Monday, 23 April 2012

A Ship of My Own

In early December 1965 I completed five years of servitude as an apprentice fitter and turner at the local brewery.  I use the term servitude quite loosely here, since although there were times when I considered myself constrained under a form of feudal bondage, and the documentation that my father, as my legal guardian  signed with me five years earlier used such colourful expressions as "wilful disobedience of lawful commands of the employer, his managers, foremen and other servants having authority” and stressed the need to avoid being “slothful, negligent, dishonest or in any other way guilty of gross misbehaviour” under penalty of discharge of services; it was, even so, a great place for a young man to learn an engineering trade – and I look back very fondly on that period of my life.  
The work was hard, the study hours were long and played havoc on a young man’s social life, but the diversity of the work and the practical experience helped me in many ways over the years that followed.
I wasn’t always the favourite apprentice, particularly during my final year.  To be truthful, I was never the favourite in the eyes of one or two of the senior engineers.
I became involved in one or two union disputes that year, the result being that I was regarded by some as an impressionable young pinko who spent too much time listening to the workers for his own good.  In the early sixties with the war a fresh memory for anyone over 40, there was a solid cadre of fedora wearing, trade unionists whose role it was to take on the bosses on behalf of the working man.  These were the days of the real true believer and it was important to choose sides.  One either supported Bob Menzies and the Empire or listened attentively to shop stewards and organisers from the FED and the AEU with tales of John Curtin and Ben Chifley and the right of the working man to lay down his tools and walk off the job (usually straight to the pub) for higher pay and safer conditions.
Bill Stone was one of these men.  He was an engine driver and the local organiser for the Federated Engine Drivers' and Firemen's Association.   Bill was habitually well dressed in tailored short sleeved shirt, short trousers, tropical style long socks and was rarely seen without his grey felt narrow-brimmed hat.  Unlike most of the other engine drivers or firemen, I never saw Bill in a pair of overalls or a boiler-suit.  He was an articulate man who along with his co-workers maintained an engine room that was spotless and grease-free.  Ammonia compressors used for refrigeration; great horizontal piston machines with flywheels half as big again as any man;  chattering high speed vertical engines and a great English Electric diesel powered generator - all of them high gloss cream in colour such that with its green walls and polished red floors the whole area could have hosted a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Queensland Country Women's Association were it not for the noise of the engines and the occasional fugitive whiff of escaped ammonia.  
Bill epitomised the no-nonsense, plain-speaking labour supporter of the 1960s.  He was a loyal, hard-working man whose motivation in life was for nothing more than a university education for his children and a fair share of the fruits of his labours.  He went on to become the federal secretary of his organisation and was later awarded a well-deserved Order of Australia Medal for his services to trade unionism.  
There was a particular dispute toward the end of my final year which developed into a prolonged and at times bitter strike.  In accordance with the Terms of Indenture, the apprentices were not themselves permitted to stop work, but I was conspicuously sympathetic of my comrades and this did little for my standing with my employer.  The chief engineer, a red-faced Irish Australian, who was never my greatest fan, made it clear that it would be to our mutual benefit if I looked elsewhere for employment as soon as my five years was up.  
There was plenty of work for a qualified man in those days and it didn’t concern me at all that I might soon be unemployed.  Tradesmen earned a respectable income in those days – at least twenty pounds for a 40 hour week plus overtime and there was always plenty of overtime.
As things turned out, there was no need to fire me because shortly before my last day as an apprentice, a family friend who was an executive at the local port authority, asked my father if young Michael was interested in a career in the Merchant Navy.  There was a British ship in port short a couple of hands, and if I was interested there was a job as an engineers’ assistant, with the option of promotion to engineer should a position became available.  
This was the chance I had long been waiting for and within a few days of finishing my apprenticeship at the brewery, I left the company for ever and signed up as a crew member on the MV Baron Jedburgh as its most junior of junior assistants. My official position was donkey-greaser and my job was to assist the ship’s engineering officers as their offsider and general gopher.
The ship was registered in Scotland in the west coast port of Ardrossan.  She was just under 12,000 tons, built in South Shields in 1958.  She was one of a fleet of cargo tramp ships owned and operated by H. Hogarth of Glasgow, known to all in the merchant service (as I was to later discover) as  Hungry Hogarths.
The ship’s captain was a disagreeable and obese man, who smoked oval-shaped Passing Cloud cigarettes that looked as if he had been sitting on them. The whole time I was on the Baron Jedburgh he spoke to me twice; the day I joined and the day I left, and I believe the only words he uttered to me on both occasions were, “Sign here.”
I had a tiny cabin in the fo’c’sle where the crew were separated from the officers, and was taken under the wing of a big fellow donkeyman named Dave Davies, who may have had Welsh ancestry but was a Londoner through and through.  He was a generous, down to earth fellow, who used to wake me every morning with “Come on then, rise and shine, you’re not on your Daddy’s yacht now, y’know!” 
