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Life on Board

The Naval architects who designed the type of ship that I sailed on, through their accommodation layouts and allocation of space recognised the responsibility and seniority of those who served on board. Cost issues in the building of the vessels and the purposes for which they were built will have played a part in accommodation designs.

The layouts described will not apply to other types of ships that were in service at the time such as tankers or passenger ships and may well have been completely different on cargo ships that were foreign flagged. My observations are based on the type of ships that I became familiar with, namely the cargo liners, owned and operated by Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd, a very long established British Shipping Company.

I raise the issue of accommodation at the beginning of this tale because it helps me to set the scene regarding my descriptions of life on board ship that centres on two of the three issues of prime importance to the Merchant Navy sailor, namely accommodation and food. The third issue of absolute importance then as it is now was pay but I cannot deal with that issue because of lack of information on my part as to the pay scales for Navigators, Engineers or Pursers.

As the person ultimately responsible for the ship it is unsurprising that the Captain whose quarters were located immediately behind the Bridge had the largest and best accommodation on board. Below the Bridge, on the Boat deck and facing forward were the cabins belonging to the Navigating Officers. These cabins, particularly that occupied by the Mate, was spacious and well fitted out. Being forward facing meant that the navigator’s cabins benefited from the breezes generated by the forward momentum of the ship when it was underway. They usually had their own shared toilet located within the boat deck accommodation and positioned close to their cabins. The rationale for being located beneath the Bridge was no doubt because they would be best placed to reach the bridge quickly in the event of an emergency.

At the very end of the Boat deck and located behind the funnel, was the accommodation for the Cadets. Made of steel and box shaped it was large enough to accommodate four Cadets; two from the Navigation and two from the Engineering Departments. It was large enough to also provide washing facilities and a mess area.

Below the Boat deck was the accommodation deck that housed the remaining officers from the other Branches represented on board, namely Purser/Chief Steward and Second Steward, Chief Engineer, Second Engineer, Third Engineer etc, Chief Electrician and his junior and the Radio Department consisting of the Chief Radio Officer and his junior if the ship carried two R/O’s. None of these officer’s cabins faced forward but were laid out on either side of the ship. The engineer's cabins, engineer's Mess and the cabins occupied by the electricians tended to be clustered together. The Purser /Chief Steward’s cabin was generally located near to the Dining Saloon and Pantry.

Rank was reflected in the size of your cabin. The Chief Engineer would have a day room as well as his sleeping quarters and would possess his own toilet/shower facility. Although spacious it was not as large as that occupied by the Captain.

The Senior officers had cabins without bathrooms but these would be very much larger than the cabins occupied by their Juniors.

Officers other than the Captain and Chief Engineer shared a communal bathroom and toilet facility that was also located on the accommodation deck. All cabins were fitted with a wash basin with hot and cold running water. On one ship I sailed on the Captain regularly used the salt water bath in the officer’s communal bathroom because he only had a shower and he claimed that the bath gave him relief from his piles!

At the time I was at sea, the crew also included European Quartermasters and a ship’s Carpenter. They shared a Mess room and all of their accommodation was located one deck below the accommodation deck near to the number four hold.

The Indian or Pakistani crew were all located on the after castle at the stern (rear) of the ship and positioned over the propeller. Whether by accident or design their accommodation was completely segregated from that of the Officers. I am now ashamed to admit that I am completely ignorant as to how their accommodation was laid out because apart from one occasion when I was asked to repair their Mess Room radio I was never required to visit their part of the ship. They did their own cooking but again I have no idea what their Galley lay out was like.

On only one ship that I sailed on, the SS Manaar was the Chief R/O’s cabin located near to those of the Navigating Officers on the Boat deck and within a few strides of the Radio Room. This cabin was quite large with two port holes facing out to the rear of the ship and looking out over the number Three hold.

