Two Year Articles and All That

Experiences of an able seaman

On signing up to join the Merchant Navy, my father advised me to always keep a record or diary of the ships I had joined and the countries I had visited. He had impressed on me the opportunity and value of what I was experiencing and how I would look back on it all in years to come. I can’t say that I saw it like that at the onset of my seagoing exploits; my thoughts were forever on the opposite sex and generally having a good time but I eventually took his advice. At the end of it all and with two discharge books, looking back, I realise his advice was invaluable in writing my memoirs and I am forever indebted to him.

The signing of Articles meant that the company had your body for up to two years while you had precious little in the way of rights. If a seaman were away longer than that, the company would have to pay double wages until he returned home.

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M.V.Niso at Alexandria
Courtesy of David Haisman

At the age of sixteen, I signed on a Shell tanker at a Southampton shipping office and was sent to join the M.V. Niso, a spirit tanker of 8,270 gross tonnage in Southampton docks. The Shipping Federation in those days, was situated not far from ‘The King Canute’ pub, named after the king of that name who was renowned for trying to stop the tide from advancing on the shore. No doubt the man had visited a pub before trying that little trick!

Shell oil tankers were easily recognised by their distinctive red sea shell emblems on their yellow funnels and always named after the many sea shells found world wide. In the case of the Niso, the Latin name for that particular sea shell was the Niso Venosa. In the officers dining saloon on all of their ships was a glass case with the particular sea shell relating to that particulars ship’s name, usually on a velvet cushion. As I recall, in the case of the Niso, the shell was no bigger than a finger nail.

I was ‘persuaded’ to join this vessel by none other than ‘Shanghai Jack’ of whom I knew nothing until later on in my sea career. He rode a bicycle to the homes of all his ‘victims’, and was always seen wearing a merchant navy officers uniform with just one thin gold ring about the cuff. He was never seen without cycle clips on, whether in the office, walking along the street, on his beloved old bike or just about everywhere else; probably in bed as well! He had rat eyes peering from beneath his peak cap and a king-size ‘roll-up’ cigarette resembling a part exploded firework, stuck into a slit that Mother Nature had etched under his nose as a substitute for a mouth.

His job as a Shipping Federation official was to get crews to join ships that nobody wanted and he must have been pretty good at it as ships generally continued to get crewed and sail on time. He had a knack for keeping out of the way when some of these ships returned and his features remained intact despite the many threats to put his ‘lights out’ and wrap his infernal bicycle around his neck. When spotted around the town in retirement many years later, the man still looked the same as he always did, riding that old bike around the place. Those rat-like features and shaggy roll-up were all still there. Without any doubt, the man was a true survivor.

Before signing on, ‘Shanghai Jack’ had assured me and other crew members, that the ship would be away for just six weeks, sailing up to Stanlow on the Manchester ship canal, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Curacoa in the Caribbean and then back to the Fawley refinery just outside Southampton. Sailing on the 24th of February would work out well, I thought, as I see the last of the winter in the UK and North Atlantic and be back to sign-on the ‘big ‘uns’ for the summer runs across the pond to New York.

We silently slipped away from Southampton on a cold grey early February morning and on arrival at Stanlow a couple of days later, noticed that heavy snow had fallen and the wind had picked up to about a force 6. It was bitterly cold as I recall, standing on the fo’c’sle head on ‘stations’ for several hours without any protection from the weather. We were a frozen motley crew, blowing out steam and continually wiping away icy ‘dew drops’ hanging from our noses as we slowly went up the Manchester Ship Canal to the refinery.

After a couple of days in Stanlow and getting amongst some of the local talent when off watch, we loaded several grades of spirits (known in the trade as ‘light ends’) and sailed for Curacoa and warmer climes.