There were three donkey-greasers including Dave, all of whom were watch-keepers.  Dave shared the 4 to 8 with the second engineer. Yorky  had the 8 to 12 and Paddy the 12 to 4 which is always the third engineer’s watch.  I was a day worker – 7.30 to 5 o’clock with half an hour for lunch.
We shared the Greasers’ Mess, a little room just across from the galley where we would eat our meals and meet for smoko during the day.  This was where I learned to put condensed milk in my tea, because it's not easy to find fresh milk at sea and long-life milk was still at least five years away.  The additional advantage of condensed milk of course was that it obviated the need for putting sugar in your tea.  Fortunately, I am well and truly over this disgusting habit!
There were seven engineers on board – all of them Glaswegian.  In charge was the Chief Engineer, who didn’t keep a watch and who seemed to spend most of his time in his cabin.  I don’t think we exchanged more than a handful of words the whole time I was on the ship.  
The second engineer was a portly middle-aged fellow, who had been in the merchant service since the war.  Always shirtless when he was working, this genial man knew everything that I was ever going to need to know about marine engineering.  The third engineer was a sharp-tongued, sandy-headed former Clyde-side ship builder called Gordon, whose most frequent expression seemed to be “och awa' 'n' keek”.  When I became an engineer myself later in the voyage, I spent all my watch-keeping with Gordon on the 12 to 4 and I grew to like his company.  The fourth engineer was another tough-talking Glaswegian. Always the first to lead the singing after a few bevvies, he would start with “I’m no awa’ tae bide awa’” followed by a host of other ditties most of which were completely incomprehensible, but oddly enjoyable.
There were three junior engineers, one of whom unfortunately suffered from delirium tremens.  He frequently could be heard wailing at his demons in the confines of his quarters after a long night of excess. When he was sober, Eddie was a most capable and amusing engineer.  It's a shame he was rarely sober when off-duty.  It was Eddie who told me stories about the Amazon River and Booth Line which is another exciting part of my life and which I am looking forward to sharing through these pages.
The ship also had an electrical engineer – a mean-spirited, sharp little man, who never seemed to have a nice word for anyone, and who seemed for some reason to be very resentful of my position on the ship.
The ship was powered by a Doxford diesel engine.  I won’t bore anyone with the technical details.  It was big, slow moving and noisy in comparison to some engines I was to work with over the next few years, but  it was reliable and relatively easy to maintain.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself.  The ship had been in Cairns discharging fertiliser from Newcastle (the one in NSW) and was preparing to go back there for another consignment to bring north, this time with a cargo of bulk sugar for the Pyrmont refinery in Sydney.  
It was quite an event for me that late afternoon a few days before Christmas, as the hawsers were released and the vessel eased its way from the wharf, into Smith’s Creek, to Trinity Inlet and out into the Coral Sea.  I had little idea this was the last time I would refer to Cairns as home.  Of course, it would always be my home town – it still is, but it was no longer my home – and would never be again.
After 25 years of marriage, my parents had separated a few months earlier and my mother was living in another town with the new man in her life.  My dad, and my brother and sister were there to wave goodbye as well as my two best friends, Mal Cleland and Ian Fraser.  I would catch up with them a few weeks later in Sydney.
I enjoyed my first taste of ship board life and the trip south seems to have been uneventful.  I have been most fortunate that I have never suffered from sea sickness – obviously a blessing; but I came to know many skilled and experienced sailors over the years, who put up with it throughout their lives at sea.
I was a smoker in those days, and the opportunity of being able to purchase cheap duty-free fags for what was the equivalent of about ten cents a packet was a luxury.  The ship had already been away from its home port for several months and there had been several instances during this time of drunkenness and misbehaviour.  As a result the skipper had imposed a ration of two cans of beer per day for each man which were opened by the chief steward as he handed them out.   
The deck crew were an interesting lot.  Gnarled Highland fishermen speaking in a language that seemed so far from anything I had heard before that it might have been Russian; working alongside them, tattooed hard-faced lads from the Clyde-side streets of Govan and the Gorbals; and from south of the border, a sprinkling of Geordies saying, “ye knaa what ah mean, leik”.
 Another of the ABs, a Liverpudlian known only and obviously as Scouse arrived back on board in handcuffs about an hour before we sailed.  He had jumped ship on a previous voyage, and so to make sure he didn’t do it again, the immigration folk took him off to the local watch-house each time we entered an Australian port.  He would remain there until we departed and was always so cheerful and happy to be back on board with his shipmates that I could never help wondering why it was that he had absconded in the first place.  The bosun was a huge Yorkshireman with arms like a blacksmith. He had no patience with work-shy skivers and was not afraid to use the back of his hand against a recalcitrant slacker. Even the hard boys from the Gorbals kept out of his way.  The bosun and big Dave were good mates and had shipped out together before.
