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Article: Gravesend Sea School

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    Gravesend Sea School

    27 Comments by David John Foy Published on 23rd March 2014 02:11 PM
    My Gravesend Sea School History
    By David Foy

    October 24th 1978 was the day that I set off from my home here in Ipswich Suffolk, and make my way down to Gravesend in Kent To start a new life in the British Merchant Navy. I started to think am I never going to get through this! My Father seemed more worried than anybody else did, Surprising really considering him and I had already spent time away from home on a Warship of Her Majesty’s Navy which in my mind was far more worrying than anything that I have ever done before.

    After what seemed like an eternity I finally arrived at Gravesend Railway Station at around Eleven thirty in the morning. The first one of the Trainees was a chap called Ralph (Ralph the Mouth). We were both greeted by one of the Officers from the School; I think it was Hodginson who later turned out to be The Fire Fighting Instructor. It was a bitterly cold winter’s day and I was looking forward to getting in the warm and dry. Once the mini-bus was finally full of trainees we set off to the School.

    Upon arrival at the College we all went to the training office to register at the School. I was in Dorm 1 (Dormitory, Just above the training office). After registering and a cup of Tea or Coffee later (the special kind of drink that comes with twist of Bromide for that full-bodied extra flavour) we set off to the Clothing store to be kitted out with the latest in fashion in Merchant Navy Uniforms. (What an experience that was!) Right down to your own personal wash basin plug.

    The way I describe the Uniforms were like a Navy Blue version (our No: 1 Uniform) of the type used during the second war for the British Army. We used No: 8s for working and training during the Day and No: 1s during the evening if we were to go out of the College grounds.

    The day used to start 0600hrs, Get dressed and muster in the Parade Ground (by class, come rain or shine. In my case it was either Rain or Snow). Then the Dorms were checked for any stragglers. If any were found that was it the whole School had to wait even longer in the Parade ground until everyone was mustered then checked Class by Class.

    Once this was completed we proceeded back to the Dorm’s to get them cleaned by 0630hrs, Which is when Breakfast will be served. If you missed this by still cleaning out your Dorm and wash area, Tough! You took it out of the Class that got you in this situation in the first place.

    Training used to start 0800hrs.

    There are two types of Trainees at the College. Deck Training or Catering. I chose to be a Deck hand.
    This involves Cargo Handling, Navigation, Seamanship (which comprised of rope and wire splicing, rigging derricks and cargo hatch work with full scale working hatches and Derricks), General ship familiarisation of various ships and equipment throughout the ship what you was expected to find once you joined your first ship.
    Catering involved Personal hygiene, Cooking, Silver service as far as I am aware.

    Everyone had to do fire fighting Training, Lifeboatmanship and Basic Sea survival. The lifeboats used to be swung out by us also from our own set of Davits on the Jetty over looking the Thames.
    This was compulsory and included rowing up and down the Thames River in a Lifeboat until you got it right in all weather conditions. Mr. Mc Goran (I think this is how it was spelt) was the Lifeboat Instructor. A little Irish guy, His pet saying was “ GET OUT OF MY BOAT” if he was not happy with you for almost any reason he never used to let up no matter what.

    I will always remember an instructor who used to teach us Navigation, ship steering and how to read a compass rose. His name was MAD JACK! His pet thing to do was to put you on a charge for anything no matter how stupid it may sound. He even charged a Dog running once onto a Jetty during a Lifeboat lesson without wearing a life Jacket and the same Dog running around the Parade Ground without authorisation. Most of the Charges got ignored once they reached the training Office anyway.
    Boy what a character though.

    The food was something to be desired. It was not too bad if you had Bubble and Squeak every day. Toast was the main meal of the day; you could not go wrong with Toast. Some of the food was good occasionally. Everyone feared the Dentist. No matter whether you needed any work on your teeth or not you were going to get it. I do not know how I survived with all my teeth intact. Sweeny Todd was another one. He used to be the schools barber (I think that was he was trying to do) but again I came out unscathed from that dreadful experience. Rumour has it that he was alleged to be have been on the Titanic when she went down, With all respect he was old enough. But like most things when you go to Sea you learn to take things with a pinch of salt.

    Dorm 33 where I was transferred too sometime during my training. It was rumoured that someone who used to reside at the School sometime earlier (long before I arrived) it was said” That the Dormitory across from my new Dorm was haunted” Dorm 36. It was said that the chap hung himself there in the dorm. This was off limits to most of the school and if anyone had to go in there had to be escorted by a member of staff. It was longer used as a dorm, but as a storeroom for equipment and spare furniture.

