MAHSEER. The Good Red Wine of France

John Leary
14th February 2008, 19:13
When I joined Mahseer in September 1963 in Newcastle for my first trip to sea as a Junior Radio Officer I did not travel light. Even today when going on holiday, loaded down with far more than I need, it is nothing compared with how it was when I first went to sea. When I joined Mahseer my belongings included a twelve months correspondence course in radio communications, an Eddystone receiver, all my college notes and coursework (in case they came in handy), an AVO test meter, my cash ready reckoner for calculating the cost of telegrams, a slide rule, an electric travelling iron and clothes for every conceivable weather condition. These indispensable items were all carefully packed into a couple of suitcases and a large blue cabin trunk that had brass fittings and leather corner guards. That monstrosity weighed a ton when it was empty but I was assured by the guy who sold it to me that it was a must have accessory for any self-respecting Merchant Navy Officer. OK I admit that there is one born every minute, but there was no one with sea-going experience that I could turn to for advice.

Having been appointed by Brocklebank’s, when I received my joining instructions to board in Newcastle, in order to arrive at the appointed time I travelled from my home the day before and stayed overnight in the Missions to Seamen hostel. After breakfast, I ordered a taxi to take me to the dock. Dressed as I was in my brand new uniform I was ready to set out for the then greatest adventure of my life.

As far as I can remember the taxi driver who took me to the ship was permitted by the dock police to take me as far as the gangway, where I was deposited and left to my own devices. I can still remember the taste of panic at the back of my throat as I stood there wondering what to do next, transfixed like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. The ship looked enormous with her towering superstructure that seemed to go on forever.

Salvation came in the shape of a tall, dark haired young man about my age, who had a kind, smiling face and who possessed a wonderfully soft Irish accent. Within seconds he summoned out of nowhere a luggage party made up of members of the Indian deck crew and had them show me to my cabin. Ranks and grades in the Merchant Navy meant absolutely nothing to me at that moment in time but when I met him later he told me he was the third mate.

The crew carried my luggage and escorted me to my cabin. This was small and narrow, but had everything I needed.

When she finished loading in Newcastle, Mahseer set sail for Antwerp, Rotterdam and Bremen before she returned to London to finish her loading at the Victoria Dock. We set sail for Colombo in October 1963.

I grew to know the third Mate, Jerry (Maloney?) very well over the time we sailed together. We often used to talk on the bridge wing when my watch keeping duties and his permitted. He took enormous trouble to explain things to me and never became impatient when I was slow to grasp the point he was making. We collaborated when he generated meteorological reports that I used to send to the Area coast stations as OBS messages.

Mahseer continued her outbound passage, transiting the Suez Canal and calling at the usual ports of Jeddah, Massawa and Assab. None of these offered much in the way of shops for the purchase of souvenirs so Jerry suggested that it might be possible to get something useful at Djibouti. In fact he volunteered to go with me no doubt to prevent me getting into trouble or lost or both. I think he managed to get a lift for us both into the town with one of the ship’s agents.

Djibouti, after places such as Massawa and Assab seemed like a Cosmopolitan oasis. The centre of the town had a wide boulevard lined with palm trees and on each side of the road there were a number of shops and bars. The hours of opening of the shops was limited but there was sufficient time after we arrived to browse around and to make some purchases in a small perfumery.

As the temperature increased our thoughts naturally turned to where we could find somewhere pleasant to relax and have a cold drink before we returned to the ship. One bar in particular looked inviting and we did not need much encouragement to go inside and sit down.

The bar was clean and comfortable and we chose a table that was directly beneath one of the large ceiling mounted fans so that we would benefit from its cooling downdraft.

After our first beer, which hardly touched the sides, we ordered refills and with glasses refreshed started to take more notice of the other patrons. Besides Jerry, myself and the barman there were probably no more than four or five other drinkers. All were in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion. After a few curious but not unfriendly glances on their part they continued with their drinking, smoking and card game.

