30 May 2005
Leaving the English Channel we cross the Bay of Biscay to Cape Finisterre in northern Spain, Finisterre a famous name to those who sail deep sea. The Bay of Biscay for a good part of the year was rough from the big Atlantic rollers. But, for our journey in summer across Biscay and in August it was calm.Then we steamed down the coast of Portugal and across the Gulf of Cadiz to the Straight of Gibraltar, the Rock visible in the far distance. We are now steaming across the Mediterranean for Marseilles in southern France, our first port of call, to deliver cargo, then loading fresh cargo for delivery in East Africa.
The distribution of goods from Britain in 1951 was much different to what it is now, in the beginning of the 21st century. The Channel Tunnel was only a dream then, ferries from Britain to France in the main were passenger orientated and some were for light traffic. Distribution of goods from Great Britain was by sea to final destinations, or for central Europe it was by sea to a suitable nearby port and then by rail or road.
I remember little of the trip down other than the first day or two now. Daily working life soon became repetitive; on watch, off watch, sleep, eat and socialise. Life became a blur to some extent. I did make a few friends among the younger officers, the 4Th and 5Th engineer officers being in their early 20s. Also the ship had 2 deck officer cadets on board, both older than I. At the age of barely 18, I was mostly a tagger-on to any group.
Life socialising was a different matter for me and it was a life, which I was mostly enjoying. There seemed to be something new each day. I even dropped into the ships bar now and then and had a beer and then put it on my tab. No one asked me if I was 18, I think they just took it for granted that I was.
Soon we were off the port of Marseilles and we waited in the early morning to take the pilot aboard who would take us into port. When we entered port the radio room was closed down for the duration of our stay and Jock and I were free. Time was now ours.
28 May 2005
I lay in my bunk still wide-awake, or did I doze at times? A tap on the cabin door startled me. "Sahib, sahib, time for watch". It was one of the night staff, with a cup of milky chae... tea, and a plate of sandwiches. I quickly dressed and sipped my chae between sandwich bites; I was hungry. At midnight I walked round in the warm night air to the radio room door, entered, switched off the Auto Alarm and switched on the communications receiver once more. The soft buzz of Morse greeted me, not as busy now as it was on my earlier watch, but even so ship to shore and visa versa messages were still being exchanged. It was a balmy quiet night and I had noticed as I had come on watch, the often-stormy Bay of Biscay was like a millpond. The only sounds were the swish of the bow wave and distant tinkling laughter from one of the lower decks. I sat in my chair listening, and feeling now, a little sleepy. The motion of the ship as it gently dipped with the oily Biscay rollers and then the slight roll of the ship following, was lulling me to sleep I thought. I got up and walked around, then on to the deck for some fresh air. After a while I came back in to the radio room. There was nothing for me to do at this time of night, no telegram messages sent up to me from passengers via the Purser's office and nothing from shore either. I eventually sat down again. Again I became conscious of the motion of the ship. I said to myself "don't go to sleep, what ever you do!” Then I debated what to do, get up again and walk or should I practise reading the faint distant Morse signals through the static? There it was again, I again became most conscious of the ships slow roll and dip. I felt queasy, I could taste the sandwiches and milky tea in my mouth and it suddenly dawned on me. Was I feeling seasick? I thought about this for a while and now I was wide-awake. I sat tight ready to run into the spare adjoining cabin... there was a sink in there I had noticed earlier. The queasiness didn't get worse nor for that matter better, I just sat tight and after a while I forgot about it. This was the one and only time during my time at sea I felt seasick.Next thing I noticed it was 01.45 A.M. already. I must wake Jock for the news bulletin. I slide his door back and heard his slight snore as he expelled air. "Chief, Chief" I said. There was no movement. I repeated it louder with no response. I then shook his shoulder gently and I managed to get a grunt. Eventually I woke Jock enough for him to say "Och, the news, I'll be there in a minute. Tune it in." A few minutes later Jock staggered through in his pyjamas with hair standing on end. He pulled the old typewriter forward and made himself comfortable whilst waiting for the news transmission to begin. The rhythm of the Morse suddenly changed and Jock started to type, pounding the keys with 2 fingers. The steady pounding of the typewriter lasted about 30 minutes I suppose and Jock said "that's it, give it to the boy when he brings the chae" as he ambled off back into his cabin and sleep. I looked at the neatly typed copy of the newssheet, all the headings were in the right place and the punctuation seemed spot on too, as I read the news myself. The Purser's office would read the news over the ships radio system in the morning and duplicate copies for those who wanted them. I felt bored just sitting there with nothing to do but listen, fill in the log, listening closely during the silence periods or copying the traffic list when it came through, wishing there may be messages for us. There was not, not at 3 A.M. in the morning! I made a note to myself, 'bring a book', perhaps a hobby? Eventually I heard 8 bells ringing on the bridge, the clatter of feet as the 3rd officer came off watch and the 1st officer took over the watch for his 4-hour stint. It was 4 o' clock in the morning. There had been a break in the routine at 3 A.M. when the night steward knocked on the door and came in, uttering, "sahib chae". I remembered to give him the news bulletin.
