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Signing up for a life at sea


The year was 1970, I was 17 years of age, had no career and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until, one day, an uncle of mine suggested that I should join the Merchant Navy and see the world. My parents were not happy with the idea, as my father wanted me to take up accountancy and my mother, I suspect, wanted me to join the church and become a priest. I was an only child and led a sheltered life; my parents worried a lot about me, always wanting to know what I was doing, where I was going and who my friends were. If I was lucky I went to the cinema once a week or visited a friend’s house a couple of nights during the week where we could listen to the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath vinyl records which were not allowed in my home. On Sunday mornings my mother insisted that I go with her to Holy Mass at the local Catholic Church, and I was not allowed to go out during the afternoons. My parents were not bad people at all, they just lived a very simple lifestyle and were very religious; they neither smoked or drank and rarely ever socialized or went out in the evenings.

Sometime later, I was thinking about what my uncle had suggested and decided to pursue the idea of a career at sea. I took the underground tube train to Liverpool Street Station to visit the London Shipping Federation Offices in Dock Street. There, I was directed to the Engineer Recruitment Officer who, after taking some time to explain and warn me of the hardship of a young man going to sea, arranged an interview for me with the Houlder Brothers Shipping Lines company, situated in Leadenhall Street, very close by. The Personnel Officer, a very friendly old gentleman, interviewed me and without much interrogation, offered me a position as a Junior Engineer. He explained the terms and that voyages would be between six and nine months and for me to return home and wait to be assigned to a vessel. He then went on to chat for some time about other subjects unrelated to shipping. As I was leaving the office he whispered that his secretary was young and available if I wanted to take her out for an evening. I was not sure if he was being serious or not but, even though at that time I had never had a relationship of any kind with the opposite sex, I embarrassedly declined. She had neither the looks nor the body that I had been dreaming of!

Book coverApproximately one week later a telegram arrived addressed to me, which read: “You are assigned to the M.V. Swan River berthed at Victoria Docks as Junior Engineer. Present yourself to the Chief Engineer Weds 2nd May.” I went out with my father and purchased a uniform and the tropical shirts and shorts, overhauls, five pairs of pants and five pairs of socks as per a list I had been given by the company. I also packed some casual clothes for going ashore. At Mass that Sunday my mother had the priest say some prayers for me. Not much was said at home over the next few days and I sensed the disappointment and concern of my parents in my decision to go to sea – by avoiding accountancy or becoming a priest. The morning of my departure was very emotional. In-laws and neighbours were all there to see me off. My mother was in tears as we hugged goodbye and my father put on a brave face, shook my hand and said how proud he was of me. At that time there was no email, no internet, Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones etc, so communication was by hand letter writing which could take weeks to arrive, depending on which part of the world the ship was trading. The taxi pulled away from my home and drove through central London to Victoria Docks where, after a short delay at the dock gate, the policemen on duty allowed the taxi inside where we found the M.V. Swan River berthed alongside the dock.

For those who have never been aboard a merchant ship before, or have only seen them from a distance or watch them pass silently across the horizon, they would certainly appear to be graceful creatures typically with dark painted hulls, white superstructures and colourful funnel markings. Close up however, the appearance is very different and they could easily be described as greasy, smelly beasts. On boarding, the first thing you notice is the continuous vibration and humming sounds that go right through the ship, caused by the generators located deep down in the engine room. Around the deck there is a strong odour of a mixture of heavy boiler and diesel fuel, together with grease and paint. In many areas rust is apparent, bleeding through the paint work. Inside the accommodation you are met with other strong odours coming from the galley of curry, garlic or fried onions and whatever else is lingering from the food that is being served up that day. Another thing one notices is the variety of strong accents within the crew such as Glaswegian from Glasgow in Scotland, Belfast from Northern Ireland, Scousers from Liverpool, Cockneys from London and others from the North East of England including Geordies from Newcastle, together with a few foreigners thrown in there.

