Tales From The Sea by Eddie Gubbins
A sample chapter from a semi fictional account of Eddie Gubbins' time as an officer at sea in the 1960's.
I had been destined for a life at sea for as long as I could remember. In fact, I can recall vividly the first time my family started to take it for granted that I was going to sea when I left school.
It was at one o our family get togethers when I was about six years old. All of my aunties were there sitting in a line in the front room, pulling all their friends and acquaintances to pieces. It was a room which at that time was only used for special occasions or when some so called important visitor came. There was a fireplace with black cast iron surround and coloured tiles with pictures of flowers.
The uncles, my dad and granddad were in the sitting room drinking beer and talking of football and politics. The grandchildren in the conservatory playing with the toys they had brought with them.
We all came together for a buffet supper prepared by my grandmother, the aunties, uncles and eleven grand children. Somebody, I cannot recall who, started to speculate about what would become of all the grandchildren when they grew up and left school.
Suddenly Granddad put his large hand on my shoulder and announced in a voice which brooked no argument. “ Edmund is going to sea when he grows up. He will be the first Captain of a foreign going ship in the family.”
Everybody in the room nodded sagely and I did not protest. I suppose at six years old, I did not fully appreciate the true implication of what was being decided on my behalf. Oh, I had sat at the feet, so to speak, of my grandfather and listened to his stories of when he was at sea on White Star Liners. He had talked
of the people, the ships and the sea. He made it sound so glamorous, mysterious and fascinating that I had been attracted to the sea from that time.
Even at such an early age, I had felt the excitement of being on a ship when my family took the ferry from the Town Quay to Hythe across the river to visit my aunty and uncle. To feel the vibration of the engine through the soles of my shoes and the slow roll of the boat when we passed another moving craft had made me feel as though we were at sea. At those times I could let my imagination run wild.
Then there had been that first summer when my family had taken a holiday on the Isle of White. Once on board the ferry, I had stood looking out over the bow with the wind ruffling my hair mesmerised by the bow wave and the movement. Passing through the docks and on down the Solent, I had watched the ships and imagined where they had come from or were going to and secretly sailed away with them to all those exotic places I had only read about in books or seen in the cinema. When we sailed passed the tankers moored at the Fawley Oil Refinery, they looked large and strange with their hulls so far out of the water. Fascinated, I had watched closely as the ship was manoeuvred alongside the quay and tied up when we arrived in Cowes.
As you can see, this goes to show that I was destined for a life at sea from an early age. It was accepted by my mother and father and the wider family. Others might discuss university or an apprenticeship in the shipyard but there was no doubt in the family's mind that I was going to sea.
This ambition spilled over into my school life. All the top pupils at the grammar school I attended were destined for university after taking A levels. When I informed the headmaster when discussing my future that
I was going to sea in the merchant navy, he was not impressed.
“ You are among our top pupils,” he had said looking at me over the top of his glasses. “ There is no question but our top pupils go to university. The success of failure of the school is measured by the number of pupils who go to Oxbridge first and then other universities second. Nobody from our school goes for a career in the merchant navy.”
Even when I assured him that I was planning to become a Captain, he was not reassured. I could not understand his attitude at the time but came to understand later when I became an academic.
One of the geography teachers at the school was in the Royal Naval Reserve and he set out to convince me that I ought go to Dartmouth and into the Royal Navy. An officer in the Royal Navy was, it sounded, more acceptable than an officer in the merchant navy. Even now I do not understand the thinking behind this assertion.
Periodically, Mr. Jenkins arranged visits to Portsmouth naval dockyard, including staying for a few days on HMS Vanguard. Whenever these trips were arranged, I was included. It was not long before I realised that my parents could not afford the expense of sending me to Dartmouth so I settled down to enjoy the trips but finding out all I could about the merchant navy.
Before sitting my O levels, I had sent an application to become a deck cadet with an oil tanker company and, after attending an interview, I had been offered a cadetship if I passed the required grades. In the September, I would go to pre sea college in Stepney, London and join my first ship in January. My grandfather was more excited than I was when I told him.
