My Maiden Voyage Goes On and around again – A Sailor’s Yarn (part four)

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Our next instruction directed us to the Welsh port of Milford Haven to re-fuel and where we would meet up with another ship belonging to our owners that had put in for major repairs and we would take on several volunteers to replace our depleted crew.  (Our owners have only our interests at heart)!  I was involved with the refuelling and the Skipper left to confer with the other ships captain.  My innocent mind was thinking, ‘What an opportunity to clear out the dead wood’.  The Skipper returned with five deck crew and six engine room crew.

A short while later Gilbert Buttery came running up to tell me that one of the new volunteers was a cabin boy, so he wouldn’t be The Peggy any longer and the Skipper had put him in charge of sorting out the sleeping arrangements of the new men.

I disappeared to the chart room to be ready to head for the Suez Canal and we set sail a couple of hours later.  Everyone was so busy getting settled in, that it was as though we were an all new crew and when I took over my watch I found that I had a new helmsman, a very experienced able seaman of about 40 named Roger Woolf a Scouser, hereto known as Wolfie.  When we took over the morning watch at 0600 hrs we had turned in to the Gulf of Oman.  I set our course for the Persian Gulf and onwards to our destination Abadan in Persia, which now is known as Iran.  I finished my watch and after a get to know chat with the two quartermasters, the newbie, Wolfie and the old hand, Glaswegian Jonno, who also explained our ship jumpers that we abandoned in Australia while I made a pot of tea.  I could see us bonding into a good team.  Our watch had been relieved by the 2nd Mate and after I’d had my lunch, a shower and a change of clothing I returned to the bridge to watch us passing Qatar and Bahrain on our Port side.  I was wearing my white uniform and a white cap to keep the sun off as I leaned on the Flying bridge.  –  I was watching the sun sparkling on the white wave tops and it seemed to get whiter.  I seemed to have nodded off and when I awoke everything was still pristine white.  I was lying on a white bed with white sheets and a white counterpane.  The room walls were white, the furniture was white and once my eyes focused I saw a beautiful girls face with gleaming white teeth smiling at me and I closed my eyes.  I was woken by a grumpy but very familiar voice of Hamish the 2nd Mate saying “Have ye no has enough kip you crafty bastard?”.  I learned that I had collapsed with severe sunstroke and was now residing as a guest of the Shah, in his showpiece Hospital in Abadan.

Our ship was being unloaded and cleaned and would then be taking on a full load of porcelain bathroom pieces and we would be leaving for Shanghai in China in five days time.  The message from the Skipper was that my stay was all expenses paid by our host His Highness Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Persia and it would be rude of me to look a gift horse in the mouth.  He looked forward to my presence back on board in four days time to prepare for the next leg.  That was the gist of the message but with the addition of a few Scot’s witticisms and threats from Hamish.  Oddly enough he spent a lot of time with the pretty nurses eating, drinking and otherwise partaking of the Shah’s luxury. He visited me every day but spent little time with me other than to enquire after my health.  –  I dutifully followed orders to the letter and returned to the ship wearing my neatly washed and pressed uniform, clutching a ‘goodie’ bag that contained a new bright blue silk dressing gown, matching blue silk pyjamas, silk covered slippers and a monogrammed toilet bag full of top quality shaving gear including an ivory handled cutthroat razor.  I also left with lots of hugs and kisses from several nurses.  I have no idea why sailors call sunstroke ‘the Abadan Blues’ but it was very luxurious’.  As the Skipper reminded me it is a chargeable offence in the Royal Navy.  I managed to stop my smart mouth from saying that mine was free of charge.

Back to earth with a bump as the Pilot guided us out past the biggest oil refinery in the world and out into the Gulf.  I had already spent the previous day preparing our charts and I took over the Conn from the Skipper and the Pilot.  Yesterday I had also had a stroll around the holds to look at this wondrous cargo.  –  Various assorted bath tubs that looked very regal with roll tops and Victorian legs, toilets, hand basins and even bidets.  I was picturing hordes of Chinese peasants, scratching their heads, wondering at the purpose of this unfamiliar gear.  The phrase ‘China to China’ stuck in my head like an earworm and I started to giggle.  It became an oft repeated phrase on that voyage.

