23 June 2005

Sea Life.1951.The Modasa. The Red Sea.

First draft:
The Red Sea leg of our journey was in the region of 2000 miles. Leaving Suez the first 200 miles or so was down the Gulf of Suez 20 miles wide before it opened out into the Red Sea proper.

Our first port of call down here was Port Sudan to deliver cargo, our length of stay would be no longer than 24 hours at a rough guess. I remember little of the stop other than a desolate outlook of sand and a few warehouses. It certainly had little else where we berthed.

I went down the companionway, down on to the wharf, probably more to streach my legs and feel firm ground more than anything else. I distinctly remember rounding a corner of what appeared to be an office and standing there were 2 dark coloured figures standing with long staffs in ragged loose white garments and the wind blowing. What caught my attention was their hair, a great mop of matted, plastered curly hair. I suddenly realised I had seen pictures of figures like this before in books, I had met my first Fuzzy Wuzzies.

I learnt later that they were most probably down from the mountains visiting and their dress was as it had always been for aons of time. The fuzzy hair would probably be plastered and set with liquified cow dung which set hard when dried. Much like ladies hair spray of today. Thinking now I probably was a surprise to them as they were to me.

Leaving Port Sudan we continued south towards the entrance to the Red Sea leading into the Indian Ocean. Our next port of call was Aden in what is now Yemen. In the 1951 Aden was an important port for refuelling and it was here we would not only deliver cargo, we would take bunkers on board. In our case coal, for the Modasa was an old ship built in the days when coal was king.

When we entered the Red Sea from Suez we noticed a distinct rise in temperature. The Red Sea is one of the hotter regions of our world, hot winds blowing off the desert sands of the Arabia coupled with the heat of the sun, pushed the temperature to high levels.

In bygone days when travelling overseas, by ship was the only method; the passengers, especially in the cabins on the lower decks used to suffer from the extreme heat, for air conditioning was then, just a word. Cabins on the port side of the ship were much favoured on the trip out from the U.K., for the prevailing wind was from the port side.

Consequently the trip back to the U.K. via the Red Sea, the prevailing wind was from the starboard side of the ship. These preferred cabins were at a premium and it was only the richer passengers who could afford them. A phrase was coined; "Port out, Starboard home" which led to the well known word... POSH.

True or not I'm not sure, but that is the story I was told in my learning years.

21 June 2005

Sea Life. 1951. The Modasa. The Suez Canal.

First draft:
We got our orders via the radio station to start moving. The anchor winch started up and soon the clanking of the anchor chain could be heard from up forrard. The Bridge was informed and we started to move away in our numbered order. At the same time we could see in the distance a single in-line convoy of ships leaving the Canal and heading north into the Mediterranean. We had an Egyptian pilot taken on board earlier to guide us on our way.

As we enter the Canal from the northern end The Canal crosses a shallow bay before we see the canal banks We proceed in convoy at a slow speed so that our bow wave does not damage and erode the low banks of the canal. This first leg for 40 kilometres or more is straight as a die and looking fore then aft a line of ships can be seen looking almost as if they are sailing through the sandy desert.

On our right, the starboard side is Egypt with roads and population, but on the left hand, the port side is the Sinai Desert and little to see but dry sand and no vegetation. Occasionally on the Sinai side there is a rich green patch, an orchard or a farm complex with a few dwellings. No doubt fed from underground wells and irrigation.

Then, after we traverse this long straight section the canal bends a little, a slight dog-leg and a further 20 kilometres along the canal opens into a wide waterway, a lake and we can see the beautiful white city of Ismailia with its waving palms in the distance. We move on for another 10 - 15 kilometres and we enter the Bitter Lakes and we drop anchor for a while. We wait for a convoy of ships steaming north before we can complete the last leg of our journey.

Our journey ends at the southern city of Suez and the open Gulf of Suez is before us. We drop the pilot and then the Bridge rings the engine room for full speed ahead. The convoy fans out the faster passing the slower and we plough our way across the beautiful still turquoise waters.

This was the year of 1951. No doubt there have been many changes since then, more building and I believe a road bridge now across the Canal. Empty space built upon and land irrigated as the population of Egypt swells and increases.

Note: In the years ahead I would pass through the Suez Canal a number of times but this first trip is the one most etched into my memory and it is the description I write in detail.

19 June 2005

Sea Life. 1951. The Modasa. Heading for Suez.