    On a lighter note strange things used to happen in and around the School from lads fooling around angle. There used to be dorm raids around various dormitories through out the School, These could take place from lights out (2200hrs) to 0600hrs in the morning. So you had to be very vigilant during this period. If you got caught you were put on report, and you did not want too many of those otherwise you were out of the School for good.

    There used to be various hiding places to conceal non-regulation beverages throughout the School. One ingenious way of hiding certain liquids was in a fire extinguisher (it was a good job it was never used to put out a fire). It was common place whilst taking a shower you used to get sprayed with a fire hose. Boy! That was COLD! During my stay at the School the Civil Fire Service decided that they wanted to go strike forever reason. So this meant extra work for all of us at the School during Fire during the Night. Boy you were tired come the morning.

    The social life was quite interesting. There were several things that you could do during time at the School, anything from model boat making to chess sets and Photography. Outside the School you could go down the Canal road to the Flying Angel (which was run by the Missions to Seaman) there you could watch TV, the occasional film as well as play table football, which most of the School used to get involved in. These were the good times!

    The town of Gravesend was off limits to us lads. I suppose it may something to do with us poor innocent chaps being lead astray by the local population. Generally it was not safe to do this. Particularly there may be some trouble with local gangs and the lads from the School.

    I always remember Dalgety (from York, the Lad in one of the photo’s leaning against the radiator. One of my best friends at the school) he came back to our dorm late one evening. He was on the bunk above me; he could not seem to settle down to get some sleep. I got up to see if he was ok and in doing so stood in something that felt sticky. He had been attacked with a Razor blade and was bleeding from the stomach area. We obviously called the ambulance to get him to hospital. Once he arrived at hospital and received treatment, he was fine. Some people will do anything to get a decent meal! Some local lads apparently attacked him when he was on his way back to the School.

    At weekends some of us (if we could afford it) would go home sometimes to see the your families. The School used to organise trips to London, mainly Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark and the Greenwich Maritime Museum. Which was free to all people connected with the Sea School. This was great to see various places around London and experience the different sights around London. I particularly liked in the evening (whilst travelling back to the School) driving through the centre of London in a coach and being shown all the Christmas Lights throughout the city. It was a sight never to forget.

    After a brief spell at home during the Christmas period it was back to school to finish off my Training. This mainly consisted of Seamanship and preparation for my exams. I used to love working the derricks and hatch work. There was a lot to learn and I think this was a good way to get to first experience with this sort if equipment. As part of your Training the Sea school used to organise trips for a ship visit. The ship I visited was in was in Tilbury Docks. The ship was called the Apapa Palm. These were German owned general cargo ships that used to go just anywhere in the world. My ships went fine. A bit scary at times looking down from the monkey (the deck above the bridge deck) right down into the cargo hatches below some 200 feet or so.

    Towards the end of the course it was time for those exams. I did ok. Now all there was to do was some safety courses courtesy of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. Basically these were info on various procedures as regards to biological warfare and general warfare and how to deal with certain situations as regards to war and warring countries. One of the things I remember from RN visit is some of the lads kept nodding off to sleep. So the Naval instructor had this ingenious idea of sitting who ever falls a sleep were to sit on the back of their chairs. (The plywood and tubular steel ones), if you did manage to fall asleep you fell off your chair on to the floor with a bump or two. The other was to open all the windows in the classroom on a freezing winter’s morning. This is the first time I have seen fog actually come into a classroom through a window.

    Our last night as X Class. It is tradition to meet at the Flying Angel Club for the last time for the class that is leaving the Sea School the next day. There’s always a Disco put on for the Class that is leaving. The class that is leaving with about one or two weeks to go sings “7 more wakey wakey’s. 7 more rise and shines and 7 more bowls of porridge and freedom will be mine”. All way through the Course you kept saying to yourself that it would be me up there one day standing along the back wall celebrating, singing “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS” by Queen. For surviving and getting through Gravesend Sea Training College. Otherwise known as the PEANUT FACTORY!