I took us through the Straits of Hormuz and was relieved by the 3rd Mate, still as bellicose and antagonistic as ever.  Surely he can’t still be pissed at me over not getting a Korean medal.  I asked if he were feeling OK because he did look really rough and he muttered about having a pain in his gut.  Me being me just had to say that he should have gone sick in Abadan when I did and mentioned the luxury of the hospital and the lovely nurses and the fantastic goody bag that they sent me home with.  Well that went down well! I don’t think I’ll tell him my joke about ‘China to China’.  Fuck him! When I next came on watch, I took over from the 1st Mate and he told me that the 3rd Mate’s bellyache had worsened and he had been in touch with the British Embassy in Ceylon to arrange for an ambulance to meet us in Colombo.  I was to set the fastest course.  Hadn’t I said he should have gone sick in Abadan?  The engine room and the old ship did us proud,  Together with my brilliant navigation, we steamed into Colombo Harbour and were met by the Pilot boat together with the Pilot, a Doctor and what today we call Paramedics.  The Quack diagnosed the 3rd’s ulcer as a severe burst appendix.  The Embassy had arranged for the patient to go into the local Royal Air force Base, hospital.

The Skipper and Hamish accompanied the sick man to hospital and returned late in the evening to tell us that we were lucky that he hadn’t died on us and that he wouldn’t be returning  –  The Embassy would be arranging his repatriation once he was well!  Hamish opined that he bet it would be on an R.A.F. plane as that would be the cheapest.  This smart mouth just had to say “I bet he doesn’t get a Goody bag”.  The Skipper then said “Hamish and I have been talking things over and he has nearly convinced me to make you up to 3rd Mate.  I say nearly because I’m going to put down a proviso on your promotion.  I’ll go along with it if you promise to button your lip, you are nowhere near as clever as you think you are, keep your opinions to yourself.  You don’t always have to have the last word – Promise?”  When he left Hamish said “ You do come across as a bit arrogant sometime but I convinced the old man that you were covering up nervousness.  Don’t let me down”.

The next morning I went to clear the Third’s cabin and packed all his belongings into two cases, with the help of Gilbert Buttery and dispatched him in a taxi to deliver them to the British Embassy, I told his that if he didn’t come straight back we might sail without him and he would probably be repatriated with the ex 3rd Mate.  (Note to self – Also I must stop teasing Gilbert)    Having cleaned out my predecessor’s belongings I proceeded to make it my cabin.  Gilbert returned post haste and had obviously been giving things a lot of thought.  –  The first thing he asked was could he join my watch as a runner because he wanted to learn how to steer the ship.  I told him that we would be returning to a three watch system and my watch would be permanently nights, 2200 hrs to 0600 hrs.  The crafty little devil said “I don’t mind that at all Third!” The 1st Mate and Hamish were more than happy to leave most of the chart work to me. – My two helmsmen were more than happy to let Gilbert take the lion’s share of their work and make the tea.  He was keen to also learn how to use a sextant, name the stars etc. So all in all we were a happy ship.

In fact the fey little boy Gilbert Buttery from Plumstead no longer existed.  During the chatter I suggested that my predecessor hadn’t liked me because I got the Korean medals and he didn’t, Gilbert put me straight.  He told me that a long while before that when you were robbed in Georgetown he heard that you had robbed of a nearly new Rolex watch that had been a gift for when you joined your first ship. He went off on one and was ranting about only a posh twat like you would have a daddy to give him a Rolex. Don’t hold back Gilbert!  He went on “Then when you got those medals and he didn’t he went apeshit.  He reckoned your daddy had bribed the Skipper to get you aboard” I didn’t enlighten him, in fact I made a vow that I would never pass on any of my personal information, ever.  Gilbert was then earmarked as my personal informant ad as he had named himself as my runner I re-named him Gunga Din.  I’ll also make certain that he’s not a better man than I am!  A few days later Gunga Din told me that a lot of the crew reckoned that the ex 3rd had cleared immigration in San Pedro in front of me and he had set me up for special questioning by one HERR HOSTETTER.  That bastard I hope that the RAF makes him parachute back into Wales and forget to show him where the ripcord is.  Not that I don’t wish him a full recovery!  Anyway I got his medals, was treated like a king in the finest hospital in the world and a Goody bag.  I also got his job and his cabin so sod him!