The Niso had a crew of around 30 which included five boy ratings, namely a Galley Boy, Junior Winger (waiter) and 3 Deck Boys which meant I wasn’t the only junior rating onboard. Later on during this voyage, I would be promoted to Junior Ordinary Seaman, having then completed 9 months actual sea service and would receive a princely pay rise from 10 pounds 15 shillings per month to 16 pounds 10 shillings per month! The other 2 Deck Boys had never set foot on a ship before and were fresh out of a Borstal Institution, the Merchant Navy being their preference on release from Borstal as opposed to joining the army. Both deck boys had ‘form’, the one from Liverpool was later given the name of ‘Knucklehead’ as he forever spoke about all the fights he had been in and had a few scars about his head to prove it. The other, from Tiger Bay in Cardiff, was of Arab descent and had never known his parents. He had apparently spent most of his life in and out of homes and dodging the law. The rest of the deck crew were a mixed bunch with quite a bit of cargo ship and tanker experience amongst them. On signing on, both boys were sent for by the Mate who told them in on uncertain terms that the party was over and he wouldn’t hesitate to put them ashore anywhere, anytime, if they decided to go back to their bad old ways.

My first impressions of Curacoa, apart from the huge refinery, were the many Shell tankers alongside the berths and lying at anchor in the bay, mostly from the Royal Dutch Shell fleet. Apart from the heat and brilliant sunshine, there was the continuous stench of various oil products forever in your nostrils from just about everywhere. This smell would be with us for the rest of this 16 month voyage as it was in our clothes, our skin, our accommodation and I’m certain, in our food as well. You just couldn’t seem to get away from it. The oil industry has cleaned up it’s act and those conditions wouldn’t be tolerated these days

Accommodation comprised of 3 to a cabin, no air conditioning to speak of, coconut matting on the green painted steel cabin decks and metal lockers for our gear that had seen better days. Tankers were well known to have good spacious accommodation but the Niso in that respect had fallen well behind the times, even in those days. It was becoming clear that this was going to be a far from comfortable voyage, especially now that we were in the tropics.

After a couple of runs ashore, our orders were to get fully loaded with several grades of light oils for part cargo deliveries to Gibraltar, Marseilles, La Spezia in Italy, Palermo in Sicily and then on to Malta. After receiving these orders from the Shell Shipping Agent it looked as though that six week trip to Curacoa and back to the U.K. was now no more than a rumour and on a 9 knot ship like ours, we were looking at another month on top of that at least.

On arrival at Gibraltar, us young lads paid ‘ten bob’ for a bottle of Fundadore Brandy from a Spaniard in a bum-boat which turned out to be no more than coloured methylated spirits in a fancy laced up bottle. Despite our protestations and demands for our money back, he wouldn’t have any of it and continued to try to flog some more of this fire water to other crew members. The Pumpman onboard was an old tanker man with oil in his veins, had a nose that looked as though someone had performed a ‘Fred Astaire’ act on it at some time or other and had ears like wing nuts. Apart from having a good laugh at the way us young seamen had been ripped off, he suggested a good way of how we could get our own back. As the Spaniard’s bum-boat was below our accommodation aft, and directly under the main toilet waste pipe, he suggested that we should flush the bastard away without further ado! On going below and flushing all the toilets at once along with one that had just been used, a torrent of salt water and sewage poured into his boat, catching our bum-boat Spaniard completely by surprise. Leaping up and shaking his fist up at us, he grabbed the oars and cursing and shouting in Spanish, started to row away like fury. With ‘Admiral Brown and his fleet,’ swirling around in the bottom of his boat along with bits of toilet paper hanging off of his ears, he would have thought twice before trying to flog anymore of his fire water to us lot!

The following day, we took on fresh water from a barge alongside but the Mate was losing his temper in trying to get the crew on the barge to understand English. In exasperation he finally said to a couple of AB’s, ‘If any of you can speak Spanish, then just ask one of them to throw that bloody heaving line up so we can pull the hose onboard!’

One of the AB’s stepping forward volunteered, more to wind the Mate up than anything else, and answered by declaring, ‘Leave it to me chief!’ With that he leant over the ships rail and then cupping both hands in front of his mouth, shouted down to one of the Spaniards on the barge, ‘Hey Pedro! Throweo de ropeo pronto!’ After several moments, the line was tossed back up to us with the Mate at this time looking absolutely gob smacked! Glaring at the AB that had just delivered this snippet of pidgin Spanish, the Mate turned away, issuing forth several expletives before ending with the words, ‘a linguist like you would do well communicating with the bloody Rock Apes!’