“ I told you,” he informed anybody who would listen.” Edmund is going to become the first Captain in the family.”
After finishing school at sixteen, much to the disgust of the headmaster who still harboured the hope that I would relent and go to university, my uncle found me a position as a deck boy on one of the Isle of White ferries for the summer. It was a glorious summer. The sun shone, the ferry sailed back and forth between Southampton and Cowes and I was doing something I enjoyed. It was not much of a ship. A modernised landing craft with some accommodation built on above the engine room and the ramp at the bow. I learnt a great deal about the various things that take place on board a ship. A few times when they were short of crew, I was transferred to the Calshott, a tug tender that met the ocean liners as they approached Cowes. It could carry five hundred passengers but the few times I was on board all we carried were the Dockers going to meet a liner and get the baggage ready for discharge. I did make a little extra money by making them mugs of tea and sandwiches during the trip down the river. Though I did not think about it at the time, it was good grounding in sea life without having to leave home before I actually started my sea career.
In September, I took myself off to pre-sea college. There I shared a room with Andy Brookes, who like me was a cadet for the same tanker company. Andy was about the same height as me but much broader and stronger. I was lucky. We got on well even though I was hard put to maintain my friendship when he played his accordion some nights. The Triumphal march from Aida I seem to remember. After hearing this many times, even now every time I hear that tune brings back memories of pre-sea training. We were thrown into the
ring together during the boxing but maintained our friendship by agreeing not to hit each other too hard. Unfortunately Buster Brown the instructor, a true east end product noticed. Well I suppose we were naive to think that we could get away with it. Andy was put into the ring the next time with the most accomplished fighter and was soon overwhelmed. I was put into the ring with Douglas Moorhouse. I must admit I had taken a dislike to him from our first meeting. He was tall, handsome, always got his own way and always won. It was no match up even though I had spent time training with an amateur boxing club. With his long reach and height it was almost impossible to get to him. He knocked me down as soon as I tried to hit him. I got up and tried again. Ducking and diving, moving sideways and away from his right hand, I managed to hit him a couple of times in the chest. He knocked me down. Andy screamed for me to stay down. I got up. Buster stepped in grinning and stopped Douglas hitting me again.
“ I admire your courage young man,” Buster told me. “ In life you have to learn when the odds are too great. Then you have to retreat and work out some other way of defeating your opponent.”
Douglas grinned and held out his hand once the gloves were off. I shook it in return and grinned back. Deep down I vowed to make sure I beat him at something while we were in college. I was learning lessons that I hoped would help me when I was at sea.
The college had a small motor yacht that was used to sail down the Thames and back from Wapping Dock. It was painted white with a yellow funnel. There was a tall mast and a sail. It was provided to give the students experience of running an actual ship at sea.
There was a small professional crew but the idea was that most of the tasks were carried out by the students.
The students set off on their training voyage early one morning after we had been at the college for a few weeks. We had learnt the rudiments of seamanship and navigational chart work. Most of us were eager to put some of this theory into practice.
For me, the voyage did not start too well. Captain Duncan, the teacher in charge, was a tall imposing figure though with that hangdog look of somebody who wondered how they had got themselves into this situation. I suppose looking after twenty sixteen year olds on a yacht is no pleasure. When he came aboard, he demanded to know who it was leaning on the rail with his hands in his pockets. Of course that was me. All the teachers at the college called themselves Captain. The students had suspicions that not many of them had actually been the Captain of a ship before leaving the sea to become teachers. In the three months that we were in the college, not one of us had the courage to question whether this was true or not. Not that it made any difference to me at the time. On board the yacht, Captain Duncan was in charge.
In a stern voice, he said. “ One of your jobs will be to clean out the latrines twice a day.”
The other students laughed but they made sure they were presentable from then on. I suppose that was what Captain Duncan was trying to achieve. If it had not been me, he would have found somebody else. I did what I have always done when this happens to me. Sink into my shell, don’t show any emotion and get on with the job. It was a horrible job but I stuck at it.
