by

M.B. GORDON # 1173 – 1941/42


After eighteen months working in Canada, I had returned to England for the express purpose of finding a ship once more. I knew it wouldn’t be easy after five years away from the sea and with only a Second Mate’s ticket to my name. I had led a somewhat chequered career since leaving the “General Botha” fifteen years before, in December 1942 – the sea, the Police, the sea again, NAAFI, Desert Locust Control, and finally the States and Canada. And now – I hoped – it was back to my first love.

As I said, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and within 48 hours of arriving at my mother’s house in the Midlands I had picked up a small temporary job to tide me over whilst I formed my plan of action. It could take weeks. I normally reckoned that life and the world were there to be used, and that you got hold of them, made you own decisions, and controlled matters. I didn’t go much on this ‘life is pre-ordained’ business that some people believed in. But I’d reckoned without my old friend Fate, or Co-incidence, call it what you will. Twice before, the ‘out-of-the-blue’ phenomenon had popped up and influenced the course of my life. And now a third manifestation occurred, and I had to admit that it made me reconsider my scepticism about the concept of pre-ordination.

I had barely been home long enough to get my gear dhobied, when my mother turned up at my workplace wearing a resigned expression and carrying a piece of paper, which turned out to be a message from an erstwhile shipmate. This chap had been Chief Mate of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in which I was Third Mate. This was five years earlier, and we would go ashore to sample the nocturnal pleasures of such salubrious spots as Famagusta and Alexandria.

It seemed that in the meantime he had obtained command of a 2,500 ton Mediterranean trader. There had been no contact between us for five years, and each of us was totally unaware of the other’s whereabouts or circumstances. His Third Mate had gone adrift in Denmark, suddenly he needs a replacement, thinks of me, and fires off this radio message offering me the job. That it should catch me just as I arrived in England was coincidence enough …… that I was about to start looking for a Third Mate’s berth compounds the coincidence. And that’s what I mean about Fate !

The ship was at sea, enroute from Denmark to Algiers where I would join her. Would I be interested ? Aye, I would. I rang the Glasgow number he had given and made arrangements. Packing my old seabag and checking my sextant, I took train and arrived in London that evening. I was away again within four days of arriving home from eighteen months in Canada. I could well understand the look of resignation my mother had worn that morning !

JOINING – AND THEN EASTWARD BOUND

As ordered, I reported at the offices of the shipping company in the City of London first thing the next morning. The Office Manager told me that I had to be at Heathrow Airport in an hour, got me a taxi, stuffed my joining instructions in my hand, and sent me on my way.

The ticket was for an Air France flight to Algiers, changing aircraft in Paris. However, in the late nineteen-fifties, what amounted to civil war was raging in Algeria. A special security visa was needed to travel and land there, and I didn’t have one. Bit of a snag, this. The French Security Police were adamant that I could not board the plane for Algiers. The ship was due to arrive there the following forenoon. So there wasn’t much leeway.

However, Air France came to the rescue. They put me in a hotel for the night and next morning saw me through the Surete where I obtained the necessary security visa. I eventually arrived at Maison Blanche airfield in Algiers and found that the ship had arrived in the anchorage a couple of hours earlier.

I spent that evening in the city, re-visiting old haunts and places I had known well during the almost fifty trooping voyages I had done, between Algiers and Naples, during the war. But, the atmosphere was very different now. The sound of sporadic gunfire dominated the city, the windows of ships, buses and trams were covered in steel mesh as defence against bombs and grenades, and files of patrolling French soldiers criss-crossed the streets. There were tanks around the Post Office and on the dockside.

I didn’t stay ashore long, but went aboard the “Monte Verde” where the Captain greeted me, and we each remarked that the other had not changed a bit in the five years since we had last met. The niceties over, we weighed anchor and cleared the anchorage, heading eastwards along this familiar coast which I had first known so many years ago, and where I had first seen the great sand seas stretching away inland, and dreamed of the desert.

The ship flew the Red Ensign, but she was owned by a New York Greek whom I shall call Papadopulous, and why not ? In fact, for the purposes of this story, I will shorten it to Papadop. It may not sound dignified, but as it turned out, he was not a dignified man. She was 2,500 tons, Italian built, and had spent three wartime years on the bed of Genoa harbour, having been put there by British bombs in 1942.

