Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A really nice place...

Do you want to know a secret?  Yes?
I thought so.
Well dear readers, as that great luminary Leonard Cohen once said, "I'm not the sort of chap who would keep it to himself and you are just the people I want to tell it to."
For twenty eight years, Mrs Filius (filia Flandrie) and myself lived in a wonderful suburban community about 25 kilometres from Sydney's city centre.  Here, we watched our children pass from infants, on to primary then high school and out into the world.  We shared scout camps and brownie barbecues; cheered them at school concerts and Anzac Day marches; stood on the sidelines at netball and soccer games and did all those perfect things that make weekends in the urban stretch of a large city what they are.  
We might notice, when we travelled on family holidays to Port Macquarie, Nelson Bay and points further north, as we left the freeway near Hexham and crossed the old lift bridge spanning the Hunter River, the sign that pointed to the city of Newcastle.  We never thought for a second of detouring in that direction.  Why would we? Everyone knew Newcastle was a dull industrial steel and coal city - what could possibly be of interest to us there?
What a real working harbour looks like - sadly you won't see this in Sydney Harbour any more
Every so often I might encounter a displaced Novocastrian who would refer to his home in glowing terms and we sophisticated folk from our wonderful harbour city would roll our eyes in resignation at this endearing but misguided loyalty.  My former boss at Veolia, where the leadership team comprises a decent share of the Hunter diaspora, continues to talk of his place of origin as "the Centre of the Universe" - you would disagree with him at your peril.
This is an aside I know, but do you want to know how many times I have driven across the Sydney Harbour Bridge?  I'm going to tell you anyway.  By my estimate, it is over 50,000 times.  That's on the basis of twice a day, five working days a week for about twenty five years plus a fudge factor to take into account my two years as a taxi driver and student during my late twenties.  I reckon it's about a quarter of a million dollars in bridge tolls at today's rates.  I'm not going to mention the Harbour Tunnel, the Eastern Distributor, the Lane Cove Tunnel and the other pieces of infrastructure which extract a fee for the privilege of parking on them each day while trying to get from one part of town to the other.  To complain of this would be churlish.
So this is where the revelation begins, friends.  Just over a year ago, I was considering my future options - retiring from full time work, doing a little part time consulting, doing some pro bono work, improving the golf handicap, doing a little writing; you know, all those things we plan while we're still young.  Unexpectedly an opportunity to consider moving from Sydney came our way.  What followed was a series of conversations with some nice people. Within days I had been offered a job, accepted it, and before I could say Jennifer Hawkins, we were making plans to relocate.  
Prior to our twenty eight year stopover in Sydney, we had lived like gypsies: three years here, three years there, a few years travelling around the world. Then along came the family and the Sydney stopover as we watched them grow.  Now it was again time for a change.  We packed everything we needed; two pantechnicons replacing the Sunbeam Imp used half a lifetime ago when we moved into our first home.  After a few tears, and a last look around we drove north for two hours, with not much idea of what the next few years had in store. 
The thing is, we really had no idea at all what to expect - and that is what has made it so splendid.  I don't want this story to turn into a travel brochure for Newcastle, but I have to spill the beans on this.  Where else in this great country, could we live five minutes walk from the beach, five minutes walk to coffee shops, bars and eateries and five minutes walk to the foreshore of a working harbour.  A harbour by the way which is exporting over 100 million tonnes of coal every year in an urban region employing over 300,000 people which is about 100,000 more than it did ten years ago, when it was that dull steel manufacturing city I referred to earlier in this piece.  But that is not to say we're living in the sticks, despite what those eye-rolling, sophisticated chai-latte sipping folk living down the other end of the F3 might think. 
A couple of weeks ago I needed a bank cheque.  I called the Newcastle office of my bank wanting to make sure that I could organise well in advance what was needed. I was, after all from a part of the world where I had become accustomed to spending an eternity waiting in line only to find I was talking to the wrong department.  
"Come along", said the voice at the end of the phone, "we'll do it while you wait."  
So I got into my car and drove the five minutes from my office to the Newcastle CBD and - get this - parked right in front of the bank!  In my family, we call any parking spot within 20 or 30 metres of your actual destination a Cairns park.  If it's right in front, it's a Gordonvale park.  You will know what I mean if you grew up in a small town.  So, having parked my car Gordonvale style, I walked into the bank where there were three customers, and four tellers.  The vacant teller smiled at me as I walked up.  I said, "I would like to organise a  bank cheque, please." 
"Certainly," she said, "you must be the gentleman I who I spoke to on the phone ten minutes ago!"
What service, and what a pleasant way to do business. 
It's not just parking at the bank either.  We went to a function at the City Hall and parked in King Street right in front of the building.  It happened again at the Art Gallery, and later at the Conservatorium of Music.
The Victoria Theatre
This city has many accessible and delightful public buildings. We are still only beginning to explore them. Some of them are just waiting for that little bit of kindness which is going to lift this town to its rightful place as a major Australian city, and not simply a place the occasional politician in Macquarie Street thinks about at election time. The wonderful Victoria Theatre for example, the oldest in NSW, just waiting for the right care and attention  - and the lovely old buildings in the city centre including The Post Office, the Court House and the ANZ Bank Building are deserving of much more preservation and use than they are receiving today.
The founding fathers were very plain-minded when it came to naming suburbs. It appears that once they ran out of names of towns and cities in Wales and the North of England (Swansea, Cardiff, Gateshead, Morpeth and for some bizarre reason, Toronto), they imaginatively moved on to names like The Hill and The Junction and then for reasons which I have not yet been able to establish, they called one of the flattest parts of the city Cooks Hill. But it doesn't matter because it is also one of the more pleasing parts of this town and it is where we have found our new home.
Cooks Hill
It is from here every weekend, that we escape the cheerful nearby cacophony of umpires' whistles and noisy parents at Saturday morning netball and wander down to one of at least five beaches where the first question one of us always asks  is, "How many ships can you see?" 
Before Pasha Bulker made its unwelcome and unscheduled landing on Nobbys Beach during the 2007 storm which will forever carry its name, it was usual for there to be upward of sixty vessels at anchor outside the Harbour waiting for a berth at the coal terminal. Now there are still plenty of ships out there, but for safety reasons never more than 14 or 15 at anchor, while the remainder use a "Vessel Arrival System" involving a floating suburb of about fifty ships drifting in designated areas, one about 120 miles offshore, the other somewhere north of the equator. 
Depending on our mood, we later walk to Darby Street for coffee and poached eggs at one of the many cafés, or we head to The Junction and Lotus where there is always a smile and if we're lucky, a table.
Of course there are a few things we miss. The dearth of good doctors, and the limited access to medical specialists makes one wonder what it must be like in smaller country towns, if it is so difficult here.
Newcastle is a relatively homogenous anglo-celtic city, no doubt due to its mining and steelmaking antecedents, but I feel the tides of change. It seems clear that a generation or two from now, the richness and diversity that larger centres enjoy will be evident here in this attractive city. 
I deliberately use the term attractive city here. Newcastle has certainly seen adversity - a steel mill closed, an earthquake which did more than shake the ground and cause destruction and sadness, it shook our complacency that it could not happen here. The city has had something of a reputation for unpleasant drinking habits and violence in the city centre (yes, Newcastle has its share of hoons) and I don't want to mention the abundance of tattoo parlours, adult stores and bewilderingly, bridal shops which are dotted up and down Hunter Street. 
But since coming here, we have enjoyed becoming "townies".  We delight in walking about the city on the weekend. We love the access to the beach, the friendly folk in the coffee shops and neighbours who go out of their way to chat, those friendly Nesca Park petanquers who engage us so easily in conversation and the evocative sound of ships' horns as they enter and leave port - day or night which is never, ever disturbing. 
We love walking along Shortland Esplanade, after a storm when the waves are breaking over the road, past the spot where only a few hours before rock fisherman were risking their lives for whatever was running that day. We love standing in the rain and watching a huge bulk carrier sliding past Nobbys Head, escorted by a couple of busy tugs making sure it doesn't lose its way as it heads to the coal wharf; and then we turn and face the other direction, to Nobbys Beach, where despite the cold, and the wind, and the rain, some crackpot parasurfer is bouncing over the waves and racing across the sea like a dog chasing an aeroplane.
Yes, I think we're going to like it here and I might even have to become a Knights supporter - maybe.
Just please get rid of that damn railway line slicing through the city like some Berlin Wall and then we can have a central business district and downtown area that will make people envious from Portland to Prague - there I've said it.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Supernumerary - 1974

