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Thread: Excerpt from my Book

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    Default Excerpt from my Book

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    It all seemed as unreal as I stared over the stern rail of Motor Vessel, (m.v.), Brescia, watching the Liverpool Bar light vessel fade away to the North. The muddy brown water of the Mersey was mingling with the dull waves of the Irish Sea, stirred to perfection by the ship’s propeller, some 15 feet down. There was the usual scatter of scavenging sea birds, swooping to snatch what titbits of what were churned up as our wake diminished far astern.
    Just one month prior to this moment I had been a caterpillar of a schoolboy, albeit at the age of 17, still a Sixth- Form boy. A chance meeting with a previous schoolmate had fired up my imagination as he described his adventures at sea in the Merchant Navy. Gareth had not done too well academically, and was short on the minimum requirements of GCSE’s for Cadet Entry to most Shipping Companies. He had opted to enrol as catering staff, with virtually no need of formal qualifications.
    Gareth had attended the Training Course at Gravesend School of catering, and had duly passed out as a certified “Catering Boy”, the lowest on the totem pole with regard to shipboard life. He immediately joined the Shipping Federation, and was allocated a berth with Cunard/White Star, as this prestigious Company was known in those days of the mid 1950’s. He regaled me with his sorties in New York and impressed everyone with his newly acquired American clothing. Nothing like this was available in post war, grey old Britain. I was definitely smitten and could talk of nothing more to friends and family. All my plans to become a vet somehow evaporated as my mind roamed the seven seas.
    My mother, at this time, was frequently involved with the emigration of quite a few Polish families to U.S.A., specifically New York, as Ellis Island was the main point of entry for travellers to the “New World”. I was, therefore, lucky enough to accompany her and the Witerjienski family to Liverpool, to assist and interpret as they joined the Cunard Passenger liner, Sylvania. We arrived, eventually, at Liverpool’s Pierhead, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of the ship, moored alongside Prince’s Pier, and the hustle and bustle of ferries, tugs, and assorted shipping that seemed to fill the River Mersey at that time. You must realise that this was the heyday of trans-Atlantic shipping, prior to the not yet envisaged expansion and popularity of air travel.
    We tendered our boarding passes and helped the excited Witerjienski family up the steep gangway and I set foot on my first ship. Although the “Sylvania”was securely moored to the Passenger Terminal, I could feel the vessel move, as though impatient to be free of her bonds and eager to be out in the open sea. The vessel was alive, in the sense that there was the semblance of a heartbeat, and a constant slight background noise, which emanated from the Engine Room. I had a bewildering impression of endless corridors and cabin doors, but what gave me my life long addiction was my exploration of the Boat Deck and a brief look through the Bridge window at the wonders of the Navigating Bridge and Wheelhouse, where I could see brass telegraphs and speaking tubes and compasses. This was strictly out of bounds, but I resolved, then and there, that this would be my future. We finally disembarked and dutifully waved as the ship was manoeuvred into mid-stream by three fussing tugs, which alternately threw out clouds of black smoke and puny hoots in answer to the deafening commands issuing from the ships whistle. If ever there is an evocative sound for seafarers, it is the full-throated boom of a powerful air whistle. Quite simply, I was hooked.
    During the return journey to North Wales I could hardly contain my enthusiasm and declared my ambition to sail on such a ship. This was greeted by parental condescending smiles and accepted as the usual over enthusiasm of a teenager who had not thought things through. However, my mind was focused on but one goal, that of joining the Merchant Navy and a life at sea. I resolved to persuade all concerned that I should not return to school and suffer yet more boring lessons and exams. I had plans to study to become a Vet, with many years of school to undergo. Big re-think!
    My mother had gained the friendship of a Travel Agent in Wrexham, who dealt with all the administration of most departing Polish families, and it was through him that I first made my enquiries about possible sea faring employment. It was my intention at this time to attend Catering School, as did my mate Gareth, and emulate his choice of career. This was not to be due to circumstances beyond my control! I soon learned that I was almost to be Press Ganged!
    Because of my prolonged, and thorough, further education, I was informed that I qualified as a direct entrant for Officer training, and I underwent a flurry of medicals and various tests which culminated in visiting Liverpool Pier head for an interview with Cunard/White Star, as they were still known, in those days. I was given an interview with Captain Lecky, the Marine Superintendent, during which I answered the requisite questions satisfactorily, and performed a few mathematical calculations to show my knowledge of trigonometry, and then was sent home to await a decision. In those days there were three methods of Officer Entry, namely: acceptance from a training ship, pre-sea training, or direct entry with A-level qualifications in the required subjects. The last was actually quite rare, as graduates from Conway, Worcester, or Pangbourne, were automatically taken as seagoing cadet officers. However, I met the requirements, and to my amazement I was informed that I should return to Liverpool to sign my Indentures, which would bind me legally to Cunard for four years. This was duly done, on vellum parchment, signed through stamps, and embellished with loads of sealing wax. It was a truly impressive legal document, redolent of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894! The upshot was that I was given a comprehensive list of recommended sea-going clothing and given a couple of weeks to sort it all out.
    The outlay was expensive, to put it mildly. I had everything from a doeskin Number1 uniform, to several sets of whites, both long and short trousers, Number 10 Whites, and even buckskin shoes. Shirts were without collars, and the discomfort of wearing collar studs and starched collars, remains with me to this day. These were to be the bane of my life when having to change for meals whilst engaged in some of the filthiest jobs aboard. These jobs were always allocated to the apprentices, ostensibly, as part of our essential training, but, in reality, because the crew did not like to undertake them. We had no recourse to a complaints procedure, and protective clothing and precautions were for “Wimps”, in those days before the conception of health a safety. The only sensible part list was a pile of working gear and oilskins, complete with Sou’wester! These were to have more than ample use, as were the denim shirts and dungarees. Yes, I used the term “Dungarees”! No such thing as denim jeans was available in England, in those far off days. They were to be encountered, when my voyages took me to the U.S.A., and all things American. Even the buttons and cap badge were Cunard, which were expensive, but compulsory. I found out later, that standard Merchant Navy design was equally acceptable, but not encouraged by the “Purists”.
