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So I Went to Sea

by Harold Mann

Published in two parts in the newsletter of the Hostellers Sailing Club - May 1956, and August 1957

~~~~ Part 1 ~~~~

There are few enterprises for which 5 a.m. is an appropriate hour, but it was then, at Norwich, that I joined my first ship. Fortunately she was easily found in the dark, though she was not the converted Thames barge that I was looking for; steel built, she was altogether more of a ship, and this was probably as well for my initiation.  To the knowledgeable her build and lines stamped her as a former Dutch vessel. I found a bunk in the foc'sle and turned in for the few hours remaining 'till morning, at which time I was signed on and we set off down the Yare bound for Middlesborough.

Two things struck me on going to sea for a livelihood. Firstly, the job was rather grimier than I had expected, the natural result of carrying coal and scrap-iron, stowing coal for galley bunkers and handling wet ropes impregnated with coal dust; to which may be added an occasional session in the engine room, an oily cavern not much resembling the bright and gleaming temples of power which bigger ships seem to achieve.

I also found that ships are more active than I had realised. One sees, perhaps, a small coaster at Maldon on a Sunday, the only sign of life a plume of smoke from the galley fire; or passes through the docks, where great ships tower above the houses with an air of seeming permanence, and one gets the impression that the whole business is rather leisurely, in actual fact one often comes to a berth with hatches open and when the last grab is raised or the last truck tipped, has to make way for another vessel before getting covered up.

We did manage to get a week-end in the Colne on the strength of a not too favourable weather report, but against that we came nonstop from the Tyne to Harwich getting about six hours sleep in forty.  We were in the opposite state to Maurice Griffiths' "sleep-drugged lookout" and at times I found myself nodding at the wheel.

The navigation was on straightforward lines.  The Skipper laid off a course, made allowance for drift and tidal set and that was that, apart from working out the E.T.A, for the next buoy or light vessel. Deviation was always a doubtful quantity due to carrying successive loads of scrap.  Our sister ship was reputed to go in for Algebra but that was a "shoal" on which the R-- C-- would have been "neaped for, many a tide".  The Skipper had a series of East Coast courses laid off on paper supplied in rolls for other purposes.  Though able to use a sextant his views of its value for finding the distance off by-vertical angle was strictly practical- "if you can see the land you don't need it and if you can't see it you can't do it". Once, on coming up to the wheel, he asked if I had noticed any change in the nature of the seas as we were crossing the Wash.  This, I am beginning to discover, is a barge-skipper's dodge for finding his way about in fog.

Our signaling arrangements were rather sketchy.  On receiving "What ship?", usually from Spurn Point or Flamborough Head, the Skipper replied with a small rubber-cased torch, so you couldn't really blame the shore people if they gave up trying sometimes.  All the ship's lights ran on paraffin. On one occasion the Skipper was alone in the wheelhouse and thought another ship was sending the Morse letter "F", but the code book was not at hand to look ap the meaning.  Shortly after this the visible parts of a wreck slid by, so it was decided that the signal must have been "U", "You are standing into danger!" We had one other near miss, on a wet night off the Tyne, in nearly running down a small tug who by the dimness of his lights was just "asking for it".

There seems to be a tradition of enmity between skippers and harbour, lock and pier masters.  That is my conclusion after seeing several lively encounters.  One of these, in which Acts of Parliament were involved and charges made of obtaining money by false pretences, was greatly enjoyed by a company of anglers on whose behalf we were being told to move from Gorleston Quay. The Skipper confided that there were not many pier-masters he hadn't had a "swear-off" with.

We managed to avoid anything worse than force five and a moderate sea, though having our fair share of fog.  I'm afraid I shall never share Peter Woolnough's disappointment at missing a storm at sea, though perhaps one can afford such luxuries in a 15,000 ton liner with plenty of sea-room.  In this I am influenced too, by the distress calls I have heard coming over the radio whilst at the wheel of my present ship. I have had my baptism of sea-sickness, but haven't, so far, found it the distressing business that some people find it.

And so passed seven weeks, working between Erith and Blyth, after which the regular mate returned to duty.  I was paid off at Ipswich and the same day joined a much larger ship which sailed within the hour. Perhaps she will furnish another chapter, but she can never claim the interest and affection of my first ship.

