"A SEAGOING SAGA" - Trevor Inman
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FOUR YEARS OF FUN WITH ANCHOR LINE by Ian Walker
"A SEAGOING SAGA" - Trevor Inman
ALAN SHARD - WARTIME MN REMINISCENCES
CAPT'N PETER ASHCROFT, EXPLOITS OF
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AIME'S STORY & PICTORIALS
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RELATED SITES

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Trevor - set to go ashore..............

Above, Trevor on the "RANGITANE" in Wellington.  This was taken in 1962 at the age of 23.

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Feeling no pain aboard "CHATWOOD" Christmas 1962

Please Note: The following was originally written for general consumption and various technical items have been recently added so for the seafarers amongst you: Sorry if I seem to ‘state the bleedin’ obvious’ a lot of the time.

 

It was 1961 and my five year Toolmaking apprenticeship was approaching completion along with  my colleagues Colin & Terry and we all hankered after overseas travel. 

I'm not sure what put us onto it but we became interested in a seafaring career and would buy the Lloyds List regularly, drooling over the far away places listed as ports of call by the then numerous shipping companies operating out of the UK.

 There was often an advertisement in the 'Geographical Magazine' for the New Zealand Shipping Company and we were much taken by the Maori names of their vessels....'Rangitiki', 'Ruahini' 'Rangitane', all names of significance in the 'Land of the long white cloud'.  So a decision was made, to apply to that company for a position as a Marine Engineer!

We knew virtually nothing of ships and their associated machinery but ignorance is bliss, and we managed to obtain a copy of Marine Engineering Knowledge and Orals, the 'Bible' we were told, for all Marine Engineering Certificate aspirants. We became aware of a whole range of mystifying terminology and were somehow preoccupied with matters pertaining to bilges, mud- boxes and the disposal of sludge, not necessarily in that order! 

Despite the detractors, we envisaged a somewhat idyllic life- style as we cruised the oceans and visited exotic locations whilst being paid for the privilege, due to some degree I suspect to an advertisement for marine engineering componentry that appeared regularly in a shipping publication.   It depicted a ship's engineer in a dazzling white boilersuit complete with white topped uniform cap, epaulettes of rank and highly polished shoes, studiously examining a set of pressure gauges (all registering zero) below which was the intriguing caption-  'Middle watch- check on the Iberia'.  The company in question, P & O, by that time owned the NZS Co and Federal Steam but the ‘bull’ supposedly associated with that company had not filtered down to it's new- found and lesser acquisitions  (I'm pleased to say).  'Middle watch check' and those seemingly associated with it became a target of derision and was oft quoted tongue- in- cheek as we got around in our filthy overalls with the sleeves cut off with tin snips, our shoes falling apart due to the effects of constant exposure to various oils and socks that could be stood up in the corner after removal! Not quite the life- style suggested!

Due to a shortage of aspiring Junior Engineers at that time we were reluctantly given the nod by the ‘Examiner of Engineers’ in his city office but in the ‘unclassified’ category.

So began the great adventure………..

Stepping smartly into the company office at the Royal Albert Dock I enquired as to the whereabouts of the 'boat' to be told tersely that it was a ship, not a bloody boat, "a boat's a thing with oars".

 I was directed to the 'MV Rangitane' which looked enormous at the dockside.

I staggered up the gangway with my baggage and was greeted by a steward who enquired as to where I was headed.  He grabbed much of my burden and 'minced off' down the passageway aft to the Engineers' quarters. "How obliging", I thought, "these fellows obviously know an officer when they see one", albeit a very junior one.  After depositing me at the door of the Second Engineer's cabin he left with a conspiratorial wink and a cheery goodbye.   I was greeted with hoots of laughter from the rabble that were sitting around on the deck of the cabin, beers in hand."Y'eve made a guid start there laddie, she fancies you right enough", this coming from the Scottish '2nd', who turned out to be a notorious leg- puller! That's not to say that the steward was anything but 'a first class fairy', a particular branch of the human race of which I had no previous knowledge or experience.  I was to rapidly find out more about them however as passenger ships had more than their fair share of 'gay' crew members.

