Gold Ribbon Banner
Thursday, July 18, 2019

With around three-quarters of the Safmarine fleet trading between South Africa and the UK in 1967, the year in which I joined that company, it was assumed my sea career would, as hoped, start with a trip to England, the land of my birth and last seen as a fi fteen year old. Had my newly issued Postmaster Generals’ (PMG) Certifi cate of Profi ciency in Radio-Telegraphy been correctly made out in the name of Roland Barton, not Ronald Barton, I would almost certainly have been appointed to either of two fruit ships. Instead, I learned to twiddle my thumbs until such time “the matter with regard to the ownership of the said PMG could be sorted out”. Thankfully, I had enough savvy not to say anything sarcastic when the chief radio inspector asked me if I was sure I had written my name correctly!

Two months earlier, while doing the practical part of the exam for the PMG certificate, I was told by the same gentleman, when he checked my ability to read morse code, that my handwriting left a lot to be desired, especially my v’s and my r’s, which he claimed were hard to distinguish. This came as a shock, as I could easily tell them apart, and foolishly said as much. The next thing I knew was the chief examiner informing everyone present that he was proceeding on leave, and that Mr Barton would have nearly two months in which to do something about improving his handwriting!

Fortunately, when I first contacted Safmarine, they, perhaps afraid I might try to find employment elsewhere, immediately put me on their payroll. As a result, I found myself working in the company’s offices in Cape Town for two weeks, during each day of which I mused what UK bound ship I could probably join. So sure of being in the UK before long, that I began thinking how I could best use my free time in the ports I might visit to find picture postcards of ships for my collection. The first twenty of which were given to me by my paternal grandmother in 1957, when I was an eleven year old. Most of them had been sent by one of her brothers in the 1900s who, like their father, had been a pilot at Southampton. I should say, in all honesty, that had removed the cards from the family albums without permission. It was only after my father “tanned my hide” that my grandmother let me have the cards, probably in the hope I would stop my bawling.

On my first day at work in the Safmarine office, I reported to Mr Des Thomas, the gentleman who had employed me, and who introduced the personnel manager. He informed me that it was his high hope that I would avail myself of this opportunity to fully appreciate the important role the personnel department played in the corporation’s safe and efficient operation! Then I was told I was being left in the capable hands of Mr Thomas, but first I was to return the stack of files on his desk to the file room. Indeed, for the first eight or nine days, all I did in the office was fetch and return files to a little room where scores of them were stored, and so it came as something of a relief when two secretaries in the personnel department discovered I could type and had me typing addresses on envelopes: which was a welcome relief. Only one of the files bore a name that I recognised; a friend who had obtained his PMG certificate a few months earlier at the time my handwriting was getting me into trouble. A quick look at the contents of the file revealed that both he and the chief radio officer of the ship they were on had blotted their copybooks, should I say seamen’s books, and not with ink, but with demon drink. Both of them were being relieved once the ship got to Cape Town; the chief radio officer probably facing dismissal from Marconi Marine, and my friend at least another six months as a trainee radio officer on a different ship.

I received my new PMG certificate on a Friday and, early the following Monday, was informed of my appointment to the SA Statesman, the very ship my friend would soon be leaving in disgrace! I knew that the ship was a five-hatch dry cargo type of about 8,900 gross tons, and had originally been the Clan Sinclair, Safmarine having acquired her from the Springbok Lines when that company was taken over in 1961. What run I was to be on was unknown to everybody I asked. It was only when happening upon a copy of the company’s magazine that I learned the ship had recently started a service to the Far East.

The ship’s new chief radio officer, Douglas Davidson, (“Dougie”) hailed from Aberdeen, and I soon realised being extremely lucky to have him as my senior. Undoubtedly, there were many onboard who were in no hurry to sail from Cape Town, but as for me, so keen was I to show that I could be relied on, and would make a good radio officer, the departure of the SA Statesman from Cape Town could not come soon enough.

