My cousin David had given me one of his radio officer’s uniforms and my mother had altered it to fit me as David was a good deal taller than I. It was an expensive black doeskin double-breasted jacket and trousers and the cap fitted perfectly. The sleeves were emblazoned with one gold stripe with green trimming which indicated a junior Marconi Radio Officer.
How proud were my parents! They had always put me on a pedestal and the hero worship was sometimes extremely stifling and unbearable. I hated being in the spotlight, but it was always there. Peter this, Peter that. But I couldn’t tell them to their faces. I just had to get away. I think my sister Janet despised me because I was the one who got all the attention. Not that I craved it by any means.
With my brand new suitcase all packed, I said my goodbyes and nervously set off on the 3am train from Fishguard to the Marconi office in Chelmsford. By the time I got there, I was so tired and nervous having not slept a minute, thinking of all the things that could go wrong.
The interview went smoothly so my nervousness was unfounded. The clerk who attended to my application made a point of reminding me that I was now an employee of the famous Marconi International Marine Company, (MIMCO) founded by Guillermo Marconi himself and who were the employers of Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, Radio Officers of the ill-fated liner Titanic.
After all the paperwork and documents had been completed, I was accompanied by one of the office personnel who drove the one hour distance with me to my new posting on the Hogarth’s ship M/V Baron Kinnaird at Poplar Docks, London.
It was Friday 19th February 1965 and the weather was cold and drizzling rain as we climbed up the gangway and made our way to the radio officers’ quarters. I was introduced to Angus; the Chief Radio Officer, a Scots man, who would be my boss for the next few weeks. He was hardly much older than I was at 21 while I was just 19. He was taller than me with curly hair and a small mustache and an easy smile. The steward handed me a mug of tea which looked and tasted like Varnish.
A strong pungent smell of heavy oil emanated from the engine room as the heavy metal door clanged shut whenever the engineers entered or left. This, together with the smell of the sea and the taste of the stewed tea made me feel rather squeamish in the stomach.
But I was determined not to show it as Angus and I entered the radio room for the first time. The equipment was very familiar to me as we had been trained with similar gear at the College.
It turned out the ship’s crew including officers were all Scottish, so I was the only Englishman on board. To my naive and innocent nature, this wasn’t a problem and indeed I was keen to meet people from every country and walk of life. I was very interested in finding out about people from different cultures, languages and backgrounds.
One time I remember, two Italian boys were visiting our town and I was very interested in learning their language. I bought an Italian-English book and asked them to help me learn how to speak Italian. However I soon found out the Italian boys were only interested in one thing. Picking up girls! So they laughed at me and ignored me as their attention was on the girls who hung around the cafes where the bikies were.
Although Angus was a good instructor and friend, many of the other crew were, I found out later, anti-English and would bait me with questions so they could make me feel alienated.
M/V Baron Kinnaird
Very soon the Baron Kinnaird was leaving port and heading out into the English Channel and into a full blown gale. We were bound for Tampa, Florida light ship (empty) to load a cargo of Phosphate so she was rolling quite badly.
I was instructed by Angus to do all the operating and he would be sitting watching.
We sat side-by-side in the radio room as I switched on the equipment and prepared myself for the watch ahead. We signed on the log book, tuned into the nearest coast station which was Niton Radio GNI situated on the Isle of White, and I proceeded to send my transit report (TR) in Morse code.
All went pretty smoothly and Angus gave me a nod of approval so now was the time to tune into the weather report including the Atlantic Ocean forecast from GKA Portishead Radio which was broadcast again in Morse code. In fact the Baron Kinnaird was not equipped with any radio telephone so all communications in and out of the ship would have to be handled by the radio officers in Morse code.
By this time we were into the English Channel proper and the ship was rolling pretty heavily. About half way into receiving the weather forecast, I started to feel very sick. I struggled to keep up appearances however and continued copying down the forecast until I couldn’t bear it any longer and bolted out the door, straight for the toilet.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” shouted Angus.
All that could be heard was me throwing up. The sickness continued for a couple of days more but after that I felt fine and never suffered from sea sickness ever again.
The storm lasted for two days after leaving the English Channel and heading out into the Atlantic. Then came calmer weather with sunshine and I spent many hours during off duty periods, sunbaking on the “monkey island” which was on top of the wheelhouse just behind the ships funnel.
The officers all ate in the officer’s mess and of course Captain Downey was at the head of the table. Next in descending order where the Chief Mate, 2nd Mate, 3rd Mate, Chief Engineer, Chief Radio Officer, 2nd Radio Officer, 2nd Engineer, 3rd Engineer, 4th Engineer, 5th Engineer and 4 Deck Cadets.
The captain took a delight, it seemed, in addressing me, asking silly questions and trying to engage me in conversation. Why me? I thought. I’m the youngest and I’m sitting right in the middle, he could easily talk to the Chief Mate or Chief Engineer who were closer.
“How d’ya like the food, young sparky?” He shouted. Who me? I thought as I tried to work out who he was looking at.