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Control platform "CHATWOOD"

When a ship was in it’s home port, shoreside engineers would invariably be engaged to carry out the vast amounts of maintenance that always accrue during a voyage of any duration. Therefore the ship’s own engineers were restricted to routine tasks due to the hold that the shore side unions had on shipboard activities once they were engaged to carry out work.  It was an easy going life that presented itself initially, infact we would vie for any mundane task to break the monotony particularly as the Rangitane was a passenger ship with plenty of empty cabins  whilst in London.   This meant that company engineers awaiting a posting would be sent down to the ship to ‘stand- by’, consequently there was always a  glut of under- employed personnel on board. At the same time regular crew members were at home on leave during this period.  We would partake of regular pub-crawls in the East End of London or go to the Custom House pub within the RA dock and on return, feeling peckish as is generally the case with a belly full of beer, we would ring the night watchman on board and request ‘tea and toast for twelve’ or however many, whereupon after about twenty minutes an elderly gent named Warren would stagger in to our smoke room bearing a tray laden with the specified refreshments.  He never complained and I never had toast like it before or since. There was never a shortage of New Zealand butter on board, hence the reason for the thick slices absolutely dripping with that substance I guess. 

This lackadaisical lifestyle was in stark contrast to what was to come when the testing of equipment was completed, the ‘Mighty Doxfords’ run at the dockside with extra mooring lines attached to prevent the ship moving at it’s berth as the propellers churned up the sludge beneath the vessel.

 

From the Royal Albert we would make our way to Tilbury to pick up 400 passengers having already loaded general cargo for faraway places.  The Engineers not on watch would lean over the after rails and survey the latest crop of passengers with particular interest being shown in the young females amongst them, having already perused the passenger list in the purser’s office whilst lining up for pay....who had their mother with them, who was travelling alone etc.  Once we got away to sea the full enormity of what I had done hit me as we butted down the channel in late winter and gradually felt the full force of the Atlantic.  Despite the ship being of 21000 tons displacement it seemed to me that we might as well have been in a dinghy as I was surrounded by the nauseating smell of heavy fuel oil and I felt the dreaded sea- sickness coming on. “You idiot”, I thought “Why didn’t you stay in a nice comfortable factory?” 

My shipmates, with the exception of a couple of other newcomers, were no help.  “Take plenty of salt tablets”, was the advice, these came straight back up again!

It was said that those who sailed regularly on passenger ships were ‘only along for the ride’ and to my mind and particularly in retrospect, it did seem to attract a fairly untypical cross section of engineers and I use the term engineer loosely as the one thing I found was that despite the fact that I came from a dubious engineering background according to the Board of Trade, many of those from a supposedly heavy engineering background knew very little about the finer points of fitting, machining and actually being able to do anything remotely skilled.   Their limited skills seemed to lie in the area of the big hammer and use of a shifting spanner or wheel key for most situations.  

Prior to embarking on the first voyage we newcomers were advised to “Get your own shifter, torch and Swarfega” (a degreasant used before showering and much prized, as the alternative supplied by the company was soft soap and sand, mixed and rubbed on to remove oil and grease, very painfully!).  Several of the regulars were inclined to be ‘up themselves’ to use a modern term. ie thought they were God’s gift to women, claimed to be accomplished drinkers and  thought they knew everything and didn’t mind saying so. The regular sight of watchkeepers throwing up in the bilges at the start of a watch (despite it being considered a serious breach of form) from excess alcohol certainly belied at least one of the claims.  There was no doubt that it was easy to become an alcoholic, booze being so cheap. 

Consequently it was a huge learning curve both technically and socially for a country boy who had lived a fairly sheltered life and had mainly associated with quiet country folk. I have to say though that there were some good guys from whom I learnt a lot.

Eventually we moved into calmer and warmer climes which was a relief but with it came the inevitable warming up of the engine room. We passed the Azores and headed on down to Curacao in the Caribbean where we bunkered fuel oil.  I was starting to get the hang of the equipment and the part that each piece played in the scheme of things.  We newcomers were constantly warned of the dreaded ‘hammer test’ that always took place as soon as the engines came to a rest in port.  Short stops involved retaining the circulation of cooling water through the engines coupled with the constant dripping of hot lubricating oil and sometimes leaking  cooling water glands exuding scalding hot water inside the enormous crank cases.  Armed with a ball peine hammer tied to the wrist (for fear that it would slip out of one’s grasp and then have to be retrieved from the lube- oil in the bottom of the crank- case). Most of the more junior engineers would climb into this ‘dantes inferno’ to tap each nut in turn to ensure that none had worked loose, whilst holding onto hot pipes and slipping and sliding on the oil!

