Two Year Articles and All That

Returning to Singapore, we did many trips to Borneo calling at Balikpapan on the east coast and Miri in the north. There was no port to speak of in Miri and we would moor up to buoys about three miles off shore and pick up the discharge pipe line from the sea bed. Shore personnel would come out to assist with this work and we would use the goose neck, which was positioned for use of the kedge anchor on the stern, and hoist the pipe up and couple up to the stern discharge line. Whilst moored up to the buoys during one trip to Miri and working on the bridge, I can remember the Third Mate showing a couple of us the charts of the shipping lanes we were using when sailing around Sumatra and Borneo. There were many large hatched areas on the charts depicting mine fields laid by the Japanese during the last war that were still far from being cleared and were still a serious navigational hazard to shipping. The Shell Oil Company had warned all the masters on their tankers to be extra vigilant about mines in the area and to be aware of piracy in these waters which had always been a problem. On reflection, the trips we did around those islands with the volatile different grades of oils we were carrying, makes one realise that there wouldn’t have been much left of us if we had struck a mine although none of us gave it much thought at the time.

After several months of running cargo’s to several Indonesian ports, we spent Christmas day in Pladjou in Sumatra where another tanker belonging to Eagle Oil named the San Amado, was also alongside discharging. She had a British crew onboard and apart from the usual swapping of library books, magazines. etc. we celebrated in fine style, having a good old Christmas style booze and ‘nosh-up’ on both ships.

During these little ‘boozies’ and gatherings, one of their stewards decided to walk off of our ship with a bottle of something or other and Knucklehead spotting this, went after him like ‘diarrhoea out of a grease gun’ and put his ‘lights out’ down on the dockside.

Coming back onboard some time later with a half empty bottle of spirit and the San Amado’s turkey, he was advised to return the bird post haste before creating a riot between the two ships. It wasn’t long after their turkey had been quickly returned that their 20 stone cook came lumbering onboard looking for the low life who could do such a thing on Christmas Day of all days!

Hughie, our Chief Steward, being the worse for drink and doing his best not to fall over, tried to quieten things down a bit whilst at the same time, the local customs officers decided to raid our ship. We knew they wouldn’t find anything but they wanted to join the party and what better way than to make it official and help us polish off our food and drink! As the party continued, one of our Greasers returning from the other ship had great difficulty in navigating the bottom of the gangway and finally fell into the ‘drink’ and was fished out by a bum-boat hovering close by.

It was as well that we weren’t sailing until Boxing Day as it’s doubtful if a full crew could get mustered to set sail but looking back, I can understand why the captain kept a low profile that day. We had now been away for 10 months and during that time, no one onboard had had a day or any time off and tempers were getting short. It was an unwritten law in those days that if you were away for at least six months on articles, it was up to the Mate or Captain’s discretion to arrange for all the crew to have a day off with pay as a good will gesture. Our Mate was a mean bastard and always ducked the issue when it was put to him for fear of his losing a whole days work from the crew and what it would cost the giant Shell Oil organisation!

Christmas day came just in time and served as a release and a bit of a safety valve and just what the crew needed. In those days, Christmas Dinner was served to the crew by the officers who also had a drink with the men as well and was the one time in the year that you could socialise with them. This helped to keep a lid on things for a bit longer.

During this time back in Singapore according to my diary, we had fresh orders to take aviation spirit and prem. kero to several ports in Japan which caused a bit of excitement to some of the hands onboard that had been there before. It was known as a seaman’s paradise in those days with everything ashore really cheap and the girls plentiful although there was a huge American presence there in competition with their dollars. Our ports of call were Kobe, Yokohama, Yokosuka and back through the Sea of Japan to Saikosaki which included some really exhaustive runs ashore. Whilst in Yokohama during berthing we almost pulled a tug under after yawing from a taut towing spring. When this happens, the tug master is almost powerless to pull out of the situation and the emergency procedure is to trip the towing hook by pulling on a line attached to a pin on the hook’s tripping mechanism. As an added precaution which is standard, there is usually an axe, in case the trip fails and a member of the crew can then chop the coir and free the vessel that way. That is why all wire towing springs had coir tails on the towing hook

On this occasion we watched helplessly as we were slowly dragging this tug over on her beam ends as one of the tugs crew in a state of panic, hacked away with his axe. Just as the water was about to pour down through the engine room sky lights, the coir parted and the vessel righted itself with just seconds to spare. No doubt it was their lucky day as I would imagine all hands on that tug would have drowned if that situation had gone on for just a few seconds longer.

After a taking a full cargo to Hong Kong our next run would be taking a full cargo of several grades of light oils to Geelong in Australia which included several tanks of dry cleaning fluid and aviation spirit. On our voyage South through the Indian Ocean and then into the Australian Bight we ran into a force 9 with seas high enough to break right over the flying bridge. Andy, the young winger (waiter) had the job of getting the officers meals from the galley aft every meal time, and then serve it up from a hot press in the officers messroom in the centre castle. He had been ‘caught’ several times during heavy weather when on the flying bridge, never ever being able to judge between the peaks and troughs of heavy seas before making a dash for it. Built like a rasher of wind with a sponge for a brain, once again he completely misjudged the ship’s motion and the seas breaking over the tank decks and as a result, came a real ‘cropper’ during one meal time

Poised, ready to do a dash along the flying bridge with a huge tray of food covered in a white cloth, he took his chance and rushed forward only to disappear under a ‘green one.’ We thought he had been swept over the side but when the spray had cleared, Andy was left clinging and hanging from the flying bridge railings like a huge wet rag doll, minus the food and tray and lucky not to get washed over the side. Instead of scrambling back over the rail and making a dash for it, he looked down on the tank deck to see where the tray had gone before ‘copping’ another one and ending up flat on his back on the deck plates of the flying bridge looking skywards. A couple of us along with the bosun had just witnessed this and then, after putting his head in his hands for several seconds, the bosun shouted out for someone to ‘grab the daft bastard before he completely disappears over the side.’

Hughie, the Chief Steward ended up getting the meal that day with the Second Cook and Baker moaning about the extra work involved preparing it all again, forgetting that the poor little ‘ sod ‘ had nearly gone over the ‘wall.’ The Second Cook was ancient and probably served his apprenticeship on the Ark and was just another example of ‘Shanghai Jack’s’ efforts in scraping a crew together as the man should have packed the sea in years ago. This ‘Old Codger’ hardly had the strength to knead dough for the concrete blocks he called bread, but when he did, it was as well that you didn’t watch him as the sweat would roll off of his face into the mixing bowl. This was probably why the bread was always thought to be so salty!

Our Bosun, nicknamed ‘Dead legs,’ perhaps because of his walking as though he had the rough end of a pineapple up around his nether regions, had a tuft of unruly ginger hair that had never encountered a comb since birth. This gave him the appearance of someone that looked as though they had just stuck their finger into a live power point. He was an old tanker man and a heavy smoker which meant, like the rest of the smokers onboard, that he was only allowed to smoke in his cabin or messroom and never for’ard of the funnel if on deck.

Being a nicotine addict, he couldn’t smoke on the open decks so he indulged himself in a disgusting habit when turning-to on deck after each ‘smoko.’ He would stub-out his cigarette, take off the filter and lay the butt-end between his bottom lip and lower teeth and suck on the tobacco juices before spitting the soggy mess out later as he went about the ship. When he spoke to you with this revolting cocktail of tobacco juices and cigarette paper in his mouth, it was always safer to stand well back. To stand too close would mean being splattered with instant freckles from the bits of tobacco and debris that flicked out all over your face and in all directions!