The telegram from Mr DeKonning said go to Sheerness and join M/V Nahshon. Very cryptic, so I rang him and confirmed the vessel was an Israeli registered ship berthed at Sheerness. It was 19th Feb 1968 only ten days after I had left Marconi’s and I was on a train south.
It seemed to always be winter time when I was joining or leaving a ship and this time was no exception. The chilling wind cut through my coat as I lugged my well-travelled suitcase up the gangway of the Nahshon.
The ship was fairly small around 3000 tons but it’s sleek streamlined appearance gave it the look of a yacht and in fact I later discovered it had once been a German millionaire’s yacht converted for carrying cargo.
The alleyways were wider, the cabins were lined with wood paneling and there was a swimming pool. There was a staircase leading to the lower decks and it had the feeling of being in party mode.
I was directed to the radio officers cabin and introduced to the R/O, Paddy an Irishman who had just completed his term of duty and was looking forward to going home on leave. The cabin was very spacious and there was an ensuite bathroom and toilet as well as built-in wardrobes. A double bunk, writing desk and a large settee completed the accommodation.
Paddy showed me an Eddystone radio which he said he couldn’t take with him being too bulky and he was already overweight for his flight home, so he offered to sell it to me. The price was reasonable so I took the offer.
Then Paddy showed me the radio room on the upper deck next door to the chart room on one side and the Master’s cabin on the other. In fact the radio room door was dead opposite the Captain’s cabin door.
The equipment was all German made by Siemens and Telefunken and the transmitters were all in separate units unlike Marconi gear which normally had one transmitter covering all bands. The main receiver was brand new.
Paddy gave me a quick demonstration of how to tune everything up and showed me the manuals which were all in German. Now is my time to start learning German, I thought with a wry grin.
And what a motley crew we had on board! The Captain was Ruven Ron, Israeli, chain smoker. The Chief Mate was also Israeli together with wife and wife’s sister. The 3rd Mate was Patrick, Irish. Chief Engineer, Sven Norwegian together with his wife Hilde. 2nd and 3rd Engineers were Spanish. 4th Engineer Yugoslav. The Chief Cook was Hungarian and everything he cooked had to have paprika over it. The remainder were of various nationalities including Israelis, Russian, Polish and Yugoslavs.
I said goodbye to Paddy and soon we were heading out of the pilotage to the open sea. Captain Ron seemed to have his door open all the time even at night and from his table where he sat reading books and smoking constantly, he could see right into the radio room.
It wasn’t long before I had mastered the tuning of the three MF, IF and HF transmitters and the new Siemens receiver was a snap to use and very sensitive.
The 1600 to 2400 shift is traditionally the 3rd Mate’s watch so I went up on the bridge and introduced myself to Patrick, the Irishman to find what brought him to such a company as this. It was a small cooperative of two vessels with the sister ship even smaller than the Nahshon and she didn’t carry a radio officer.
Patrick was married, not for very long with no children. He was a stocky, thickset, salt-of-the-earth typical Irishman and was lamenting the horrible food being dished up by the Hungarian chef. Personally I didn’t mind the paprika sprinkled around so it didn’t particularly worry me. However Patrick had plans to break in to the kitchen one night and cook up his own feast.
It was an uneventful voyage through the Mediterranean but on our arrival in Haifa, we were informed that our little cooperative of two vessels has been bought out, nay swallowed up, by the mighty Zim Lines, which is a government run shipping line.
So the blue funnel went – to be repainted white with gold stars like the other Zim ships. We loaded our cargo of Jaffa oranges and departed for Turku in Finland and North European ports.
I was getting used to the routine of monitoring Haifa radio 4XO because they had a continuous traffic list and if there was a message for you it was immediately put on the list. So all you had to do was call 4XO to receive your messages. Very quick and efficient. Most other coast stations had traffic lists every two hours.
Sitting opposite the captain’s cabin made one feel like they were under surveillance because Captain Ron, would sit at his table drinking coffee, smoking and reading novels most of the day and he would just keep glancing in my direction to see what I was up to. Of course I could just close the radio room door, but it would be a bit rude I suppose.
As the ship left Gibraltar and headed north along the Portuguese coast, the weather started to worsen. Gales were forecast for the Bay of Biscay so the crew were preparing for an uncomfortable voyage to the English Channel.
There was nothing we could do to avoid the gales which followed except slow down and drive into the sea and wind. Higher and higher came the waves. The Nahshon would travel up a steep mountain of water and then shudder and shake as it crashed down the other side.
I was on duty in the radio room with Captain Ron in his usual spot opposite smoking and reading, when suddenly there was a mighty crash below, followed by female screams. I jumped out of my seat and ran to the top of the stairway. Looking down all I could see was a foot of water sloshing around the alleyways.
Then the Chief Mate’s wife and sister-in-law ran up the stairs towards me. They were both in their night dresses and soaking wet. They made a beeline for the captain’s cabin and fell on the floor at Captain Ron’s feet who jumped back in surprise.