Quite apart from this ritual, if you were unlucky enough to find a loose nut you were expected to fix it yourself or to coerce a reluctant colleague into assisting you. 

Following this procedure and any other maintenance that could be done in the time available or that was of a pressing nature, the Chief Engineer would see that a carton of beer was made available for the bedraggled and exhausted team.  He never joined us or verbally expressed any words of appreciation. Neither did he come into the engine room unless it was a real emergency or very occasionally to accompany some travelling dignity on what was called a ’Cooks tour’ down below, mostly though the junior engineers were given this unpopular task to be completed in our own time.  We would take the gawking passengers to the hottest parts of the engine room and then linger there answering questions and giving detailed explanations of the plant whilst they writhed in discomfort, from whence we would go to the refrigeration plant room and into the brine room which was around -12c.....if we had to be down there they were going to be sorry they asked for a tour.   Other wags on watch would grease one side of the hand rails making negotiation of the highly polished ladders very tricky, blast steam and compressed air around in close proximity to the visitors, sound bells and klaxons, close watertight doors to frustrate the reluctant guide and scare the visitors and write vulgarities on the engine- room blackboard.

 

PART TWO

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Above, W. France Fenwick's  M.V. "CHATWOOD" anchored off New Caledonia loading 'Le Nickel' Ore bound for Niihama on Shikoku, lovely little place.

The chief would be in a high old mood if required to come down for an emergency, everyone being held to blame for whatever had brought about such a requirement.  On one occasion the ‘rough log’ filled out down below, was accidentally spattered with oil due to a mishap. The 4th Engineer (and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke) had to ring the Chief and tell him what to expect when the log was sent up for his perusal during the 8- 12 watch.  I was the unfortunate ‘junior’ who had to face the old so- and- so at the engine room door. He snatched the book off me with suitably abusive remarks. That’s nothing to what the 4th Engineer had to endure and I had a bit of a smirk despite my own discomfort!

 

I think initially my worst nightmare was having to answer the engine room phone. It was usually the bridge with a garbled message requesting the transferring of ballast to trim the ship, put water or power on deck etc. To the new- comer the terminology was like a foreign language and the accousti- booth in which the phone was situated did little to help separate the message from the myriad noises ever present in a working engine room.  Often after several requests for the deck officer to repeat the message one would usually have to ask another engineer to take the phone which generally resulted in a torrent of abuse especially if it were someone such as the 4th Engineer, who would rant and rave in his Merseyside accent.

Not long into the voyage the 2nd came to me and said “Hey laddie, I’ve a wee job for you.” Pointing into the entablatures he said “You see yon lubricator quills, well several of them are blocked and I’d like you to unblock them”. “Sure Sec, er how do I go about that then whilst everything’s running?”. “Och it’s straight forward enough, you’ll work it out.”

I became jokingly known as the ‘Lubricator king’ and I guess it went with the territory of being the lowest first trip junior. Many a happy hour was spent crouching in the entablatures trying to time the thrust of the drill with the parting of the pistons. Then having cleared the blockage, a refurbished n/r valve had to be inserted between the blasts of flame, the noise of which generally brought a call down from the chief to know “What the hell is going on down there?” Needless to say the lubricators adjacent to the  governor arm (or bacon slicer) only got done in port!

 

For a first trip at sea our voyage was an exciting cross section of spectacular world destinations.   Panama and the wonder of the engineering feat involved there and my first smell of tropical vegetation as we slowly passed through the encroaching jungle.   Then the long run down the Pacific through, at times, seas so calm and flat that the water resembled oil and incredible sunsets that people would pay thousands to see, to Tahiti with glimpses on the way of tropical atolls with a few huts or maybe a little church steeple visible on the low lying coral.

