A Tale Of A Shipmaster
M.B.Gordon # 1173 – 1941/42
“No man is fit to command that cannot command himself” – William Penn 1644 – 1718
THE OPENING ROUND
“Stop them Third Mate, get those men apart ! . . separate ’em dammit !”.
Strong words some may think. And, uttered by the Master of a British freighter from the wing of his bridge, they should have been strongly delivered in stentorian tones, reverberating between the adjacent dockside buildings and the ship. They should have conveyed strength and authority, the sureness of a man in command. The Old Man was in command right enough, but his tone was querulous, as though he’d just been aroused from a nap on the chartroom settee. Perhaps he had; it was probably quieter there than in his cabin which faced No. 2 hold, currently being loaded, very noisily.
It was his first command. He’d joined the ship in Glasgow some weeks earlier and we had weighed each other up during the passage South to Newport (Mon) in ballast. A mutual antipathy seemed to have developed in this short time, for no sound reason that I could make out. It happens like that sometimes. He was what the Spaniards call ‘antipatico’.
The ship was made fast alongside the coaling gantries in Newport docks, absorbing coal in twenty-ton gulps as, from up-ended railway wagons high in the air, it crashed into the open cargo holds with a shattering roar amidst billowing clouds of filthy black dust.
“Take their bloody knives of them”, he screamed. I barely heard him above the roar of another twenty tons of the Rhoda Valley’s finest as it crashed into No. 2 hold. Although a youngish Third Mate, I was not one to blindly obey stupid orders even if they did come from the Captain, and I decided to stand up to this fellow lest he conclude that I was a soft touch.
“You come and take their bloody knives off them”, I bawled back to the bridge, I was standing by the engineroom skylight along with Sergei, the Estonian Fourth Engineer (lately of the Russian Navy), and I could see the Old Man’s face go red with rage at this public challenge to his authority. I knew that this was one order I would have no truck with. It was time to test him out.
The culprits were two of our Arab firemen, who’d had some sort of ruckus – didn’t take much – and were prancing about alongside No. 3 hatch coaming, apparently doing their best to eviscerate each other with their knives. A little blood had been drawn, but not a lot. And I didn’t think that there would be. There was a lot of shouting, appeals to Allah and the like, but the action wasn’t as wholehearted as some I’d seen. And I had detected panicky glances from each of them directed at me and Sergei which signalled “Wullah, do it, separate us jildi, so that we may withdraw with honour and without loss of face, al’humdulillah”. But I had been knifed before when I intervened in a fight between a Lascar and a dhobi wallah in Bombay, not badly cut but enough to remember it, and I wasn’t at all bothered about trying to save these two crazy clowns from each other. Getting between two knives being wielded by irrational and volatile idiots like these two was the surest way to collect a load of grief, and there were no medals for that. So I felt righteous in my defiance of the Old Man.
Sergei and I had been peacefully watching the performance and thinking about heaving something heavy at them, when the Old Man had come to life. Anyway, on the basis that you separate two fighting dogs by throwing a bucket of water over them, the problem was resolved by the Bo’sun who put a fire hose on them, knocking Saleh bin Mobarak over the rail into the filthy water of the dock. Sparks idly dropped a lifebelt over the side on top of him. Thoughtful, that.
Ashore, it would have been policemen, arrests and charges. Here in the ship it was all forgotten in minutes. You learn to get things in proper perspective at sea.
The Old Man disappeared from the bridge, seemingly satisfied that the fight was over and that he had not been obliged to face me down in front of the crew. He said nothing when we gathered in the saloon for lunch and sat staring gloomily at his plate of coaldust covered corned beef hash, which is what it proved to be after a bit of scraping and excavating. It had been interesting this, my first clash with him. I felt that I’d got his measure already, the first round.
The cargo was destined for St. Vincent, a bunkering station in the Cape Verde Islands. I had been there last year, in this ship. It was my second voyage in her and by now I was used to coaldust in my cabin, in my donkey’s breakfast, in my food, in my hair, and grating between my teeth. Bulk cargoes of coal, iron ore, cement, salt, groundnuts and grain, she carried them all, to the Cape Verdes, Madeira and Aden, to Cochin, Karachi, Bremen, New York and Galveston. She earned her keep the hard way, tramping the world, unloading one cargo and finding another, calling now at a full-blown sophisticated port, and then clawing up a steaming crocodile-infested river to a jungle clearing with a corrugated iron go-down with a rusty conveyor belt for iron ore and a worn-out Englishman who managed the dump and acted as Pilot; a place such as Pepel in Sierra Leone.
I do believe that I called her a ‘Freighter’ earlier on. Well, that’s true. But it was just a euphemism for ‘Trampship’. And as hardacase as most of them too. I knew. I’d sailed in the old “Langleebrook”, a flush-decker out of South Shields, on my first voyage, and the “Tarantia” out of Cardiff. And the name of this beauty of which I had the honour to be Third Mate ? Wait for it … the S.S. “Lord Stratchcona” no less ! Talk about mutton done up as lamb, it was only the rust that held her together. Well, I suppose it gave her a wee bit of class, she needed it, Lord knows.
It was 1946. After two years in a Training Ship, the “General Botha” in South Africa, I had gone to sea in 1942, spent the rest of the war in a passenger liner carrying out the role of a troopship, obtained my Second Mate’s certificate, and gravitated to the nobly named “Lord Strathcona” in the belief that I should be happier in a small ship among real seamen than back in a peacetime passenger liner, dining in a bumfreezer jacket. And in that decision I was right.
