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SS MAHSEER. THE GOOD RED WINE OF FRANCE

After attending a job interview in Cunard’s Liver Building, with Ben Lonsdale who was Thos & Jno Brocklebank’s Chief Radio Superintendent, I was offered a job as a junior Radio Officer (R/O). I then returned home to await joining instructions to my first ship.

For the next week I was on tenterhooks every day as I eagerly awaited the arrival of the postman. Each day that passed brought a terrible sense of disappointment if there was no postal delivery or the letters that were delivered were not for me. When my joining instructions finally arrived they were brief and to the point and gave me a date a few days ahead when I was to join the SS Mahseer in Newcastle and report to the Chief R/O. Included with the letter was a rail warrant.

In order to arrive at the appointed time and date, I travelled the day before and stayed overnight in the Newcastle Missions to Seamen hostel. After breakfast on the day of joining, I ordered a taxi to take me to the dock.

Like so many others in a similar situation, I had no one to seek advice from about the correct protocol for joining a ship for the first time. It had never been discussed at wireless college and as it happened; my cousin who was also a radio officer was away at sea and therefore unavailable as a source of information. So, all dressed up in my brand new uniform, (how naive can you get!) I got into the taxi with my bags and a very large wooden steamer trunk (also a big mistake) and set out to embark on what was then the greatest adventure of my life.

As far as I can remember the taxi driver who took me to the ship was permitted by the dock police to take me as far as the gangway. Here I was deposited with all my luggage and left to my own devices. I can still remember the metallic taste of panic at the back of my throat as I stood there wondering what to do next, transfixed like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. The ship looked enormous with her black hull and towering white painted superstructure that seemed to go on forever and ever. At almost 9000 gross tons she was the biggest ship I had ever seen at such close quarters.

My salvation and the solution to my dilemma came in the shape of a tall, dark haired young man about my age, who had a kind, smiling face and who possessed a wonderfully soft Irish accent. Within seconds of appearing at the top of the gangway and asking me who I was, he had summoned out of nowhere a luggage party made up of members of the Indian deck crew who enthusiastically carried my luggage up the gangway and then noisily escorted me through the accommodation deck to my cabin which was located on the starboard side near to the galley. My cabin was small and narrow, but was very comfortable and had everything that I needed. As it turned out it was to be my home for the next thirteen months.

Ranks and grades in the Merchant Navy meant absolutely nothing to me at that moment in time but when I met him later that day he told me he was the third mate.

My coasting Chief R/O who had been with the company a long time, took me up and introduced me to the Wireless Telegraphy office. I was impressed to say the least. Some but not all of the equipments were familiar to me from my days at Wireless college. After we sailed he threw me in at the deep end introducing me to the delights of watchkeeping on the International Distress Frequency of 500kHz, Coast station traffic lists, Transit Reports, Navigational reports and weather forecasts together with all the other activities that made up the job that I had dreamed of doing for so long.

When she finished loading in Newcastle, Mahseer set sail for Antwerp, Rotterdam and Bremen before she returned to London to finish her loading at the Victoria Dock. We set sail for Colombo in the early part of October 1963.

During the course of my first voyage on Mahseer, I grew to know the third Mate, Gerry (Maloney?) very well. We often used to talk on the bridge when my watch keeping duties and his permitted. He took enormous trouble to explain about the workings of the ship, the company and the merchant navy and never became impatient if I was slow to grasp the point he was making. We collaborated together when he generated meteorological reports that I used to send to the Area coast stations as OBS messages. Even though these OBS telegrams were usually sent outside of normal watch keeping periods, it was good experience for me because it gave me more opportunities to operate the ship’s station on the short wave bands. Regrettably, as far as I know we never won a prize from the Met Office.

Mahseer continued her outbound passage, transiting the Suez Canal and calling at the usual ports of Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Port Sudan (Sudan), Massawa (Ethopia) and Assab (Eritrea). None of these offered much in the way of shops for the purchase of souvenirs so Gerry suggested that it might be possible to get something useful at Djibouti (French Somalia). In fact he volunteered to go with me no doubt to prevent me getting into trouble or lost or both. I think he managed to get a lift for us both from the ship to the town with one of the ship’s agents.

Djibouti seemed like a Cosmopolitan oasis after places such as Massawa and Assab. The centre of its town had a wide boulevard lined with palm trees and on each side of the road there were a number of shops and bars. The hours of opening of the shops were limited to the cooler hours of the day, but when we arrived there was still about an hour remaining for shopping before they closed down for their midday siesta. Even though the time was limited there was sufficient time to browse around and for me to buy some perfume in a pharmacy for my sister and mother.

When the shopping was done and as the reflected heat from the pavements became unbearable, our thoughts turned naturally to where we could find somewhere pleasant to relax and have a cold drink before we returned to the ship. One bar in particular looked inviting and we did not need much encouragement to go inside and sit down.

The bar was clean and comfortable and we chose a table that was positioned directly beneath one of the large ceiling mounted fans so that we would benefit from its cooling downdraft.