‘It’s out there’ someone said down below, and I made an excuse to rush up to the funnel door and have my first glimpse of the fabled Isles of Polynesia, the high peaks of Tahiti of Paul Gauguin, Captain Cook, Bligh and Marlon Brando fame, wreathed in cloud, the mysterious Moorea and then the smell of copra drifting out to meet us.   As we approached the dockside the well versed regulars pointed out ‘Quinn’s Tahitian Hut’ a bar with a long and notorious reputation where we would subsequently obtain big hangovers and be ripped off buying drinks for the ‘wahines’ who we were warned carried every disease known to those who frequent seaports  and some others besides and who had definitely seen better days particularly since the arrival of the French military, who seemed to be able to shatter the south sea island image by just being there.

 

We were threatened with dire reprisals if we should attempt to hire a motor- scooter on such a short stop- over and reminded of the cost of air travel between Tahiti and New Zealand our next landfall, should such a vehicle break down and leave one stranded on the other side of the island! Luckily I was to return there later to indulge in those forbidden activities!   After purchasing endless trinkets and hand made memento’s of the Society Islands and throwing away the withered headbands and garlands of Frangipani and Hibiscus gathered in our travels via the street stalls,  villages and not least of all, the bars of Papeete, we headed off down the Pacific to the time- warp of ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ (or ‘Shroud’ as it was generally known), where well maintained pre- war motor vehicles predominated in the streets of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill, paper boys screamed unintelligibly, pie carts were a part of the night life, TV only operated for a couple of hours after ‘tea’ and the licencing laws gave rise to the ‘six o’clock swill’ and ‘sly- grogging’.

 

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‘The Kiwi Coast’ as it was always known to us was a well earned change after the routine and rigours of a month at sea. It involved another month going from port to port discharging general cargo then loading all the produce of NZ, the frozen lamb, fruits, cheese, butter etc, all of which were carried in controlled temperatures in the sea- going fridge/ freezers that were to be seen in large numbers around that coast where every major shipping company seemed to be represented.  It also heralded the start of endless maintenance to be completed whilst there was time in port. Unlike the home port, we did all the work, albeit within civilised working hours’ apart from the most junior of the Junior engineer officers which on that first trip was me, who worked a night shift all around the coast to maintain a presence in the engine room and also to carry out the more minor work on the main engine which could not be done when the machinery was swarming with engineers carrying out major work in the daytime.  It was filthy work and at morning and afternoon smoke- oh’s plates of cakes were sent down with the tea and coffee, engineers would not wash up for these events, but would eat the cake and then throw away the bit with the black oily carbon finger prints remaining.  The stewards would complain bitterly about the disgusting state of the cups that were returned to the pantry for washing up.

One of the most unlikely chance meetings occurred on that first trip to NZ. We arrived on a Friday and Saturday in port was always a half day. Whilst showering after our morning’s work someone opened the bathroom door and yelled out “Trev, there’s someone to see you”.   Who would know me, on the other side of the world? I thought....With that, Colin, who had gone away with the same company some months before me, poked his head around the door. His ship had arrived in Wellington that morning! What chance of that happening, you couldn’t have planned it that’s for sure.  He was on the company’s smallest ship, the MV ‘Nottingham’ commonly known as the ‘Company yacht‘. We had a high old time.  Amazingly on the next voyage I was sitting in a restaurant on Lambton Quay in Wellington when Terry, the third of us who had joined the NZSCo,  walked past the window, I ran out and called him back.... we also had a great reunion 13000 miles from home! He was on the Ruahine, considered to be the best though smallest of the passenger- cargo ships of the company.