The previous Captain was a gentleman, one of the old school, and he had retired to his home in Robin Hood’s Bay where he could watch the ships passing up and down the North Sea. This Captain – complete contrast – was hunched and frequently foul-mouthed, a personification of the Gorbals poison-dwarf. Through the five day stubble and stuck permanently to his lower lip, was a cigarette which – waggling as he spoke – showered ash in all directions. This bent, redhaired figure moved about on the bridge and in the saloon scattering ash, hands always in his trousers pockets scratching, everlasting scratching. He mouthed his guttural Glaswegian patois which few could understand. I could; I’d sailed in Glasgie crewed ships before. I found him crass, to be blunt about it, as did the 2nd Mate, Taff. The Chief Mate, older and probably more tolerant, seemed to ignore him so far as his duties would permit.
After the knife fight the Old Man brought all the seamen and the Mates out on to the foredeck, and had their knives produced for inspection. Using a cold chisel and a hammer, the Bo’sun smashed off the points leaving sufficient cutting edge to carry out normal shipboard duties such as splicing rope. The Mates were included, we all carried knives. I found no argument with the Old Man this time, he was quite right in his action, although I was a bit put out when my own very good Solingen made German knife was also mutilated. Well, I couldn’t be an exception. Bought in Buenos Aires for a peso five years earlier, it was now bereft of character and looked like a cook’s palette knife.
So here we were in this nobly named vessel with six thousand tons of coal, off to sea bound for foreign parts, could be away for two weeks, two months, two years. Derricks were housed, hatch covers replaced, tarpaulins stretched across and secured by the Swedish Chippie, hammering home wooden wedges all around the hatch coamings. Down the Bristol Channel, weaving through the myriad flashing lights of the buoys denoting starboard hand, port hand, middle ground and wrecks. As she approached the open sea a beam swell started her rolling and she took a few cleansing seas. Bringing her head round to port to pass between Lundy Island and the mainland, she took on a corkscrewing motion, pitching and rolling, and shipped a few green seas over the fo’c’sle head. This completed the cleansing process clearing the ship of coaldust and of the filthy shoreside debris which always clutters a ship’s decks during spell in port, with dockyard mateys crawling all over her. It was good to be back in the cleanliness of the open sea again.
It didn’t last. There was an engine breakdown and we limped into Falmouth for repairs. The ship had pounded hard into heavy head seas during this passage, flooding the crews quarters in the fo’c’sle, the water pouring through the working passage as well as through the joints of the steel plates around the portholes. It had to be admitted, she was a bit like a colander for’d. As soon as she tied up alongside the deckhands and engineroom crowd walked off, all except Chippie and the Bo’sun. Mind you, we had the last laugh; wartime Direction of Labour Regulations were still in force and the whole lot were picked up by the Police and whipped off to be checked for military service. It was the Pioneer Corps for them !
But it left the ship shorthanded. After repairs were completed the Mates and Engineers took the ship out to the anchorage, stowed the mooring lines and made the ship ready for sea. The Old Man was ashore rustling up a crew. We waited. In the early evening a dockyard tug came alongside. Aboard was the Old Man. And with him was what seemed to be a crew. A motley collection – drunk, singing, staggering, a couple unconscious. But yes, it was indeed a crew and I’d seen worse, although not much. We got them inboard by various means, laid them out neatly on the foredeck, got Chippie up on the windlass, weighed anchor and took the ship away to sea.
Grudgingly I have to admit that the Old Man had done well ! His lack of finesse had paid off. It was all quite legitimate of course. They had signed Articles before the Shipping Master, although some couldn’t recall doing it. Those who couldn’t write had made their mark. The Old Man had told them it was for a six week voyage, no longer – well, it could have been – and he had generously filled them with beer. It was all quite fair and when morning arrived the ship was well out to sea on what turned out to be a fourteen month voyage, and that was that. It was as near a Shanghai job as you can get and still stay legal. They settled down eventually. There was nothing else for them to do but to make the best of it.
A fortnight later we dropped anchor in St. Vincent and began discharging the coal into lighters moored alongside.
During a quiet anchor watch, the Old Man joined me on the bridge and started yarning about our respective early seafaring days. Maybe he was genuinely interested or perhaps he felt isolated and unsure of himself. It was after all his first voyage in command, which is a lonely position, and he didn’t strike me as a reticent man, able to withdraw and keep his own counsel. It turned out that he had gone to sea as a deckboy in a trampship, became an A.B., studied and eventually obtained his navigation certificates. He had come up through the hawsepipe and all credit to him for that. But the fact that I’d had the early advantage of Training Ship experience seemed to wrankle with him, and he showed his contempt for such ships. It was as if I had been to some expensive public school beyond his reach. That wasn’t so. From the age of fourteen it had been two years of naval discipline and very tough training, and it had prepared me well to survive in ships such as this one, almost as if she was my daddy’s yacht. This chat convinced me that the Old Man suffered from a massive inferiority complex. He just could not relate to me. On the other hand, I knew his type and could understand him well, and I realised there was to be no meeting of minds. My effort to find some common ground fizzled out and during the weeks that followed he became withdrawn and cantankerous.
THE TAKORADI INCIDENT
The ship sailed in ballast from the Cape Verdes to Takoradi on The Gold Coast and spent some days in the anchorage waiting for a dockside berth in the inner harbour. She was to load iron ore, which could have been for Barrow, making this quite a short voyage. But it wasn’t certain yet.