Our course took us between the Malaysian Peninsular and Sumatra and I received a visit from the jovial 2nd Engineer who appeared to run the engine room.  I knew it was serious because he had donned a shirt for his visit.  He told me that the Skipper had said that I was the man to see. – God I must get myself a bigger cap!  Apparently on our ‘blues and twos’ run to save the life of my predecessor (SPIT) we had put a lot of strain on both boilers and we were a long way from home.  If I could reduce speed by a few knots and plot a course accordingly the old girl would appreciate it and he would stand me a large drink on our next shore run.  I told him that we were stopping over in Hong Kong for a couple of days – He blew me a kiss and left for his underground lair, removing his shirt as he went.  I carried out the necessary course adjustments and unbelievably it added nearly 5 days to our journey.  We all felt that we had nearly stopped and going through the South China Sea the wind had also dropped to a sea of glass.

Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion.  As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

We arrived at Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong and were berthed for refuelling.  Even in the 1950s it was a stunning place and I’ve returned a few times since.  Only a few 100 yards away from the ship I found a tailor who instead of taking my ‘Snotty tabs off my lapels and fitting my 3rd Mate gold rings, he would make me a complete new uniform complete with two pairs of trousers and deliver it to the ship in less than 24 hours.  He convinced me that he was the world’s best tailor and was a fantastic salesman because I also order two civilian suits in the finest material a mixture of wool and cashmere, one in fawn and the other in navy blue.  I picked the style from that current year’s Gieves and Hawkes of 1 Savile Row, Mayfair, catalogue.  I had no real idea of the currency rate of exchange was but when I offered to pay in US Dollars I learned how the Chinese Kow Tow was performed.  My total bill was $32 US or £24 GBP.  If my predecessor had known that my sponsor, not my daddy, had also given me an envelope with $50 US in it before I left he would have had a relapse!  I believe that the tailor put his workforce on all three floors of his building to work and I took delivery of my 32 bucks worth of tailoring the next afternoon.  It was in three separate suit bags on hangers each bearing a Gieves and Hawkes of 1 Savile Row London label and when I opened up the uniform, not only were there two pairs of trousers but they had included a Mess Undress (evening dress uniform) jacket plus a black silk cummerbund.  I would wager that you only thought that fashion house copying became rife when the Millennials were born.  Well this Ancient Mariner was in at the beginning. Moreover I believe that Gieves and Hawkes could not have identified mine as being moody.  Would it be remiss of me to suggest that we both used the same tailors, hence the catalogues and official labels.

Another discussion with the 2nd Engineer over dinner regarding our speed for the next leg to Shanghai.  We decided to increase our maximum speed to 10 knots and I altered our course and speed accordingly – the distance was something like 900 nautical miles so a nice smooth cruise of around 10 hours.  It took us nearer to 12 so I was able to sleep on in my bunk that night safely berthed in the beautiful city of Shanghai with its lovely British Georgian style architecture – suddenly ‘China to China’ made complete sense.  The beautiful Persian porcelain including the bidets were made with those lovely buildings in mind.  I wonder what Chairman Mao Zedong would have made of them?

We left Shanghai with a general cargo bound for the port of Yokkaichi in Japan, as I was studying the chart I saw that the nearby port was called Fukui, now that could have been interesting!  We docked alongside in Yokkaichi, a large, very busy harbour.  We were quite astonished at these Dockers who worked at a great pace and we discovered that their average pay was less than a £1 per day.  The exchange rate was 100 Yen to £1 and the hourly rate for a dock worker 90 Yen for a 10 hour day.  (Perhaps I should  have waited to get some new clothes here.)  One of my lasting memories was buying a fine porcelain tea set, the sort that when you held a cup up to the light a picture of a geisha girl could be seen.  The set was boxed up and shipped to my mother in England.  The cost including packing and shipping was the equivalent of 15 shillings.  It arrived in perfect condition.