On the third day as we started to return to Wapping, Captain Duncan found me cleaning the latrines as ordered.
“ Get cleaned up and report to the bridge,” he commanded me.
When I came up the ladder onto the bridge, he smiled at me for the first time. “ You have done well and accepted your punishment without histrionics. I want you to take over the wheel and we will start you on the path to your steering certificate.”
The seaman stood by my side and offered advice but after a while let me continue on my own. It was wonderful. Concentrating on keeping the ship on a straight course whether by following the compass heading or points on land. I was in my element. The familiar landmarks on the banks of the river passed on either side and ships sailed by destined for places round the world.
Captain Duncan smiled again after watching me for a while. “ You have done this before.”
“ Yes Sir,” I answered with a grin. “ I was a deck boy on the Isle of White ferries while waiting for my O level results. Because I was going to sea, they taught me how to steer when the ship was in Southampton Water. I even took a turn when, in an emergency, I was seconded to the tug called Calshott.”
“ I remember the Calshott,” he said ordering a different heading as we passed Gravesend. “ Steam driven tug tender. I used to see her when docking aboard the Southern Cross.”
When we were approaching Tower Bridge, the sailor took over the wheel for the docking in Saint Katherine's dock. With an effort, I tried not to show my disappointment at not being allowed to take the yacht into the berth. Deep down I was pleased with my time on the wheel.
I passed out of the college as the second highest student. Andy congratulated me but I was disappointed
not to be top, especially as Douglas Moorhouse had been the best student. He was one of those infuriating people who were good at everything and knew it. His arrogance got under the skin of most of the other students but I learnt a valuable lesson from that experience. It was more important when in a situation where one could not get away from those one worked with to find an accommodation and a way of so called rubbing along.
When we left college, Andy and I had to report to the head office of the tanker company. The Marine Superintendent went over our reports and assigned us to our first ships. Andy to the Fernando, me to the Fortunato. After three months sharing a room, we said goodbye on the steps of the office but hoped we would meet some time.
In the first week of January after a pleasant Christmas with my family, I found myself on a train bound for Heysham. It was the first time I had ever been north of London and the country and accents were strange to me. A taxi took me from the station to the berth and I got a good look at my first ship as we approached along the quay.
To me she was huge but later I came to understand that she was really of medium size for a tanker in the late nineteen fifties. The accommodation was amidships, three levels including the bridge. Running the whole length of the tanker was a catwalk raised about ten feet above the deck. The funnel was rather squat and above the aft accommodation. It was painted with two narrow yellow rings separated by a larger white ring. On this was the eagle, black with drooping wings. The smoke cowl was black. Two tall masts rose above the deck one aft of the accommodation the other forward. The hull was black with a yellow
stripe and the structures in yellow. This was my first ship.
Once on board, the chief officer allocated a cabin to me, the middle one of four small cabins designed for the cadets and situated on the starboard side of the amidships structure. My porthole looked out on the walkway leading between the after deck and the fore deck. When I had stowed my gear in my lockers, John Reid, one of the other cadets introduced himself. He had been sent by the chief officer to showed me round the ship and explain what was going on. I was soon in a daze at all the technical language and unfamiliar sights. It was one thing to learn about life on board ship, cargo loading and ship routines in college but quite different when presented with these in practice. I found I was one of four cadets sailing on the ship and that we had a number of routine tasks to carry out. Over dinner in the saloon that evening, I was introduced to the other cadets at the table where we would take all our meals. As dinner was served by stewards, I was glad that at college they had taught us how to act when being served with a meal.
That night was even worse. I had to keep watch from midnight with the second mate as the cargo discharge continued. Not only had I to keep myself awake at times when I was usually asleep but I found the physical labour hard. It involved turning valves to switch discharge tanks, climbing up and down the almost vertical ladder into the pump room and going to the kitchen to make mugs of coffee for the second mate. And all the time, I was trying to learn this technical language and the jargon of sea life. When dawn was breaking, I had breakfast with the second mate and fell into my bunk, asleep before my head had hit the pillow as the saying goes.