One of my duties was to take the Old Man ashore from time to time in the motor lifeboat, access to which was by means of a Jacob’s ladder suspended over the ship’s side. On this occasion, the ladder ran away as soon as I put my weight on it. For some never-to-be-explained reason, the lashings which secured it had been cast off but the ladder had not been brought inboard. I fell twenty-five feet into the lifeboat. Sod’s Law provides that when you want to get into the boat in the normal course of events it is swanning about on a bowline, a dozen feet from the ship, and has to be laboriously hauled alongside with one hand. But when you fall face downwards, the boat is snug alongside.
I fell across the heavy wooden thwart at chest level and it smashed. The top of my head hit the engine. Chippie threw another ladder over, climbed down, and nursed my head in a towel to sop up the blood whilst Taff started the engine and took me into the harbour. They put me into a car and drove me to the small hospital. I remember somebody saying, “he fell off the ladder”, and I shouted “the bloody ladder wasn’t made fast”.
They part – shaved my head and stitched it, strapped my ribs, and decided that I was suffering from concussion. I had become pretty groggy and couldn’t make out what was going on around me. And I was in that state when the Old Man barged in, ignoring the protests of the black male orderly. I barely recognised that it was him. He hadn’t come on a social visit or to enquire into my health. Unbelievably he was carrying the Log Book in which he had already made an entry which – it eventually transpired – stated that “whilst climbing over the bulwark, and being under the influence of drink, the Third Mate had – as a direct result of being in that state – lost his footing and fallen”. He demanded that I sign the entry forthwith.
I was not feeling very analytical at the time. Nothing was really registering. I was barely conscious and couldn’t move my limbs, but I was vaguely aware that something was not quite right. I was told that he tried to return again later, still clutching that Log Book, but I was in the land of nod, and by that time the orderly had got hold of an English Nursing Sister who headed him off.
This complete fabrication had obviously been contrived to absolve the ship from any responsibility and lay the blame squarely upon me. As with all his acts, it was an incompetent effort, easily disproved by witnesses, including Chippie who knew that the ladder lashings were adrift, and another who knew that I had taken no drink. And it had been 8.30 a.m.!
The Old Man came back the following morning by which time I had regained my senses. The Second Mate was visiting me and refused to leave the ward when he was told to. Good for him. I had been primed by Taff and by then I had worked out what was going on. I told the Captain flatly that he was a devious liar and that shoving the Log Book under my nose when I was non compos mentis was the act of a contemptible man. That set him off. He blustered, scattering cigarette ash over my bedspread, and he scratched frantically. But I’d had enough of him. I was outraged and I disregarded the question of rank entirely.
Asking the Second Mate to witness what I was doing, I scribbled out a form of words which described the incident accurately and told the Old Man to put that in the Log and I would agree it. And that’s what happened.
Well, there it was. Apart from the knife fight in Newport, there had been no fundamental clashes until now. I was going to have to watch myself from now on, I thought. I didn’t want a D.R. in my discharge book when I paid off or I would never get another ship.
By the time the ship was loaded and ready for sea, I was out of hospital and back aboard. Half-hopes that it would go to Barrow – in – Furness, where the Articles would expire, were dashed. The iron ore was destined for Norfolk Va., and during the three week passage across the Atlantic my half shaven head was improving and the stitches were barely visible. My black eye went through the various stages of purple, yellow and red, and the bristle resulting from the impossibility of shaving over my facial cuts and scabs became longer.
Norfolk Va. was a good seaman’s port, hearty and robust, not a place for the innocent or easily shocked, and my awful appearance was entirely suitable, and didn’t prevent me from enjoying its depravities to the full. Taff and Sparks were enthusiastic accomplices.
THE GALVESTON INCIDENT
The iron ore was duly unloaded in Norfolk and the ship sailed for Galveston to pick up a cargo of grain. Rounding the Florida Keys and heading into the Gulf of Mexico, we met a Lykes Line freighter heading east. I made the time-honoured signal :-
“What Ship?”, and the American Third Mate flashed back “Galveston is a wide-open town, try post Office Street”.
Arriving on a sweltering day with the temperature at 1060 Fahrenheit, we went to the anchorage outside Galveston lagoon where we remained for a week. As duly appointed ‘Rat Officer’ I set huge traps throughout the ship in anticipation of the grain cargo, and because Galveston had once experienced a devastating invasion of rats. It was my function to hand the corpses of the rats over to the Port Health Officer (PHO) to take ashore for laboratory examination. The PHO didn’t visit the ship for a few days and, because of the heat and stench, I hung the corpses over the side in a sack. When the PHO came aboard he took one sniff and told me to cut the sack adrift, saying that on this occasion he would unofficially arrive at an official decision that ‘no sign of disease was present’.
Eventually tying up at the grain silos, we lay astern of a Russian ship which had two women Mates – big burly girls they were but beauty queens they were not. So, choosing not to go ship-visiting to satisfy our social needs, Taff, Sparks and I sought our pleasures in the bars and burlesques of Post Office Street, that area which gave Galveston a world-wide reputation as a ‘wide open’ town. The Police were thick on the ground and I recall one of them, a plain-clothes man called Louie, producing a great cannon from his inside-jacket holster and showing me the multiple notches carved into the butt. “Nearly all sailors”, he said, “and one of ’em a Limey”.
I don’t have to tell any reader who has experienced it that loading 6,000 tons of grain is about as dirty a business as loading coal. Anyone who hasn’t crawled around on the surface of the grain in the ‘tween decks as it rises to within two feet of the underside of the baking steel deck just above you head, almost red hot from the sun beating down on it, in the choking dust, so as to make sure that the dockers were trimming it out evenly to the side of the ship…well, that person hasn’t really lived.!
