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."


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