Brocklebanks allowed the wives of senior officers to sail with their husbands. Wives signed ship’s Articles as a Supernumerary, presumably for insurance purposes and received pay at the rate of one shilling (five pence) a month. To the best of my knowledge they never received these payments. However in compensation their food and accommodation were provided free of charge. I believe that the wives of the Captain and Chief Engineer could sail with their husbands continuously, unlike the wives of Senior Officers who could only sail with their husbands every other voyage. Family commitments, children’s schooling and the need to provide a stable home environment for the family prevented most wives from sailing with their husbands on a regular basis.

The Marine Architects who designed the SS Magdapur in my opinion had a grudge against R/O’s. Although admirable in so many ways, on the Magdapur, the R/O’s cabin was located immediately next to the Saloon Bar on the Port (left hand) side of the ship which inevitably led to the R/O’s sleep and rest times being disturbed by other officers who understandably wanted to unwind and relax in the Bar after a long day but whose watch patterns were completely different to those of the R/O.

Although as a junior officer your cabin might be on the small side, it and the rest of the accommodation was always maintained to an extremely high standard and kept scrupulously clean.

The Officers were all Brocklebank employees. I hesitate to make the same statement in respect of the Asian crew because I do not know for sure. It is possible they were supplied by an agency in India or Pakistan.

On joining a ship a separate set of legally binding terms and conditions applied to your employment at sea. These were called Ship’s Articles.

These Articles were signed by all of the crew prior to the commencement of a voyage. This was a legally binding contract between the employee and the ship owner agreeing the terms and conditions of employment and the payment to be received. Signing Articles was a formal practice involving the Ship's Captain and an official from the local shipping Office. Once on Articles you were subject to a whole range of legally binding requirements regarding your conduct and rights. They placed you under the complete Authority of the Master (Captain).

As a R/O and for other Certificated Officers, it was a requirement to hand over your Certificate of Competence (Ticket) so that its number, Class and validity could be checked and entered into the Articles. An R/O would not be permitted to sign on unless their Ticket was valid. You would also be required to hand over your Discharge Book so that the Captain and Shipping Agent could see your previous performance and conduct history.

As a complete aside, to the chagrin of some other officers on board ship, when I was at sea the Radio Officer was the only officer on board that had the word Officer entered into the Articles alongside their role. The Captains Job Title was Master, The navigating officers were recorded as Mate, Second Mate, Third Mate etc, The Purser was just that, as was the electrician and all of the engineers. This distinction between the R/O and the other officers on board was not an issue to be bragged about but it could be used to make a little mischief if you were organising a quiz night and thought that one of the questions should be “who is the only officer on board this ship”!

At the end of the voyage you signed off Articles and the process was repeated in part by your Discharge Book being updated. On signing off Articles you were free to leave the ship and go on leave. There was and probably is more to it than I have described but I believe I have recorded the essence of the arrangement.

In a previous tale I have related what an R/O on joining a ship for the first time did to familiarise themselves with the Ship’s wireless station. I do not intend (perhaps to universal relief) to repeat any of that. Instead I will report on perhaps your second most important relationship on board (after the Captain) namely that with your Cabin Steward.

On Brocklebank ships the Stewards, Cook and Cleaners were Asian and were men who in the main had had long careers at sea. In many cases their length of service with the company exceeded that of the officers certainly so in the case of the junior officers. Many came from seafaring families whose fathers had worked for the company before them. They were proud of their role, history and service to the company. I did not know until after I left the sea that the word used to describe such Indian Seamen was Lascar.

Your Steward could enhance your life considerably. Each Department had a dedicated steward and in the case of the larger departments more than one. I need to explain here that Brocklebank ships were Bi lingual. Conversations on board would be in English, Bazaar Bat (the every day, maritime version of Hindustani) or a mixture of both. I was never a Radio Officer to my Steward or other members of the Indian crew. Instead I was always known and referred to as the Marconi Sahib, named after the World Famous pioneer of long distance radio communications, Guglielmo Marconi. If there was more than one R/O, then the Chief would be addressed as the Burra (big) Marconi Sahib and the Junior as the Chota (small) Marconi Sahib, The navigators were the Malim Sahibs, the Pursers the Pursa Sahibs and the Electrician was known as the Batti Sahib. I believe this related to light in some way but cannot be absolutely sure. The engineers were called Mistri Sahibs.

