Ships Nostalgia - View Single Post - Beginning life as a Deck Apprentice
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Old 24th October 2018, 15:57
harry t. harry t. is offline
Senior Member
Organisation: Merchant Navy
Department: Deck
Active: 1953 - 1987
Join Date: Oct 2008
Posts: 366
Originally Posted by harry t. View Post
It was a hard old station but I thoroughly enjoyed the seafaring.
An apprenticeship seafaring 1953-1957

I joined my first ship, the Fanad Head, in October 1953, she was berthed in the Spencer dock in Belfast and was due to depart at ten o ‘clock that night. Saying goodbye for the first time to one’s family on a dark quayside is a pretty miserable affair. Unforeseen is the embarrassment when your family start to wave and you have to wave back, as the ship moves off so slowly no one knows when to stop. By the following morning we had cleared Tory Island off Donegal, our next sighting of land would be Belle Isle off Labrador, 1700 nautical miles to the west. With just a slight sea and moderate swell the ship was moving such I couldn’t keep the breakfast down. It would be many years before I’d tackle coffee, Arbroath ’smokies’, curries or fried foods at any time, on any passage. We didn’t encounter any ice, just the usual gales and later the fog. I was sea-sick the whole passage. The passage was made using DR positions only, the 2nd mate was a happy chappie knowing everyone on board was impressed with his skill making the landfall as predicted, otherwise he’d take a bit of bantering had he fluffed it. There’s always a degree of excitement on board when making a landfall after any ocean passage and the talk is what you will do when you don the “glad rags” after the gangway is secured at the next port. When off-duty in port the apprentices would head off to the cinema or to the mission dance, but not until after we had been inspected by the duty officer for cleanliness. Heaven help the boy with a dirty collar or boots not gleaming, or a razor-sharp crease in the trousers, though ingrained hand dirt after a good soda scrub was accepted. That unfortunate soul would be made to work or study until the others returned onboard some hours later. It was late November when we sailed for home, the Captain, Willie John Leinster, decided to chance the shorter route back through the Belle Isle Straits as the latest ice reports indicated there was no sea-ice, just a few bergs and bergy bits. Once out of the river the least of my concern was the ice, for me it was ‘back to porridge’, sea-sick. For the loaded passage homewards we’d placed canvas covers over the main deck ‘bits’. A pity, as the screw down tops on these bits were the only means of ventilation to the apprentice’s accommodation. To catch the inevitable condensation dripping off the deck head rivets we rigged sheets of old bedding above the bunks. During a lull in the weather the senior apprentice decided to remove the steel deadlights and open the cabin and messroom portholes for some fresh air at ‘smoko’ one morning. A big mistake, the North Atlantic came crashing through on the next roll taking every man jack off their feet. The mate saw to it we formed a daisy chain and baled it out by hand. With no drying room we had to be nice to the donkeyman, asking his permission to dry the bedding in the engine room fiddley, whereby, forever afterwards it would smell of a mixture of oil and tar. Another incident that trip homewards, having collected the ‘kits’ from the galley’s lee side door one lunchtime I was making my way to our ‘mess’, when a big lump of water took charge. On picking myself up the first thought was to look around for my false tooth. It was only later I realised the two sets of ‘kits’ containing soup, gravy, the salad, main course and pudding for three other hungry young men had gone too. Reporting this loss to the senior apprentice he rattled my remaining teeth then marched me back to the galley, but the cook was adamant, he had ‘wiped-down’, there was nothing he could/would do until dinner that evening. I then got another ‘seven bells’ knocked out of me.
Cooks love warning about imaginary dangers from people, weather and foreign parts. Always listen politely but with reservation. A gale could be approaching but he would be the last to know, Singapore is not synonymous with ‘cholera’ and the chief engineer can be shaken by the hand without getting leprosy, the white marks on his arms and chest are scars of old burns he received when he tried to repair in a vest, something that should have been approached wearing an asbestos suit. We were always hungry so it was good policy to keepin with the cook. The firemen and trimmers were always thoughtful, giving us any extra food or dry stores they had. I spent nearly three years on the Fanad and can still remember each and every one of them, tough as nails but considerate, they would always check with us before anything was given a passage from their mess.