At just 1,800 tonnes, Lindinger Amber was a pleasant little ship. Built in Husum in late 1972, and just over a year old, she looked very welcoming as she sat high in the water at Liverpool Dock with her royal blue hull and shiny cream superstructure. It almost seemed she might rock just a little as I stepped on board, but she was well-made and I was sure that I was going to enjoy her company. It was certainly going to be nice to sail on a new ship for a change. She had all her maiden voyage problems behind her, a full set of engine room drawings and manuals, meaning I would not have to start the trip crawling around below bilge plates looking at fuel lines, and she was in good shape. It was also a satisfying feeling to know I was going to be sailing out of Liverpool again. We had the usual dockside maintenance crew on board and after work, many pleasant hours were spent in the mess room or in someone's cabin sharing a drink while listening to their entertaining anecdotes and John Lennon accents.
One of the engine fitters, whose narratives brought me more to mind of a music hall than a ship's engine room, volunteered to look after the Rover while I was away.  I had driven the car to the ship from Nottingham and eventually sold it to him for 80 pounds. From his perspective, this became somewhat of a bargain, since I never saw a penny of the money.  When I returned to Liverpool at the end of that trip, it was to discover that he was no longer working for the company, and neither he nor my car was ever seen again.  Neither unfortunately were Bob's ski boots, also in the car - a trivial item perhaps, but one which Bob feels worthy of remembering from time to time, usually over a glass of wine with friends - but I doubt whether he has mentioned it more than a hundred times since that day.
January 1974 was also the year I threw out my slide rule and bought my first electronic calculator - a wonderful thing about the size of a small house brick which could add, subtract, multiply and divide and cost me the handsome sum of 40 pounds – a bargain as long as I didn't need to calculate a square root. Just in case, I kept my old log tables for a little longer (actually I think I still have them somewhere).
The round trip to North Africa and back would be six weeks. Our cargo consisted of 200 litre drums of refined lubricating oil and bales of filter sand for one of the major water treatment facilities in Algiers - thus creating a unique combination of a delivery of sand and oil to the arabs. I would like to meet the salesman who negotiated that deal.
It was the first time I had been on a trip where the excitement of the voyage was exceeded by the prospect of going home to Pauline six weeks later and having her join me for the following voyage. The weather was appalling, from the moment we left the shelter of Liverpool Bay and turned left into the Irish Sea, but we had a very capable skipper who spent more time on the bridge that I remember any other ship’s captain. He was known by all as Hundred Pipers Pete, since he consumed copious amounts of the whiskey of that name, but I don’t recall having seen him the worst for wear from alcohol. Perhaps I never saw him sober –but he certainly inspired confidence in his officers and crew and we had a safe, if sleepless and uncomfortable trip down through the Irish Sea and across the Bay of Biscay before we reached the relatively calmer waters of the Mediterranean.
I remember a phone call I made from the ship which epitomises the quality of communication in those days. Since leaving her in Nottingham I had buried myself in the job of familiarising myself with a new environment and re-adapting to the routine of shipboard activity. Pauline, on the other hand was becoming a little apprehensive. She had not heard from me for the several weeks I had been away, and maybe some of her friends were already telling her stories about sailors with a girl in every port. This was of course long before mobile phone and computers and the only communication was postage, telegram or a costly phone call from a Post Office, limited to three minutes, always assuming a connection could be made and maintained.
I had written a letter each time we were in port  and I assumed she was busy making plans for her upcoming sea adventure – maybe she was already asking people to call her Ishmael. In fact, this is exactly what she was doing (making the plans I mean) – but she was still getting more concerned as each day went by with no message from me. It think she was also getting a little tired of hearing people ask the question, "Have you heard from Mike?"
So maybe it was a good thing that I took the unusual step, of trying to call her from the ship - who knows, maybe if I had not done this, she would have been back at the Co-Op by the time I got back to Liverpool. The ship-to-shore system was not the most reliable. Used mainly by the ship's captain for calling up the pilot as we entered port, and occasionally for communication between the captain and the shipping office, it was somewhat out of the ordinary to be asking to use it for personal reasons.  But they were a considerate and obliging lot these Danes, and we made the connection.  Pauline lived with her mother, where there was no phone so I called her sister a few houses away who sent one of her daughters running up the street to find her.  We managed to make contact.  It was nice to make the connection, although something of a farce, with both of us talking at the same time and me shouting over the static down the line,
"Hello, how are you? Over."  crackle, crackle, crackle.
"I said, how are YOU? Over." crackle, crackle.
"What? Over." 
"No - wait until I say over before you talk. Over."
But it was worth it and after that the trip north seemed as long as a Pacific crossing as we made our way back across Biscay and into the Irish Sea.
We arrived back in Liverpool in late February, expecting a weeks' turn around and plenty of time for me to go down to Nottingham and pick up Pauline, but due to an illness and a late change in plans, I was asked to transfer across to Lindinger Coral which was also in Liverpool and expecting to sail within the next two days back to Algeria. There was just time therefore for a quick drive to Nottingham (in a rented car) where I collected my new shipmate and, after a few tearful farewells, returned to Liverpool and Pauline's introduction to life at sea.
Lindinger Coral was a replica of Amber and about six months younger.  The Lindinger company had embarked on an ambitious building program, thanks to the generous tax concessions available to shipping in Denmark.  Lindinger were turning out ships like Amber every couple of months or so.  At that time there were already eight identical ships on various charters around the world (Amber, Brilliant, Coral, Diamond, Emerald, Facet, Gold and Hyacinth) and Lindinger Ivory was due to be launched within the next few days.
In keeping with the Danish formalities, Pauline was required to sign on as a "supernumerary" - a non-regular member of the ship's complement who is not a usual member of the crew. To make the ship's register complete, and perhaps to comply with other formalities, she was also designated a stewardess with a salary of zero kroner per month.
After many years at sea with no-one but Board of Trade acquaintances with whom to share my experiences, this was to be the beginning of a new life for me as well as Pauline.  For the next few weeks (and hopefully for much longer) we would be sharing a tiny cabin, the size of a small bathroom with a narrow bunk, a bench-style sofa and a small desk suitable for supporting the weight of a small black and white television set and not much else.
That last night in Liverpool before we left for Algiers and other ports along the Barbary Coast, was a most enjoyable and entertaining experience. There must have been a dozen of us squeezed into my little First Engineer's Cabin - Pauline and myself, two of the other engineers, the chief and second mates and about three or four of the dockside maintenance crew.  The ship was due to leave at about midnight on the high tide and Pauline was the centre of attention, with everyone being a perfect gentleman by making sure that she never had an empty glass.  I don't suppose that we had much in the way of sustenance during this time, and although the engineers and deck officers who would be on watch were very careful to keep their consumption of alcohol to a minimum, the same could not be said for Pauline. I think she was probably feeling a little whoozy as we said our final farewells, and a few minutes after our last visitor had stepped ashore the gangway came up and Lindinger Coral eased away from the quay and into the Mersey River.
It wasn't long after this, as the lights of the city slipped behind us and the ship entered Liverpool Bay beginning to roll gently in the growing swell, that Pauline turned to me and said, "I think I'm going to be sick."

