No 4 Wives and Sweethearts

The wife’s perception of her seafaring husband can contrast totally with his shipmates’ view. The very nature of his calling is instrumental in fostering this concept. It’s an unnatural life in essence for a married family man, and a seaman’s wife has to be a very special person to accommodate the ‘on-off’ relationship required when her husband spends over half his married life away from home. The coming together of wives, husbands and the sea usually happens in the home port, when wives came to visit the ship for the duration of it’s time alongside. It is a time fraught with intrigue and subterfuge.

‘My husband has never touched a drop of alcohol in his life,’ I was once told by a very severe looking Second Engineers wife on one such visit, while she was waiting for her husband to meet her in the saloon.

I didn’t tell her that for the last fifteen years to my knowledge, her husband never touched anything else and at his very moment was sleeping last night’s debauchery away in the shaft tunnel. ‘My husband and I decided not to have children because of the nature of his work, and besides, he is not of a very passionate nature,’ is another favourite expounded by wives of a seemingly serious disposition.

Oh really… then why has he paying allotments to mothers of children in every port from Durban to Vancouver?

‘Of course, without my husband this ship would fall apart, the Company couldn’t do without him,’ said one wife, who was under the impression that her husband was the Chief Mate.

Is that right…Then why do we call him Steward while he makes our beds and serves at the table?

One Captain’s wife, on one surprise visit, was greatly surprised to find articles of women’s lingerie in her husbands’ wardrobe. Her husband, a gentleman rake of unparalleled magnitude was also a quick thinker. He needed to be.

‘I have to confess,’ he told her, ‘of a desire recently, to dress up in women’s clothing from time to time to relieve the stress of the job.’

His wife, a pillar of society in her hometown, a Lay Magistrate and all round ‘do-gooder’ believed him and took him away for a month’s golfing holiday in Scotland to relieve the symptoms!

There’s a well-known toast in the Merchant Navy, ‘Here’s to wives and Sweethearts…may they never meet.’

Except they do meet occasionally, and not only wives and sweethearts but wives and wives, and on occasion wives and boyfriends The boyfriends and boyfriends concept happens more times than I care to mention.

It is not uncommon for innocent junior officers having to pretend that the lady lying in his bunk is his girlfriend, put there quickly by his senior because his senior’s wife has arrived unexpectedly and he has had to think quickly.

On one ship I had the honour to serve on, the Chief Officer managed to keep a wife, two girlfriends and an irate husband apart for four days by living and sleeping in the chain locker, while the rest of us made excuses for his absence.

Talking about chain lockers, on another ship we were always surprised to see the girlfriend of the bosun seemingly be the first on board in every port we berthed in from Antwerp to Cape Town.

‘She must have some money,’ said the Captain one day at lunch. ‘All this travel must cost a packet.’

It only transpired long afterwards that she never left the ship. She was regally looked after by the bosun, living secretly in the forecastle. He and she paid off in Antwerp after four months and a good time was had by both!

Of course, wives are allowed on most occasions to join their husbands for a voyage or two. This in my experience is always a disaster. The sea seems to do something to a women’s libido. It may be the motion of the ship, it may be boredom, but it’s probably seeing her husband as he really is. Or rather seeing how his shipmates really are and coming quickly to the conclusion that’s how her husband must also behave when he’s out of her clutches.

Some wives leave the ship early because they’re fed up, some leave the ship because they’re seasick and some leave the ship with one of their husbands fellow shipmates.

One Second Engineer’s wife, in a ship I was serving on, conducted an onboard affair with the Chief Officer mainly in his cabin wardrobe because that’s where she seemed to spend most of her time while her husband scoured the ship for her. He found her in the end after a tip-off. She was stark naked, in his wardrobe, holding a large G and T and pretended to be sleep walking!

Then we have the bossy sort of wife who wants to organise the recreational habits of the crew. In essence, this means she wants control of the ship’s bar. This results in cabin drinking and invariably defeats her objective.

It has also been known for previous abstemious wives to become raging alcoholics within a very short space of time. A case of if you can’t beat ‘em…join them.   It’s a bit unnerving to find the fifteen stone wife of the Second Mate snoring her head off in your bunk when you come off watch.

‘Dear John’ letters from wives and girlfriends also cause amusement; mainly because they are expected and often even hoped for. They always start off in the same way; telling you about the weather, then about the chap they’ve met and how much you would get on if you ever met him. We used to pin them up on the ship’s notice board for all to read.

‘One a  third Engineer from Swansea, who spent a great amount of his time at sea, in order to avoid his scheming girlfriend, eventually received the customary ‘Dear John’. It was short and to the point and said ‘Dear John, couldn’t wait, married your father, love Mother.’