“You’re the only young sparky on board aren’t ya?” he laughed.
“Well, it’s very nice sir, can’t complain.” I stammered.
To that there was a roar of laughter and everyone was nudging each other repeating, can’t complain.
“Can’t complain, or won’t complain?” the captain persisted.
I didn’t answer and then the conversation suddenly changed much to my relief.
Angus explained to me afterwards that Hogarth’s Shipping Company was known as “Hungry Hogarth’s” due to its world-renowned reputation for extremely bad food.
The following day around 10am the engines suddenly fell silent and the ship was drifting around in the ocean. The message came from the engine room that there was a small mechanical problem which could not be fixed without stopping the engines.
The Baron Kinnaird was a 14-year old ship with a 4-cylinder Doxford engine which by any standards was very out-dated.
We radio officers continued our watches, checking the traffic lists, weather reports and listening on the international distress frequency of 500 kc/s. There was also routine maintenance such as checking the emergency batteries, cleaning the terminals and making sure they were fully charged. The lifeboat transmitter had to be checked and tested.
Besides that, a good book was a necessity when going on watch as a large part of the time was taken up by just listening. The more “ears” there were tuned into the distress frequency the more likelihood of a distress message being picked up.
However on this particular day, the engines stopped for two hours and Captain Downey, who in his mid-thirties, young and efficient, was anxiously pacing the bridge eager to get moving again.
His irritation could be taken out on anyone who was close by and soon he found his way into the radio room where I was sitting reading with the headphones slung round my neck.
“What’s this sparky, reading?” he growled in his Scottish accent. “Have you nothing better to do?”
I sat up and muttered about keeping a close and intensive listening watch on the distress frequency but he waved his hand and cut me off.
“Don’t give me all that hogwash sonny, I’ve heard it all before!”
“Where’s your logbook, give me a look.” he demanded.
I pushed the logbook across the desk and he started flicking through pages. I uneasily looked sideways at him as I busied myself tuning in non-existent signals to show I was busy.
Suddenly the engines started up and the captain darted for the door. Saved, I thought!
During the voyage across to Tampa, the engines stopped an unbelievable fourteen times for various mechanic problems and the captain became more and more irritable.
Then as the ship tracked south on it’s Great Circle course we hit another storm. The speed was reduced to about 4 knots as we rode out the tempest. I had to jam myself in my bunk with pillows and all the chairs were screwed to the floor by chains. Everything that was movable was fastened down.
Around 2am I was awakened by a dull thud on the side of the ship. Then another and another. These thuds went on for most of the night as the ship rolled and pitched.
At 0800 I was on watch as Angus walked in.
“What was all that noise last night? I asked.
Angus explained that the wooden hatch covers in the tweendecks had fallen down to the bottom of the ship and were sloshing around in water which had somehow found its way in. These wooden boards were very thick and heavy and were banging on the sides of the ship as she rolled and pitched.
We’re leaking! I thought with a shock. No, we’re sinking!
How can water ‘somehow find its way in’? There must be a hole somewhere. Is nobody going to investigate? I didn’t say this out loud but I had a feeling Angus felt the same way I did.
We just looked at each other, shrugged and carried on.
Soon the ship was heading into calmer waters, sunshine and a decent ‘bronzie’ on the monkey island. The thudding noise had subsided however there was still the occasional booming crash usually when we were fast asleep.
The radio officers had split shifts of two hours on and two hours off for a period of 14 hours. The idea was to spread the shifts over as long a time as possible. Although there were two of us, we were still classed as a single-operator ship. During our off-duty hours, the ‘Auto-Alarm’ took over and if there was a distress call, it range alarm bells in the radio officers cabin.
If this happened we would jump out of bed, wiping the sleep from our eyes and go upstairs to the radio room which was next to the chart room on the same deck as the wheelhouse. We would switch on the receiver and transmitter and listen for a distress message, either relayed from a coast station or from an actual ship in distress.
Even if the distress was not in our area, we would have to write down all the details and log everything in case of a future investigation.
Because I was a junior radio officer, my cabin was in the after quarters close to where the deck cadets were accommodated and far away from the radio room. It was not fitted with the usual alarm bells, so Angus had to do the honours.
There were a few times when I came on watch at 0800, Angus would tell me to take over as he had been called out several times during the night and he wanted to catch up on his sleep. I was happy to do this at it was good experience for me and an indication that he trusted me to handle the watch alone.
Soon we were making landfall and going up on deck you could make out the coast of America. The first time I had seen foreign soil, I felt excited. Then the pilot boat came alongside and the pilot made his way up the ladder and onto the deck where he was escorted by the 3rd Mate to the wheelhouse and introduced to the captain.
The ship didn’t go alongside but anchored off shore and several small motor boats came up close. A few people waved and the few of us who were lined up along the railings waved back.
I went down the gangway to the water’s edge and one of the boats came up to me. I had my white uniform on but without the cap. There was a man, woman and teenage girl in the boat and the man shouted for me to jump in for a ride.
