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CHRISTMASES AT SEA

During my short career as a Radio Officer (R/O) working for Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd of Liverpool, I was fortunate to be able to spend two successive Christmases at sea. I say fortunate because as a single man at that time, with no family responsibilities and in the early stages of my seagoing career, each day seemed to be filled with new experiences that I embraced with enthusiasm.

My first Christmas at sea was spent on the SS Mahseer during my first deep sea voyage as a newly appointed Junior R/O. The second was on the SS Magdapur a year later when I was sailing unsupervised as a newly promoted Senior R/O. That voyage also happened to my first and only deep sea voyage on Magdapur.

On the Mahseer, Christmas fell when we were on our outward passage to Colombo. Having left our last port (Aden), the ship and the radio department had settled into their daily routines of watches. For the Radio Department, that meant two hours on and two hours off for sixteen hours each day. The eight hour time period when both R/O’s were off duty were covered by the ship’s Auto Alarm.

The four radio watches were shared between the Chief Radio Officer, Harry Jefferson and myself with me taking more responsibility for three of them as I became more proficient and reliable at watch keeping.

On a normal day at sea, the time between watches, particularly in the morning would be spent carrying out routine maintenance work that included management of the Radio Room’s emergency batteries.

On Christmas day however there was no maintenance work and late in the morning (local time), when I was on watch alone in the radio room I was relieved by Harry and told to sign off. As an aside every action or activity carried out by the R/O’s on the ship’s radio service had to be recorded in the ship’s radio log that was signed by the R/O on duty and countersigned once a week by the Captain whose attention had to be drawn to any unusual event or activity before he signed the log book. This was because the ship borne radio service was covered by comprehensive and extremely stringent International Radio Regulations.

Anyway (back to the story), a tradition of Thos and Jno Brocklebank that I discovered to my absolute delight was to provide its officers who were at sea on that day, with a free bar prior to Christmas lunch. For the juniors this meant that the taps were opened from 12 to 1230. The only constraint put on how much we consumed was that we were obliged to remember we were at sea and therefore expected to do our jobs. The Chief Steward who presided over the bar and dispensed the Christmas cheer never sought to constrain our choice of beverage or limit the amount we drank. The beer and spirits therefore flowed as though there was no tomorrow.

Having been told by Harry to leave the Radio Room I did not need any further encouragement to go and join the festivities. In a flash, I was away and heading down to the accommodation deck via the internal staircase, two steps at a time. The cartoon character “Road Runner” could not have travelled the distance to the Saloon/Bar in less time!

The atmosphere in the Bar was god humoured, boisterous and extremely noisy. Needless to say when the dinner gong sounded at 1230 those of us who were still interested in food and who sat down in the dining saloon were very well lubricated and were in a buoyant mood, ready to do justice to whatever came our way. We knew what lunch had to offer because a copy of the menu had been posted earlier in the morning on the notice board that was located close to the bottom of the aforementioned staircase.

If I remember correctly most of us juniors at the table were first trippers. Each of us had made an effort in terms of uniform whites and we looked immaculate. Shirts were stiff with starch and all our shorts had creases in the right places. One of the ship’s Indian crew who freelanced as the officers Dhobi Walla had done us proud with our laundry and we were still sufficiently early into the voyage for most of our whites to have avoided the rust stains that were his hall mark.

I distinctly remember that apart from me, the table was occupied by the fifth engineer who came from Sunderland and the second electrician who hailed from Bury in Lancashire. I cannot now remember if the second steward and third mate were at the table or not.

The dining saloon in Mahseer was quite large, accommodating four tables in line (port to starboard) with the serving sideboards located at the rear of the saloon, either side of the double door. During my meal only the two tables on the starboard side of the saloon were occupied. The table to our immediate left was the preserve of the senior officers (who ate later), whilst the one furthest to port from where we sat was used solely by the Master, Chief Engineer, Mate and Second engineer.

The table to our right during the first sitting accommodated the navigating and engine room cadets who unusually were all together at the same time. On that particular voyage, I think that there were four of them; two from each department.

Cadets on Brocklebank ships were not normally permitted to drink alcohol but that rule appeared to have been relaxed that day and as I mentioned earlier the Chief Steward had been particularly generous when the bar was open.

Sadly I never kept the menu but I seem to remember there were several starters including grapefruit segments in an alcohol laced syrup and a choice of soups. There was a fish course and for those who did not want roast turkey there was a choice of either cooked ham or roast pork. Each main course was accompanied by a good selection of fresh vegetables.

