On signing up to join the Merchant Navy, my father advised me to always keep a record or diary of the ships I had joined and the countries I had visited. He had impressed on me the opportunity and value of what I was experiencing and how I would look back on it all in years to come. I can’t say that I saw it like that at the onset of my seagoing exploits; my thoughts were forever on the opposite sex and generally having a good time but I eventually took his advice. At the end of it all and with two discharge books, looking back, I realise his advice was invaluable in writing my memoirs and I am forever indebted to him.
The signing of Articles meant that the company had your body for up to two years while you had precious little in the way of rights. If a seaman were away longer than that, the company would have to pay double wages until he returned home.
M.V.Niso at Alexandria
Courtesy of David Haisman
At the age of sixteen, I signed on a Shell tanker at a Southampton shipping office and was sent to join the M.V. Niso, a spirit tanker of 8,270 gross tonnage in Southampton docks. The Shipping Federation in those days, was situated not far from ‘The King Canute” pub, named after the king of that name who was renowned for trying to stop the tide from advancing on the shore. No doubt the man had visited a pub before trying that little trick!
Shell oil tankers were easily recognised by their distinctive red sea shell emblems on their yellow funnels and always named after the many sea shells found world wide. In the case of the Niso, the Latin name for that particular sea shell was the Niso Venosa. In the officers dining saloon on all of their ships was a glass case with the particular sea shell relating to that particulars ship’s name, usually on a velvet cushion. As I recall, in the case of the Niso, the shell was no bigger than a finger nail.
I was “persuaded” to join this vessel by none other than “Shanghai Jack” of whom I knew nothing until later on in my sea career. He rode a bicycle to the homes of all his “victims”, and was always seen wearing a merchant navy officers uniform with just one thin gold ring about the cuff. He was never seen without cycle clips on, whether in the office, walking along the street, on his beloved old bike or just about everywhere else; probably in bed as well! He had rat eyes peering from beneath his peak cap and a king-size “roll-up” cigarette resembling a part exploded firework, stuck into a slit that Mother Nature had etched under his nose as a substitute for a mouth.
His job as a Shipping Federation official was to get crews to join ships that nobody wanted and he must have been pretty good at it as ships generally continued to get crewed and sail on time. He had a knack for keeping out of the way when some of these ships returned and his features remained intact despite the many threats to put his “lights out” and wrap his infernal bicycle around his neck. When spotted around the town in retirement many years later, the man still looked the same as he always did, riding that old bike around the place. Those rat-like features and shaggy roll-up were all still there. Without any doubt, the man was a true survivor.
Before signing on, “Shanghai Jack” had assured me and other crew members, that the ship would be away for just six weeks, sailing up to Stanlow on the Manchester ship canal, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Curacoa in the Caribbean and then back to the Fawley refinery just outside Southampton. Sailing on the 24th of February would work out well, I thought, as I see the last of the winter in the UK and North Atlantic and be back to sign-on the “big ‘uns” for the summer runs across the pond to New York.
We silently slipped away from Southampton on a cold grey early February morning and on arrival at Stanlow a couple of days later, noticed that heavy snow had fallen and the wind had picked up to about a force 6. It was bitterly cold as I recall, standing on the fo’c’sle head on “stations” for several hours without any protection from the weather. We were a frozen motley crew, blowing out steam and continually wiping away icy “dew drops” hanging from our noses as we slowly went up the Manchester Ship Canal to the refinery.
After a couple of days in Stanlow and getting amongst some of the local talent when off watch, we loaded several grades of spirits (known in the trade as “light ends”) and sailed for Curacoa and warmer climes.