Eventually 0600 A.M. arrived; I heard 4 bells being struck on the bridge. My watch was over. I had had the longest 6 hours of my life, or so it seemed. I was tired; I couldn't face an early breakfast as I went to my cabin. All I wanted to do was sleep. I tossed off my clothing and tumbled into bed, sleep came almost immediately.
27 May 2005
One of the most common questions people used to ask when I told them I was a sea-going radio officer was "what exactly do you do"? These jobs make sense. Cooks cook, engineers run the engines, deck officers run the ship, and the stewards’ feed and look after people. So we will have my first watch in the radio room.
A few minutes before 1800 hours and my first watch I entered the radio room by the starboard door as Jock had shown me and I switched on the communications receiver and turned off the auto alarm, then I signed in on the logbook. I knew what I had to do and I tuned into 500 kilohertz on the dial, the general calling frequency and distress frequency combined. We were still in communicating distance with Lands end Radio, GLD and my ear was tuned in case he called me with traffic to pass. I could hear him calling various other ships and he was still quite loud as we entered the Bay of Biscay. At fixed times he would send out a traffic list to which I listened, ' no, our call sign GFDZ was not listed'.
I continued monitoring 500 kilohertz. During every hour at 15 minutes past and 45 minutes past the hour was the silence period lasting 3 minutes. Every ship and radio station stopped sending and silence reigned. The purpose of this was to listen for any distress calls, possibly weak. 3 minutes later the frequency was buzzing once more from ships calling with messages and the coast stations of the many European countries calling too. Just like the buzz of conversation in a large crowded room except here the conversation was in Morse code.
Sometime after I had come on watch Jock stuck his head round the sliding door from his adjoining cabin and asked if everything was all right and I answered yes. "Good" said Jock “ don’t forget to call me, just before 0200 for the news report. Make a written note in the log, it’s easy to forget". I did just that. Jock indicated he was going down to the ships bar for happy hour and then dinner.
All activity had to be entered in the log in duplicate. Every call made or traffic taken, silence periods observed and if there should be a lull, a note of the call signs of any surrounding ships in the vicinity. An entry had to go into the log at least every 10 minutes.
This what basically occurred every watch with extra duties interspersed as needed. I will fill these duties in as they occur.
At the end of the watch and if no one was taking over the watch the Auto Alarm was set. The purpose of this was to monitor the channel when off watch for any distress... SOS calls. I set the alarm as I was taught and pressed the test button. All was well. I then signed the log off watch.
It was 2000 hours and I was due on watch again at midnight. I had only time for 4 hours sleep. If I remember correctly, I was too exited and didn’t sleep at all.
22 May 2005
As we cleared the Thames, we moved into the busy English Channel. The Channel was a busy maritime highway with ships of many nationalities, ferries, fishing boats and small boats. It brought to mind one of my favourite poems, John Masefield's "Cargoes" and then his other famous one "Sea Fever".
I had spent the first morning with Jock as he familiarised me with so many 'this and that’s', not really taught at Marine College. At lunchtime... Tiffin, he said the afternoon was mine and not to forget my first watch at 1800 hours. I remember wandering the length and breadth of the ship, with plenty of hellos from other friendly officers off duty. I moved next deck down, here were many of the passengers, talking in groups, sunning themselves in the warm August sun and many strolling the decks like me, familiarising themselves with the ship, or just plain exercising.
