RUNNING AWAY TO SEA IN STYLE
A GREAT START FOR A YOUNG LAD:
"Short training period, low fees" - so went the advertisement
for Colwyn Bay Wireless College in Practical Wireless, Radio Constructor and Wireless World in the fifties. "See the world
on full pay" was another. The glossy brochure for the Glasgow Wireless College at Charing Cross showed a young lad with wavy
gold braid on his sleeve reaching up to tune the Marconi "Oceanspan" transmitter. With his hand on the key the caption read
"With the world at his fingertips a Marconi Marine Radio Officer prepares to send a message".
All very enticing for
a young man hankering to see the world without having to 'climb the rigging' or 'swab decks'!
A LITTLE SIBLING RIVALRY.
And so it was that the bug bit and the future looked bright
ahead as I convinced my parents that that was the life for me. Two brothers were already at sea, one an engineer and the other
on deck. Just a little joshing from those two "A sparks!?" they cried. "A b....y necessary evil aboard ship you lot. They're
all round the twist you know, must be the dots and dashes!"
HAVING TO MAKE DECISIONS ALREADY....
The great day finally arrived and picking up my shiny P.M.G. ticket
at the school (I knew I had found all the 'faults' on the equipment and the 25 w.p.m. was just fine - I had learned just about
every "Q" code in the book!) the wonderful decision to make was which company to join. Such a selection back in '59. Should
it be a shipping company whose operators were directly employed or a radio company who leased operators such as Marconi, International
Marine Radio or Siemens?
Below, my very first 'offer of employment'............
JOB SECURITY...WHO CARES AT THIS STAGE OF THE
Traditionally, R/Os had been relatively poorly paid immediately prior
to, during and after the war years. From the 'Offer of Employment' shown above 70 pounds a month was approximately twice Board
of Trade rates at that time. There were certain risks, however. "Go for a British company". said my father. "You could find
yourself and your suitcase at the bottom of the gangway on the other side of the world after another operator had offered
to work for the skipper for less remuneration". Believe it or not I still listened to my dad, even at 19! I certainly didn't
want DBS stamped in my discharge book so early in the game!
With my father working for Anchor Line I had been aboard
a number of their ships at Yorkhill Quay in Glasgow and was reasonably aquainted with some of the mates and sparks. One fine
gentleman I shall always remember was chief R/O of the Circassia/GZMD. Sammy Taylor, although employed by the leasing company
I.M.R.C, had opted to stay with Anchor Line for many years and was a positive influence on my final selection. I shall always
recall him telling me how much he still enjoyed tuning over the short wave bands even after close to 30 years at sea. He certainly
loved the job and was very well liked and respected in the Company.
|SAMMY TAYLOR ABOARD RMS "CIRCASSIA"
The picture of Sammy was taken aboard the "CIRCASSIA" in Bombay. He is probably
wearing his tropical gear purchased from Sarto Barbanera, the local marine tailor situated just outside Red Gate. Sarto did
a lot of business with the many shipping lines frequenting Bombay (VWB) in those days. Picture taken by John Rogerson,
a friend met when the site master was working at Portisheadradio. John was with IMRC and ultimately joined the DWS.
LOOK OUT WORLD, HERE I COME....
My application was accepted with IMRC and I proceeded with the medical
and fitting for a uniform. The first appointment telegram instructed me to report to the OREMINA in Port Talbot, Wales. Not
being too familiar with Houlder Bros. I wondered if it might be a P & O ship!? You know, ORSOVA, ORONTES...Well, not quite
I soon discovered.
ALL DRESSED UP AND DEFINATELY SOMEWHERE
Travelling down by train overnight to Wales in my 'spanking'
new uniform I really wondered if I should be travelling First Class! On recounting the trip to my brother later his only response
was. "Boy, you must have looked a right pillock wandering around Port Talbot of all places in yer bleedin' uniform!" There
again, what could anyone expect from an engineer?
GTQG - MY TEMPORARY HOME...
|HOULDER BROS. M.V. OREGIS, IDENTICAL SISTER TO OREMINA.
All of a sudden there 'she' was - the OREMINA. Definately
NOT P & O. "Oh well", I thought. "In for a penny..." I staggered up the gangway with my heavy leather suitcase (one my
dad had used in WW2) full of clean underwear and pristine white tropical 'gear'. I was pleasantly surprised to be met at the
top of the gangway by a white jacketed steward who immediately addresed me as 'junior sparks'. Bloody cheek, "junior" I thought.
It said '2nd R/O' on my seaman's I.D. card.
