A Life on the Ocean Waves
by Captain Jim Elliot

Having seen the photos from ‘The Key’ on Don’s website, I rang Norma to ask if there was any text available on the ‘net. Not so, but she could send me several old copies and two days later they arrived.
I originate from Saltburn, as did my father and grandfather, but that did not stop me at the age of 15 setting my romantic sights on a North Skelton girl, Anne Payne - that same Anne Payne has been Anne Elliott for some forty odd years now! Upon receipt of the copies of ‘The Key’, Anne spent about the whole day going through them, making strange noises like, “Oh yes! I remember him well, a tall handsome lad!”, “Eeh! I’ve never thought of her for years!”, and “Oh yes, I remember that family well.” She was having a conversation with herself really, but what she was reading moved her to both laughter and tears. For myself, I was quite pleased, as for once it seemed I’d done the right thing asking for these copies. There was certainly a lot more laughter than tears – the tears were pure nostalgia.
The crunch now came, “I’m going to pay for these,” says I, “maybe I will be able to order a regular copy.” No opposition whatsoever on this remark, so away I went to Bolckow Street, North Skelton, to see Norma face to face. I would say it was about the third sentence from Norma that she made the request for an article, “You should be able to give me a lot for the magazine!”
As she had already remarked about my career, closely preceded by stating that she could picture every room in ‘Gas House’, which used to be the home of my wife, I wasn’t sure if she was asking for interesting adventures at sea or stories from when Anne and I were both 15 and the walks up Bolckow Street, through the pit yard, and over Mr Ainsley’s fields to Gas House.
So to be on the safe side I thought I would write a few words about happenings at sea. Fifty odd years ago when life went at a slower pace, my chosen career was to go away to sea. Health problems forced me back ashore after some 33 years, but during those 33 years one obtained an education not possible from books.
In 1949, life at sea had changed little for many years, apart from sail giving way to steam. Navigation was carried out in the same manner that Captain Cook used, indeed some of our charts were still marked ‘surveyed by Captain Cook’. We had a sextant, a chronometer, navigational tables and a deep sea lead line. Most ships also had as a gesture to the modern age, a radio direction finding loop. Better than nothing but a long way from being able to give an accurate position. The most important instrument, perhaps, was the magnetic compass. This item had to be checked every watch for errors due to the direction of the ship’s head and the ship’s own magnetic effect along with the varying magnetic influence that the particular part of the earth’s surface you were sailing over, had on it. So being able to see the sun and stars every day to carry out the calculations was very important. Many ships came to grief because of an incorrect course they had been steering and it was not unusual to sometimes go for many days without sight of sun or stars. Today, of course, it is push button navigation, but I am pleased to say that all my navigation was on par with James Cook.
Accommodation on board the 10,000 ton tramp ships was somewhat sparse, in fact when I later visited the Cutty Sark, the accommodation appeared identical. Food ashore was still rationed and it was limited at sea also, although fresh water was even more scarce. So much then for the background and on to what readers of ‘The Key’ may consider of interest.
My first ship was the SS Norton, all riveted, 420 feet in length with a 58 foot beam and built in Scotland at Burntisland in 1941. Originally she was built as a coal burner and I joined her at Wallsend where she was being converted to oil burning. Speed in those days was nothing to get excited about insofar as tramp ships were concerned. If over say a three week or more ocean passage, we managed an average speed of 8 knots, it wasn’t bad going! To average 9 knots required current and wind behind you all the way. Still they were strong and well built ships as I was to find out later on.
Our first passage as an oil burner was to go from the Tyne to Immingham to load coal for Spezia in Italy. Now this was just some 4 years after the war and wartime influence was still very strong with us as many older readers will remember. Imagine my surprise when upon arriving at Spezia, we are all lined up on deck under ‘tommy-guns’, whilst the Italian customs searched the ship. I was just 16 but found it hard to be stood in a line with a gun pointed at me by our erstwhile enemies. Cigarettes were what they were after, they were huge in the smuggling trade at that time and as I found in later years, law and order, as we knew it in this country, was a little different in other parts of the world. Entering the harbour at Spezia, various sunken ships were still partially visible and many of the buildings had ample evidence of war damage. There was a little smug satisfaction on seeing this at first hand, as I was still too used to seeing such damage remains back in England.
After discharge of coal, it was a short hop over to Bone in Algeria where we were to load iron ore for Tyne Dock. Education now started perhaps with the smell of Africa coming out to the ship well before we got there. Flies were something else, North African flies entered your mouth with your food if you were not careful. This I found in later years, all the same along the coast to the Suez Canal. The local rag-tag Arabs were also an item to keep in mind. It was not unusual for any lone seaman, either going ashore or returning to the ship, to find himself with a knife in his ribs and robbed. One night, we three apprentices were walking up the central promenade of the town (something like the high street but with many cafes serving onto the tables and chairs that filled the pavements). Anyway, we heard a sound behind us and turned to find a one-legged Arab boy with a crutch making a move at a ‘snatch and grab’ at us. He did not quite make it, being caught in the act so to speak. We made to grab him but he was off like grease-lightning, one leg and one crutch, he dived down a dark alleyway and we prudently decided to stay in the well-lit promenade. If I remember correctly, our little old chief engineer, who was born in 1888, did take a walk ashore on his own. He was duly robbed but perhaps considered too frail looking to be killed for it.
