AIME'S STORY & PICTORIALS

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FOUR YEARS OF FUN WITH ANCHOR LINE by Ian Walker
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ALAN SHARD - WARTIME MN REMINISCENCES
CAPT'N PETER ASHCROFT, EXPLOITS OF
SEA STORIES & OTHERS
AIME'S STORY & PICTORIALS
MEMOIRS OF A RADIO OFFICER
RELATED SITES

AIME IN 1967 JUST AFTER GRADUATING FROM THE MARINE INSTITUTE IN RIMOUSKI.  HE WAS TO SAIL ON HIS FIRST SHIP, THE "ONTARIO POWER"/VGXW THE FOLLOWING OCTOBER.

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The following 'stories' have been kindly provided by Aime Charest of Quebec.  Aime was, for many years, a Radio Officer sailing on a variety of vessels throughout his career.  As the sea-going profession of the Radio Officer drew to a close his final experiences aboard a modern cruise liner are particularly interesting.  Personally, I think we had the best of times.  Readers may relate to much of the material.  He would especially enjoy hearing from anyone wishing ro remark on his experiences.
 Please communicate your comments via ve2doh@sympatico.ca for forwarding. Thank You.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A MODERN CRUISE LINER RADIO OFFICER

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SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS - Courtesy RCCL & Author's File

A friend of mine was sailing as a Deck-Officer on the’Bermuda Star’, a cruise-ship of the 50’s or 60’s style.  Upon the ship’s call in Quebec City, I paid him a visit, curious to have a look around such a vessel.   I was very impressed by the wood panelling, the general  decor and especially by a feeling that was quite different from what I had been used to on a cargo ship or tanker of modest size.   A quick look in the radio room left me rather frustrated for the R/O’s were ashore although I couldn’t blame them as Quebec is a very interesting city.  My friend had the bright idea to supply me with a list of companies, mostly based in Florida, indicating those close to my preference and what to do to apply for a position.

 

 Back home, I checked the list and chose a few of them to whom I wrote a letter and attached photocopies of my seaman’s book which detailed my previous sea service. Within a week I received a call from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and talking with the Personnel Manager I detailed my experience and availability to travel.   The R/O on the ‘SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS, ’whom I was to replace,  was going on a long leave and I was his replacement for that period.  He also stated that if my services were satisfactory it was possible to secure a permanent position with the company.  He mentioned that he would call me back the next day and provide details regarding dates and port of embarkment, transportation and other usual information. It was Wednesday and upon that second call, I was to join the ship in Miami on the following Saturday morning   No time to lose!  I as on my way……………….

 

                         At Miami airport, a company’s taxi was waiting for me and we drove to the Marriott Plaza, located just by the cruise-ship quays, a ten-minute walk to the ship. She was a one week cruise in the Caribbean.  I really looked forward but not without a certain trepidation to becoming an officer on a such a prestigious floating palace.  The ‘SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS’ in 1991, was the largest cruise-ship in the world:   Norwegian flag,  73,200  gross tons, 2500 passengers and more than 600 crewmembers!   A beautiful all white ship, on cruises to Haïti, Puerto Rico, St-Thomas and back to Miami. At 10 that morning, she was alongside, disembarking passengers and getting ready to take on a new “cargo” in the afternoon. At the crew’s gangway, I felt like a lice beside an elephant...A seaman picked up my luggage and guided me right up to the radio office where the Chief R/O was expecting me.  He was a friendly fellow from Norway who introduced me to the one I was to relieve and to the 3rd R/O. To my surprise, the 2nd  was from Ontario and the 3rd , a big tall girl of Dutch descent, was from Alberta.  I was told I would be on training for one week, with both R/O’s, the 2nd to pay off then. Firstly, I had to report to the crew’s store, for supplies such as the white daily uniform and the formal one, a marine blue blazer with assorted shoes and tie. Afterwards I was guided this time to my cabin where my suitcase had already preceeded me.  After sorting out my living quarters for the next little while it was back again to the radio office where  the Chief strongly suggested that I take a thorough ‘voyage’  all over the ship in order to become familiar with the size and layout as soon as possible (very pertinent).

I was to report at 1600 hours back in the radio office.  Then, at departure time,  I would start my initiation and be introduced to the Master. To describe such a ship would take pages but as I was equipped with 35mm camera some pictures accompany this story.     

 

The Radio-Room was rather small for the size of the ship but I was to discover that the amount of traffic to be handled was considerable. The usual radio equipment was in evidence with duplicate equipment in some cases.  A satcom satellite system was used for ship’s business traffic, faxes, radiotelephone calls and the  television network channels. In these early days of satellite communications, even on such a big ship, the then technology did not allow  passengers yet to call directly via satellite from their cabin. Using that device was very expensive; to palliate,  passengers would call up the Radio-Room, book a call and wait for their turn (QRY’s); when up, the R/O on duty would call back the cabin and advise the caller that his “party was on the line”. Three transmitters on air at a time, the satcom on stand-by for the Master’s and Senior Officer’s traffic, the fax ready to go, checking the WX bulletins, monitoring the TV incoming signals from CNN or mainly U.S. networks, noting with the L/L operator the call elapsed time, the incoming calls from shore and ringing the requested cabin number to check if the called party was in or out somewhere on board,  filling a bill form to be paid by the passenger and collected by the purser’s office, sorting out incoming messages to those concerned, etc, etc, all this was the work for...a single R/O on a 4-hour watch!

Not so surprisingly, was the total absence of any CW traffic of any kind! Not even listening on 500 kc/s! My bug was in a drawer, unused! We were far from numerous telegrams exchanged for decades between passenger liners and the coast stations around the world!   During my week of training, I thought my head would blow out so much I had to learn, to remember and to do.  I was to spend twelve hours a day on watch to catch on all the tasks. I was litterally plunging in my bunk anytime I could, without knowing if I would make it. But I was determined to get through and I liked the ship. At the end of that famous week, both R/O’s made favourable reports to the Chief,  stating that I was ready to go by myself.  On completion of that first cruise, upon arrival in Miami, my very first duty was to pick up the crew’s mail and with the help of a senior seaman, to sort it out and distribute it ASAP.  All of us know how important is the mail for a seaman. A good part of the crew was from the Philippines and how many sorry faces I saw when there was no mail for them.

 

I was to stand the12.00-16.00 and the 20.00-24.00 watches. I found those hours so appropriate to me that, in agreement with the 2nd R/O, I kept that schedule all the time onward. 

From now on, more relaxed than in the first week, I was to hear all kinds of things, to understand lots of others, to be a witness of our planet microcosm, on a cruise, if I can say, over the vast ocean.

