A Life on the Ocean Waves

By Captain Jim Elliott


(continued from the last edition…)

In the last issue, the Korean War had just started and we were steaming up the Indian Ocean towards Ceylon and a visit to Colombo where we would take up an anchorage along with another eighty ships of all sizes in the harbour. In 1950 it was still before the air travel had taken off and many ships were big two and three funnel liners on their way to the far east and down to Australia. Ceylon was in the process of taking over their own rule but things really had changed little since it was part of the Empire. (I called there again in 1960 after I had joined tankers, the harbour was completely deserted).

Still in 1950 it was all very exciting, the harbour was full of small boats taking people ashore from the ships, both motor launches and the small rowing boat where the oarsman stood up in the boat and pushed on his oars. This transport was of course a lot cheaper and all that apprentices could afford. All the boats let their passengers ashore at the same decorated and covered jetty. One of the main things to catch the eye was the big sale in Ceylon tea from this jetty. (Before tea bags and still rationed). Box shaped packs in various sizes wrapped in strong silver paper was an endless source of business. Sapphires were another popular item, but again out of the reach of apprentices. Big polished carved wood elephants and stools from an elephants foot were also regular sale items in many shops.

As apprentices usually did in foreign ports, the run ashore always ended up at the seaman’s mission. These were large well run places that catered for our needs, both from church to post cards, snooker, football matches, (in those days, only soft drinks at the “Flying Angel” mission), along with special trips out to the countryside. The one at Colombo was big and cool with large overhead fans, ice cold milk-shakes and a good snooker table. Outside at the foot of the steps, was the local snake charmer with his cobra’s coming up out of his open basket.

Our stay was going to be some three weeks discharging the sugar cargo and then perhaps a week in dry dock to see what damage and possible repair to the bottom plates after our call on the reef at Bird Island. So we had quite a few football matches arranged for us, not only against different ships but the Navy too. Then along came the big match in a large stadium, we were to play the Colombo Police. Now we had a total crew of 31 and many had to stay on board and work ship, not all could play football either, so it was difficult putting a team together. Before I went to sea, football was my life and naturally I carried my boots with me. We also had an ex South Shields schoolboy from amongst the sailors and the rest of our very limited team could all put on a reasonable show. Now the police had hundreds to pick from, and all well kitted out, although several still preferred bare feet. Getting a kick in the head from one of those bare feet was just the same as from the old style hard toed boot (I speak from experience). There was quite a crowd at the stadium and although we won, it was

however, a situation of the ref wishing to live afterwards in so far as the local crowd was concerned and he made us settle for a draw.

Well the long sea passage from the West Indies to Ceylon had washed away a lot of the grey paint from the ship’s side, leaving it a proper rusty mess. So normal work at the anchorage was with stages over the side, chipping hammer, red lead and fresh coats of grey paint. The sailor who used to play football for South Shields schoolboys had an interesting experience one day. He had natural blonde wavy hair. Two men were on each stage as it hung over the ship’s side. There was a slip up one day and not only did his end suddenly drop down with him on it but the open pot of grey paint also did, a fraction later. It landed upside down right on top of all his blonde wavey hair.

Mind this was not the only sticky situation, positioned alongside the ship’s hull and suspended from the deck, was the accommodation ladder. As the cargo workers came on board each day they went up and down it, and especially when all left each evening, the ladder and rope rails became covered in sticky sugar. Each morning it was the job of two of the apprentices to wash it clean. Not a bad job this, for as we finished, we would dive straight in the harbour to cool and wash off.

It struck me that seamen must be a ghoulish lot, for as the sugar bags were discharged from number two hold, everyone went to have a look to see if any remains were still visible from the West Indian who had started to bring his inside up over them. As this number two hold emptied, we could certainly see how the bottom layer of sugar bags had been will saturated with black fuel oil. So whilst the bottom plates of the ship had it seemed remained tight when funning on the reef, the top of the double bottom tanks in the hold had sprung and let oil run into the cargo.

After all the cargo was out, the ship then went into dry dock and we had a look underneath. Well the bottom plates looked like a switch-back railway. A little patching up was done but when we got home, the ship had to go into dry dock and get repairs done properly.

Returning to Colombo dry dock, when a ship was in port, it was usual for it to have someone on duty throughout the night as “night-watchman”. Not a popular job as the hours were from 7p.m to 7 a.m.