    In 1957, of course, Cunard still had a great deal of prestige and was major Shipping Company, and was still known as Cunard/White Star. We could never have imagined the mergers and ultimate take- overs by accountants. The fifties represented a boom time for Cunard, both in passenger and cargo business. They had a good steady cargo trade around the Mediterranean, and fast cargo/mail liners crossing the Atlantic. I was never to sail on their passenger ships, but I knew them well and was encouraged to visit them, whilst in port. My all time favourite was the “Britannic”, the last of the luxury old style ships, with not a trace of Formica or nylon. Mahogany, pure brass work, and Axminster carpeting, set the style. She was a very popular ship with those passengers who travelled regularly to USA. Built solidly, she weathered the North Atlantic Seas with contempt. And was a very steady platform, if not the fastest. She also entitled us to fly the White Star pennant with our House flag. The watchword of those days was “Pride”, and we were schooled in the traditional values of seamanship and respect.
    Training commenced at a frantic pace, from my viewpoint. Without the benefit of pre-sea schooling, I was literally a fish out of water. I knew no nautical terms or terminology; consequently most commands contained the “F” word, merely to add emphasis. I now know that I sailed with a bunch of Scousers, who were scheming, sometimes “Skiving”, scallywags, but who were the best seamen in the world. Scarcely one family on Merseyside did not have someone at sea, or associated with shipping, or shipbuilding. Liverpudlians had, and still have, a wicked sense of humour, and, as a “First Tripper”, I was fair game. The fact that I was a trainee Officer, and a “Jock”, earmarked me for contempt until I proved myself competent, and up for the banter. The main consensus of opinion was either to “Make me”, or “Break me”. The hours were long and hard, and, at times, the tasks were frankly bewildering. The learning curve seemed almost vertical at times, but my natural tenacity won through, and I persevered and learned. From day one, I kept wheel and lookout watches, and cleaned endless miles of brass, sometimes twice a day, according to the whims of the Officers. After standing my watch I was employed to assist the crew in their daily seamanship tasks and woe betide me if I got it wrong. To this end, my senior Apprentice, almost at the end of his indentured 4 years, was an endless source of information and guidance. His encouragement helped me cope with an overloaded curriculum, and taught me the art of “Multi-tasking”. On reflection, it was sheer exploitation, but such methods of training were the absolute “Norm” for that time. Health and safety had not yet been conceived, and the maxim was, “One hand for yourself, and the other for the ship”. I was sent aloft, with no harness, below with no protective clothing, and the mere mention of wearing work gloves brought gales of merriment, and the Scouse anthem,” What do you think yer on? Yer Daddy’s yacht” I soon learned the standard reply, “No, my Daddy’s yacht has two funnels”, much to the delight of the,” wind-up”, merchants on deck.
    One of the most irksome of tasks was `trying to clean up after some particularly filthy job, such as bilge diving, and changing into white uniform for meals. How I envied the crew, who took their food on the after deck and ate fresh, hot, provisions. Until I learned to be very quick, the food was either cold, or most of it had run out, or been dumped. The Catering Staff did not like to hang about, especially for a lowly, “Middy”, as I was often called, in reference to Midshipmen, of other Companies. As a growing young lad, I found the food delicious, and plentiful, and was enthralled with new presentations. Even the varieties of potato dishes were a revelation, as were the number of courses to be had. We had very proficient cooks, who turned out the most delicious fresh bread and rolls every day. After a while, the Stewards knew to bring me everything on the menu, which I eagerly devoured. Cunard ships were always great feeders!
    As junior officers, we were required to dine in the Officers’ Saloon, which was furnished with spotless starched linen tablecloths, embellished with the Cunard/White Star motif. Tables were laid with full sets of solid silver cutlery, with 14 pieces per setting. I had to learn the proper etiquette very quickly! Food was served from silver salvers, by smart, white coated stewards, with few restrictions on portions, especially for young, hungry cadets! It was my first experience of a 9 course menu, on a daily basis, but I took to it well, I must say. It was a case of, “Needs must”. It certainly prepared me for dining in any walk of life, and gave me an appreciation of professional catering excellence. I learned very early to keep the catering staff sweet in order to eat of the best. In later years this was to serve me well, whilst in command. Those years, however, were a long way off, as I slowly assimilated all the information thrown at me. I quickly found out that there is no toleration, on board a working ship, for a passenger. That is why the untrained watchkeepers are known as," Farmers”. This name was allocated to members of the watch who were, as yet, not experienced helmsmen. The watch system will be explained later.
    As the days and nights passed with surprising speed, I gradually realised that I could understand more of the nautical “jargon”, and things became clearer as the bosun and crew bellowed commands in broad “Scouse”, which I picked up quickly. I have always had a talent for picking up dialects and languages, and was soon replying in the vernacular, to the crew’s great delight. Most Cunard Apprentices, in those years, were ex Public School boys, with private income and a mouthful of plums, so I was more easily assimilated into life on deck, due to my down to earth accent and working class background. I have to admit that I found most fellow apprentices and young Officers, extremely snobbish and distant. What really annoyed them most, however, was when I came top in my academic exams from the Merchant Navy Training Board. I used to marvel at all that money having been spent on prestige schools, and they all seemed to produce lads who appeared to be thick as two short planks when it came to trigonometry and the sciences. I, on the other hand, had to quickly learn table etiquette, and the use of fourteen pieces of cutlery, with silver service at ones shoulder, as previously mentioned. So much emphasis was placed on such things, in those days. I learned to take it all in my stride, and had a constant guidance from my Senior Apprentice, Dave. He had served some of his time with the Royal Navy, and could pass it all off with the best of them. He kept me right, and saved me a few embarrassments, from time to time.

