquired when I would pay the crew – now that it was the end of the month. Whereas I knew that there was a monthly system, I had not arranged the cash to pay at sea. Soon, the crew was in the wheelhouse but the immense bosun, mindful of my inexperience, explained that I would hardly have been expected to know. He asked if they might be paid in the Seychelles and, when I agreed harmony was restored.
On reaching the Seychelles, the turtles and tortoises were discharged into schooners, the radar was skidded ashore onto the pier and the labour took a week to unload the cement. We embarked a few saloon passengers, including a wild life authoress, shortly to achieve international fame, and headed back to Mombasa – taking six days to cover the thousand miles.
Throughout, the sun shone, the seas were calm, the flying fish flew, the dolphins plunged, my wife was happy and our son thrived.
What a life – I stayed three years.
Arthur Jones was master of Shaw Savill and Albion’s liner ‘CORINTHIC’ for about eight years until his retirement at 65 years of age on 20th August 1963. He was a splendid seaman and an outstanding shipmaster. Whilst he was strict and exacting, setting himself a high standard and expecting the same from his entire crew, he went about his work with a wry sense of humour. If asked his name, he would sometimes reply that ‘It’s Jones – spelt with just the one ‘e’. He was always polite – invariably addressing his bridge officers as ‘Sir’.
He knew his ship intimately. He knew her better than anyone else on board. He had stood by her at the Camell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead whilst she was being built in 1947 when he was her designated chief officer. In the master’s dayroom, there was a photograph of the ship sliding down the launching ways with himself in the eyes of the ship on the forecastle head – saluting. If ever there were a problem with a blocked pipe behind the hold insulation, he would know where the it was run and why it had blocked, as it had been badly installed when he had pleaded for and lost his requirement to have the pipe re-run.
If ever anything were ever amiss about the ship – the securing of the jumbo derrick, the turning of the ventilators, the steering of the ship, he would be the first to notice. He knew the ship’s speed from the formation of the lesser waves in the wake along the ship’s side and would quickly notice any variation.
He knew his ship’s stability. It was important, as the ship was rather too narrow and tender. Subsequent ships of the class had a foot more in beam and the double bottoms in the way of Nos 2 and 3 subdivided into four longitudinal tanks. He watched the stability, constantly timing the rolling period for guidance. If, as third officer, I’d made a mistake in my calculations and given him the wrong GM, he would know and ask me to find the mistake – invariably referring me to a particular voyage when the ship had been in a similar condition so I could check my calculation.
He thought of our ship as being a yacht. No ship, he would like to tell us and any passenger with a good knowledge of naval architecture, had quite such good lines as this yacht of a ship and no ship had a lower stern wave.
Whilst at sea, the bridge watch officers had to have the time struck on the wheelhouse bell every 30 minutes (except for seven bells on the morning watch which had to be rung ten minutes early to give the crew time to clean for lunch). This was a sailing ship practice, which he required to ensure the bridge watch was alert. Curiously the practice is being re-introduced today but with electric alarms.
Whilst at sea, he was greatly concerned for the environment. He studied seawater temperatures in detail. Sometimes, hourly to check when we were crossing from one ocean current to another to consider if the current was moving bodily sideways or at a faster or slower speed. Then he would put out plates of fresh water on the funnel deck, where few ever ventured, for passing birds on the long ocean passages and have them re-filled and checked for use and level.
He always had a good relationship with his crew and passengers. As he confided in me once, a criticism of Mr Papworth, the ship’s long-standing chief engineer, was a criticism of himself and to be handled as such. And he also told me why he took quite so long dressing for dinner each evening: he had a full set of encyclopaedias on board and he would study a different, possibly relevant, topic every evening. During the course of dinner, he would innocently bring the conversation around to this topic when he would quietly discuss it with such a deep knowledge as to leave his listeners astonished. So he widened his awareness and eased the tedium of the daily dinners on the long ocean passages from London to New Zealand back.
He took a real interest in the training of his officers. Having signed his ‘night orders’, he would, in the privacy of the open bridge wing, raise a prospective emergency situation and question me in detail as to how I would handle it. Night after night, he would dissect my ideas and then try to improve on them. But the real wonder was not his effort to help me as a young 3rd officer to prepare for command, but this diligent preparation of himself, his crew and his ship for whatever might befall her.