On arrival at Marseilles, the Galley Boy and the young Junior Winger were taken ashore to one of the brothels and introduced as ‘Cherry Boys’ to the Madam by a couple of the crew. During the voyage, these two had finally let it out after much prompting, that they were virgins and that was always fatal onboard ship. It was therefore arranged that the time had come for them to have ‘a dash across the prairie,’ and after arrival at Marseilles, they would not let them return to the ship until they had ‘dipped their wick’ as it was commonly known.

On their return to the ship some hours later, the Galley Boy couldn’t stop giggling, had quite a flush on his face, and looked as though he was ready for a return match. The young waiter, on the other hand as I remember, couldn’t understand how it all went so quickly and gave the impression that he should have had a refund ! He was even more disappointed to find out later that in such houses of ill repute, it was internationally well known that ‘Cherry Boys’ usually received their first encounter ‘on the house!’

After leaving Marseilles and then Palermo, we passed through the Messina Straits and saw Stromboli putting on a spectacular display, spewing out fire and hot larva high into the night sky. We arrived in Malta some days later for our final discharge and a further batch of orders from the Shell Agent and again, no mention of us returning to the U.K.

Our next job would be to carry out tank washing on the way to Alexandria, pick up a part cargo there and then proceed through the Suez Canal to Port Sudan and then back to Alexandria again. The six weeks voyage to Curacoa and then back to the U.K. was beginning to look not so much a rumour but more decidedly, the work of ‘Shanghai Jack.’ It was becoming abundantly clear that this voyage was going to be a long haul and tramping exercise that would stretch us to that two year article contract. ‘Shanghai Jack’s’ name was getting bandied about a bit more these days and according to some crew members, it was as well that he was still safely residing in Southampton several thousand miles away!

Little did we know at that time that we would do 3 such voyages from Alexandria to Port Sudan before finally on the 4th voyage, heading South through the Suez Canal for the last time, we would be making for Djibouti in French Somalia as it was then known, and then on to Singapore.

On arrival at Suez we anchored off of Port Said waiting to join a convoy of around 12 ships before taking on the pilot and entering the canal. On the approaches to the canal, just off of Port Said, there was the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman responsible for the building of the 106 mile long canal between 1859 and 1869. However, during the Suez crisis in 1956, he was blown out of his boots by the Egyptians at the time that Nasser had decided to take over complete control of the Suez Canal.

A journey through the Suez Canal is quite an experience especially when passing ships going in the opposite direction on one of the canal by-passes. With heat waves and shimmering sand, these ships appear to be sailing purely across the Egyptian desert without a drop of water in sight! Ships of the desert indeed! Half way through the canal, we would anchor in the Bitter Lakes to enable another convoy of ships North bound to enter the canal and by so doing, would allow our convoy to enter the Southern end.

On going through the canal, a huge search light is erected on the knights head with an Egyptian on lookout on the fo’c’sle head along with one of the crew. Our presence on lookout was for no other reason than that of insurance purposes. Steering at times with deep draught can be a ‘work up’ especially when the water in the canal begins to move along at the same speed as the ship causing steering to be almost non existent in a dead water situation. When this happens, the pilot has to stop her in order to let the water settle down before proceeding again and of course most of the convoy has the same problem, very often turning the whole run through parts of the canal as a stop-start operation.

Tank cleaning on tankers in 1955 was the type of operation that when you look back on it, you wonder why you did it and how the hell ship owners ever got away with it. Gas freeing when at sea entailed rigging windsails over all open tank tops for several days, hoping the sea air would neutralise the gasses in the tanks. These windsails were no more than huge tubular canvas vents suspended on wire spans running from the centre castle to aft and from the fore part of the bridge to the break of the fo’c’sle. About half of the vent was dropped down inside the tank and the other half, resembling a great canvas scoop, was hoisted up to catch all the available sea breezes. The Mate and Bosun had the responsibility of going down each tank after a couple of days of venting and would decide if they were gas free enough before sending any seamen down to start cleaning. Very often the pair of them would come up from the tanks red eyed, giggling, spluttering and coughing before declaring that they were OK to send a watch down on overtime.

For the uninitiated, tank diving is another way of getting pissed although I wouldn’t recommend it. Usually after half an hour down there everything becomes topsy turvy with the eyes smarting and the chest heaving.

