The Austin mini had to go I decided after I triumphantly passed my driving licence. The car I had my eye on was at the front of the show room in Fishguard. It was a canary yellow Triumph Vitesse, 2ltr six cylinder 2-door coupe. My father and I went in for a test drive. Wow such acceleration! It had triple SU carbies and a wonderfully throaty roar emanated from the exhaust.
A thinly disguised road racer, it had rack and pinion steering, woodgrain dashboard, and racing steering wheel. It really pushed you back in the seat with plenty more power on tap. Just the kind of the thing for the twisting, winding Pembrokeshire roads.
She was soon parked outside our house and the mini had departed. However I didn’t get to do much more driving before the familiar telegram arrived from Marconi’s. My next assignment was to join a Nigerian vessel at Liverpool.
Her name was Ahmadu Bello named after an African King and was at the time the flag ship of the Nigerian National Line. She had British officers and Nigerian crew and sailed between the UK, Europe and West Africa. Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war with Biafra in the South and we had been informed that there was a strong possibility that the ship would be commandeered for the war effort.
If that happened we would be paid a 200% bonus while in the war zone. Exactly what amounted to the war zone was debatable so we weren’t quite sure what to do. In the end we adopted a “wait and see” attitude and got on with the job.
M/V Ahmadu Bello
With a grey coloured hull, The Ahmadu Bello was green below the waterline, with a white superstructure and a green and black funnel with a white letter N in the middle. Unfortunately she looked a bit dilapidated as the painting had not been kept up to scratch and she was rusty below the waterline.
She had accommodation for about ten passengers so I was kept fairly busy with private telegrams and radiotelephone calls during the trip from Liverpool to Lagos, via Dakar, Senegal.
Nigeria at that time was engaged in a bloody civil war between the North and Biafra in the South. Lagos was incredibly hot but the humidity was even worse hovering around the 90 percent mark. We had to stay at anchor for 19 days due to a hold up with the cargo and uncertainty about whether we would be commandeered for the war effort.
We couldn’t go ashore and there was a curfew and blackout at night and the city took on an eerie darkness with no cars or public transport running. Finally we drew alongside in Apapa port which is on the opposite side of the river to Lagos Island. There were armed soldiers everywhere and many vehicles were being stopped at check points and interrogated.
In the evening a few of us ventured out to the Stella Maris Seaman’s Mission run by the church and located inside the harbour. We stumbled across railway lines, dodging rats and cockroaches with just a small torch to find our way.
Any minute we thought a soldier would spring out of nowhere and hold us up, but eventually we found the mission and spent a few hours watching 16mm movies and drinking coke from the drinks machine.
The following morning cargo loading started but about midday some army officers arrived and halted everything. The next thing the Master, Captain Smith, called us into the officers mess room for a meeting.
He told us the army wanted to use the ship for transporting troops to Port Harcourt in Biafra and we would have to sail the ship. If we agreed, they would pay us a bonus of 200 percent. We all looked at each other silently then Captain Smith asked us to raise our hands if we agreed. Everyone raised their hands so that was decided. The Captain said that was for the best because if hadn’t agreed they would have likely thrown us off the ship and sailed it themselves.
So troops started marching down the docks and up the gangway. They were going to lie down anywhere it seemed as it was not very far down the coast to Port Harcourt. The alley ways and dining areas were full of soldiers. Troop carriers and Land Rovers were loaded in slings and battened down on deck.
Then for no apparent reason, everything stopped and went into reverse. The order came to off load the vehicles and the soldiers started walking off the ship. What the heck is going on? I wondered.
Pretty soon, the stevedores started operating the ships derricks and loading the general cargo again. You just couldn’t work out why, but maybe they didn’t want to risk their flag ship. Nobody really knew the reason, but a sense of relief was felt among us and personally I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
The Ahmadu Bello was loaded with a cargo of logs on deck as well as general cargo in her holds. There were seven or eight passengers on board, mostly Nigerian businessmen with their wives and children.
It was Christmas Day 1967 as we headed up the Nigerian coast bound for Belfast. The officers celebrated in the officers mess but most of the Nigerians didn’t take any notice being Muslims.
Around 2300 hours the weather turned really bad and the ship was pitching and rolling terribly. We had all partaken of a fair amount of booze and the party was in full swing, when suddenly the ship healed over and stayed there. It was a starboard side list around 30 degrees. Captain Smith bolted for the bridge and I headed for the radio room and switched on the equipment ready to send out a distress call if required.
I then quickly ran to the bridge to see what was going on. The Chief Mate and Captain were on the bridge and a seaman was on the wheel. I peered through the front windows onto the forward deck and saw that the logs on the port side had broken loose and rolled over to the starboard side causing the ship to heal over to starboard.
The poor seaman on the wheel could hardly steer the ship as wave after wave came crashing down on deck. The Captain was shouting orders and the Chief Mate left the bridge to supervise the crew. The 2nd and 3rd Mates arrived on the bridge to help. The Chief was ordering men on deck to let go all the logs so the ship would right itself.
I didn’t watch all the drama unfolding on deck as I had to standby the radio. The Captain hadn’t said anything to me yet, but I was ready in case we needed assistance. I was thinking those men are taking their lives into their hands going out there in a raging storm with those massive logs rolling about.
The men performed a miracle that night and all those massive logs went floating away into the night. I then had to send out a TTT (Navigational warning) to shipping advising of a danger to navigation caused by many floating logs. The ship continued at reduced speed on course for Belfast.
For some time I had been toying with the idea of leaving Marconi’s and going freelance as I was fed up with the low rate of pay. I had spoken to several other radio officers who had made the break and they had raved on about better pay and freedom.
At the time the Marconi equipment was under powered and relied on relaying of messages via British Commonwealth coast stations. Foreign vessels or FOC (flags of convenience) ships on the other hand had to communicate direct therefore they had much higher powered transmitters to enable world wide coverage.
After this incident on the Ahmadu Bello and our experience in Lagos I decided to write my letter of resignation and hand it in at the Marconi Belfast depot. However I still wasn’t sure how to go about getting a job on a foreign vessel but I meant to find out as soon as possible. It was 9th February 1968 when I paid off the Ahmadu Bello and left Marconi for the last time.
When I arrived back home and told my parents I had resigned, my mother said “what a good idea.” I took that to mean “you can settle down at home now, get married and stop gallivanting around the world.”
However, I had a name and a phone number and this just might be the key to my future. So after a short break I called the number and spoke to Mr DeKonning in Rotterdam, Holland. DeKonning was a shipping agent who specialised in recruiting crew members. I told him I was looking for a radio officers position on any FOC ship and he said he would be in touch with me.
My father and I did some more fishing in our little runabout and I again went out on the piss with Derek John who liked to listen to all my tales of the sea. I think he secretly wished he had stayed at sea but now he was tied down with a wife and family.
My sister had got married to a tear away Irishman called Rory and there was a baby on the way. I enjoyed catching up on serious driving in the Triumph Vitesse. I had left the keys with my father who had the use of it and had it maintained by the local mechanic.
I was unemployed and waiting to hear from Mr DeKonning and I started to wonder if I didn’t get anything from him, what my options were. Go back to Marconi? I don’t think so. Then one morning my mother brought in a telegram from Holland.