Many of the passengers knew each other; many were family groups and a few young single people. Most people were going to Kenya and Tanganyika now called Tanzania. Many were government officials, plantation owners and managers, import/export staff, and business owners, for these counties still belonged to the British Commonwealth and had not achieved their independence in 1951. Many were returning from their annual leave and others were newly posted out to East Africa. Today these people would have normally flown out by one of the many airlines operating with baggage following by sea. Although there was an airline service, the planes were small compared to today and travelling by air was expensive.
The Modasa was an old ship close to the end of her days but was very comfortable, even luxurious. She was what is known as a passenger cargo vessel, carrying close to 200 passengers. Other than passengers baggage she also carried everything from a pin to steam roller as the saying goes, with the exception of bulk cargos such as coal, fertilizer, sugar or grain to name a few. Cargo carried might be items to stock the shops of the various countries visited, refrigerators and other electrical goods, tools, machinery, books and paper, food stuffs and tinned items, a myriad of things. Nothing was manufactured in the African countries, South Africa being the exception.
On our voyage out we would stop at other ports as needed to deliver, usually small amounts of cargo and occasionally drop off or pick up passengers.
The Modasa belonged to the British India line serving the Indian Ocean area and the Far East; we were on the East Africa run of course. She came to the end of her life about 1953 if my memory serves me correctly. In later years the B.I. Company was amalgamated with the P & O Company.
Over the next few days I began to get my bearings, meet the other officers and passengers. I found I was enjoying life on the Modasa, a life I had not really envisaged before, not just a work life but a social life too. I was on a fresh learning curve that I began to enjoy.
19 May 2005
In the morning we left port on the morning tide. After breakfast I reported to the radio room as ordered by the chief. The engine room was rumbling from the bowels of the ship as she built up steam. All cargo was loaded and the passengers all on board with their baggage.The chief, known to all as either Sparks or Jock was waiting for me whilst checking over the equipment. The first thing he told me was my watch periods. This evening I would be on watch from 1800 - 2000 and then again 4 hours later, from midnight, that is 0000 - 0600. As Jock talked of other things, I chewed over and digested this piece of information.The next piece of information from Jock caught me by surprise "can ye type?" said he. I said I could not. "Och! I thought as much", said Jock. "Well you had better wake me just before 0200, the newspaper transmission come through then. It’s got to be typed for the Purser's office first thing in the morning. The passengers like to hear the news from home read over the ships domestic radio system with their breakfast”.
We were moving now, leaving Tilbury heading down the Thames and after about half an hour Jock almost caught me with his knockout punch. “Now ye can send the TR” Jock said. I knew what a TR was but at the same time it seemed to go right out of my head, so to speak.
The TR, Transit Report is a message sent when leaving or entering port to the local radio coast station giving the ships name, bound where to and where from. This is so that any telegraph messages can be diverted to the ship.
I scribbled down the ships name, leaving Tilbury and bound for Marseilles, our first port of call and then looked in askance at Jock for the coast station call-sign call letters. On the key in nervous Morse code I called the coast station and listened through the hash of many busy stations calling and Jock said “there he is, there he is” and suddenly my mind focused on the coast stations call letters coming back to me. With mind now focused I sent the pertinent information and he then acknowledged receipt of the message.
I sat back in the chair, let out a gasp of long held breath and looked at Jock. I swear now that I saw a slight smile behind those dour crusty eyes. He’d seen this pantomime many times before with the new sparks and relished the discomfiture caused by throwing him in at the deep end.
Within a few days I started feel like an old hand when on watch, sending and receiving messages, sifting them through the interference and static, monitoring call lists and keeping a running log.
Note: I may rewrite part of this piece especially the TR piece. The mind is a little dull now thinking back to August 1951. It is said that everything is lodged within the memory somewhere. I have found it surprising how much one can remember now when the mind is fully focused.