And he tried to insist that we learn by our mistakes and by his mistakes too. He was not too proud to discuss how the company’s flagship, the ‘DOMINION MONARCH’, had been in a serious collision with a Royal Mail ‘Highland’ liner in a World War II convoy whilst he was her bridge watch officer. Then he would talk of the dangers of over-shooting the pilot station, as he had on his first voyage in command, when, on approaching his first port as a master, he had almost hit the rocks at the Caracas Baai bunker port in Curacao at night. Once clear, the forecastle officer reported having seen the rocks in the light of his hand torch.
Having been in the New Zealand trade since he qualified, he knew the country’s problems and trade. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, bishops and admirals, chairmen of banks and countless others had taken passage with him and, on the month-long passages, each way, he’d heard many tales – and remembered them.
He took an interest in Pitcairn Island where the ships of our line would call on their trans Pacific passages if it were convenient. Other masters often found it a nuisance and skipped the stop but the ‘CORINTHIC’ always made it – adjusting our speed a week in advance and taking shelter in the island’s lee regardless of the weather. The islanders came out in open boats. Whenever they wanted to visit nearby Henderson Island, to restock on natural timber, it was invariably the ‘CORINTHIC’, which took them and their boats aboard and set them down in the island’s lee on the following day leaving them to sail home in the trade wind. It was Arthur Jones who showed them how to lash their boats together so they could load the bulldozer he felt they needed. Eventually it was shipped on the ‘CORINTHIC’ and discharged by her derricks onto the joined boats when it was taken ashore and moved onto the beach by a ramp to successfully re-vitalise the island’s drainage and agriculture.
Subsequently, Captain Jones even landed on Pitcairn to see it for himself. Not for nothing was he invariably nicknamed ‘Pitcairn Jones’ – an appellation he probably preferred to the CBE award presented to him by the British government on his retirement to mark all those long years of sound judgement and eternal vigilance.
In 1984 I found myself married without a job and a new Chief Officer’s Foreign Going Certificate with the ink not yet dry. My young wife was supporting me on a meagre civil service wage and shipping companies were not taking anyone on. The fledgling offshore industry was dominated by fisherman and coastal men, in the words of one company personnel officer “Don’t bring your deep sea bullshit here.”
And so it was I found myself joining a 750 ton suction sand dredger as Second Mate in the near derelict Junction Lock at Cardiff Docks. The Peterston was built in Appledore in 1959 and was riveted fore to aft – at least she had all the rivets in her when she was built. Black hull with light brown topsides in the style of British coastal working craft, this vessel had paid for herself many times over and was now only activated for the summer season as her loadline couldn’t take a good winter.
We worked the Bristol Channel tides running from the old town bridge on the Newport river to the abandoned docks of Cardiff and Barry, these days re-generated as marinas and office blocks. Three weeks on and one week off for £90 a week. If you missed the daily sailing the crew split your cut. We were given a weekly food allowance of £12 a head of which we kept £4 and gave the cook £8. He would keep £2 and spend £6 per man. On a Saturday he would go to Tesco’s for the weeks shopping and we would do our own cooking. It was the best meal of the week as we finished everything off.
We had a full fried meal every morning and every afternoon of every day. Once when the cook was sober he made a delicious Fish a la Portuguese but the 2nd Engineer didn’t like “foreign muck” and threw the whole lot including the plate out the mess room port hole.
I used to wonder why the deck brushes only had three foot long handles until one day the Chief reported a leak in a double bottom tank. I saw him empty a tin of beans and open the tin up into a plate. He then sawed 6 inches of the nearest deck brush and hammered the whole lot through the leaking rivet hole pronouncing “job done”. I had the distinct impression the underwater hull resembled a porcupine.
The Peterston had the biggest wheel I’ve ever seen and I would sit on a high stool with my knees jammed in the spokes at 5 degrees to port as the rudder had a permanent starboard bent. The propeller only had three out of four blades and it was impossible to stand on the poop for prolonged periods due to excessive vibration
The crew had worked the Bristol Channel for twenty years and yet we ran aground every week, however they knew where and when they could get a pub “lock in” at any port at any time of day. The 80’s were hard years for British seamen and I don’t look back with fond memories, but that dredger and that crew were a God given salvation when I needed it most.
Captain Jeffrey Parfitt.
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