Europe was still in a post-war state of near starvation, so it was reasonable to assume that the grain would be taken to Bremen or Hamburg. This was an encouraging thought because the Ship’s Articles would automatically expire if she docked anywhere between Ushant and the River Elbe, and by this time I felt that I could do with a change of ship. But no. The grain was destined for Cochin in Southern India, half a world away.
This would be a nine or ten week passage and our only calls would be for bunkers and fresh water. We would not be replenishing victuals. Storage for foodstuffs was pretty basic, and consisted of a meat-box (filled with blocks of ice on sailing day), a wooden open-slatted locker on the open deck for potatoes and vegetables, and salt pork in casks standing between the winches by the mainmast. The Arabs had a few chickens in wooden coops around the steering quadrant aft, and a couple of goats tethered there. Meat and vegetables very soon became rotten and unedible. There was no refrigeration. I felt a momentary twinge of envy when I visited a ship with modern equipment. I had just been aboard the “Thomas B. Lykes”, an American freighter, where they even had ice cream ! “No matter, be strong, you’re British”, I told myself sternly, ” the Americans are soft, they even wear gloves to handle broken-stranded wire rope”. But, deep down, I thought that somehow they had the edge on us.
One evening it came about that I was trying to enjoy a very warm beer (a Pabst Blue Ribbon I think it was) with Taff, in the Bo’sun’s tiny cabin. This lay adjacent to, and apparently within earshot of, the Seamen’s messroom. We were chatting about the long passage ahead of us, more like yarning really, because all of us had yarns to tell about the various parts of the world we would be passing through. Apropos food, Taff said, “If the bugger had any decency in him at all, he’d get a refrigerated storeroom installed in this old bucket”. I agreed and said, “With what he charges for beer and baccy he could afford to pay for it himself”. The Second Mate laughed and said, “Sure, sock it to him straight, let’s mutiny, no fridge and air-conditioning, no sail!”.
And our yarning tailed off and, as is usual in such circumstances, deteriorated into the discussion of important things, like women and beer, or beer and women, dependent upon what grabs you most.
But it seemed that our words had been overheard.
The first inkling that something was a foot was when the Old Man told Taff and me that we were wanted ashore to go see as he put it – the ‘British Consul’. Naturally we quizzed him. But he “didn’t know why”, and prevaricated. To me, this was an unheard of procedure. We were subject to the authority of the Captain and to no one else. We both smelt a rat and it wasn’t too far away from where we were standing. Anyway, it was something new and it would pass an afternoon.
The man – probably a Charge d’affaires, given the size of Galveston – was an Englishman, a nice fellow but a bit young, very polite and seemingly slightly inexperienced, I don’t think that he had dealt with a couple of trampship Mates before. His information was that we two rogues had worked the entire crew up into a mutinous state, urging them to refuse to sail unless the Captain installed refrigeration equipment, together with air-conditioning throughout the accommodation. We found this wildly inflated version of our yarning and joking in the Bosun’s cabin quite amusing. But it became hilarious when he went on to say that he thought such behaviour might well constitute ‘incitement to mutiny’, and I really believe that the poor man had it in mind that we should be hung from the yardarm !
Wiping our eyes, we explained what had actually taken place. The evident honesty shown in our open seafaring faces (!) must have convinced him of the truth of it since he accepted our version of events, and came aboard the ship the next day to visit the Captain in his cabin. The thunderous look on the Old Man’s face gave a good indication of what might have passed between them.
The Captain’s troublemaking informant had taken our comments out of context and wildly inflated them. The Old Man should have either refused to hear him, or brought us up to face him. He should have put the matter to us and asked for an explanation. He would have got it, the air would have been cleared and – who knows ? – we might even have got some refrigerated storage out of it ! But, no. His character faulted him again. His devious nature would not permit openness and frankness. He could not bring himself to face us, and had to contrive a convoluted story to another Authority to have us discredited. But yet again, as in Takoradi, it was he who had been discredited. I began to wonder if it was just his ineptitude or whether he might be a little unbalanced.
Taff and I decided against a confrontation. Best leave it unsaid and let him stew in the knowledge that we had won this round. And so – up to the gunnels with grain as the saying has it – we duly sailed for the East, for the sub-continent of India.
We had picked up a stowaway in Takoradi, a young Gold Coast lad, about seventeen years of age. This was quite common on the West African Coast. He had crept nervously out of his hiding place when we were a couple of days out, not knowing what to expect. But we weren’t ogres, at least not all of us.
Of course, stowaways were a pest to Shipmasters because they never had any documents – a crime in this modern world of ours – and they were regarded as Stateless by the Immigration Authorities at virtually every port in the world. Consequently they were always with the ship and were not permitted to go ashore.
This lad had been named Joseph by the Missionaries, and we all got to like young Joe with his big cheerful smile as he worked around the decks. We would club together to buy Joe a few clothes and some small comforts and, as we went ashore, we would look back to see his usually cheerful face sadly watching us walk towards the dock gates.
At about 0430 one night, being unable to sleep, I went up to the bridge to cadge a mug of tea or cocoa from the Chief Mate, whose watch it was. It was a black and moonless night, and I was walking to the bridge quietly, in rubber soled sandals. As I climbed the ladder to the lower bridge, I heard low voices and realised that the Captain was talking to the Mate on this deck, which was beneath the bridge proper, and which was the level giving access to the Old Man’s quarters. He could not gain access to the bridge from within the block; it had to be from his port or starboard doors, and up the outside bridge ladder. This was an important point as will become evident later on, during the great storm in the Bay of Bengal.
