1972-1977 Navigating Officer
Ocean Transport and Trading, Liverpool
40 years after leaving the Merchant Navy I have hardly thought about those days and talked to no-one about them, mainly because there was no-one who I could relate to! A reunion with old navy mates in the UK a short while back and a voyage on a cruise liner brought it all back to life.
For this page, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and recall some of the many amazing experiences I had during those formative years.
First, some background….
After leaving school, I spent a tortuous year in a London Office as a trainee Structural Engineering Draughtsman. Although the career itself was quite interesting, commuting 3 hours a day on smoky trains to spend the day as a tea-making dogsbody was not very inspiring. I started looking around…
I applied for a career as a Cadet in the Merchant Navy, and I was called to an interview in Liverpool – and told I would be given overnight accomodation. This in itself was an adventure! as I had never travelled so far, and it was a break from the claustrophobic London suburbs and routine.
I was expecting a fairly formal greeting and a whole day and night of being on best behaviour in a strange environment. I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing.
When I arrived, I was shown to a dormitory in an old wing of the Aulis training establishment. Immediately, the friendliness and open minded cadets there on arrival made me feel welcome. Also the cultural diversity and how everyone bonded – be it Scottish, English, Malaysian, Indian, Ceylonese etc. was something I had never experienced. I was taken out on Liverpool town for a huge pub crawl and made many new friends. I was ASTOUNDED by the topics of conversation – worldly, mature, funny, and descriptions of the life they had experienced over the last year or so in places the world over convinced me I had found my new life. Next day I passed the interview (and discovered that another interviewee who was out with us was so hung-over he went home before his interview!)
Ocean Transport and Trading were an umbrella company of a number of shipping lines, but mainly Blue Funnel and Elder Dempster.
Blue Funnel was established in 1866 and was a stalwart of quality British cargo ships for more than a century, mainly trading to the Far East. They trained cadets to the highest world standards and I was very privileged to train with the best of the best.
Elder Dempster was another long established shipping line which started in 1868 and focused on the West Africa routes.
As a cadet, I was entering into a 4 year apprenticeship, ultimately resulting in qualifying as a 3rd Officer after passing all Department Of Trade requirements to obtain a 2nd Mate Foreign-Going Certificate, which would allow me to be in charge of a watch on any sized vessel in the world, be it cargo, passenger, oil, bulk, etc. From there I was on a path to be God (Captain).
But first, I had to work for a few months in a bread factory (with a hair net!) to earn the money to pay for my uniform and starting kit! It was all worth it... Here is an overview of my ships and experiences;-
30/8/72 to 30/9/72
Good old fashioned general cargo ship. R.I.P.
...not quite the exotic adventure I was expecting
Tilbury (London), Tema (Ghana), Apapa (Lagos Nigeria), San Pedro (Ivory Coast), London
In the English Channel, first day at sea
The first containers appearing...
My first ship was on the West African run for a month. As a cadet, you work for the first year on deck with the sailors – painting/greasing/cleaning. My first day in the tropics was spent getting the worst ever sunburn of my life. I learned quickly that the cool air on a ship’s deck can be very misleading!
The couple of weeks spent in African ports were not exactly glamorous. Although my later experiences of Africa were intoxicating landscapes, sounds, colours, and people, as a 16-year old fresh out of the UK it was a severe culture shock.
The heat was suffocating, the sounds and smells were awful (dockers would defecate on the ship’s deck) and my first trip into the city (Lagos) was a hot dusty hustle and bustle affair of a sometimes chaotic confusing and eye-opening experience... for example some beggars with no legs and coconuts on their hands to run along with.
On the journey home, just before we entered the English Channel we answered a call to a ship in distress. We arrived in the dark to a ship completely on fire with flames shooting above the masts. Along with a few other ships we spent the night scouring the water searching for crew in the water. All officers, midshipmen, and crew lookouts were on the bridge scanning the waters.
Something passed close by, and an officer went to deploy the bridge lifebelt (which had a light attached). It was stuck solid from rust and a frantic effort by a few of us could not dislodge it. We did not have any other events and left after a few hours.