I found my way through the lower crew accommodation and up to the Officer’s Mess area where I was met by the Fourth Engineer who introduced himself as Connor. We became good friends after sometime. He was a Protestant from Belfast and had been brought up as he said, to believe that “all Catholics are bastards!” I was a Catholic and he could not understand after some time why he actually liked me (this was during the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland with fatal conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities there). Connor showed me the way to the Second Engineers cabin and I waited outside whilst people were coming and going, some in greasy overhauls, while others were salesmen offering spare machinery parts. After about half an hour the Second Engineer noticed me standing by the door. He was a big man with red hair and freckles and asked, in a very deep Scottish accent: “Yes wee man, what do you want?” I explained that I was the new Junior Engineer and had been instructed to report to the Chief Engineer. He thought for a minute, looked at me and explained, with his eyebrows raised: “Well young fella, we are not actually sailing for another five days – you might as well just fuck off home.” So, my very first day as a Merchant Navy Ship Engineer therefore concluded with me sitting at home feeling pretty useless watching Coronation Street on the TV.

Book coverA few days later I was back on board the M.V. Swan River and so began a life changing experience. For better or worse I will never know. Preparations were being made to sail, hatches were being battened down, commissary stores loaded and the engine room being made ready. The tugs arrived early in the evening to pull the vessel away from the jetty and escort the ship out of the Thames Estuary and when the Pilot arrived the seamen let go of the mooring ropes from the dock and we were on our way. Earlier that day Connor had showed me around the engine room where I would be working. It was an enormous space covering the whole depth of the ship with ladders, tanks, boilers, pumps and generators. I asked him where the engine was and he replied: “We are standing on it!” It was three stories high, the size of a double-decker bus. Working hours on ships at that time were divided into watches with four hours on and eight hours off continuous while at sea, seven days a week. I was assigned to the ‘Twelve-to-Four Watch’ with the Third Engineer who was a short, fat man from South Shields (North East of England) and was nicknamed Geordie, because of his strong Geordie accent from the Newcastle area. I could not understand a single word he said. That afternoon I had my first experience of real-life aboard a merchant ship, while I was in the officer’s pantry making a cup of tea when an engineer entered. Just as he nodded his head to acknowledge me, another crew member entered, looked over at the engineer and shouted: “Mother fucker!” and took a swing at him. They both started swinging fists and cursing at each other until they had each other in headlocks. Over the next ten minutes they brawled out of the pantry along the starboard side accommodation alleyway, then across the front alley, then way back along the port side alleyway. Every now and again they would break loose and all hell would break out with wild fists flying. Then they would lock up into headlocks once again until they returned together back into the pantry. I stood still, totally fixed with a cup of tea in my hand, not knowing what to do or say. After a few minutes longer, as the two of them were holding each other over the pantry sink in a stalemate, one said to the other: “I’ll tell you what, let’s go up to the bar and I will buy you a beer” and off they went. Later in the evening I came out of my cabin with just a towel wrapped around me to go to the bathroom to take a shower, when I was blocked in the alleyway by a very large man. He looked like a boxer with a broken nose. He was the Officer’s Steward. He looked me up and down and said in a very feminine, high-pitched voice: “Hmm, what’s this little film stars name? You must be the new first trip junior! My name is Polly. Just let me know if you need anything. Anything!” I was speechless and felt like he could see right through my towel. I had never met a gay (or queer as they were called in the seventies) before, but camp queers the likes of Polly had never ever been on my radar anyway. After a couple of minutes of conversation, which I was too nervous to understand, Polly let me through. After that I would open my cabin door just slightly at first, to see if Polly was around – and then run to the bathroom.

I stood on the back deck as we left London Docks and watched the tugs manoeuvre us in and out of the locks and along the river into the Thames Estuary where the Pilot disembarked into a small Pilot Boat. Looking at the city lights slowly disappearing over the horizon I suddenly began to feel a combination of homesick, seasick, and vulnerable all at the same time. We were en-route to Rio de Janeiro with a general cargo consisting of everything from cases of Scotch whisky, agricultural machinery to washing machines and household items. At ten minutes to midnight I put on my overhauls and found my way down to the bottom plates of the engine room to start my watch. It was very hot, noisy and I really didn’t understand anything that I was looking at. Connor spent some time handing over the watch to Geordie before he, and the other Junior Engineer, left the engine room. Geordie was not a bad guy, but it was just that I had never met anyone who spoke like him before and together with the noise of the engines I had trouble understanding the orders and duties assigned to me. Over the next few days and weeks I struggled, but I learned a brand new language, even if it still was English. If Geordie said I was “sackless” it meant I was stupid or hopeless, sometimes he would call me a “Gowk” meaning ‘a fool.’ If he shouted: “Why-aye you fooker!” it meant ‘yes’ or he agreed with me. If he said something was “canny” it could mean either ‘nice,’ ‘fair,’ ‘good’ or ‘tough.’ I learned that a ‘shifter’ was an adjustable spanner and a ‘wammy’ was a piece of wire, but with great patience and perseverance he taught me the work and my first steps to becoming a fully competent ship engineer.

