Before I obtained the necessary qualifications to undertake the duties of a Radio Officer (R/O) on British Merchant ships, I wrote to a number of shipping companies looking for a job. One of these was Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd. The reply from its Chief Radio Superintendent was friendly but apologetic because he said that there were no vacancies for junior R/O’s at that particular time. However he advised that if I were to obtain the Ministry Of Transport Radar Maintenance Certificate after my First Class Certificate of Competence in Wireless Telegraphy, then I should write to him again. About five months later having successfully obtained the radar maintenance certificate at Bristol Technical College, I wrote again. This time the reply was encouraging because I was invited to Liverpool for an interview.
When I arrived for my interview with Ben Lonsdale, (the Chief Radio Superintendent) I was nervous and apprehensive because up until that time I had not had many job interviews so did not know really what to expect. I have a very poor recollection of the interview after all these years and cannot remember much of what was said. What I do remember was that I relaxed very quickly because Ben had a very friendly manner. It wasn’t long before we were chatting as though we had known each other for a long time.
He was very interested in my work experience before going to Wireless College and spoke with such pride about Brocklebank's history and in particular, the development and approach of the Radio Department that I felt that if I failed the interview I would have lost out on a wonderful opportunity.
Having been there for what seemed like a couple of hours, he asked me had I bought my uniform. I replied in the negative and he went on to offer advice about what I would need and to explain which of the Liverpool naval outfitters would provide me with the best value for money. When he asked whether I would need an advance of salary towards the cost of the uniform, it dawned on me that I had been successful and had been offered a job!
Things then moved at lightning speed because he arranged for me to have a medical with the company doctor and also made an appointment the following day with the Liverpool shipping office for the issue of a seaman's Discharge Book and Identity card.
Brocklebank’s doctor had a consulting room in the bowels of the Liver Building. One of his questions sticks in my mind to this day because he asked me if I could stand hot weather. I replied in the affirmative because I have always preferred to be warm rather than cold. The significance of that question was lost on me at that time but its relevance came home a few months later.
My first ship, the SS Mahseer, had a junior R/O’s cabin that was small and rectangular in shape. Standing at the door looking in; on the left hand side there was a wardrobe next to which was a day-bed that was covered in a dark blue moquette material. I seem to remember that there were several drawers under the day bed.
A long slim bookshelf was mounted above the day bed. Facing you at the far end of the rectangle was a single bunk located beneath a shiny brass porthole. Under the bunk was a set of deep drawers. On the right hand bulkhead nearest to the bunk was a fold down desk again with pull-out drawers. The desk had an armchair that fitted neatly underneath the table section. The seating pad was in the same dark blue material as the day bed.
Between the desk and the door was a white porcelain basin fitted with chromed hot and cold taps. Either side of the basin was a bulkhead mounted tumbler holder. Next to one of the tumbler holders was one of the famous Brocklebank cold water flasks. Over the basin was a small mirrored cabinet for toiletries. All of the wooden furniture was highly polished and finished in a dark brown mahogany colour.
On the bulkhead, over the desk was a reciprocating electrical fan. Heating and cooling for the cabin was provided by means of a single adjustable nozzle mounted into a length of ventilation trunking located above the door.
The cabin door could be held open with a hook and eye. For extra privacy when the door was held open, there was a patterned curtain mounted on a rail above the door. The porthole curtains were made from the same material. The Auto Alarm bell was mounted on the bulkhead that separated my cabin from that of the Chief R/O.
I cannot remember whether the cabin's deck was carpeted or not. Certainly the internal corridor outside of the cabin was covered with a beige/light yellow linoleum that was highly varnished. Only the Owners Suite, the Captain's cabin and that occupied by the Chief Engineer had en-suite toilet facilities. The engineering, electrical, radio and catering officers used a communal toilet and shower facility located on the Port side of the accommodation deck.
My cabin which was located on the accommodation deck on the starboard side lay on the other side of a corridor to the number three hold. My ceiling bulkhead was the underside of the boat deck. The galley was slightly aft of my cabin across the other side of the corridor. The steel bulkheads were all painted in the same light cream paint. This then was my own private domain and remained so on and off for thirteen months.
I joined the ship in September 1963 and with the colder weather at that time of year my cabin was a haven of warmth and comfort. The warmth and smell of hot food cooking in the galley was delightful.
Having coasted, Mahseer set sail for Colombo in mid October. The weather brightened and for the first time in my life, I experienced hot sunny days in November and December. My cabin warmed but the cool air blower which never in a million years could be described as true air conditioning did its best to offset the worst of the suns heat on the boat deck above my head. At night the open porthole caught some of the passing breeze that then moved across the cabin to exit into the corridor via the open door.
Day by day we ploughed our way steadily through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and then across the Indian Ocean. During the days, the electric fan did its best to circulate the air around the cabin but I never mastered the ability to sleep with it switched on because of its noise and vibration.