 

After a month around the coast our passengers embarked and the whole drama began again as we headed north on our 30 day voyage home.   This time I was out of the Engine room and enjoying the rank of 3rd ‘Freezer’ (or Refrigeration Engineer), which meant nothing in terms of my place in the hierarchy or financially.   It did mean however a fairly cosy number which verged on the boring. This tedium was livened up by the fact that the Chief Freezer was a complete idiot.   He would drink himself senseless nightly and when it was time for me to call him for his 4 am watch he would be impossible to wake or if he did, would launch into a tirade of abuse and additionally would often demand to know the temperatures of various refrigerated compartments of which there were dozens.   This latter initially caught me out but I resolved to nightly learn them all off by heart, which took up time and gave me a sense of satisfaction when this clown made his  very unreasonable and more often than not totally unintelligible demands.  It all came to a head when the 2nd Freezer had his birthday and when it came time for his watch at 8pm, the party was in full swing and he was in no state to go below.   I actually  nipped down, checked everything and came back up despite the fact that the Chief should have been on  watch till 8 and it was his responsibility to do the first 2 hours  of the following watch in the absence of the regular watch keeper.   When I nodded across the room to him that everything was OK he yelled “You get down there and do his watch....now!” I said “I don’t mind checking things out but I’m not doing his watch, it’s your standby”.   Well one thing lead to another and the assembly looked on with amusement as the Chief turned every colour imaginable, finally promising me that by the time the Chief Engineer had finished with me this would be the end of my brief seagoing career.   At that stage I couldn’t have cared less.....Ultimately nothing much came of it, as even the Chief, who was pretty unreasonable, had come to the conclusion that there was no case to answer.   To annoy the Chief Freezer we would deliberately put the coir mat ‘on the skew’ at the bottom of the steps leading down to the ‘fridg. flat. He would go completely ‘bananas’ over this as it was one of his many areas of paranoia!

 

Despite my less- than salubrious introduction  to the ‘merch’ as the scousers called it, I did relish the thrill of returning home from overseas, an experience that can only be appreciated by those who have been away and returned. Things would never be quite the same again and I found that I appreciated my home and family so much more after the experience and meeting with old friends and trips to the local pub were much enhanced with my new- found knowledge and experience of ‘foreign parts’. 

Later in my career though there was a time that that aspect of the seagoing life experience backfired badly. Peter, a regular at my local, the Holmbush Inn,  was, unbeknown to me, a WW2 fighter pilot (and as ‘camp’ as a row of tents). He would always ask me where had I been and I answered, on the occasion in question- “Japan”, whereupon his whole countenance took on a dark and menacing appearance and he spat out the words...”Those bastards! To think what they did to our boys.”

Being somewhat taken aback, all I could say was, “Well I don’t think any of the people I met had anything to do with it”.

 

I did another trip to the ‘Kiwi Coast’ but then decided that I wanted to go elsewhere and that passenger ships were not really my scene.  I came home in early ‘63 to the coldest and longest winter on record. The Thames had partially frozen over as we nudged into Tilbury dock and the roads around home had piles of snow at the sides up to six feet high.

 

Eventually the weather improved and I ran short of cash (as you do!).

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I got a job with William France, Fenwick and Co. and very soon flew out to Spain in a rickety DC3 to join the brand spanking new ‘MV Chatwood’ (see picture on Trevor's page) at the Naval yards in Bilbao. Little did any of us realise what we were in for!

My shipmates were a motley crew although the senior officers on board were all ‘Company men’.  Our maiden voyage was a litany of breakdowns due to substandard equipment and workmanship although the two guarantee engineers we had on board for almost a year were most indignant when we hooted with derision at each failure.   They would always claim that particular item was anything but Spanish although they couldn’t do that with the main engine since although it was  a 6 RD76 Sulzer, it had been built under licence by Naval in Bilbao, sad when it was based on such a beautiful piece of Swiss engineering.  Eventually Juan and Victor got to know our warped sense of humour and towards the end of their stay made the comment-”When we come on ze Chetwood we think you all crezee, now we think we maybe little crezee too!”   Our singing, particularly of dirty ditties, especially when doing some really onerous work, always left them shaking their heads, “The stop valve was left- handed” requiring considerable clarification particularly to Victor who was the senior ‘managerial type’ and a very serious ‘Basque’ to boot as opposed to Juan who wielded the ‘big hammer’ and was used to the banter of shipyard workmates and ‘hard yakka’.

Leaving the Naval yards we were confronted with fresh water tanks that had been painted internally with a bitumastic coating just prior to the ontake of fresh water. Needless to say everything became contaminated with this foul tasting and presumably dangerous concoction. But… we had an Atlas fresh water generator and stewards would make the hazardous (for them) trip down with jugs to draw off water from the test cock once we got it working.