The older officers, particularly those that had served the company for years were often very fluent in Bazaar Bat. There was a little booklet available at the time (now sadly out of print and quite rare) called the Malim Sahibs Guide to Hindustani that provided an English/Hindi guide to the most common words and expressions used at sea.

My first deep sea Chief R/O as his party piece was able to sing the words and chorus of the Adam Faith song “What do you want if you don’t want money” completely in Bazaar Bat, much to the delight of both the officers and crew. The latter always calling for an encore.

The role of your cabin Steward was to look after your welfare, clean your cabin and the Radio Room, change the bed linen and towels, fit the white covers over your cabin seats when the ship was in the tropics, keep your ice bucket and cold water flask filled and to serve you your meals in the Dining Saloon. In between he would bring you your morning coffee and toast, midday lime juice and afternoon tea with cake. If you were the sole R/O on board, because of your watch patterns, these meal and refreshment services could be brought to you in the Radio Room. This might involve the Steward in a long walk up several decks from the Galley and serving pantry. No doubt like all of us they might mutter under their breath about the demands of the job but they always seemed to me to be amongst the happiest and most cheerful workers that I ever met.

On one particular ship my cabin steward who was exceptionally good and who took great pride in his work, raised the only complaint that I ever had from any of my Stewards. The complaint was against my teenage, first trip junior whose cabin became a bio Hazard zone as the voyage progressed. The lad’s mother must have wept tears of joy when he went to sea because of the relief she experienced from not having to clean up after him.

One of his great pleasures in life was to feed the cockroaches in his cabin with granulated sugar to such an extent that the population in his cabin and the adjacent ones exploded and the third mate had to increase his DDT eradication visits until the problem was brought under control. Parents will completely understand that trying to explain to a teenager the error of their ways is not always the most productive of activities. This conflict zone is made even bigger if you are not the parent and are only a few years older than the teenager! After my fatherly advice! matters did improve somewhat over time.

I now cringe at the word used to call the Steward because it came from the time of Empire and the British Raj. It is now so politically incorrect that its use today would probably result in a prosecution for racial abuse. However in the 1960’s on Brocklebank ships it was common practice to refer to the Steward as “Boy” even though he might have been a middle aged man with a grown up family.

There was a ship’s laundry. This was usually a small room containing a Butler sink, hot and cold water taps, a top loading, agitating type washing machine and an enamel bucket. The room was usually used by a member of the Asian crew (Topas) who was responsible for the cleaning of the passageways, showers and toilets in the Officer’s accommodation. If you attempted to do your own laundry you would be given a reproachful look because he moonlighted as the Officers Dhobi Wallah and you felt you were taking food out of his children’s mouth by doing your own washing. As his charges were low I for one always chose to delegate my uniform laundry to him. The uniform shirts and whites always came back so stiff with starch that when you first put them on it felt as though you were wearing a straight-jacket!

There was little in the way of organised entertainment provided on board ship. These were the days before the company supplied film projectors and feature films. There were short wave receivers provided by the company in the officers Saloon/Bar as well as the crew’s mess and there was a dart board and table tennis table in the rear saloon. There was a ships library with a fresh supply of books provided prior to the commencement of each deep sea voyage by a charitable organisation whose name I cannot now remember. There were card games and board games including chess, dominoes and mah-jong.

Most Officers myself included, had our own short wave receivers fitted up in our cabins. Prior to my first trip to sea I bought a small Eddystone communications receiver that did quite well given the limitations imposed by my inadequate wire aerial but it was not a patch on the receivers fitted in the radio room. I used to listen to the BBC’s Overseas service and particularly the Merchant Navy programme but the one time I had a record played on the programme that had been requested by my family, I had gone to bed early and missed it completely. It’s said that we all have our brief moment of fame and if so mine came and went when I was asleep crossing the Indian Ocean.