Just as we were about to drain our glasses and return to the ship, one of the Legionnaires detached himself from his group and came over to our table. He was in his mid-forties, very tall, barrel chested with what must have been a size twenty neck. His hair, which had been shaved close to his head, was fair but flecked with grey. His uniform was immaculate and his boots shone like mirrors. He had three stripes on his arm so I took this to mean that he had the rank of Sergeant.

As he stood over us he looked enormous. I thought for a moment that my seagoing career was going to be a very short one but apart from his size there was nothing threatening or intimidating in his manner. He greeted us in German but apart from friendly smiles back and a few words of greeting from Jerry (no pun intended) in German, that was it. We were not making headway at all. Instead of walking away with a shake of his head, he persisted and repeated his greeting in French. Here he struck gold because unlike myself who only had a smattering of a few words at my command, Jerry’s French was very good.

Our newfound friend’s name was Hans and when we shook hands mine disappeared into his with space to spare. He had a strong grip but again there was no animosity only warmth in the greeting. He personified every mental picture I had ever had about a soldier in the French Foreign Legion.

He sat down at our table and ordered a bottle of red wine and three glasses. The waiter also bought us a large bowl of peanuts that had been shelled but were still “au natural”.

At this stage in the story I have to explain that when I first went to sea I had never been a regular wine drinker. My father was a beer drinker and it was rare to have alcohol in the house. We had more than a few bottles of the bubbly stuff when my sister got married but generally that was it. I could distinguish between white and red but could not at that time tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. That was to come later! The other point to make is that when the first glasses were poured it had been quite some while since I had eaten so the red wine and the peanuts were basically on their own when they entered my stomach.

Over the next hour or so I lost count of the number of bottles we consumed. What I do remember is that every time a bottle of wine appeared so did a bowl of peanuts. We all got on famously. Hans told us that as a young man he had been in the Africa Corps and had fought in North Africa. He had been captured by the British and had been treated very well as a prisoner of war. After the war when he returned to Germany, life for him in Civvy Street had been very dull and in order to stay in the military and find new adventure he had joined the French Foreign Legion. He was very interested in our life at sea, our respective jobs and how we lived at home. His friends didn’t seem to mind his absence but occasionally shouted some remark to him that only produced a wry smile on his part.

Eventually and with some regret we had to say farewell and adieu. Hans called us a taxi to take us back to the ship. Unfortunately for him, Jerry had to go on duty the moment we climbed back on board.

There is a recognisable medical condition known to many seafarers who have found themselves in a similar position to the one that I was in which I later came to know as twenty-four hour flue. It strikes after shore visits to foreign restaurants or bars and attacks those whose only purpose has been to maintain their hydration levels.

The symptoms are tiredness, dizziness, slurred speech and often nausea. After a few hours rest in a darkened room, secondary symptoms can be headaches, dry mouth and a loss of appetite. All of these symptoms I experienced in a severe form over the next twelve hours. Jerry was lucky because what ever caused my condition seemed to pass him by. Fortunately after we left Djibouti and made our way to Aden the condition cleared and it wasn’t long before I returned to full health.

After that whenever Jerry and I were off duty and having a few beers, the toast was always “The good red wine of France”.

During my second voyage on Mahseer in 1964 Jerry was working with some chemical drums on the deck when one exploded in his face. He was taken ashore to hospital for treatment and did not return to the ship. I understand that the treatment he received was satisfactory. However I was told that he was concerned about any long-term effects that the accident might have on his eyesight and its impact on his career at sea.
There my story ends. I sincerely hope that Jerry was successful in whatever career he followed. I have always appreciated his friendship and his help. Over the years since, when I have thought of him and that trip ashore to Djibouti, if I have had a glass of something in my hand, the toast has always been - “The good red wine of France”.