As soon as we left the UK we had to systematically work our way through all the hatch –cover mechanisms as the bearings carrying the shafting from the hydraulic motors had pretty much all seized up!

Our first trip was a P&O charter to Australia and we made it to Aden for bunkers before a problem developed a day or so out. On investigation all the fuel pump cams and followers were disintegrating due to failure of the case hardening. The damage had to be seen to be believed. Luckily the sea was calm in the Indian Ocean and we had a full set of spares so eventually we got under way again.

A few days later, a clanking could be heard in the #6 cylinder, so heave to and off with the head where the sacrificial fire ring was found to be neatly coiled up on top of the piston! We held it up like a trophy, jeering and hooting and if the Spaniards had had a gun they would have ended it all there and then, I’m sure!

We then started to have constant problems with the 3 Ruston VEBZ diesels. We could not stop the water circulating pump seals from leaking despite numerous replacements. It eventually turned out that the header tank had been fitted far too high (in the funnel flat) providing head pressure in excess of that for which the carbon seal was designed!

Gear drives to the lube- oil pumps sheared with catastrophic results.

At the switchboard the synchronising mechanism on one alternator failed, requiring a screwdriver to be carefully inserted in the guts of the dead -front board to release the locking device.

When we finally encountered rough weather, we found that the exhaust gases from the funnel were being swept onto the boat deck and into the engine room ventilation system. We suffered with it for 12 months then twelve foot extension pipes were added to the top of funnel to overcome the problem and produce some very racy lines to the ship’s profile!

The Spanner boiler gave us heaps of grief since it was well nigh impossible to keep the burner going. Everything was tried and after quite a while a technician was sent out on a later voyage to relocate The PE Cell mounting so that it could more effectively pick up the flame when it fired up!

There was no provision for warming the main engine through and a heat exchanger was eventually fitted after numerous complaints.

A test cock blew out of a P&J cooler cover, blasting sea water straight into the switch board disabling numerous items and from then on we noticed other brasswear breaking down ie: valve spindles snapping off for one.

Pipework started to leak and numerous ‘Thistlebond’ sessions were held to bind up the wafer thin sections with fibreglass bandages. We would mix up the two- pack then a team would run to all parts to carry out the repairs before the mix went off (very quickly in hot weather!).

The gasket material used on flanges seemed to be nothing more than cardboard and we had to systematically go through replacing flange joints especially on the oil- carrying lines.

Makes you wonder who these so- called designers/ architects were or did Naval buy up all the failures at a special price.

On a later voyage (and I have to say I was glad to be on study leave at the time) there was a huge breakdown on the west coast of South America whilst chartered to GranColumbiana. Another fire- ring broke up but this time went into a port causing a piston to smash and destroy the liner. The unit was pulled, blanked off and the ship limped up to Panama for repairs when the replacement parts were received.

The upshot was that it came to light that from day one the fuel injector retaining studs/ nuts should have had a heavy spring washer fitted and the nut correctly tensioned to allow for expansion. What happened without that was that the injector nozzles had been distorted by heat with no provision for expansion and the fuel directed onto the fire ring where it received more heat than intended resulting in failure.

Over my time there we embarked on a series of voyages under charter to other companies and never knew where we would go next.   As a small company, the operators were always keen to see outsiders that met with their approval sign up as company men and by default I found myself rapidly promoted with this in mind.   We ran around the globe visiting mainly good places including as I have said, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Tahiti, Canada, the USA, South America, the Philippines, Malta, The Lebanon and various other  ports of call on the way. 

On one trip, prior to old Freddy leaving as chief to make way for the newly qualified Chief John, (a good mate of mine), Fred took me aside and said “Ye’ll probably find he’ll coom back and start to poke ‘is nose into everything, ‘e won’t be able to help ‘isself....if he does, tell ‘im to get xxxxxx”.