 

                       

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Courtesy Aime Charest

Upon departure, most of the passengers were standing waving to relatives and friends or simply waving to the people on the dock.  Hundreds of coloured balloons and serpentines were launched in the air as the wind carried them away.  The ship, with a slight vibration, was slipping away on the turquoise sea, headed towards the distant horizon in the late afternoon.  Right from the first morning croisiérists would rush to be on the ship to shore ‘phone to call up relatives ashore. Within a single 4-hour watch, the R/O would book more than 200 calls and as radio services were available between 08.00 a.m. and midnight, the 2nd and the 3rd (the Chief was not standing watches...) would make roughly 1500 calls! That doesn’t include incoming calls, faxes both ways and other routine communications.  On the passenger list, an average of 80 nationalities were represented.  Approximately 80% Americans, 10% Europeans and the rest from all continents. By sunset of that day, most  of them will have made a phone call home, describing the  luxury of the ship, the excellent food and often commenting  on the  “charming accent of the radio-operator”...  (had to put that in!)  The land based recipients of the call would often comment that they could even hear “the waves,   the sea or even the wind!”  Of course this was due to the background humming heard on radio-waves but that, they did not know. You could distinctively make the difference between the Texas, New England, European or other accents.   In the evening most of people were quickly absorbed in  their many course dinner, tasting all platters but not finishing them (there was actually crew member to discard ‘left-overs’ over  the side but one imagines that many galley members often  enjoyed these remains of of ‘pure hedonism’. 

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PASSENGERS EXERCISING ON THE PROMENADE DECK - Courtesy Aime Charest

Following dinner there would be a sedate but determined ‘rush’ to the casino, the entertainment show with two cabarets, to the movies or standing by the numerous bars, drinking tax-free tropical mixtures.  Off watch white-uniformed officers would also be ‘cruising’ with an eye for the occasional lonely woman, other single male passengers, some slightly others more than slightly enebriated, fancied their chances regarding available groups or single ‘girlies.  Meanwhile, on my evening watch, it was often the crew members turn to make calls.. Not many of them though could afford the expense for the most were working for minimum wage which, as these huge vessels were often that not registered in countries where such laws regarding minimum wage did not exist. Saturday nights were often the busiest.  Our Casino manager, a woman, would call up her lover aboard another cruise-ship; a male dancer his boy-friend in Los Angeles (and if I had to advise him that his time was coming to an end he would often comment on his partner’s possible infidelities).  Another guy would talk to his wife in New York City and she would tell him, not sure of his seaman’s behavior, that “if you break my heart, I’ll break your neck”.  By midnight, I had heard so many oddities that I was quite relieved to shut down the circuit, turn the Auto-Alarm on and close the station. On the  way  down to my cosy cabin, walking down ten decks below  instead of using elevators,  I would distribute received messages to the senior officers mail-box at their cabin door  and obtain a sandwich from the night steward.

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THE GYMNASIUM - Courtesy Aime Charest

There, I was pleased to have a chat with the Philippinos who were often quite surprised that an officer would actually be interested in their lives. Later, I was to realize that for all Philippino guys on board, I was THE “Radio-Officer”. Very  few people ever set eyes on the chief as he was most often in his cabin and the 2nd R/O, right after she had graduated from  Radio School, had actually joined that ship, her very first one.   To many I was the only authentic R/O on board having come from the quite different world of cargo ships and they knew what that meant. Often they would salute me and greet me with a “hi sparks!” and a glint in their eye.

 

On the “Crown Monarch”, another cruise-ship I was on for a while, I had to spend my afternoon watch at the passenger’s gangway while we were calling at Ocho Rios, Jamaïca; some of them were there to check crew member ID cards and assist passengers, if necessary. I talked to many of the crew telling me that they had, in some cases, a 12 or 18-month contract, on a 400 US$ pay. They would also tell me about their families back home on a far away island in the Pacific, or about the amount the money they had to pay for a job at the twisted Employment Agency back in Manila.

 

On one Greek ship I was to join later the cook would boil a big cauldron of tomato rice with chunks of meat, put it on the crew’s table and they pick up their supper with a huge spoon. Scenes such as this would sadden me for the Philippinos are good seamen and devoted workers, considering their living conditions aboard F.O.C’s ships. In the laundry-room, a man of Chinese nationality, was in charge of washing and cleaning the officer’s clothes. Every time my clothes were sent back to me, I was very impressed by his efficiency and work cleanliness, the careful folding and sorting out.  I never actually met him but to thank him for his devotion one day, I put a $5 bill in an envelope and inserted into my dirty clothes.  Next day, a small piece of white paper was attached to a shirt.  Two Chinese characters were written upon it and I carried that paper with me until I met another Chinese crew member and asked for the translation.  Apparently it contained the expression “PROSPERITY AND RESPECT TO YOU”.

 

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THE CASINO - Courtesy Aime Charest

Too tired for a session at the disco or the cabaret (officers were not allowed in the casino), I would pass by the cinema where the movie operator, a young lad from Belize, was winding up his reel.  In my comfortable air-conditioned cabin,  I would be happy to be on my own again enjoying a cleansing shower, eat a sandwich or two and ‘crashed’ into my bunk.

 

 Our first port of call was Labadee, on the north coast of Haïti, a private beach owned by R.C.C.L. There, excursions were organised in glass-bottom boats to observe underwater life in shallow waters.   Activities for passengers which included guided snorkeling provided a glimpse into the world of tropical fish and exotic plant life.  Other beach sports activities and picnics were often the order of the day providing an exciting relief for a Nebraskan housewife or to a Yukoton woodcutter. At a far end of the beach, two black gay men couples were bathing and having fun in the nude. Elsewhere, youngsters, probably newlyweds, were very close to a session too explicit to describe here.  Aged people, in light but total vestment, were conversing in the shadow of sunshades. Whilst in port radio operations were very quiet. Close enough to the wheelhouse, I would leave the radio-room for a while to chat with the officer of the watch and check shore activities through binoculars.

 

Tonight was the Captain’s Banquet. A few hours before, in evening chic gowns, men in tuxedos, were parading in the atrium area to show-off and compare their attire to others.  Some of them, more familiar with such a dress code, had a high class look while others gave the somewhat ‘out of character’ appearance and looked, to all intents and purposes, out of some obscure operetta.  I’ve never known on what basis the Master would choose those invited to share his table.  In the  ‘ Sea Lady’s’ era, it was easy to determine but nowadays,  in that melting-pot of nationalities and social classes, just what were the criteria I wondered?   No doubt the company’s head office had ‘suggested’ to him that certain passengers ‘expected’ ‘special’ privileges as often they were repeat passengers.

 

By eight o’clock, the Master, dressed in his cream color tuxedo, would walk in the radio office.  I soon learned that it was his habit to do so most days at a certain time. The 2nd  R/O, had told me to keep myself on my guard for he could be somewhat unpredictable and often unfriendly to his junior officers. I was told the same thing from other officers and I was nervous towards my initial professional contact with him.  Often, if not busy, I would respectfully stand up at his entrance. He would inquire about the weather, the news and provide words of encouragement telling me not to worry about the work and to just ‘take things in my stride’.  This I actually found quite encouraging and therefore my impression was not exactly what I had heard.  Perhaps it was my manner.  I did find him very friendly, even fatherly and quite ‘au contraire’ to what I had heard. I liked the man and would be very happy to serve with him on a cargo ship.  The 2nd R/O (being a female) actually mentioned to me that he had tried to get familiar with her ( he was in his early  sixties) but she had rebuked him and he had obviously felt frustrated  and humiliated.   For different reasons, they didn’t like each other.  He was quite strict with all his officers in their conduct and impressed upon us all that no officers were to be seen in bars or at the disco after 2 a.m. “We were not on a cruise but at work!” he would say. Finally, for the same reasons as with the Philippinos, I was “his” Radio-Officer and our relationship was a good one.