The OREMINA was one of Houlder Brothers iron ore carriers, a little under
7000 gross tons, accommodation aft and built in the early fifties so she was still a 'modern' vessel. At that time she was
in drydock. No ship looks good with her undercarriage exposed like that. The chief R/O's cabin was adjacent to the chart room.
"Trainee sparks" (my official title) was allocated the vacant 6th. engineer's cabin down two decks. Actually that worked out
just fine when it came to socializing on board. "Pretty small digs" I thought but it would do fine... As I was pondering my
new place in the world there was a knock on the cabin door. It turned out to be the 2nd. engineer who immediately enquired
as to whether "I had found the Lord". Oops, my first exposure to religion at sea. Nice fellow as it turned out. He soon discovered
that I was something of a lost cause in that regard. The 'fiver' was more to my liking. We got along famously and became firm
shoreside 'buds'. Didn't hang around with the apprentices too much. They were somewhat removed from my accommodation and I
suspected that one was verging on becoming 'gay', if not already!
The 4th. engineer had just got married and during
one stay in Port Talbot he had his new wife down for a couple of days. Poor fella. Never lived it down. A group of us reprobates,
led I might add, by my 'chief', would hang around outside his locked cabin door and listen intently for signs of 'action'
Definately an interesting group for my first exposure to 'life at sea'.
"STEAM ON DECK FOR THE ORGAN!?"
I was introduced to the usual first tripper jokes such
as, on a Sunday, "Hey sparks, how about asking the chief engineer to put steam on deck for the organ" - this at around 1500
hours when he was usually having his afternoon 'kip', of course. Or "How about helping to pick up the hymn books from the
Didn't fall for any of 'em.....
Chief sparks was a young lad from Bradford and with 6 weeks of being moored
alongside due to a seaman's strike we had plenty of time to go over things and for me to familiarize myself with the equipment
which was IMRC etc. Stuart was a good teacher so I ended up splicing a new antenna, servicing the battery banks, 'Brasso'ing'
the D/F loop and updating the Notices to Ship's Wireless Stations etc.
QTO PORT TALBOT BND ALGIERS....YEAH!
Finally we took off down the Bristol Channel. My very
first TR to Ilfracomberadio/GIL. Thanks chief! Slight case of nerves but no problemo...Now to my first foreign port. Algiers
and the mysterious 'Kasbah'! The 'fiver', third mate and I took off ashore. La Moulin Rouge (I think there used to be one
in just about every French port around the world) turned out to be one of those 'forbidden' hot spots where "boys became men"
as the saying goes.
One afternoon we met up with a couple of French legionares, one from Liverpool and the other from
Manchester which I thought strange at the time. While exchanging cigarettes (our 'wild' Woodbine for their Citanes - yuk!)
and sipping back the local anacette they showed us their family pictures from 'back home'. They were obviously looking for
our sympathy claiming that they had been 'pressed' into joining. "Could we possibly smuggle them aboard Oremina?" Once aboard
they would be free of their contract they claimed. No way. These were the days of the 2300 curfew, having to be back on board
in plenty of time or risk being shot on sight! Machine guns were posted at most street corners and war material was constantly
arriving in port from France.
While in Bone the chief steward noticed a stray cat on the dockside and brought her
aboard. Upon arrival at Barrow-in Furness she disappeared ashore (like the legionaires she fancied the UK for a change). We
pretty well figured we had lost her and she had become a UK 'illegal alien' circumventing quarantine etc. Stranger than fiction
though about an hour before we were due to sail she came beetling down the dock from 'uptown', scampered up the gangway and
settled back aboard. Who says that cats are physic animals!? We assumed that she had had a few problems with the local dialect
and preferred three 'squares' a day rather than knocking over dustbins and hanging around MacDonalds!
AIR CONDITIONING AT SEA? - A THING
OF THE FUTURE.
We did not have the luxury of air-conditioning aboard
OREMINA and while cruising along the coast of North Africa salt tablets were available in the saloon. Talk about 'horse pills'.
I would have rather became dehydrated than take one of those things!.
North Africa iron ore is very powdery and all
doors and ports had to be clamped shut while in port. Stevedores were not overly conscientious in ensuring that the conveyor
belt hoses were inserted right into the hold. Consequently, in spite of the accommodation being sealed in this way a film
of red dust managed to find it's way everywhere.
FIRST SHIP ITINERARY
Ports we visited in North Africa included Algiers, Bone
and Melilla in Spanish Morocco. Quite exotic places although we usually ended up in the Flying Angel Missions for a game of
table tennis or to watch a movie and sup on the local 'brew'.
