Ian Martin, volunteers for Hull Maritime and here he recalls his first trip at sea, after completing his Merchant Navy training.
I was told to report to the Captain of the MV Riebeeck Castle, a Union Castle Line cargo ship. She was berthed in the dry dock in North Shields and I would have to cross the river by ferry to get there.
I found my way to the ferry and there were a group of men stood waiting on the quayside.
The ship was in a right mess. Having been in the dry dock for a couple of weeks for repairs.
I was shown where my cabin was and I was unpacking my kit bag. There were two metal bunks and a small metal locker each for our stuff! I’ve seen better cells in prison on television than this! I chose the top bunk and we packed away our stuff and went to explore the ship and meet some of the crew. She was an old ship, built just after the Second World War, the deck crew were mainly older men who had been at sea for years and most of them had sailed on the Atlantic convoys during the war.
Being first trippers we were expected to do just as we were told and just listen and learn. One of our jobs as deck boys was to take turns in looking after the deck hands mess room in between working on deck and ‘learning the ropes’ as the saying goes.
This trip was in December not long before Christmas and later on in my career I was telling another old seaman about that trip and how crazy they all seemed to be, he laughed and said ‘Don’t worry they were just Christmas crackers’, I asked what he meant. He said ‘Think about it, any normal man wouldn’t want to leave their family at Christmas so that’s when all the ‘nut cases’ have their best chance of getting a ship’
Anyway, it was a sharp learning curve for me and stood me in good stead for the rest of my time at sea. They did turn out to be the craziest crew I’d ever sailed with but some really nice guys nonetheless.
Also some of the best seamen I’d ever sailed with and they taught me a lot. We left North Shields the next day to Middlesborough to pick up cargo then onto Tilbury. I was a bit disappointed, expecting to sail to exotic ports straight away.
We stayed in Tilbury for about five days and eventually got the ship ready to sail. Most of the decks hands had been drunk for the five days and just before we left, me and the other deck boy were put ashore to help land the gangway and retrieve the sailing board which always hung on the gangway to remind the crew what time the ship was sailing and when to be back on board.
The other deck boy untied the sailing board and went to hand it to one of the crew who was leaning over the side to receive it. The deck boy wasn’t paying attention as to where he was walking, also it was dark by this time. As he handed up the board he stepped off the edge of the quay and plunged into the icy dock waters between the quayside 29 and the ship.
Any seaman will tell you this is the most dangerous place to fall in as the ship is constantly slowly moving in and out from the quayside and lots of seamen have been drowned when returning to their ship drunk.
Anyway I was still on the quayside and saw what was happening. I grabbed a fender rope lying nearby and lowered it down to the murky water. It was pitch black and I couldn’t really see where he was, all I could hear was splashing around.
As this was happening I heard another big splash and one of the deck hands had jumped from the ship into that small gap to rescue my cabin mate. He managed to tie the rope around him and we dragged him out onto the quayside coughing and spluttering.
We were that busy dealing with him that we forgot about the other one until we heard him shout ‘What about me!’ We lowered the rope down again and dragged him out aswell. We all got back on board and the ship sailed.
We cast off the last rope holding us to the quayside, like a child being cut free from its mother and we finally set sail. We made our way slowly up the murky looking Thames and out into the open sea.
At last, the whole world lay before me but little did I know there was an initiation ceremony to go through before coming a fully-fledged ‘Sea Dog’. I got up the next morning and by this time we were well beyond the English Channel and making our way towards the Bay of Biscay.
This was winter and the Bay of Biscay is well known amongst seaman as one of the worst areas for bad weather and rough seas. At first the ship performed quite well, she seemed quite stable apart from a gentle rolling. I thought to myself, I don’t know what they were on about with all those tales of storms and sea sickness. I was soon to find out how wrong I was. As we got further into the bay the waves grew bigger and the wind got stronger.
Although The Riebeeck Castle was about 5,000 tons it was still relatively small to some of my larger ships. The other deck boy was sick before me and I thought I was going to be okay but I slowly started to feel more nauseous as time went by. A couple of hours later just the thought of food made me feel sick and of course the older men would sometimes taunt us by saying ‘Would you like a nice greasy bacon sandwich?’ at which point we would both rush to the ships railings and vomit into the grey sea below. This went on for three days and by about the second day after being sick numerous times I felt that if someone picked me up and threw me over board I would thank them for it just to be free of this terrible sickness. For anyone who has not experienced it, let me tell you it’s the worst feeling in the world and when you’re on a ship there’s no escape from it. After three days the sea began to calm down and the weather got warmer. The weather slowly improved as we sailed further South, the sun came out and the sea turned blue. This is more like it, I thought, all my dreams were coming true. I asked one of the older deck hands where we were heading first. He said we were stopping at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands for bunkers (taking on fuel). Meanwhile in between looking after the deck hands mess room, making tea in the great big metal tea pots (no tea bags in those days) ready for when they came off the deck and going to the galley for food which we brought down on trays, we worked on the deck learning how to run a ship.
Within a few days I learnt how to rig a Bosun’s chair, climb the mast and splice ropes. The older guys were a tough bunch, as I said at the beginning of my story, but they had a wealth of sea going experience to pass on. Some stories they told us were beyond belief, after work we would sit out on deck and listen to them swapping ‘salty sea yarns’, usually over quite a few cans of beer.
I will never forget the first view and smells of a foreign land and the excitement of arriving at my first port of call. As a seaman that feeling never leaves you especially on a long voyage such as crossing the Pacific which used to take us three weeks. The sight of land after such a long time at sea is a welcome sight.
