My Maiden Voyage Goes On and On – A Sailor’s Yarn (part three)

Watching the deck crew I could sense a lift in the atmosphere.  I swear I often heard Waltzing Matilda sang and whistled.  I was spending 90% of my time studying charts on the bridge as we picked our way through the reefs and islands under the tutelage of the 2nd Mate – I had earlier described him as an archetypal grumpy Scotsman having been twice shipwrecked during WWII, as usual my first impressions were wrong.  –  He had virtually adopted me and I learned more from Hamish Orr in eight or nine months than three years at Naval College.  Practical seamanship and navigation can only be properly learned on the job, and Hamish had set his sights on my passing my 2nd Mates ticket.  In reality I was doing all his work for him but loving it.

We were just passing the land mass of Papua New Guinea when the ships radio called our call sign. . . . Temple Bar from Radio Portishead Call sign GKA – Temple Bar are you receiving?  I dashed over to acknowledge.  –  Change of destination, you are to re-route to Cairns,       North Queensland.  Together with our new longitude and latitude coordinates.  All of the mess decks have personal radios tuned into the ship’s radio so there was nothing secret about our instructions.  Exactly when the cursing and swearing started but I returned to the chart table for some new dead reckoning and keeping my head down.  Perhaps it was my imagination but the happy go lucky atmosphere seemed changed.

Personally I was even more excited by conning our way through the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef.  In fact by the time we made landfall the skipper took me aside and I was given my own watch and we were able to split into traditional three sections with dog watches.  I’m not going to explain further but it means less time on shift and longer off-duty.  Mainly shift changes, daily; I took the ship right in to the bay until we met the Pilot and he took the con!  My cap would no longer fit my swollen head.

Cairns in the 1950s was still very much a shanty town, harking back to its gold rush roots – a lot of its streets were of compressed sand and sawdust with only a few tarmacadam surfaces.  The Pilot took us alongside ad gave us the news that the Australian Labour Party had called out the local Wharfies (Aussie Dockers) on strike.  It seemed that no-one was sure what their beef was and when I asked him the Pilot said “Our Labour Party doesn’t need an excuse to strike”.  I heard him cautioning the Skipper not to upset the Unions, just sit back for a few days until they get bored and the Wharfies need to buy food for their family.

I believe that I originally described Harold Collins, the Skipper as a small insignificant man.  Well when we had said farewell to the Pilot, Harold went ballistic, calling the Australian Labour Party a bunch of leaderless commies whose only aim in life was to do as much damage as possible to their own country.  He expanded his wrath to the stupid Wharfies who weren’t getting paid while on strike and daft enough to let their families go hungry whenever the Party and Union blew a whistle like Pavlov’s dogs.  I was tasked to make sure to organise shore leave on a roster but having a strong watch party ensuring no-one other than crew came aboard to discourage thieving of stores and cargo and malicious damage.  Were those words of one HERMAN HOSTETTER of San Pedro ringing in my ears?  I wonder who had put a bug up his bottom about the Aussie Labour Party.  Hindsight is a wondrous thing.

Hamish the 2nd Mate asked me to keep my ear to the ground to get an early warning on who was planning to jump ship.  Ronnie Brown sounded me out as to whether Adelaide was still on the cards.  Obviously Cairns wasn’t his ideal destination.  The next bad news we learned was that licensing laws in Queensland were fairly rigidly policed and all bars and hotels had to stop serving alcohol at 1800 hrs.  I then heard of the famous six o’clock swill.  An Australian and New Zealand slang term for the last minute rush to buy drinks at an hotel or bar before it closed.  For the best part of the 20th century serving alcohol had to stop at 6 pm.  A culture of heavy drinking developed between finishing work at 5 pm and mandatory closing time just one hour later.  I never learned the logic behind this – who knows the mind of politicians.  Within a week our crews had solved the problem of this minor irritation and we had found an hotel on one of the side streets where admission was by climbing through a side window after 8 pm and we were able to drink in a dimly lit room until midnight, together with most of the crew and about 50 locals.  The things we do for excitement!