This coming from a chief who wandered round with a torch, glasses on the end of nose peering, probing and generally making a bloody nuisance of himself.......Well, sure enough, it was exactly as Fred had predicted,  but I couldn’t quite bring myself to address ‘the newly ordained chief’ in Fred’s eloquent tone especially as he was a good friend, so I quietly left him to deal with the particular problem, dressed in his ‘best tropical rig’. Although we never spoke of it at the time, years later John had admitted that it had been a lesson in leadership that he had learnt the hard way. However, seemingly it didn’t last as after we were both retired and we went on a Narrow Boat cruise together, he immediately assumed superiority of rank to the extent that he kept a log of the voyage! 

It was definitely a case of ‘The pot calling the kettle black’ with Fred and on one occasion when Fred was being an even greater pain in the bum than usual, around a generator, I yelled through the noise,  “Why don’t you xxxx off chief?” “What’s that?” he said, “I said, you can go up now if you like, I can handle this”. “You booger” he replied, “I heard what you said!”

 

A charter to the French company Messageries Maritimes took us on one of our best trips- to the Pacific and a couple of weeks in Tahiti where we hired motor scooters and roamed around the Island.  You had to produce a licence and some of our fellow officers and apprentices came up with a strange collection of paperwork to which the Polynesian hire companies gave only a cursory glance.   One engineer apprentice John, had no paperwork so could only avail himself of a motorised push bike but struck terror into the locals and fellow riders with his dicey riding technique and the menacing words chalked on to his leather jacket- “With death I ride”!  We had a great crowd of ratings on the ship, two engine room hands in particular, Murphy and Salmon who were inseparable mates.  Except for the night when Murphy left his freshly acquired ‘girlfriend’ on the quay to return on the jolly boat to try and drum up some more cash.   While he roamed the crews’ quarters on his money- raising mission, Salmon, fully cashed up, jumped into the boat, went ashore and took off with said girlfriend. They appeared on duty next morning sporting the unmistakeable signs of the fisticuffs that had ensued when Murphy arrived back ashore and eventually found out what had transpired.

 

No account of life on the Chatwood would be complete without reference to some of the other characters that I was ‘privileged’ to live in close proximity to....When I first joined her as a junior there was Jerry and Mick, Welsh 3rd and Scottish 4th Engineer respectively. A couple of nasty pieces of work after a few beers, also ‘Nick’ a somewhat useless junior engineer, and the other junior Johnny, a scouser, who sang Beatles songs continuously in his waking hours.   As a junior I started off with Mick on the 8 to 12 watch, Nick with 2nd John and Johnny with Gerry.  Since nobody much liked Gerry and he hated Nick,  Johnny and I decided on a ploy to get the two of them on watch together, so we asked if we could swap watches from time to time.

It was agreed and so Nick and Gerry were teamed up, whereupon Johnny and I decided that swapping watches wasn’t such a good idea after all, leaving the two antagonists permanently together and the rest of us quite happy with the arrangement.

Nick used to say “Next trip I go on Greek ship with my own people” Everyone gave him encouragement but it was to be close to a year before such an event could take place. We used to hear Jerry ranting and raving at the latest stuff- up that Nick had allegedly been responsible for, although to be truthful many of them could well have been down to Jerry.

 

Some of the best times I remember (and people paid big money to do this) was after the evening 4 to 8 watch John and I would sit out on a ventilator cover in front of the bridge and drink an ice cold beverage or two, with the cool breeze and a sky full of stars in the Pacific after a hot engine room….. it was the nearest thing to heaven!

 

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A TRIP IN THE JOLLY BOAT OFF NEW CALEDONIA

On a visit to Sydney Jerry met up with a rather tough ‘blonde sheila’ who had seen better days but he was in no position to be fussy and fell madly in love with her, arranging for her to travel to Wales to meet up with him when he got home.  She was, as he said “to stay with his mam up in the valleee” which amused everyone as we all thought he might possibly have just been her ticket to the UK!  One of Johnny’s favourite jokes at Gerry’s expense was the question “Do you know the wheel- key song?” “No I can’t say I’ve ‘eard it, ‘ow does it go then?”

“We’ll kee- pa welcome in the hillside.........” Johnny used to keep us in fits. Captain Billy  did likewise but for entirely different reasons......

