The blue and least visually offensive of the two casual outfits that I wore at sea in the 1960's that are referred to in the Introduction section of this page. Photograph taken by my wife.
My memories of my time at sea in the 1960’s are a mosaic of incidents and small events. Some events were fleeting, others more prolonged but the thing that they have in common is that for reasons I cannot explain, they registered in my memory in a way that enables me to recall them all these years later.
What I have chosen to do here is to brings together some anecdotes that I hope will add to the overall picture I have tried to paint about my life at sea as a Radio Officer.
I hoped that the title chosen of short shorts might prove sufficiently intriguing to a curious reader to encourage them to dip in and see what I have written. To demonstrate that the title does have a tiny amount of relevance to actual shorts, I have included the above photograph of myself on the boat deck of the SS Manaar that was captured sometime in 1966.
I am embarrassed to admit that I was stone cold sober when I bought this and another similar outfit from a sports outfitters in the UK when on leave after an earlier voyage. It is hardly surprising that they were included in a sale and offered by the shop at a very large discount over the original price!
When I handed over my money to the shop keeper I must have been suffering from style amnesia and no doubt was indifferent to how I looked when I wore the outfits. Had an organisation such as the style police existed at the time, it is clear that I would have run the risk of being given a caution for offending good taste. I did not find out until after I bought the outfits and was at sea that the shorts in particular were a size too small! The companion outfit was brown with a yellow pattern and even more hideous than the blue one shown in the photograph.
Captain John (Gobby) Nutall was the master of the Mahseer for the outward leg of my first deep sea voyage as a Junior R/O in the latter part of 1963. At that time I had no sea-going experience that enabled me to decide if his attitude and manner were normal or not for a ship’s captain.
As far as I was aware at that time his brusque and offhand manner towards his officers, with the exception of the Chief Engineer, was the norm. Ship’s Captains at that time had all seen service at sea during World War 2. One that I sailed with (not Captain Nuttall) had been a prisoner of war. It is therefore not surprising to me that their attitudes had been shaped by their experiences.
Captain Nuttall was a very large man with a barrel shaped body mounted on strangely thin legs. He had a prodigious capacity for alcohol and would spend most of his afternoons in his day room drinking with the Chief Engineer. On many evenings even after drinking earlier in the day he would gravitate to the Saloon Bar for some social contact and a Chota Peg (small drink) or two.
At Gan Island in the Maldives, on the way to Colombo after an afternoon of drinking followed by a further session in the saloon bar in the evening, he slipped into unconsciousness whilst sitting on the edge of one of the saloon’s settees. There he lay, dead to the world lying prone along its length with his legs hanging in free space over the padded arms. As he was far too heavy to lift, he was covered with a blanket and left for time and nature to work its recuperative magic.
The next part I always thought was very sad because on “recovering” and before we left Gan he insisted that the Chief R/O send a long, melancholic telegram to head office. I never saw it so do not know its contents but I do know that the Chief R/O, the Chief Officer and the Chief Engineer did their best to dissuade him from sending it, but being the Master, he insisted so off it went. He later berated his three would be protectors for not trying harder to dissuade him from sending it!
After we left Gan and before we arrived at Colombo he sent a further message cancelling the first one but by then it was too late because when we arrived at Colombo he was met by his wife and his replacement. I never saw him again after that so do not know if he ever took command of a ship again.
I suggest that any reader of a sensitive disposition should skip the next two paragraphs and move on to another Short Short!
His nickname “Gobby” stemmed not from him being particularly vocal or one who held very strong opinions although the latter was certainly true but from his habit of noisily clearing his throat of any phlegm that might have had the temerity to take up residence in his airways or chest. He then expectorated what ever he was able to dislodge over the side of the Bridge Wing choosing a launch location that offered a good following wind for the projectile.
Numerous stories were told about the effects on the unfortunate members of the ship’s company whether officer or crew who happened to be in the wrong place on the boat deck or elsewhere on board when the green goblin landed! He did not care about where it landed or who it landed on. He never apologised. After all he was the Master of all he surveyed.
THE ISLAND OF PANTELLERIA.
One abiding memory that I have of my first voyage on Mahseer was when we sailed very close to the Italian Island of Pantelleria on our passage through the Mediterranean to Port Said and the Suez Canal. The Second Mate who was the Mahseer's navigator had laid a course close to the Southern end of the island possibly as a means of saving fuel.
Pantelleria is administratively part of Sicily lying 100 kM South West of that Island and 60 Km East of the Tunisian coast. I saw the Island for the first time ever in the morning of a day in November 1963. The time was just after breakfast but before the commencement of the first wireless watch of the day which would have placed it around 9 to 10 AM local time. It was warm on deck, the sky was clear, the sea calm and the visibility was perfect with no sea mist of fog.