18 May 2005
That evening I went down to dinner, my steward had suggested about 7.00 p.m. would be a good time. I felt conspicuous putting on my uniform with its new braid. I had had my uniform for probably a year or so buying it when I was at South Shields College but I didn't wear it very often. I ventured down below and soon found the dining room, or at least my nose led me the way. It was quite spacious having to cater for seating of up-wards of 200 passengers and the ships officers. I stood hesitantly at the doorway and in a few moments a steward, who seemed to be the nautical equivalent of a maitre-d' bustled up and quickly showed me to a place on a long table with a sprinkling of other officers. Most said "good evening" or similar and the carried on with their conversations. I looked at the menu wondering what to order when a plate of soup popped over my shoulder. That finished I sat back; my eye during the soup had kept going to a large steaming tureen of, contained as far as I could see, a thick greeny-yellow liquid with hardboiled egg halves floating sunny side up on the surface. Whilst still sipping my soup, another officer bustled in and sat down greeting everyone, and me with a "hello Sparks". A waiting steward rushed over to him and handed him a plate. Reaching over he took a large spoon and from a tureen then took 3 big spoonfuls of steaming rice, then from the big steaming tureen, a ladle-full of the thick liquid and 2 egg halves. Smacking his lips he tackled his plate with gusto.
Sitting back after my soup a number of other small tureens appeared on the table containing vegetables meats and gravy. I took a proffered warm plate from a steward and helped myself to some familiar food and I then tucked in, I was feeling famished. Meanwhile another officer came into the dining room and he too tackled the big tureen after helping himself to a plateful of rice.
As you have probably guessed by now the big tureen contained curry of which I was completely unaware of at the time. In Kendal, a town of at least 30,000 in population in the 1950s, the nearest thing to foreign food was a lone Chinese restaurant where the only dish known to the locals, brave enough to try some, was prawns on rice in gravy. And not many Kendal people had had that either.
Later in my adult life I would have asked what the big tureen contained, but that first evening on the S.S. Modasa, I was still a shy boy of 17, in an unfamiliar environment and not looking my age didn't help matters.
When I did learn all about curry, it was some time before I plucked up enough courage to try some after hearing the horror stories of its hotness. When I did try some, I became an almost instant devotee of curry.
Since that day, long ago I have sometimes wondered what type of curry it was that first night. The only place I ever saw curry with hard-boiled egg halves floating on top was as a regular dish on the Modasa.
17 May 2005
Burra ..... great, chief, boss
Chae ....... tea
In the British merchant marine many ships, especially those running to India, East Africa the Far East, etc. were crewed by Indians with European officers. Many words of Hindustani were borrowed and used in the everyday English language on board ship.
Many more Hindustani words were brought back to Britain from India in the days of the British Empire, by the armed forces stationed in India and the great army of British business personell who ran the Far Eastern British possessions.
A few common Indian words brought back from India to Britain, such as bungalow, chae (corrupted to char, as in charlady), shampoo, pyjama, dekko (as in look), gymkahna and many, many more.
16 May 2005
Well the morning for leaving arrived and Dad ran me to Oxenholme station to catch the early morning train. Mum didn't go, we said goodbye to each other at the door and Mum waved me off as we drove away down the lane. We weren't very demonstrative in our family, no hugging and kissing, it was just a gruff goodbye, write soon and a wave off. Thinking back now, my mother would probably have been feeling very upset.
Arriving at the station Dad and I trundled my new case and trunk on to the platform, I presented my travel warrant at the ticket window and received my ticket for the journey. In moments it seemed, the express train arrived, my trunk put into the guards van and my case with me into a part empty coach. As I boarded the train I remember Dad saying "Goodbye lad, have a good journey". He stood, a lone figure as the train pulled out and waved. I sat down in my seat, my heart in my mouth and butterflies in my belly heading for the great unknown.
I remember very little of the train journey now but I do remember my arrival at Euston station in London. I heaved my blue case off the rack and staggered on to the platform, a waiting porter said "want a hand, sir"... I'd never been called "sir" before. I must have indicated yes, my case was quickly on the trolley and we headed for the guards van to pick up my trunk then we headed to the main entrance of Euston to a waiting taxi. The porter said to the taxi driver, "this young man wants to go to Tilbury Docks". Even at 17 I was very much aware of tipping for any service and I thankfully slipped the porter, probably a shilling for all his help.
It was quite a way to Tilbury Docks but the journey did not take too long. Traffic was light compared to today, 2005. We arrived at the dock gates and the driver enquired the location of the S.S. Modasa and the gatekeeper gave him the wharf number, adding she was presently taking on passengers. Soon, we drove up to the gangplank and the driver unloaded my baggage and me. The wharf and deck of the Modasa was alive with dark-faced stewards and seamen hurrying about their duties. One of the stewards in a dark blue uniform in buttoned to the neck, obviously in charge, hurried up to me enquiring my business. Proudly I said I was the 2nd Radio Officer reporting for duty. Immediately he summoned another man also in uniform with gold braid on his sleeves who came across and said "Oh, hello Sparks, reporting for duty, eh"? He handed me back to the steward in charge telling him to have a man escort me to my cabin and telling him to have my baggage delivered to my cabin immediately.