The next afternoon I met many of the crew and soon realised that these were the people with whom I had to, not only work, but also live with for the next few months. It was soon obvious to me that it was very important for me to establish a way of dealing with these people which did not take away my own individuality but which would be flexible enough to avoid conflict. It is usually enough for somebody to rein in their feelings when working in an office during the day because at night they can walk away from the job and choose whether to meet their other office colleagues for recreation later in the evening or not. I know a great number of people work and play with the same set of people especially when the out of work hours life of an organisation revolves around the social club but it is the choice an individual in those circumstances is free to make. Nobody is going to force such a person to mix only with working colleagues, though colleagues and bosses may put pressure on somebody to take part in some of the activities of the company. It is, at the end of the day, up to the person what they do with their non- working time. At sea things are different. Not only must you find a way of keeping stable relationships during working time, you are shut up with the same people for the rest of the time as well. Tolerance of the different attitudes to life, tolerance of other peoples point of view and a quickness in forgetting past wrongs are called for aboard ship. The most successful seamen soon learn how to practice restraint.
Late on the second day on board the Fernando, I experienced that special feeling which comes to all seamen. It is amazing to the lands man but quite suddenly on board a ship in port there comes a time when all activity ceases. The cargo has been discharged or loaded. In our case the tanks battened down and the
pipelines lifted ashore. The berth workers collect up their gear and walk down the gangway talking about their next job or the weekend at home. All attention is on the office ashore where all the various pieces of paper are being assembled. For a short while the ship will lie quietly waiting, the diesel generator a muted noise in the background, waiting as though gathering strength in the same way as a sprinter waiting for the gun before the explosive action.
It does not matter for how long a time a sailor has been sailing the oceans of the world, how jaded the sailor’s senses have become to the child like excitement of viewing the world as full of wonder, there is a certain expectant thrill running through a ship and it's crew just before the ship leaves port. It does not matter whether the crewmember is young or old, whether the ship is large or small, the expectancy, the thrill and excitement is felt by everybody on board. It even transmits itself to the shore people even though they experience the same thrill several times a week, it is still there. One can see it the faces of those connected with the ship and feel it in the vibration under the feet of those who walk the decks. At this time more than any other it is possible to believe that the ship itself is alive, waking from a long slumber in port and ready for the adventure and challenge of the sea. The pulsation grows as the engine is tested, sailors walk the deck in a purposeful fashion, ready to get this complex system of man and machine into motion. It feels as though the sea itself is calling, beckoning out there beyond the dock.
The mistress of the ship and the crew is waiting. She waits beyond the dock and there is no real knowledge of what her reaction will be when they go out to meet her. She may greet them in a calm, balmy mood and like a gentle lover entwine them in her arms,
leaving them refreshed and happy when they part. It could be that she is angry with unmatched violence which beats upon the senses and leaves the lovers drained and exhausted, ready to rush apart, concentrating on finding peace and quiet rather than wallowing in the feeling of complete satisfaction. Like all lovers, the sea and the sailor never quite know what moods will greet them at the times of their meeting or how the mood can change very quickly as the time passes. This is the excitement of the sea and, every time a ship leaves port, the sailor approaches love with a mixture of exhilaration and apprehension. Will they together make beautiful love under a clear blue sky or will they fight? It is not for the sailor to subdue the sea but to live with her moods in the hope that he can survive.