A Life Tramping No3


‘God made Deck Officers. It took an Act of Parliament to create Engineering Officers’ was, and is probably still, an oft-quoted phrase used by Merchant Marine Deck Officers worldwide.
My riposte to this perception, as an Engineering Officer was ‘It’s us that drive the ship chum, you just point it!’
The wise Captain always goes out of his way not to alienate the Chief Engineer, and it’s the wise Engineer that ensures that the Captain’s shower water is at least warm.
If they leave the sea before the liver rots, and the years allow a change of job, wise Captains become pilots or insurance salesmen and wise Chief Engineers become Marine Surveyors or plumbers. However, most Captains and Chief Engineers stay at sea until they retire and foster the ‘Oil and Water’ syndrome.
When a ship’s company are locked up in a steel box for months on end, personalities clash, it’s inevitable. And you would think the older, and more experienced the seafarer becomes, the more the understanding of human passions and their intrinsic bellicose qualities would grow. That time would mellow the older sea dog; he would grow older and wiser.
Not so! The longer the voyages and the older you get, the wider the gap between Deck and Engine room personnel. And it all starts from the top.
In twenty-five years of roving the seven seas, on anything from brand new eighty-five thousand tonne bulk carriers to six hundred tonne rust buckets, with the most wonderful characters of every nationality going, I know why. It’s Empire building. Let me explain. The older you get, the higher up the ladder you climb. Eventually, you end up as the Captain of your own vessel or conversely Chief Engineer and as time marches on you tend to stand still. You’ve reached your peak; there is no other summit to surmount.
After a couple of years at the top, the novelty starts to wear off and the rot sets in. And so does cirrhoses of the liver in many cases. Of course, you go through the motions. After all, you’re in charge, but the motions have had a long time to stereotype. You know it all, that’s why you’ve been given the job, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Time doesn’t stand still. In a fast changing world, new innovations in all aspects of shipboard life from navigation aids, to cargo handling; from computer designated maintenance scheduling to intricate engine management systems come thick and fast.
And always more blasted paperwork, more ISO rules, more Health and Safety regulations and new human resource procedures …the list is endless. Gradually your ways become obsolete, your junior officers know more than you do. The worm has turned; you become the person you swore you wouldn’t when you were climbing the ranks.
Now the defence mechanism kicks in. Blame the other bloke; it’s never your fault. After all, you’ve seen it all, done it all, your faculties have never been sharper…have they? It works both ways. The Captain blames the Chief Engineer and vice versa. And the sooner the respective departments know where the blame for the latest cock up lies the better. That is when you start Empire building.
This passing of the buck worms its way throughout the respective departments, it’s like a slow acting virus. The junior officers of both departments know their respective heads have lost the plot, but loyalty comes into play. That’s the Empire. This aspect then filters through both the Deck and Engineering branches until, in extreme cases, open hostility exists.
This hostility manifests itself in various forms. I have, as a Junior Engineer actually spent a whole night chaperoning a Chief Engineer around a port’s red light district while the Captain roamed the same port’s streets with a loaded revolver, looking for him. The cause of the argument is lost in the mists of time but had something to do with a bet involving a girl and a case of beer when they were both cadets together and always surfaced when a minor disagreement on board the ship blossomed into a manhunt. The next day they shrugged their differences off and carried on working together as they had for years. It was the most natural thing in the world.
While at sea the Officers saloon is a veritable hotbed of hostility if the two four ringers are at loggerheads. I watched with fascination one lunch time when in the middle of a verbal diatribe between the Captain and Chief Engineer, the latter rose to his feet to emphasise a point and shot his full set of dentures into the Captains soup. Without a pause, the Chief leant over and picked them out of the purple-faced Captain’s bowl with his fingers, plonked them back into his mouth and continued his tirade.
Another manifestation of hostilities between the two parties is silence. Nobody speaks. Notes are rather passed for the salt or pepper rather than actually have to converse with the ‘other side’. It’s the same with orders from or to the bridge; all done through third parties because the respective heads were not on speaking terms.
Then there are the petty retribution aspects. The Engineers have a powerful arsenal at their disposal. Turning off air conditioning, turning off heating, turning off sanitary water pumps or in extreme cases poisoning the drinking water: as it is well known that Engineers only drink beer and never wash.
The Deck department’s favourite method of being bloody minded is to bugger the Engineers about with ballast pumping. Especially pumping out tanks that are already as dry as a bone, but because they can’t be bothered to actually sound the tanks they leave the onus on the Engineer to squeeze the last drop of rusty water out and then get the poor bloody Engineer to sound the tanks for them. Another trick is to not signal ‘Finished with Engines’ when the vessel berths. The Engineers hang around the telegraph, cursing, but can’t move, and all the time the Deck Departments getting fixed up with taxis to go ashore. By the time the Engineers emerge they find an empty ship and no bloody taxis.
A very notable facet of this enmity between warring Captains and Chief Engineers is a very strong love/hate relationship. The two antagonists have usually sailed with each other for years and years. Neither of them would sail with anyone else. Very often they are respective Godfathers to each other’s children. Sometimes they are related through marriage. They go on leave together, they join the ship together and they grow old together. And they know each other better than their wives could possibly do. After all when you reckon it up they’ve spent most of their lives together.