After each watch we would go to the officer’s bar for a couple of drinks with others who were off watch at the same time and thus the beginning of my affection for beer. I did not have much to offer but listened and was intrigued by the topics of conversation around the bar that ranged from everything such as stories from countries visited, previous voyages, football, women and sex to all kinds of useless information. We were normally joined by a well spoken Second Mate who appeared better educated than most and also a Southern Irish Radio Officer named Melvin from Cork, who seemed to be half drunk sitting at the bar almost any time of the day or night. He was short and fat with a large, round, red face which reminded me of a Toby Jug. The bar always made a loss when the accounts were done at the end of each week – most probably due to Melvin helping himself to drinks. He was notorious for accepting drinks but never buying a round. Melvin had the habit of proudly sharing his knowledge of useless information which was always irrelevant to our lives, such as: “did you know that Mormons could have as many as five wives but if they were caught having oral sex they could be put in prison?” As innocent as I was back then, I thought about that a lot and wondered did people really have oral sex? On one occasion he was complaining about the price of petrol and moaned: “They must think we are fucking stupid, because they are talking about taking the lead out of it but still want to charge us the same price.” Also, whilst listening to some songs, he came up with the ridiculous question: “Why are so many songs dedicated to the heart? What about other things like the kidneys? They are also important, you know.”

Sometimes the Chief Engineer would visit the bar. He was Chinese. I was told that he was only onboard because of the Chief Engineers License and certificates he held (all officers on board are required to be qualified and hold their respective licenses to allow the ship to trade legally). His level of English language was very bad. In fact, he started every sentence with: “fuckin’ fuckin’ fuckin’…..” in quick succession. I only saw him in the engine room twice and I escorted him around. He stood pointing at pieces of equipment saying: “fuckin’ fuckin’ fuckin’ pump good or bad?” I would reply: “good,” and he would indicate: “fuckin’ fuckin’ fuckin’ deck dirty; must clean,” to which I would acknowledge: “OK!”

Book coverThe seas were rough over the first few days but the weather improved after we passed the Canary Islands and slowly I got into the routine of being at sea. Some mornings I would sit on deck for an hour to get a sun tan. The person who was in the cabin before me had left a good stock of pornographic magazines under the bunk which I studied endlessly and which took preference to the Engineering Correspondence Course that the company had presented me with. The days then weeks passed until the day we arrived at the entrance of Guanabara Bay and awaited for the Pilot to assist us to the docks in Rio de Janeiro. I don’t remember the Captain’s name, but for some reason he was referred to as “Glitter Gob” behind his back or “Sir” to his face. There is a saying that Coastal Captains get nervous if they cannot see land and Deep Sea Captains get nervous when they come close to land. Rumours from the deck officers were that Glitter Gob was drinking more and more the closer we got to Rio. I did not get to see the beautiful entrance to the bay, passing in front of Copacabana Beach and the foot of the Sugar Loaf Mountain because I was assigned to stand at the engine controls next to the Second Engineer, answering and logging each of the ship’s telegraph movement and the set times, such as: Half Ahead, Slow Ahead, Stop. Half Astern, Stop, until after some time the bridge finally rang down with: “Finished with Engines”. When I eventually left the engine room and went out on the deck, I experienced for the first time the excitement of arriving by sea to a foreign country. The sounds and smells were incredible and the main deck came to life with the deck hands un-battening the hatch covers and preparing the davits for loading and off-loading the cargoes. Brazilian dock workers came onboard once Immigration and Custom officers completed their work and left the vessel. It was early evening but still warm and humid and I sat and watched the favela (shanty town) lights, brighten up the hill sides below the statue of Christ the Redeemer looking down from the top of Corcovado Mountain. The lights of ships, oil rigs and the bridge that connects Rio with Niterói brought Guanabara Bay to life. Any thoughts of going ashore were dampened when the Second Engineer presented us with a job list which he expected the engine room staff to commence working on immediately.

