Friday, 9 January 2015

A New Shipmate

It’s over two years since last I wrote about those splendid days in the mid 1970s when I started sharing my life with the lady who has been my wife and best friend for over 40 years now.
Before then, I had been a ship’s engineer for several years, wandering the world under British, Australian, Panamanian and Danish flags on tankers, cargo tramps, passenger liners and livestock carriers and living that vagrant gypsy life so powerfully described by John Masefield over a hundred years ago in his Salt-Water Poems and Ballads.
This all changed forever in February 1974 when Pauline began sharing my berth and we slipped our moorings late in the evening from a wintry Liverpool and headed south on the good ship Lindinger Coral into the Irish Sea with our holds full of refined lubricating oil and filtration sand bound for Oran, Algiers and Annaba.  
I wrote about the lead up to these events in my earlier postings, “The Supernumerary – 1974” and “…so back to England – 1973” which I hope if you haven’t done so already, you will take a moment to read.

Lindinger Coral was identical in almost every way to Lindinger Amber and since she was on an identical charter, there was nothing new for me to learn during this voyage.  Nothing that is, except for the fact that I had a cabin mate - and a very seasick one at that.  What I thought had started as not much more than the self-induced after-effects of too much farewell sociability following a midnight departure from Liverpool was rapidly becoming a serious illness three days into our trip as we approached Cape Finisterre on the south side of the Bay of Biscay.  It had been an awful couple of days.  The Bay can be rough any time of year, but in February it can be particularly cruel, and this trip was no exception.  We had a Greek skipper, Minas whose Danish wife, Inge was sailing with him, thus providing the only other female on board.  Apart from a few terrifying stumbles across the passageway to what had already become the female WC, Pauline had not ventured from our cabin - and the time had come for matters to be brought to a head (pun intended).
We were heading south, the coast of Spain on our port side, the air was brisk and sharp, and we were making fair progress into a no-nonsense southerly. With the help of Inge, I was able to coax Pauline from her bunk, into some fresh clothes and out on deck where I found her a comfortable camp stretcher and a warm blanket and left her with instructions to look at the clouds and the sky and not necessarily at the horizon - which was frequently anything but horizontal.  To my delight and amazement, the strategy worked and for the next few days as we continued our way along the Portuguese coastline before turning left through the Strait of Gibraltar into the calmer waters of the Mediterranean, Pauline could be found from early in the morning until late in the afternoon working her way through Dennis Wheatley's complete Roger Brook series, pausing only for the occasional cucumber and lettuce sandwich (she wasn't quite ready for rollmops or frikkadellar).
If I'm completely honest, (and I say this with all due deference to readers from that part of the world) Algeria would probably not have been my first choice as a destination aimed at introducing a new voyager to the romance of foreign travel. Then again, a Danish coastal freighter was not exactly everyone's idea of an ocean cruise ship either. Still, I had asked Pauline to "Come Fly with Me" and while our first port of call, Oran wasn't Llama Land or Acapulco Bay, it was dry land and we enjoyed an hour ashore on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold and wet beginning to our life together at sea. Our stay was very short and within only a few hours we were back at sea for the short trip along the North African coastline to our main destination of Algiers.
Ah, Algiers.  On my previous visit here on Lindinger Amber, our crew had watched the delightful 1938 film Algiers with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Today, seventy five years after it was made, this extraordinary movie epitomises the mystery and excitement of this part of the world. The film is in the Public Domain and available on The Internet Archive. It is well worth watching.  But finish reading this story first - please!
Algiers was then, and undoubtedly still is, a busy bustling metropolis characterised by its many white buildings and ceaseless crawling traffic.  It was only a little more than a decade since the country had achieved bloody independence from France and in 1974 it was a one-party Arab Socialist country, unaligned and barely tolerant of visitors.  So we didn't visit the Casbah and the haunts of Pepe le Moko with its "drifters and outcasts from all parts of the world", but we did our share of shopping and sight-seeing during our five day stay and we did find a couple of great French restaurants which provided a welcome change from red cabbage and pork.