14th February 2008, 20:39

A wonderful story about one of the abominable Red Sea ports we used to visit! I was on the Mahseer the trip before you, also as a first trip Chota Marconi Sahib - Harry Jefferson must have had the patience of a saint to put up with me. We'd gone ashore for a drink in Assab, or was it Massawa and the Roof Top Gardens, or ...... not so sure after all this time. Anyway, we were sitting minding our own business when a very large and very black "lady" propositioned Harry with a chat up line something like: "Hey Johnny, you want to make babies with me?" in a voice that was somewhere below subterranean. Harry, completely straight-faced, responded with a statement that she wouldn't want to go with him 'cos he had the pox. Completely unfazed, the aforementioned "lady" delved into the cleavage between her ample bosoms and, after some rummaging around, removed a very large iron door key. Then, taking Harry by the hand, she tried to drag him away to an adjacent door saying "That's OK Johnny, I got it too!" At this point we both fell about laughing and the lady departed in the huff.

Happy days indeed,


Tony Sprigings
15th February 2008, 14:11
I also enjoyed your story and consider that with your ability to 'paint the picture' you should give thought to writing your complete memoirs.
With the modern aids at your disposal it is much easier than it used to be.

Bruce Carson
15th February 2008, 14:17
John--thanks, a wonderful tale.

It's members like you, who take the time to add their reminiscences to SN, that really help make this site worthwhile.


John Leary
19th February 2008, 11:20
Hi Guys
I'm glad that you enjoyed the story. I'm not sure about writing my memoirs as I thought that was the perogative of 21 year old footballers! However I do like writing stories for my grandchildren but so far have resisted weaving any Brocklebank tales into them.
Best regards

Tony Selman
21st February 2008, 11:39
An excellent and most enjoyable story John. I did the exact same run on my first trip on Matra. My first real run ashore in a non European port was indeed to the aforementioned Roof Top Gardens in Massawa. I had been wound up to believe that the females to be found there were genuine "Ethiopian Princesses" and that I should treat them with respect because they were nice girls but had fallen on hard times because of political problems. Having fallen for the standard first tripper winds ups coming through the Canal I was somewhat sceptical but there might indeed be some merit in the story so I went ashore on my best behaviour. Something of an eye opener would probably be the best way of describing it! There were indeed several rather attractive ladies but their behaviour was anything but regal and the end result can best be described as broadening my mind and part of life's learning process.

Whilst Massawa was no great shakes it was better than Assab. Now this place is cheap compared to Massawa my informant told me and if you are so inclined one of the local ladies can be procured for 4 bars of Brocklebank soap. All on here will remember that it was virtually impossible to raise a lather with company soap and most us spoiled ourselves by splashing out on bourgeois products like Lux, so it was no problem to rustle up a few bars. I am told that the story was indeed true but cannot, obviously, speak from personal experience.

I didn't ever go ashore in Djibouti in the three times I went there and can't really remember why. From a distance it always seemed a slightly more civilised place than some of the other Red Sea ports - quite possibly saving money for Aden which would have been the next port.

Looking back on it I am sure none of us will put any of the Red Sea ports in our top 20 (or even 50 or 100 if you went to that many) but those ports may well have taught a few first trippers a few things about life away from home. [=P]

John Leary
21st February 2008, 19:37
Hi Tony
Nice to hear from you again. I guess being young and innocent in the 60's was an advantage when going to the Red Sea ports because at least initially you did not know what to expect and it was all part of the great adventure. The smell of each port was different from anything I had previously experienced or imagined and I do not mean that in an unpleasant way.
Even if the ports left something to be desired the compensation was always the companions from the ship who seemed always ready to have a good time ashore.
I always evied the crews of ships that went to the Far East and Australia because it was always an ambition of mine to see that part of the World.
By the time I was able to travel East and visit Australia and New Zealand I had retired and the World had changed.
Perhaps one day I will manage that promised trip to Japan.

John Ringrose
29th May 2008, 15:36
I did my first trip with Cunard on the Mahseer. I was given all the rubbish of new fleet of ships etc and after Blueys I thought I should like a newish ship. Flew out to Tampa. Local boat man was taking me out - two boats in the anchorage. I pointed to one smart new vessel and said "is that the Mahseer?" - he said "Hell no bud - that's the Mahseer" - pointing to the then rust bucket over the other side of the harbour.