Subsequently raised, she had been fitted with a Fiat diesel engine, which explained the presence of Enrico, the Italian Chief Engineer, who was apparently a Fiat-trained whiz-kid from Milan – or, so he claimed to be. Well, I had no reason to doubt it but, expert or not, his invariable tool was to two-foot stillson wrench which he used to belabour parts of his beloved engine whenever it broke down, which turned out to be three or four times a day. This meant that we had to keep the ‘Not under Command’ balls permanently bent on to the halyards to be swiftly hoisted whenever there was a tremendous bang from the engine room, accompanied by a sustained shuddering, and following by a loss of steerage way. There would then be cries of ‘Porco Dio’ from Enrico, and a great deal of clanging as he struck things with his wrench. Later – a few minutes or sometimes hours – there would be a rumble from the engine, accompanied by an eruption of oily black smoke from the funnel (which adjoined the after end of the bridge), and a shower of sparks which often caused the canvas awnings to smoulder. The Chief’s head would emerge from the engineroom skylight, and the grinning blackened face would announce triumphantly, ‘OK. Toid Mate, adelante’.

But, I have got ahead of myself. The ‘Monte Verde’ was out of Nakskov in Denmark (where the Third Mate had gone adrift ) with a cargo of sugar for Aqaba in Jordan. According to what I had been told by the Agent in Glasgow, and it was confirmed by the Old Man now, we would be engaged in Mediterranean trading, and I had pleasant visions of pottering around amongst the Dodecanese and the Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea, enjoying the sunshine and the ouzo. But, it was not to be quite like that. The good things in life never are.

This was another of those multi-national crews – elderly German Chief Mate, Norwegian Sparks, Portuguese Bo’sun, Italians in the engineroom, and Hong Kong Chinese on deck and in the galley. My cabin was at water-line level, abutting the galley, and the smell was pretty dreadful. The Cook’s name was Lap Peng, but the crew called him Borgia, in the belief that it was his life’s mission to poison them all.

Following the familiar route along the North African coast, we transited the Suez Canal and entered the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israelis were in possession of most of Sinai, and had set up heavy guns to control the entrance to the Gulf, at Sharm al’Sheikh. But it was quiet, and Israeli soldiers could be seen sunbathing by the gun housings. Aqaba lies at the head of the Gulf, adjacent to the Israeli holiday town of Eilat, and we unloaded our cargo of sugar into lighters in the anchorage.

Then it was back to Suez Bay, light ship, to await orders. Now what, I thought ? If, as I had been told, we were a Mediterranean trader, then we should be returning through the canal. Not on your life ! I should have taken heed of the old saying, ‘Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see ! It was south to Ras Maa’lab, about the most uninspiring place on earth, a rocky headland on the Sinai Peninsula with a few wooden huts and a conveyor belt, to load a full cargo of gypsum.

Ever hopeful, I wondered if gypsum was used in the Mediterranean ? No, it seemed not to be. We sailed south, through the Red Sea, where Christmas Day 1957 was marked by a temperature of 1080 Fahrenheit, a Chinese style iced cake, and two engine breakdowns. Calling at Aden for bunkers and water, I hired a car from Cowajee Dinshaw and visited Sheikh ‘Othman for old times sake. The old Locust Control building was closed down and neglected, and the desert sands now virtually filled it. I saw Abdullah Mubarak, my old ‘boy’, together with his brand-new fourth wife, Al’u’Wiyah. He didn’t get up-country so much now, where his other three wives were strategically spread around, and so he had a real need for the fourth, handily situated. The Arab doorman at the Crescent Hotel was still there and, although I was now beardless, he recognised me as the ‘Sahib al Jarad’ (the Sahib of Locusts). A few beers seemed to be in order.

The gypsum was destined for Jaffna, on the northern tip of Ceylon (I always use the good old names). Jaffna was situated in a bay so shallow that we had to anchor six miles out. Dhows containing hundreds of coolies came out and, in about twenty minutes, pandemonium reigned supreme aboard the ship. Iron cooking pots were set up on the steel decks and fires lit beneath them. The evening meal was soon in the course of preparation. The derricks were positioned over the holds and we began discharging the gypsum into the dhows. This continued night and day for two weeks, the coolies living and sleeping around the decks. The din was shattering.

