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8. South American Adventure

After the Empress of Canada, I was posted to the M/V Crispin, a Booth Line vessel which was based in New York and sailed between Canada, the Caribbean Islands and Brazil. The ship hardly ever came to the UK so she would be my home for the next 12 months. At only 19 years of age I was going to join my first single operator ship.

But first I had to join the ship in New York and Marconi’s had booked me a cabin class ticket on the RMS Queen Mary. What an amazing trip! I took the train to Southampton excited at sailing on the most famous Cunard liner.

As I later found out, there were three classes on the Queen Mary: 1st Class, Cabin Class and Economy. A steward escorted me to my quarters which seemed to be at the very bottom of the ship near the propeller.  The cabin was tiny and there were no windows but it did have it’s own en suite toilet and shower.

It was November 1966 and the off season, so there were only about half the usual number of passengers on board. It was also towards the end of the Queen Mary’s life as she was laid up in Long Beach California in 1967.

However I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world and to see the three red funnels as I arrived at the dock in Southampton was the most thrilling experience of my life.

RMS Queen Mary

We soon set sail and the ship gave her traditional three long deafening blasts on the ships whistle as she headed out into the Atlantic.

As the docks disappeared in the distance, I set out to explore the ship. There were many restaurants, bars, dance rooms, discos etc and I probably visited them all. There were a few young people there and I did strike up a conversation with a few of them. Mostly they were visiting relatives in America.

Every day they posted the speed of the ship which was around 28 Knots, the weather conditions and estimated time of arrival in New York. The weather was a little choppy and was quite cold. Many elderly people lay out on their deck chairs, snuggled inside their warm blankets.

My little cabin seemed to be in the depths of the ship and all night I could hear a sort of grinding noise like the propellers behind the steal bulkhead. It was not the most comfortable of trips.

After four days we were arriving in New York and a steward handed me a note to meet a Booth Line shipping agent on the dock. I saw him standing with a large sign with my name on it so I headed over and we shook hands. He was with a group of other men who I was introduced to as the other officers going to join the M/V Crispin.

“We didn’t see you on board, where were you staying?” said one.

“I was in Cabin Class.” I replied.

Marconi’s always gave their radio officers 1st Class tickets but on the Queen Mary, Cabin Class was probably like 1st Class on any other ship.

“Oh we were all in economy!” said David, the 2nd Mate and they all gave a wry smile.

“Trust sparky to get the best seat in the house!” someone quipped.

We all piled into a large station wagon with our luggage on the roof rack and piled high in the back and sped off to where the Crispin was moored.

M/V Crispin

She was the smallest ship I’d been on at only 1,700 tons, just over the 1,600 tons limit to compulsorily require a radio officer. My cabin was tiny and wedged between the Chief Mate and 2nd Mate’s cabins. The radio room was even smaller and without getting out of your seat, you could reach every piece of equipment.

It was next to the chart room with a small door leading to the wheelhouse on the bridge. The captain’s cabin was on the same level just behind the chart room.

There was no radio officer on board who could hand over the station, so it was up to me to find out where everything was kept and how to run the station. Everything seemed to be in order but time would tell if there were any problems, I thought.

One thing I noticed was on the main “Atalanta” Receiver, the tuning knob had lost it’s plastic covering exposing the bare brass underneath. I thought it looked quite nice, until I discovered later, when the humidity was hovering around 90% and the temperature was in the high 30’s Celsius, touching that brass knob with sweating palms gave you a small electric shock. So after getting a few jolts while tuning in a station, I covered it with insulating tape and problem solved.

I was soon introduced to the captain George Potts, a large cockney man with a jovial face and deep belly laugh. Then the Chief Mate Roger, who looked barely 21. The electrician was Polish with an unpronounceable name full of W’s, Z’s and Y’s so we called him “Smirsh” of James Bond fame. Then of course “Garth” with the big red beard who was John Dobb, the 4th Engineer.

Besides Smirsh, all the officers were British and the crew were Brazilian except for the carpenter (chippy), who was Chinese. David the 2nd mate informed me of our travel itinerary. Our first port of call would be Trois Rivieres, on the St Lawrence River. Then Quebec, Montreal and Halifax, New Brunswick, due south to Bridgetown Barbados, Kingston Jamaica, Port of Spain Trinidad, Georgetown British Guiana, Belem Brazil on the mouth of the Amazon river and Manaus. Along the Brazilian coast to Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador then straight back to New York.

