A life on the Ocean Waves
In 1958, from Montreal, I worked my passage to Europe on a cargo vessel although the expression tramp steamer would have been nearer the mark.
The SS Helsingfors, a vessel of 1,400 tons, was bound for Copenhagen on her final voyage before being broken up for scrap. The captain greeted me, wearing naval uniform without a tie but with felt bedroom slippers on his feet. I knew at once things would be pretty relaxed on board. The rest of the crew wore shoes so I assumed bedroom slippers were non standard issue in the Norwegian merchant marine.
The cargo consisted of bales of thick copper wire in heavy coils about a metre in diameter bound for the Soviet Union. A controversial shipment as this was considered a strategic material and had been embargoed by the USA.
Once underway the owners instructed the captain to head for Gothenburg. A bore for me as Sweden is further from London than Copenhagen.
I was given a cabin to myself next to the radio room. My sole duty was to stand watch for four hours every four; four on then four off, day and night. This meant taking the wheel. Easy enough as we sailed down the St Lawrence River but, in the North Atlantic, passing to the North of North Ronaldsay, it became more exciting as, in a huge storm the sea disappeared completely from my view on the bridge, hidden by the bows as they reared up under the swell and then crashed down again sending huge sprays of water spewing out on either side. It was all very dramatic though it was practically impossible to keep the ship on course in such a gale.
During this storm the cargo shifted. I had to help remove the canvass deck covers from the holds, climb down onto the wire bales and help move them to even the load. All this in the dark with rain pelting down made a dramatic scene, reminiscent of Gregory Peck in ‘Moby Dick’. I also discovered that if I sat with my back against the side of the ship, facing the opposite side I felt thoroughly ill but as long as I faced the direction of travel, more or less, things were fine.
During my rest and relaxation periods I managed, when not sleeping, to read Aristotle’s Ethics, not one word of which I understood nor can I remember what he was on about. I also read The Penguin edition of Madame Bovary which I understand took Flaubert five years to write. I believe the original prose has a rhythmic, almost poetic sound though this escaped me as I was reading a translation. Half way through writing Flaubert was asked if he knew how his story would end. He replied: ‘No; but I can hear how it will sound.’ I found the book an easy and enjoyable read.
After fourteen days at sea we reached Gothenberg where I was charged US$ 8 for my food about which I remember nothing so it cannot have been too bad. I was met by the owners’ agent whose first words to me on hearing I was English, were: ‘100, Oxford Street!’ where all the jazz fans hung out in London, including me a couple of times. It was a welcome change to speak English to a friendly Swede after two weeks with only the radio operator for conversation. Two days later, early one November morning, I arrived at Harwich by commercial ferry. Boy! Was I glad to be back, even though National Service awaited me.
27th January 2009