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.

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