My Maiden Voyage and Before – A Sailor’s Yarn (part one)

A few weeks ago one of my offspring asked me, “is there anything you haven’t done?” I’m not sure if this was meant as an admiring observation, or whether it was the words of someone who was sick of hearing my rambling anecdotes about my exploits in Mexico and the Americas, Japan, South Africa or in Arctic warfare training much later, most probably it was the latter, since I do sometimes tend to reminisce about the past. As you dear reader, will know we always call it swinging the lantern. I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase, “the older I get, the better I was.” Well that’s me!

Sooner or later my mind is going to slow down, some will say the process has already started, and my recall won’t be what it once was. So before these tales disappear forever, I have self-indulgently begun to recount a few of these memories. The funny thing is, as I think about incidents in my past and start to write, a state of amnesia sets in and those obscure memories crystallise and de-pixilate to a point where I can again become that 16 or that 20 year old person – and in a way it is an invigorating and inspiring exercise.

I start with a Blog – and will continue to do so, until my memory finally gives out, or until someone tells me to stop; or I run out of ink (or enthusiasm), I’ll put them here. To begin at the beginning. . . . . . . . . .

After passing my 11 plus and becoming settled attending the nearest Grammar School to my home and having to travel twenty or so miles on a pre-war bus each way, thus adding about 3 hours to my school day. I was able to complete my homework during this tedious journey but did nothing to add to my love for school or my impatience to get on with my life.

My father had a wealthy, very close friend called Herbert, whom had already gifted me a horse that he had originally bought for his locally ensconced mistress, the lovely Iris and it turned out she was terrified of horses. So for three or four years I had the sole ownership of a beautiful roan horse of 14 hands that i spent a lot of my young life on. The deal was that I exercised the horse that had its paddock and stable free and all its tack supplied. The only downside was that my elder sister often refused to eat at the same table with me, because for some reason she said I smelled of horses.

Somehow this same wealthy friend, Herbert, who owned a large shoe factory in Northamptonshire and was chairman of his local council, heard of my wish to adopt a seafarers life and he used his influence to get me any grants available plus his greatly appreciated sponsorship and I found myself giving up my daily three hour commute and moving my life lock, stock and barrel, to become a boarder at Greenwich Naval College. I remember vividly, at the age of 13, being taken to the railway station at Bletchley by my father with a huge trunk and a smaller case and being helped into a railway carriage and being waved off with lots of instructions on how to get from Euston to somewhere called Cannon street and then to Greenwich. Of course it’s now all a blur in my mind but I succeeded in finding my way.

I absolutely loved being at Greenwich, even getting chased by a tutor/boatswain wielding a knotted ropes-end at 0530 hours along the hard to row on the Thames in whalers and cutters before swimming and showering before breakfast. I took to seamanship and navigation like a duck to water. Another memory that stands out was my home leave at the end of the first term. Our uniform was that of a Naval Cadet/Midshipman and we were only allowed to travel in uniform.

I had arranged to meet Ma and Pa on Waterloo station prior to a day in London. We were going to see Vic Oliver at the London Palladium – Gosh that memory has just come back to me. Anyway at that time, not long after the war had ended and there were armed soldiers on guard at the start of each platform. Don’t ask me why, probably there was a surfeit of soldiers. Picture me a jumped up little snob pretending not to be a schoolboy, posing as a Naval Officer and as I walked past to pair of soldiers they stamped their feet to attention, presented arms as I strolled by. Frightened me at first but I realised they had mistaken me for an officer and as I had been taught, I returned their salute.

I am so ashamed to admit it now but I had over an hour to kill before meeting the venerable parents and I deliberately walked along the concourse and imagining myself as Jack Hawkins or some other hero of the Western Approaches and earned myself at least three more salutes from armed guards. You dear reader, should be honoured that I have added that minor confession because it still embarrasses me and I don’t think I’ve told the story before.

I always made sure that whenever I could I kept in touch with Herbert my sponsor; my Ma and Pa were completely out of their depth at Greenwich, seemingly overawed by the pomp and circumstance of artwork, the painted ceilings and the very history of the place. However when I invited Herbert and his model girlfriend, they belonged there. To cut a long story short the following Spring I was contacted by Herbert who it transpired had shares in the Ellerman Lines which also had acquired the Temple Steamship Company. “Was I set on the Royal Navy? or would I be interested in a career in the Merchant Navy” because he could pull a few strings. There was a British ship in port which was short of a couple of hands. If I was interested there was a job for me as a Deck Apprentice with an option of promotion to Third Mate as soon as a position became available. Remember I was 15 years old and immortal.

Herbert pulled his strings, and I left Greenwich quite amicably. I signed on a couple of weeks later as a crew member on the SS Temple Bar as its most junior of junior member of the Upper Deck – my official position – “Deck Apprentice”. The Temple Bar was what is known among seafarers as a ‘Fort Ship’ built in a hurry in wartime, using welded plates instead of traditional riveting, all for speed to keep the allies fed with basics.