Home then with iron ore and an unusually short voyage for a tramp ship, just six weeks. The next trip was to be for 9 months and quite eventful. We left the Tyne in what we called ‘light ship’ condition (no cargo), away across the Atlantic to a small island called Curacao off the north coast of South America. This was a regular spot to call at in order to take on board oil fuel bunkers and of course fresh water. It was then a northwesterly course inside the Caribbean Sea for the island of Hispaniola, half of which was still a strong voodoo country named Haiti, the other half being the Dominican Republic which was where we were bound. I must admit to a certain amount of cynicism when I now view the sales pitch on holidays here. In 1950 it was about the last place one would go for a holiday and I feel that passage of fifty years is still rather short to find the way of life having changed very much.
Our first stop was to a place called San Pedro de Macoris to load a part cargo of bagged sugar, mind we had of course given the holds a good clean out first on the passage across, after being full of iron ore. After loading our quota at this port it was a move around the coast and anchor off a place called Boca Chica where the rest of the sugar cargo would come out to us in barges.
Many seamen have a reputation for being very superstitious and it was here that things started to happen, the superstition part being that everything happens in threes. It could, of course, all have been due to various remarks that had been made about voodoo land by many of the crew. Anyway, first of all I get called away from my Sunday lunch by the Third Officer to go and rig up a hose pipe at number two hatch on the starboard side of the fore deck. One of the local workmen had started to bring up his lungs over the hatch coaming and sugar cargo, the deck and the bulwark, as one of his workmates dragged him to the ship’s side. By the time I got round the corner onto the fore deck, he was just slipping down the bulkhead of the accommodation and breathing his last. My job was to wash away all the blood and bits of lung. So this ‘happening’ on board did not go down too well with some of the crew. Then upon completion of loading, the big heavy wooden hatch boards were fitted, three strong canvas tarpaulins stretched over them and secured along each side with steel bars and wedges.
The next job was to lower the five ton lifting capacity, derrick booms into their crutches ready for our voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Ceylon, a job done on a regular basis, although care must be taken as this steel boom is lowered by hand. For reasons that we never found out, the heel of the boom at number three hold jumped from its swivel position on the samson post and it fell with an almighty crash over the hatch. The various wires caught one of the A.B.’s but there was no serious injury. With many sailors milling about in the area it was lucky indeed that its long length (about 40 feet) did not land on a sailor. I can tell you that all in the area were shaken up by the narrow escape. The first words said though were, “That’s two”, - the dead man had only been a couple of days before. However, everything was put in order and off we went in a southeasterly direction to head out into the Atlantic and for our passage around the cape of Good Hope.
It was flat calm seas and warm nights. Another apprentice had handed the wheel over to a seaman at 0200 hours, the Second Officer who did the midnight to 0400 watch had just gone into the chart room behind the wheelhouse to make his mid-watch cup of tea. The sailor on the wheel, looking straight ahead through the open wheelhouse window, suddenly saw a dim light being hoisted ahead and a voice shouting, “Hard astarboard!” He put the wheel over and the Second Officer came dashing out but too late.
I was on the 8 to 12 watch at that time and had come off watch at midnight and gone to bed. About ten past two in the morning the door to the apprentices’ cabin opens and the Second Officer wakes up the Senior Apprentice (who did the 4 to 8 watch), “Come on Ginger, sound round, we are aground!” Now I had felt nothing and Ginger thought it was a leg pull but no, as we could see at daylight, we were balanced amidships on a rocky reef that surrounded a very small islet called Bird Island. We could see the bottom through the clear water.
In those sort of ships there was about another 3’ 6” below the bottom of the holds that were what we called ‘double bottom tanks’. They carried fuel and ballast water. We had no carpenter on those ships so the Senior Apprentice did his job every morning, sounding the double bottom tanks and hold bilges, to make sure that they were not taking any water. Off went Ginger and came back to report that we were not taking sea water anywhere.
The third ‘happening’ had happened, but our next concern, if we got off, was for our passage around the Cape of Good Hope. Just like off Cape Horn, one can still meet some nasty weather off South Africa. Well the Captain, Chief Officer and Chief Engineer had their meeting – the plan was to pump out most of our oil bunkers and at the time designated as high water (not much rise and fall in that latitude) they would use the engines to try to go astern and get the ship off the reef. One must remember this was only a few years after the war when many ships had been sunk and much oil had been spread about the seas of the world, so no great concern was given, as it would have been today, to oil pollution. At the appointed time the engines were put astern and, standing amidships, we could actually see the topmast of the mainmast angle forward slightly as the ship bent. We slid off, a lot more sounding of course, and altered course to head towards Curacao again to fill up our bunkers. There was still plenty of concern about the pending South Atlantic passage, but all went well and it was on this passage that we heard on the radio that we had gone to war in Korea.
( To be continued . . . )

Captain Jim Elliott

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