 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A cold winter in Europe - 1973

If you are reading my blogs for the first time, welcome!  However, this is possibly not the best place to start.  I hope you will eventually dip into them all, but if nothing else, please read "and so back to England 1973" before reading this - it might provide a little more context.
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...and so it was that on a particular day in September, a few days after my father had returned to Australia, I found myself, together with a bunch of other hopefuls at an artificial ski-slope at Esher near London.  
A couple of years earlier some Sydney friends had spent a winter working in Saas Fee and having succeeded in making it sound like the most exciting thing on earth, I was determined to find out for myself what it was like.  I had done a little research and after an over-the-phone interview, I was now an aspiring candidate for the alpine working holiday of a lifetime.  There was only one small catch - the job required a standard of skill, which my previous efforts on the intermediate slopes at Falls Creek and Perisher might not meet.
The job was described as requiring a standard of competency around the mountain sufficient to be able to operate a T-bar lift, chip ice off machinery and be available at which ever part of the resort needed a pair of arms and legs. To ensure that we were capable of carrying out these tasks, candidates were required to demonstrate a level of proficiency as a skier which was at least above that of novice.
I’m sure there are now larger dry slope fields, many of them indoors, but at that time the Artificial Ski Centre at Esher was described as the largest slope in the UK and as I looked down it that afternoon it seemed a daunting challenge.
I had never considered myself a great skier, but I thought I was competent enough to do the job. The challenge appeared simple. We had to be able to negotiate the slope twice without the help of poles while carrying an empty wooden cable drum supported by a section of galvanised pipe about a metre long pushed through the axis of the drum. We each made our way to the top of the slope and one by one were made to balance the drum and length of pipe in the crooks of our elbows and asked to ski to the bottom. One or two did it as if they had been doing it all their lives.  Others, came to grief - some as they set off, others as they tried to slalom down the hill, and others as they arrived at the bottom, unable to stop.  It was terrifying to watch, and finally it was my turn. I felt like a paratrooper about to make his first jump, with a not so friendly sergeant standing behind waiting to kick me into space.  I took a deep breath and launched myself on to the slope, looking for all the world like someone auditioning for a spot on It's a Knockout. Frank Spencer could not have looked any worse as I flew down the slope, skis pointing in every direction, displaying all the dignity of a tight rope walker in a gale. The only thing preventing my arms from flailing like a windmill was that I was hanging on to the cable drum as though my life depended on it.
I don’t know how I twice made it to the bottom of the slope without turning my high speed balancing act into an imitation of a cartwheel from a wrecked stagecoach  bouncing randomly downhill – but I did. The guy who had organised the event, shook his head at me saying it was the worst exhibition of skiing he had ever seen. He could not imagine how I would survive a real ski slope, let alone one high in the Swiss Alps, but he obviously thought I was going to be someone else's problem and as good as his word, he gave me the job. 
I’m not sure whether I was pleased at this news or not, but at least I had a job to go to. Bob arrived a week or two later and after he had done the rounds of friends and family we were ready for our European Odyssey.
So it was that on a bleak and wintery day in late November of that year Bob and I set off in the capacious and stately Rover, with freshly fitted amber headlight reflectors for our destiny in Switzerland. We were planning to take our time getting there partly because we weren’t expected in Saas Fee before the second week of December, and partly because we had not planned on the 1973 Oil Crisis which had started the previous month and was likely to restrict our access to fuel at times.
We took the ferry across from Harwich in East Anglia to Esbjerg in Denmark on the Jutland Peninsula. From there we drove across Denmark to Copenhagen where we spent a night with Riis and Solveig Petersen a young Danish couple who I had sailed with on Dona Clausen where they were third mate and radio operator.
We spent a couple of nights also in Copenhagen, a lovely town where among other things I introduced Bob to a few more of my former shipmates from Dona Clausen, and they in turn introduced Bob to Messrs Aalberg, Tuborg and Carlsberg, although I don't believe any introduction was necessary. We dived headlong into Danish culture. First, a visit to Helsingør where we visited Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore and stared across Øresund to Helsingborg on the other side of the strait in Sweden. We followed Shakespeare's inspiration with a visit to the local cinema to see Deep Throat and Linda Lovelace, for at that time cultural experiences such as these could only be had in enlightened and progressive countries like Denmark and Holland.
We had started our European journey by travelling across Denmark because I wanted to see the land I had recently heard so much of and because I wanted to see again some of the friends I had made since joining Clausen Company. I also wanted to explore other work opportunities and while in Copenhagen, I went to see another well known and fast-growing shipping group, Lindinger. They were new to shipping with about ten vessels in their fleet having only recently embarked on a major building and recruitment program. Lindinger had been described to me as a “bukser selskab” (literally a trouser company), a name given to a company with no prior links with shipping (for example, a clothing manufacturer) who had taken advantage of the Danish Government’s generous tax concessions by entering the shipbuilding business. This was beneficial to me, (not to mention a whole industry of ship builders and engineers) and I was offered a job on the spot. I agreed to sign on as First Engineer on Lindinger Amber due to sail from Liverpool to North Africa sometime in late January. My thinking at the time was that if the Saas Fee adventure failed to materialise (or if the predictions of my ski-ing examiner proved true), if nothing else, I would have something to do. Ah, the heady days of full employment for all!
Now at this point I have to confess that as much as I was enjoying the adventure, and of course the pleasure of Bob's amusing company, my thoughts kept returning to Pauline and the fact that I had already decided I was going to marry her (a thought I had not actually at that point shared with her). Not long after the meeting with the folk at Lindinger, I called her long distance to say hello - not something done lightly in those days before mobile phones, and made more difficult by the fact that she had no phone at her mother's house where she was living.  Having established contact - she in her crowded office at work; me in a telephone kiosk outside Tivoli Garden - I told her that I was going back to sea in the new year and the Danes being more liberal than their British counterparts in their attitude towards officers’ wives and partners on board ship, I asked her if she would like to come with me. “But I have a good job at the Co-op" she said, "I can’t possible leave that!” I asked her to think about it and she said yes OK, she would think about it.