~~~~ Part I1 ~~~~

As I was saying, I left the old "R---" at Ipswich and having walked aboard the "S---" and asked for a berth I sailed within the hour. While the "R---" was 180 tons gross, carried a crew of three and might be called the flagship of the firm's vessels, the "S---" was 945 tons, had a crew of twelve and belonged to one of the largest coasting firms.  A ton, by the way, is a unit of volume, 100 cubic feet.  Gross tonnage is the capacity of the entire hull and nett tonnage is the "earning space" or holds in the case of a cargo ship. As to weight of cargo, the "R---" carried 210 tons and the "S---" 1050 tons . The crew of my new ship comprised skipper, two mates, four deck hands, three engineers, cook and cabin-boy.  She was eleven years old and provided her crew with a cabin apiece, foc'sle accommodation being a thing of the past except in the older ships.  The mate of the "S--- " was a Swede, but, having married a Cornish girl, there was no place like Cornwall for him.  He used to call himself "The Deputy Mayor of Truro" and had once received a letter addressed to "The Big Swede, Truro". He had learnt his stuff in square-riggers such as the "Viking" and had been in sail until 1933.  At first what with his accent and my ignorance there was an occasional crisis.  One was due to my misunderstanding of his order "Surge" and another was to mistake "Vast heaving" for "Faster", which might have been disastrous as the heaving was being done by an electric windlass. However, these things all got sorted out and eventually Olaf and I got on quite well.

I soon had new shipmates as the other three deckies as well as the third engineer and cook were all paying off for Christmas.  We also had a relief skipper since ours, a former bargeman, had injured his shoulder.  Only two hands could be mustered at that time.  Ron was an ex-miner and judging by the progress he made is no doubt by now also an ex-sailor.  Len had done some trawling and had lost a "cushynumber" on a Boom-Defence Vessel through a weakness for certain ladies.  In the hope of keeping out of further mischief he sprouted a set of blonde whiskers but when we went to Brussels a few weeks later he whipped them off again in case that city should yield opportunities too good to be missed.  It didn't.

Our main freights at this time were coal and cement. We went North either light or with cement from the Thames to Leith and loaded coal at Blyth, the Tyne or Goole.  Bound for Leith one night in a N.E. gale I was roused from my "stand-by" by the A.B. of the watch. Apparently the anchor brake had failed and had allowed the anchor to drop in forty fathoms whilst the ship was steaming full ahead.  Wind and tide cut our speed down to four or five knots, which saved the anchor and cable from carrying away.  We got power on deck from the engine-room and set about heaving up.  The A.B. and I got into the foe'sle to stow the cable so we were at least sheltered.  When the five shackles (75 fathoms) were in we secured the anchor with a wire, during which operation the A.B. nearly fell overboard.  I don't think I ever saw anyone as cold as the mate was that night.  He was heard to say later that it was only by the grace of God that we didn't go to the bottom. I hadn't seen it that way myself, but maybe he was right.  It is as well to be ignorant sometimes.

Coastal navigation is now much simplified by the Decca "Navigator" apparatus.  This picks up continuous transmissions from shore stations and gives readings on three clocks.  The figures are plotted on a special chart overprinted with lattices of red, green and purple lines and a fix is obtained.  A check is made on the set when passing a known position such as a buoy or light-vessel.

After delivering our cargo of "Tide" and "Dreft" to Brussels we went round to Rotterdam, going alongside a Panamanian ship from which we were to load American coal for Poole.  As we were moored in mid-stream, to go ashore meant a trip in the Spido or water-bus and for some reason I was the only one willing to make the effort. A companion would probably have saved me from thinking that a guilder was worth about a shilling and thus paying 14/- for a dinner. However, that meal, eaten in a Chinese restaurant, with nightlights under the dishes to keep the food warm, was one to remember.

Prom Poole we crossed the Channel to load wheat at Le Treport, where a few members of the Group will remember the Cafe du Bassin and Marie-Helene.  The loading was a desultory affair and we spent a lot of time playing a kind of international football on the quayside until it became too cold to play.  The log at this time had a daily entry "crew engaged on various duties", which I suppose was one way of describing it.  During our return from Le Treport the cargo shifted and we put into Boulogne outer harbour.  The loose grain was covered with bagged stuff to stabilise it, so we had to drag a good number of bags across the hold to get the ship back into reasonable trim.  Then the anchor windlass broke down and we spent some time chipping the ice off the fore part of the ship.  The second (mate) declared that the spirit in the standard compass on "monkey island" was frozen.   I guess he'd gone to draw some off, the old man having confiscated his whiskey, an occasional surfeit of which rendered him unfit for duty.