After a few days of this chaos, the Second Mate and I decided that we had to spend a couple of nights ashore, just a get some slight relief. We explored this small and (then) very pleasant and historical town, with its 14th Century Portuguese fort, and spent a couple of peaceful nights in a Government rest house, I said that it was pleasant ‘then’ because subsequent years of revolution between the Tamils of Northern Ceylon and Government troops has destroyed a great deal of what was once so green and peaceful.

After a fortnight the cargo was out, and we could give the ship a good hose down, erasing all traces of those iron cooking pots and of the seething mass of coolies that had used our decks to work, live, sleep and perform their bodily functions.

Sailing light ship to Trincomalee, the old RN. Base on the east coast, we awaited orders and watered ship. The coolie labour had cleared our freshwater tanks out. The orders came. No prizes for guessing – it wasn’t the Mediterranean ! Madras for bunkers. Vizagapatam for some general cargo for Masulipatam. Then across the Bay of Bengal to Akyab in Burma, where we spent four days loading a part cargo of rice.

Then, following the mountainous and dramatic Burmese coast southwards and then eastwards, we came to the Irrawaddy Delta, where the muddy waters of this immense and fast flowing river debouche into the Gulf of Martaban, and colour the sea brown for a hundred miles offshore.

Up the Irrawaddy River Rangoon, where we had the interesting performance (which I had last experienced in Calcutta on the Hooghly River ten years before) of making the ship fast between giant buoys fore and aft, in midstream. The current ran at about ten knots, and to reach a shore jetty right opposite the ship, the brightly painted sampan had to be rowed straight ahead, upstream (towards Mandalay !), instead of across it.

Leaking ballast pumps and faulty piping had damaged the rice cargo in two holds, and it had to be unloaded. The Surveyor came aboard, and was seemingly closely steered by the Captain’s hand upon his elbow. The repairs took five days. Then another five days to load a full cargo of rice. Then three days to repair newly discovered problems in the engine room. Well, more days, more dollars as they say, and at least it gave me time to visit the famous pagodas of Rangoon, the Sule Pagoda and the great Shwedagon Pagoda, which is surrounded by scores of small temples and shrines. The entire surface of the 360 foot high structure is covered in gold leaf, looking magical in the early morning sunlight, and the atmosphere was rendered even more mystical and very Eastern by the tinkling of a multitude of little bells as they moved in the warm breeze.

As it happened, Rangoon was as far East as this ship was destined to sail, and this was mainly – if not entirely – due to the actions of the Second mate and me.

THE DISAPPEARING PLIMSOLL MARKS

Within hours of joining I realised that there were shortcomings to this ship. She hadn’t exuded the same atmosphere as the average British merchant ship. At first I put it down to the preponderance of foreigners among the crew – only the Captain, Second Mate and me were English – and in particular to the oppressive presence of the Italians. The fact of the Greek ownership violated the chauvinism in my soul. And the Chinese, supposedly Hong Kong, were mainly of the ‘Red’ variety.

Dammit, she wasn’t English ! She flew the Red Ensign but had apparently never entered a U.K. Port. Why? Would she perhaps never get out again ? I began to think that might indeed be the reason when I found that the lifeboat equipment was mostly non-existent, that the firepumps were u/s and the hoses rotted. And, apart from the seemingly insoluble problems of the ship’s main engine, breakdowns frequently occurred in other items of ancillary equipment. Deck maintenance was poor, discipline was lax.

I disliked the ship. She was the antithesis of everything that my training and experience had instilled in me. And so, unreasonable at it may sound, nothing could go right.

I had been thinking, “Oh, what he hell, I’m just the Third Mate, not the Old Man’s conscience”. And I had never been a nervous individual. But there is a this dividing line between a containable situation and a life-threatening one.

The Second Mate thought as I did and we compared notes. We were not young inexperienced lads, but hardened Mates who had roughed it in war and peace, and who were under no illusions when it came to cost-saving, corner-cutting and parsimonious practices on the part of certain foreign shipowners, not to mention the home grown variety. There had already been one minor fire which had highlighted the deficiencies in the firefighting gear. And, more than once, the ritual main engine breakdown had left us rolling heavily to a beam sea, without motive power for a couple of hours.

The Second Mate and I didn’t see any of this as a particularly life-threatening situation – yet – but, as properly trained officers, we did feel some irritation about it. It was all wrong. And so was the irregular pay structure, with us the poor relations of £55 and £45 per month respectively. The Italian Engineers were the Chief Engineer’s men, all cronies of his from Milan, and were paid very highly, according to some Mafia-like formula.