After about a week in Denmark we drove to Gedser, the southernmost town in Denmark on the island of Falster, where we crossed on the ferry to Rostock in East Germany, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR).
The countryside was thick with snow and the roads were icy as we drove around Rostock looking for a way out. Our destination that day was Berlin and we thought we were well on way when we saw a motorway sign pointing to “Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR”. Pretty soon we were speeding through the night along a spanking new motorway, thinking – this can’t be bad. We had about 200 km to drive to our destination and it was going to take no time at all on motorway like this. I can’t remember how long we were humming along in the dark down this lovely new road which I have since discovered is now the E55 Euro route. 
The traffic became lighter and lighter and soon ours was the only vehicle travelling in either direction. Then all at once, the motorway stopped. By that I don’t mean that we came across one of those “end of motorway” signs, or anything like that. I mean it just stopped and we were driving along a hard gravel surface with no markings, no median strip and clearly no longer harbouring any pretence of being a road. Fortunately we were able to quickly come to a stop, or who knows where we might have finished up that night – in a field presumably, or worse someone’s back garden. 
And there we were - in the middle of a freezing winter’s night, surrounded by snow and ice, in East Germany – stuck at the end of the Autobahn to Nowhere.
With great deal of circumspection we turned our stately and capacious Rover around, and ever so carefully retraced our steps, until we were able to bump back up on the tarmac of the motorway again. We did have a map, but regrettably our road wasn’t marked on it, so when we arrived back at the last exit point several kilometres back in the other direction, we still had no idea where we were.
Happily, we did not have to drive around for very long before we found another road and a signpost with the familiar “Hauptstadt der DDR”direction. This time we had a road to follow which took us through numerous towns and villages and eventually delivered us into Berlin en route to our final destination that night, West Berlin. We drove to Checkpoint Charlie, the name given by the West to the best known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin. It was here that we were subject to a rigorous search of our vehicle by the Volkspolizei, the East German police, otherwise known as the VP. They looked under the car with mirrors on trolleys and under the bonnet. They opened the petrol cap and shone a torch inside and went through our entire luggage until they were satisfied that we weren’t trying in any way to carry anything back into the West that we hadn’t taken in with us. Once we were allowed to pass we drove to the western sector of the wall where the West German border police had a cursory look at our passports and waved us through thus ending forever our links with socialist realism. We spent a night in West Berlin (enjoying the nightlife) and left the next day for Munich, where we did more exploring of the local social scene and the delights of the Bavarian Bierkeller.
Bob was a great travelling companion and we shared a lot of laughs. He and I had met about four years earlier when we were engineers on the SS Francis Drake. Bob was from Plymouth and after getting to know each other as shipmates we also became housemates in the early 1970s. For some reason we started calling ourselves Smithers and Saunders and effecting a toffee-nosed upper class British military accent, “I say Smithers, jolly close call that, what –stiff upper lip eh?” Well, we thought it was funny.
It was somewhere between Berlin and Munich or maybe it was between Munich and our next destination Milan, that we started to find that capacious and stately that the Rover may have been, it was certainly no longer as reliable and trustworthy as we would have liked. She broke down a couple of times in the hills and we frequently found the formerly healthy sounding six cylinder engine running with only five, four or sometimes just three cylinders firing. Of course it was bitterly cold, and one night when we had to sleep in the car, we woke the next morning to find our beer and wine rations (kept in the boot, purely for medicinal purposes) frozen solid. Worse, the water in the radiator, despite the fact that we had poured liberal amounts of anti-freeze compound into the system, had also frozen.
We hadn’t intended to travel as far south as Milan; Switzerland was after all our destination, but a look at the map seemed to indicate that there was a lot more downhill than uphill by diverting to Italy (and parts of Switzerland are of course, seriously uphill). There was also more chance of finding a Rover dealership in Milan. So it was that a few hours out of Munich and after the aforementioned rough night in the car, Saunders and Smithers managed to continue on to Milan where they were able to get some repairs affected to the capacious, stately and extremely unhealthy Rover.
I remember little about Milan except it being wet, but since we were sleeping in the car at this time, I think it was a preferable environment to having several feet of snow piled up outside the door. We did however manage to get some repairs done to the car and were thus able to proceed in our stately way north, via the Simplon tunnel (which meant putting the car on a train for part of the journey) and thence to our final destination at Saas Fee in Switzerland.
It was early December when we arrived, and to our amazement there was little or no snow, and apparently little or no chance of employment for at least two or three more weeks. We didn't even bother to stay overnight.  We had both had enough.  Bob was happy to return to the UK and thence to Australia; and I was keen to find out whether Pauline was going to run away to sea with me or not. So we left.
After a brief stopover in Paris we headed west to Dieppe and then on the ferry to Dover. There is not much memorable about the trip home, except that we had about exhausted all our funds by the last French motorway toll booth, and were able to manage only a few relatively small Danish øre which we pitched into the automatic collection basket, and drove on to the sound of ringing bells and flashing lights – quite an exit, I thought at the time.
So Bob returned to Sydney not long after, sadly leaving his ski-boots in the back of the Rover never to see them again. What followed for me was a highly enjoyable Christmas with Anne and the family in Nuthall – my first winter Christmas since 1955 and on 5th January 1974 I set sail as First Engineer on MV Lindinger Amber from Liverpool to Algeria, carrying of all thing a cargo of refined lubricating oil.
Oh yes, I almost forgot to tell you - Pauline had said yes. 

She wouldn’t be able to join me until the second voyage in mid-February so this first trip I had to do on my own and I can't wait to tell you what happened next...