I would rise at 6 a.m. and, having my own coffee-maker, would prepare a couple of espresso coffees to enjoy slowly.  Then I would attire myself in workout clothing and attend the passenger’s gymnasium for bodybuilding exercises.  Early in the morning it was often deserted and I could use all the very modern equipment. At 46, I was in great shape:  muscled, well tanned (all over), good health, blond hair, 6 foot-tall.

 Often I was asked to join ladies and have a photo taken with them, sometimes arm around waist (yes, sir!) for some of the more forward youngsters, in my ‘whites’. Otherwise, I was incognito!  The ship was a little longer than 1000 feet and provided for a good long walk. Then, it was my swimming-pool time, either at the crew’s or passenger’s location on deck.  With the passengers I enjoyed mixing with people from many countries and as we had approximately 44 different nationalities amongst the crew I did my ‘bit’ for international relations!  At the passenger’s pool one day I saw a woman burnt like freshly boiled lobster with scalds pimples on the forehead. Talking with one of our nursing sisters one day she mentioned that the most frequent ‘malady’ on board was sunburn followed by occasional seasickness problems and...hangovers!   As was often the case on any passenger ships down through the ages the ship’s doctor(s) tended to be somewhat over paid alcoholics with a ‘bent’ for sexual encounters. Occasionally, in the privacy of their cabin, they would listen to people bored and longing to go back home (unbelievable but true!).  Our most peculiar senior officer was actually the, so called ‘security officer’aboard.  A Londoner, he spoke with a broad cockney accent and made me laugh all the time.  Around that time Romania had just got rid of Caucescu and I used to designate him as the “Securitate Officier”! His main duties were to make sure that all fire equipment was in good order, to train the crew’s firemen and instruct new officers in emergency procedures.  Often, acting in the role of ‘police officer’, he was often called upon to stop the more aggressive crew members from ‘carving’ one another up.  Such miscreants were most often paid off at the next port.  Once, one had to be evacuated in San Juan for a severe knife injury and his assailant was put under arrest by local police.

 

As most of passengers were Americans, the company had to please them in their American ways.  Swimming-pool deck hot-dog and hamburgers picnics were held once a week. Lots of ketchup, relish and mustard!  Observing everything, I had noticed that out of 10 people, 6 were often very overweight and, quite frankly, obese. Europeans tended to be somewhat more ‘classy’.  They were not as ‘loud’ as their fellow Americans and were, for the most part, more cordial and could easily be distinguished in the crowd.  Often I conversed in French with those whose mother tongue was French which made life more interesting.  I would then be asked where I was from as the French Canadian accent and mannerisms are not the same as those of France.  This quite surprised many who were not aware of our dual language in Canada. .

 

I loved San Juan, especially the Old San Juan with its colonial architecture, its pastel blue or pink houses, palm trees and its beautiful site on the ocean shore. That was our longest call in a port: from around 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. following day, the ship taking on stores and having passengers on bus excursions in the city or nearby.. The Chief would give us, the 2nd and I, the whole day off. That was time for personnal shopping, visiting book stores and having a drink in the old downtown. One day, as it was my colleague’s birthday, we reserved a table in a glamorous french restaurant and chose the best on the menu! On my Friday evening watches, the Casino Manager greatly appreciated that I get the Florida lotto winning numbers. Forwarding them to her Office would grant me with a high quality french wine bottle. As I’m not a wine drinker, that week, the bottle was handed to Lucia, the 2nd, as a reward for her help during my training. The Navigation Captain (we also had a Deck Captain), both assisting the Master in the concerned matters, really surprised me that evening. A handsome Norwegian guy, in late 30’s, blond hair and small beard, had chosen that same restaurant we were in and was accompanied with...two beautiful girls I suspected were not his cousins! The same guy did not like us foreigners in the radio-room for, according to his understanding, we were stealing jobs from Norwegians. The fact was that the pay was good but as the ship was registered on the Norway International Registry, the same pay was not so attractive to Norwegian R/O’s for it was lower than what they were paid under the regular Norwegian flag! In three months, he never said a single word to me, not even answering to my useless Hi’s!

Even the refrigeration officer looked down at me, probably for the same reasons; it’s only during the last 2 or 3 weeks I was on board that he became friendly to me. God knows why.

 

                        My most pleasant and restful call was in Charlotte Amalie, St-Thomas Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I had been there too a few times before, again when I was in the C.A.N. That was the only port where R/O’S had no watch to stand. After my usual morning sport activities, I was ashore by 10 o’clock, mailing letters (though we had a very efficient Post Office on board), making phone calls home but mainly, it was my day at the beach. There was a small one only a couple of miles from the dock. There, lying down on a large towel, a bottle of water and a couple of sandwiches (again), having the ex-France at anchor just a half mile away, her huge blue hull standing still in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, seriously, I was close to total happiness. The ship’s movie operator, among others, used to go there too. We became good friends. As anyone else, I knew the facts about the sexual life among crew members, particularly on a so big floating palace. What we called “public areas”on board were strictly forbidden to them, except for service. That rule applied also to Officer’s and passenger’s cabins, again except on service.  Officers had access to all save the casino and they could keep company with anyone they wanted to as long as their duties were not affected. He told me about the “cinema” that occured sometimes in the crew’s quarters, hetero or gay. Ten percent of the population, that meant around 300 gays and lesbians aboard.There was no police to check on private behaviours as long duties were performed properly.  It was not worse than anywhere else; it was only a reflection of the outside world admiring itself in a mirror. And never incidents related to that were ever reported.

 

                        With roughly three thousand people aboard such a huge ship, lifeboat drills were of the most importance. These were held just before sailing off Miami, right after all passengers have boarded the ship. In each cabin, as on any other ship, a lifeboat station sign was posted indicating to passengers their assigned lifeboat. Of course, at the bell signal, urging everyone to be present at the assigned lifeboat there was the usual confusion. However, surprisingly, people took the exercise seriously,  knowing that it was for their own good. Obviously, a wide margin would seperate a rehearsal and reality. I preferred not to imagine how it would be like to see many old-aged people walking up or down (depending on their location on board at the crucial moment) towards theit lifeboats, jostling each other, confused with the direction to take and so on. Meanwhile, all of them were standing by their lifeboat within a surprising lapse of time, awaiting instructions from the Officer-in-charge, relatively interested by what was going on, some of them in a hurry to complete the temporarily interrupted tour of their week-time palace. No use to say that it was highly recommended to all personnel to be very polite, pleasant and helpful to passengers. As the Chief used to say: “They give us our pay,” which terms, in my view, should be read as: ”They contribute to our living.” They gave us nothing; it was rather an exchange of services. Thus, in the circumstances and the purpose of the exercise, it was the only occasion where we were allowed to be rude, without exaggeration, with any of them who would not comply with instructions. The only difficulty was with the “yellow line”. On deck, a wide yellow line was painted and during the drill, all were strongly requested to stand behind to avoid any confusion now if a casualty should occur.

