I believe we all know how ‘seafarers’ are different from ordinary folk. Their strong love of sea-an-ships can be very engaging; maybe alarming for some landlubbers. Yet they once made-up a large prominent group in Britain, from long ago — fierce, proud and independent — to make me think of ‘Treasure Island’ and its story characters…
A couple of years into secondary school, I learned how all my relatives (the menfolk) went to work on ships or down at the shipyards; same for the whole town, from years back. So my father thought me bound for the sea (by the 1950’s) and was set to get my feet wet on MV Glenside; a mid-size collier ploughing up-an-down the east coast (UK). I went out for two summer seasons, way out upon the North Sea, delivering coal to Battersea power station in London mostly.
My first call was to meet the captain where he resided, above a public house down in the docklands. He was middle-age by then and lately married the chief bar-maid; then moved up stairs with her and two grown daughters. I attended the saloon with my father at early evening, still in school uniform, but we discovered that our captain was already back to duty that week. One of the daughters appeared and I could see she was only a few years older than myself, but so much more grown-up, worldly and a bit sassy. It was embarrassing the way this girl tapped me on the head; how she and her mother beamed at me, saying things like: ‘so you’re going to be sailor boy, eh – travel to distant lands – run away with all the gals’!? Straight away I was fearful, it was overwhelming enough to be scary – and the dense odours of tobacco on top of ale were over-powering for me. Oh dear, it was ‘Jim Hawkins’ all over again; plainly out of his depth and yet drawn to venture far upon the high-seas —
The captain came from the Orkney Islands, like the rest of his crew and enjoyed teasing me about England versus Scotland. He still had a thick Scottish brogue and a penchant for sweet things. But he was keen to teach me about reading charts spread on a raised table in the wheel-house, about what to look for with binoculars and landmarks coming into view along our journey. I returned this kindness, by serving the men with hot tea, from the galley below and dispensing with the empty mugs. I aimed to become a good ‘cabin boy’, not unlike Jim Hawkins again and befriended the cook, who was only three years older than myself.
It was not always a happy adventure — how one of the engineers was drinking a lot, because of his wife ashore, off with another man I was told. Surprisingly, he talked to me as confidant, though I was ignorant about such matters. His distress was clear and he equated it with ‘going to sea’ for his work, as career choice. I was also shocked to hear some profanity on board, even from the bridge; it splashed a little cold water on my new ideals and showed a bit of ugliness I was not ready for. On a lighter note, the cook lad was mischievous with finding candy-sweets in the captain’s cabin, how he found it amusing, because everyone knew doctor’s orders banned these items as a last temptation.
And there was danger to reckon with – when a young cabin boy became quite daring if no one was about, no one watching. With a full load of cargo, the midship section of our boat was very low to the water-line and I once leaned over to touch the sea. Letting my small fingers trail in the thin cold water around us; until I realized there was an attraction which seemed out of control, that I did not understand. Taking fresh brew to the wheelhouse was also dangerous, when our old collier would roll-an-pitch upon the waves, just when I was climbing steps up the main superstructure — or navigating those high safety-steps, I never got used to. ‘Gaming’ often began in the galley too, after eating; but we only staked piles of match-sticks on our cards at these proceedings.
Stepping on shore at summer’s end I started swaying, like a drunken man, because my sea-legs were still functioning – like my ship mates explained. After a few days this went away, along with other new things, when I returned to school and home. A memorable sojourn was over; now it was back to homework and family chores…
One thought on “CABIN BOY”
Comments are closed.