The sea is calling always calling even when the sailor has long left voyaging behind. The sea calls over the noise of this sometimes dreadful life. To sail away but to where? That is what adds to the thrill. Let the voyage be long or short, let the love making be calm or fierce, in the urge to sail away lies man's eternal quest for something new. Why oh why does man always strive after the new when accepting the present would save a lot of heartache? It has long been a mystery to me but, more than in any other profession, the sea seems to offer a greater chance to satisfy this need. The sailor never arrives because each new port is a stepping stone to the next and on to the next until the nomadic lifestyle grows too much. It maybe that the sailor observes other people settling into a pattern of life which brings rewards from such things as family and home, anchored to other aspects of living rather than constantly on the move. So the sailor leaves the sea and puts down roots or does he? The sound of a seagull screaming over an inland rubbish
tip, the wind moaning around the roof of his house or the sound of waves lapping on the shore will awaken in the hidden recesses of his mind the longing to feel the excitement once more as the ship goes silent, ready to leave for the sea.
We sailed in the evening from Heysham out into the Irish Sea. As soon as we were clear of the coast the chief officer arranged for the tanks to be cleaned. The crew were split into gangs and I was assigned to the first gang. How I survived that first night I still can’t believe. The work was dirty and hard, pulling pipes across the deck and lowering them into tanks. Timing the height for each wash and then lowering them further into the tank. All the time the ship rolled to me violently and water washed across the deck. By the time my watch ended, I was wet, cold and exhausted. John helped me undress and have a shower before I collapsed into bed.
“ It will get easier,” he assured me with grin as he dried his rather thin body with a towel. “ At least you didn’t throw up all over the deck. I did the first time I sailed and had to do tank cleaning.”
He was right. It did get easier and I was soon involved in the routine of the ship. The bane of all cadets’ existence, I found out, was Saturday morning. It was our job to clean the brass on the bridge under the watchful eye of the third mate. I was surprised at the amount of brass needing cleaning. Somehow, Captain Morris always managed to find his way onto the bridge just as we were finishing. For some reason, he always found a bit that we had missed. As senior cadet, Malcolm always went onto the focastle to clean the ships bell and the brass plates on the winches. I took note of this. By keeping out of the way, he always missed the ire of the Captain.
Captain Morris was a stickler for procedure. On Sundays, he did his rounds of inspection through the ship seriously. It was a ritual. Unless the ship was clean he would get the cleaning redone to his satisfaction. We cadets had to stand by our bunks until he had inspected our cabins. Afterwards, Mister Marsh, the chief officer invited us to his cabin for a beer with the other deck and engineering officers who were not on duty. In that way, he felt the cadets would be part of the officers’ circle. It was important because most of the time we were neither officers nor crew but some undefined position in between.
We crossed the Bay of Biscay with an almost flat calm sea and the winter sun shining. Nothing like I had anticipated or dreaded. The stories I had heard while in college about the terrible weather and the gigantic waves, the warnings that it could be hell were unfounded. Most of the seamen ignored it but I was on the bridge when we passed the white bulk of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea.
We hardly saw any land as we sailed east towards Port Said. Then there were ships converging from the west and we picked up the pilot just off the Suez Canal. The pilot took us to an anchorage in a line of tankers and we waited. Boats suddenly appeared and men were shouting their wares for the crew to purchase. Wafting on the breeze was the unfamiliar smell of Egypt a mixture of rotting vegetation, unclean drains and sweaty bodies.
The bosun organised the cadets to rig the spotlight on the bow. I was curious and Andy explained that this was used to light the bank of the canal as we transited during the night. One of the crew had to be stationed by the spotlight to position it on orders from the bridge.
We lay at anchor for most of the day, peaceful but hot and sweaty except for the persistent bum boats as they were called. Then suddenly there was a great deal of activity. The pilot arrived with his bags and everybody was looking towards the Canal entrance. Then they came in a line astern. First a couple of ocean liners, their passengers lining the rail to look at all the waiting anchored ships. Then cargo boats of every description and colour. Their funnel colours and badges told the informed which company and the flag at their stern the country. Then the oil tankers. One was another company ship and we dipped our flag in response as she passed.
“ Captain Marshall,” John informed me as we stood by the rail and watched. “ I sailed with him on my last ship.”
“ What happens now?” I asked naively.