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    Default Book excerpt

    I enjoyed reading your book excerpt Gordon, are you still writing it or is it finished?. Like yourself I started off deep sea but as a deck boy (Blue Funnel) in 1952. I did four years with them before moving to Manchester Liners for a couple of years and then, like you, I decided to have a go on the coast.

    I joined the m.v. "Somme" in Manchester on the Paris/Rouen run. What a change from deep sea but I loved it. I was there so long I got the Mates job for good attendance

    Looking forward to your next excerpt.

    Alec.

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    Default Brescia

    Hi Gordon,I was aboard the Brescia about 1958, a mate of mine got sent from the "Pool"and I went down there with him to get the job.I was envious it was'nt me.It was a great ship on a great run and if I remember rightly guys that got on there, stayed there.
    A funny story I can relate to that ship as told to me by a 2nd Cook & baker I sailed with.his name was Tony.
    This Tony was a brilliant baker his bread was spot on.Anyway a mate of his had done his National Service in the Catering Corps,he could do a bit of cooking and make a few "Tabnabs"but one thing he had never done was knock down a batch of bread.This guy wanted to go to sea as a 2nd Cook& baker and he asked Tony the art of making bread.Tony wrote out the recipe and step by step instructions in the art of bread making.
    The guy went down to the "Pool"was accepted,his first ship was the Brescia.
    As you will remember Gordon she did'nt feed in port so the catering crowd were there to load stores and go for a "Bev y" in the Carodoc and the Winni.
    Anyway the Cook said to this new 2nd Cook and Baker two days before sailing day"I would advise you to Knock a batch of bread down,get ahead serve them stale bread,if you give them fresh bread you will
    not keep up with them" The Cook retired to his cabin for a drink.
    The guy went through the instructions he got from Tony,he got to the part knock it down and give it two hours to rise.Thats O.K.he thought I'l go to the Caradoc and have a few pints.When he got back he looked in the galley,the dough had lifted the lid on the trough spilled over and the galley deck was covered in dough.He scooped the lot up and threw in the gladstone dock.What Tony had'nt told him was the amount of yeast to use!!!
    I think an old adage is "If you don't know ask"
    Whenever I hear of the Brescia I think of that story.
    Regards
    JimB