We tied the ship up and I couldn’t wait to go ashore, my first steps onto a foreign land. The captain said we would only be there for a few hours so we could only go for a walk up the quayside. The smells and the sound of foreign voices was what struck me most as we walked along. There were stalls set up all along the quayside selling all kinds of trinkets and souvenirs. All the stallholders shouting in Spanish, trying to get you to buy their wares. I was in heaven! All the hard work, training and patience had paid off – I was a seaman. We left Las Palmas the next day and headed for Africa.
We arrived at night and again it was the sounds and smells of the place that struck me first. I’d never seen a black man before apart from the odd foreign seaman back in Hull. The quayside was a hive of activity. Hundreds of dock workers, most of them stripped to the waist and sweating profusely, moving cargo on barrows and wooden carts. What a strange new world for me, a young lad from Hessle Road. They looked at me strange as well, with my blonde hair and blue eyes.
We stayed there a few days loading and unloading cargo on the second night we were there some of the deckhands took me ashore with them and we went to this African village a couple of miles away.
We left Luanda and sailed a little further along the coast to a port called Lobito and by this time I’d got to know all the crew and we became good friends with most of them. Being ‘first trippers’ they looked after us and because we didn’t earn much money (£23 a month) and usually bought us a couple of beers when we went ashore.
I was only 16 but there was no such thing as licensing laws or under-age drinking in Africa! We arrived in Lobito and the first thing the deckhands did was go ashore at lunchtime and they came back with these large glass jars covered in a wickerwork basket called demijohns. They had about a gallon of really cheap red wine so you can tell what the next three days were like. No work and drunken seamen! We left Lobito a day or so later and made our way up the African coast towards South Africa.
The days slowly passed and it was approaching Christmas. It seemed strange to me having only even known cold and snow at Christmas, to be cruising along with blue skies and 40 degree heat. Christmas Day came and as a treat the captain had relented and let the crew have as much beer as they wanted.
It was getting near to meal time which on Christmas day was meant to be about 3pm. I went up to the galley expecting to see a huge turkey or chicken with all the trimmings, laid out ready to be picked up. As I approached the galley door there was as strange silence, whereas it was usually a hive of activity. I looked in the galley, it was clean and tidy and the oil stoves were not even lit! All there was, lying on the side table was a tray of cold meat and salad, hardly enough to feed fifteen hungry men and not a sign of a turkey, dead or alive. I thought ‘This is going to be fun!’ I grabbed the tray of meat and salad and took it down to the seaman’s mess and got hid.
There was uproar but before anyone realized the cook’s disappeared back into their cabin and locked the door. It was such a bizarre scene, there we were cruising along in brilliant sunshine and calm seas on a Christmas day off the African coast. The crew got their Christmas dinner in the end the chief steward and some of the other staff set to and cooked it so all’s well that ends well as they say but I will never forget my first Christmas day at sea!
As I said earlier I visited South Africa many times after this in my sea going career but have never really loved the place and you can see why. Like Cape Town, notices were displayed on the ship and quayside warning us to go ashore in groups and walk in well-lit areas, although there weren’t many of them in the area around the docks. During the day was fine and on our days off we went to the small local beach nearby to go swimming and chew the local delicacy called Biltong, which was like dried strips of beef, very tasty, better than a bag of crisps!
We sailed to Mauritius and stayed for about ten days and then set sail again. We headed back to South Africa to a place called East London. A smaller port then Cape Town and not so menacing. We stayed in East London until the repairs were completed and along came sailing day. We left early one morning and the first job as usually was to wash down the decks and clear the ship of debris. In this case it felt like washing away the bad memories of that place and I was glad to see the back it.
This was to be our final port except for a short stay at Las Palmas for bunkers. Homeward bound! My first trip was coming to an end. We got to Las Palmas a couple of days later and the usual traders came on board and set out their wares on deck.
The last leg of the journey was uneventful. As we approached British shores the weather turned cold and wet as usual and the seas grew rougher. I’d left England as a boy and come back as a man, although I was still only just 17.
We slowly made our way up the channel towards England and although it had only been a few months it felt strange to be back to the familiar sights and of course the familiar weather, grey skies and rain! We berthed in the main docks in the East End of London and after tying the ship up we all started to pack our kit bags and prepared for the journey home.
We all had to go up to the Captain’s cabin to collect our Discharge Books and of course our wages. I had been sending my mother money each week even though as a Deck Boy I only got about five pounds per week.
The money I had borrowed against my wages was also deducted and this left me with about thirty pounds to take home after nearly three and a half months work but I didn’t care I would have done the job for nothing. As far as I was concerned I was being paid for travelling around the world.
Some of the later ships I worked on were indeed large passenger vessels and these were far more civilized than my first trip on the Riebeeck Castle but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and as I mentioned earlier I learnt so much on that trip that stood me in good stead for the rest of my seagoing career.
We collected our money and were given a travel warrant to our home ports. We were also allowed a bottle of spirits and two hundred cigarettes to take home, of course I’d bought so many souvenirs and a canary I struggled to carry it all! There were several of us from Hull so they gave me a hand to carry everything. As usual they cracked a bottle of rum open to drink on the train and we all got merry on the long journey home, it took at least six hours from London in those days.
We arrived at Paragon Station in Hull and I caught a taxi home. Gillett Street looked even stranger than I remembered, it was dark by this time and the gas street lights were lit and the stars shining above. The house was empty and mother was out as usual at the local club. She came in a short while later as I was unpacking my kitbag. I gave her the canary and the other little gifts I’d brought, she cherished that bird and in the summer she used to hang its cage on a hook in the terrace and it used to sing its head off. I wasn’t home long before I was hankering to get back to sea again. Life in Hull seemed so dull after the exotic places I’d already seen. I bumped into some of my old mates and they seemed content with their lives working in the fish factories and sawmills, we just didn’t seem to have anything in common anymore and I began to wonder what to do next.