After several dives throughout the day, the Mate brings out a bottle of rum, giving a generous tot to each hand and by then you couldn’t care less what the hell you were doing, with a head like a merry-go-round and a mouth like a sewer. God only knows what those fumes must have done to our lungs in those days, as the dangers of carcinogens and cancers never entered our heads. However, the giant Shell Oil Company in it’s wisdom thought that turning tank cleaning into an overtime job and giving the lads a couple of tots of rum at the end of a days work was all that was required to get the job done and an offer they just couldn’t refuse!

The work involved going down an iron ladder to the tank bottom armed with just rubber buckets and rubber shovels, but no overalls or gloves as those items just weren’t an option in those days. Wearing just shorts and sea boots, we proceeded to scoop up thick oily sludge including large slate like pieces of rust from around the bottom stringers and strum boxes. Each bucketful was then tipped into a larger container and after being hoisted up, was then thrown over the side. Imagine that going on today!

However, we would be doing this job several times over during this voyage, scattering our oily sludge about the oceans and no one would appear to be giving a damn as educating the masses on global pollution was not much of an issue in the 50’s.

Today, tank cleaning is generally done alongside of the refinery and the slops pumped ashore into slop storage and settling tanks. Over a period of time when the slops have separated, the excess water is drained off and profitable by-products come from the remainder such as bitumen, primer and creosote etc.

Other types of tank cleaning involved lowering large chemical blocks into tanks which would apparently de-scale them over a short period and of course the other cleaning idea was the Butterworth method which involved boiling water. Three hose nozzles pointing in 3 directions on a small turntable on the end of a flexible metal hose would be lowered down the tank and pressurised boiling water would spin the hose nozzles around spraying inside the tank, thereby cleaning the tanks that way.

The use of this method had caused mysterious explosions on tankers and there was a school of thought that during this process, a situation developed, much like a thunder storm inside the tank and an electrical charge occurring similar to lightening. It was always difficult to prove at the time but the possibility of such a thing happening was taken into consideration as one or two tankers had exploded during the use of that gear when tank cleaning. The safest and cleanest option had always been to keep ships for the same grades of oil and not change products as is the case when tramping. Some products, especially vap oil and kero are known as static accumulators and during the loading process must be gravitated for up to a metre or so into the bottoms of the tanks to prevent static and possible explosion before putting the pumps in. Tramping the world with various grades of light oils could be a hazardous occupation and ships officers and men onboard tankers in those days couldn’t afford to become too complacent. Water could nearly always be found in many oil products but it rarely caused any problems as it could always be easily drained off from the bottoms of the tanks after settling.

However, great care was always taken with the transportation of aviation spirit whereas the tanks would need to be ‘squeaky clean’ and bone dry before loading. When water is present at 30 000 feet in the fuel tanks on an aircraft it naturally turns to ice causing chaos and leaving the pilot no alternative other than to put his parachute on and inform all passengers that they should remain seated while he pops out to get help!

On our last voyage going South through the Suez, we finally received our orders which would mean we would be making for Singapore and trade around the far East which meant little chance of us getting home in this year of 1955. At this time, we took on fresh water at Port Said and it was common knowledge to all hands that within 24 hours most of us would be suffering from the ‘trots!’

Our systems couldn’t handle this water and although the Chief Steward dosed us up with a concoction of chalk, peppermint and something akin to formaldehyde, it didn’t do much for the stomach cramps that usually followed . Needless to say that going on watch, on the wheel or on lookout became a nightmare, forever wondering if you could make the ‘bogs’ in time with a wild gallop along the flying bridge as you wrestled with your belts and bowels!

Running down the Red Sea was uncomfortable on a ship like the Niso with no air conditioning other than scoops sticking out of the port holes to catch what air had been created from our great speed of 9 knots! Sleeping up on the funnel deck in hammocks made from old windsails was the option many of us took in order to get a bit of shut-eye between watches. It was during one of these nights that I suddenly woke up to see what must have been the biggest bird I’ve ever seen, perched alongside of the funnel casing. Calling my mates, we tried to ‘shoo’ it away but it just hissed and spread out it’s wings revealing a span like Concorde, making it clear that it wasn’t going anywhere! In the darkness it was difficult to make out exactly what our feathered visitor actually was although Ali the deck boy, thought it was a pterodactyl and his partner in crime, ‘Knucklehead,’ thought it to be an ostrich! Say no more! Standing back at a distance, we decided to leave it alone and agreed that in the darkness it must have been the biggest ‘chook’ any of us had ever set eyes on and reckoned it would be better to leave well alone. If it had landed on deck during the night for a feed then it made good sense to vacate the area as this thing was big enough to snatch the Galley Boy away!