The ship was registered in Liverpool. She was 7,130 tons (tons deadweight), built in Canada during World War Two and was one of a fleet of cargo tramp Steamers of welded construction some 424.5 feet long and a 57 feet beam. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines. A total of 198 of these ships were built with the hope that if they survived at least one voyage with cargo intact they would be in profit, each subsequent voyage, being a bonus.

The ship’s captain was Harold Collins, a small insignificant looking man, who had survived several Murmansk runs and in reality was a more forceful character than he looked. I had a tiny cabin in the fo’c’sle of the ship (where crew were separated from officers) at my young age and having been fully
trained Greenwich I knew it all. Looking back I know exactly why Midshipmen are given the soubriquet ‘Snotty’, I can think of more appropriate names.

Luckily I was taken under the wing of Ronnie Brown an Able Seaman, who may have had Scouse ancestry but was a Londoner through and through. He was a generous, down to earth fellow, who used to wake me every morning with “Come on then Lofty, rise and shine, you’re not on your Daddy’s yacht now, y’know!” Initially I was a day worker – 7.30 to 5 o’clock with a half hour for lunch. I spent the initial few weeks on the bridge, watching and learning but really following the Skippers instructions to get over there and keep out of everybody’s eff’ing way!.

I didn’t have the most auspicious start because we sailed from King George V dock in East London and made our way down the Thames bound for South Australia. As I looked across the wing of the bridge I was violently sick, much to the amusement of officers and crew alike. “Ha-ha! The ‘prentice is having a ‘Kit Inspection’“

I shared the Officers Mess, a little room just across from the galley where we would eat our meals and meet for smoko during the day. It was here that I learned to put condensed milk in my tea, because it wasn’t easy to find fresh milk at sea and of course, this was before Long-Life Milk appeared on the scene. The additional advantage of condensed milk of course was that it also obviated the need for putting sugar in your tea!

There were four deck officers on board, the Skipper, Second Mate, Third Mate and me. – Then there were three engineers, the Chief Engineer, a morose individual who hailed from Stornaway and who seemed to spend most of his time in his cabin. I don’t think we exchanged more than two words the whole time I was on the ship. The second engineer was a genial portly middle-aged fellow, who had been in the merchant service since the war. Always shirtless when he was working, he seemed to know everything that anyone was ever going to need to know about marine engineering. The third engineer was a sharp tongued, sandy-headed Glaswegian whose frequent expression was “och awa’ an’ keek” (which I translated as meaning you are full of ****, go away). This happy band of brothers……..

I can’t finish this little memory without talking about the second mate. He was another interesting character, an archetypal grumpy old Scottish mariner in the twilight of his career. He had been twice shipwrecked during the second war, and was without a doubt the hardest man I ever had the misfortune of trying to wake up when it was my turn to call him. He would be lying on his back on his bunk, making a noise like a bull farting, fully clothed with his smelly feet hanging over the end of his bunk and he would refuse all attempts to wake him. In the end, it was only vigorous shaking, and shouting in his ear which got him to stir at all, and then I had to dive out of the way as this great claw of a hand would come around to swat me away as if I was a fly. I used to dread this job.

The “deck crew” were an interesting lot – mostly Scots plus a few Englishmen, one Romanian A.B. named Janek, who was heavily tanned and possessed a full set of stainless steel teeth. Probably why he smiled a lot, like many of the seamen he took it upon himself to teach me all the things that Greenwich had missed from my education. Janek together with Ronnie Brown, between the two gave me a great training in life at sea as well as seamanship, simply because we were shipmates. Just thrown together by chance, they were the sort that Rudyard Kipling said you’d want beside you East of Suez, proud to call them friends.

Then there were the Stokers/black gang/greasers; now these were a mystery to everyone. They consisted of over twenty men and included morose men from Stornaway whom spoke seldom and then only amongst themselves, several Glaswegians who chatted a lot but I couldn’t understand them, they sang a long especially with a drink or two. There were a couple of West Indians from the Caribbean who were happy go lucky fellows with everybody. Then there were half a dozen Lascars who worked in the black gang and communicated less than the Stornorwegians.

I learned that our lot were Muslims from the Indian continent, they didn’t eat our food so had to be catered for separately. They didn’t use our toilets but used a sort of ‘outhouse’ that had been hung over the stern and lashed with ropes to guardrail. In reality they just pooped directly into the ocean and to complete their ablutions they carried a small tin, like a Colman’s mustard tin, filled with water. This motley crew also were allowed up from the engine room five times a day in order to pray to their deity. The general opinion of the rest of the ship’s crew were that they were a dirty lot of ‘fuzzy wuzzy’s (back to Kipling again) whose biggest failing was that they didn’t drink alcohol. Shocking!

On then to the adventures of this happy breed, this band of brothers. . . . . . . . . to be continued

About Jake

Long retired travel writer, author and freelance journalist. Educated at Wolverton Grammar and Greenwich Naval College. Happily married since 1958, with a married son and daughter, a married granddaughter and an adult grandson. Hobbies rock-climbing, dinghy racing and ocean racing. Still regularly working out in the gym.
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