At that time I really had a chip on my shoulder about the ‘Japs’. – My Uncle Jack had been taken prisoner in Singapore when it fell.  At that time he had been an Army champion boxer at some 14 stone. – He had been put to work by the Japanese on the Death Railway in Burma.  I was 11 years old when he was repatriated and he was a skeleton weighing just over 5 stone.  He never did recover his health or fitness.  The country 1954 was still occupied by the Australian army and they had no love for the native population either.  Unloading the ship by hand was very slow and after some 3 or 4 days we received a severe weather warning of a tidal wave centring on our very location.  This is what is now commonly known as a Tsunami, a term that I had never heard of.  I felt thankful that we were safe in harbour!  The Skipper called a Chinese parliament (in Japan?) and then over ruled all opposition and we took the ship out of the cosy harbour to ride out the storm.  Oh my God did we take a pasting.  There were a lot of moans and groans from the crew and I must say that I thought the Skipper had lost the plot.  Within five hours we found that we were keeping just enough headway to keep our bow, head on to the cyclone and the approaching tidal wave.  Everything was battened down and our little ship met the first of the waves which appeared to be travelling some 40 or 59 feet above us as we climbed up it and as we went over the top the screws came out of the water and nearly shook the fillings out of our teeth.  Thank God the old girl had a welded hull because rivets would have shaken loose.   We had a pendulum, the piece of kit that was known as an inclinometer that recorded the roll of the ship.  As we screamed down the back of the wave like a toboggan down a ski slope, we had two helmsmen plus Gilbert (Gunga Din) fighting with the wheel to keep on course.  As we hit the bottom of the slope we crashed down and our port lifeboat was knocked out of its davits and was hanging by its forward falls.  I saw the Bosun and a number of men lashing the boat in to the ship’s side.  All were wearing lifelines and May West’s.  The 2nd Mate pointed out another wave approaching from the horizon about 5 miles away.  I rang down to the engine room to warn them, while the Skipper was telling the Boson that another wave was on its way and to make his men secure inside.  It seemed like an hour before the Mother of all Seismic Waves hit us and it was higher than the first. – This time we seemed to climb it in slow motion.  Hamish shook my hand hugged me and said “Well it’s been nice knowing you Lofty”  I knew then what those poor guys fighting in the trenches in WWI felt like when they went over the top!  I’ve repeated this story many times and no-one believes that I wasn’t scared but honestly we had so much to do and were all so busy that we didn’t have time to be frightened.  I was thankful that I wasn’t in the engine room.  The same performance as the first wave saw us over the top and hurtling down, as we hit bottom the crash seemed even louder and this time the starboard lifeboat was stove in with more of the deck crew trying to lash in to the side.  We had reached the centre of the cyclone and the sea settled down and there was SILENCE!  We lowered our revs and just kept way on.  I checked the Inclinometer and we had registered a 38 degree roll each way, when I showed it to the Skipper he said that we should have rolled right over and thought we were going to be OK now but that was a bit hairy for a minute!  Hamish said “That was some minute, we were going through that shit for nearly four hours!”

We spent the night cruising in the eye of the storm planning to return to Yokkaichi all being well at first light.  We got little information over the radio that was in English, normally the international language of the sea.  We crept back into the harbour, there was no pilot boat to meet us and as we looked around us it was just devastation.  All of the orange dockyard cranes had been knocked over and lay buckled on their sides and partly underwater.  We estimated that 3 or 4 dozen ships had remained in harbour and every single one had sunk.  The water was deep and most of the wrecks only had a bit of superstructure showing and some just some rigging.  At that moment Harold Collins our diminutive little Skipper had so much praise and congratulations heaped upon him that he probably could have walked on water across the harbour we learned that the Tsunami death toll was around 400 souls.  We tied up safely and spent the next couple of days sorting ourselves out.  Our change of plans took us just a short hop to the port of Yokohama the port of Tokyo.  Our cargo was to be unloaded and arrangements were made for Shipwrights to come on board to assess the damage to the lifeboats and they would be repaired or replaced.  It looked as though we could be in for a longish stay in Yokohama.  We had a visit from a Tokyo TV Station, I took the call from our embassy in Tokyo and Hamish and I left our brave captain to explain his brilliant seamanship.  I told Gilbert to make himself available as a runner for the Skipper during the interview and left him bricking it in as he had to speak on TV.  Hamish and I went ashore for the day although he teased me that as I was the only one with a decent uniform I should have jumped at the chance to show it off.  Will I ever live down my posh clothes?  Once ashore we chatted to an Aussie Soldier who told us that he and some fellow soldiers had arranged a coach trip in a few days to visit Hiroshima where the Yanks had dropped the first atom bomb and eventually caused the Japanese to surrender.  We arranged to take 6 spare seats and they would call for us at the ship.  Hamish said “Christ you really know how to live the life.”  I was thinking of my five stone living skeleton, Uncle Jack and the Death Railway when he was a slave prisoner. I jumped at the chance to view the spot where our allies had kicked the butts of the ‘yellow devils’ so I was feeling quite gung ho visiting as a tourist.