Monday, 18 June 2012

…and so back to England - 1973


It was sometime around the middle of 1973 that I contacted my father, who had recently retired and was living alone in a small duplex just south of Cairns. I was soon to be leaving the Danish livestock vessel MV Dona Clausen after completing six months' voyage time. I had joined her in Singapore earlier in the year and, after a few trips carrying cattle and sheep from Australia and New Zealand to South America and the Middle East, and a promotion to first engineer, I was ready for some leave. Dona Clausen was a good ship and the Danes make pleasant shipmates once one becomes accustomed to their partiality for smoked fish, lard and akvavit.
I made many good friends. Among them was Holger, my predecessor as first engineer, a droll and self-deprecating fellow from whom I learned much about the Danish character.  My attempts at learning Danish were a continuing source of amusement to him.  Although not exactly a zealot when it came to hard work, he was a very good engineer who understood the idiosyncracies of our cranky and temperamental Götaverken engine better than anyone. He was also a chronic alcoholic. A condition of his employment required that he receive a daily dose of disulfiram (known as Antabuse).  The effect of the medication being that even the slightest alcohol consumption produces acute symptoms of nausea, headaches and illness. This was administered every morning by the chief engineer and as a result, Holger was never anything other than strictly sober, which is more than I could say for some of my other shipmates.
I would frequently read my Teach Yourself Danish book to him.  “Mit navn er Jens Hansen.
Jeg er en mand.  Der er mange mennesker i Danmark der hedder Hansen.” (My name is Jens Hansen. I am a man. There are many people in Denmark named Hansen). I would go on, in what resembled his native language in only the most remote fashion, to describe Jens and his kinfolk in detail and as I did, Holger would puff on his pipe, nod his head and say in his melodious Scandinavian English, “I like the Hansen family.”It was while I was serving on Danish ships that I discovered my love of frikadeller, a flat pan-fried dumpling of minced pork, or occasionally beef, served with boiled potatoes and cooked red cabbage (rødkål).  There are many recipes around - this is a good one. Delicious!
But I digress, and need to return to my story. It was in Sydney, just a few weeks before I was to go on leave that I phoned my father.  Dad had suffered a stroke a year or two earlier, and had recently retired at the age of 61 (just a youngster).  It had been some time since we had last been in touch with each other and I suggested to him that it might be nice for us to have a holiday somewhere.  He thought so too.  I had in mind a couple of weeks on the Gold Coast, or maybe somewhere in the South Pacific – Fiji perhaps.
“I would like to go to England,” he said. He had not been there since the family had
emigrated nearly 20 years earlier, and although his mother and his only sister had passed away, he had three nephews who he hadn’t seen since their childhood and he was long overdue a journey back to the Old Dart. “Right you are then,” I said.  And so it was that in July 1973 we were together on QF1 bound for London Heathrow.
Dad was planning to stay about six weeks after which I had arranged to catch up with Bob Pope. Bob and I had agreed to get together later in the year to do a bit of touring around Europe and maybe get some winter work in one of the alpine ski resorts. He and I had sailed together on Francis Drake some years earlier, and we had become good friends.  We had shared a house with three or four other guys in Artarmon for several months when I worked in Sydney in the early 1970s (more about that another day, perhaps).
Dad was born in London and although he grew up around Norwich and later moved to
Nottingham, he always considered London his home town and nothing gave him more pleasure than singing a few choruses of Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner. So we spent a week together in London where he enjoyed the opportunity to revisit a few landmarks.
His father had been a victim of the Great War.  After seeing service at the front, he was sadly killed when his rifle exploded in his face at Aldershot Rifle Range in 1915 when Dad was just a baby.  It wasn’t until many years later, when service records became more accessible through the internet that I learned that my grandfather and his two brothers, George and Ernest all saw action and of the three brothers only one would survive the war.  Dad knew little about his childhood.  He was born in Streatham in the south west not far from Kennington Oval.  He had an elder sister and the children spent most of their childhood living with aunts and uncles while my grandmother worked as a lady's maid (they called it being in service).
We wanted to look for my grandfather's grave, so based on Dad’s hunch we spent a day at
Lambeth Cemetery.  Lambeth Cemetery is a huge necropolis with about a quarter of a million graves and we walked around without success for two or three hours looking at headstones and monuments. Late that afternoon, we found our way to the records room, and a kindly warden let us spend more time looking through dusty archives.  Amazingly, and almost at random, shortly before the cemetery gates were to be locked for the day, we found the record we were after.  To this day I don’t know how, but I picked up a book of burial records, and there it was staring out at me from the page – Sapper Arthur John George Williamson, 3rd Field Company, Royal Engineers, who died aged 32 on 15 December 1915 – remembered with honour.   We located the grave shortly after that and my father and I stood for several minutes in front of the simple white headstone. 
Tears filled his eyes as he realised, for the first time in his life that it was not just the Arthur part of his name that came from his father, it was also the John and the George, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we had come together to England to share this moment. Of course, now it is much easier to find a war grave. The excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website ensures that none of the nearly two million people who gave their lives in these terrible wars will ever be forgotten.
From London we took the train from St Pancras Station to Nottingham where we were welcomed
by my mother's sister, Doreen and my Uncle Gordon. As ever they were gracious and openhearted hosts and they continue to have a special place in my life.
My father had been in the motor industry all his working life and at one stage before he
emigrated, he had run his own business - a motor service garage on Castle Boulevard.  It obviously didn't make him wealthy otherwise we would have all been sharing some of it today.  He later worked for George Brough at Bulwell.  The Brough Superior was one of the great motor cycles, and I think Dad was very proud to have been the workshop foreman associated with this iconic name.
One of Dad's wartime friends with whom we spent some time during our stay had a lovely 1963
Rover which had been sitting in his garage for a couple of years.  He very graciously sold it to me for much less than it was probably worth and as a result, Dad and I were provided with a reliable (and elegant) set of wheels in which to do our touring.  It proved to a great asset over the next 12 months particularly when I took it to Europe later in the year.
It was a lovely old car, with beautiful woodwork inside and  leather upholstery throughout
and was the type of vehicle that made one want to use phrases like "tooling around" and "motoring".  It had a lovely AA Badge mounted on the radiator and I dearly wanted to see an AA Man riding towards me on his motorcycle and sidecar so I could give him the raised hand salute as he touched his cap to me as he rode past. Sadly that didn’t happen, but we had a wonderful time in it, particularly driving through the Scottish Highlands as far as the Isle of Skye. 
I have already mentioned that Dad had suffered a stroke a few years earlier, and for many months as he recovered he was unable to speak or write.  Part of his rehabilitation process included re-learning the alphabet and I well recall a time when he was briefly with me in Sydney, when he would read aloud from simple little children’s books like Noddy and Mr Men. Many years later this re-learning process was described to me as having English as a second language, when you don’t have a first one.
Thus it was that Dad would say, as we tooled our way through the byways of Britain, “Shall
we stop for a snick?” or “a sing-witch?”  He meant of course that we should stop for a snack or a sandwich.  If he couldn’t think of the word, he would either make one up, or stammer over it for a while and then say; “bugger” or something more colourful, and the right word would then come out.
One memorable day we met Dad’s nephews and their families. We all had a wonderful 
afternoon and as we were saying our goodbyes, my cousin Peter and his lovely wife Anne asked us to join them at their home the following week for Sunday lunch. Anne and Peter had two children and more significantly (for me anyway), Anne had a younger sister. Anne had spoken about us to Pauline during the week saying, “Oh Pauline, you must come and meet Pete’s relatives from Down Under, they are lovely.” (well she was only human.)
So it was that the following Sunday I met the young lady for the first time. 

