Christmas at Sea

John Leary
14th January 2009, 20:36
Although this story is no longer seasonal, the recent Christmas holidays got me thinking about past Christmases which led me on to think about those Christmas days I had spent at sea. Sadly this story will disappoint the young at heart who might have been looking for a tale about well filled stockings, a white Christmas or even visits from Santa and his elves. Instead it revolves around one of the most important items of concern to your average seafarer, namely food.

During my short career as a radio officer, I was fortunate to spend two Christmases at sea. The first was spent on the Mahseer during my first deep sea voyage and the second time was on the Magdapur.

On the Mahseer, Christmas fell when we were on our outward passage to Colombo. Having left our last port, the radio department had settled into the routine of radio watches and routine maintenance. Late in the morning of Christmas day, when I was on watch alone in the radio room I was relieved by the Chief R/O, Harry Jefferson who told me to sign off and get below for the Christmas lunch drink in the bar.

Not needing any further prompting to join in the festivities, I was away and heading down to the accommodation deck via the internal staircase, two steps at a time. The cartoon character “Road Runner” could not have travelled the distance in less time!

A tradition of Brocklebanks was to provide its officers with a free bar prior to Christmas lunch. For the juniors this meant that heaven’s gates opened from 12 to 1230. The only constraint put on how much we consumed was that we were at sea and expected to do our jobs. The Chief Steward who presided over the bar and dispensed the Christmas cheer never sought to constrain our choice or limit the amount we drank.

Needless to say when the dinner gong sounded at 1230 those of us who were still interested in food and who sat down in the dining saloon were very well lubricated and were in great spirits, ready to do justice to whatever came our way. We knew what lunch had to offer because a copy of the menu had been posted earlier in the morning on the notice board that was located close to the aforementioned staircase.

If I remember correctly most of us juniors on the table were first trippers. Each of us had made an effort in terms of whites and we looked immaculate. Shirts were stiff with starch and all our shorts had creases in the right places. The ships Dhobi Walla had done us proud with our laundry and we were still sufficiently early into the voyage for most of our whites to have avoided the rust stains that were his hall mark.

I distinctly remember that apart from me, our table was occupied by the fifth engineer who came from Sunderland and the second electrician who hailed from Bury in Lancashire. I cannot now remember if the second steward and third mate joined us or not.

The dining saloon in Mahseer was quite large, accommodating four tables and the usual serving sideboards. During our meal only the first two tables on the starboard side of the saloon were occupied. The table to our immediate left was the preserve of the senior officers whilst the one furthest from where we sat was used solely by the Master, Chief Engineer, Mate and second engineer.

During the first sitting the dining saloon also hosted the navigating and engine room cadets who unusually were all together at the same time. They sat at their own table next to where we were seated. Sadly I never kept the menu but I seem to remember there were several starters including grapefruit segments in an alcohol laced syrup and a choice of soups. There was a fish course and for those who did not want roast turkey there was a choice of either cooked ham or roast pork. Each main course was accompanied by a good selection of fresh vegetables.

The service in the saloon was excellent and as usual the food was piping hot. The empty plates at the end of the main course were whisked away and for those with room to spare there was Christmas pudding with cream or custard. The Christmas cake and mince pies that followed, were in turn followed by fresh fruit and nuts. A cheese board and wafer crackers rounded off the meal. Coffee and tea were also available.

We were noisy and in great spirits. The banter and good humour seemed to be never ending and the jokes got better as the meal progressed.

It seems strange in terms of to-days attitudes towards smoking in bars and restaurants but those who smoked continued to do so throughout the meal without complaint or objections from anyone at the table. We did not have wine with the meal but the beers kept coming. I think that the free bar for us ended when we entered the dining saloon but inhibitions or concerns about signing bar chits disappeared along with our appetites.

It would be impossible now for me to eat what I and the other juniors managed to put away during that meal. To say that I was bloated is an understatement. However all good things had to come to an end particularly as we were made aware that the senior officers wanted their meal and we were required to vacate the dining saloon so that the stewards could prepare for the next sitting.