With most of the work completed by the following evening a crowd of us found our way to Praça Mauá, a small red light district close to the port. After wandering around, we took a table in the Florida Bar, a smoky club crowded with crew members from other ships of all nationalities and scantily dressed Brazilian girls dancing erotically, flirting and chatting up potential customers. I was intrigued by the girls and their many features and well formed bodies, a mixture of descendants of the Portuguese, indigenous Indians, Afro-Natives imported as slaves, plus Italian and German immigrants. Music by James Brown “Like a Sex Machine” was playing loud when we first entered the bar, followed by a black transsexual with enormous boobs and eyelashes miming to a Brazilian love song, whilst moving around the tables sitting on customers’ knees and blowing kisses. Whilst the guys appeared to enjoy it, I was shitting myself in case she/he took an interest in me. After some time a Mulatto girl moved next to me and started talking to me with that beautiful Latin South American accent. She said her name was Melisa and that she thought I was very handsome. I told her my name was Reginald, which she pronounced as Heginaldo (in Brazil the letter R is pronounced the same as an H). After a couple of drinks and chatting for some time, she invited me to go with her to a place next to the club. As she was twelve years older than me and the fact she was interested in me made me feel very good about myself. She led me through the door of a building next to the club with a small sign above which read “Hotel.” At the top of the stairs a black lady with bleached hair and a patch over one eye sat at a table. Melisa spoke to her briefly and the lady handed her two towels, a bar of soap, a toilet roll and a door key. The room was up another flight of rickety stairs and was very basic, including a round bed with a mirror on the ceiling and some soft background music. Melisa looked quite different away from the lights of the night club. She looked more than her twenty nine years, her skin was dry and pasty and her clothes well worn. When we entered the room she immediately went to the bathroom to take a shit. I looked out of a small window to see an old lady in the building opposite hanging out her washing. She smiled at me and I could see she had no teeth. That’s how close she was. Melisa, when she re-appeared, picked up the phone and shouted something at the operator then told me to go and take a shower. I came out of the shower to find her drinking a beer and tucking into a hamburger. When she finally became interested in me again, we both got undressed. It all felt very awkward. She handed me a condom which I struggled to open. When I did, I was trying to put it on but it was back to front. I had never tried putting one on before, which became clearly very obvious when I tried stretching it on after it had fully opened. After making a mess of that one Melisa opened another and expertly put it on for me. We started kissing and she said how much she had wanted me from the minute she first saw me. After pumping away hard for some minutes she started crying out loud in ecstasy, moaning and expressing: “Meu Deus, Meu Deus, sim sim voce a muito bom mais mais por favor!” I was not that naïve, so I knew that she was obviously faking her enjoyment which somewhat dampened my excitement. While we continued our love making for what seemed like an hour, I could not help thinking things like: “Is the old lady with no teeth watching us through the window?”, or “What would my mother think if she could see me now?” and the Catholic guilt of: “Do I really have to tell the priest about this if I go to confession?” followed with: “How great it will be to boast to my friends that I screwed a Brazilian a few years older than me”. Anyway, nothing happened, with me being unable to finish and she was becoming rather impatient, so eventually we just called it a day. Melisa got dressed and without looking back said “Ciao!” and went on her way to find a new customer. There was a cheer from the guys sitting around the table when I returned to the club. I gave a thumbs-up, nodded with a wide smile and with a satisfied look on my face, said: “She was good. Very good!” I did not know at the time, but the guys themselves had actually set it up and had paid Melisa to give me my first experience.