The trip to Montreal and Quebec was uneventful and the ship was soon heading south to the Caribbean through the Bermuda triangle to Kingston, Jamaica. Garth and I headed to a famous bar where Bob Marley used to play and the deep thump of the bass could be heard far and wide.

This was the first time I’d heard real live reggae music and it sounded amazing. The bar had a dirt floor and the small dance floor was packed with sweaty bodies writhing to the beat. It had a primitive earthy sound but the music was very well played and the band was tight.

Bridgetown, Barbados was our next lightning stop where we were in and out like Flynn and then on to Port of Spain, Trinidad where I was able to get some money from the Marconi office. This took around one and a half hours waiting upstairs in a hot and dusty office with a massive ceiling fan stirring the tepid air.

A middle-aged Indian gentleman went through a rather laborious ritual of writing out numerous copies of documents for me to sign before he would hand over my limit of fifty pounds.

Then it was on to Georgetown, British Guiana where the captain introduced us all to an Indian lady called “Lovey” who had provided us all with several women of the night. I was much more interested in Lovey’s daughter however, but she was only about seventeen and still at school.

She fancied me as well and we did eventually sleep together but there was no funny business. It was more a kiss and cuddle on the sofa upstairs and then we both fell sound asleep.

Out next port of call was Belem, Brazil on the mouth of the Amazon river. We were anchored off waiting for a pilot along with about a dozen other ships. Each ship in turn called the local radio station to request a pilot. We could see the antennas of the station through the binoculars but nobody could raise him. One Swedish ship called out announcing “I can see his antennas. The operator is sleeping!”

Pretty soon we docked in Belem and we went ashore quickly to buy a few odds and ends mostly presents. Then the river pilots boarded for the trip up to Manaus. The mighty Amazon river was flowing with dirty brown coloured water and the mouth was so wide you couldn’t see from one side to the other.

The next day we stopped at a small village to load a cargo of Veneer and it appeared the whole village had turned out to see us. The little boys were fighting to grab the ropes and be the first one to tie up the ship. It was like a national holiday and people milled around trying to sell their wares.

The local schoolboys were so poor they played football with a ball made from newspaper tied up with string. This was later replaced with an old rubber ball which was a bit bigger than a normal soccer ball but was difficult to kick.

The chief steward (who was actually an ex Queen Mary steward), had bought a real genuine Wembley soccer ball and just casually strolled over to the railings and gently dropped it in the middle of the football game.

The expressions on the boys faces was of shock, amazement then pure joy as they kicked the new ball from one to the other shouting with glee and waving their arms in thanks.

Just before we sailed, a couple of villagers had asked us if we wanted to take a canoe trip on the river for a a few thousand Cruzeiros which was about one dollar. So a couple of us jumped in the canoe and paddled out. It was of a hollowed out log construction and the paddles were light and nicely shaped. The current was quite strong and soon we were about a mile from where the ship was tied up.

I started to get a bit concerned as we turned round to head back up stream, we were having a hard job making any headway. As I turned round to see what was behind us, the canoe started rocking crazily and the next thing, the canoe was upside down and we were floundering around in the Amazon river.

Piranhas! I thought and was expecting to be stripped to the bone at any second. I must have covered the 50 meters or so to the bank in under 10 seconds and was up on dry land in less than twenty. The canoe went drifting down river and the two guys who had hired it, had jumped into a second canoe and were frantically trying to retrieve it.

We left them to it and walked back to the ship in our sopping wet clothes for a nice warm shower and a change of clothes.

Then it was on to Manaus which is a fairly large city located where the Amazon river meets the Rio Negro and is quite a wide part of the river. The water is also a lot cleaner than the dirty looking Amazon.

Finally the two ports of Recife and Salvador on the coast of Brazil we couldn’t get shore leave as our visit was less than a few hours. Then it was back to our base port of New York.

Our course took us west of Bermuda and off the US East Coast. The ocean forecast predicted a hurricane was headed down the coast to meet up with another deep low in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report did not look good. Off the coast of North Carolina, we hit the full force of the hurricane and we were hove to for about three days. The little Crispin was just marking time waiting for that weather to pass us by.

There was no food cooked we just ate sandwiches and biscuits. Everything moveable was battened down as the ship went up the mountains of water and down the other side with the helmsman battling to keep her head into the sea.

After being thrown around in our bunks night after night and unable to grab any sleep we were all pretty exhausted when finally the weather abated enough for the ship to put full speed ahead and set course for New York.