Normally, a simple remark would make the man or woman to stand back but once, I was sorry to insist that an old man, in his late 70’s, complies with my request. He answered back that he had been in Merchant Marine ruring the WW2 and that he knew how to manage with that. I realised that certainly he did better know than I but I replied back that “it was an even better reason to comply”! He hated me.

In San Juan, early in the morning, it was the fire drill. Only the crew was of course involved and it usually unrolled with efficiency. All those involved had received a training and my duty was to stand by in the wheelhouse, answering to telephones and walkie-talkies, used by the different chief operations for all departments and fire posts on board. Signalling the state of the exercise, I had then to report verbally the same to the Master and note each report and time of receiving it in a log-book. This last was to allow the Master to check on time elapsed between the moment the alarm was activated and the one at which different department were on the readiness. Right after, he would address to all Officers for comments on the drill and do his “preachings” concerning our do’s and dont’s. Then, I had to check the batteries, not four or eight units as usually seen on a cargo-ship but twenty-four! That meant 192 cells to check on the density, with the old densimeter, the same way as I used to do elsewhere. It was not a very harassing operation since I did not have to suffer polar temperatures or heavy rolling!

 

                        An hour or so before reporting on my evening watch, I usually, more often than not, walked up to the Viking’s Lounge to have a pina colada, my favorite drink at the time. Freshly showered, “attractively (for not saying sexy)” in my white uniform, I would wander into public areas, towards the Lounge, ten decks up, where, as never before (and after) in my life, I’ve been glanced from head to toes by people, men and women, let’s say  half and half...in percentage! Most of the time, I was asked by a lady, eyes shining with desire, (hey, what an ego!!)  to be taken in photo with her, sometimes her husband or escort on my other side (just to save appearances). Bolder ones would ask me to hold me by the waist or she would do so...instinctively...Once, walking by, I was taken on a cine-camera, an 8-mm as used in that prehistoric era of technology, sequence long enough for the man doing so, having leisure to take delight of the movie once back home, alone or with his friends somewhere back in Indiana or Kansas...To be honest, I didn’t care about intentions or even the demanding person but I must say that it was very flattering on the ego. Very indeed...So, that evening, I went up to the Lounge, called my drink to the barman (who knew pretty well who I was) and tended my credit card. The company, with their compliments, issued once a month, a special credit card to all Officers for their own entertainment ...an “other” unpredicted occurences. The Lounge, the 13th and highest deck, was a beautiful and vast round shaped bar circling the funnel with tables located by a wide opened view on the sea and the whole pool deck. It was a very restful area mostly loaded with people, later in the evening and late in the night, in search of sea poetry or romance after too much drinking in other bars, the casino, and as the result of a sensual encounter or date. I chose a table, posed my white cap opposite to me, as a decoy for not being disturbed in a moment of’ loneliness’ I looked for. That did not work all the time. A couple of tables away, two women, probably old friends in their late 50’s,  were having a chat over pink colored drinks in huge glasses. I noticed that one in particular was keeping eyes too often and too long in my direction. What was I to expect?  She decided to open up a conversation and came towards me asking if pictures could be taken! I agreed of course She handed the camera to her friend, passed her hand low around my waist, did the same (higher though), ceding the place to her acolyte and plock!, another picture. You can imagine the rest: questions about my duties, my origins, married or not, what time I finished my work and so on. It was getting very embarrassing while talking to me she would pose her hand on my forearm. I was saved by the “bell”: time was up and had to go....imperatively. Conclusion: I’m almost sure that when back home in her little town of Massachusetts, though they said to be from Boston, probably a small black dot on a road map, she would brag to have met that lovely and charming “french” Radio-Officer seen there on pictures, had a romantic affair with him on a dream-boat and that it had been the most wonderful trip in her life!!! “Lies in vain which comes by far.” Later that week, I met the women somewhere in a public area: they never “saw” me. I believe I was invisible at that precise moment...Don’t know why...

 

                        Close to a thousand phone calls per day, among which some would last up to 1½ hours, implied lots of a money spent by passengers. In two remarkable cases, the amounts involved were tremendous for me and I ignored then that such operations could occur  even on a cruise-ship. A rich man from New York City call up his office in Lower Manhattan (I knew by the area code) and for 1 ½ hour, discussed with his collaborator of best sells and buys to be done that day at the N.Y. Stock Exchange. After hearing that so many million of dollars could be handed like sand pebbles, I was abashed to hear the conclusion which consisted of selling some shares for 20 million dollars and buy others for 45 million! His call cost him 500USD, nothing to him  Usually, R/O’s don’t make comments on QRJ’s (the famous secrecy oath) but this time, when the operator at OceanGateRadio/WOO gave

me the elapsed time and the fare, she told me that this one was making a better pay than us...! What I could not figure was that how a man supposedly on a vacation cruise, presumably away from daily money torments could spend a part of the afternoon on such a headache!  In a second case, in the evening, a man was requesting to the casino that 5000USD to be retrieved from his Visa credit card for his gambling needs. For this I had to call Visa in the U.S., supply the customer’s name, credit card number, the required amount and so on.The call was of course to his expenses. The service from Visa would take only a few minutes and after receiving an approval number that I was to pass to the casino, the gambler would have his money on the spot.

 

Once on my own, my colleague discretely informed me that the rates charged to passengers differed slightly from those listed on the Ship Station Charges chart. Of course, these “side rates” did not appliy to crew’s phone calls! An additional 25% “side” charge was applied to all calls which represented many hundreds of dollars by the end of the month. For exemple, a normal rated call costing 10USD, would be billed 13USD to the passenger; a 20$ call would be 26$ and so on. After the Chief had compiled total daily money received from passengers and filling accounts forms that went to owners for administration purposes, the leftovers” were put in little steel box as tips for R/O’s...Normally, after two weeks and when calling Miami, he would open the Ali Baba’s cavern and share the pots of gold contents between the three of us: a little more for him, the remaining for the 2nd and I. That meant an average of 1000USD monthly extra for each of us! That “traffic” occurred on ALL company’s ships and was well secretly known among R/O’s. I have no idea when or how it got started but am sure that it has been going on for a very long time.  (Ian also mentions this ‘problem’ on the site when he was R/O aboard Cunard’s CARINTHIA way back in 1960) 

Many years after, I heard the “plot” had been disclosed by owners; the story doesn’t say how they managed with that and if they ever took any punitive action against that, save stopping it.

 

                        This occurence illustrates only the tip of the iceberg. All kinds of “inner” traffics were probably underway except drugs, as far as I know. In those years, it was easier than today to get some Jamaica Gold and this, in all countries the ship called, including U.S.A. On board, “smoking” was tolerated as long as no one knew anything about it, Security Officer included. Again, as long as the service was not affected negatively , crew’s leisures were their choice. Nowadays, I don’t believe in the philosophy of tolerance, particularly as far as the U.S. are concerned.