“ When the north bound convoy is clear, the south bound convoy will form and enter the canal. I expect we will anchor in the lakes half way through the canal to let another north bound convoy pass.”
The last ship of the north bound convoy cleared the canal and ships started to weigh anchor in a predetermined order. They sailed away from us into the canal as the sun was setting in the west. As one larger tanker passed our position, the order was given for the anchor to be weighed. Once under way, we followed the tanker ahead into the canal. It was getting dark as the sand banks and dunes beside the canal engulfed our ship. The spotlight was turned on and the banks lit up. That is all we could see. A round patch of moving sand with the stern lights of the ship ahead and steaming lights of the ship behind.
The next morning I awoke to find the Fortune anchored in what looked like a large lake. All the ships
of the south bound convoy were there. It was not long before the north bound convoy passed. I stood by the rail and watched in wonder. A couple of Royal Navy ships leading, their weaponry covered in canvass. Some ocean liners with the passengers standing looking at all the ships anchored in the lake as they passed waving occasionally. Then came the cargo liners of some of the companies listed in my book of ships funnels and company flags. I had seen some of these in Southampton before leaving to go to sea but most were only studied in books. Then last came the oil tankers and I had to rush aft ready to dip our flag to any of the company’s ships. Before long the last of the north bound convoy passed and we were weighing anchor and sailing south through sand banks leaving the green oasis of the lakes behind.
It was hot in the Red Sea. Hotter than I had ever felt. With no air conditioning, even in the shade of the cabin it was hot. It took a few days and then I started to get used to the heat.
We turned into the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Hormous joining the line of tankers sailing towards the loading ports. Coming the other way, another line of tankers lower in the water making for Europe or the Far East. The heat beat down and the decks were too hot to walk on bare feet. The Chief Officer made me keep my shirt and a hat on for most of the day fearing that I would get sun burnt. The Second Mate dished out sun tan cream for our faces and salt tablets to take with water, something I had never seen before. The sea was flat calm stretching ahead like the floor of a cathedral. The only breeze came from the forward movement of the ship.
In the middle of nowhere a pilot joined the ship and we sailed into Mina Al-Hamadi. There was nothing
there like normal habitation. A jetty jutted out from the sandy shore to join the longest berth I had ever seen. Tankers were tied one astern of the other for as far as the eye could see. Some were high out of the water indicating they had just started to load, while others were almost down to their marks ready to leave. The pilot guided us parallel to the berth until we could see a vacant spot beside a gantry with rubber pipes hanging free. We tied up here between a Danish tanker and Japanese one. It was not long before the ballast was pumped out and we started loading. The oil poured into the tanks and we shut each tank down as it filled. Lastly we filled a central tank and ordered the shore to stop. Papers were exchanged, we blew the whistle and we were off. I had not set foot on foreign soil.
We reversed the trip and sailed for Eastham Docks on the Mersey at the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal. In fact we sailed this trip for the next seven months and during that time I did not set foot in any overseas countries. Mina Al-Hamadi was the closest I got but, apart from walking along the jetty to the recreation club, there was no going ashore. It appeared to me that the authorities were quite willing to sell us their oil but they were not confident enough to let us mix with their people in case we contaminated them with western ideas. Maybe in my case it was a good thing. There is no question that I would have disputed the way they lived and their general philosophy. They did let us hold a Christian service in the clubroom by the jetty operational control building. It was inspiring actually to say the Lords Prayer accompanied by thirty other men talking in ten different languages.
On the forth trip I did get a glimpse of the dangers associated with sailing on oil tankers. Until then I had not thought too deeply about risks involved in floating
on top of eighteen thousand tons of crude oil. To me it was a joy to be at sea. To see the stars in the sky at night far more clearly than on land. To stand on the bridge and watch the sun come up out of a calm sea. To feel the motion of the ship and the thrill of moving through the sea. These were the things that dominated my life. Well in my case going to foreign exotic places had not happened. I was stuck on the same worn track just like a train running along the same rails between the same stations. I could still sense the excitement in the crew and listened to the stories of the exotic places they had all travelled to. I assured myself that it would come in the future.