Next day we learned that 8 Chinese sailors died in the fire.
There were lots of interesting sights in that first trip to Africa – very few I would cherish.
An amazing adventure to the unknown Far East!
KG5 (London) Las Palmas, Capetown, Penang, Pork Kelang, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Dadiangas (now General Santos), Trincomalee & Columbo (Ceylon), Cebu (Malasia), KG5 (London).
After my first trip to Africa, I was starting to think that the life at sea was not all it’s cracked up to be! The Glenogle changed all that. A great social midshipmen’s deck, we all travelled to the most exotic locations on earth, and had a ball. All before the internet of course… so being away for 4 months in the Far East really was an amazing adventure – no globalisation back then… no MacDonalds! No communication with home!. Just exciting exotic new sights and experiences at every stop.
27/2/73 to 13/5/73
Going to all the locations you dare not nowadays!
KG5 (London), Freetown, Matadi (Congo), Boma (Congo), Lobito & Luanda (Angola), Point Noire (Congo), Port Gentil (Gabon), Freetown, Belfast, Liverpool
Deck work as 1st year cadet
My favourite ship. A “permanent” group of officers and crew, bars lovingly built, great social life, and a friendship/comradery that was unique in my sea career. I remember sitting in the quiet dining room on the first day wondering where everyone was, when an explosion of officers burst through shouting laughing and larking around. It set the scene for the whole trip. Sailing 60 miles up the Congo was an incredible experience, although due to delays in administration at Matadi port we had to anchor in the river the night before, resulting in the worst mosquito attack the crew and I ever experienced (I still have the scars today!)
5/6/73 to 10/9/73
A repeat adventure to the Far East
Royal Albert Docks (London), Rotterdam, Capetown, Penang, Port Kelang, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Bugo (Philippines), Rajang River (Sarawak, Malaysia), Singapore, Port Kelang, Penang, Trincomalee & Columbo (Ceylon-now Sri Lanka), Capetown, London
Glenfalloch was a sister ship to the Glenogle, and almost a carbon copy voyage and experience. Great times. But hey this was getting to be routine!
18/3/74 to 3/7/74
Dry dock, storms, canals, and a near miss!
Malta, Houston, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Falmouth (ship in distress), Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, Rotterdam
It was a dream start to this trip.. flying out to Malta to “supervise” the ship whilst it was getting upgrades in dry-dock. Of course, there was not much a young cadet could add to the chaos of works going on in dry-dock, so I was effectively “knocked off” and spent a glorious 2 weeks holidaying in Malta.
After sailing to USA and Europe, we ran into a huge storm leaving the English Channel and were pounded for days only making a few knots headway. The ship started to take on a big lean (from shifting cargo) so we turned back and ran into Falmouth as a “Ship In Distress”. We were in the local Falmouth newspapers. The week of repairs gave us all time to frequent the local pubs, and the Captain allowed all officers to bring their wives on board. After some prodding from other officers, he even allowed me (the only Cadet) to bring down my girlfriend!
We had a very flamboyant captain on the Ajax, and his extrovert nature came into full play when we cruised up the St Lawrence Seaway between Canada and the USA. There is an amazing network of locks that raise you 170 metres up from sea-level to the Great Lakes. At each lock there was always a big audience watching the proceedings especially for a vessel our size, and our captain would always oblige and play “Land Of Hope And Glory” full blast from the big ship’s tannoy to rounds of applause and cheers from the audience!
We were at the time the largest vessel ever to enter the lock system – and in one lock we got “jammed” and managed to buckle the ship and drop one deck by a foot!
I had one very, very close call when on watch on Lake Erie heading to Cleveland. It was a clear night, with nothing on the horizon… I had a lookout and also a man on the wheel, and another uneventful night ahead.