A Life Tramping No 2

No 2 Soojin Stanley

Stanley (Soojin) Penberthy, from Cornwall, a lovely stout, ruddy-faced chap who would have been more at home as a Holiday Camp comic, had been elevated from cabin boy on board a fishing boat to Chief Engineer over a period of about half a century. During that time he had spent about thirty years as a ‘Professional Third.’
To be a ‘Professional Third’ is to join a venerable body of men who generally have no wish to climb the seniority ladder, that or any other type of ladder come to that. And, not just because of indifferent talents in the machinery domain.
Some of the ‘Professional Thirds’ I’ve sailed with have a profound and deep-rooted knowledge of their particular ship’s machinery and its idiosyncrasies, most of which they’ve had a hand in ‘modifying’, in order that nobody else knows for example, how a particular ‘ballast pump’ actually pumps, or how to start the main engine. This knowledge of how particular things work in the engine room is their closely guarded secret and keeps them in a job for many a year.
In others, what hampered or curtailed their advancement, if they wanted it, is any mechanical knowledge. What you might call as having a ‘mechanical bent’ was as alien to them as some Chief Officers I know chartering their way to the wheelhouse.
Stanley was one of the latter. He knew it, he didn’t care and he was one of the happiest men I’ve ever met. No matter that his ability to read and write was severely hampered by senile dementia setting in before he had mastered the alphabet, he got round that problem like he got round every problem, by laughing it off. He even had a nephew, Adrian working in the Company, but more of the famous Adrian later; he deserves a chapter on his own.
Stanley’s rise through the ranks involved a masterful stroke of good luck, which entailed him saving the life of the Company Chairman’s wife, who, after a party on board, had fallen into a harbour and was on the point of drowning when Stanley fished her out with a marlin spike. From that moment on his climb up the seniority ladder was assured. Whether he wanted to be called a Chief Engineer is neither here nor there. At heart, he was still a ‘Professional Third,
By the time I met him he was the Chief Engineer onboard the twenty-year-old ‘MV Winchesterbrook a three hatch general cargo vessel, of the magical 1598 GRT which classed it as a Coaster. The Middle or Home Trade Articles allowed a certain laxness in certification for the Officers and Dispensations were the order of the day.
The ship itself was of undoubted inherent robustness, it had to be, what with all the weird and wonderful repairs and maintenance that the vessel endured, during the last ten years under Stanley and Co.
I joined the vessel in Newhaven, as a third trip Third Engineer after two trips as an Extra Fifth Engineer ‘Deep Sea’ with grand ideas of the sanctity of rank, the invulnerability of status and a certain mode of dress code.
I donned a white boiler suit and found my way down to the Engine Room. Sitting on a toolbox was a portly fellow, red of face and a thin circle of red hair circumnavigating his ears. He was dressed in a pair of long johns and string vest. In his hand I noticed a paintbrush. On the engine room plates was a tin of black enamel paint. He was painting his shoes.
‘Morning,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for the Chief Engineer.’
‘Hell,’ he exclaimed, looking me up and down. ‘I weren’t ‘specting a Surveyor.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m the new Third Engineer.’
‘Hell,’ he said again, ‘you gave me quite a turn there my flower…can you write?’
‘…er yes.’
‘Proper job,’ he said picking up where he had left off, painting what I could now see as his working shoes. ‘I be goin’ ashore when I finished ‘em’,’ he continued.
‘It might seem an odd question,’ I asked, ‘but why do they need painting?’
He gave me a quizzical look as though I was half demented and said, ‘You never ‘eard of painted black leather shoes my flower.’
The question hung in the air for what seemed an eternity, and then I finally twigged, Patent…he means patent leather. Luckily I had enough gumption not to pursue the matter, which was just as well, as this was the Chief Engineer.
Later, I was sitting down in my cabin, wondering what I’d let myself in for when Stanley arrived with half a dozen beers and told me.
‘Now my flower,’ he said, ‘you said you can write?’
‘I can,’ I told him.
‘I don’t like this ‘ere writin’ caper, there’s too much. What I like doin’ best is soojin’.
‘Washing?’ I said.
‘Soojin’…aye… washin’.’ A far away look came into his eyes, ‘Nothin’ better than clean engine room plates and clean engines and all that other machinery stuff down below.’
After a few beers Stanley, or Soojin, as I found out he was universally known, came to the point. In short, if I did all his paperwork he would do all the soojin. The fact that the ship possessed a Donkeyman who usually did the ‘soojin’ had nothing to do with it; he was relegated to pure mechanical work.
The Second Engineer was an Irish lad, who although of a mild disposition was well past retirement age but possessed a Second Engineers Ticket which covered the Department of Trade’s requirements for this class of vessel to sail Middle Trade. He was extremely arthritic and hardly ever got as far as the Engine Room. When he did, it needed all our combined efforts to help him up back to his cabin again.
He was, however, invaluable with advice, which he gave out from his bunk, regarding the attributes of the various pubs and bars that we would encounter in our next port of call. More often than not he would be the first down the gangway and into the said pubs and bars when the ship tied up, having had a miraculous cure for his poor old joints answered by divine intervention after praying to some obscure Saint.
The next three months went by very amicably. Soojin found all the engine room logs and abstracts neatly written on his desk every week. I found a case of beer in my cabin, courtesy of Soojin every Friday, and the Donkeyman did all the maintenance.
Soojin never seemed to go on leave. This was the time of ‘A’ Articles, when leave could be cashed in or accumulated. The Owners didn’t seem to mind, and neither apparently did Mrs Soojin. The ship ran around the British Isles and near Continent and occasionally ventured as far as the Baltic and the Mediterranean, she had the cleanest engine room in any Coaster in the British Merchant Navy.
Of course, there were moments of anxiety. Some Deck Officers, especially those from ‘Deep Sea’ origins couldn’t quite grasp the working methods of the Engine Room and often made disparaging remarks, especially at meal times. Soojin usually disarmed them with incomprehensible Cornish logic which included calling everybody ‘my flower’.
Soojin eventually went ashore, when new regulations came in, he was well past retirement age. He had saved enough money to buy a small guesthouse in Penzance, it’s called…well guess.