I happened to be on the bridge one day as we came out of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean when there was a flurry of activity. The radio officer came out and talked to the second mate. The second mate called the Captain and he soon appeared on the bridge. I could not stop myself listening.
“ The Radio officer has picked up a faint SOS. He thinks it is an automatic one like those from the lifeboats. He reckons by the DF it is on our course. Obviously he has no idea how far away it is,”
“ Get him to inform the authorities. Set a course to intercept if we can.”
The radio officer appeared again. “ I have a communication from a British war ship. I gave her our position and they confirm that the source is about thirty miles from us. Could we go and investigate? They have given me the position of the ship in trouble and a bearing.”
He placed a piece of paper on the chart table. The second mate was soon plotting positions and bearings on the chart when the Captain spotted me on the bridge wing.
He smiled. “ Don’t just stand there. Take those binoculars and keep a look out.”
I stood staring at the horizon through the binoculars. The Captain watched the radar trace while the second mate navigated the ship.
Suddenly the captain exclaimed, “ There is an echo two points on the port bow at about twenty miles.”
We stood in a line looking in that direction. Then I saw it. A small smudge on the horizon and told the Captain. A sailor appeared and the steering was put on manual. The smudge got bigger and was now definitely a ship even to the naked eye. We sailed closer and closer and the ship now took on features. From this distance it looked intact, bow into the wind and swell. Then I realised something was missing.
Like most smaller tankers of that time, the bridge was over the officer accommodation amidships. As we approached it became apparent that this was missing. All I could do was stare. The crew were lining the ships rails but all were silent. In place of the accommodation structure was some twisted girders and a hole in the deck. All the structure was missing.
On the deck above the aft accommodation, some sailors waved as we approached. The captain ordered the motor lifeboat to be made ready. Turning the Fortunato into the wind and slowing parallel to the other tanker, the Captain got as close to the other ship as he dared. When this was done the chief officer and the third mate sailed our motorboat across to the tanker with some medical supplies and to find out what had happened.
It appears they were cleaning the tanks when there was an explosion which ripped away all of the accommodation. It had happened in the early hours of the morning and all the officers were asleep except the
second mate on the bridge and the engineers aft. The second mate had been blown off the bridge and into the sea. They had rescued him in the lifeboat. He was injured but helping the bosun tend the ship. All the other officers had been killed.
The crew had rigged up a system so that they could steer the ship from the steering engine and had managed to turn the ship into the wind. The generator was going so they had power.
We stood by the disabled ship for the rest of the day. That evening as the sun was going down a British warship arrived and took charge. Captain Morris was not really amused by the way the warship officers appeared to arrogantly assume that we would hand over to them but we had commercial considerations to take into account. Unlike the Royal Navy whose sole purpose at that time was to spend taxpayers’ money, our purpose was to carry cargoes for payment so that our company could survive. We dipped our flag in reply to their farewell and set course for the Persian Gulf and Mina Al-Hamadi once again.
I did get to stand on foreign soil before I left the Fortunato. The ship was sent to Rotterdam on the last voyage and I was sent on leave. I did not see much of this country because those crew returning to the UK were taken by taxi to the railway station and then to the ferry for Harwich. Still, I could truthfully say I had been abroad.
And so my first voyage ended without visiting any of the exotic places I had dreamed about all those years while I was waiting to join my first ship. I had listened in awe to the tales of my Grandfather of foreign shores, of storms and of sun kissed days when the sea was flat calm. I had been through storms, lent on the rail at night looking at the stars in a cloudless sky but not
visited any exotic places. Kuwait was abroad but we had not been allowed ashore. The nearest I had come to the country of Kuwait was the clubhouse in the centre of the long jetty. I went home wondering what I was going to tell my Grandfather about the places I had visited and the sights I had seen. He had been anticipating tales of the sea when I came on leave.
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