Anyway, there they were, whispering – or rather the Old Man was – out of earshot of the helmsman in the wheelhouse above. “What’s the Old Man doing, up at this hour”, was my first thought, forgetting that I too was ‘up at this hour’. The low tones sounded conspiratorial. I carefully wedged myself in between the lifeboat and a ventilator and strained my ears.
“… Joe … somehow … on deck … quiet … your watch … bloody problem, pain in the … do away wie’ it …” – the Old man’s voice. And then the Mate’s voice, louder, vehement:
“Yer Glasgie sod ! I’ll have no part in it ! Are ye mad !!”
It clicked into place and I suddenly felt cold. I had reckoned that I was a pretty hard case, but I had never heard murder proposed before. And it seemed to me that the Old Man had just proposed to throw Joe over the side. There was no other explanation. Sometime when the ship was quiet, during the Chief Mate’s 4-8 watch. They would all think Joe had fallen overboard, the Old Man would be free of this encumbrance.
And – thank God ! – it seemed that he had misjudged the Mate, with his clumsy and typically inept approach. It wasn’t entirely unknown for stowaways to disappear like this. It relieved the ship of the embarrassment of carting them around the world, hopelessly trying to get some country to allow them to land. But I had never encountered the problem at first hand – until now.
I heard the Chief Mate move as if to return to the bridge and I remained frozen into my position until I heard him tread heavily up the bridge ladder, audibly muttering, “wee Gorbals bastard”. Seconds later I heard the door to the Old Man’s quarters close quietly.
I crept back to my own cabin to think things over. I was in no doubt about what I had heard; A proposition to murder Joe, no less. And the vehemence of the Mate’s rejection of the suggestion was such that I was confident that it wouldn’t happen. The Old Man could do nothing alone. I thought Joe was pretty safe now because if anything did happen to him the Mate would shop the Old Man.
That apart, the Mate would say nothing about the encounter. Life was hard and down to earth in such ships, and things which would appall people ashore were barely even remarked upon afloat. I would hold my tongue also. I just chalked it up in my mind as another manifestation of the Old Man’s character.
But, I would keep an eye open for Joe, quietly.
The ship was a fortnight out of Galveston on her long eastward journey. It was September, and the Atlantic Ocean was in a more benign mood than I had ever seen it. Day after day of glassy swells, blue skies and the soothing sound of chipping hammers as the deckhands sat on the hot steel deck under the blazing sun, chipping away the rust.
The meat and spuds were finished, and we were on hard tack, but that didn’t bother anybody. You had to be philosophical about such things, about long passages. It was a case of ‘more days, more dollars!
But, good weather or not, I couldn’t help pondering what could be done about the Old Man.
I had mixed feeling because, strictly speaking, it wasn’t up to me to do anything at all. And – when you come right down to it – what was there to do anything about ? Some trivial incidents such as the Arab knife fight where, in fact, he had done exactly what he should have done – given me an order which I had thrown right back at him. A couple of more substantial, yet still relatively minor, incidents at Takoradi and Galveston, which had served only to show him up as a devious and inferior little man. A clandestinely overheard conversation which could never be adduced into evidence, the purport of which could be conjecture, a figment of my imagination if you like.
Perhaps I was making a mountain out of a molehill. Perhaps it resulted from close association within the close confinement of a small ship. I was well aware that apparently bizarre occurrences under these circumstances could sound utterly different when related ashore in the sober and unemotional atmosphere of a Court or some other formal hearing. Yes, I had read about Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny”, and I was familiar with Bligh’s evidence during the trial of the ‘Bounty’ Mutineers.
So I had convinced myself that there was nothing for me to do.
Yet I was still unhappy. I had an uncomfortable feeling that things had reached a serious stage, and I didn’t trust his judgement or, indeed, his mental soundness. I felt alone. The Second Mate had gone off the boil. The Chief Mate had never been a confidante, had kept his counsel, and obviously I could not speak to him anyway.
“You’re becoming obsessed”, I told myself, “get on with your job, to hell with everyone else, and dream about all the excesses and pleasure of the Orient awaiting you at the end of this passage – if indeed there are any !”.
We ploughed on, eastward. Gibraltar fell astern. My old wartime stamping grounds – Oran and Algiers – were passed by, five miles to starboard. And Cape Bon. And after that the next landfall was the Nile Delta which, as ever, could be smelt hours before De Lesseps statue was sighted at the end of the breakwater leading out from Port Said, where we bunkered and watered.
It was evocative, this smell, and for me it conjured up all the memories and impressions I had experienced the first time I had passed this way years before. I’m sure that all seamen feel the same about certain parts of the world. I digress – this is leading nowhere.
Then through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, every bit as hot as legend has it, and I didn’t need any legends to tell me because I had been through it eight times. Temperatures over 100 degree Fahrenheit, with an eight knot breeze from dead astern, matching the ships speed, which meant that there wasn’t a breath of air aboard. The black smoke rose vertically from the funnel, dropping hot cinders on to the bridge awnings into which small holes were burned, so creating little patching jobs to while away future quiet watches.
And the miserable Old Man refused to take a turn out of the ship once a watch, just to give the accommodation a blow through. The massive red sand seas of the Nubian desert passed slowly astern, to starboard, and we ploughed languidly on southwards, towards Aden.
FIRE IN NUMBER THREE !
I saw the Old Man every day. Firstly at about 0900 hours when I had worked up my ‘Longitude by Chronometer’ sights. Then at noon sights, when the sun was at its zenith. And finally at around 2100 hours when he came up on to the bridge to write up the Night Order Book.