Trip of crew unrest - HR Captain flew to Capetown to sort it out - sank in Kidepore docks & flooded engine room. Carrying Barite which made us bob around like a cork. Went up to Bavnagar couldn't go through the locks 6" too wide (someone didn't do their homework) anchored in the river with all the labour living on the decks - ran out of water & issued with beer!!- Chief had to use salt water - went back to Bombay to get it washed out. Leckie was a thief who kept nicking things out of the cabins and tried to blame the crew.

Great 2/0 Mo Samant and 3/0 Rumi Musafer - would love to find out what happened to them

Bloody good trip all round.

30th May 2008, 20:43

Mahseer was my first ship in '55 and I'm sure that many members will be interested to learn more about that terrible trip. What year was it and how did she manage to sink in Kidderpore docks? I presume it was very near to the end of her career. You've got me wanting more details and I'd be really grateful for any info.


30th May 2008, 23:14

Mahseer was my first ship in '55 and I'm sure that many members will be interested to learn more about that terrible trip. What year was it and how did she manage to sink in Kidderpore docks? I presume it was very near to the end of her career. You've got me wanting more details and I'd be really grateful for any info.


Peter, we did sail together on at least one Brocklebank ship in the late fifties when I was a Deck Apprentice. Cannot remember which ships though!
Tony Greenwood

John Ringrose
3rd June 2008, 16:26

Well to be honest like always with the old'uns it wasn't such a bad trip - in real terms.

As you say it was getting towrds the end of her life and I think she only did one more trip after that, no one wanted to sail on her.

The old man was taken from Port Line and that didn't go down to well. The way he worked was very strange and he couldn't make a decision to save his life. Original 2/0 was Port Line but a decent guy - he left and new 2/0 and 3/0were from India/Sri Lanka (Great guys) The engineers were made up of has beens or never was's or naughty boys or youngsters who knew no better. The 3/Eng was a muck stirrer - Probably well known Ken Sanderson - I don't think the Chief was a Brocks man either - engines were knackered - Radio Room gear was knackered. Every time you pressed the key on the HF set the lights in the engine room went up & down - found it in the end!!.

Purser Larry was good skin & 2nd purser Zak - Zak kept losing all his pay to Larry & the 2/E in serious card games. The Leckie - although OK with me - an old Brock hand and mentioned on these sites in a different frame - also muck raked and the 3/0 proved him to be the thief after a long spate of things going missing. Why he did it - who knows - no reason for it and no-one challenged him with it either once we found out. We just locked everything up. His name is given in a good light elsewhere

Continual fallout between old man and chief & in general engrs & everyone. As R/O I was piggy in the middle. Old man called the office - of course in those days the telegrams were confidential but who cares now. He wanted rid of the whole of the Engrs basically to be removed. A Captain Russell flew out to Cape Town - the old man thought he had won but in fact no-one was fired. Russell pointed out that it would be easier to replace the old man than a full crew of engineers. Russell got off in Durban.

We had cargo for Bavnagar and as we went in it was realised we couldn't - too wide so we went in to the fast flowing river were it took us god knows how long to discharge with loads of locals living on board. No water bathing in the monsoon rains & at one time cleaning teeth in beer - becomes boring in the end. Me & the mate were so bored at one stage - we used to have one of the labourers keep looking in the radio room port every day - same time. We wired the Megga up to it and when he put his head through we wound it up. Hell did his head bounce up & down in the port hole. Terrible to think on it now but at the time hell did we laugh.

Barges kept breaking loose in the river and floating away with screaming ab dabs on them. In order to get to do anything boilers had to have salt water in them so got to Bombay and there for ages getting washed out.

To be honest I can only remember something fracturing in the engine room and water pouring in. She didn't actually sink but sat on the bottom for a while with loads of water in the engine room.

We had a good long time in Cal though and had some fun, as you do. In the end though no-one was in the bar the friction was so great. It all ended up cabin drinking.

We were -as was the way with Brocks supposed to be going back to the States but after all problems we went back to UK. Was supposed to dock in Avonmouth but then diverted at the last minute for Newport - my missus drove to Avonmouth only to be told we were across the river.

Sure there is loads more but that is the gist.