 

                         After eleven weeks, the R/O I had relieved was coming back from leave. The company had another opening for me on another of their cruise-ships. However, after all that luxury, easy life, good pay (!), prestige and beautiful ports, I longed for cargo-ship’s world. All considered, I preferred the quietness of the radio-room in the evening watch, when reading a good book, I was listening to dots and dashes on 500, checking traffic-lists from VCS or PCH, weather forecast from GKA or NAM, smiling to the singing MCW “voice” of CUG in Azores, while slightly rolling on a rarely calm North Atlantic or the smooth waters of the Caribbean Sea in the off-hurricane season. I had sailed on floating wrecks, on brand new ships, with great Captains, violent crews, men from  close to a hundred nations, hearing many tongues, seeing breath-cutting sceneries, having helped Ghanaian seamen stuck in Baranquilla and unable to go back home, forgotten by their government. I had witnessed a young cadet dying on board off Elbe 1 Lightship, hoping my CW keying would help him out, in vain. Sometimes on freak-ships, I wished I had chosen another career but after a while back home, I was happy to embark again, to get as far away as possible from this crazy and noisy world.

 

                        I had never spend long-term engagements on ships for I was a free-lancer: first arrived, first served. Except for two ships I considered to be my home following a ‘broken affair’and where I succesively spent eleven and nine months terms.  For most of the time I had rather short contracts. A ship I really loved and wished to stay on for a long time,  for we were a great crew,  was sold a few months after because of a union versus owners conflict.  It was a great and adventurous life and though that life has basically been the same since the time that man has sailed the great seas, I don’t envy today’s youngsters who have missed the good part of it.

 

                        Four months later, another cruise line offered me a 2nd R/O’s job on the “Crown Monarch” also sailing the Caribbean Sea from West Palm Beach. I had no other opening at the moment and I accepted. But I did not stay very long; my passage aboard cruise-ships was over. I had wished, since my early years of a seaman, to sail on such great white beauties. They were not Ladies like the “Queens” or the high-class girlies of the French Line but they did have a soul.

Would you like to know how I know that?

In the case of the “Sovereign of the Seas”, just beside the door giving access to the Radio-Room and located at the end of the hallway, even in the friendly calm waters of the Caribbean Sea, the sounds of ‘activity’ in the radio office could always be heard in the distance.

Those loving dots and dashes of another world, so it seemed, could be heard by anyone who was paying a little attention. Only R/O’s have ears for that. Aye!

 

Aimé Charest ex-R/O

SS Sovereign of the Seas/LAEB2                 

THE NORTH ATLANTIC IN WINTER.

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Courtesy Aime Charest

The voyage had not started well.  Our cargo was comprised of powder and canned milk.   When too cold the loading was often interrupted due to the milk freezing and often resulted in an extended period of time to secure the cargo.  Afterwards, thick pack ice on the St Lawrence River added to delays and it was with relief that, after more than a week of sailing, we eventually arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and had the North Atlantic ahead of us. To make things a little more spicy, the Captain, although gentlemanlike and very friendly, was not particularly enthusiastic to have a Radio Officer aboard his ship, strange as it seems!  He had a foreign-going certificate but had never used it as he had always sailed on home trade voyages up and down the east coast of Canada.  One day, he asked me to explain to him how I was working out regarding my duties on board and appeared visibly satisfied.  From that day he often was to stand by to see how I was making out in the ‘special world’ of the Radio Office.

 

Unfortunately for the ship and everyone in her it didn’t take long to realize that this man had a common seaman’s weakness.  He had a weakness for ‘the bottle’.  The first day I issued bonded stores to the crew for which I was responsible I noticed that a ‘predator’ had already scavenged some bottles of liquor.  Later in the voyage I was to be in serious trouble trying to reconcile my inventory.  When reporting discrepancies to him he, at least, told me to put the differences to his personal account!  Nothing like getting caught with your ‘hand in the till’!

 

Skikkda, in Algeria, at that time of the year, was a damp, windy and cold port of call, the only one in fact during the voyage.  As regards shore-side entertainment for seamen, three weeks there was like planting a tent in the desert and waiting for the barmaid to take the order!  On top of that, we were told to proceed light ship back to Quebec City.  At that time of the year!?  For a small 3000-gt ship, with empty cargo holds, that did not portend a very comfortable crossing. The Mediterranean Sea was as wild as I had seen it that trip, right from the Skikkda pilot boat onward.

 

West of Gibraltar, the crew was already disgruntled due mainly to the weather we were encountering.  However, a couple of days of reasonably good weather was a relief which was encouraging for the balance of the voyage.  However, as is often the case, ol’ Murphy’s Law showed itself in no uncertain terms.  That particular month of December 1980 was one of the worst on the North Atlantic that I have experienced in 26 years of sailing.  Low pressures followed low pressures, day after day after day; the swell, the height of the waves, the wind and the sky, everything went berserk.  The ship began rolling and pitching so badly that, after a while,  any of the crew simply gave up trying to secure personnel things.  Even in the galley the weather would find a way to pick up dishes from where they were and throw them against the wall.   After a few days, the cook began to complain of a shortage of plates and glasses!  The captain and finally the whole crew were so eager to see a lull that I decided to take coded weather charts in CW, many times a day, whenever available from GKA, CFH and NSS in the hope that one of them would suggest some upcoming relief or even possibly indicate that there had been an error in the forecast! No such luck!  

 

“Well paid to see the world!”  it had said in the Postmaster General Handbook for Radio-Operators (1964 edition, at least). They just did not mention the occasional personal ‘trauma’ involved! 

 

The worst were the nights. Unable to sleep due in fact to the exhausting ritual of staying to stay upright during the day, and hearing the banging of the objects rolling here and there everywhere on board, the howling of furious winds ( my cabin located just by the starboard lifeboat) in the halyards, the various antennae and other structures on decks. We felt quite alone on the vast ocean and forgotten by all the gods in heaven.   It was so bad at one time that we went in reverse about 30 miles within 15 hours, while hove to! Bored to death, other ship operators in the vicinity including myself, would send a tiny dit-dit on 500,  just to kill time and/or make sure that our own ship was not completely alone on the vast ocean . It was actually reassuring to know that there were other ships in the immediate vicinity and not that far away ‘just in case’ we rolled over. On 500 kc/s , I was almost aware sometimes that I could hear someone else breathing without seeing him.  That ‘still strange voice’ - R/O’s know what I mean……….

                

 

One evening, on the 19.00 to 21.00 watch, I was sending a position report to the owners and a third AMVER for that day via HalifaxRadio/VCS.  The sea had no limit in harassing the little “Mathilda Desgagnés/VYJN”.  My bug was fixed with electric tape to the desk, copies of messages I was sending stuck with Scotch Tape (glory be to Scotch Brand!) and my left hand, helped by my feet, holding my whole body against some sort of unpredictable relative stability.  I had received a QSL (receipt) for my message to the owners and completed an AMVER transmission.    I must mention that during all that period it was extremely hard to send with my normal clean Morse which, I well knew, would result in sometimes a poor QRK (readability) at the receiving end.   I sincerely hoped that the operator at VCS would understand.  Exasperated and at the same time wishing to get through as soon as possible with my work, I took a few seconds to explain the ‘local’ situation to him.   My keying was definitely NOT up to my usual standard on which I prided myself.  However,  I was totally flabbergasted when he actually CUT ME OFF saying that I should clean up my CW  as he had no more time to lose!