The Niso had a crew of around 30 which included five boy ratings, namely a Galley Boy, Junior Winger (waiter) and 3 Deck Boys which meant I wasn’t the only junior rating onboard. Later on during this voyage, I would be promoted to Junior Ordinary Seaman, having then completed 9 months actual sea service and would receive a princely pay rise from 10 pounds 15 shillings per month to 16 pounds 10 shillings per month! The other 2 Deck Boys had never set foot on a ship before and were fresh out of a Borstal Institution, the Merchant Navy being their preference on release from Borstal as opposed to joining the army. Both deck boys had “form”, the one from Liverpool was later given the name of “Knucklehead” as he forever spoke about all the fights he had been in and had a few scars about his head to prove it. The other, from Tiger Bay in Cardiff, was of Arab descent and had never known his parents. He had apparently spent most of his life in and out of homes and dodging the law. The rest of the deck crew were a mixed bunch with quite a bit of cargo ship and tanker experience amongst them. On signing on, both boys were sent for by the Mate who told them in on uncertain terms that the party was over and he wouldn’t hesitate to put them ashore anywhere, anytime, if they decided to go back to their bad old ways.
My first impressions of Curacoa, apart from the huge refinery, were the many Shell tankers alongside the berths and lying at anchor in the bay, mostly from the Royal Dutch Shell fleet. Apart from the heat and brilliant sunshine, there was the continuous stench of various oil products forever in your nostrils from just about everywhere. This smell would be with us for the rest of this 16 month voyage as it was in our clothes, our skin, our accommodation and I’m certain, in our food as well. You just couldn’t seem to get away from it. The oil industry has cleaned up it’s act and those conditions wouldn’t be tolerated these days
Accommodation comprised of 3 to a cabin, no air conditioning to speak of, coconut matting on the green painted steel cabin decks and metal lockers for our gear that had seen better days. Tankers were well known to have good spacious accommodation but the Niso in that respect had fallen well behind the times, even in those days. It was becoming clear that this was going to be a far from comfortable voyage, especially now that we were in the tropics.
After a couple of runs ashore, our orders were to get fully loaded with several grades of light oils for part cargo deliveries to Gibraltar, Marseilles, La Spezia in Italy, Palermo in Sicily and then on to Malta. After receiving these orders from the Shell Shipping Agent it looked as though that six week trip to Curacoa and back to the U.K. was now no more than a rumour and on a 9 knot ship like ours, we were looking at another month on top of that at least.
On arrival at Gibraltar, us young lads paid “ten bob” for a bottle of Fundadore Brandy from a Spaniard in a bum-boat which turned out to be no more than coloured methylated spirits in a fancy laced up bottle. Despite our protestations and demands for our money back, he wouldn’t have any of it and continued to try to flog some more of this fire water to other crew members. The Pumpman onboard was an old tanker man with oil in his veins, had a nose that looked as though someone had performed a “Fred Astaire” act on it at some time or other and had ears like wing nuts. Apart from having a good laugh at the way us young seamen had been ripped off, he suggested a good way of how we could get our own back. As the Spaniard’s bum-boat was below our accommodation aft, and directly under the main toilet waste pipe, he suggested that we should flush the bastard away without further ado! On going below and flushing all the toilets at once along with one that had just been used, a torrent of salt water and sewage poured into his boat, catching our bum-boat Spaniard completely by surprise. Leaping up and shaking his fist up at us, he grabbed the oars and cursing and shouting in Spanish, started to row away like fury. With “Admiral Brown and his fleet,” swirling around in the bottom of his boat along with bits of toilet paper hanging off of his ears, he would have thought twice before trying to flog anymore of his fire water to us lot!
The following day, we took on fresh water from a barge alongside but the Mate was losing his temper in trying to get the crew on the barge to understand English. In exasperation he finally said to a couple of AB’s, “If any of you can speak Spanish, then just ask one of them to throw that bloody heaving line up so we can pull the hose onboard!”
One of the AB’s stepping forward volunteered, more to wind the Mate up than anything else, and answered by declaring, “Leave it to me chief!” With that he leant over the ships rail and then cupping both hands in front of his mouth, shouted down to one of the Spaniards on the barge, “Hey Pedro! Throweo de ropeo pronto!” After several moments, the line was tossed back up to us with the Mate at this time looking absolutely gob smacked! Glaring at the AB that had just delivered this snippet of pidgin Spanish, the Mate turned away, issuing forth several expletives before ending with the words, “a linguist like you would do well communicating with the bloody Rock Apes!”