Nothing untoward had taken place since the nocturnal conversation and, like the Second Mate, I seemed to be simmering down. By the time we entered Aden to fill our tanks with the brackish fluid that passes for water in that hellish place, past incidents – although certainly not forgotten – were no longer in the forefront of my mind.
The Island of Socotra had faded out of sight astern and we were entering the Arabian Sea on course for Cochin, when fire broke out in number three hold, which contained the ship’s coal bunkers. It was not an unusual phenomenon for the methane gas in coal to be ignited by spontaneous combustion, although it was the first time I had experienced it.
It was my forenoon watch when the Steward ran up to the bridge to report the wisps of smoke seeping from beneath the tarpaulin, I called the Old Man on the speaking tube, and the Chief Mate, who turned out all hands including the watch below, I turned the ship stern to wind to reduce the flow of air, and told the Old Man – still over the voicepipe – that I would join the fire control party in the hold. “Carry on Third, I’ll man the bridge “, he told me.
After a couple of hours of shovelling coal to isolate the seat of the fire, hoisting out a fair bit and dumping it overboard, hosing and damping down, the fire was out. Not an unknown thing this, but ships have been lost at sea in this way.
It was approaching eight bells, time for noon sights, and for the Second Mate to relieve me. There was no time for washing and changing out of coal-encrusted gear … the sun wouldn’t wait. I joined the seaman on the wheel, put the ship back on course, and asked him where the Old Man was.
“Ain’t set eyes on ‘im, ain’t been oop ‘ere at all, the booger”, said the helmsman, succinctly if inelegantly. And, alarmingly ! Taff and I took our sights alone. For the first time the Old Man didn’t come up on to the bridge for noon sights, and this was unheard of. I asked the Steward if he was alright and he told me, “well, I took him a mug of char and a wad an hour ago, but I’ll tell you this … he’s had a few, he can barely stand up !”.
I passed this on to the Chief Mate, and then logged the fire and the action taken, and got the Mate to countersign my entry. Should I comment in the Log, in writing, on the Old Man’s complete absence from the bridge in time of danger, when the safety of his command was in peril ? – I asked the Mate, tongue in cheek. “Christ no, keep stumm”, he told me, “the ships O.K. and I don’t fancy a shore enquiry”.
A fair enough judgement, I thought, but all my old doubts came to the surface again. For all his other failings, drink hadn’t entered into it until now, so far as I was aware. The Old Man’s action – or lack of action – wasn’t too serious taken in isolation, but seen as part of a series of events, compounded now by evidence of being ‘under the influence of alcohol at sea’, it could be construed as serious …. couldn’t it?
GUNFIRE IN TUTICORIN
Cochin at last, I thankfully rang the engine room telegraph EOSP (end of sea passage) and logged it. For weeks now we had known where we were going and there had been no mystery about it. I preferred an element of the unknown in my voyaging, and it suited me that I had no idea where the ship would be heading for from Cochin, or what she would be carrying.
Cochin was big nothing, or a small nothing to be accurate. No emporiums of Oriental lust and pleasure where a hearty and thirsty sailorman could relax and indulge his every whim. Just a very small R.A.F. detachment with a NAAFI run by a Chinaman, where they served a somewhat doubtful egg and chips. The grain was unloaded, slowly. This is a labour intensive country where mechanical aids are only employed as a last resort. About a thousand tons of the bulk grain remained in the ship for a shore passage southwards to Tuticorin, where it was to be sacked up and unloaded by the ships derricks into lighters alongside in the anchorage.
Two or three hundred coolies came out to the ship in the lighters, and seethed all over the decks. They set up their iron cooking pots on the steel decks and lit fires beneath them. The air swiftly became rank with the smell of the cooking, and their bodies, and their bodily ‘functions’, to be euphemistic about it. At about 2300 hours the workforce finished for the night and settled down to sleep on the decks. This turned the entire for’d welldeck into a dormitory, a horizontal mass of sleeping Indians, with barely room to set a foot between their bodies.
It was the last night before leaving Tuticorin, there was a full moon, and I was the Mate on anchor watch. I was in the chartroom, enjoying the comparative quiet and idly studying an enormous circular beetle of prehistoric appearance, an inch in diameter, as it ambled across the Bay of Bengal chart (southern section), when I heard an anguished cry from the port side of the welldeck.
I shot out on to the wing of the bridge, looked over the weatherboard, and saw the Second Mate hurtling towards the bows closely pursued by O’Hanrahan, the cook, who was clutching a massive galley knife, more like a machete really. Both of them were travelling at speed over the recumbent bodies, or rather on them mostly. Taff reached the fo’c’sle head, went round the windlass, down the other side, and started back along the starboard side of the welldeck towards the bridge again. The cook fell over, lost ground, then took off in pursuit again.
Just as I was thinking that I had better do something, several things occurred simultaneously. Sparks came out of his shack abaft the chartroom alerted by the Second’s heartrending cries. The Mate appeared by No. 3 hatch. And the Old Man, whose drinking had now become quite obvious and who had been at the bottle since teatime, staggered out of his cabin on to the lower bridge, clad only in a singlet with no cover to his nether regions, brandishing what seemed to be a gun.
Sparks and I dashed down to the starboard working alley through which Taff was passing. We shouted to him to keep going, and stood back until the cook came thundering along the iron plating, and clobbered and disarmed him.
I had heard from the Steward that the Old Man possessed a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver and now I saw the truth of it. There he stood, weaving about in his drunken state, brandishing this revolver which he fired off blindly in all directions, emptying all six chambers. A scream erupted from near the foot of the foremast.