Once on deck, we seemed to go up numerous stairs until we came out on the top deck just below the ships bridge and I was shown to my cabin. I looked around, a neatly made bunk bed with sheets turned down, a day bed, a dressing table, mirror and chair, a wardrobe plus drawers below the bunk. All fitted snugly into a 10-foot square space. I wondered, what happens now? I went out onto the open deck and looked down far below, figures hurrying to and fro, cargo slings taking baggage on board, people arriving, taxis leaving. So I thought I would just wait, someone will be along.
I returned to my cabin and sat down, excitement was churning away, I wanted to do something in this strange environment. I found it difficult to contain myself. At that moment there was a knock at the door and I stood up, the door opened and a smiling brown face greeted me. " I have brought you chae, sahib. Before me, he placed on the dressing table a tray covered with a snowy white cloth, a cup of tea and a plate of neatly cut, thin sandwiches. The steward introduced himself and added, "I am your cabin steward, sahib".
From the dressing table drawer he brought out a list of mealtimes, laundry information and much more. "I will inform the burra sahib you have arrived when he wakes", he said. Burra... sahib, 2 strange words I had never heard before.
Sometime later the steward returned and informed me the burra sahib was awake and he would see me now. He led me to an adjoining cabin and I found myself standing before a bulky man with the gold braid of 1st Radio Officer on his uniform. Unsmilingly, he looked me up and down as he gruffly greeted me in a strong Scots accent, dourly introducing himself as Angus McKay. After a few words he took me into the radio room connected internally from his cabin and showed me the equipment, asking me a few more questions about myself.
As he dismissed me he grunted "we sail tomorrow morning on the tide, be here when we cast off". With that he let me out of the radio room through another door into another cabin and then out onto the starboard side of the ship. "This is the door you'll use" he said.
I made my way back to my own cabin on the port side.
8 May 2005
Sea Life. 1951. A Seagoing Life - Preparations.
Summary: I arrived back home at Kidside from South Shields around the end of June. I had passed all my examinations at the Marine College to become a merchant navy radio officer, been accepted in to the Marconi Company and I now was waiting in limbo for my appointment to my first ship. I was still 17 years old.
The wait seemed long, it was around 6 weeks in fact. During this waiting period I received an unexpected present from the Kenyon's, my fathers' employers. They gave me new case for my forthcoming travels. It was blue, expandable and of medium size, not too big to be a nuisance to carry or fit on a train rack. Over the next few days my mother managed to shoe-horn me out of the house and down the lane to the Kenyon's to say thank-you for their kindness. I was very shy in those days and still had a teenagers unsureness of myself. Coming back up the lane after my ordeal I felt pleased that I had been down to see the Kenyon's, they were kind people, interested and full of questions in my coming life.
A few days later I made up a template and painted my initials on both sides of the case for quick identification. Later, that case travelled the world with me and it acquired many stuck-on labels from various exotic places. Dad and Mum dragged out a yellow/orange coloured trunk, somewhat bigger than a very large suitcase. It had come originally from Sharrow Bay and it too had travelled to many exotic places but with the Nelson's. On this too I stencilled my initials. I needed plenty of room for summer and winter uniforms, dress shirts spare shoes, mufti clothes and shoes, and all manner of other things I might need. When you are at sea you cannot just slip into town to buy forgotten items.
I was now all prepared for my big adventure. I waited impatiently for word from Marconi, looking for a letter. It was early August, there was a knock at the door, a post office van, a buff envelope, a telegram. Yes, addressed to me. With shaky fingers, I opened it. Be prepared, sailing orders following by post, it said.
With shaking hands I pulled out my suitcase and trunk to pack. My mother with a long list quietly took control and in a short time the packing was complete.
Next morning the post arrived and a large bulky envelope was pushed through our letterbox with my orders. I was to join the S.S. Modasa as 2nd Radio Officer now berthed at Tilbury Docks on the Thames in London. A travel permit was enclosed for the rail journey and it was my cost to travel to and from the stations. I was to travel tomorrow.