 I later learned she had been out with her girlfriends the night before and had arrived home in the small hours of the morning. So it was a quiet and subdued Pauline that I met that Sunday, but she looked pretty good to me. (She still does nearly forty years later!)
We had a great lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and before we left Pauline agreed
that since there was much of Nottingham we had yet to see, she would find time the following weekend to help us explore it (by us, I naturally meant me). This was followed over the next week or two by a couple of dinner dates and a game of squash rackets which I greatly enjoyed, not particularly because of any great skill on either part, but because the sight of Pauline in shorts was on the whole, rather pleasant.
As life changing as I knew then, that these events were to be (oh yes, I knew I was going to marry her as soon as I met her), there was still the question of the European Odyssey. This was an event that Bob and I had planned for some time, and there was still some preparation required. There was, for example the question of becoming an expert skier - oddly considered a pre-requisite for gallivanting around ski resorts with an ice hammer or assisting well-heeled high altitude holiday makers on and off T-bars.
So it was that on a particular day in September, a few days after Dad had returned to Australia, I found myself, along with a bunch of other hopefuls at an artificial ski-slope at Esher near London.  And that my friends, is where I will leave today's story in the hope that you will come back again for more... 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Welcome to Brooklyn - 1966


I have always said that Devis was the happiest ship I ever sailed on, and it’s probably true; but Viajero was not far behind. Certainly of all the places I have been on earth, the Amazon experience is up there with the best of them. Viajero was built in Hamburg in 1957, powered by an eight cylinder four-stroke 1500 horse power MAN diesel engine which after the brutish B and W engine on Devis was a pleasure to behold.
Pier One, Brooklyn - 45 years younger and about 20 kg lighter
I arrived in at Pier One, Brooklyn on a cold day in November 1966 as the most junior of the four engineers on board. Geoff Laws, the new third engineer from Keighley in Yorkshire had arrived a day or two earlier on Queen Mary and it wasn’t long before I joined Geoff and the second engineer, Frank Stinchcombe from Bristol in the regular haunt for Viajero engineers when in Brooklyn, a local bar and grill about 50 yards from the dock gates.
Frank was one of the most remarkable, of the many remarkable characters I was at sea with. Known to all as The Saint, he was about 45 years old, as skinny as a rake with a face only a mother would love and could mix a Cuba Libre like no one I have met before or since.
All deck and engine room officers that joined Booth Line for the Amazon service signed on for a year (four round trips from New to Iquitos).  Frank had done two trips and had been on board for six months. It was in New York that all major repair and maintenance work was done during the one or two weeks it took to provision and load the vessel prior to the journey south.
The ship's engineers had a great working relationship with the Brooklyn dockside maintenance crew. I can’t remember the names of the local guys, but it was my first time in the US and where better to begin an education in US culture than Brooklyn, New York. The local bar was called Otto’s and it was here that I became familiar with their signature dish, an epicurean delight known as an ale and chicken dinner (a pot of Schlitz beer with a pickled egg chaser). It was considered de rigueur to drop one's egg shells on the floor where it would quickly become lost among the sawdust and other particulate matter which collected beneath our bar stools.

Booth Line had half a dozen or so ships running up the Amazon from New York. All the ships had Spanish names beginning with “V” (Viajero, Venimos, Veloz, Vamos) The three month run would take us south through the Caribbean on to Belém at the mouth of the river and 3,000 miles along the river to Iquitos in Peru. We would be spending six weeks on the river each trip, and I couldn't wait.
First we would be dipping into the Caribbean islands and our first port was to be St Kitts. I was excited at the prospect of visiting these island nations for the first time. As a stamp collector in my youth names like Barbados, St Vincent, Dominica and Grenada filled me with visions of pirate ships, plantation owners, sun, palm trees and of course, cricket.
Only a few years had elapsed since the very first tied cricket test in Brisbane in 1960 between Australia and the West Indies and the images of the smiling black giant, Wesley Hall, crucifix swinging from his neck as he thundered in to bowl is one that all cricket lovers remember. I was then in the second week of my apprenticeship as a mechanical fitter at the local brewery (The First Job - Cairns 1960) and the memory of us all clustered around the tiny transistor radio which hung from a nail in the workshop storeman's little room, listening to the ABC commentary is as vivid today as it was then. Now I was on my way to the West Indies and the home of cricket, rum, and calypso.

Viajero was quite a small vessel and it was the first ship I had sailed on where all the accommodation was in the after part of the ship rather than midships.  This provided better access to the cargo from smaller wharves with limited unloading facilities typical of the small islands and river ports we would encounter, but it made the going a little rough in poor weather and we certainly encountered quite a bit of that in our first couple of days out of New York as we headed south through blustery North Atlantic conditions.
Viajero had a Barbadian crew and the warmth of their personalities and their love of music and celebration was everything I had expected. We had a steel band and once we were away from the constraints of the work and the weather, we were able to watch them fashion their instruments from cut down 44 gallon (200 litre) empty fuel drums.  The bass pans were made from the whole drum and tenor and baritone pans were made by cutting the drum in quarters and halves.  As the weather became warmer, the band could be found on the poop deck every afternoon playing songs like Peanuts and Latin Sun - songs that made you want to dance and clap your hands. The third engineer, big Geoff did just that – he was always there, leaning against the capstan banging a couple of claves together in time to the music and generally making sure he was part of the fun.
I had the feeling that I was going to enjoy the next twelve months - I wasn't disappointed.
 