    There are a lot of mixed emotions going through your head at this time. Three Months is not a long time really, But in an institution like Gravesend it seems like forever. I will always remember with affection the good and bad times. Come hell or high water. The things I miss the most are the friends that I made over those past three months. I have met one or two over the years, one of whom I sailed on the same ship as him.
    Finally the day everyone has been waiting for.10th February 1978. Leaving the National Sea Training College, Gravesend and getting your Seaman’s card and Discharge Book. This process of paper work seemed to drag on forever and day. Farewells have never been my strong point. I like making new friends and keeping the ones I have already made. That is what kept me going through all my sea going career.
    SS. Lanisites
    After around one month after leaving Sea School I got my first ship. A shell oil tanker 311,883 S.D.W Tonnes. I joined her as Deck Boy in on the 6th March 1978 just outside “Le Havre” in a small town or village called D’antifer. This in itself was quite a laugh. I left my home to catch a train to get to Shell Centre, at Waterloo. Then whole Crew boarded a coach to be driven down to Southampton Docks to catch a ferry over to France. The ferry trip was something out of the ordinary, What could go wrong did go wrong. Sailors were just being Sailors. Looking back it brings a smile to my face.
    Finally we arrived in Le-Havre; our troubles were about to begin. First of all one our Crew members got lost on board the ferry from England. There was ship wide search trying to locate him. I had already left the Ferry and was standing on the quayside with the rest of the crew, when all of a sudden I saw a pair of feet appear at one of the ferries windows running down the length of the Ferry. Eventually someone managed to locate him and get him off the ferry. He fell asleep along some seats in one of the Lounges and no one could see him even if they went into the Lounge.

    After arriving at the Hotel (the Lanisites was not due in until the early hours of the next day) and after being allocated our rooms, I set about getting some Dinner and settling down for the Night.
    The next day finally arrived and with some mixed feelings and a little reluctance mixed with some anticipation what was going to happen next. I kept thinking what was happening at home and kept imagining what my Dad and my Brothers and sisters were doing now at this moment in time. I wish I could get to speak to them one more time before I left Europe, But there was no way because we did not have a Telephone in those Days. I think there was around a half a dozen telephones in the whole street so it was not possible to get in touch with anybody. Never mind I’m a big boy now.

    During Breakfast, That’s when I found that some of the Lads that went into Town the previous evening got themselves arrested and spent the night in a police cell. The charge was public disorder and disturbance and setting fire to the restaurant they had been dining in. What a great start to my first Trip.

    Later on that day we left for the terminal of D’antifer where the Lanisites was discharging the remains of her cargo (which she brought around from the Persian Gulf). After signing on and sorting stuff out in my Cabin I set about cleaning the Cabin (there was Captains inspection the following morning) and it looked like a herd Elephants came charging through here. It was around midnight by the time I finished cleaning my Cabin and the ship was leaving port around 0630 hrs the next day. 0500hrs I got shake to get ready to turn too and prepare to leave port and the Ship to head back towards the Persian Gulf. After a cup of coffee we were on standby getting ready to let go, we were just waiting for the Ship’s agent to leave and the Pilot to board.

    There’s one thing I will always remember about that morning is there Ship along side us (on the next berth) was a Japanese Oil Tanker. I never seen anything like it before in my life (and still haven’t to this Day) All the Crew on the Japanese Ship were out on deck doing some exercise routine prior to starting their Days work. I thought “how strange”. One or two comments were made, Like “ you’ll never get me doing anything like that” or “I’m here to work on a Ship not joining some Ballet class”

    The Pilot eventually Boarded and we got under way to head out sea. The next port of call was cape town (south Africa) to take on board some stores, Mail and possibly a crew Change (mainly Deck officers and engineering Officers) this was done by Helicopter most of the time. I had a good Bosun to work under. His name was Ron Davison, a small chap from Scotland. He taught me quite a lot over the coming years. The Captain’s name was Connelly. Such a nice person. Him and I always used to talk to each other about anything; Captain Connelly started his sea career as a Deck Boy just like me.

    On my passage from Europe to the gulf, I continued/completed my training by completing my task book with various topics from steering the ship to splicing wires and ropes to general ships tasks and ship Familiarisation. Lanisites was to be recorded in my record book. On the 9th June 1978 I crossed the Equator for the first time. It is tradition to have to stand before Neptune (the king of the Sea’s) and be tried under his law to be granted passage to continue with your journey. You have to go through an initiation ceremony to accepted and be granted permission. Part of the tradition is try and hide and not be found. There is only so many places you hide on a ship and certainly not forever.

    Some of the process of the initiation is to be covered in Flour and water and various unpleasant substances and have worst haircut you could ever imagined. After all the pleasantries it’s time to celebrate the occasion with a party.