On returning to the radio room to relieve Harry for what little remained of the watch the distress frequency of 500 kHz was remarkably quiet and it was a great relief when I was able to switch on the auto alarm and close down the station.

I cannot remember how I spent the next two hours between watches but I suspect most if not all of the time was spent in my cabin flattening the cushions on my day settee. Knowing the way that T and J Brocklebank looked after their crews, I suspect there was food available later in the day for those with an appetite and room in their stomachs to spare, but as for me, I do not believe that I ate again until breakfast the following day.

One pleasure that I had during the day was opening the small presents that my parents had given me just before I had joined the ship in the preceding September. I was given firm instruction not to open them until Christmas day which I did. It was a great link with home and made the day even more special.

The following Christmas was also spent at sea but this time the experience was quite different.

Magdapur only carried one radio officer so all the watch keeping duties fell to me. Where meal times coincided with watches it was normal practice to eat in the radio room with all the food plated without the normal silver service. You could still choose what you wanted from the menu but it all got delivered at the same time so the later courses could be cold by the time you ate them.

That Christmas Magdapur was on her outward passage to Calcutta. The free bar was available once again but I could not attend because I was on watch. The Chief Steward kindly provided me with a couple of beers to accompany my meal. The food again was great but a meal eaten on your own, even a Christmas dinner is not the same. Good food tastes better when eaten in the company of others and on that occasion that was the missing ingredient. I suspect that I also ate less than the previous Christmas and that the meal took longer to eat particularly as normal watching keeping activities such as taking traffic lists, weather forecasts and observing silence periods had to take priority. One thing that I still remember was the bonhomie on the International distress frequency with ships calling CQ merry Christmas but without sending any call-signs. As the watch wore on discipline on 500 kHz deteriorated with Christmas greeting calls intruding into the silence periods. This resulted in irate calls from other ships again without call signs, questioning the parentage of the original caller and requesting them to stop sending immediately.

Good sense eventually returned or the perpetrators grew tired because discipline was restored and no further infringements occurred particularly during later radio watches. Whether that experience was unusual I cannot say because that was my last Christmas at sea. On both the Mahseer and Magdapur the free time in the evening of Christmas day was spent socialising and listening to the BBC World service.

Christmas is a special time and I believe that most people if given the chance would wish to celebrate it with their families. This is not always possible for key workers and is particularly so for mariners. I believe that T & J Brocklebank did everything possible to give their seagoing staff the very best Christmas that was possible at the time and it is one of the reasons why the company, so many years after its demise, is still held in such high regard by those such as me, who had the privilege of working for it.

14th January 2009, 21:26
A good reminiscent story John,In those days and in our youth Christmas away from family was a new experience for many of us and to have it well served in good company was an adequate compensation. My couple of Christmas dinners at sea were marred by being a 12 to 4 watch keeper which limited the time and quantity of both liquid and food intake. Good times to recall.


J Boyde
15th January 2009, 07:25
Interesting and memories. I had two Christmas days in the Australian Bight. On both occasions the cooks did a great job, more so considering the weather. It was appaling and holding on weather, both times. None the less, we were fed and all thanks to those who spent some much time making sure we enjoyed. I had a couple of other christmas on ships but this time we were tied up along side.
Jim B

15th January 2009, 22:45
John Leary
Great literary description of Christmas at sea ! I can't remember any Christmases at sea in Brocks but things were more civilised on your ships than the old timers which had no running water and certainly no bar to got to.
I was 3rd Mate on the old Mathura in 1946/7 and we arrived back in the UK in the severe winter when there were ice floes in the N Sea and all the rivers were frozen. Eventually we arrived in Middlesborough to have the bottom straightened after being aground in Alex and for "modernisation".
When I came back from leave I found that the modernisation consisted of having a light above your bunk and the long saloon table had been sawn in half and the two halves placed fore and aft on either side. One was for seniors and the other for juniors. Later both these halves were sawn up and so there were 4 tables. I can remember the Marine Super asking me what I thought of the modernisation and I told him I that Brock's criteria for modernisation appeared to be the number of times the saloon table could be sawn in half.
"What about the bunk lights ?" he said.
I said we were too exhausted to read in bed so the lights were not much good !!
We had a good laugh !