After our first beer, which hardly touched the sides, we ordered refills and with glasses refreshed started to take more notice of the other patrons. Besides Gerry, me and the barman, there were only four or five other drinkers all of whom were in the uniform of legionnaires in the French Foreign Legion. They were sitting at a table on the far side of the bar. After a few curious but not unfriendly glances towards us on their part, they turned away to concentrate on their drinking, smoking and game of cards.

Just as we were had drained our glasses for the last time so as to return to the ship, one of the Legionnaires detached himself from his group and came over to our table. He was in his mid-forties, very tall, barrel chested with what must have been a size twenty neck. His hair, which had been shaved close to his head, was fair but flecked with grey. His uniform was immaculate and his boots shone like mirrors. He had three stripes on his arm so I took this to mean that he had the rank of Sergeant.

As he stood over us he looked enormous. I thought for a moment that my seagoing career was going to be a very short one indeed but apart from his size there was nothing threatening or intimidating in his manner in any way. He greeted us in German but apart from friendly smiles back and a few words of greeting from Gerry (no pun intended) in German that was it. We were not making headway at all. Instead of walking away with a shake of his head, he persisted and repeated his greeting in French. Here he struck gold because unlike me who had only a few words of that language at my disposal, Gerry’s French was very good.

Our newfound friend’s name was Hans and when we shook hands, mine disappeared into his with space to spare. He had a strong grip but again there was no animosity only warmth in the greeting. He personified every mental picture I had ever had about a soldier in the French Foreign Legion.

He sat down at our table and ordered a bottle of red wine (French of course) and three glasses. The waiter also bought us a large bowl of peanuts that were still “au natural” in their shells.

At this stage in the story I have to explain that when I first went to sea I had never drunk wine. My father was a beer drinker but it was rare for us as a family to have alcohol in the house. I could tell the difference between white and red wine (pretty obvious really) but could not at that time have told you the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. That was to come later! The other point to make here is that when the first glass of wine was consumed it had been quite some time since I had eaten so the red wine and peanuts started to co-exist alongside the beer in an otherwise empty stomach.

Over the next hour I lost count of the number of bottles we consumed. What I do remember is that every time a bottle of wine appeared so did a bowl of peanuts. With the passage of time I cannot remember what grape variety it was, where in France the grapes had been cultivated or the vintage. I only remember that as the drinking session wore on, each glass tasted more wonderful than the last and as that liquid ambrosia was swallowed, it slid across the tongue and down the throat like honey.

We all got on famously. Hans told us that as a young man he had been in the Africa Corps and had fought in North Africa. He had been captured by the British and had been treated very well as a prisoner of war. After the war when he returned to Germany, life for him in Civvy Street had been very dull and in order to stay in the military and find new adventure he had joined the French Foreign Legion. He was very interested in our life at sea, our respective jobs and how we lived at home. His friends didn’t seem to mind his absence but occasionally shouted some remark to him that only produced a wry smile on his part.

Eventually and with some regret we had to say farewell, adieu and of course auf wiedersehen. Hans called us a taxi to take us back to the ship. Unfortunately for him, Gerry had to go on duty the moment we climbed back on board.

Many seafarers who have been in a similar position to the one that I found myself in when I got back on board will acknowledge that there is a recognisable medical condition, known as ohmygodimplastered. I’m sure I used to know the Latin term for this illness but sadly have forgotten it over time. The particular strain of the condition that is most common to seafarers seems to strike after visits to foreign restaurants or bars and attacks those whose only purpose in going ashore was to absorb some local culture and maintain their hydration levels.

Those symptoms which I have experienced quite a few times over the intervening years are tiredness, dizziness, slurred speech and often nausea. After a few hours rest in a darkened room, secondary symptoms can be loss of balance, headaches, dry mouth and a complete loss of appetite. All of these in large measure I experienced over the next twelve hours. Gerry was lucky because what ever caused my condition seemed to pass him by completely. Fortunately after we left Djibouti and as the ship made its way to Aden, my condition improved rapidly and it wasn’t long before I returned to full health. My deep sea Chief, Harry Jefferson was very tolerant and understanding of my “illness”.

My experience of twenty four hour flue at Djbouti remained a private joke between Gerry and I because for the rest of the time we sailed together, whenever Gerry and I were off duty and having a few beers together, the toast was always “The good red wine of France”.

That voyage lasted longer than originally planned as along with a great many other cargo ships we were held at anchor, off Colombo for a number of weeks due to a strike by public sector workers that included Dockers and Customs Officials. For me that extra time was all part of the great adventure as I was unmarried and unattached so voyage length was not important.

During my second deep sea voyage on Mahseer in 1964, Gerry was working on deck moving some drums of chemicals when one exploded in his face. He was taken ashore for hospital treatment but did not return to the ship. I was told later that the treatment he received was satisfactory. However I was also informed that he was concerned about the possibility of long-term damage to his sight and the potential impact that the injury would have on his career at sea.

There this story ends as regrettably for me, our paths never crossed again. I sincerely hope that he was successful in whatever career he followed whether at sea or on land. I have always appreciated his friendship and his help. Over the fifty plus years since joining Mahseer for the first time, when I have thought of him and that trip ashore to Djibouti, if I have had a glass of some pleasant, fermented, chilled and preferably dry tasting liquid in my hand, the toast whether silent or vocal, has always been - “The good red wine of France”.

copyright © John Leary