The drinks were flowing and someone gave me a Caipirinha, a Brazilian drink of Cachaça (a cheap and very potent sugar fermented drink), crushed limes and ice. Polly, the steward, was in an embrace, dancing on the stage with a macho guy half the size of Polly. They were both romantically looking into each other’s eyes. It was not a pretty sight. Melvin the Irish Toby Jug was dancing alone on the dance floor but his dance moves resembled those of a Japanese Sumo Wrestler preparing to go into the ring. Another Caipirinha was put in front of me and that is the last thing I could remember of my first night ashore. I awoke with a painful head not knowing where I was, with a very large figure looming over me. It was the Second Engineer telling me in no uncertain terms to get up and “get your fucking ass into the Engine Room…….Now!” It was very hot in the engine room and he kindly assigned me a job of climbing around inside the crankcase of the main engine looking for and tightening any random nuts-and-bolts that I found to have become loose. We spent a few more days docked in Rio de Janeiro and I withdrew far more cash than I had earned against my salary to support a couple of drunken nights around Praça Mauá and visits to Copacabana and the Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Our next passage was north to the port city of Santa Marta (Colombia) reported to be South America’s oldest surviving city and the place where the great liberator Simón Bolívar died a pauper. We started sea watches again, but this time I was assigned to the ‘Four-to-Eight Watch’ assisting the Fourth Engineer who was a Welshman, called Taffy. Taffy would arrive in the engine room with a can of beer in each pocket and after having a look around the engine room would find a comfortable place behind the engine room in the steering compartment. He would instruct me to keep a good eye on things and call him if anyone came in to the Engine Room and wake him at least half an hour before the end of the watch. After the evening watch we would go to the bar and be joined by the Third Mate who was from Wigan, near Manchester, the Chief Steward, who was a Londoner and of course Toby Jug Melvin. Conversations were much the same except that Taffy and the Third Mate were lovers of Rugby and would spend hours arguing the pros and cons of Rugby League against Rugby Union. One evening the Third Mate mentioned that he saw a lot of whales swimming past the ship during his watch. Melvin was quick to point out such details that included: “a group of whales is called a pod and by the way, a whale’s penis is called a dork” if we didn’t already know. I mentioned to the Chief Steward that there are often very strange noises coming from the galley in the mornings when I walk past to inspect and record the fridge and freezer temperatures. He explained, in a matter-of-fact manner, that it was probably the Maltese Cook who had the bizarre habit of making the sound of whatever animal he was preparing to cook for lunch on that day. I mentioned that it must be beef today because he was heard ‘moo-ing’ loudly like a cow that morning. At that point, Melvin (‘Mr Know It All of Pointless Facts’) told us that: “If we live to be seventy five, we will have eaten the equivalent of fifteen cows, twenty five pigs, two thousand, five hundred chickens, a total of seven thousand animals in all.”

After a voyage of seven or eight days we arrived at Santa Marta where I received my first letter from home. My mother gave me all the news telling me that Father Vincent was being transferred to another parish and the rumour was that his replacement would be an Indian priest from Goa, of which a number of parishioners were not happy about that at all. She informed me of how sad she was when she went into my bedroom and that she had left everything as it was when I left and that she prayed for me every night. She went on to tell me that my father had been off work suffering with shingles and my uncle Gilbert, who visited our home on Sundays, had been made redundant from his own job. Whilst all her news made me sad, I was beginning to lose my feeling of home sickness and begin to think that my life had more meaning where I was. Our visit to Santa Marta somewhat followed the same pattern as that of Rio de Janeiro. Seaman’s instinct took us to the Red Light District and this time with a little practice in my cabin after reading the magazines, I was better prepared on how to correctly don a condom. I made sure that I did not upset the Second Engineer by getting totally intoxicated and suffering any severe hangover headache again. I was now well over-drawn against my salary, and the Engineers Correspondence Course still stayed on the shelf. Before we sailed I sent a postcard home saying I was well and learning many new things and that I would write a detailed letter soon.