The duty called for regular walks around the ship, tending the mooring ropes if tidal waters required it. Making sure no undesirable persons came up the gangway, or the anchor chain if the ship was at anchor. Peel spuds for the next day’s meals, light up the second fire at the galley stove, call the hands for the next day’s work etc. Now this job was usually carried out by one of the apprentices and not at all popular. Come about 2 am and you were struggling to keep your eyes open, (a major offence of course to be found asleep on duty). You were supposed to sleep during the day, what a laugh! It was usually very hot, more so in the steel cabins. The stevedores made huge bangs and crashes clearing the hatch boards onto the deck just the other side of the steel plate bulkhead, close to your pillow. Not only every morning but after they had to open up again after frequent rain squalls, in order to start or resume work. These huge heavy boards would crash down from about 4 feet onto the steel deck along with long steel bars. Steam winches working the cargo would clatter away with lots of noise. Then of course there would be the outside doors of the accommodation opening and closing all the time with lots of bangs, people moving about in the passage-way just outside your cabin door and shouting to each other in different languages.

It was my turn to be night-watchman when the ship was in dry-dock. At the gangway (this was the long straight length of heavy wooden walkway, with battens across it to help avoid slipping when it was steep and which normally went our perpendicular the ship’s side) as opposed to the accommodation ladder which had proper steps and was suspended over and parallel to the ship’s side. Well always at the gangway, there was a lifebuoy and a coil of rope which the night watchman was supposed to have any person under the influence, tying round themselves before they climbed up. (None ever did of course). However this story relates to us leaving the dry dock in late afternoon to lay alongside the concrete jetty next to its entrance. We had no cargo in the ship and no ballast so we were very high out of the water. We were to sail the following morning and as our gangway would not reach from the deck to the jetty well below us, a long ladder was obtained. Around half past midnight I am standing by this ladder speaking with the 4th Engineer who had come off watch from the hot engine room and was getting a bit of air before turning in. Two engine room ratings (a donkey man and a fireman) came towards the foot of the ladder down on the concrete jetty. Each had a big pillow case like bag slung over his shoulder and they were both in merry song, making anything but a straight line. “Oh heck” says I, the heaving line went over to them but not only would they not have it around themselves, they would not have it around their sacks either so at least they could be pulled up. (Contents pineapples and coconuts). Up the ladder comes the first one, all of a wobble, with his sack over his shoulder and as he gets near the top, both the 4th Engineer and myself grab him and he is safely on deck. His pal comes up next, the same situation, but as he approached the top he gives bigger wobbles and both he and his sack crash down on the concrete jetty and railway lines for the cranes. Whether the crack, was his head or coconuts, I don’t know, but it was awful loud. I dashed down the ladder and shouted to the 4th Engineer to get the captain while I went to phone an ambulance.

Normally the height of that fall would have killed a person outright, I returned to find the Captain kneeling by him and the man saying “I wasn’t drunk sir! I wasn't drunk! Anyway the ambulance duty took him off to hospital where he remained. At daylight we moved back out to the anchorage and I found that I was wanted by the police, they wished to make sure that I had not tried to kill him.

All a bit scary for a sixteen year old, but I was cleared and we duly sailed heading back in a south westerly direction to call at Lorenco Marques where we would load a full cargo of coal for a place called Takoradi on the West Coast of Africa.Lorenco Marques in Mozambique was quite interesting, they had racing car races along the long length of main road on Sunday mornings. In 1950 it was still very much under Portuguese administration, but they had a money saving scheme whereby they would pick up any drunken seaman, throw him in clink to sober him up and then have him sweeping the roads the next day. A big interest for me was to see one of the last of the old sailing ships laying at anchor in the harbour. This was the four masted steel barque “Lawhill” the masts were 186 foot high, she had a crew of 28 and 23 sails to handle. When she was in Lorenco Marques, she had been bought by a Portuguese owner, but he found he did not have the cash to operate her, could neither fit her with new sails or find a crew of sailing ship men to man her. She was subsequently left to rot, what a sad end for a fine old sailing ship.

The method of loading coal was unusual at “LM”, coal trucks of a high rail would drop coal into a huge round drum. This was then hoisted over the open hold and the bottom of the drum, conical in shape on the inside would then open and the coal would pour in nearly the full open square of the hold. Quite a different set up to other places where the coal would pour into the hold from chutes. Still, fully loaded we sail and head back hopefully without disaster, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the West Coast of Africa.

( to be continued….)


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