As it happened only the two of us plus the skipper took up the offer of the free trip.Our new Aussie buddies arrived on time in a military coach with an Aussie driver.  They were a noisy lot and very anti Jap, they even embarrassed me with some of the abuse they shouted out as we passed some of the native Japanese.  The noisy journey took several hours.  The countryside looked not unlike our green and pleasant land.  We piled off the bus and I saw . . . . . . . . . . .

The sound of silence; I saw a flattened city covered in dirty white dust; I saw the shapes of human shadows burned as a negative flash and left for eternity on one of the few walls left standing; Utter, utter devastation!  

No-one spoke on the bus coming home and the journey seemed to take forever from the spot where some 70,000 souls had been taught a lesson in my name.  Where a further 100,000 died over the following five years from the effects of that terrible bomb.

I awoke the following morning after a troubled sleep to find that I had developed a high temperature and a sore throat compounded by a cold sore on my upper lip.  I was convinced the I had radiation poisoning.  I hadn’t of course but I was just seventeen and I had learned one of life’s lessons Man’s inhumanity to man!

One of the bonuses of the Tsunami was that it delayed us and gave me time to get to know the country.  I managed to climb Mount Fuji and see the snow covered apes bathing in the volcanic heated streams. There is a Japanese proverb about climbing Mount Fuji “He who climbs Mt Fuji is a wise man; He who climbs it twice is a fool.”  Well in my long life I have climbed it three times and it gave me a lifelong love of the mountains.  It also makes me very old!

When I chatted to the Skipper about the sheer cost of the delay and the damage to both lifeboats and the theft of the paint in Cairns I was told not to worry, Lloyd’s have got our backs. The paint has already been replaced, I’ve seen the lifeboats and they’re like new and will be ready and in place by next week.  The Bosun was happy with the layover because his ship was painted scrubbed and the superstructure gleamed – it must be the newest looking Fort Ship in the world.  The engine room had time to change the oil and clean the points and give it a new MOT or whatever needed doing.  I later heard that the deck crew had had professional assistance from a few locals with a lot of the painting – they had a whip round on the mess deck to pay them.  I hope that they paid them more than 90 Yen a day.  The local agent had also been earning his corn and our cargo was diverted to the port of Niigata and we were to be loaded with Phosphate fertiliser bound for Mexico.  Phosphate? And I moaned about Sugar!

Once in Niigata City our loading and unloading took about ten days, can you picture coolies dressed only in loincloths and a conical straw hat that looked like a lamp-shade, carrying wicker baskets from a huge barge moored alongside and the coolies running up a plank from the front of the barge with the basket full of phosphate – it looks like pink gravel, and tipping the basket into one of the holds.  More coolies were in the holds shovelling so that it filled all available spaces.  Meanwhile the coolie that had emptied his basket now running to another plank and running down it into the barge to continue the chain.  This went on non-stop night and day; I called them coolies but they were more like slaves.  Another odd thing I noticed that more than 60% of them wore thick black framed spectacles.  I can picture the scene vividly even today.