The Mate shouted, “can you manage him?”, meaning the cook and I shouted back “Aye”. The Old Man shouting incoherently in some long forgotten Scottish tongue, disappeared back into his quarters and wasn’t seen again until the next afternoon.
The Mate ran forward and was swallowed up in a mass of screeching coolies surrounding one of their number, who was screaming louder than anyone from the pain of a quite insignificant bullet wound in the foot. The Mate did quite well even to survive amongst the mob and, together with the Head Serang, he brought the man ‘midships to the Steward who bandaged the wound.
Sparks and I lashed O’Hanrahan to his bunk with a heaving line. Taff took an opened bottle of Carioca rum from his sock drawer. “Good Man”, said the Mate, “reckon we need that”. And the Old Man had presumably turned in to sleep it off.
It all ended quite well. The cook tended to let the little pink elephants take charge when he got hold of a bottle, and there was no real harm in him. The next morning he apologised to Taff – well, these things happen, its’ all part of the rich tapestry of life in a trampship. The Mate squared the Head Serang with a spot of baksheesh and a couple of old mooring lines.
And, as Officer of the Watch, I spent an hour puzzling out how to word the entry which would have to be made in the Log. “Christ no!”, said the Mate when – again tongue in cheek – I asked if the Old Man’s antics should feature. “In fact”, he said, “no log entry at all would be best. The cook will be thankful not to be logged. The Head Serang won’t say anything, he already thinks its Christmas. Us three Mates and Sparks will forget all about it, nobody else seems to have heard the racket or taken any notice, and the Old Man won’t dare to bring it up”. It was the longest speech I had ever heard him make.
And so it was. But I chalked it up mentally. How long would it be before something serious occurred ?
STORM IN THE BAY OF BENGAL
Leaving Tuticorin, we rounded the island of Ceylon and steamed North up the Indian coast to Madras for bunkers, thence to Vizagapatam for a small consignment of general cargo, and finally up the River Hooghly to Calcutta.
We lay in the river for a week waiting for a berth. It is a very fast flowing river, and the ship was made fast between huge buoys fore and aft, using her own anchor cables. Bloated human corpses, victims of the carnage between Hindus and Muslims, floated downstream on the ebb, stuck under the gangway ladder, and were freed on the flood, taking their stench and the carrion birds that sat upon them, pecking, back up the river with them. Those that stuck fast I pushed off with a boathook, taking care not to puncture them.
Gazing at the putrefying corpses I wondered if we should all wind up like that. I supposed we would, preferably not so publicly though. Unhealthy thinking, I told myself, you’ve got a sick mind.
Eventually, into Kidderpore dock to load coal for Karachi, another labour intensive operation, little baskets on their heads to toss six thousand tons of the stuff into the holds, women doing it this time.
The ship sailed on Christmas Eve 1946. No matter, there was nothing worth doing ashore anyway. Curfew between 2100 and 0600 hours, tanks and armed Police patrolling the streets, and in Chowringhee only the Lighthouse Cinema and the Bristol Hotel were open, both selling Murree beer, Karachi brewed slop.
Christmas Day dawned fine, but with an ominous feel to the sea and the sky. Bacon and egg breakfast, but it was Thursday, and Board of Trade Regulations prescribed bacon and egg breakfasts for hungry seafarers on Thursdays and Sundays anyway, so nobody was providing us with a Christmas treat.
The barometer was falling, it was warm and humid, and by late afternoon we knew we were in for a blow. The north-east monsoon was coming to an end, the fine windless weather was finished, along with the blue skies and the enervating heat below decks where wind-scoops were rigged in the scuttles, trimmed to catch any movement of air caused by the ship’s movement through the water. Now, the cold mugginess was upon us with the wind and the teeming rain to come. The sky became leaden, there was a heave to the sea which turned the same colour, so that sea and sky merged into sameness at the horizon. It became silent and foreboding. The barometer dropped fast and a light wind developed. The sky became black.
The Chief Mate and the deckhands started battening down, putting extra lashings on the housed derricks, checking the wooden chocks securing the tarpaulins over the hatch covers, unshipping ventilators and plugging the apertures, rigging lifelines fore and aft, and securing everything moveable. Joe took part in this work as well. Although not on the Articles he had been working on deck and was becoming a reliable and handy seaman.
The wind increased swiftly to gale force nine, and then to what I judged to be storm force eleven. It had only one more to go – if the wind exceeded 75m.p.h. – to become a hurricane, force twelve. Judging such things is a bit subjective, and depends upon the observer’s experience. I had never been that far before, all I knew was that it was blowing bloody hard, I wondered what it would be like to be in the eye of a hurricane; I had been told that it was eerie but I wasn’t anxious to find out.
The sea was rougher and was on the starboard bow, causing the ship to corkscrew. As the seas became higher, with roaring white crests breaking and the spray blowing horizontally over the ship, the wind backed to dead ahead and the ships movement now changed to a violent pitching, so that she careered down the great valleys between the seas, crashing into the oncoming wall of water which swept her overall, and then through the next crest, the ship shuddering while the propeller raced clear of the water.
It was about 9.00 p.m. now in my Watch, the 8-12. The Chief and Second Mates were below, not resting as they normally would have been at this time, but alert and standing by ready to turn to if necessary. Up on the bridge were the helmsman, the lookout and me. The standby man was in the galley. The Old Man was in his cabin and had told me to call him if I needed him. It occurred to me that he might be at the bottle again. Well, who knows ? He was discredited in my mind. By rights he should have been on the bridge in such weather; I would have been. And if he had been things would have turned out differently for him.