The Island has been built by Volcanic activity. From my vantage point on Mahseer’s boat deck, the top of the Island appeared to be several hundred feet above sea level and sloped down to the sea in a series of terraces that appeared to be under cultivation. I could see the white walls or roofs of buildings that I took to be farmhouses and I am convinced that I saw people working in the fields. The end of the land perched above the sea on the top of quite tall cliffs.
I was entranced by what I saw. It seemed so peaceful and beautifully different from the landscapes I was familiar with back home in the UK. My friend, the third Mate Jerry was on watch on Mahseer’s bridge accompanied by one of the ship’s quartermasters. When I went to see him he identified the name of the Island for me and then said that it was also known as the “Island of Beautiful Women” That description fixed the image of the Island in my memory forever.
I do not know whether the alternative name was true, well deserved or perhaps was a sailor’s myth like the existence of mermaids. Whatever it was it left me with an abiding memory of a beautiful island. On subsequent deep sea voyages as a Radio Officer when in the Eastern Mediterranean I always looked out for Pantelleria but none of the subsequent sightings had quite the same impact on me as seeing it for the very first time.
I cannot speak for other Cargo Shipping Companies that existed when I was at sea but Brocklebank ships did not operate any form of retail outlet for the supply of sweets and toiletries for the officers and crew on board. This was unlike Royal Naval ships that always had the NAAFI (Navy Army Air Force Institutes). Brocklebank ships did have a ship’s Bonded store that was controlled and accounted for by the Chief Steward.
Brocklebank 0fficers could buy bottles of Spirits, tins of beer, cartons of cigarettes, rolling tobacco pouches, tins of pipe tobacco and boxes of matches. The Indian crew were not allowed alcohol but could buy cigarettes and matches. The Bonded stores were open when the ship was at sea but had to be sealed in any Port when its duty free contents come under the jurisdiction of local Customs Officials.
You were obliged therefore to purchase any toiletries or sweets you were likely to consume during the voyage before you came on board. If you were wise you would take any opportunity to top up your supplies during the voyage if you were fortunate enough to call at a Port that had shops selling these commodities. Brocklebank voyages were supposed to last about three months but could easily stretch to six months or more due to unforeseen circumstances.
I knew nothing of this prior to my first trip to sea so on my first voyage I was extremely ill prepared and supplied. I have always had a sweet tooth with a preference in my Teens and Twenties for hard boiled sweets and Mints. Many years after I left the sea I discovered the delights of plain dark chocolate, a weakness I have struggled to overcome many times since but with very limited success!
My sweet deprivation problem was solved on my first voyage by my friend Jerry who was Mahseer's Third Mate (Third Officer in todays terms).
I need to explain how my lack of sweets on that voyage was overcome. Each of the navigators, Third, Second and Mate had specific on board duties in addition to those associated with Watch keeping whilst the ship was at sea. The Mate was responsible for ship management and all cargo matters, the Second Mate was the ship’s navigator and the Third Mate (my friend Jerry) amongst his many duties has responsibility for maintaining the stores in Mahseer’s lifeboats.
I cannot list all of the items that a ship’s lifeboat had to carry in terms of stores. I suspect it was extensive and mandated by UK Maritime Law. What I do know was that consumable items such as food and water had dates by which they were no longer deemed viable. Included in the list of consumables were sealed containers of Barley Sugar, included no doubt because of its high sugar levels and calorific value.
Because some tins of Barley Sugar were approaching their use by dates, they had to be replaced and it was left to Jerry’s discretion to decide what the disposal arrangements might be. I admit that without any hesitation on my part I selflessly volunteered to assist him with the disposal of some of the Barley sugar lumps.
From memory the lifeboat Barley sugar was much darker than the shoreside sweet shop item with a very intense flavour. It is also possible that the sugar content was much higher than the shoreside version.
For some time after the lifeboat rations were changed I did not have any complaints at all from my “sweet tooth”!
Port Sudan like many of the other Red Sea Ports such as Massawa, Assab and Jeddah that Brocklebank Ships visited on both outgoing and return voyages to the UK, had little to offer in the way of shopping for visiting seamen. I seem to remember that the town of Port Sudan was a taxi journey from the Port area but to be honest I remember absolutely nothing about how the Central area of the town itself was laid out. A patient reader might therefore be forgiven for asking what on earth is this story is about if there is nothing of interest to describe.
There are two things that remain vividly imprinted on my memory about Port Sudan. The first was the swimming pool at the Seamans Mission and the second was loading a cargo of Ground Nuts (peanuts) for delivery to the UK. In this short short I will only relate my story about the swimming pool.