The two women were hysterically wailing and howling and talking in Hebrew to the captain, who jumped up and ran down the stairs. As I was still technically still on watch, I decided to stay in the radio room and wait in case I was needed. The transmitter and receiver were switched on and ready.
I could hear people running around below with a few bangs and crashes but I was still in the dark as to what had happened. Maybe a door had broken and the sea had come rushing in was what I imagined.
The ship was still going up and down the walls of water and a few things which hadn’t been fastened down were floating about in the water below. The two women were drying themselves with towels and whimpering to themselves opposite me in the captain’s cabin and the water seemed to be subsiding a little.
It was several hours riding out the storm before we found any relief from the constant movement of the ship. Captain Ron came back to his cabin and comforted the two women and also related to me what had happened.
The forward porthole to the Chief Mates cabin where the two women had been sleeping had been smashed by the force of the sea causing a torrent of water to crash on top of them.
Million of tiny slivers of glass were stuck in the wooden paneling opposite like razor sharp arrows. It was lucky the women were lying on mattresses on the floor otherwise they might have died. The crew had temporarily sealed up the porthole with a steel plate but some water was still entering the cabin which was a disaster zone. Luckily there was a spare cabin reserved for the pilot so the two women moved whatever they could salvage and settled there until we reached port.
The best part of working freelance was the pay. One thousand dollars US cash in hand! What a difference from fortyeight pounds per month working for MIMCO. We got paid by the captain on the last day of the month and to watch him counting out hundred dollar bills and signing for it was an amazing feeling. That was a fortune in 1968.
By 1970 I had been transferred five times on various Zim Line vessels. M/V Esther, Rachel, Kineret, Esther again and then Timna which was a 100,000 ton bulk carrier. I was getting rather weary of the constant transfers and Mr DeKonning again came to the rescue and gave me another job.
This time a German flag vessel berthed in Hamburg. The Frigomaris Kuhlschiff Reederei had booked my flight on Lufthansa and when I arrived at their office, I was warmly greeted by a Mr Schuster. “Did you have a nice flight Herr Hewitson?” He pronounced my name as Hevitsohn with a thick accent. “Oh yes, I replied, I flew in by Lufwaffe, I mean Lufthansa.” Mr Schuster gave me an odd look then carried on.
Great start I thought, don’t mention the war!
The ship was the M/V Satsumacore a refrigerated cargo vessel of only two years old with a top speed of about 22 knots and 18 knots economical. Most of the officers were German but there were a few other nationalities such as Dutch, Yugoslav and Spanish.
We were on the banana run headed to Panama for orders and ended up anchored for a week in the lakes waiting for a radiotelegram from the owners telling us where to pick up our cargo. Eventually we were sent to Punta Arenas in Costa Rica on the Pacific coast.
So we were towed through the locks, exited the canal and headed North up the coast. The ocean was like glass, flat calm and the sky was clear blue. The ship creamed through the water as I looked through the window of the radio room while waiting for the weather map to come in on the fax machine.
Without warning, suddenly the whole ship started shaking violently. The equipment rack in the radio room was rattling and shaking and I held onto it as I thought it was going to fall off the wall. I glanced out of the window expecting to see a rock or something that we had hit.
The engine was making loud grinding noises with screeches like metal grinding on metal. It sounded as if the engine was over-revving and about to blow apart. I heard the Chief Engineer screaming at the top of his voice, asking what the hell was going on and then the loud clang of the steel door as he tore down into the engine room.
I was still looking through the window in all directions to see if I could see any rocks, or another ship that we may have had a collision with.
And then – Silence! Everything returned to normal. The ship continued steaming up the coast. The ocean remained flat and calm and it was as if nothing had happened.
I ran into the wheelhouse to see if anyone knew what was happening. The OM was there as well as all the other deck officers who had come to see what was going on. We all just stood around with blank expressions asking each other what was that all about?
We were all still in shock and the drama had only taken perhaps 20 seconds but on investigation it didn’t seem as though we had sustained any damage. That night I tuned around all the news broadcasts on shortwave and The Voice of America was saying there had been a massive earthquake off the coast of Peru. Even though we were over 1,200 nautical miles away, we still felt the force of the shock waves.
After loading bananas in Punta Arenas, we headed back through the Panama canal and up to Houston, Texas. Then it was back through the canal to Australia to load meat products for the US.
It was in Melbourne where I met Fay and we took an instant liking to each other. It was a world wind meeting as we were only in the city for a couple of days, but we vowed to keep in touch.
On my return home I rang Fay and she said why not come and visit for a while and get to know Australia. I had a few months leave due to me so the next thing I knew, I was hopping on a plane for Melbourne. My parents were not really surprised at my decision but my mother had a tear in her eye as we said our goodbyes, and I think she knew this was not going to be a short trip.