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ownership

I caught up with an old fishing friend the other day who happened to be in town.  A lovely fellow, he endeared himself to me even further by making complimentary remarks about this blogsite saying how he liked the writing style and one or two of the anecdotes.  However (there is always an however), knowing how opinionated I can be when among friends, he wondered whether I was ever intending to make use of this apparently newly discovered talent to voice a few opinions of my own.
The problem here friends, is that I do have a few strongly held views, and am not above sharing them over a glass of quality red, but some of them may not always be the same as those held by colleagues and business associates; and opinions, contentious or otherwise, once aired in a forum such as this, have a habit of staying around for a long time.  OK, maybe I am being just a bit theatrical and pompous, but there it is.
So you are unlikely to hear me sounding off about my political proclivities, or my views on abortion and gay marriage (ok, I'll give you that one - I'm with Clint Eastwood on the gay marriage bit) - nor am I likely to enter into a debate on religious convictions.
However, there is one issue which has been bugging me for a long time, which I need to get off my chest - and that concerns this whole Australian-owned thing.
Recently I changed address, and in so doing decided it was a good time to combine our supply of gas and electricity under the one provider.  Now there are no doubt many providers of these services in the town where I live, but of the two suppliers who seem to have most of the market, one is an Australian company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and employing about 2,000 staff.  The other is owned by a Chinese public company and of its 6,000 employees, about 1,000 of them are in Australia.
The argument, subsequently placed before me, was to question why, all others things being equal (which of course they never are), I would choose as my service provider a company which was foreign owned and which would thus export all of their profits off shore - to China no less. 
Now here's my point.  Why does it matter, whether the shareholders of these companies acquired their stock in Hong Kong or Australia.  I have no way of knowing where they actually call home.  The Australian company's top twenty shareholders (about 40% to 50% of all the shares in the company) include HSBC Nominees, Citibank Nominees and several other overseas owned shareholder funds.  As an aside, it is worth noting that our big four Australian banks also number several overseas owned shareholder funds among their top shareholders - and why shouldn't they?  Our Aussie banks are established, well regulated, sound conservative investments and contribute a lot to why Australia has such a solid and stable economy.  If I were an overseas investor, looking for a safe haven for my money, and were given the choice of an American, a Scottish or an Australian banking institution, I don't think I would have to go to Robert Gottliebsen or Alan Kohler to help me decide!
No my real point, is that both of these organisations employ significant Australian workforces - and that, to me is what is important.
When I hear this buy Australian-owned winge, my mind goes back about fifteen or twenty years to when French and British companies first began to take an interest in Australian water infrastructure projects and waste management operations.  I was working for an Australian owned engineering company at the time, which has since been acquired by a large US group, and continues to thrive as a global business with Australian managers from that business now working on major projects all around the world.  I attended a presentation at the offices of one of the major municipal water authorities.  The briefing was being held for companies interested in participating in the building and operating of water treatment plants which would meet the State's objective of enhancing the quality of drinking water in its major city.  Most of the major construction companies were there: Leighton, Transfield, Concrete Construction, Lend Lease and many others.  There were also many international water groups present, including Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, and the French companies of Veolia and Suez (although they were known by different names then).  During the briefing, one of the local Australian manufacturers asked the question, "Why do we need to buy from the British and the French when we have perfectly good local technology here in Australia?"  I will never forget, the impromptu response from the fellow who was there on behalf of one of the major international companies.  He was (and is) a well known Australian engineering manager, who had been on the construction contracting scene for many years.  He leaned back in his seat, looked back over his shoulder at the questioner and said in the strongest Aussie accent, "Do you mean Frenchmen like me?"  
This is what is at the heart of the issue.  It was of course, a perfectly reasonable question for the local manufacturer to ask, but if we are going to continue to participate as a global economy (and we clearly have little choice in this unless we revert to the old ways of restrictive, mind-numbing protectionist trade practices), then we must recognise that the best option is to participate and share our innovation and ingenuity with the world.
A few years ago, I was one of about 3,000 local employees working for a French-owned waste management company and there is absolutely no doubt that our ability to provide a high quality sustainable resource recovery and management service was enhanced by our access to global resources and technology, and global research budgets.
So I don't support the hypocrisy of "Australian owned", particularly while we are so keen to export our own products and innovative ideas, and sell our own resources into the global market place.  I will support local manufacture, (why would we want to buy our cheese or our wine from anywhere else - except perhaps New Zealand occasionally), but please don't send anyone knocking on my door, asking me to buy Australian owned products because I'm not sure that I will believe it anyway.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Perfect Cuba Libre

I've been wanting to post this little story for a long time.  I'm jumping ahead a few weeks I know and I will return to first thoughts on joining Viajero in Brooklyn in a later post. Meanwhile please indulge me while I start my Amazon memories with this little piece of nostalgia...
On that first trip south from New York, en route to Brazil we meandered through the Caribbean, through the gentle Leeward and Windward Islands of St Kitts, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada. Sometimes we stopped for no more than two or three hours, other times it was a couple of days. Each island had its own special flavour and atmosphere.  The docks were often right in the centre of the main town, and contrasted from sleepy little colonial towns sitting between the hills and the bay like Basseterre at St Kitts to the bustling French-Creole atmosphere of Point-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe.
The most memorable stopover and always thereafter my favourite port of call was Bridgetown, Barbados. I remember the first time there clearly - it was November 30th 1966, the day Barbados ceased being a British colony and became a self-governing state. It is now of course, the date celebrated in Barbados every year as Independence Day. The country had a new flag, a new Prime Minister and something to sing and dance about and we spent the best part of a week joining in with them.
Soon we were all singing God Bless Bim and wearing shirts in the colours of the flag. Our second engineer, Frank Stinchcombe, known to all as the Saint was in his element – and it was here that I was to see him at his best when it came to creating the perfect Cuba Libre.
After a day working below on whatever tasks needed doing while in port, Geoff and I would meet in the Saint’s cabin at about 4 PM. “Come in, m’dears,” he would say in his rich west country accent.
Tall and bony he would be seated bare-chested at his desk in the second engineer’s cabin with
Emile Straker and The Merrymen invariably cranking out Archie from his HMV turntable. He would swivel towards us in his grubby khaki shorts, train driver’s peaked cap perched on the back of his head and peering at us through his National Health spectacles he would say, "you're just in time for some liquid refreshment". 
Geoff would be in an equally grubby white t-shirt and shorts, with me a shorter and smaller version of the same. Having left our engine room shoes at the top of the hatchway, we would enter in our socks and sit opposite him on his day-bed sofa taking care not to soil his furniture any more than it already was.
He kept a fine silver ice bucket on his desk from which he would delicately select one or two cubes of ice using fine tongs set aside specifically for the purpose. He would carefully drop each cube into crystal Old Fashioned glasses, always kept for such occasions. Next he would open his desk drawer and reverently take out a bottle of the very finest Mt Gay Eclipse Rum which he would open and generously splash over the ice. He followed this by taking a lime from a fruit bowl on his desk and using a sharp paring knife would cut it into three segments which would be dropped into each glass. This was followed by a liberal measure of Coca Cola poured from a freshly opened can.
Finally with a flourish he would pull a ten inch screwdriver from his pocket, wipe it down with a piece of grubby cotton waste which had been sticking out of his back pocket all day and gently stir the contents of each glass as though he were at the Rivoli Bar in the Ritz.
Nothing before, or since, has ever tasted so good. Cheers to you Frank! 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Cruising down to Rio (Devis 1966)