Following North Africa we unloaded in Port Talbot and
were then directed to Narvik in Norway. This proved to be quite exciting for me as a sister ore carrier, the MABEL WARWICK,
was in port with us. Their single R/O had been sick and flown home. Boy, I thought, what if they want ME to take the ship
back to the UK. My first 'solo'. Unfortunately it was not to be. I did not have my required 6 months sea time in then also,
as I discovered later, she was a Siemans ship and not IMRC. I'm sure the two companies could have worked something out but
the 6 month rule applied and so it was not to be.
THE BEST PART - REGULAR WATCHKEEPING.
Although all ports proved interesting my favourite place
was back at sea and down to the routine of regular watchkeeping. After taking Portisheadradio traffic lists, which the chief
insisted in being copied down in full in the log, naveams, navigation warnings and weather were at the top of the list. This
information was transmitted by GKL twice a day.
Taking D/F bearings at college with the Marconi 'Lodestone' was straight
forward but actually taking bearings at sea was another story. Coming across the Bay of Biscay in heavy fog provided an ideal
opportunity to 'get my feet wet' in this regard. Looking through the List of Radio Beacons was required to check the appropriate
station to listen to. In our case, naturally, the 'sense' antenna was not required to check the reciprocal as we had a very
good idea where we were, thanks to the Decca Navigator, the operation of which I found quite fascinating. My chief was a good
instructor and was very helpful in every respect. Who could guess then that in roughly another 30 years or so all this equipment,
including the sextant that had been such an integral part of a sailor's kit, would be confined to the museum and replaced
by a little 'black box' on the bridge known as GPS?
CALM SEAS, MILLIONS OF STARS AND
One of the more pleasant times was coming off watch at
ten and 'shooting the breeze' on the bridge with the 3rd. mate while enjoying a cup of cocoa along with sardine sandwiches
left for the watchkeepers. Although Stuart, my chief, had only been at sea for about 5 years himself he fitted the image of
the eccentric R/O well. His insistence on not letting a crumb drop from a sandwich was his way of preventing rats from frequenting
the radio office. His favourite position was feet up on the desk and a tattered Mickey Spillane in hand along with his trusty
Briar and surrounded by clouds of smoke from his Condor Sliced!
With cheap ciggies and tobacco, second hand smoke
and the dire warnings of today were still a long way off!
Whilst enjoying the new experiences of my first ship I found
it strange that he already had his sights set on a shore job as a tax agent with the Bradford City Council. How boring I thought
but being married I understood.
NEW "DIGS" - NEW SHIP, NEW PEOPLE...
I was eventually called home on leave which lasted about
two weeks and was then appointed to the EUCADIA of Anchor Line. She was a general cargo vessel, carried 12 passengers and
built in 1946, then on the UK/Karachi/Bombay run.
The passengers usually included retired professional people and
on my first trip we had a very interesting lady author who wrote murder mysteries. I shall always remember New Year in Bhedi
Bhundar on that ship (between Karachi and Bombay). With an almost 100% Glasgow crew I really don't think anything moved on
the ship for a couple days following 'Hogmanay'! Fascinating places, especially Bombay. Beach Kandy (spelling!?) and the Pakistan
Airways Hotel were our favourite spots. Coming back to the ship at night and stepping over people and I think a few bodies
in the street was quite the 'thing'. Sarto Babanera who would come cycling along the quay was the local dockside tailor, just
outside Red Gate, and I think most shipping companies that frequented the Port used him for their tropical uniform and other
clothing requirements. The material was excellent and styling was 'made to measure'. None of the RN 'below the knee' shorts
I might add!
With prohibition in effect needless to say that was one place we would go ashore 'in the bag' and come
Those bleedin' Bombay Tigers buzzing around the cluster of lights at the top of the gangway were something
else......you could jump up and and down on them ten times and drop a brick on 'em. They would still scuttle off in one piece!
Aden was the favourite place for cameras, binoculars, transistor radios (then a novelty). Ships of all flags and nationalities
to see up and down the Canal
AND ANOTHER, BIGGER AND BETTER
- WELL, MAYBE!
Following two trips on the EUCADIA I was to join the CARINTHIA
of Cunard Line. A busy ship indeed. Although a magnificent ship and a tribute to John Brown's she rolled like a SOB, even
with stabilizers. I think her flat bottom had something to do with navigating the St. Lawrence. Eating in the First Class
Saloon was simply amazing. Never before had I seen such an abundance and variety of food. Pure hedonism! After having spent
a year at sea already nothing had prepared me for the North Atlantic. As we exited the Irish Sea bound for Montreal that's
when it started. I simply stared at my lobster and caviar...dashed out of the saloon and emptied myself of lunch over the
side! Later, on watch taking press it was simply no fun at all with the bucket between my legs trying to keep the typewriter
carriage on an even keel......no sympathy from the other two R/Os but I couldn't really blame them.