    After leaving the Persian Gulf we went back to Europe discharged our cargo then back to the Gulf where I paid off on 10th July 1978. The Lanisites at a place called Ras Al kymah then onto Jeddah to fly out from Dubai the next Day:

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Gravesend Sea School

    Brings back many happy memories of my own time at Gravesend. I was there from 7th January 1974 to 15th March 1974. The names McGoran and Mad Jack also ring a bell as does that crazy dentist. We had a theory that if you were called to the dentist in the morning then your gums would be ripped to shreds as the dentist had the shakes from the night before or if you were called in the afternoon after a liquid lunch you walked about like a hamster with your cheeks swollen by excessive novocaine as I had after my visit. Happy memories indeed.
    After leaving Gravesend I joined my first ship the "Hudson Light" a coal boat travelling back and forward from Tilbury to Blyth. I endured this for two months until I got my sea legs so to speak then I paid off and went to Singapore to join my first deep sea trip with Scottish Ship Management and so began my twenty years love affair with the Merchant Navy. During my time at sea I have worked on bulk carriers, general cargo, o.b.o, container, tankers, passengers and ferries. I was made redundant in 1994 and went to college/university where I began a new career in Social Work.

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    Hi Thomas, 1 was there in 1958, so those names i do not recall. was that the old Gravesend, the one i went to ? or the new one, relatively speaking. Was bit of an endurance test when i was there, no money, in fact, if i recall correctly, you had to deposit £6 in the ships bank, to allow for ten bob per week for cigarettes etc, food pretty rough etc, and a long row of toilets, no doors, so no privacy . There are members here from your time i think, and indeed members from long before my time. Recall some of your memories, and post them on this site, some good lads and some good stories here, regards KT
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    Hi I was there in 1950 -51, I sure remember the toilets and wooden bunk beds
    To think it was the last century Alan Moore (A B )

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    #4. Alan where the hell is Snake Valley. ? Were you on any of the ships out here ? Cheers JWS

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    Default Re: Gravesend Sea School

    I attended Stalag Gravesend from 3-11-53 to 15-1-54. Catering class. Can't say I enjoyed it. I found out you didn't report to your first ship in uniform, so en-route home I tossed the hat out of the train window (wished I kept the badge though). and dumped everything except the boots when I got home.


    I didn't do the lifeboat week as the heads of various shipping companies were coming for a look around and lunch. I, as officer's mess steward and two others had to do a double week in the officers mess, so the wait staff (us) would have had a weeks experience and wouldn't screw up too badly.


    I was joining Port Line and the rep from Port Line was a guest at the luncheon. I forgot to use my napkin and the rotten female cook who was serving-up stuck two red hot plates in my hand and smirked, just as the chief officer said to the Port Line rep. "Mills, here is joining your company next week." "Glad to have you Mills." "Thank you sir." I said with smoke coming from my burning fingers as no way could I drop the damn plates. I remember I had blisters for about a week.

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    Default Re: Gravesend Sea School

    Rodders, the joyfull memories of our time at sea school, looking back maybe it was not as bad as we considered then.
    As young lads we had some very different views on life, but by the end of your first voyage you were on the right track to a wonderful and fulfilling life time.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
    World Traveller

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    ###main thing at the vindi was being hungry and cold it being december no heating in nisssan hut ....other only prob was a big irish lad from ballymena....crying for about 4 or 5 nights sayng he didnt think it would be like this ....then he did a runner ......overall didnt really learn anything .....could box the compass before i went ...and could scull anyway which was a great advantage on the coast.......but one plus was it gave a sense of comradeship ......ie all in the same boat.......but honestly a youth would have learnt more in a fortnight at sea than the time spent there ......just my view......cappy

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    I think thats right Cappy, left sea school, really looking for ward to my first ship, all my ideas of what it would be like, splicing, rigging derricks etc, bit of a shock really, had a telegram (no phone at home those days) to join the Treworlas, one of Hains, climb the gangway, full of excitement, and down in to the tiny pantry aft and the job of Peggy. had to carry all the grub aft across the deck from the midship galley, blowing a hoolie across the Atlantic, and knowing if you lost one of those meals on the way, it would be yours. I also remember smoko time approaching, and no water in the pantry, panic, shot off to the galley, tried the tap on the bulkhead of the galley, good its got water, filled a container, shot aft and when they came for the tea, it was bloody salt water !!. As a 16 year old, had to grow up very quick, kt
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    ###yes keith as galley boy on a tramp often saw the peggy trying to hold on to safety lines as she took a big green one or pooped one while holding the kits with the other trying to get down aft .....happy days ....cappy

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