The consumption of alcohol in the Bar or in your cabin with colleagues was the most frequent social activity during my time at sea. Drinking alcohol as a form of relaxation at the end of the last watch of the day was normal, but alcoholism in its most extreme form was rare but not unknown. No one department had a monopoly on champion drinkers but who drank the most and with whom differed from ship to ship. In all of my time at sea I cannot remember any drinking session leading to fighting on board. I believe that there was too much respect between shipmates for that to occur. On one ship a junior engineer who on board was the friendliest and most mild mannered of people became a nightmare when he went ashore because of his aggressive behaviour towards strangers when he was drunk. This lead to his ship board colleagues refusing to accompany him and in the end he used to go ashore alone, returning on board often the worse for wear and sporting the dressings and bandages applied by the local hospital.

I believe that in some cases, particularly amongst the most senior officers who had climbed the highest up the greasy pole of promotion, alcohol was used to soften feelings of regret and melancholia because they found shipboard life and their careers in the Merchant Navy to be a velvet lined prison.

Separation from families for months on end with no firm date for return to the UK and in some cases having to deal with family issues at long distance before the marvels of the Internet and the mobile phone led to stress, melancholia and family breakdown. The girl in every port was a myth. It was the girlfriend, partner or wife back home dealing with problems on their own that caused the greatest anguish.

At the time I was at Sea, the UK’s Board of Trade mandated the minimum level of rations that a crew member of a ship in the British Merchant Navy should receive whilst on board. There was one shipping company, H Hogarth and Sons, a Scottish shipping company that operated a number of tramp steamers that sailed under the Baron Line Flag was known throughout the British Merchant Navy as “Hungry” Hogarths because their feeding regime closely followed the Board of Trade ration figures.

The food on Brocklebank ships was absolutely brilliant and the universal silver service in the Dining Saloon for the three daily meals always made it very special. On the ships I sailed on the Galley, Serving Pantry and Dining Saloon were always located in close proximity to one another resulting in the cooked food arriving in the Dining Saloon piping hot. The officer’s cook was always an Indian and a Christian to avoid offence when Pork or non Halal food was prepared or served.

Each day there would be different choices at mealtimes. It was never the case that Monday was always the soup, stew and steam pudding day.

The Second Steward would be responsible for typing out the menus. One would be posted on the notice board on the accommodation deck early in the morning so that you could see what was on offer that day. You also had a menu on your table in the dining saloon.

There were two half hour sittings in the dining saloon for each meal with the junior officers eating first. Meal times were (from memory) restricted in length and were from 0730 to 0830 (ships time) for breakfast, 1200 to 1300 (noon to 1 PM) for lunch and 1700 to 1800 (5 PM to 6 PM for dinner).

At each meal there would be a wide choice of dishes on offer. At breakfast you could have fruit juice, cereals, porridge, kippers, full English or eggs cooked freshly in every way imaginable. You could also have kedgeree or devilled kidneys. Additionally you could have toast and preserves accompanied by tea of coffee.

At lunch time the choices were extensive. There would be soup, a fish dish, salads and cold meats, a fully cooked English dish such as a roast with accompanying vegetables, the curry of the day with all of the condiments, pickles, pappadoms, chapattis and rice. There would be hot and cold sweets, cheese and biscuits and sometimes a Welsh rarebit as a savoury to finish off. There was always a plentiful supply of fresh fruit available. It was never a case of either or. If you could eat it, you could have it.

Dinner in the evening was a simpler affair with usually a light starter and a cooked dish such as chops or cooked ham. Cold meats and salads were also available as was a pudding that might be a fruit flan served with custard or cream. Freshly baked bread was available in the form of sliced bread at breakfast and rolls at lunch and dinner times.

I know that sandwiches were available in the Engine Room and on the Bridge at night for the late turn Watch Keepers. You had access to the pantry at night so could make yourself a tea or coffee at any time in the evening if you so wished.

Fresh milk often ran out between ports of call if the voyage time between them exceeded four or five days. On offer when that happened was powdered milk added to water or condensed milk. If none of these suited then you could always choose to have your tea or coffee black.

It was at this time that I acquired my lifetime liking for Indian food. The choices on board over time were wider than the menu options in most UK based Indian (Bangladeshi) restaurants.