I had the radar running, and casual peeked into it – to see a tiny fleck ahead – I thought it was “sea clutter” (a wave) at first, but I stayed glued to the radar and it reappeared just in front of the bow. I ordered hard over on the wheel, and a large sailing yacht flew past the side – it’s masts actually hitting the water when tilting 90 degrees over, caused by our huge full-speed wash. I’m sure they got a very big shock (as I did) but they lived to sail another day! It sure was a reminder of my responsibilities at that tender age of 19.
6/8/74 to 10/11/74
My first supertanker, and very nearly my first global disaster!
Genoa, Mina Al Ahmadi (Kuwait), Rotterdam
Captains Chair, looking cool
Yea that really is a single link of our anchor cable. We generally lowered it gently, as dropping it would have shaken the ship to bits!
The pump control room;- controlling the back-pressure of huge pumps using remote butterfly valve controls.
Tank entry gear;- all equipment double insulated - a tiny spark wuld not have been pretty in a gas filled tank the size of the QE2!
Look carefully - I'm waving!
Us supertanker boys get sea-sick just looking at normal sized ships!
This was my first supertanker, and I was astounded – push-bikes to get up and down the length of the ship, an 8 story lift! Other interesting facts:
* The Troilus had 4 cargo pumps on board, capable go 4000 tonnes an hour, plus a ballast pump or 3000 tonnes per hour. This meant that the ship load/discharge at a rate of 19,000 tonnes per hour.. say the weight of the QE2 every few hours!
* When I was on watch, I would walk from bridge wing to bridge wing to pass away the hours – it was 60 metres wing to wing!
* At full speed, it would take 5 mile circle to turn the ship around.
* It could take 30 miles to slow down – the usual method approaching port was to cut the engines and “skid” using the rudder (repeat full port and starboard rudder)
* The fully-laden inertia was incredible and took some getting used to – for example action need to be taken sometimes 20 miles from another approaching ship, as once the wheel was turned the Troilus would thunder on in a straight line for a few minutes. Once it started turning, opposite wheel had to be immediately applied.
I remember once as we rounded the Cape Of Good Hope in a hurricane (force 12) at slow speed, I balanced a pencil upright... it didn't fall over!
At that time there were a number of supertankers “disappearing” so we all took great care to follow safety procedures. But one night, there was an engine fire and the alarms sounded in the early hours. It was put out and not serious, but my heart was pounding the whole time wondering if this was going to be the “big bang” with 320,000 tonnes of oil on board. There were quiet a few nasty injuries with people running into closed doors in the dark.
I had an experience on this ship which could have made me infamous.
. We had left Kharg Island off of Iran fully laden, at night, and I was left in charge on the bridge with one lookout and a sailor steering (as we were still close to land) as we worked up to full speed. As we sailed out of the Gulf Of Oman (past Dubai) it should have been plain sailing. But things started to go wrong.
I noticed a surreal light movement – the whole horizon was slowly spinning round! We were going in a wide arc and slowly heading back towards the land. I was totally disoriented.
The Troilus had two state of the art electronic giro compasses, and an old magnetic one. The person on the wheel is SUPPOSED to occasionally check the electronic giro bearing with the magnetic compass, but failed to do so. I realised on checking the magnetic myself that BOTH giro compasses has failed, and the person on the wheel was simply following a dead giro bearing.
I went into panic mode and called the Captain, 2nd Mate, engine room and for 20 confused and tense minutes we were all frantically trying to work out where the heck we were! The sand dunes did not help as they did not provide a good signal for the radar. We had 320,000 tonnes of oil loaded, going at full speed in a narrow gulf and we didn’t know which way we were pointing let alone where we were! The Captain and officers did an amazing job getting it all sorted, and thankfully I was not in the next day’s papers as the junior officer who ran a supertanker aground! 30 minutes more without action is perhaps all it needed
29/1/75 to 22/3/75
I rebel !