A life Tramping

Cavorting across the seven seas in various states of delicacy for twenty-five odd years has prompted me, twenty- odd years later, to ask why?
Well, it was the glamour. The glamour of the South China Sea that got to me, listening to an old sea dog I knew, telling yarns of the South China bloody Sea and the jolly good time he had there. He was the cellarman at my local pub the Mead House in Penzance, an old priory. Listening with awe, whilst sitting on an upturned barrel sipping half pint glasses of highly intoxicating mead, to tales of gun running, opium dealing, white slave trading and other ebullient traits. There I sat, surrounded by hundreds of cobwebs in a dimly lit Cornish cellar as shadows of god knows what flickered across ancient granite walls There I sat entranced perceiving oriental brigands, lascivious Suzie Wongs. It fair took a young lad’s fancy.
And tramp I did. Sailing from port to port, picking up cargoes in old rust buckets of dubious stability crewed by shipmates of dubious sanity. Put the elements together and a swashbuckling life of heigh-ho on the ocean waves seems writ large.
The owners of these tramps were usually dubious as well. Sometimes they were the captains of the vessel, sometimes shadowy figures living in the back streets of cities dotted across the world dealing in cargoes that sometimes varied widely with those entered in the ship’s manifest. Just tramping round the world, taking your time, ensconced with a sociable set of like-minded blokes was a nice way to spend half your life. Not for us the hectic schedules of Container ships, nor the ‘Tanker Twitch’ which is a universal symptom of all Tanker and Gas Carrier crews worldwide. No rush, no hectic schedules, no irate agents or Charter Companies screaming and certainly no wives.
Herewith then a series of tales. most of which you won’t believe unless you’ve tramped yourself. Then you will nod your head knowingly and say,’that reminds me.’