At an appointed time to suit the Pantryman or the Chief Steward, the senior apprentice would collect the daily rations from the pantry. Also in the queue would be the deck boy, the donkeyman for the firemen and the galley boy. The officers steward replenished the bridge box and the engineers steward, their mess room pantry. Bread, tea, coffee, condensed milk, preserves and butter were measured out in the very small quantities laid down by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894. No more was issued until the next morning. The deck Officers ate meals in the saloon with the passengers, the engineers in their messroom, apprentices, sailors and firemen in separate messes, as did the petty officers. The cooks and other catering staff more often than not ate on the ‘hoof’.
On ships with four apprentices there was, usually, safety in numbers. Often the senior apprentice would judge the moment to offer the pantry boy a confrontation out on deck to settle a ‘contrived’ dispute. Then, when the argument got hot and heavy or they actually started throwing punches one or more of us apprentices would nip into the empty pantry and lift anything in the way of food or dry stores that wasn't nailed down. When we had a good haul of dry stores we would barter with the cook for extra soup rolls or ‘apple daddies’. He was never interested in the ‘provenance' of these goodies. Once, we had completed a raid the senior apprentice who was still out on deck and winning a fight against a very angry pantry boy, sent us back to lift a case of greengage jam he had seen earlier. On the way out we were caught by the Chief Steward. That nearly ended our careers. Luckily, we got off with a good clip around the ear. Each week when the Chief Steward issued the canteen stores four of the six bars of chocolate we purchased had to be plain chocolate. These four bars were put into the ‘kitty’, melted down and mixed in with condensed milk to use as a chocolate spread supplement when the daily butter ration disappeared after the morning ‘smoko’. On entering or leaving port, first trippers didn’t go to stations, they get in the way. On my second trip I accompanied the senior apprentice to stations forad. We had anchored to await the high tide. The bosun instructed me to...” bring up the chain and rope stoppers, they’re under the foc’le hanging up on the spar ceiling on the starboard side. Shackle the chains to the pad eyes forad off the wire reels and secure the ropes onto to foc’le ‘bits’. Make sure there’s a ‘dogs dick’ on the chain stopper rope tails and put a whipping to any rope stopper with ‘Irish pennants’. … “We don’t want to be looking like ‘Johnny the Greek’ berthing in Limerick, do we?” I was mortified. What was he talking about. As it was I was soon given a tongue lashing by the bosun and a good thump by the senior apprentice, then sent packing with the deck boy down into the chain locker to stow the anchor cable. There you quickly learnt to be nimble on the feet, that, or get crushed. Of necessity, I quickly learned ‘nautical phraseology’ to avoid being on the receiving end through ignorance.
In those days, the fifties, long before regular air travel, you came home only when the ship came home. Home, defined by the Merchant Shipping Acts, if not to the UK proper, was any place between the River Elbe and Brest. So, in a way it was lucky being indentured to a shipowner on the ‘liner’ trades. We returned to Belfast a few times each year for a couple of days. To be an Apprentice is an uneasy state of affairs, for one is neither an Officer nor a member of the crew. The junior apprentice’s worst enemy is the senior apprentice, for it is he who gives out the daily jobs. For by the normal ‘bilge-diving’, it is the junior who is instructed to clean the toilets and outside brass each and every day, no matter the weather, all before breakfast. Whilst the senior fetches the breakfast from the galley, it’s the junior who carries buckets of hot water from the galley to the apprentices’ mess-room to do the washing-up as there was no running water on the older ships. We slept and ate in a single cabin with bunks and a separate mess, in the ‘tween deck, annexed off the officer’s accommodation. Each morning at 6am the senior would report to the Chief Officer for the daily orders and he in turn would give out the work to the rest of us. Three apprentices would be on watches, one on each, along with 3 sailors and an officer. The junior would be on day work.