It took a good deal longer to load and unload a ship in 1965 than it does today.  The ship had loaded bulk sugar in Cairns, which was headed to Sydney and the CSR refinery at Pyrmont.  Large clamshell grab claws attached to the derricks were used to unload the vessel by picking up the bulk cargo and transferring it to trucks waiting alongside on the quay.  We were frequently in port for a week or more while this process of loading and unloading took place.  
I don’t remember whether we spent Christmas in Sydney or at sea.  If it was memorable, it clearly wasn’t to me.  The ship had been in Sydney for a few days, when Mal, Ian and another former school-mate, Neville arrived in town, having driven the two thousand kilometres from Cairns.  I was able to get some leave and would re-join the ship in Newcastle a few days later, where it was due to load more fertiliser for the return trip north.  
We shared a couple of motel rooms somewhere near the centre of the city and the four of us found ourselves in Kings Cross on New Year’s Eve with every intention of having the sort of New Year that would do any four 20-year-olds from the far north proud.
It was an eventful evening.  At some point during the night, in the small hours, two of our party seem to have misheard a police direction or more likely perhaps, found themselves between the police and some other miscreants.  Whatever happened, along with several exuberant rabble-rousers they were bundled into a paddy-wagon and carted away to the lock-up.  Not unusually, there was some alcohol-fuelled crowd trouble at the Cross that New Year. Well-lubricated revellers were everywhere.  A group of idiots near us were climbing on parked cars and some were trying to overturn them.  There was a lot of shouting and pushing and probably some fighting. Somehow Ian and Nev found themselves caught up in the action and before they knew it, they were on their way to the lock-up.  
Mal was a 20 year old article clerk with a small firm of Cairns solicitors and was full of the self-assurance and confidence which would in later years stand him in such good stead in his career.  That night, emboldened as he was by youth and alcohol, he said, "leave this to me" and strode off to Darlinghurst Police Station, where he presented himself to the desk sergeant saying, “I’m Mr Fraser and Mr Fry’s lawyer and I insist on seeing my clients.”  It had been a long night for the boys in blue at Darlo nick and the big copper on the desk wasn’t taking any crap from a snivelling youth like Mal. He responded with a quick, “Piss off young fellow, or you’ll finish up with them, OK?”  
Always a pragmatist, Mal immediately saw the logic of this argument, and letting discretion take over from his poorly timed sense of loyalty, he made himself scarce.  We turned up the next morning and Nev and Ian were let out with nothing more than a sore head and a warning not to come back.  
The next day, I returned to Baron Jedburgh by train and not long after we left again for North Queensland where we loaded a cargo of sugar for Japan.
So it was that sometime in that January of 1966, while Harold Holt was taking over from Bob Menzies as the Australian Prime Minister, I made my first trip as an adult to a foreign destination.  People do it all the time now, but in the summer of 1966, it was an accomplishment about which a Cairns boy could feel well pleased.
Our first port was Osaka, a contrast indeed from a hot northern Australian summer to a cold wintry Japan.
I made my first trip ashore with big Dave and like most sailors probably since the days of the Phoenicians, we headed for the nearest watering hole.  A few weeks earlier, I had moved my living quarters from the fo’c’sle to the ‘midships officers’ accommodation following a promotion to junior engineer after one of the other engineers had been hospitalised with appendicitis.  I was the most junior of Junior Engineers sharing the watch with big Gordon on the 12 to 4.  All the same, I continued to have a good friendship with big Dave, and it was with him and the other greasers that I spent a lot of time on my while on shore leave – certainly in Japan at least.  
What an eye-opener it was for a boy from a small country town in North Queensland to arrive in Japan in 1966.  Osaka was a bustling, busy city with bright lights, bars and lots of distractions for young lads.
We were in Osaka and later Kobe an hours’ sailing across the bay for at least two weeks. I loved the excitement and the culture of this busy industrialised area with its rich food and strange smells and customs.  It was here that I first experienced the pleasures of sushi and dumplings made with octopus.  
One of the issues with alcohol rationing on board ship is that when the ship is in port many of the crew make up for their enforced abstinence in the worst possible way.  This was a serious problem on Baron Jedburgh.  We sailed from Osaka to Kobe with many of our crew missing, having decided that the attraction of the bright lights and the bars were much more appealing than putting up with fat Archie and his Passing Clouds and his bullying bosun.
From Kobe we sailed to Yokohama, still missing many of our deck crew.  We later learned that the truants found their way to the shipping agent’s office not long after the ship left Kobe where they were all provided with rail warrants (at their expense) to our next port of call.  In this case they were all put on the Tokaido Shinkansen express train to Tokyo with just one stop, at the inland city of Kyoto.  Needless to say, they all disembarked at Kyoto, headed for the nearest bar, and subsequently missed the train’s departure for Tokyo – a unique case of desertion from a train. Although on reflection it probably wasn’t unique – I am sure it frequently happened whenever a gathering of seamen such as this lot, were left unescorted to find their way back to their vessel. 
I thought Japan was a wonderful place, and although I have been back many times since, I will never forget my first breath-taking experience of the Ginza in Tokyo – it was a long way from Kings Cross!

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