The wheat was discharged at the Victoria Dock and as we manoeuvred to take the lock into the river at Woolwich there occurred another instance of that lack of sympathy between skippers and lock-masters which I have mentioned before. Astern of us came the "Pindar", I5,000tons, with tugs in attendance.  As the gates opened, admitting flotillas of tugs and lighters, there came a voice over the loud-hailer "That E--- Company ship keep clear".  There was no response from the "S---" and the message was repeated.  Clearly we were meant to lose our lock and as it was 11 p.m. and pretty parky no-one thought much of the idea.  Then the small craft cleared and Captain C---, officiating as usual in red beret and carpet slippers gave her a splash ahead.  The lock-master was, to put it mildly, resentful of this move and various pleasantries were exchanged "I'm master of this b-y lock", "We were here first", "........reported, I'll remember you".  All very unbecoming to an artery of the nation's commerce. Possession, however, was the whole of the law and in fact "Pindar" was packed-in with us though the "S---" had been expected to stand off for an hour just to make the job easier.

Now the "S---" went in for a lengthy overhaul, dry-docking and four-yearly survey.  During this time the ship's articles expired so that the half-dozen of us who were left were technically discharged and wanting to complete twelve months' service before Christmas I was on the look-out for another ship. The "A---" was in the next dry-dock and I found that she was a seaman short a few days before she was due to sail.  I was duly signed on, having lost only eight days, and after the compass had been swung in Yarmouth Roads, was once more bound for Blyth.  It was a fine Saturday afternoon when we put to sea, but this was an English June and soon we were shoving into a gale from the N.N.W.  Before very long I was fit for little but my turn on the wheel and off watch I sought the solace of my bunk only to be regularly shaken like a rat by a terrier every time the screw left the water.  We reached Blyth about fourteen hours later than normal and were not wanted until afternoon, so the mate, who was a good sort, told us to turn in after breakfast. Bless you, Eric, for that kind thought!  The skipper, too, was a gentleman.  A former coasting schooner captain he was semi-retired, turning out as relief skipper and neither the elements nor the owners worried John T---.  One evening it came on thick down towards Flamboro' Head and we could hear a ship blowing ahead of us. Eventually she appeared fine on the bow and only about 300 yards ahead of us. So it was dead slow and hard-a-starboard. She was, maybe, five or six thousand tons and as we passed, out came John on the lower bridge. His only comment was "Well, I'm b- -d" and he turned and went back into his cabin. After a little the regular skipper and mate returned which placed us under Irish rule and a fresh A.B. joined - a dram-drinking Scot. Alas, poor Jock, I knew him well. Surely he was digging his grave with a corkscrew. We were still in the coal and cement trade and remained so for three months, after which I took some leave.

Upon my return I was sent to another "A - " at Rochester. She was a sister-ship to the last one.  For a while the cook was the only hand with an A.B.'s ticket but we soon had some changes, the general effect of which was to make me look forward to paying off at Christmas, not knowing I was destined to do so at the beginning of November.  One of the regular coal runs was Blyth to Ipswich which is more or less the home of the surviving sailing barges.  Now this whole business began with meeting a barge skipper in the "Ship" at Maldon over two years ago.  I was to have gone with him as mate but the job fell through, which was how I came to ship in the "R-- ". Astern of us at Ipswich lay the "P-- " her gear lowered down and the skipper busy freeing the rigging screws.  What more natural than to stop and then ask him if he knew of a mate's job anywhere?  There was, right there, and rather than delude me the skipper painted as black a picture of it as he could. So I was faced with all the doubts that went with something I had long wanted to do and was unlikely to have the chance of doing again. I don't think, on looking back, that I had much option and I left the "A-- " in London with a forecast from her skipper of "dirty nights down Swin in her" and one from the mate that I wouldn't last more than a month. I thought that the old man might well be right, but I ventured to have a doubt about the mate's prophecy.

Ah, well, we shall see. .........