After a brief visit further down the coast to Annaba, it wasn't long before we were on our way north again - "light ship", on our way home to Liverpool for another cargo of refined oil.  
The round voyage to North Africa and back was little more than a four or five week tour and we were expecting to make another three or four similar trips before my six months' assignment was complete and I would be eligible for leave.  So it came as something of a surprise to me on reaching Liverpool, to be asked to transfer to another ship in the fleet.  It seems that the First Engineer on the Lindinger Hyacinth was due to be relieved after having been with the ship since its fitout and launch the previous year.  His relief had been taken ill and was unable to join and an urgent replacement was needed.  The problem was that the ship was en route from Antwerp to a small port on the west coast of Ireland where it was due to arrive within the next 24 hours and someone was needed immediately.  The ship was on the way to Ireland to load additional cargo for Newport News in Virginia before commencing a 12 month charter travelling between ports of the US and the Caribbean.  The question asked of me was whether I was willing to transfer to the Hyacinth immediately.  So here were my options - three or four more trips travelling between Liverpool and Algeria, or three months in the Caribbean.  Hmm, that was a difficult choice!  A nano-second later, and before anyone could change their mind, our bags were packed and we were down the gangway and on our way to East Midlands Airport (via a brief stop in Nottingham where Pauline collected a few summer clothes) for the flight to Dublin.
Lindinger Hyacinth was due to arrive at the port of Fenit, a small village in County Kerry, about ten kilometres west of Tralee and not far short of the furthest distance it was possible to drive from Dublin Airport and still be on dry land - or at least it seemed that way.  The flight took just over an hour, and it was a chilly but clear spring morning as we wheeled our bags out of the airport terminal in search of a taxicab.  Thinking we were tourists, an obliging driver picked up our bags and began loading them into the back of his cab, saying in a melodic accent, "welcome to Dublin, and where will you be goin' today?
I'm told him we were joining a ship in Fenit, at which point he pushed his hat back, scratched his head and said, "well now, I'm not familiar with that place, is it near Dublin Port?"
"No", I said, "it's on the west coast near Tralee."
He rolled his eyes, tugged at his ear and said, "Well I'll have to charge you extra for that - and I need to go home and get a map and tell the missus I won't be home for lunch."
We agreed a fare of fifty pounds which included his return fee back to Dublin and we were on our way.  Today the trip from Dublin to the that part of the west coast can be done in a little over three hours thanks to the network of motorways, but in 1974 such infrastructure was non-existent.  The journey took over six hours, through lovely green Irish countryside, and across rolling marsh land. Our driver clearly felt he had to drive us along the narrowest roads he could find.   We had a couple of comfort stops along the way, one of which was at an isolated pub for lunch where our driver proved to us that an Irishman's capacity for eating large quantities of potatoes at one sitting was not just a myth.
We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon.  I paid off the driver and as he was preparing to drive away, a large man with a huge red beard came running down the steep gangway, kitbag over his shoulder and red hair flying.  "Hold the taxi," he said, "I need to get to Dublin Airport!"
And that is where we did our official handover.  Standing there at the foot of the gangway, our cabdriver thinking all of his Christmases had come at once as he contemplated the thought of a return fare to Dublin and another fifty pounds, with my predecessor saying to me, "Sorry, I don't have time to show you around. I have to catch a late flight to Copenhagen or I must wait two more days.  The steering gear hydraulics need new seals, number two generator needs fuel injectors cleaning and bunker fuel barge is coming alongside in about two hours.  Have a good trip.  Hello, Mrs Williamson, pleased to meet you.  Goodbye."   And with that he was gone.
Fortunately, Hyacinth was identical in almost every way to Amber and Coral and she had few if any nasty surprises for me, although I had reason a few days later to remember the comment about the steering gear seals.  So we went on board, introduced ourselves to the skipper - another red-bearded Viking named Karl and settled into our quarters.  I left Pauline to look after the unpacking and got on with the job of preparing for departure and taking on board the fuel we would need for our North Atlantic crossing - a journey of ten days - or so we thought.  
To be continued...

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