I can still remember the excitement of that first landfall at Colombo seeing the dark line on the horizon slowly resolve itself into distinguishable shapes of trees and golden beaches. I think the Chief R/O was on watch when we received the telegram from the agents instructing Mahseer to anchor outside of the port and await instructions.
We had arrived just after the start of the strike of dockworkers and Customs officers. Over the course of the next few weeks this escalated to involve large swathes of the Ceylonese public service until it became close to a general strike. Whilst the strike continued, Mahseer remained at anchor but ready to steam at short notice. All Mahseer’s departments carried out full sea watches. During each radio watch we eagerly took Area and Colombo radio (4PB) traffic lists hoping that the telegram advising us to move alongside would be sent but sadly for us (and a large number of other ships similarly hit by the strike), it was a very long time coming. Because we were so close to the harbour the VHF radio remained switched on in case we were called by the pilots or harbour master.
As Mahseer swung at anchor with the sun beating down on her remorselessly from clear blue skies, the temperature in my cabin rose and rose so that by mid afternoon each day it became unbearably hot. Canvas awnings sprung up everywhere on the ship except on the boat deck near to the number three hold. The mate claimed it was not possible to shade this part of the ship because a) there were no stanchions to support it and b) a jury rig was not practicable because we might get instructions to move at short notice and any awning would impede cargo handling.
As the ship was at anchor there was no breeze from its movement so nothing apart from the fan and cold air blower existed to alleviate the stifling heat in my cabin which remained very hot throughout the night.
I have read stories of sailing ships, which when becalmed in the doldrums brought some of the crew members close to madness because of the remorseless heat. I did not suffer their privations by any stretch of the imagination because I could have cold drinks whenever I chose particularly if I was prepared to sign a bar chit.
One night whilst lying on my bunk, broiling slowly in my own juices my gaze came to rest on the air blower that was failing miserably to deliver enough cold air. Slowly a cunning plan began to formulate in my mind. What if I was to remove the nozzle from the trunking to enlarge the hole and so increase the flow of air into the cabin? On getting up from the bunk and by standing on my desk chair I could see that if I removed the four fixing screws the nozzle would easily come away from the trunking.
Inspired by this brilliant plan I left my cabin and walked up to the radio room to get the necessary tools from the tool cabinet. On my return it was but a matter of minutes before the nozzle was removed and placed on the top of the wardrobe for safe keeping. Oh what joy and deep bliss it was to feel this huge surge of cold air into my boiling cabin. It was as though the cold air was delighted to be liberated from its prison.
With a smile of smug satisfaction I closed the porthole and the cabin door behind me and padded silently back up to the radio room to place the tools back where they belonged. On my return, the cabin felt decidedly cooler and after climbing back into my bunk I was soon asleep soothed by the moderate to gale force wind of cold air now pouring out of the monstrous hole. Sadly all good things have to come to an end and in my case that happened after thirty six hours.
In my youth there was an old saying that went “beware the wages of sin”. Payday for me came in the shape of the second engineer (Tommy Smith) who in response to the complaints of poor air flow into the cabins of the other officers served by that trunking had been spending a great deal of his time investigating possible causes of the problem. That is until the moment he poked his head round my cabin door, looked up and saw the huge great hole in the face of the trunking where a cream plastic nozzle should have been!
To describe him as irate would be an understatement! I’m still embarrassed by his words even after all these years but suffice it to say that the nozzle was reinstalled without delay and the pleasant temperature that I had enjoyed for a brief time soon became a distant memory. There were dire threats made to me should I ever choose to remove the nozzle again.
Eventually the Colombo port workers strike came to an end and Mahseer was allowed alongside to begin discharging her cargo. I was forgiven by the second engineer who no doubt attributed my conduct to the actions of that unpredictable and strange breed known as “sparks”. Being a first tripper might also have helped my cause. He did not hold any grudge against the Radio Department because he helped us enormously when we were in the port trying to repair a cracked top bearing housing belonging to the BTH radar scanner.
The repair was difficult as it took an age and a great deal of ingenuity on Tommy’s part to remove the bearing from its housing. He then used Belzona to reinforce the casting but was not sure how permanent the repair would be. I do not know if or when the radar was replaced before Mahseer was scrapped in 1975, but the bearing gave no problems during the rest of the time I was on the ship.
Looking back I do not think that my discomfort in the heat was any worse than that suffered by the other members of Mahseer’s crew, particularly those accommodated along side the number three hold on the Starboard side (Chief R/O and Chief Steward). I think my problem stemmed from my inexperience of living in a hot climate. Subsequent voyages to sea hold no similar memories of discomfort so it is possible that after my first trip I became acclimatised to hot conditions or had more important things to worry about.
Many years later when I saw the BBC comedy whose name I adopted for this story, I could laugh not only at the comic situations that the concert party found themselves in but also because I could remember very clearly, how hot I felt in my cabin on board Mahseer when she was anchored off Colombo way back in 1963.
copyright © John Leary