 

His wife Mabel would accompany Billy on some voyages which was always good for a laugh. On one occasion Johnny had made a real mess of shaving his somewhat spotty face.  With his face a mixture of blood and shaving soap and clad only in a towel he ran up the flight of steps between the Engineers’ cabins and the Mates to show the 3rd Mate what he had done, having done so, he leapt back down the stairs, towel flailing open, singing “She looves yuh, yeah, yeah, yeah” only to be confronted by Captain and Mrs  ascending the same stairway, his only reaction was to attempt an impromptu salute whilst gathering the towel about his partially exposed nether regions, muttering “Captn.....Mrs W.”  It seems that after the initial shock of the confrontation they did eventually see the funny side of it, as Billy said later “My wife had never seen anything like it!” Funnily enough saluting is not part of shipboard etiquette in the ‘merch’ so goodness knows what possessed him to do that, panic I suspect!

 

Another time a group of us were on the monkey island above the bridge watching Billy’s somewhat unorthodox antics whilst attempting to manoeuvre the ship at a busy anchorage.

Without looking down, Johnny blurted out in his loud scouse brogue “What’s the stupid so- and- so oop to now?” only belatedly to see ‘Billy’ looking up from just a few feet below.  We all quietly took 3 paces backwards in an attempt to distance ourselves from Johnny.  It was he who confronted a stowaway in the shaft tunnel outward bound from Dar- es- Salaam.  

I was having a quiet drink with Dickie, the chief engineer, when the engine room phone rang, I could hear a garbled Johnny on the other end and the chief’s face turned to a frown and then a grin. “Johnny reckons he’s found a stowaway in the shaft tunnel, I suppose we better have a look”.   Sure enough when we got down there. a pathetic african male was cowering in a corner, Johnny stood back, brandishing a shifter.  He described the sequence of events thus: “I was joost checkin’ the baarins and this XXXXXXX black guy sproong out with his ‘ands oop.”  The ‘black guy’ came with what he stood up in and remained on the ship for several voyages becoming very popular with all concerned before heading home to Nigeria, I think it was, with great wealth, presumably to become chief of the village or whatever, after being eventually signed up as a crew member.

 

Captn. Billy liked the odd tipple and one particular form of ’sport’ was to lure him away from Mabel on some pretext, ply him with drinks to which he offered only token resistance and send him back legless to face the music. On one occasion with his cap on sideways.   They would then come down for lunch with Bill making an even bigger fool of himself and Mabel with a face like thunder giving us that “I know you so- and- so’s are responsible for this”.

We would all gulp down our lunch and beat a hasty retreat!  Bill fancied himself as bit of a wine and cheese connoisseur but would often attempt to palm us off with a cheap alternative wine on Sunday mornings when the senior officers traditionally gathered in his quarters but we were a-wake up to his tactics and would protest loudly whereupon he would reluctantly get the good stuff out.   I can still see Dickie hacking into Bill’s special cheese with Bill beside himself over the desecration. He kept a supply of smaller cheeses in the cook’s storeroom and when Ronnie the cook was on board he and I would feast on one nightly. Ronnie would also make a brew of Japanese green tea and have a cup waiting for me when I came off watch in the morning.  Billy liked to hob-nob with dignitaries when we were in foreign ports. On one occasion in Peru he invited all the major govt department officials to a party in his quarters.  He awoke from a drunken stupor in the early hours to find that they had all left and had taken with them everything that wasn’t bolted down....he never learnt. 

 

When I came home on leave I would always visit the friends I had made over the years and Colin was one of these. On one occasion when I called round to view Colin’s first born, he had his cousin Pat from Australia visiting and helping out with the newborn child as a trained midwife.   She and I had the time to gallivant about together and after a relatively short while we decided to make the friendship permanent.  She went back to Australia in the winter of 1967, the long way round due to Suez being closed by the 67 war, to get her things together and to say goodbye to her Mum for what we all thought would be many a year and returned in late spring for us to be married in June 1968.   I was 28 and starting to think that maybe I should get serious about life.

 

After a few short trips on other vessels of FF’s,  I left the sea and came to grips with the prospect of only earning half the wage I’d been accustomed to…..although 4 years later we moved back to Oz where Hospital Engineering became the job of choice and I met up with with a fair

number of old sea- dogs, and the rest, as they say, is history!

 

Oft used expression

 

“If you cant take a joke

You shouldn’t have joined”

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