New York, Panama City (Florida), New Orleans, Beaumont (Texas), Houston, New Orleans, Dakar, Freetown,
The Deido was an awful ship. I started out by falling ill in New York after working all day in the ships hold in -10 degrees. I was very bad and the Captain even banned visitors (fellow cadets from another ship). But the real problem with the Deido was an egotistic bullying Chief Mate. He seemed to have it in for me from the start, and he made my life hell, for no reason that I could fathom, apart from being a slow starter from my illness. After 2 months of this, I decided to take extraordinary action, and told the Captain I wanted off the ship… NOW! After all, the merchant navy was a civilian occupation and I had SOME rights! So I left in Freetown, Sierra Leone, booked into a hotel, and contacted an agent as to how to fly home. I was told that I could register as a “Seaman In Distress” and get a lift by another British ship as long as I worked for a nominal fee (something like £1 a month!). After a very weird 2 weeks as a stranded lonesome 20 year old in the bizarre old colonial style hotel in Africa (which had power cuts 5 times a day). I sailed back to Blighty on the Dixcove unscathed.
6/4/75 to 19/4/75
A week after getting home I reported to head office in Liverpool fully expecting my sea career to be over and ready to pick up my belongings. I was a tad nervous, but that young stroppy nature of mine back then gave me some grit so I walked in ready to give them a piece of my mind as I was booted out.
I was asked “is everything ok? We have had problems with that Chief Mate before”! Ready for your next trip?!
Thumbing a lift home...
22/4/75 to 4/7/75
The Monksgarth had a very old radar system.. “Ships Head Up” rather than the normal “North Up”. What this means is that the dots representing other ships would move in an arc as the Monksgarth heading changed, which totally buggered up any target plotting for collision avoidance. Not a problem when you are sailing in a straight line, but….
Lost in the fog, making mistakes!
Newport, Montreal, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Pasages (Spain)
...When leaving Houston I was on watch on my own in fairly murky conditions, and I was plotting a couple of other vessels on the radar. One was to starboard on a collision course so I altered course to avoid it. At the same time the fog closed in more. I had little visibility, and the radar showed a complete mess of long arcs representing other ships and the land. I steadied the ship on a straight line for a few minutes, plotted the other ships again, and realised another ship was now on a collision course, and altered course again. Now the radar was a complete jumble of lines and I was starting to sweat and the heart was pumping hard! I should have called the captain by now, but instead tried to stabilise the course again to get an idea of what was happening. After a few minutes the Captain ambled onto the bridge and gently asked how I was getting on… after assessing the situation he cut the engines to slow speed and headed directly out to sea (I was currently doing all my manoeuvres close to land!)
I will never forget his professionalism and kindness… he never once mentioned it again (looking at my face he must have realised I knew what a mess I’d made of it!).
When I left The Monksgarth in Spain, there was an air-controller strike on, so I caught a train all the way home via France.
12/1/76 to 29/4/76
An amazing entry !
Capetown, Jebel Dhanna (Abu Dhabi),Kharg Island (Iran), Rotterdam, Umm Said (Qatar), Das island (Abu Dhabi), Fateh Oil Field (Dubai)
Nice breeze, no sun protection, blissfully unaware of the skin issues this would cause later in life...
I received a phone call from my head office to asked if I wanted to cut my leave short and join a huge OBO (Oil Bulk Ore) carrier in 2 days time… in the Indian Ocean! WOW!
I flew from Liverpool to London, and then London to Cape Town via Johannesburg. I was pretty tired on arrival so was booked into a hotel but was awoken at 2am to say the ship was rounding the Cape Of Good Hope, and I was to get ready for a fast helicopter transfer.
It was an amazing experience seeing the massive floodlit ship in a sea of black sailing at full speed as we dropped down to land on it.
I remember stepping out of the helicopter and was roughly grabbed in mid-air by someone as I tried to jump off of the heli-pad. The next day I awoke to a beautiful Indian Ocean horizon – and noticed that the helipad was about 15 feet above a very hard metal deck!
It was incredible to think that 36 hours ago I was having a beer with friends in a Liverpool pub, and here I was now on watch in the Indian Ocean! It was 1975 after all, people just didn’t DO that back then! I was also promoted from a cadet to 3rd Officer – I have a feeling the company were an officer short that week, and I got promoted for the gig!