We knew nothing of the affairs of the antique German Mate (reputedly a relic of the Kaiser’s war) or of the gloomy Norwegian Sparks, permanently at the aquavit and living on cloud nine. They seemed to be part of the fixtures and fittings, and barely exchanged words with anyone.

We had informally approached the subject of pay with the Captain in Jaffna, suggesting that – given the ‘irregularities’ – a substantial pay rise might be in order. It worked – after a fashion. We each received an increase of £5 a month ! We had made no threats, had not implied any action if a rise had not resulted; that would have sounded like blackmail, such an unpleasant word. Perhaps we should have done. The derisory pay increase confirmed our position as two small cogs without the influence of even the Eyetie 4th Engineer.

Well, to return to the present, to Rangoon that is. The ship was loaded, or more accurately ‘over-loaded’, the Plimsoll markings having disappeared beneath the waters of the Irrawaddy somewhat earlier in the loading procedure. The rice cargo was to be taken to Goa, where we knew that we would load manganese ore, that being about the only cargo that was loaded in Goa. Furthermore, we suspected that it would be destined for Yokohama, this being normal practice.

Now, a joke is a joke, but the Mediterranean trading, the Aegean idyll, had all gone out of the scuttle, and here we were in the overloaded rustbucket, well-decks awash in a flat calm…and the prospect of 5,000 miles further easting from Goa, probably in a similar state of overloadedness.

Manganese ore wasn’t a sympathetic or forgiving cargo. It lay in a nasty heavy heap at the bottom of each hold, lowering the ship’s centre of gravity and making her stiff and sluggish to handle. In heavy seas she would be like a half-tide rock.

The Second Mate and I agreed that there was no point in sticking our necks out and trying to rock the boat (metaphorically speaking!). I was wary about such matters since that time in Galveston eleven years before, when an overheard innocent and jokey reference to the installation of a refrigerated storeroom to replace the aged and rotten icebox for the meat was twisted by a gullible young consular officer into ‘incitement to mutiny’!

So we kept stumm. Almost. We weren’t overly worried about any potential ‘risk’, having weighed it all up. The two of us had a quiet word with the Old Man, spelt it all out, and told him we’d stick with it – in return for double pay….backdated ! That would still leave us being paid less than the 4th Engineer. Modest enough, we thought. Papadop was a millionaire, and life has to have some recompenses after all.

When we reached Goa, and should Yokohama turn out to be our next destination, then the Old Man shouldn’t be surprised to see Lloyds’ man coming up the gangway. He didn’t like it much, but off we went on our ten day passage to Goa, and we gathered from Sparks, through the Aquavit fumes, that certain radio messaged were transmitted and received during the course of the passage.

DENOUEMENT

Goa was another of those pleasant, timeless, old Portuguese enclaves which were dotted around the world in those days, but since invaded and ruined by the surrounding population. The ship spent a fortnight there unloading the rice and, as predicted, loading a full cargo of manganese ore. The Second Mate and I said nothing until, just as the ore started dropping solidly into the holds, the Old Man called us into his cabin.

He told us that our ‘ultimatum’ had brought forth a response. It was not quite what we wanted, although we were ambivalent about what we did want. I think it boiled down to more money really, and we didn’t honestly think we would get it. We were not surprised at the Old Man’s message. There was to be no double pay. It wouldn’t have bankrupted Papadop of course. It had rather smacked of blackmail and Papadop, being a Greek, had a mind that recognised it when he saw it. Well, nothing tried, nothing gained.

The Old Man poured three large scotches. He looked somehow beaten, yet – I thought – relieved, as he told us that instead of being consigned to Yokohama, as originally planned and as we suspected it might have been, the manganese ore was to go to Bremen. Being within Home Trade limits, the Articles would expire there.

It could be said that in a way we had won. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. There would be no extra money. But, neither would there be any South China Seas with all those pirates ! There would be no lazy meandering about in the Mediterranean sunshine. But, to be realistic, I couldn’t see myself indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle. You have to be a Papadop to afford that !

Nevertheless, we metaphorically wept into our scotches. The Captain poured three more, larger ones this time, and let his hair down. It seemed that he too had not been altogether happy about the Far East. He too had a yearning for the Mediterranean again where his soul lay, together with a lady of indeterminate age in Famagusta.