After breaking down in the Red Sea for the best part of a day, we decided to do a bit of shark fishing using chickens entrails on the end of a meat hook tied to a length of heaving line wrapped around the ships rail. After about half an hour, we hooked a real monster but before we could do anything, it took a dive with all the bait, bending the ship’s rail as it did so and when finally pulling the slack line in, found it had straightened out the meat hook. That was some shark!

We left Djibouti in ballast, bound for Singapore steaming into the Gulf of Aden. It was hot in these regions and as the ship was now gas free, the Mate decided that this was an opportune time to get some chipping, scraping and painting done on deck housings, shipside rails, tank decks and flying bridge. All the pipes and utilities for electrical and steam services are built underneath this walkway and this work is usually left to the junior ratings as it’s always a bit of a work up. The flying bridge is known as a ‘catwalk’ to some, and can best be described as a raised narrow steel plated footway between the accommodation aft to the centre castle amidships and then continues from the centre castle to the fo’c’sle head. When the ship is fully loaded with only about 3 feet of freeboard, this link becomes vital for getting fore and aft as the tank decks are usually awash a great deal of the time and in heavy weather, submerged most of the time.

After a couple of days in the Arabian Sea, the conditions were those of a typical high pressure system with no breeze and a flat calm sea. After spotting an Arab dhow doing it’s best to attract our attention, we slowed down and drew alongside before finally stopping and throwing a heaving line onboard. The craft was becalmed and the occupants, which included several men, women, children, goats, chickens and other live stock, were showing signs of distress due to the lack of fresh water. We put a hose over the side and into the dhow and watched them clamber over each other in order to get a drink, and after each had satisfied their thirst, poured water all over themselves and their animals in order to freshen up. After filling all their containers and lowering down some bread and rice, our skipper asked if they needed any other assistance but they declined indicating that the lack of water had been their main problem. The Mate, being a real company’s man, coupled with a personality like snake bite and so tight that he could peel an orange in his pocket, wasn’t too happy about so much water being used. He was however, somewhat reassured by our Captain , who came out with a witty remark saying, ‘Don’t worry Chief! If things get a bit dry, we’ll dilute what we’ve got to make it go round!’ The Mate wasn’t amused as the Captain turned away and went back up on the bridge with half a smile on his face. Once our thirsty Arabian travellers had received enough water, we let go of the dhow and pulled away, leaving these nomadic types to their own destiny and to continue in much the same way as they had always done for hundreds of years in these regions.

We steamed on into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, arriving some weeks later at an island and refinery just off of Singapore called Paulo Bukom. Arriving in port was always cause for some anticipation, wondering if we had any mail and waiting for the Shell Agent to give us our next set of orders. According to a couple of notes in my diary, when we received those orders we were heading for Cebu and Davao City in the Philippines with a full cargo of various grades of spirit.

We had a good run ashore in Singapore before leaving for the Philippines, us younger seamen tasting our first chow-mein among other far eastern culinary delights and above all, our fascination in the many beautiful women in and around the city.

The only outstanding event that comes to mind when in the Philippines was when me, Ali and Knucklehead were in a bar in Davao having a laugh with a couple of American servicemen that were stationed there. During that afternoon as I recall, Reg the Galley Boy, walked in with an attractive Filipino girl on his arm that he had met in a bar downtown in Davao City. He was very proud of his ‘Little Chickadee’ as he called her, not forgetting his last ‘dash across the prairie’ in Marseilles and no doubt waiting in anticipation of getting ‘in the saddle’ once again!. However it was not to be, when one of the Americans who had used the bar regularly, pulled him to one side and told him that his conquest was no more than a bloke in drag! Reg’s face showed utter disbelief before realising what he had gotten himself into and then turning crimson spluttered out something to the rest of us like, ‘You lot will never let me live this down now will ya?’ and then ‘I suppose now some big mouths will spread this all over the ship now!’

Apart from all of us in the bar having a good laugh, including his ‘girl friend’ the older hands told him that his secret was safe with them and no one else onboard would ever hear about it…yeah right!

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