Another incident that sticks in my mind was being told by the Skipper, to get my uniform dry cleaned as a local English businessman and his family had contacted him and extended an invitation for a meal at the weekend.  He had accepted on my behalf.  He also told me to get them to sew on my new medal ribbons and to polish my shoes. – It turned out that this English family lived in a huge house on the sugar plantation that they owned.  I can’t say that I was happy as a strolled along the sandy street to the dry cleaners. I was wearing ate shirt (latest trend) and shorts with just a pair of flip flops on my feet.  I kicked through the dried leaves when an enormous black scorpion ran over my bare foot with its tail curled over its back.  When I say it was the largest scorpion that I’d ever seen, it was the only one I’d ever seen.  I was far more scared than I had been during the shelling in Korea. – I didn’t stop running until I slammed the door behind me at the dry cleaners.  They kindly allowed me to wait inside until my cleaning was ready and my ribbons sewn on.

When I related my tale to Hamish he didn’t believe me that they had scorpions the size of bantam hens, or that I was able to run a four minute mile.  At the weekend I went to carry out my duty visit first by running the gauntlet of wolf whistling ship’s crew and I was red faced as I climbed into what I thought was a taxi until the liveried chauffeur stepped smartly our to open the door for me – Oh God the things I have to do for my career. – Things could only get better.  And my goodness did they get better.  My hosts Duncan and Elizabeth had married over 20 years previously in Kingston Surrey just before WWII broke out and immigrated basically for their honeymoon.  –  Duncan had a job offer to manage the cane farm and as they say he loved it so much he eventually bought the company.  The news gets even better when I was introduced to their stunningly beautiful daughter also called Liz who was just about a year older than me.  I was head over heels in love.  I allowed myself to be talked into staying for the weekend…  Well it would have been churlish not to especially as Liz was to spend the weekend showing me the beauty of Cairns and the surrounding area.  I prayed that the strike would continue for weeks.

My shipmates had stopped taking the Mickey once the beautiful girl collected me in her little Italian car and took me off to the delights of Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef.  Would you believe it in daddy’s yacht, well more like his power boat and he even fixed me up with one of his wet suits. – Paradise!  This state of affairs (hmm!)  continued for 8 more days when we were instructed to leave quietly during the night and travel down the coast to the next port – Townsville.  – I managed to get a message to Liz as to our plans.  We slipped out and docked in Townsville in the early hours.  It was all to no avail as the strike followed us.  I managed a couple more enthralling days with my lovely girl and it was at her suggestion that repeated our moonlight flit further along the coast to the port of MacKay.  Would you believe it the strike struck again and two days later we slunk back into Cairns with our tails between our legs.  Our local agent did a grand job and three further days of sitting quietly the full crew of Wharfies turned to. – Those three days were put to good use as Liz took me to a fantastic place call Airlie Beach.  I learned from her before the Skipper knew that once our holds were empty we were to be loaded with refined sugar from her father’s factory and we were to be homeward bound.

Both our Agent and Harold , the Skipper credited my diplomacy for getting a really profitable deal for the company.  I took advantage of the situation and swung several further days with Liz and several dinners with her parents.  Duncan was probing as to my intentions even hinting at a job if I wanted it.  Thankfully Liz informed them that we were very good friends, adults but too young to be anything more.  It may have been imagination but I thought her parents were equally relieved.

We had a few more dramas before we sailed. – I had the good fortune to have the alibi of spending the night with Liz in an Hotel owned by her family.  I returned to the ship on Monday morning like a dog with two tails, I was stopped at the gangway by Ronnie Brown and Janek with the news that our paint store had been broken into and many hundreds of gallons of white paint had been stolen. – They were in five gallon drums and would have been impossible to move unnoticed.  Ronnie and Janek both said they had been lax and had slept through most of the night. – Nothing rang true even though I considered them good friends.  I part of a guardrail had been unscrewed seeming to indicate that the paint drums had been lowered into a boat alongside. – Something screamed of an ‘inside job’ where the glass window had been smashed and the glass lay outside.  Police were called and gave Ronnie and Janek the third degree.  Gave the Skipper a Police report suggesting that a lot of Wharfies hadn’t been paid during the strike, they supposed that they had inside help but couldn’t prove anything and one tin of white paint looked like white paint. – End of investigation.