Suddenly the ship lifted her bows to a monstrous sea, higher than I’d ever thought possible, as if she was going straight up into the blackness above. I hung on to the engine room telegraph, the helmsman embraced the wheel, the lookout fell backwards into the flag locker. She hesitated, then plunged into the valley below, crashing into a wall of water and seemed unable to recover herself. I wondered if it was her last dive. But slowly she shuddered her way through it and up again, hundreds – maybe thousands – tons of foaming raging seawater submerging not only the whole foredeck but the entire bridge. The wheelhouse and chartroom were filled. I lost my grip on the telegraph and hit the deckhead above.
Over the choatic roaring of the wind and sea, I heard crashing sounds from the starboard wing of the bridge – structural damage, serious too, I thought as I struggled to push the wheelhouse door open, against the wind. I quickly fell back inside – there was nothing below me ! The whole starboard wing of the bridge had been carried away. So had the lifeboat beneath it, on the lower bridge.
The Second Mate had joined me, via the port bridge ladder. That last sea had alarmed him “Take the bridge, Taff”, I bawled in his ear, “I’ll go down the port side, get the Mate, and have a shufti”.
Halfway down the bridge ladder I met the Mate, coming up. We clung to each other for support as she hit another milestone – she was rolling now as well as pitching – the wind’s shifting, I told myself, unless the helmsman’s laid out and she’s falling into the trough, God help us !
“He’s gone”, shouted the Mate in my ear. “Who’s bloody gone?”, I shouted back. “The Old Man”, he bawled back against the screaming wind, “The Old Man’s over the bloody side, nothing to be done, can’t turn and search in this, can’t even turn, hold your course Third”.
He climbed to the wheelhouse with me. I checked the helmsman, he was O.K., and told the lookout to keep his eye peeled, waste of time, couldn’t even see the fo’c’sle in this but things have to be done for the sake of discipline. We three Mates staggered into the Chartroom which now contained only about two feet of seawater, sloshing about to the ship’s motion, charts and navigation books all floating and pulpy.
The Mate spoke, gaspingly – “I had the Bo’sun and a couple of the lads out, securing that load of timber down by number three, it was breaking adrift, the rails had all gone, it was bloody dangerous, hanging on the lifelines, sod the timber I should have said … Joe was with us, he was bloody marvellous, … that big ‘un, took the bridge and boat away, you know?’.
“Too right”, I said, “nearly fell straight in when I opened the door”.
“Well”, he said … his breathing was settling down now, “seems the Old Man was going up the ladder from the lower bridge when she shipped that one, the wing of the bridge, the old Oerlikon gunpit and the starboard boat, tons of wreckage, most went straight in the ‘oggin, a stack of it came down on the deck by number three, I saw it all happen, the Old Man was amongst it, his head all bloody, everything was washed along the deck, the rails had gone and it all went over the side, Old Man and all. We were lucky, crouched down between the hatch coaming and the galley bulkhead”.
“What’s this about Joe?”, I asked.
“He tried to save the Old Man, dived at him, nearly had hold of him, but he got away – Joe nearly went over the side too, God knows how he didn’t, he’s with the Steward now, couple of ribs gone I think – considering the Old Man’s plans …. “. He stopped short, I think I knew what was in his mind to say, it was in mine too. But neither of us could say anything. And Joe would never know.
We went back into the wheelhouse, quietly. “Wind’s easing a bit I think, looks lighter”, I said. “Bout bloody time”, said the Mate. “Glass is up a bit”, called the Second Mate from behind us. “She’s easier to hold” said the helmsman. “Shall I get some cocoa ?”, said the lookout.
“Might as well”, I replied, “there’s nothing to bloody see”.
The Chief Mate assumed command of the ship. He made a detailed entry in the Log and informed the Owners by radio. I think the Old Man had been single, because I never heard any talk of a widow.
His absence had no effect upon the daily routine of the ship. The Mates continued to stand their watches, the engine rumbled on as before, the decks got chipped, the rigging was fish-oiled, painting was done, ropes were spliced. It was as if he had never been.
But I didn’t forget. He remained in my mind as we sailed towards Karachi with our cargo of coal. I went over all the incidents and examined my own actions and mental attitudes. Had I been sufficiently understanding ? Had I made mountains out of molehills ? Had I reacted too aggressively in Newport and in Takoradi ?
We were on charter to an Indian shipping line, and things carried on much as before. Cement to Bombay, general cargo to Colombo, salt to Calcutta, rice from Rangoon to Goa. And then we were all told that the ship had been sold to the Indian charterers and the entire crew was to be sent home to England in the “Strathnaver”, the P&O liner cum troopship.
During all this time I had questioned myself again and again, and eventually I concluded that, on balance, I had no cause to reproach myself. In any case, it made no difference at the end. Well, the end was sad but it was nobody’s fault. He had every right to be where he was, on the starboard bridge ladder. It was a head wind and there wasn’t a weather or a lee side for him to choose from – he just chose the wrong side and his luck ran out. It was an accident, an Act of God, really.
As we approached Southampton in the trooper the memories faded, except for those moments when I encountered Joe, who was with us (and who was legally admitted to the U.K.). At such times it all flooded back, and I relived those nocturnal moments on the lower bridge, hiding behind the lifeboat in the blackness, listening to what was to be Joe’s death sentence if the Old Man could have had this way. Or was it? I would never be certain.
And Joe, ironically, had tried to save the Old Man – and I was pleased, yes, I was pleased that he had failed.
It’s a funny old world.