All of the plates, cutlery, serving dishes, napkin rings and table furniture carried the Brocklebank House Flag and name, so the ambience within the dining saloon was always that of a high end restaurant. The table cloths and napkins were changed each day.

One thing I discovered during the first heavy storm at sea that I experienced was that the tables in the Dining Saloon had a most unusual feature.

This was that the circular table top was secured to its pedestal base by means of a single, recessed bolt. The flat top was equipped with a wooden skirt of about four or five inches deep that ran around its circumference. When inverted this top took on the appearance of a large, flat saucer. In bad weather when the ship was rolling and pitching, eating at a flat topped table was difficult because the plates of food slid about as though they were on wheels. The solution was to invert the table top and to secure it upside down with its central bolt.

Once this had been done the plates were prevented from sliding about because they were placed within the skirt and between the stringers of the table top on a table cloth that was saturated with water. It was amusing to see the Stewards leaning over at angles similar to those achieved by downhill ski racers as they served the food but at least you could eat without the risk of the curry of the day landing up in your lap.

What I remember with vivid clarity were the unique smells associated with the ship and from being at sea. Inside the accommodation, there were the smells of varnish, furniture polish and the old fashioned smell of Brasso used to prevent all of the brass work in the cabins including the portholes from becoming tarnished. On deck there was the smell of the teak decking together with the pitch caulking that was used between the Teak planking to effect a waterproof seal. In blazing temperatures in the tropics you could smell the pitch as it softened under the sun.

Out on deck you could smell the heat and oil from the engine room ventilators as well as the funnel gasses particularly when the prevailing wind blew them across the decks. Outside there was always the smell of fresh paint and varnish as the deck crew fought valiantly to maintain the appearance of the ship and protect it from the ravages of the marine environment.

On the Boat deck there was the smell of the cargo because all of the holds were force ventilated to prevent their contents from being damaged by damp or condensation. On the Way to Colombo we would carry thousands of tons of fertiliser for the tea plantations that would smell like today’s Growmore garden fertiliser, whilst on the return journey the holds could be filled with Copra or Jute that carried the smell of coconut. Our ships could also carry animal hides from Djibouti back to the UK but I never found the smells associated with that type of cargo to be very pleasant. Some Company ships carried live animals including Camels but fate ensured I missed out on the pleasures associated with that type of cargo.


Animal hides being loaded on to the SS Manaar at Djibouti, French Somalia in 1966. The photograph was taken from the Boat Deck but you could smell the Hides even from here.

 The one smell that always tantalised my taste buds was the smell of cooking from the Galley that seemed to reach every corners of the ship particularly as we approached meal times. I was always hungry.

If the ship was underway, there would be the smell of ozone as the vessel cut through the water and that unique smell that is the smell of the sea itself. Weather can introduce a smell whether it is the damp cloying smell of fog or the smell of dry dusty air in the Red Sea.

I remember my first visit to Ethiopia and smelling the breeze that was coming off the land. It was an infusion of totally unfamiliar odours and although I am probably wrong I convinced myself at the time that this exotic, spicy perfume was the smell of Africa itself and not just the smell of the port.

It is no lie to claim that you can smell land before you ever catch sight of it because that is what I experienced the first time I ever visited Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) after a long voyage across the Indian Ocean. I could smell the Island before I ever saw the coast line.

There was the very friendly smell of the Radio Room that was an infusion of tobacco smoke, varnish and furniture polish. Less friendly and more dangerous was the smell of the explosive fumes given off by the lead acid emergency batteries when they were gassing under heavy charge.

Perhaps the most unique smell of all was the smell of the English Channel as the ship sailed towards its final UK destination port where we would sign off Articles and return home for a well deserved leave.

During my time at sea there were moments on board of boredom and periods of high drama. The latter if the Auto Alarm went off in the middle of the night. On opening up the ship’s radio station to establish where the incident was and who was in trouble I would experience a sense of relief tempered by a little disappointment when it was established that the ship in distress was thousands of miles away from our position.