Two days before departure date Ronnie Brown, Janek, Ronnie’s three cousins and four other from the black gang disappeared during the night together with all of their belongings.  I Chinese Parliament held in the Wardroom decided that it was good riddance to bad rubbish, and we wouldn’t report the missing men until the day before we sailed.  I cannot report the language of the Skipper and the Chief Engineer.

After a couple more romantic days with Liz, we bid a fond farewell and set sail on a homeward bounder.  A fairly uneventful trip but I must mention a couple of highlights that bear mention.  We were crossing the Indian Ocean approaching the land mass of Ceylon (It didn’t change its name until the 1970s) on our starboard side.  I was Officer of the Watch taking bearings and using a sextant, plotting our position on the chart.  I noted a large tanker approaching us at a similar speed to us.  I altered course slightly so we would pass port to port within 100 yards. (If both lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red)  As we closed I checked our Radar and it all looked good. – Suddenly with no warning the skies went black and we were hit by a tropical storm and the Radar screen went haywire.  We couldn’t see our own forecastle – It was worse than a pea soup fog.

Panic, Moi?   Well something took over and I shot down below to call Hamish – Thank God he was awake.  He came up to the bridge in his skivvies under his oilskins. I quickly briefed him, told him what I had down.  I recall him saying that I had done everything that I could and when I said that the tanker was riding high and looked to be empty. Quite memorably Hamish said “If we hit that, we won’t need life-jackets, we’ll need parachutes” .Both ships were sounding our sirens but they just sounded near. – Suddenly the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and there on our port side some 30 or 40 yards away was the tanker.  It was a British ship, one of the British Tanker Corporation with its name running the length of its hull.  The name BRITISH MARINER, another name that I shall remember forever more.

My next memory happened in the Red Sea, we stopped to refuel at Port Tufic at the southern end of the Suez canal.  There were three painting stages each with a couple of the deck crew who were painting the black side.  I was busy, leaning over the side of the flying wing of the bridge and I could see a couple of tiger sharks cruising about 100 yards away.  I heard a crash,  a shout and a couple of splashes and saw that two of the paint stages had collided while lowering themselves down to reposition their stages and the four occupant had tumbled into the oggin!  You might even say shark infested oggin!  Their shipmates had quickly thrown them lifebelts and proceeded to haul all four to safety.  I ran down from the bridge to see if I could help when I heard a near apoplectic Dublin voice bellowing “I see you saved your feckin hats, what about my feckin paintbrushes?” He was scarlet faced and actually dancing as he stamped his feet!  Now I don’t remember calling him Paddy but perhaps I did, I know that I suggested he go and sit down and cool off and I would sort it out.  He began shouting “Don’t you call me Paddy you jumped up Snotty Whippersnapper!  Snotty is a nautical term for a Midshipman/Apprentice maybe whippersnapper is a similar nautical expression anyway I was relieved that he stormed off.

The remainder of the trip was again straightforward.  The Suez Canal was interesting and a place I was to get to know more intimately later in my life.  We were steaming up the channel, all excited at docking in King George V docks and then a good break. – We had passed the Isle of Wight, when the ships radio came on – Temple Bar this is Portishead Radio call in GKA.  I answered and gave our position.  – Change on destination our new orders were return through the Suez Canal and to take our lovely cargo of refined sugar through the Persian Gulf.  What is it about bloody sugar and the SS Temple Bar?    Perhaps we will exchange sugar for some beautiful carpets! But that’s another story.

. . . ‘ I’m beginning to think that someone up there believes it was I who shot the Albatross’

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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