Prior to going to sea I had never experienced silver service in a restaurant so mealtime in the dining saloon on board Brocklebank’s ships always felt to me like a very special occasion.

The service in the saloon was excellent and as usual the food was piping hot. The empty plates at the end of the main course were whisked away and for those with room to spare there was Christmas pudding with cream or custard. The Christmas cake and mince pies that followed were in turn followed by fresh fruit and nuts. A cheese board and wafer crackers rounded off the meal. Coffee and tea were also available.

All the occupants of the two tables were noisy and in great spirits. The banter and good humour seemed to be infectious and the jokes got better as the meal progressed.

It seems strange in terms of to-days total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants that those of us who smoked continued to do so throughout the meal without complaint or objections from anyone at the table or in the saloon. At that time I smoked a pipe something I continued to do until my late twenties when I gave up the habit completely.

We did not have wine with the meal but the beers kept coming. I think that the free bar for us ended when we entered the dining saloon but inhibitions or concerns about signing bar chits disappeared along with our appetites.

It would be impossible now for me to eat what I and the other juniors managed to put away during that meal. To say that I was bloated is an understatement. However all good things had to come to an end particularly as we were made aware that the senior officers wanted their meal and we were required to vacate the dining saloon so that the stewards could prepare for the next sitting.

On returning to the radio room to relieve Harry for what little remained of the watch I seem to remember that the International Distress Frequency of 500 kHz was very quiet. It was not long therefore before the end of the watch came and I was able to activate the auto alarm and close down the station.

I cannot remember how I spent the next two hours until the next watch but I suspect most if not all of the time was spent in my cabin flattening the cushions on my day bed. Knowing the way that Thos and Jno Brocklebank looked after their crews, I suspect there was food available later in the day for those with an appetite and room in their stomachs to spare. As for me, I do not believe that I ate again until breakfast the following day. Twelve months later for my second and last Christmas at sea both the ship and the experience were completely different.

The SS Magdapur only carried one radio officer so all the watch keeping duties fell to me. Where meal times coincided with radio watches it was normal practice to eat in the radio room at the operating desk with all the food plated and minus the normal silver service. You could still choose what you wanted from the menu but it all got delivered at the same time.

That Christmas Magdapur was in the very early stages of her outward passage to Calcutta having departed The Royal docks just a few days earlier. On Christmas day I think she was in the Atlantic heading for Gibraltar. At midday, the free bar was available once again but I could not attend because I had just commenced the Twelve to Two watch. I was greatly saddened by missing out on the celebration in the Bar as unusually on that voyage we carried two passengers, a mother and her young teenage daughter who were returning to their home in India. I learnt later that an extremely jolly time was had by all (except me).

Although I missed the free bar, the Chief Steward kindly provided me with a couple of beers to accompany my meal. The menu was similar to that offered on Mahseer a year earlier and was of equal quality.

From memory I believe that I ate less than the previous Christmas and that the meal took longer to eat particularly because normal watching keeping duties such as taking traffic lists, weather forecasts and observing silence periods had to take priority. Also because all courses were delivered to the Radio Room at the same time the Christmas pudding and custard were stone cold by the time I got round to eating them.

One thing that I still remember that I had not experienced the previous year on Mahseer was the bonhomie on the International Distress Frequency with ships calling CQ (all stations call) merry Christmas to one another. However for reasons best known to the ship’s R/O’s, none of those calls were accompanied by the ship’s call sign. This calling was present through all four watches of the day although the number of ships calling at any one time diminished to an almost non existent level during the fourth and final watch of the day.

On both the Mahseer and Magdapur the free time in the evening of Christmas day was spent socialising and listening to the BBC World service.

To the best of my knowledge no one amongst the officers of either ship exchanged Christmas cards or presents but an attempt had been made by the Chief Stewards on both ships to decorate the dining saloon and bars. I remember that prior to departure on both trips my family had given me a small present to open on Christmas Day as a link to and a reminder of home.

Christmas is a special time and I believe that most people if given the chance would choose to celebrate it with their families. That is not always possible for key workers and is particularly true for seafarers. I believe that Thos & Jno Brocklebank did everything possible to give their seagoing staff the very best Christmas possible and it is one of the reasons why the company, so many years after its demise, is still held in such high regard by those such as me, who had the privilege of working for it.

Of the two, I preferred my Christmas on Mahseer but that might have been due to having fewer responsibilities and being on a ship with two R/Os. My two Christmases at sea also proved to me beyond any doubt, that food always tastes better and is more enjoyable when eaten in the company of others, whether colleagues, family or friends.

copyright © John Leary