Sunday Mornings at sea saw the Captain’s Inspection of the entire ship that was euphemistically called “Board of Trade Sports”. The Captain accompanied by the Mate would tour the entire ship, inspecting all Departments with the Mate taking notes of any deficiencies that the Department head would need to correct. Visits included the accommodation for the officers and crew, the galley and the saloons and in particular the accommodation occupied by the Cadets where special attention would be given to the presence of dust on lockers or on the tops of the doors! I do not know whether the Captain ever ventured into the engine room but I can say that the radio room never received more than a cursory look through the door. It was also the time when the ship’s fire Alarms would be rung and the entire ships company would have to congregate in their designated muster areas wearing their life jackets. This weekly event gave the R/O on board the opportunity to run some brief tests on the Lifeboat transceiver that generally was confined to keying the transmitter into the equipment’s dummy load. On single R/O ships, the assistance of a cadet would be sought in order to turn the handles of the generator that powered the equipment.

Only on one ship did I ever observe a dip in morale and irritability arise between shipmates and this was due to being at anchor for about eight weeks off the Port of Colombo as a result of a general strike of public sector workers that included the Port’s Dockers and Customs Officials. The Captain of the Ship I was on was eventually persuaded to bring the motorised lifeboat into service to operate a rota so that members of the ships company could get a run ashore if only for a few hours. More importantly the use of the lifeboat ensured that the long awaited letters from Home were finally able to reach the ship having been held for many weeks at the Shipping Agents Office.


An extremely poor image showing the lowering of the motor lifeboat into the sea for the first time at the port of Colombo, during the general strike. Looking down is the Chief R/O Harry Jefferson. In the boat at the tiller is the 3rd Mate Jerry and the white boiler suit is worn by the Second Engineer Tommy Smith who had spent hours reconditioning the engine. I do not remember who else was in the Lifeboat when it was lowered.


Home working is now quite common but the equivalent existed in the 1960’s and in today’s Merchant Navy. Back then I could walk from my cabin to the Radio Room, a journey of less than a minute. The walk from my cabin to the Dining Saloon would take even less time. So different to my later career when I commuted to work each day taking several hours to travel from home to office!

My time at sea laid the foundation for my lifetime preference of working under the minimum of supervision from my line managers. At sea, as a Senior or Chief R/O, I only ever came under the management supervision of the Ship’s Captain who in all cases never, ever sought to direct what was done and when. You were of course always obliged to respond to a request to send a telegram or to repair the Ship’s Radar if it failed, but what you did on Watch or in terms of maintenance between Watches was down to your training, experience, company requirements and the International Maritime Radio Regulations of the time. I achieved my preference of working without a line manager when I worked for myself many years after I left the sea. However working to your own contracted deadlines can be far more demanding than any manager that I ever worked for!

There was so much about life on board ship that was wonderful and amazing. The sight of changing cloud formations, the uniqueness of every sunset and sunrise, the flying fish in the Indian Ocean coming on board and the sight of the Dolphins that swam ahead of the bow of the ship with effortless ease. There was also the amazing spectacle of the green phosphorescence on the surface of the sea at night as the bow of the ship cut through the water and the way in which the ship rode the waves in bad weather. I also witnessed the sight of St Elmo ’s fire playing around the top of the Main Mast.

Late at night the ship could appear deserted, because only a navigator on the Bridge and one or two of the engineers on duty in the engine room would be working. Everyone else would be relaxing or asleep in their cabins. At these times the ship could seem alive because of the slight noises that it made as it responded and moved to the motion of the ocean.

There were the opportunities to visit places that at school were only names on a map. There were sights that I wished I had never seen such as the disfigured and crippled beggars in India and Ceylon.

What I remember most about life on board was the humour, the laughter and the camaraderie amongst the officers. This differed to some degree between ships and depended to some extent on the ages of those concerned. Modern management training places great importance on team building and collaborative working. Taking a ship around the World and keeping it running efficiently requires high levels of professionalism and team work. For a short time in the early to mid 1960’s I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness that team working at first hand and to make my own contribution to it and to Life on Board.

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