The air having thus been cleared, reasonably satisfactorily, the three of us went ashore to a hotel bar. I got into conversation with a well turned out Englishman who was in Goa on behalf of a London firm of loss adjusters. This made me think about my future, and I mean very seriously this time. In a couple of months I would be back in England, once again on the beach. This time I had to make good, I told myself. This London-based man exuded an aura of confidence and stability, and it had induced in me a certain feeling of ….. could it be envy ?

Loading the manganese ore was completed and we sailed, westwards this time. First to Aden for bunkers, then northwards through the Red Sea, breaking down and hoisting the ‘NUC’ balls at frequent intervals.

Pacing the bridge during the night watches, I found this London chap coming back into my mind, not so much for the type of work he performed as for what he represented, which included employment with a sound and well respected firm. I was torn between reluctance to sink into suburban gentility, and the knowledge that my roaming lifestyle could no longer continue.

For the last time in my wanderings the Red Sea fell astern, then the Suez Canal (my 15th transit), then Port Said. Water in the diesel fuel caused the ship to wallow in heavy seas for some hours, off the island of Lampedusa. Loss of all power in the engineroom five miles off Cape Bon, with a strong onshore northerly gave us food for thought. Temporary power was restored and we staggered into the Gulf of Bizerta and anchored off Cape Farina to effect repairs.

A Tunisian MTB came out and the ragged Arab crew, laying a twin – barrelled Oerlikon on us, demanded that we leave at once. We tried to explain to these paranoid pirates – in a mixture of poor French and some greetings in Arabic thrown in by me – that we would love to leave, but that our engines could not perform this function. They circled the ship, getting angrier and screaming more shrilly, when the familiar thump, shudder, and eruption of black oily smoke signalled yet another triumph for Enrico and his wrench. We weighed anchor and executed a tight turn to starboard, leaving the MTB wallowing in our wake, before setting off again towards Algiers for bunkers, water and more repairs.

Leaving Algiers on 2nd May, we broke down again within ten minutes of ringing the engines full away. A further five days in Algiers passed pleasantly enough despite the continuing emergency ashore. It was during these five days that whilst trying out my schoolboy French on the young lady running the ‘Chat Noir’ bar, I made the acquaintanceship of an Englishman visiting on business. He worked for the biggest firm of distillers in Scotland. It caught the mood of my current thinking. I pressed him for all the advice and information he could give me. And some time later I made use of this information, and as a direct result I swallowed the anchor for the last time, and took up a new career which lasted for over thirty years. Was it fate again, that I should have been in the ‘Chat Noir’ at that moment, imbibing and leering at the barmaid?

By 16th May we were pounding through the second war minefields off Texel, on the Dutch coast, through the five-mile wide swept channel, in a force 8 northeaster, fervently hoping the engines wouldn’t fail us now with mines to port and starboard. The Fiat diesel held up, and we docked at Nordenham, at the mouth of the River Weser, a few miles from Bremen. At 1135 hours on 17th May 1958 I rang the engines EOSP…end of sea passage, end of my sea career, and end of this valedictory voyage.

Papadop had come to Bremen and boarded the ship on paying-off day. He saw the Second Mate and I, but he made no reference to our activities.

When the ore was unloaded the ship was due to sail in ballast, to Archangel in North Russia, to pick up a cargo of timber for Nice, on the French Riviera. Papadop must have been a glutton for punishment. He asked us to sign new Articles at the same rates of pay. We declined, politely. He said, “Why for you doan’awanna stay in my beautiful sheep ?”. We told him why, succinctly, but politely. He said, “This leedle sheep she no so bad, waddayou want for to sign on?”.

I spoke for myself and said that I would stay in her for £300 a month (I was then on £50), plus repatriation from wheresoever the ship happened to be in twelve months time, should I have survived that long. Although I really had determined to go ashore and settle down, I couldn’t resist this last opportunity to be outrageous in my demands. It might have worked and another twelve months wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference.

Papadop also was succinct. “Nuttin’ doin'” he said.

So I signed off, picked up my rail ticket for England from the Consul in Bremen, and went off to Rotterdam to visit the tulip fields at Keukenhof. And to drink a little Oranjieboom beer.

And then I went home to England.

And I’m still there !