Volunteer Don Knibb writes about Ian Martin, a former merchant seaman and now a white badge tour guide delivering maritime walks in Hull city centre.
Ask anyone who is old enough to remember what they were doing in the Spring of 1969 and it’s unlikely that they will tell you that they were mid Atlantic on board a cargo vessel battling one of the worst storms in living memory.
But Ian Martin will.
Ask anyone if they’ve ever come face to face with a walrus while painting the hull of a ship (it’s hard to know which one was more startled) and you might get a funny look but they probably won’t tell you that they have.
But Ian Martin will.
Neither will they tell you that they rendered emergency assistance to the crew of a stricken oil rig when it collapsed off the Lincolnshire coast in 1965, killing 13 people.
But Ian Martin will.
The story of Hull’s trawlermen is widely known, and rightly so. Perhaps less well known is the story of the very many Hull men and women who have joined the Merchant Navy over the years. Ian is passionate about telling that story, drawing on his fascinating treasure trove of personal memories and experiences.
Born into a large family on Hessle Road Ian knew when he was growing up in the 1950s and early 60s that he wanted to go to sea, but not as a trawlerman. He applied to train as an able seaman when he was 15 and a half, but was at first told that he was too short and should go away and grow a couple of inches before he could be accepted.
This was only one of many setbacks, but eventually Ian – now two inches taller – was accepted and sent to join the Training Ship Vindicatrix at Sharpness in Gloucestershire. The train journey from Hull to Sharpness was itself a daunting experience for a young lad who had never previously been further than Withernsea but Ian found his way there and settled into a life of long hours, hard work and poor food. He never once thought of quitting – though plenty did - and recalls returning to Hull in triumph a few months later and going to the Merchant Navy office in Posterngate known as the ‘Pool’ to sign on for his first ship – the MV Riebeeck Castle bound for South Africa via Las Palmas and Angola.
Ian talks and writes movingly of those early experiences as the youngest of a large family to whom nothing came easily. He grew accustomed to disappointment, but persisted doggedly in pursuing his dreams until finally he was able to make them come true. He recalls with great clarity the good times – the sheer excitement of his first voyage, the beauty of Cape Town and his visit to Table Mountain, the bonding with shipmates; but also the bad times – the death of a dock worker, getting robbed and his first taste of the evils of apartheid.
He travelled the world for 15 years. As a freelance seaman he could sign on for any ship, although he frequently crewed for ships of the Wilson Line. He visited places where as an Englishman he felt unsafe – he was once threatened by the IRA in Dublin because his ship was flying the Red Ensign – places where he enjoyed wonderful times such as Sydney, Tonga and New Orleans and places where there were frequent cat and mouse games with the local authorities as seamen tried to smuggle illicit goods onto their ships. He made several trips to Australia and New Zealand, transporting passengers who were emigrating from Britain as ‘£10 Poms’ – the scheme whereby the Australian and New Zealand governments encouraged emigration to their countries by offering passages for only £10. The long Pacific crossing became more like a cruise than working a normal cargo ship with regular parties and entertainments for the passengers. But even then voyages could be overlaid by sadness – he vividly recalls death and burial at sea and recovering a badly injured accident victim from another ship.
After every trip Ian would return to Hull for a week or two to catch up with friends and family, but would soon be back at the ‘Pool’ looking for the next ship and the next adventure. His love of the job and pride in being a seaman shines through in his conversation and in his writing – he has written an extensive memoir of his time at sea, crammed with anecdote and observations about the destinations he visited, the characters he worked with and some of the many scrapes that he got into. ‘I got paid for doing what I love’, he says ‘I would have done it for nothing!’
But back to the MV Rialto. What did happen in mid Atlantic in 1969? The ship was heading for Bermuda when it ran into what the Captain – Norman Cook - described as the worst storm he had seen in 30 years at sea. Battling mountainous waves the ship hove to – maintained a stationary position while heading directly into the wind – for several days. Ian mimes trying to get some rest in his bunk, only to find that the ship was pitching so much that at one moment he felt as though he was standing on his feet, then the next standing on his head. He couldn’t have got much sleep! He graphically describes being stationed on the ‘wing’ outside the main bridge where he was exposed to the fury of the storm. Safety measures were pretty much non-existent and at one point Captain Cook himself came out with a rope which was fixed inside the bridge at the other end. ‘In case the wing gets washed away’ he said - somewhat alarmingly since that was what Ian was standing on - ‘you can haul yourself back to the bridge with this.’ Later, and with the storm still raging, the Captain – a Wilson Line officer famed for his eccentricity – could still be found on the bridge. Playing the violin.
Ian’s life at sea was exciting, dangerous and colourful, but in time memories of his way of life – and that of thousands like him - will be lost to future generations unless they are recorded – by the written and spoken word, or on video.
His life at sea would also make a great film. Who do you think should play the lead role?