 

That was it.  No more VCS.  Just the usual QRM (interference) on 8 Mc/s.   Incredulous, I sent his call-sign a couple of times to make sure but I had to accept the fact that he had cut-off the link right then and there in the midst of transmitting an AMVER.   The previous message to the owners was explicitly mentioning the adverse weather conditions. Obviously the operator either had not read or didn’t appreciate the teneur of the message and was not about to ‘cut me some slack’.   What boorish behaviour I thought!  That was quite the worst insult I had ever faced from a coast-station operator.  Somehow I thought “that would never happen with Portishead Radio!”   Sitting there ( or rather rolling around should I say under the circumstances), I was not to try again with him since 8Mc/s was the best band to work on that night  It was easy, under normal circumstances,  to send my message via another station but the situation was not normal. To add to the difficulties, believe it or not, I had only one calling frequency for each band on my main transmitter!  Thus, I was more subject than usual to interference, static and very accurate listening from the called coast-station.  In that maelstrom of factors, I was thinking fast as I was determined to pass the AMVER.  Quite a nightmare, that voyage!

 

Then suddenly..............

                            

I ascended into the air from my seat by, at least, six inches.  At the very same second,  in flurry of disorganised activity,   my bug (mechanical Morse key)  was dislodged from the desk, my copies flew up in the air, the main transmitter was loosened from the bolts securing it to the wall and began to list dangerously toward me  (it was located approximately a foot away from my position at the desk, the emergency transmitter bolts came entirely out of the wall and caused the unit to remain  held at a 45-degree angle,  held only by the large diameter copper conduit at its back top, obstructing any exit from the radio-room.  The activating gyro wheel in the old Marconi Auto-Alarm also loosened and all kinds of ‘unhealthy’ noises came out from that set.  The Auto-Key started working by itself, desk drawers slid out by themselves and careened around the tiny radio-room and my typewriter smashed to the deck.  All manner of bangs and kicks and thuds were heard from the chart-room with accompanying irreverent religious expressions used normally to express frustration in the Quebecer’s language.  Along with all this local activity frightening creaking noises seemed to well up from the empty holds of the ship!

 

I said to myself: “We’ve broken in two!   It’s only a matter of minutes before we’ll all consigned to Davy Jone’s locker!”  There must have been other ships around but I had no way to communicate.  Both main and emergency transmitters were had been torn away from their anchor bolts and antannae were no longer connected.  Out on deck I could discern the ship’s bow rising to almost a 50 degree angle crawling up along a huge wave.

 

Regarding other radio equipment the ONLY set working was the emergency receiver!  ALL other equipment was non-functional.  I then stepped in the chart-room to report to the Captain just to see him, along with the officer-on-watch, hovering over the big old Kelvin-Hughes gyro-compass.  It had broken away from its base, its convex protective cover glass reduced to hundreds of pieces all over the deck and was laying on its side in its round casing totally destroyed!  That meant sailing the rest of the voyage on the ship’s compass if there was going to be any ‘rest of the voyage’.  The chart-table appeared to have been ripped away from the bulkhead and seemed to be rolling around in sympathy with the ship’s hellish rhythm.  Charts lay all over the deck, along with pens, rules and other objects making walking hazardous in that small cubicle. All locations on board were a nightmare.  Cabins and their contents everywhere were turned upside down and, in many cases, damaged beyond repair.  This was going to be one almighty clean-up if we were going to be spared to do the job!

 

A little later, the Chief-Officer reported to the Captain that apparently the ship’s hull had not been damaged and no discernable leaks could be detected surrounding the shaft and it’s propeller. The anchors indeed had resisted and our unique propeller, and by extension, its mentor, the engine, were still doing their work like good guys.  With what seemed like a miracle all my antennae, which were of the long wire type, had not been displaced and no external connections had been severed. Back in the wheelhouse area, the navigation instruments were safe, such as the Satnav, radars, the VHF and the R/T sets. With the help of seamen, the chart table was somehow repaired with 2x4 inch pieces of wood brought up from the carpenter’s store room in the ship’s bow.  All this done by seamen who actually volunteered to walk up there in the howling gale. As the saying goes ‘one hand for the ship, one hand for yourself!’  My main transmitter was secured the same way but still refused to operate. A little later, following some cleaning up in the office I tried it again and it worked...only on MF frequencies!  I have never known why because, one can imagine, I paid off as soon as docked in Quebec City!

 

For the last few days at sea I had asked neighbouring ships to QSP my messages to VCS, which was always done easily and promptly, as usual, by cooperative R/O’s.  Afterwards, close enough to St-John’s Radio/VON, I could send them myself on MF.

 

Our conclusion surrounding that major incident was that the ship had climbed up on an exceptionally high wave,  the hull then remaining suspended on the void for a second or two and then had plunged very quickly towards the bottom, the bow had impacted on a virtual wall of water  and pretty well simultaneously hit a second oncoming wave causing tremendous shock waves to resound throughout the vessel.  Following that particular incident the sea appeared to have done it’s worst and things seemed to improve. Seas were calming down a little for a few hours between two depressions, allowing us to finally make do with a couple of hours sleep.  While approaching the Grand Banks, the weather improved somewhat to reveal some blue skies but still with strong northwesterlies close to storm force. All we needed now was freezing spray to complete the picture but thanks to God, we were saved from that additional calamity.  Strong winds persisted up to the Cabot Strait where a white sea, so familiar to Canada East Coast seamen,  was welcoming us.  Reports from Ice Operations Office warned us of pack ice all the way up to Quebec City!  We made our way through with the icebreakers assistance and finally, after 24 days in bad weather, we docked in Quebec City. It was a record for me to have spent such a traumatic time over the space of a few hours and about as close to my Maker as I would ever wish to be!  The last time had been 22 days on the way back from Alexandria, Egypt, to Sydney, Nova Scotia!

 

Again, while on Grand Banks, the owners were advised that the whole crew, except the Chief Engineer, was to pay off in the first Canadian port!  This was done so in Quebec City. Many times I had seen an entire crew lining up at the Captain’s cabin door to SIGN ON but never to sign OFF!   I had had just about enough staggering about a deck for a while trying to stay upright so I went on leave until late next summer, seven months later!

 

To complete the tale, I must render justice to the Captain:  Never, during the most demanding days of that return voyage, did he drink.  He actually remained sober and kept his wits about him for the duration.

 

When asked about my days at sea and ‘was I ever in a really bad storm?’ I smile and say ‘oh, once in a while we all thought we were headed straight down to ‘Davy one’s Locker!  Most often I just smile like an old ‘sea dog’ and nod my head – “Oh aye, indeed”.

 

Regards and 73’s.

 

Aimé Charest ex-R/O

MV Mathilda Desgagnés/VYJN 

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AIME OPERATING ABOARD "LUCIEN PAQUIN"

The following short story and associated pictures have been provided by Aime Charest. Aime lives near Rimouski for those familiar with the coast of Quebec and the Gaspe. After coming across my web site he felt he would like to write something especially aimed at ex R/Os. Aime's mother tongue is French but has been very able in his script to portray what many have perhaps felt during their very first trip and also over those final days of the Radio Officer.

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AIMI IN MARCH 2005 FINALLY A LANDLUBBER!