So I jumped in and we motored around the harbour for a while. He said his name was Chuck his wife Annie and daughter Lisa who looked shyly at me and blushed. We spun around the bay and Chuck pointed out landmarks and places of interest.
I looked over to the gangway and I could see Angus waving and calling us back. Chuck guided the boat back to the gangway and I hopped out. I thanked them for the trip and they smiled and waved a cheery goodbye.
Cheery was not how I would describe Angus though as I made my way up the gangway. “The Old Man’s furious.” He said. “We haven’t been cleared by customs yet and you’ve no right to go off the ship.”
Oops! I thought.
As Angus and I made our way upstairs we met Captain Downey on the way down. We stopped halfway and he gave me a fierce look.
“I’ll let you off because your new, but make sure you don’t do it again. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir.” I stammered.
“You’re lucky!” said Angus, “he’s been known to stop people’s bar for lesser things.”
That would have meant no beer or cigarettes for the rest of the voyage so I was indeed very lucky.
Not that I could afford to drink very much as we radio officers were only allowed the princely sum of ten pounds per month on the ship. The remainder of our 48 pounds per month salary was kept at the Marconi Office until we paid off the ship.
Unlike the rest of the crew, Marconi radio officers were employed by MIMCO and the shipping company usually leased all the radio equipment including the radio officer as a package deal. The rest of the crew were directly employed by the shipping company.
We could draw an advance on our salary from any Marconi depot around the world, but that meant finding where the depot was located and taking our paybooks and requesting – cap in hand, a cash advance which of course would be deducted from our salary. More like grovelling really as most of the Marconi depots did not like giving out cash advances to penniless radio officers. It meant too much paperwork for them.
The next day Baron Kinnaird went alongside to the phosphate wharf where tonnes of white phosphate poured into her holds.
Angus and I together with two of the deck cadets caught a taxi and went into the city of Tampa to have a look around. We drooled over the huge limousines with the big fins and the muscle cars with the V8 rumble.
We went into one of the big department stores which to my eyes was wondrous to behold. The biggest shop I had seen was Woolworths in Glossop. This had escalators and lifts, restaurants and bars and music playing.
We bought a few presents and clothes and then sat around in one of the flashy restaurants and drank coca cola through straws. Most of my ten pounds was already gone so I wouldn’t be buying anything else. The deck cadets were in the same boat as their pay was minimal probably less than mine.
The next day we spent on board checking the equipment and catching up on paperwork. Angus informed me that we would be sailing tomorrow. It doesn’t take long to load up a ship at this wharf.
On the long voyage back home across the Atlantic, our days were pretty routine. Breakfast in the mess at 0730 and on watch by 0800. Checking the time signal with Rugby Radio GBR and noting down any errors of the ships master chronometer in the chart room, traffic list at GKA and monitoring 500 kc/s calling and distress frequency.
We would get a couple of telegrams per day usually for the captain but occasionally a birthday telegram for one of the crew members.
Our free time was spent in the officers lounge room playing cards or dominos, reading books and listening to records. Angus loved Motown music and a collection of LP records which he played in his cabin. I would usually join him and have a few beers together with the 3rd Mate and a couple of the deck cadets.
One of Angus’s favourite songs was My Girl, by The Temptations. He would play that record constantly and I would look out of the window and see the expanse of ocean with the white caps in the distance. The ship gently rolling and the hum of the engines. Even now, I can remember that quite clearly as if it was yesterday.
Some of the Scottish crew members were pretty proud of their Scots heritage and if I said English instead of British, they would shout and carry on as if it was the battle of Culloden all over again.
To my mind we were all the same on that Island Nation, Scots, Welsh, English and Irish. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I just take people as I find them no matter what race, religion or skin colour.
There were a few challenging moments with a couple of the engineer officers who would start an argument about how Scotland should be independent and split from England. If that’s what you want, I told them, go ahead, makes no difference to me.
Our destination was supposed to be Liverpool, but we received a telegram telling us to proceed directly to Ellesmere Port which is up the river Mersey.
We were about 2 days from home and Angus kept warning me about the so-called “channels”.
“Have the channels kicked in yet?” he would ask.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, the channel fever.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. What’s channel fever?”
“It’s when you get close to home, you start to get nervous.”
“Not yet, Angus I feel pretty normal at the moment.” I smiled and dismissed such a suggestion.
However the next morning, one day before docking I definitely could feel a kind of anxiety creeping in. You couldn’t quite describe it sort of a nervous longing about the unexpected.
According to Wiktionary it is described as “the excitement on board ship as she approaches her destination with the prospect of liberty ashore”.
This must be the channels then, I thought. It really does exist!
As we picked up the Liverpool pilot and headed into the Mersey, the channels increased and I was looking forward to seeing my family and telling them all about my first sea-going adventure.
However, suddenly the Baron Kinnaird ground to a halt in the middle of the River Mersey.
We were overloaded and our draft was too deep. The ship had run into a sand bar.
There was to be no docking tonight. It was Tuesday 1st April, 1965 – April Fools Day!