Another memory from Niigata City was an evening run ashore.  Hamish and I were joined by Wolfie the new helmsman who had a very entertaining Scouse sense of humour and my shadow Gunga Din.  We visited several bars and night clubs where we experienced the novelty of being served warm Sake the Japanese rice wine by Geisha girls with white painted faces.  I said something like “So that’s where our white paint went to and Gilbert began giggling so much that it became embarrassing and we eventually left.  We weren’t actually staggering on our way back to our ship, perhaps slightly unsteady is a better description.  We hadn’t gone a hundred yards when we were confronted by four lovely ladies of the night, dressed to the nines in very tight silk cheongsam dresses slit to the thigh. We were offered a really good time, try out bath house and happy finish.  Wolfie said “Oh dear ladies we have spent all our money, that’s why we are walking back to the ship.  He then handed them Gilbert’s arm and said “He’s the only one with any money left”.  He then, like a conjurer, palmed a $20 dollar bill and showed them it in Gilbert’s top pocket.  We all walked away giggling, nothing to do with the Sake consumed it was Gilbert shouting “Please don’t leave me boys!” as the girls dragged him away.  –  Oh dear it was so funny!  I wish you could have seen Gilbert’s face when he returned to the ship quite late the next morning and Hamish collared him.  He was red faced but had a huge grin on his chops that had to be seen… Talk about a dog with two dicks!

We had a straightforward and uneventful voyage to our next port of call which was called Mazatlan in Mexico.  (Nothing to do with the clothes shop of a similar name.) The place was just like a scene from early western lots of raised sidewalks, men in sombreros and gaudy shirts in yellow and red colours taking a siesta in the afternoon sun, sitting on the ground with their backs against the walls for what shade there was.  The Mexican food is not really my favourite fare in modern times but then it was really not great.  The tequila was fantastic and the local beer they named Sol was fantastic.  I chatted to an American tourist in a bar, as one does, and he told me not to miss an experience that he’d been on.  A journey in a genuine stage coach that the locals took regularly across the desert towards Durango to a daily market in a town halfway to Durango.  I followed his advice the next day early in the morning I went into town and found the coaching station and with my only Spanish at that time being quanta costa and cerveza I haggled a return ticket to the town whose name I’ve since forgotten, but its half way to Durango.  I got them to write the details on a piece of card.

When this huge stage coach pulled by two scruffy horses, it was just as my American friend had described – the large coach had plenty of room to seat 10 or even 12 people inside and was slung on leather straps fixed to metal springs fore and aft.  I judged the back wheels to be some seven feet in diameter and the front ones five feet,  There was a driver and sitting upfront alongside him was his sidekick, I don’t suppose one would call his the conductor because he was actually carrying a short rifle that looked to me like a Winchester 73 I’ve seen the films I promise you that this wasn’t a film set, it was completely genuine. You couldn’t call up the choking dust and the smells.  I only had four fellow passengers, all women, all dressed from head to toe in black, reminding me of black vultures.  Even the English gentleman I took their luggage consisting of hessian bags and large empty wooden cages and helped to hoist it up to the shotgun conductor who stacked it on the large luggage space on the roof.  I joined the ladies inside.  They were chatting happily among themselves and even tried to include me.  I realised that I had learned even more Spanish from my visits to the cinema as a kid.  One of the women opened a shopping bag and handed out spicy vegetable wraps (tortillas) to everyone including me, it was far better than my restaurant food of yesterday.  Its difficult to describe the experience of my coach ride across the desert.  We were travelling at a fair lick – there was lots of dust, genuine tumbleweed, and cacti.  I think the horses kept farting unless it was the driver and the noise of creaking springs, rumbling wheels, shouts from the driver and his shotgun, – the laughing and chattering of my new found girl friends. You really had to be there.

When we roared into the town and stopped in the square, I helped the two men get down the ladies bags, boxes and bird cages from the roof.  I then discovered the the shotgun guy spoke good American/English and he told me that they were carrying on to Durango and would be back to pick us up at the market square in about 4 hours.  I helped the ladies stack their baggage behind one of the stalls and I insisted they accompany me to a nearby outside cafe for coffee and cakes.  Unbelievably we were entertained by a Mariachi band.  My lady friends were all aged between 30 and 40 and not at all bad looking except that three of them had moustaches.  I assume that the fact they were dressed in black indicated that they were married.  Nonetheless we all enjoyed flirting and I had some difficulty convincing them that I didn’t want their company around town.  I promised to see them later at the same cafe to wait for the stage,  Whip Crack Away!  As I wandered around I was very tempted to buy a big black sombrero with crystal jewels as a gift for the Bosun but somehow I didn’t think he would take it as a peace offering.