FIRST VOYAGE....DOTS AND DASHES

A dream as old as my teen years was finally a reality and months before obtaining my Radio License I had so looked forward to my very first ship. I was to sign on the "ONTARIO POWER", a 26,000 ton self-unloader owned by Upperlake Shipping of Toronto. On completion of her summer season on the Great Lakes she was due to sail on Home-Trade voyages on the Eastern Canada-USA coast. The crew and article change was to occur in Toronto where the winter season was to start. Meanwhile, I had embarked in Trois Riviers with the pilot where I had had a summer job as the Pilot Boat Station.

After introducing myself to the Inland Waters Captain who was to be relieved by a F.G. master I then contemplated working in my first Radio Office of which the equipment had never been in service before. It was all Marconi gear, Globespan, Atlanta receiver etc. My accommodation was in keeping with the size of the ship i.e. double bed, large complete bathroom, a day room and large square ports wide opening on the stern. Everything very shipshape!

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AIME'S FIRST SHIP - "ONTARIO POWER" 1961

Back to the radio room and a glance at the call letters VGXW put me in quite a state of excitement, only a few minor concerns I suppose normal for a beginner. I was on my very own, nobody else aboard to help me. The captain was a very likeable fellow who checked my license and 'virgin' discharge book. The crew were almost all from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland.

We sailed bound to load iron pellets in Sept-Isles for Baltimore. Some time after we left behind the last lock of the St. Lawrence Seaway he tended me his (my) first MSG. Trois-Rivieres Radio was the closest coast station on MF. I switched the main transmitter on STD BY (the receiver already on) wrote up the preamble, counted words etc, put on the headphones and got my hand ready to go. I felt the call sign-VGXW like a big dog hidden in his kennel, ready to bite at the first mistake! I called according to procedures, 20 wpm.

Then, as if the whole east coast of America was listening, not a single dot on the air, the coast station answered with perfect CW, same speed (I instinctively felt that the operator KNEW I was a first-tripper!). He asked me to go up to the working frequency. Everything went great - I HAD MADE IT!! Only then did I fully realize that I was a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy.....and for 25 more years to come (that I didn't realize at the time, of course).

Sailing down the St. Lawrence is a continuously spectacular sight, whatever the season. It was wonderful to observe these shores that were, in fact, my shore-side 'home'.

We loaded 26,000 tons of red dusty iron ore destined for the huge Bethlehem Steel Co. plant in Baltimore. Past Anticosti island for the first time. I was facing the sea ahead and the Atlantic and..."on the air" the 'voices' of VCG, VCN, VCO and others. Halifax VCS (MF) was to become the friendliest call sign to me on all the ships I ultimately sailed on. The powerful signal of WCC, heard far out into the Atlantic, along with WSL and all the U.S. Coast Guard stations would stand by like lighhouses ready to answer at the first call. All those foreign ships, many from the ex U.S.S.R, Greece, the U.K. and so many other countries conducting their commerce on the high seas.

In the Cabot Strait I had my first sighting of Newfoundland, an island and people with a personality different to the rest of this great country of ours. Soon I would be exposed to ice conditions and ice report broadcasts, ice-breaking assistance requests, hearing of ships stuck fast in the ice sometimes for days on end. Foreign captains close to nervous breakdowns because of the unsuitability of their vessel in such icy conditions.

Finally, that great monster of the planet, the ATLANTIC OCEAN about which we have heard so many harrowing tales of the sea, the TITANIC, ANDREA DORIA, W.W.2 CONVOYS, U-BOATS ETC. ETC.
It's huge grey seas, especially in that month of November 1967!.

VCS advises of an approaching gale that eventually strikes us off Nova Scotia. The gale is later upgraded to storm level. The wind howls in my antennae (V-shaped, located immediately above the radio room). The ship shakes like a dog after a rain shower, the huge bow splitting the oncoming waves in two and scattering the sea everywhere across the deck. She rolls and rolls some more and pitches as if never to come upright again! I spent the night securing just about everything in my cabin and the radio office, the typewriter, chairs, books.

WOULD YOU BELIEVE NO SEASICKNESS.......too excited I suppose! A storm at sea is an experience to behold, especially for a 'newcomer'. Always something to recall later as a reminder of our vulnerability to nature's forces on this planet. It's an adversity of sorts that no landlubber can appreciate and can be a hard one, (for example on a 3,000 tonner that I can recall), possibly some tragedy happening at that very moment far out at sea. The strength of the sea can be frightening, pitiless and keeps you primed for any eventuality - shifting deck cargo or can this ship really withstand the onslaught!?

The Radio Officer was the 'link', sometimes the only one, through dots and dashes, to outside assistance if needed. How many times might we hear those urgency and/or distress signals during our career at sea?

Sailing up the Cheasapeake Bay brings sightings of all types of wild fowl and birds settling amongst the tall reeds. It's a peaceful and a more beautiful facet of nature after the wild seas. In a short while, however, we see the man-made unbelievable pollution of Baltimore and its industry. The steel plant is so wide to walk across that it takes 45 minutes to get to the nearest 'phone booth! It is located by the only bar in the little worker's town glued by black dust to the plant. Black, indeed, is the town, it seems inhabited only by 'blacks' living in little black houses and, as if by one great umbrella, hovered over by a continuous black pall of smoke.

We will unload within 14 hours, ore pellets is an easy cargo to deal. It will be a tough job with wet gypsum which we will eventually load in Halifax for Camden, New Jersey.

This was my first voyage, only 10 days or so. Too short to be more descriptive but in the months to come I will find myself in the maelstrom of life at sea. I will experience the loss of a man overboard from a Liberian ship along with the implication for the R/O. Relaying weather broadcasts for another ship in the area following his request on MF. The boring but necessary task of battery maintenance in polar temperatures on the radio room deck in a locker open to the elements.

Breaking up 5 inch thick ice caused by the heavy freezing spray on the support and antenna cables. The various weather conditions and storms from Cape Cod onward to the deep frozen Gulf of St. Lawrence. AND, my first Christmas at sea sending over 35 private radiotelegrams. Guys with smiles and tears or just a little drunk (or a lot!!) will tend me their words of love for the wife, kids and sweethearts at home back in Ontario down to Newfoundland and even to Scotland. This one to GKL, that formidable British HF station (as with most ships, at least one of the engineers was a Scot!).

Myself having a drink with the 'old man' on Sunday morning in words of our world. And so on.........

That was a snap shot of life on board my first ship. Not easy all the time but so good to be part of a new world. We were, for the most part, sailing for the love of the sea.

Years to come would confirm that I had done the 'right thing'. From now on, with my 'bag' of increasing experience, I was ready for the high seas. Sailing on different types and sizes of ships of many flags, including the much larger 'pleasure' cruise ships...always excited to try 'something new'. I was to sing my song in numerous dots and dashes around the world and over lands beneath the ionosphere. Imagining sometimes that these very words of mine would travel into outer space for ever.

I somehow always knew that SOMEONE up there heard my song................

So concludes my first trip.............the reader may find the additional description below interesting as it relates to a period somewhat later. The pictures also are included as a gallery of ships upon which I served as R/O.