Something like this…
‘I think we’ll go the nice way round,’ said Farmer John, through a hole in his froth covered beard. John wasn’t a farmer, although his rotund figure and very red face coupled with a natural affability made him a dead cert for one. He was a gourmet as well as the Captain, and the nice way round was, on this voyage, his idea of a ‘Grand Tour’ of bars and restaurants stretching from the north coast of Spain through the Straights of Gibraltar and all points east until we reached our destination which happened this time to be Cyprus.
The ship’s officers happened to be sitting in a pub, two hours after closing time in Hull, an exotic port shoved right up the Humber. The crew, Cape Verdi Islanders, were dotted around the town battened down with various girls of dubious virtue. It was pouring down outside and very dark. We looked out of the window and could see the ship with gangway half askew as the vessel rose with the tide and through Farmer John’s beard a blast of beer-laden fumes erupted, which just about summed up all our feelings.
We had been waiting for five hours for the pilot to board the ship, a rather nice and comfortable 1,500 tonner carrying general cargo vessel christened ‘M.V.George Armfield’. Who or what ‘George Armfield’ remained a mystery. Although rumour had it, he was little-known Goalkeeper who once let in nine goals whilst playing for Norwich against Wolves. Anyway, we would be summoned by a blast on the ship’s whistle, when the pilot arrived, blown by the only man left on the board, the Donkeyman a seventy-five-year-old Cardiff Arab who was too infirm to negotiate the gang- way.
I think it was at this point in the proceedings that a course of action was devised, we always prepared a plan for such eventualities, an act of retribution against the miserable weather. We ordered another round and discussed the ports of call. It seemed to be a good idea, this time, to get across the Bay of Biscay first, and then by chance, have a number of surreptitious machinery failures very near various ports with a tradition of gastronomic excellence on passage to our discharge port in Cyprus.
I was Second Engineer on this voyage and to go the nice way round seemed like a very good idea after eight pints of ale. The Mate thought so as well as he indicated by kicking the Second mate, who had slid underneath the table three hours earlier, and told him to get various charts out, in readiness for the gastronomic dawdle through the Mediterranean.
The third Engineer, Denzil, a lad from Camborn was not widely travelled. His experience of shipping was confined to the King Harry Ferry in Falmouth; a backwards and forward trip of a hundred yards. In fact, he’d never been further than Plymouth in his life until today when he joined the ship. His only work so far was to get the beer in.
A knock at the back door drew our attention. It was the pilot. He said he was unable to get on board as the gangway was now ten feet off the jetty as the tide had come in and nobody had lowered it. He was invited to join us for a quick one and of course, he agreed. Eventually, we stumbled back to the ship and after one or two fractious moments with errant crew trying to smuggle ladies of the night on board we managed to detach ourselves from the quay and set sail. After dropping the pilot off in the estuary and headed down the English channel towards Ushant and thence the Bay of Biscay.
Three days out the Chief Engineer, a grizzled individual who was on his fifteenth Discharge Book and made a point of finding the engine room at least once a trip made his first appearance, we knew he was on board, we could hear him snoring. He sat down at the breakfast table in a three-piece suit and said he was going ashore for a haircut. (This is the seaman’s equivalent of telling your wife you are taking the dog for a walk) It was gently pointed out that he would get rather wet as we were half way through the Bay of Biscay. He glanced out of the porthole, grunted and went back to his cabin.
Santander was the first port of call where we had to call in and pretend to repair a shaft bearing that was running hot. There we feasted on particularly good oysters’ sautéed in Cointreau. Next port of call was Gibraltar, where we took on fuel and the Mate took on rather a lot of his own.
Sardinia was rather a letdown, we stopped there for a dodgy fuel pump but the prawns in margarita had an adverse affect on the digestive system. Sicily was memorable for crayfish marinated in calvados. We had to stop there for imagined urgent repairs to the gearbox. Malta where we needed repairs to an oil cooler, was memorable because the Chief Engineer appeared again in his paying off suit and announced, that he was going to visit ‘The Gut’ as he, ‘Had many old friends there from his war years’. We saw him three days later while we were dining in a rather nice restaurant on scallops in a very good aquavit source; the Chief Engineer was being escorted by the police back to the ship at the time.
We had a fanciful problem with the shaft generator next, just off Crete, and called in for a delicious meal of lobster flavoured with an exquisite retsina dressing. Denzil, the Third Engineer excelled himself on this occasion by ordering a Cornish pasty and getting rather huffy when he was shown the door.
Finally, we headed for Cyprus. We missed it, and stopped a fishing boat to ask the way. The Boat’s Skipper informed us it was two days back the way we had come, but not before we exchanged three bottles of Johnny Walker for a rather nice basket of prawns which the fishing boat skipper cooked for us while we exchanged pleasantries. They went down very well with a Riesling we had picked up on a similar voyage a few months before.
Eventually, a couple or so days later, we arrived at our port of discharge and while lying alongside the berth, we settled ourselves in a seafood restaurant, with a lovely view of the port ‘I think, as we’re loading in Palermo for Antwerp,’ said Farmer John, over a plate of squid in brandy; we’ll go back via……