In addition to watch keeping that first chief officer was a real board of trade character and wanted his pound of flesh. We were expected to work a ‘field day’ of four hours overtime, six days each week without paid overtime. No work was done (on deck) on the sabbath. We were never encouraged to be familiar with anyone except ourselves. To be seen talking to the cook never earned a rebuke and we soon learned most cooks are interested in an audience or just gossip. At every stage the apprentice was promoted through to master, the usual drill was to start on the smaller Continental or Baltic traders. These trades where considered as ’good runs’ on account they ran from the UK on regular two or three weekly trips. After a while it would be back to the larger ’Western Ocean’ ships. The smaller ships carried 4 passengers and were booked up years ahead as they were so popular. The fare was £2 per day to the continent or the Baltic and on the Atlantic crossing, to say Montréal or Baltimore, the fare for a state-room was £52.12.6. A similar stateroom on an Empress liner (Canadian Pacific) cost £600. There was little or no inflation in those days. A five-dollar sub didn’t take you too far, so a good run ashore usually meant a trip to the Seamans Mission for the ‘freebies’ and maybe a dance. Once we met up with the cadets on a Stag Line ship loading for Egypt. All except one were ex. Paddy Skillen’s, and one, Davy Galway was another John Auld, so off we headed to a night club and got a table close to the ring side. We nursed our beers until the floor show started as the five-dollar sub wouldn’t buy another round in this establishment. The 1st act out was a lady nursing a python who made a shape to our table. I quickly moved away to a stand beside the doorman who was watching things. Big Davy had beckoned the lady over to him whereupon she let the snake slide across the table, up his chest, and do a half turn around his neck. He was a hero thought I, until he panicked, when the damned thing took another half turn and squeezed. The audience was enjoying this, egging the snake on, Davy took a hold of its head dancing about above his. No hesitation, with both hands he brought it crashing down onto the table, more than once, before it let him go. The doorman and his assistants escorted us off the premises before we could finish our beers. We then repaired to Joe Beef’s, a dockside tavern were the chemical beer (vile stuff) only cost 10 cents and the salt was free. In 1953, just eight years after the second world war ended, some food, clothes, confectionary and cigarettes were still rationed for the general public. Most everything was in short supply, socks had to be darned, patches sewn into working clothes, shirt-collars reversed when worn out and leather patches sewn onto the elbows of the ‘going-ashore’ jacket. There were still a few coal–burners not yet converted to burning oil and the shipowner only recently had supplied bedding to seamen. Up until then, the ratings joined a ship carrying their ‘donkeys’ breakfast’, a straw filled mattress for their own use. As I said earlier there was no running hot water on most ships, it had to be carried from the galley. Because the engine boilers used so much water it was common if running short to limit its use for cooking only, then we had to heave buckets of sea water from over the side and use saltwater soap to dhobi, wash and shave. It wasn't uncommon for ships to chase rain showers, plug the scuppers, to direct the rain water into the ship’s tanks. The only navigation equipment was a magnetic compass, a sextant and a radio d/f. Radar and gyro compasses were in their infancy on merchant ships. To clean salt water from the wheelhouse windows at daylight each day we used old newspapers.
To get the rust marks off the white paintwork we used dry cement and a piece of old canvas, the wooden decks were ‘holystoned’ with heavy blocks of bath brick on the end of stout poles usually pushed/pulled by skinny apprentices and junior seamen. Ships built then or earlier all had teak laid decks which were brought up pure white by this method of sea water, sand and “elbow grease”. Large crews were needed as there were no labour-saving devices onboard, shipboard jobs required lots of “Norwegian steam” i.e. many bodies to do the simplest job. Most cargo ships were of about 10,000 tons deadweight and the largest tankers about 18,000 tons. I can remember at the end of the 1950’s the spectators lining the pier head in Liverpool to see the first Shell “super- tanker” of 30,000 tons arrive.
As time passed I never quite got over seasickness. Seasickness is one of those diseases that are popular with non-sufferers, as it bolsters their ego. I have rarely met an old lady passenger who did not tell me that on her last trip she’d sailed through such a terrible storm that only the Captain and her sat down to dinner. One thing it should teach you is to have sympathy with future sufferers. Sadly, this is rarely the case.

'Coarse Christians’ would be a reasonably accurate general description of those of us who go down to the sea in ships. The only advice I would give any young man or woman setting out today – Never judge those in foreign parts by our standards.
Be fair, be firm with your crew. Listen to all their complaints or requests and if justified, do whatever needs to be done, soonest. Common sense and respect will surely take you a long way in this life.
Finally, the owners expect you to run an efficient ship but it’s in your interests to run a happy ship, - like babies, ‘keep their bums dry and their bellies full’.
harry t.
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