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    Default Really facinating!!

    Hi Cpt Gordon
    Must also say that this was a very interesting read,enjoyed it a lot,it nice to be able to put your memories on Paper,and especially when you are able to do it in such a really good way!
    Wish i had the talent to do the same,but i seem to get lost for the correcy Words to say at times!
    Oh well i suppose we are all different and have hidden talents of our own! Not me haha
    Thanks for this
    Cheers
    Senior Member and Friend of this Website

    R697530

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    Question Can I buy one please

    Hi Capt Gordon, Sounds like a best seller? have room for a copy on my top shelve of my book case next to Ropeners navy by Sir billy McGee a great book, { Hi Dr vernon you have many talents in many fields}

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    Default The forthcoming book

    Many thanks for the kind comments. I am still working on further chapters, but will try to relate, truthfully, what transpired on my long and interesting career at sea. It all takes a lot of time and editing, and "Her indoors" objects to me spending so much time at my desk, as she calls it, "Plonking away on that infernal machine"! I will have to see about a tentative publisher, who will not take all my savings to print a few copies, I do not think it would be a best seller, due to the limited interest from landlubbers! Who knows, though? I'd like to give it a go. Watc h this space, as they say, for further episodes and true tales of a sea-faring life, around the world, spanning 50 years. Yes, including dealing with Piracy in an extreme way!

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    Default

    I for one am loking forward to more of this. I would definatley buy & read a book written in this style. Can't wait for more.
    Brian
    Fluttering Flag Avatars

    http://flaglocker.co.uk/

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    Thumbs up Aye aye Cap'n

    Full steam ahead Gordon, your writing is pictorial. My first ship was a Cunarder the "Andria" 1955 and having been brought up on bread and dripping the food was mind bogling.I was 5' 10" and a puny 11 stone on joining and at the end of 6months I had grown an inch and weighed in at 12.5 stone.Having trained in two of London's best hotels I was au faite with etiqutte, I had to keep an eye on you upper deck uniforms to see if you knew the right cutlery to use.Ha Ha I know if you try hard enough you will find a publisher.Try www.pneumasprings.co.uk. All the best Neil "Mort" Morton.
    R 627168 On all the Seas of all the World
    There passes to and fro
    Where the Ghostly Iceberg Travels
    Or the spicy trade winds blow
    A gaudy piece of bunting,a royal ruddy rag
    The blossom of the Ocean Lanes
    Great Britains Merchant Flag

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    Default

    Hi Gordon,
    Looks like it could be a great read when completed, when they do the movie will you keep me a part, say captains tiger?... The problem with biographies is how honest can you be without upsetting someone, after all you know the kind of things seamen get up to and to miss a lot of that out would take the spice out of it, you've got to have the cajones to go for it.
    Well done mate, I hope you do find a publisher and when it makes the best sellars list, I can boast with pride that I met you.
    All the best Frank
    (SUNNY LEITH SCOTLAND)

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    Talking My book project

    Hi to all, and grateful thanks for the encouragement. It has made me determined to get stuck in, whilst my memory still works. It is all very vivid in my head, and, truly, does not seem so long ago! I have to gasp when I realise that I joined my first ship over half a century ago! I WILL try to be accurate and include some of the spicier runs ashore, and the hilarious escapades when full of Ouzo or Fundador. We had some great stays in Port when tramping on some of the old rust buckets, aand sometimes spent weeks in port. That makes for good tales of days and nights in the pursuit of most seamen's dreams. You are all in possesion of many clear memories of daring, (And not so daring), deeds. I may be brave enough to relate most of mine, but what happens when my Kath reads them? Best not to let her have a copy! Thanks to all, again, the saga will continue
    Best regards, Gordon.

    Don't laugh too much at my Discharge Book photo of 1957 !
    Last edited by captain gordon whittaker; 28th November 2009 at 12:56 PM.

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