Book coverThe M.V. Swan River was a general cargo vessel and would have been known as a Tramp Steamer at that time, for the reason that it had no specific schedule and was not on a regular route between particular ports. Crew members after serving their tenor would fly home from the different countries we visited and their replacements were flown out to join the ship. The Chinese Chief Engineer got off as we were entering the Panama Canal, and he was so excited when wishing us all a “fuckin’ fuckin’ good luck and fuckin’ fuckin’ good-bye.” He was replaced by a Chief Engineer from Liverpool who was a frequent visitor to the bar. Polly had an emotional breakdown and was sent home from Guayaquil Ecuador, so he/she was replaced by one of the galley boys. We spent Christmas at sea somewhere in the South Pacific underway to Australia. A number of the vessel’s crew members were invited for the first sitting of Christmas lunch and were served by some of the officers. A spotty faced galley boy who was the youngest crew member onboard sat at the Captain’s table, together with the Maltese Cook who had, of course, made turkey sounds that morning. Both sat alongside the Bosun (or Boatswain), a giant of a man who I never heard say a word during the entire voyage. In the evening we were invited to the crew’s bar in the below deck accommodation for darts and dominoes competitions. I learned that these tough looking tanned and tattooed guys who worked on the deck in all weather conditions were actually really nice and humble people. I spent my eighteenth birthday sailing through The Great Barrier Reef on the way to Bundaberg in Queensland, on the east coast of Australia. The day we arrived at Bundaberg our Toby Jug Melvin went on a “walk about” and never returned to the ship. It was thought he had contacted a relative who came to collect him and he remained in Australia. He is probably now sitting at a bar in some place like Alice Springs and accepting drinks from strangers and keeping them informed in his wonderful soft Southern Irish accent: “Did you know that a group of kangaroos is called a mob and that kangaroos are excellent swimmers and that the Box jellyfish has killed more people in Australia than sharks and crocodiles put together?”

We continued prowling the oceans, delivering cargoes of all sorts. With the longer voyages between ports I managed to be able to put some of my salary aside, as there were no tempting distractions while we were at sea. After over a year on duty and close to my nineteenth birthday I was informed that I was going home. Connor and I flew home from Las Palmas, which was my first time travelling by plane. We took advantage of the free booze on offer and said farewell to each other at Heathrow Airport. I took a bus into London and a taxi to my home in Croydon. I felt very strange, like I should have been excited but I was not. Sitting in the taxi it was like watching a film. It was just a normal London late afternoon but for me spending so long away it was like I was seeing it all for the first time. My parent’s end terraced house was smaller than I remembered. I will never forget my mother’s face when she opened the door and saw me standing there: one of total surprise and intense emotion. My father sat speechless when I entered the front room. I didn’t realize it at the time, but their little baby boy had returned home a grown, mature man and I am not sure they were prepared for that at all.

Book coverThe next few days were very awkward. In spite of all my experiences that my life abroad had provided, it felt like we had very little in common or anything to talk about. How can one explain the experience of witnessing the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises; the storms and mountainous seas, the sea-life of whales, dolphins and sharks; the long hours working in the engine room during break-downs at sea; the variety and strange habits of people one works with, good or bad; and the people, places and countries I had visited; all this to an elderly couple who had never left England? It was the same when I met my old friends as it seemed we had all grown worlds apart. The small talk in my home and the lack of interest by my friends in my stories led me to walk the streets of London during the days and drink in bars in the evenings. I could not understand why they had all suddenly changed until one day I actually realized that it was not them, but me, who had changed. Some weeks later a telegram arrived assigning me as the Fourth Engineer to an Oil Tanker M.V. Bidford Priory that was arriving in The Persian Gulf. This is another story.

Today, many years later, I work ashore and I am happily married with a family. I sometimes look back at my life and wonder if I had made the right decision by going to sea. My parents have passed on and it’s sad to think that, in their eyes, I probably did not turn out to be the son they had wanted. Did I let them down or did I do what was best for myself? I had to think about it the other day when my eighteen year old son approached me and announced: “Dad, I have decided I don’t want to go to university. I think I will look for a job on a ship and have a job where I can travel.” I looked at him and thought about what he had just said. (I saw myself in a seedy little hotel room in Rio de Janeiro), after a few moments I replied: “Son. Seriously, why would you want to do that? Why don’t you consider taking up I.T? There would surely be a much better future in doing that.”

Extracted from Martin Oliver’s very excellent collection of short stories, World’s Apart. More by this author also in his previous publication The Never Lonely Planet.

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