First draft:
We left Marseilles and our next land fall would be Port Said, and the entrance to the Suez Canal some 2000 miles away and a few days steaming. We were still in the month of August and the days were getting warmer now as we approached the North African coast.

I was getting well used to my midnight to 6 a.m. watch now and I used to enjoy the pleasant peacefulness of the warm nights. After my 6 hour watch I used to sleep until late morning, then I would lunch early which gave me the whole of the afternoon free before my 2 hours evening watch.

The warm days became uncomfortable in our dark blue doe-skin uniforms and the captain ordered a change of uniform to tropical kit. During the day it was regulation white shorts and open-neck shirt with shoulder epaulets denoting rank, white knee length stockings and white shoes. Our peaked cap was the same navy blue one but with a white cap cover fitted. Very smart.

In the evening after 6 p.m. at dinner or socialising, it was "number tens". This again was a white uniform comprising of white longs and shoes and a snug fitting white jacket which buttoned up to the neck with epaulets, again attached to the shoulders.

We eventually arrived at Port Said. The pilot came on board and took the ship in to the anchorage to await our turn in the convoy of ships waiting to steam south through the Suez Canal. Unlike a normal port, we stayed on watch in the radio room. Prior to entering Port Said, when we transmitted our TR message giving our time of arrival we received instructions to monitor a certain channel where we were would receive further instructions when we were required to up anchor, our convoy number and the route to follow.

Jock called me in to the radio room during his watch to show me the procedure to follow and who to advise. His explanation must have sunk in as later on my first own ship, I followed the procedure without a hitch.

During the hours we were at anchor whilst the ships arrived to make up our convoy, boats with dusky gentlemen in long white loose robes and round flat hats came alongside touting all manner of goods and souvenirs, calling us to buy. Two or 3 larger boats came from shore in a purposeful manner and headed directly for the lowered gangway. They were the preferred traders by the shipping line and they were allowed on board to display their wares on the open deck for the passengers, and us too of course. I don't remember buying anything, only just looking.

I found this all very exotic; the dark faces, the wafting off key music from the nearby jetty, smells of spices and incense and the chatter of the sellers of ornaments and souvenirs.

But too soon we must move and proceed down the Canal.

10 June 2005

Sea Life. 1951. The Modasa. A Stroll in Marseilles.

First draft:
By mid morning we tied up at our designated berth. Soon many of the passengers decided to stretch their legs and stroll up to the nearby city centre. Unlike many ports Marseilles docks were only a short stroll, maybe less than half a kilometre to the city centre.

During lunch one of the younger engineers suggested maybe we could go for a walk into the city during the afternoon. I joined them too, keen to put my feet on foreign soil for the first time. In fact I had not been out England 10 days ago, not even over the border into Scotland. The furthest I'd been in England was South Shields in one direction and down to near Nottingham in the other! Here I was in France, down on the warm Mediterranean coast. I wasn't going to miss this opportunity, we were sailing again tomorrow.

Four of us turned up at the appointed time. We walked through the open dockyard with its warehouses and soon we were at the open dock gates and into the main thoroughfare full of people. We strolled along the street window shopping and not much else. Just taking in the atmosphere of the French city, its architecture different and brighter than the dull buildings that we were used to in England.

One of our group decided to visit the toilet which he had spotted just along the street. I said I would visit too and I followed my friend. We went through the entrance and I was amazed, this was not like any mens toilet I had been in before. I must have looked horrified, my companion grinned, "never been in a French toilet before?", he asked. I shook my head.

The toilet was a long metal barrier on the in side of the wide pavement and covered us from chest to just below the knees, our faces faced the pedestrians going about their business a metre away. The urinal was a long metal trough at the appropriate height. The passing pedestrians took no notice of us as we stood there facing them, we were just a row of head and shoulders to them standing there doing what comes naturally. I managed to do what comes naturally, though I do admit my waterworks seized at first with the shock of it all.

In the late afternoon we returned to our ship and as we walked down the docks road, a tar-sealed strip over a piece of waste ground, a couple hand in hand approached us. Some 2 hundred metres before we reached them they stopped in the road, the young man said something to his girl and he then walked on to the waste ground for a distance whilst his girl waited by the road edge. To our surprise he began urinating, his back to us and the road. Not one of us said a word as he, on completion of the act walked back to his girl and they continued hand in hand towards and past us. To them, to all intent and purposes, a natural act.

This then was my first footfall on foreign soil, my introduction to France... 2 unusual acts of urination. They certainly did things differently in southern France.