It reminded me of a chapter in my book Tales From The Sea about becoming the Captain of a ship. The Captain is in overall charge of the ship and responsible for all that happens on board. If there are any problems, he will have to take the blame and the punishment. The Captain cannot be running things all the time and has to delegate to other officers. The same applies to Archbishop Welby:
I joined the Arrow as Captain at Hayes Wharf where HMS Belfast is now displayed. In those days it was a cold store berth and the Arrow had a refrigerated hold. It carried bacon from Poland to London. Captain Moncur was pleased to see me and had everything ready for a speedy transfer of the ship. I signed all the papers, took charge of the safe keys and watched as the brass plate with Captain Gubbins replaced that of Captain Moncur on the cabin door. After seeing him down the gangway and into a waiting taxi, I climbed back on board realising for the first time that I was officially in charge of this ship.
I had to undertake all the tedious tasks that the master had to finish before the ship could sail. Like seeing agents, office staff and some cases the police. The role of captain is not as glamorous as it appears to the outsider. The few hours before sailing besides the paper work, the master has to deal with all those people. Once they were all ashore, I was free to take over the navigating of the ship. This is how I remember that first time I went on the bridge of a ship as the Master.
After being called to the bridge, I adjusted my black tie in the mirror making sure that the knot was just right. The white shirt was pristine clean and my trousers newly pressed. Taking my jacket from the hanger, I mentally shone the four gold bands forming the diamond on the sleeve. Once in place, I fastened the gold buttons. Certain that this looked fine, I picked up my cap from the desk and adjusted it on my head. The new gold laurel leafs gleamed in the light streaming through the window of my cabin. The mirror showed that I looked the part of a ship’s Captain.
When I reached the bridge, the pilot was waiting. He congratulated me on my promotion when I joined him. He was the river pilot who navigated the company’s ships from Gravesend to either Surrey Docks or the London Pool.
“ Congratulations on your promotion. Are we ready?” the pilot asked.
“ All ready,” I replied feeling strange at giving the orders. “ We can sail.”
Over the radio, the pilot requested Tower Bridge to be raised. I stood on the bridge wing watching the red lights flash and the traffic coming to a standstill. The two halves of the bridge slowly separated and rose into the air.
“ Right Captain, we can go,” the pilot remarked with a smile.
“ Let go aft,” I gave my first order as a Captain of a ship and watched the ropes slowly come on board.
The pilot grinned. “ Slow ahead,” he ordered the third mate.
I stood and watched as my command slowly turned to take the stern away from the quay.
“ Stop. Half astern.”
The ship steadily left the berth until there was enough room to turn successfully into the river. I lent against the varnished rail making sure that the four gold rings on my arm were plainly visible to anybody who happened to be watching.
The rail flanking the road leading to Tower Bridge was crowded with people watching as we sailed closer to the bridge. I made myself conspicuous to the watching people, standing straight and proud on the bridge wing.
The ship sailed under the open wings of the bridge, the tracery of the ironwork above my head. Then we were out into the river with the entrance to Surrey Docks to the south and Saint Katherine Dock to the north. The ship picks up speed.
I instructed the third mate look after the pilot and went into the radio room to tell the radio officer to inform the company that we were out of the Pool of London and heading for Gravesend and the sea pilot.
The ship sailed serenely down the river passed the Royal Hospital at Greenwich and on to Gravesend. The steward brought coffee and cakes.
As we approached Gravesend, a launch set out from the pilot station jetty. The river pilot turned to me and said, “ Thank you Captain. I will see you when you return. The ship is all yours.”
As he left the bridge, I realised for the first time that I was in complete charge of the ship. The wheelman grinned at me.
“ Slow ahead,” I ordered the third mate. He moved the telegraph and I heard the bell ring. The engine noise softened as the ship slowed. The pilot boat manoeuvred alongside and I slowed the ship some more. The sea pilot climbed the ladder and the river pilot left. He waved to me as the pilot boat left the ship and headed back to the shore.
“ Half ahead,” I ordered and the noise of the engine increased after the third mate had moved the engine telegraph.
The sea pilot arrived on the bridge. “ Good morning Captain. I’ll take over now. Congratulations on your promotion.”
“ Good morning. I will be in my cabin if needed. The third mate will look after you. Call me when we are passing Southend pier.”
Reluctantly I left the bridge and went down to my cabin. For a while I engaged in the various administration tasks that any Master had to undertake when the ship left port.
The call came as the ship passed Southend. Looking out of the window I noted that the sun had gone and the mist had descended making all around appear grey and dull.
When I came back to the bridge, the second mate had taken over from the third mate. The ship was heading out to sea through the sand banks at the mouth of the Thames. The red bulk of the pilot boat could now be seen about ten miles ahead. The pilot ordered the course set for the ship to rendezvous with the pilot boat
The pilot manoeuvred the ship so that the wind was on the side away from the approaching cutter. and slowed the ship.
“ An uneventful passage down the river, Captain,” he remarked. “ Hope you have a pleasant voyage. She is all yours now.”
He shook my hand and accompanied by the second mate left the bridge. I stood on the bridge wing watching as the pilot climbed down the ladder into the waiting cutter. When the cutter swung away from the ship and the sailor was pulling in the rope ladder, I turned and pushed the engine telegraph to full ahead.
“ Steer 075,” I ordered the wheelman and watched as the bow turned and then steadied. The second mate joined me on the bridge and worked out the position of the ship.
Looking round the ship from the bridge I found everything in order.
“ Its all yours, second mate,” I said and walked from the bridge.
When I reached my cabin, placed my cap on the top of the chest of drawers and my jacket on a hanger, it hit me. For the first time since setting out on a career at sea, I had nothing to do with the actual running of the ship. The ship would be navigated by the other officers and they would resent any interference from me. Even though I was responsible for the ship and the conduct of the voyage, many of these responsibilities had been delegated as was the nature of seamanship, to the rest of the crew. In many ways the captain is a distant figure who is in charge but not needed most of the time at sea. A figure in the background who could be called if there were problems but kept away when all was running smoothly.
I poured myself a gin and tonic and got stuck into the paper work promising myself that I would not keep looking out of the window. It was very hard to stop myself walking back onto the bridge to check on progress. In truth I would not be wanted anywhere near the bridge until we approached the pilot station off the River Elbe. When I got the call from the chief officer that we were approaching the Elbe River it came as a relief. I now had something to do other than sit and try not to worry. I came alive once more as the ship approached the pilot station. I gave the orders for the wheelman to take his station. Then I manoeuvred the ship so that the pilot could climb aboard.
Tales From the Sea can be downloaded to an e reader or purchased as a paperback from Amazon.