I will try not to start each posting like a Vivian Stanshall radio flash, but I need to do it at least once.
The story so far...In previous stories I talked about my first trip to sea (A Ship of My Own and Why Engineers are Never Tanned).  Now read on... 
After leaving Baron Jedburgh in Glasgow, I spent a few weeks in England with friends and relatives before heading to Liverpool in search of my next job. One or two shipmates had previously entertained me with tales of the Amazon and I was determined to see it for myself.  Thus it was that after emerging from Lime Street Station, and walking the half mile or so west towards Pier Head, I arrived at the headquarters of the Booth Steamship Company in the Royal Liver Building on a rainy Merseyside morning in late summer of 1966. Booth and its sister companies, Lamport and Holt and Blue Star Line were part of Lord Vestey's vast empire of cattle stations and ranches extending from Brazil and Venezuela to Australia and New Zealand.  Vestey's speciality was refrigeration ships, but of more interest to me were the cargo vessels that sailed from Britain to South America and from the east coast of the United States to the Caribbean and ports along the Amazon.
The Royal Liver Building is a great landmark, and its impression on me then is as clear after forty years as it was on that day.  A large gothic structure, dwarfing its similarly imposing neighbours with two monstrous green copper Liver Birds spreading their wings above domed turrets: one stares to sea, the other guards the city. Once inside, an ornate elevator conveyed me to an oak-panelled antechamber containing scale models of ships of the fleet, each housed in a glass case with the vessel's name and building date on a brass plaque below the case.
The Marine Superintendent was Thomas Clatworthy, an engaging bespectacled Lancastrian engineer, and it was to Mr Clatworthy that I presented myself that morning in search of my Amazon adventure. Sadly, there were no vacancies for ships on the Amazon trade at that time, but he was pleased to have me join the company and after a few formalities I was soon dispatched to one of the company's ship, MV Ronsard which like many others at the time was standing idle at Liverpool docks. 
The British Seamen’s strike had started several weeks earlier.  This was the first national strike by seamen for over fifty years and as a consequence shipping was being disrupted throughout the United Kingdom. No ships were leaving port and those that arrived tied up alongside and became idle as their crew walked off. Ronsard was one of these vessels impacted by the action.  She had been tied up in Bootle docks for over two weeks when I joined a small crew of engineers and deck officers whose task it was to keep the generators running and the lights on.
So here I was in Liverpool. Where else in the world would a 20 year old from a small town in North Queensland want to be than the home of the Beatles and the Mersey beat in the summer of 1966. Each night would find us in one of the many bars, clubs and pubs that surrounded the area. The Bootle Arms was a clear favourite (it was after all no more than 100 yards from the dock gate), but we visited numerous other places in the area where we drank warm beer and cold lagers and sang Reach Out I’ll Be There with the Four Tops and Sunny Afternoon with the Kinks.   Once or twice we went to The Cavern Club, a couple of minutes' walk from Lime Street, but it was always crowded to the point of overflowing and there were always more accessible venues within reach of us.
Although it was against company regulations, there were frequent occasions when locals joined us for social gatherings on board and we could often be found after chucking out time, struggling back on board bearing cartons of beer on our shoulders, ascending the steep gangway and making our way to someone's cabin (thankfully usually one larger than my tiny quarters) where the merrymaking would continue.
All things come to an end, and eventually the strike was over and the seaman went back to work.  I knew that it was a good thing that the strike was over, but I was enjoying life and getting paid for doing very little.
I was sent from Ronsard to Devis, an old ship, built in 1938 that had seen out the war as a troop ship and supply vessel, Empire Haig. She was bound for Buenos Aires and ports along the Brazilian coast and I joined her as junior engineer.
She was old and ugly and her main engine was one of the most cantankerous awful things I had come across, but she was one of the happiest ships I sailed on, and after Baron Jedburgh and several weeks of alcohol poisoning while on Ronsard, it was great to actually have a deck moving underneath my feet again – even if the best we could ever do was about 10 knots. We did a little coast trip first from Liverpool to Glasgow and back during  which time I had the pleasure of listening to England win the Football World Cup by beating Germany 4-2 in extra time. Shortly after this Devis sailed from Liverpool for South America and I was back on the 12 to 4 watch with another Scottish third engineer, a taciturn Edinburghian, Ted Kinnaird.  Our first destination would be Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where after a brief stop for bunker fuel we continued on our way south and west across the Atlantic Ocean.
The engine was a bad-tempered old beast – a ten cylinder Burmeister and Wain heavy fuel burner which had three pistons in each cylinder and eighty fuel valves. These fuel valves were large dirty things that would frequently foul and require replacing. The fuel oil would harden into a bituminous black cake and it was my job to keep a healthy supply of spare fuel valves on hand. I spent many hours cleaning and maintaining these damn things, and I can say without rancour that it was an awful sodding job!
The crud from the heavy oil didn't only build up on the burners.  It would also accumulate in the exhaust system causing regular scavenger fires when the exhaust gases would overheat and the caked particles on the exhaust stack and the scavengers would catch fire. Whenever this happened we could only slow the engine right down, reduce the fuel to the offending cylinder and lumber along at a much reduced speed until the fire extinguished itself.
One thing I learned during my years at sea was the importance of being able to find one’s way around an engine room. Underneath the foot plates are hundreds of pipes carrying diesel oil, heavy fuel oil, lubricating oil, bilge water, ballast water, drinking water, steam, compressed air and more, and drawings providing details were seldom if ever to be found.  The only solution therefore, on joining a ship for the first time was to remove the floor plates, get into the bilge area with a flash light and meticulously follow each pipe to its destination. Not the most pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but a lot better than having a pipe burst and not knowing how to turn off the supply. Grumpy Gordon, my old third engineer on Baron Jedburgh demonstrated this to me on several occasions.
We were probably a week from our destination of Buenos Aires when the old monster of an engine reached a stage where running repairs were no longer solving her problems. After a lengthy scavenge fire, it was decided to decommission a number of the engine cylinders, remove the fuel valves to reduce compression and like an old car with faulty sparkplugs we limped along on three or four cylinders,  slowly make our way to the nearest port at little more than walking speed to get some serious shore based repairs. There is always a silver lining they say.  Our nearest port was Rio de Janeiro and thus it was that our vessel's poor health and age provided the only opportunity I have had of visiting this glorious city. Not that we had much chance for sight-seeing. We had some serious repair work to do once we were finally tied up in Rio.  A couple of brief trips to a local bar, a walk around Centro and more memorably along the beach at Flamengo and back to the endless task of cleaning fuel valves.
Repairs done, our next call was Buenos Aires, an exciting city whose avenues and streets are so wide that the simple act of crossing the road, becomes a journey itself. One of the main thoroughfares is Calle 25 de mayo and not far away is the massive Avenida 9 de Julio honouring Argentina’s Independence Day in 1816. There had been a military revolution only a few weeks before we arrived and as a consequence the streets were full of armed military who frequently stopped us to inspect our papers.  Despite this, we never really took these disruptions seriously (we probably should have based on later reports of student unrest, police violence and laws against long hair on young men and mini-skirts on the girls), but we felt immune and I fell in love with this beautiful city with its amazing Spanish colonial architecture so far removed from the Victorian and Edwardian buildings of Liverpool and Glasgow. Many of the cafés and bars were open air and it here that I first sampled the real Latin American culture. Until that time, I had not heard  a word of Spanish outside of Speedy Gonzales, but it rapidly became a language I loved to hear and I made up my mind to learn it.
We spent two weeks in BA and then sailed across the other side of Rio de la Plata to the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo – another exciting place with lots of open space and public areas and more soldiers patrolling the streets.
After a couple of days here, we sailed north along the Brazilian coast to Rio Grande (the second busiest port in Brazil); Santos the main port for São Paulo; Recife and finally Fortaleza. It was in Santos that I had for the first time, the opportunity to see some of the real squalor that was behind much of the façade of Brazil’s society. People in Santos were living in some of the most appalling conditions I had ever seen, and it made me remember, not for the first time, how lucky I was to have been born into a privileged position of always having a roof over my head, and a meal on the table.
The Devis adventure lasted about three months, and she was, without doubt one of the happiest ships I have sailed on. In the engine room the working conditions were appalling, but the companionship, the food and the general good nature of all on board, was such a far cry from Baron Jedburgh that I was glad I had made the decision to go to sea – which was in stark contrast to the many times on board the Baron boat when I thought the exact opposite.
I returned to the UK in time for my 21st birthday - a splendid evening shared with my aunt and uncle at the Trent Bridge Inn in Nottingham.  I received news on arrival in Liverpool that there was a spot for me on a Booth Line ship on the Amazon run and I signed a 12 month contract which would see me join MV Viajero in New York in November of that year.