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.
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.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A MODERN CRUISE LINER RADIO OFFICER
|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.
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.
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’.
|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.
|THE GYMNASIUM - Courtesy Aime Charest
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.
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”.
|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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Aimé Charest ex-R/O
SS Sovereign of the Seas/LAEB2
THE NORTH ATLANTIC IN WINTER.
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.
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’!
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.
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!
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!
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……….
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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/OMV Mathilda Desgagnés/VYJN
|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.