Hull, Humber, Hull, Humber, Norway, Hull, Falmouth
12/6/76 to 17/7/76
Another tanker - this time travelling to Norway in Winter (where the sun only came up for a few hours).
My last voyage in Ocean Transport & Trading. After 4 years, I was hankering for some shore life, and get into my hobby of playing in bands, and keeping friends close by instead of always leaving them behind. So I decided to leave the Merchant Navy behind, but not before qualifying as a Second Mate Foreign-Going – which basically qualified me to have my own bridge watch on any sized vessel in the world. There were not many openings ashore for a qualified Navigator!
Thus I spent a year doing tedious factory jobs.
One day, whilst working stacking loaves of bread in a huge bakery for minimal wage, I was called to the bakery office to find a shipping agent had left a message for me. I called him, and he offered a stunning amount of money to be a contract Navigating Officer.
As I stood there, dressed in a green boiler suit and hair net! I realised that my experiment with shore work was over, and it was time to return to the sea. …. for BIG $$$, and BIG hassle as it turned out.
14/3/77 to 18/3/77
Signing on for a contract with a foreign-owned small outfit was a great contrast to Ocean Transport and Trading. There was no cosy admin and management to look after you. It was highly paid, but you were on your own. Also, I was “bumped up” to 2nd Mate. Ocean would stipulate that you held one Certificate above your working station – e.g. a 3rd Mate would hold a 2nd Mate’s Certificate. Not so with my new contract.
Seeing as I hardly had any experience as 3rd Mate I was a tad nervous at being bumped to 2nd Mate to say the least. I flew out to the USA to join the ship, and as part of protocol had a routine medical. I was tested to have blood in my urine, and after 4 days flown straight back home, to spend 3 weeks in Guys Hospital London and 2 months as an out-patient to work out what my kidneys were doing. Once I had recovered, I contacted the agent and they were keen to take me on again, and not long after I joined my next ship.
My first contract, cut short
Tampa (Florida), New Orleans
16/5/77 to 19/7/77
The Chambly Era was a “Laker” – a ship designed for the fresh-water lakes of the US/Canada Great Lakes. It had minimal storage for food as most Lake trips were only a few days at most. It was powered by 4 train engines – the same once that powered the “Rock Island Line” trains.
It had a few cranes fitted and somehow was registered by a small Bermudan company to be sea-worthy for International waters.
It was the most un-seaworthy pile of junk I've ever experienced.
A hellish ship, and the last nail in the coffin
Gandia (Spain), Las Palmas, Sapele & Burutu (Nigeria), Gibraltar.
The Chambly Era Diet Plan
Driving a ship's crane
Somehow, this thing floated
I could write a book about this trip.
Once again I was employed as a 2nd Mate. This time, seeing as I has recently completed a first aid course, I was asked if I would also be the “Medical Officer”!
On my first day of work as a 2nd Mate, I started by checking the charts – and found none had been updated with any Admiralty notices… e.g. latest shipwrecks and lighthouses were not on the charts. While I was starting the mammoth task to put things right, the new 3rd Mate arrived. After introductions, he looked at what I was doing, and said “wow that looks interesting! I can’t wait to learn this navigation stuff”!!! I discovered later that he had only worked on fishing boats – which in my agent’s eyes qualified him to be a 3rd Mate!
For the first week, I didn’t see the Captain. He was drunk and out of commission. The 1st Mate was occupied in the running of the ship, so all navigational duties were resting on my young shoulders.
Baptism Of Fire
Although I had some help on the way to USA from the 1st Mate, when we left USA and sailed to Africa I did all navigation and position fixes on my own. As we approached the coast I was starting to get nervous as no-one had checked my work. Remember, these were the days before GPS, and the only way to fix your position was with a sextant. There I was on a ship with 40 crew pounding towards the African coast, hoping all my chart updates were correct, my course did not take us across any reefs, and my positions were correct.
One day from the destination, the Captain sobered up enough to join me to take a position fix at noon. Our locations differed by over 30 miles, and instead of taking the usual approach to meet in the middle, he arrogantly declared the ship’s position to be where he fixed us.