It was reputed that all Brocklebank ships carried canvas lined, portable swimming pools for the benefit and recreation of the ship’s crews and although I know these were rigged and filled on some company ships when they were in the tropics, they were never erected and brought into service on any of the ships that I sailed on. I suspect that the Mates (First Officer) felt they were more trouble than they were worth given the need to dismantle and drain them before arrival at Port so as not to impede cargo working. I also suspect that some Mates did not like the idea of salt water leaving stains on their Teak decking that was always a feature of the Boat Deck around the number 3 Hold on Company ships.
I have swum in the Bitter Lakes of the Suez canal but the idea of venturing into the polluted water of any dock in Europe or abroad never appealed to me at all. If you accidentally fell in and had to swim to save your life in the waters of the kiddapore docks in Calcutta India you were obliged to have the contents of you stomach pumped out in the local hospital as any ingested water could prove fatal.
I was told on very good authority by the ship’s Agent at Port Sudan that the Seamans Mission had a proper swimming pool that could be accessed by anyone who wished to use it, so suitably equipped and accompanied by another officer from the Ship we climbed on board a taxi and asked to be taken to the Seamans Mission.
On arrival at the Mission we were told that the swimming pool was indeed open but was located a short walk along the coast from the Mission itself. The directions we were given were very clear and although the sun was as hot as the flame from a blow lamp and the outside temperature high enough to fry eggs on the pavement were there any pavements to be found, the idea of a refreshing swim spurred us on.
The directions to the pool were extremely accurate and when we arrived we had high expectations of a relaxing afternoon.
The pool was large and there were brick changing rooms located near to its edge but the sight that caught our attention was the colour of the pool’s water which was like a thick green pea soup that also had a crust of slimy green algae floating on the surface. It was impossible to judge the depth of the pool as it was so polluted. There was no disturbance to this fetid water so we concluded that the chlorination and filtration system did not exist or if it did was either switched off or had failed many weeks earlier.
In less than a second we decided that it would be foolhardy in the extreme to even put a toe in that putrid water. I for one thought it highly likely that the water would be host to the most virulent forms of bacteria and water borne parasites that would happily enter any bodily orifice that was likely to get wet and take up residence in what ever space it found itself in. The medical facilities on board ship and the treatments available East of Suez: except perhaps with the exceptions of Aden and Djibouti, meant that if you became unwell you might struggle to find any facility that could offer an effective treatment.
If there was a pool man employed by the Mission then clearly he had failed in his job. The next opportunity for a swim on that voyage was the Maldive island of Gan in the Indian Ocean. Swimming from its pristine golden beaches on the edge of the lagoon was a near perfect experience.
A visit to the Port of Aden in the 1960’s was one of the most anticipated ports of call of any outward bound voyage on a Brocklebank ship to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India or Pakistan. The reason was that Aden at that time was a duty free Port and the many small Indian owned shops at Steamer Point were crammed full of consumer goods that were not available in the United Kingdom or if they were, were considerably more expensive to buy.
The goods on offer in the shops included radios, clocks, toys, watches, gold jewellery, expensive luggage and every imaginable electronic or photographic consumer item you could think of. As many shops held near identical items, bargaining over price and threatening to take your custom to the shop next door added to the enjoyment of the experience. If you made a move to the door before the purchase had been made, you might be offered a further price reduction or another cold beer. No matter how little I paid for an item I always came away with the feeling that I had spent more money than was necessary!
During my visits to Aden, I bought transistor radios, 35 mm colour films, a pair of binoculars and a portable typewriter (which I still have but never use). You could even buy English language hardback and paper backed books. Most were new but some shops operated a buy-back or exchange service for preowned paperbacks.
On one visit I decided to get a haircut in a backstreet barbers shop. This might not have been a very wise thing to do particularly as after I entered the door I discovered that I was the only European in the shop. As I reclined in the barber’s chair having waited my turn and being given a shave with a cutthroat razor, I looked up to see a large wall mounted picture of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, positioned above the barbers mirror, looking down at me. The Suez crisis of 1956 was still an issue as was the Arab nationalism that it provoked. In the best British tradition I laid back in the chair and thought of England and am happy to say that after the haircut, hot towels around the face and chin and of course the obligatory neck massage, I was able to depart with the exchange of as-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you).
The last time I went to Aden was in 1966 on the SS Manaar. On that occasion none of the crew were allowed to go ashore as it was thought to be too dangerous. This was because the armed insurgency in the Aden Protectorate had reached the town of Aden itself. Even though Manaar was anchored in the middle of the harbour, the Aden authorities placed a continuous armed guard on the gangway who remained on board until we departed for Colombo.
In so many ways I have to consider myself very fortunate to have been able to go ashore in Aden in happier times to do some shopping. I do not believe it remains a destination port for many cargo ships today and certainly not for the passenger Liners from the big shipping companies that were regular visitors on their way to and from the far East and Australia.
copyright © John Leary