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AIME AS R/O ABOARD "SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS"/LAE8-2

I can recall that I was so eager to join my first ship and almost as eager to pay-off my last for the latter had created a problem that I had only half overcome! The difference was that I had no idea that I was to sign off a ship radio station and put my signature on ship's articles for the very last time.

The voyage was to last for three and a half months and had begun only a few days before with a load of wood in bundles at Gros Cacouna, Quebec. We were bound for New Haven in the UK. Off the Newfoundland coast during that mid-February we had had strong westerly winds the night before that generated a heavy freezing spray wich covered the entire ship from the main deck to the crow's nest.  Upon inspecting the main aerial I discovered that the support guys were simply swaying in the wind and not holding anything fast as they should.  The installation consisted of a high fibre glass mast circled by loops attached to it's top and bottom.

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"SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS" ALONGSIDE AT CHARLOTTE AMALIE -ST. THOMAS, V.I.

After working on the aerial I informed the Captain that things were back to normal in spite of the circumstances and mentioned that it was the Company's responsibility to ensure that the radio station should be checked out at the next port of call. He replied that it will be seen to in Europe which reassured me.

The voyage continued without incident. When we arrived at New Haven the 'old man' informed me that I would have to make do with the equipment as it was and that there would be no repair staff coming aboard. As this was the only Canadian company in Eastern Canada that I was likely to be employed by at that time I certainly couldn't make a fuss. I should have realized also that circumstances for Radio Officers were changing rapidly and he also mentioned that soon only FAX and similar automatic equipment would be required on all foreign going ships. This was certainly NOT reassuring!

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"CROWN MONARCH"/3EGA8 AT ANCHOR GRAND CAYMEN 1991

Our Captain had a Home Trade license provided by the Canadian Coast Guard. A Foreign Going skipper was a rarity in Canada, even when I stared sailing in the mid-sixties. He had sailed mostly between the Great Lakes and the Arctic and never before in foreign trade. This left me the distinct impression that he did not fully understand the role of the Radio Officer on a foreign going vessel.

So, life went on. We stayed long enough in New Haven to allow some of the crew to visit Brighton (guess who found out how to get there on the bus instead of the much more expensive route by taxi!?).

I did get a day off to visit London and toured the Tower of London and the Queen's 'little house' etc. It was a very pleasant first visit to London. Our next port of call was in Sweden to load bulk copper for Gaspe then to Baie Comeau and Sept-Isles to load an aluminium ingots cargo for Rotterdam. Meanwhile, I had reiterated my antenna problem to the 'old man' who, in no uncertain terms, resolutely made me understand that I was to forget the whole thing. 

I did, however, think about reporting the situation to the Coast Guard but also realized that I was fortunate to have the position of R/O in the first place so I was not about to 'rock the boat' as it were!,

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M/V "CECILIA DES GAGNES"/VGMV AT ANCHOR AQUABA, JORDON DEC/87

It was now the end of April and the season was such that the ship had to go back to Canada for the summer trips along the East coast and for the Arctic schedule. We did spend Easter in Holland, however, where I celebrated the 'event' with a BIG Easter rabbit and a couple of eggs! We were then scheduled for a trip to St. Petersburg. No doubt a 'debt repayment' from Russia to Canada. This was in 1993 and suggested that the Russian people had really not done too well following the fall of the Soviet Empire.

I took a $100 Canadian advance but it was so big an amount in Russian rubles that I had a problem carrying it ashore! I was then to learn how valueless rubles had become compared to the Canadian dollar.

Long lines of people were standing around, particularly around tourist sites selling everything from icons to war medals (authentic!) and cheap plastic containers. The local girls made no bones about selling their 'wares' for a good meal at the Seaman's House restaurant which was located at a former aristocrat's house.


One girl presented herself as a tourist guide for seamen and was making about $13 a month plying her trade. She did speak five languages including fluent French (we were all Quebecers on board). She arranged a successful trip for a number of us to visit the main tourist features of the city. Following the tour we did get together and gave her a pretty substantial tip as she had certainly done a good job and had been very charming and attentive when asked questions.

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"CECILIA DES GAGNES" ALONGSIDE AT GIBRALTAR JAN/88

I eventually paid off back in Canada and spent an enjoyable summer travelling here and there on my 1983 Kawasaki 1000 LTD motorcycle. Autumn then showed its colours but still no call from the company. When I eventually called I was told that the vessel had now been equipped with Satcom devices and my services were no longer required. Nothing else available. I had started with them in 1985 and now it was the end.

For the balance of the year and into next year I tried many, many foreign companies. The Greeks were offering very low wages which were totally unacceptable for anyone living in Canada. In Europe R/Os had already been experiencing the same thing. What was left? Nothing. My only qualification was my R/O certificate. I had no other experience or qualifications to help me. Sailing had been my life. I was too old to go back to school. I simply was not interested in any other life or occupation. I had some money saved and I knew that if I could sail for another 3 or 4 years I would be OK in retirement. It turned out to be quite another story!

I now occupy a little house (rented) by a lake ( no salt water!), possess two goats for milk and home-made yoghurt, some chicks that produce eggs for me to sell, a lovely dog and two cats as pets.

Following my final pay-off I signed on unemployment for a year. This was followed by a summer job in a Tourist Information Center here in my little town on the border of the Gaspe pensinsula.

After a third summer I got sick because of an undiagnosed tropical disease I had caught somewhere abroad a number of years ago. I still suffer from it once in a while.

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"CECILIA DES GAGNES" AT ANCHOR AND UNLOADING INTO BARGES AT BELIZE CITY DEC/89

I'll be turning the sixties corner this summer and am now able to sit in the comfort of my house and recall in those quiet moments the great time I had whilst at sea. The job of Merchant Navy Radio Officer was not only a job for me but a way of life. It was not always easy but certainly extraordinary. If I had to start all over again I would not choose any other career.

I salute all the other seafarers that I had the pleasure of sailing with and thank them for their company and occasional advice. All the peoples of the various nations I visited taught me that there is really only one nation under the skies.

A BIG thank you to all other operators of ships and coast stations who share with me these thoughts and who now also have great memories from the great days of radio at sea.................

73s to all ,

Aime Charest R/O.

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M/V "LUCIEN PAQUIN"/VCLW EN ROUTE TO THE ARCTIC, OWNED BY LOGISTIC NAVIGATION, EX "SUNEMERILLON"

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"LUCIEN PAQUIN" IN THE ICE CLOSE TO QUEBEC CITY.

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"LUCIEN PAQUIN" FOLLOWING A STORM IN THE N. ATLANTIC HAVING HAD SOME DECK CARGO WASHED OVERBOARD.

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"LUCIEN PAQUIN" AT FOYNES IRELAND

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AIME ABOARD M/V "ONTARIO"/VGBX

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"LUCIEN PAQUIN" AT ANCHOR UNGAVA BAY LOADING CARGO TO BARGES

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M/V "CITADEL HILL" (VANUATA FLAG) EX "CAPE BRETON", "HIGHLANDER" OWNED BY LEITCH TRANSPORT OF TORONT

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M/V "GYPSUM KING" AT OCEAN BAY, BAHAMAS 1991 LOADING SAND.