When the stage arrived with its usual hustle and bustle there were four guys sitting on the roof rack and one new lady inside.  My girl friends now had 3 chickens in cages and their boxes and bags were full.  The ladies insisted that I accompany them inside together with all their luggage.  Very cosy return journey and I had a hand on both of my knees and they weren’t my hands.  I provided the picnic and when we arrived in Mazatlan we parted good friends.  Two of them were met by husbands in pickup trucks and all of the chickens and luggage were piled into them.  The other two ladies were being collected later from a friend’s house and both gave me a lovely kiss and a hug.

The local agent visited us the next day, the fertiliser had been removed and the holds cleaned.  After having seen the poor local soil I could understand the need for so much fertilizer.  Our cargo was to be our most valuable the old ship had ever carried.  A really large amount of Mexican silver, coffee beans and raw cotton.  The biggest amount taking up four of our holds was in silver items and our destination was London, England.  This leg was going to be a very straightforward trip I’ve heard that before back through the Panama Canal to complete our second circumnavigation of the world.  Then across the Atlantic, Simples!  We were towed through the Panama Canal, yet another mind-blowing experience through the rain forest that was teeming with wild life.  I actually had a Macaw swoop on to the wing of the bridge and settle on my shoulder and I fed a wild boar by tossing potatoes to it.  The 2nd Engineer fixed with the Skipper for us to anchor off Panama City once we cleared the Canal, for them to carry out further repairs.  It appears that our suspect boiler had blown again.  The only good thing was that we were treated to the most amazing electrical storm over Panama City.

I can say no more other than that I had to alter my previous plot, taking into account we would be completing a 5,000 miles journey at an average of 4 to 5 knots – can you imagine 54 that’s fifty four days at sea covering less than 100 miles in 24 hours.  It did not make for a happy ship and I will not bore you with the journey and by the time we turned into the Thames Estuary we weren’t even exited by the fact that we would be paying off shortly,  And then just into the Estuary the bloody radio piped up Portishead Radio to Temple Bar . . . .  no-one gave it a thought that we were in no fettle to go round the world again.  I heard later that one of the Deck Crew picked up his pride and joy a Hallicrafter Worldwide Radio and smashed it against a bulkhead in temper.  Anyway someone in their wisdom decided that we should be diverted even in our sick state to pay off in the lovely city of Kingston upon bloody Hull.  So another two days to try to lift our spirits.  A sad goodbye, all shipmates had been through a lot together.  I later learned the wisdom of our diversion being that the raw cotton was destined for the cotton mills of Lancashire and the fine Mexican Silver to Liberty’s Department Store in Manchester.  Ruddy bean counters, was it ever thus?  Those extra miles could have finished the Temple Bar for good.

Skipper Collins and my good friend Hamish Orr were both going to swallow the anchor and both presented me with brilliant reference for my next ship.  We wished each other “Fair winds and a following sea” the sailor’s farewell, much nicer that a soldier’s farewell of “Goodbye and bugger you” I think you’ll agree!

I checked train times and decided to book in at an Hotel near the railway station and booked a first class seat to London the next day.  I dressed in my finery, my navy blue wool and cashmere suit and carried my Louis Vuitton suitcase.  Quite sad that I had completed my maiden voyage and gone from boy to man without realising.  I had a sudden awakening when I arrived home in my Buckingham shire village of Woburn Sands and my mother’s first words were “Oh hello dear, when are you going back?”  I met my sponsor, Herbert. at least he was pleased to see me.  I regaled him of my stories and he asked for the name and address of my tailor in Hong Kong and he actually did business later with him. I went to meet my friends in my Savile Row peacock clothes and found that they were all dressed in drape suits and brothel creepers with DA haircuts.  I had completely missed the Teddy boy era.  One of the girls in my old gang said “I love your tan but you really look like a Posh Twat!” Now where have I heard that before?

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.  And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.  But that’s another story!  . . . . .

May I wish you all Fair Winds and a Following Sea!

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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