The next day as we made landfall, the radars put our position running exactly from my fix. He never bothered me again.
Our ship very soon started running short of supplies – firstly food. Once we made our way up the Benin River, we started buying fruit and vegetables. from every native coming alonside the ship.
At that time, there was a lot of political unrest in Nigeria (as is now) and we had guards with rifles on board.
As designated “Medical Officer” I started having crew approaching me describing very openly personal descriptions of their ailments. They seemed to think I was a doctor or something! I usually looked up their symptoms in the Captain’s Medical Journal and prescribed a pill or ointment.
One day an African wharf worker was hit by a crane and they brought him to me in a very bloodied state. I opened up the medical room and sat him down, and looked at all the bottles in the cupboards wondering what the heck I should give him, without betraying my lack of knowledge. I grabbed some kind of spirit, poured onto cotton wool and pressed it onto his wounds (he gasped) and wrapped a bandage around him, and a few minutes later I could see him making his way home feeling very happy with his professional treatment.
Not a happy ship
There was a lot of tension on the ship. One day there was a fight among two of the crew with an axe. They brought up the injured man to the medical room, and I had help this time from the Captain as we stitched his wounds together with tape and bandages.
I even had a (now) comical incident myself – the 1st Mate and I set upon each other with fisticuffs, which continued into the Captains cabin!
The next day we were both wandering around the ship covered in bruises and I knew it was time to get off. But we were up a river in Africa, so I had to carry on as normal.
The 1st Mate had an obsession with renovating the ship. To paint a ship usually involves chipping away rust outward bound with a chipping hammer and applying undercoat, then on the final leg of the journey home painting the top-coat. This is normal practise for all ships; to look their best arriving home. Usually the noisy “chipping” part can be tolerated for a few days… bang bang bang of a hammer by 10 crew for a short while is a horrible sound.
But the Chambly Era was a rust-bucket, and the banging of hammers was relentless the whole time on the ship. It drove us all crazy.
Getting out of the Sapele
When we were ready to leave the Sapele, we discovered in the morning that the dockers had not been paid, and they had strung a huge hawser across the river to block the ship in. Things were turning REALLY nasty now, and I was not alone in wanting to leave the ship.
The Captain decided to just run the gauntlet and drive the ship through the barrier and boats. We were on stand-by and ready for the manoeuvre with a lot of tension… when in the most incredible fashion that only a Hollywood movie could make, a fast speedboat came racing up the river with a huge fat white man dressed in flowing white robes. He stepped off, paid the dockers, and we were released with no further incident!
It was time to leave Africa and head to Gibraltar. We had great difficulty getting through the bar at the river entrance due to unfavourable weather and had another couple of days delay. We were all getting thin from lack of decent food, sick of banging and chipping, and by now were starting to question whether we would get paid.
Once we finally got out of the Benin River into the open sea, the engines started to fail one-by-one. These engines were the same used in the "Rock Island Line" trains. Instead of a ship's engine we had four train engines!
As each one broke down, the ship correspondingly slowed down and our ETA to Gibraltar was pushed back. We were on one engine only with a few days to go, when that last one failed too. We spent a day floating around in the ocean whilst the engineers tried to get one engine running from parts from the other three.
We finally limped into Gibraltar – only to find something like 30 holes in the ship which urgently needed plugging. By this time two officers and I decided we needed to leave ASAP… but we had to wait to get paid. The ship’s owner turned up with just one suitcase full of enough USA dollars to pay the whole crew for 2 months, the fuel, repairs, port fees etc. Who knows how much that was! But we managed to get paid and left within the hour… flagging down a local taxi to take us 100 miles to Malaga airport.
We were so happy to get to the airport, we had more than a few beers to celebrate. When it was time to board the flight, we walked across the tarmac and up the steps to the plane. The doors were closed, the engines were started, and the Captain made the announcement for the flight to ……. WHAT! WE WERE ON THE WRONG PLANE!!!!
After a quick explanation to the flight attendant, the door was opened, we jumped down to the tarmac and raced over to our correct plane.