New York was freezing cold and I was wearing a white knee-length coat with brown fur collar and a belt. I had bought the coat in Canada during one of my many visits and it looked like a million dollars.

We had been drinking most of the afternoon and I had reached the point where I had to get back to the ship. Even when I was drunk, I knew my limitations and when to stop.

Staggering out onto the sidewalk, I hailed a cab and jumped into the back seat. “Take me to the ship!” I announced and closed my eyes. The cab quietly purred along through the night and after a while I opened my eyes and realised there were two burly black guys in the front seat.

I did a kind of double take because, hang on, usually there is only a driver in a cab, right? Peering closely at the dashboard, I couldn’t see any meter. Fine, a cab without a meter.

Slowly it dawned on me that this was NOT  a cab, these two huge burly black men were going to take me to the edge of town and slit my throat and leave me in the gutter. Oh, no God please don’t let that happen!

I futilely sank further into my seat trying to look inconspicuous as the car slid through the city streets with soft music playing in the background. Suddenly the car swerved off the street, across some railway lines and onto the wharf. I could see the M/V Crispin a few yards away.

The driver glanced my way and without a word pushed a button under the dash activating the rear door which swung open with a click.

“Ahm, how much do I owe you?” I stammered.

“This ain’t no goddamn cab!” snarled the driver.

“Thanks a lot.” I said as I climbed out of the car.

The driver just nodded and the car accelerated with a screech of tyres and disappeared into the night.

I don’t wish to bore the reader by relating a blow by blow account of my 12 month stint on the Crispin: Suffice it to say that before I started this adventure I was a virgin and when I left the ship one year later, I was pretty well accomplished in the art of sex and drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

Not exactly a girl in every port, but close. Unfortunately the drinking became a problem and when I paid off the Crispin in November 1966, at the age of 20 I was scared I was becoming an alcoholic.

Booze, cigarettes and women were so readily available and having lived a rather sheltered existence up to this point in my life it became a huge release for me. It didn’t really affect my job: I was still able to fix faults with the radar, echo-sounder and radio equipment as well as do my normal routine work of sending and receiving telegrams and maintaining a distress watch.

What really worried me was psychologically I had become a little damaged, rather morose and losing my sense of humour. I found I needed a drink before things would fall into place. There was anger too, which scared me. Truth to say I was a bit ashamed of myself although I kept it more or less concealed I was a changed person inside my head.

I was supposed to be paid off in New York with all the other officers and fly back to England, but my relief had not arrived, so I had to sign on articles for another 11 days and take the ship to Montreal.

On these trips to Montreal I never told my Aunty Jessie, Dora or Uncle John I was coming because I didn’t want all the fuss and bother of meeting them and their friends and having another party. It just wasn’t my scene.

It was with a tinge of sadness I departed the M/V Crispin for the last time and I bought a couple of cartons of beer for the lads and headed to my flight. 1st Class on British Airways to Manchester via Glasgow.

I sat next to a jovial Scots man and we both got absolutely pissed on Chivas Regal. I was so blind I passed out and couldn’t even eat the sumptuous first class meal that was served up.

When we arrived in Glasgow I had the worst hangover I’d ever had and didn’t even know where I was. Then in Manchester at the train station I met Garth the 4th Engineer, who was also headed home. What a coincidence! He invited me to come to his place for a couple of days and sober up, but I knew that meant getting pissed again. I didn’t want my parents to see me in this state so I declined the offer.

My parents were over the moon to see me and my sister Janet had developed into a pretty young girl. I opened my suitcase full of treasures from South America. A stuffed piranha fish on a stick, a Brazilian flag, bits of trinkets but nothing much else really.

Fishguard seemed very ordinary compared to the lifestyle I’d returned from. No glitz, glamour or fun. My father and I went fishing in our little runabout and brought home a meal of whiting for everyone. Very ordinary.

I met up with Derek John who was an ex Marconi radio officer who had got himself married with a baby on the way. We went to the local pub for a few afternoon beers and came home blind. I wondered how I missed the cops who were in the parking lot looking for drunk drivers. Another miracle.

After what seemed like ages, I got the familiar telegram from Marconi with my next posting. Travel to Hull to join the M/V Hollybank.

Fine I thought. Now I have achieved the three “B’s Award” – Baron Line, Booth Line and now Bank Line. The three most notorious and infamous shipping companies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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