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All the discussions and anecdotes recently about the experiences of going ashore at Massawa reminded me of a story I was told many years ago. It may be known to others who served on Brocklebank ships and is probably not true being a typical sailors tale. I was told it by a very long serving Brocklebank R/O who I met in the mid- 60’s when both our ships were in Calcutta. After a few drinks when we were chewing the fat and exchanging stories, he told me of a voyage he had made years before when he was given yet another, recently qualified, first trip, second radio officer to train and to assist him in operating the ship’s wireless station. I have a terrible memory for names so for the purpose of this story I will call the first tripper “Fred”.

When he joined the ship Fred was about nineteen years old. I was told that his employment with Brocklebank’s was probably the first fulltime job that he had ever had in his life having spent all of his time up to going to sea at school and then wireless college.

From all accounts he was a pleasant young man but at the same time was infuriating because of his supreme self-confidence. He had strong opinions on any and every topic, was never at fault and was experienced and worldly wise; so he believed, beyond his years.

It seems that in the early days on board whilst the ship was loading around the coast, Fred maintained that he could never get drunk, claiming that he had an enormous capacity for alcohol. A statement like that to the more seasoned amongst the ships officers was like throwing down the gauntlet. The result was inevitable when an onboard party at a UK port provided the opportunity to see how he coped with his preferred tipple, which was neat gin.

If the contest between Fred and gin was seen in terms of a boxing match then the result was a knockout by gin in the early rounds. I was told that Fred was various shades of green for a couple of days after the party. The old R/O laughed when he told me this and said that how Fred managed not to poison himself he would never know.

It seems that Fred was incredibly untidy and as the voyage progressed, his cabin became positively unhygienic. For a hobby he used to encourage the cockroaches by feeding them sugar. This went unchecked until it became necessary to spray extra doses of DDT into his bunk and writing desk because of the detrimental impact the explosion in the cockroach population was having on the other parts of the ship’s accommodation in the near vicinity of his cabin.

Fred was a popular member of the crew, stood his watches and was taking to the work very well as the voyage progressed.

On leaving the UK on the outward journey, Fred’s ship made Brocklebank’s normal calls to the Red Sea ports of Massawa, Assab, Djibouti and then Aden. It was in Massawa that cupid’s arrow struck.

I know from my own visits that Massawa was an interesting place. It had few facilities. The main recreation for the visiting sailor was to be found in the bars that lay outside of the dock gates. Beer was cheap. If I remember correctly in my time, the two available varieties were Tiger beer brewed in Singapore and Mellotti beer brewed by the Ethiopians themselves. Both were extremely powerful with a high alcoholic content and each tasted completely different to anything you could become accustomed to on the ship or in the UK.

On the ship, Fred had become very friendly with the second steward as they were much the same age and temperament so on the first night in Massawa they went ashore together to sample its delights.

For those who have never visited Massawa, the other recreational “delights” at the time of the story were the ladies of the night who frequented the bars and patrolled the streets outside the dock gates. The ones I saw in some cases were striking with classical Ethiopian features. Most were tall and slim. They were often scarred or tattooed on the face according to the rites of their tribe. Many were dressed in long cotton dresses and had shawls draped around their shoulders. It would be difficult to guess their ages but I suspect the majority were less than twenty years of age. Ethiopia being a very poor country meant that in some cases having a daughter or sister engaged in a profession older than seafaring no doubt increased the family income enormously.

Anyway I digress so back to the story. I’m not sure whether anyone apart from Fred and the second steward ever knew the full story of what happened on the first night ashore because neither Fred nor the second steward were prepared to talk about their exploits. What the old R/O told me was that unusually on the following day Fred did not appear for breakfast and did not show up for lunch either. Unbeknown to the old R/O Fred did turn up mid morning to obtain a second cash advance against his wages from the Chief Steward and on this being given, went ashore again to rendezvous with the object of his desire.

The old R/O then told me that he next saw Fred in the late morning of the following day when he was beginning to become very concerned about his welfare although the second steward who had not spent the same amount of time ashore, but knew where Fred was, seemed quite confident that Fred was well and had not come to harm in any way.

The old R/O did not made a great fuss about Fred’s non-appearance because he had trained a great number of junior R/O’s during his long career and he knew that many young men on their first trip to sea sow as many wild oats as possible almost as if their life depended on it.

Anyway when Fred eventually returned to the ship, instead of the expected apology all the old R/O got was a defiant young man who was adamant that he had done nothing wrong and instead of being contrite asked only if it were possible for the Captain to marry him to his ladylove and for her to be given permission to complete the rest of the trip on board as his wife.

As you might imagine these requests took the wind completely out of the old R/O’s sails. He then spent the next hour trying to explain that what Fred was asking was impossible and if he went up to the Captain to make that request on Fred’s behalf he would conclude that both the old R/O and Fred had gone mad.

At this point in the story our glasses were empty and the old R/O would not continue with the tale until they had been replenished. Never before or since have I wanted to buy a round so quickly

With the glasses charged up the old R/O continued with his story. Eventually it seems he persuaded Fred that his marriage plans would come to nothing. However Fred could not be dissuaded from going ashore briefly for a last time to bid a tearful farewell to his newfound love.

When he finally returned to the ship just before it sailed it was a very subdued young man who came on board. He apparently did his watches but unusually there was no enthusiasm in anything he did. He seemed permanently in a dream and spent his off duty time on his own in his cabin.

The next port of call after Massawa was Assab but it seems that Fred did not go ashore, preferring to stay aboard to nurse a broken heart and to wallow in his grief and self-pity.

With a huge grin on his face the old R/O then told me that what brought about the change in Fred’s attitude was the discomfort that he started to experience in a very private region, which grew worse by the day. It was a great relief to Fred therefore when the ship called at Aden.

Fred it seems sought advice from the Chief Steward about his condition who then arranged for him to see the port doctor. The old R/O said that he thought that Fred received treatment in the form of an injection, which had to be repeated over several days by the Chief Steward after the ship sailed on the next leg of the voyage.

As the days passed with the ship crossing the Indian Ocean, Fred’s outlook on life brightened. He regained his cheerful disposition and started socialising again with the officers, quickly recovering his enthusiasm and self-confidence. However if he learnt from the experience he never admitted it because according to the old R/O he never made mention of his Massawa experience at any time during the remainder of the time he was on the ship.

I suppose that it is very difficult to compare different types of pain. Didn’t ancient Chinese dentists use a thumbscrew to take their patients attention away from their toothache? Anyway, on draining his glass and making his farewells the old R/O gave a knowing smile and said that in his view it was the pain of the hypodermic needle that drove away the hurt of cupid’s arrow.

18,969 Posts
Thanks John, I'm sure that story will strike a cord with a lot of members.

I visited Massawa in the early '70s, there was some kind of revolution going on - Massawa is in Eritrea and they were breaking away from Ethiopia (I think). We had to wait for a break in hostilities before we could berth.

When the dust settled, we tied up and Basil, the Electrician, and I went ashore. We had a couple of scoops and met up with a couple of cuties - actually, that is an understatement, those Ethiopian girls are gorgeous. The place was in a tragic state - looked like Middlesbrough in the '50s. The girls took us home to their hovel. It was falling apart and there were a couple of babies there - a very sad state of affairs.

Basil, ex Royal Navy and a thorough Gentleman, couldn't handle it, he paid his money and left. What could I do? You give them a fish and they eat it, you give them a fish hook and they catch fish! I was just there a little longer than expected. Hope those ladies made it.

I came through unscathed but wonder if I'm related to Fred?

John T.
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