FULL RATE VERSUS SHIP LETTER TELEGRAMS...
Unfortunately, the chief aboard CARINTHIA was a little
'bent'. At sea he was a tyrant and known as the 'Laird' but once with his wife aboard in Liverpool for a meal he was a tamed
'pussy cat'. "Yes dear, no dear, three bags full dear" etc. etc. A Jekyl & Hyde for sure. Between him and the 2nd R/O,
who fitted the description of being a 'drunken Irishman' (no prejudice here, he really did drink one helluva lot and he was
Irish!), they had devised a system of charging passengers for full rate telegrams while sending them as Ship Letter Telegrams.
The resulting savings was distributed between the three of us at the end of the trip. Needless to say, rather than expose
these two for what they were I resigned from IMRC and went off to join Union-Castle (British & Commonwealth). Only chiefs
of staff were allowed to mix with passengers with Cunard and at my 'tender' age I was looking for a little 'action'....(fancying
myself as a James Bond, who was very much in vogue at the time).
Larger passenger ships provided plenty of operating
along with social activities. I had already applied for a position with P & O but they had declined. I had my 1st Class
PMG but they were ideally looking for new R/Os fresh out of college to 'train' them in their own particular way.
Union-Castle all officers were expected to fraternize and actually we all were expected to 'entertain' passengers in the tourist
saloon by having a place at a passenger table. Dressed in bow tie, cummerbund and monkey jacket I certainly had my fill of
'action' but never realized just how much until I began signing off OWING the company money! Too darn easy to sign those bar
chits down aft in the bar or around the pool playing 'macho man'.
With Cunard the mates were somewhat removed from our accommodation
and were a bit of a 'stand-offish' lot anyway...The R/Os location was close to the pursers who were a really fun crowd. I
was often asked to 'lend out my cabin' while on watch for some clandestine purser 'activity'. They were a lot of fun, Lord
knows what these people did when they came ashore. I suppose one referred to them as 'writers' in the RN!? One young junior
purser got himself involved with a lady whose father owned a plantation in Mississipi. Every time we arrived in Montreal there
was a parcel waiting for him with all manner of gifts. He and I wandered up to the Moore McCormack offices at 1 Broadway when
we were in New York one trip. He had some fantastic idea of joining a company sailing out of New Orleans. Unfortunately for
him (fortunately for his future no doubt) one had to be a U.S. citizen to join a U.S. company.
In spite of the gay
old time (we could use that expression back then!!) on passenger ships my favourite was the smaller more intimate bulk carriers,
single operator vessels with a minimum of B.S. and a closer knit group of 'mates'.
WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
It was a great life for a young fella' but a little birdie
must have been whispering in my ear that such a life could not last and that I had better start making tracks or I would probably
find myself redundant in 'middle' age. My eldest brother paid the price in this regard when he was effectively 'beached' as
a navigating officer in his forties.
While communication is today established with a virtual cell 'phone from the
bridge and all weather and navigation warnings trasnmitted directly by FAX and INMARSAT Samual Morse's invention is still
used today on the Ham bands Even there, however, the interest is rapidly fading with new operators totally uninterested in
putting themselves through the learning curve. How we all sweated at the James Watt College but I loved every minute translating
commercial signs along the railway track to Morse!
The short wave bands are very quiet these days. No longer do we
hear the powerful strains of PCH, SAG, DAN or GKL with their QSX 4, 6, 8, 12, 16 and 22 Mc/s. I have a feeling that old Sammy
Taylor on the CIRCASSIA really did have the 'best of the day'.
So ends my story. The relatively short time spent at
sea will always remind me of the enthusiasm of youth. There were good times and bad but we choose to remember the good, and
why not? These are the memories that we prefer to relive.
Does the youth of today enjoy the same anticipation that
we did setting out in life? I'm not so sure. Something tells me that today they have it all way too soon and way too easily.
Consequently, teenagers are often a melancholy lot who need instant gratification or a 'toke' to give them a lift. In their
late teens there's not much left that they haven't experienced which amounts to not much to be excited about.
haven't bored the reader and you've actually read this far I would be happy to hear some of your stories. Please use the Guest
Book or e-mail directly.
The next and final R/O related page contains a few pictures that may be of interest. Should you
have anything by way of pictures that may fit the theme I would love to see them for possible inclusion.
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