However, like countless other individuals who have gone to sea over the years, seasickness challenged my resolve. The ship had no cargo onboard, and with a strong south-westerly, the ship rolled all over the place as soon as we left for Walvis Bay. By the next day I was wondering how I would have survived had I actually been on a ship bound for the UK and not one to a port just a couple of days steaming from Cape Town. After missing all my meals for a second day, one of the saloon Stewards, known as Archie, came to see if I was okay, and contemptuously asked whether I was a real seaman or a baby. Too shocked and ashamed to say anything, I just closed my eyes and hoped he would leave, but he did not. Suddenly, I found my right hand being made to grasp a lemon, the scent of which Archie assured me would soon help me feel better.

The following morning I thanked a beaming Archie, though I knew that the improvement in the weather had far more to do with my turning up for breakfast than the lemon had. By lunchtime, Walvis Bay was in sight, and as soon as the pilot came onboard, Dougie got me to call up the local coastal radio station to inform them we were about to enter port ZSV DE ZTXW QTP CL. Acknowledgement received from ZSV and the required entries made in the radio logbook, we shut down the radio station and Dougie led me to the officers’ bar, where a loud cheer went up as soon as I entered and several of my shipmates asked when I had been resurrected from the dead.

After Walvis Bay, we returned to Cape Town. Calls to Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and Lourenco Marques soon followed. During our stay in Durban, I typed five letters to shipping companies asking if they had postcards of their ships for my collection; two in Hong Kong and three in Japan. Certain that the companies would be more likely to respond to local addresses, I gave them details of the Safmarine offices in both ports.

Three days before we arrived in Hong Kong, while I was keeping the last radio watch of the day, the second electrician, Colin “Alfie” Cunningham popped into the radio room. Just as the two of us began munching on peanuts Alfie had brought with him, in walked the Captain with a telegram. Neither Alfie nor I had the gumption to pretend Alfie was enquiring about sending a telegram and, anyway, our guzzling on peanuts sealed our plight. Alfie’s casual admission that he was there just for a chat greatly angered the old man who ordered him to get the hell out of the radio room immediately. Handing me the telegram, the captain ordered me to send it immediately and then to report to him as soon as I came off watch. Contacting Hong Kong, and learning that they had traffic for us, I decided not to send the old man’s telegram until he had seen the incoming cable first. I was far from confident this was the right thing to do, but knew I was in for a reprimand anyway.

After reading the incoming cable, the old man seemed satisfied that I had not sent the telegram he had handed me and, thinking I was in his good books, muttered “I assure you Sir, what happened earlier will never happen again.” The Captain slammed his fist on the table and bellowed “Of course it won’t happen again, I bl-dy will make sure of that! Get the hell out of my sight!” Which I did, as fast as I could. I spent the remainder of my watch fretting and wondering whether I still had to report to him when coming off watch, but, finally, and with Doug concurring, decided the best thing would be to keep my distance from the old man.

Soon after we arrived in Hong Kong and had cleared customs and immigration, I was told to report to the captain on the double. Immediately, my mind began wondering what might be in store for me. His dayroom office was crowded with people from shore and nobody, least of all the captain, took the slightest notice of me when I knocked and entered the room. I was certain that if I said anything to the captain, he would snarl “Can’t you see I am busy?” A couple of minutes passed before the old man noticed me at which point he growled “I don’t see why I have got to be your bl-dy post man, sign this.” Hands shaking I signed what I was asked to sign, grasped the large brown envelope he handed me, stammered thank you and excused myself right away.

The envelope had not been through the mail and was simply addressed Roland Barton, 2nd Radio Officer, care of the Master SA Statesman. The envelope was quite large. A magazine seemed to be the most likely content. The envelope was easy to peel open and immediately I saw that there was a smaller one inside, perfect for postcards, and my hopes soared. I carefully opened the smaller envelope and extracted the contents - six postcards of ships and a note of compliments from Jardine Matheson.

Elated, I made my way to the purser’s office to enquire if there was any regular mail for me. The junior purser, who was also a first tripper, handed me my mail and said something about questions being asked about mail coming to me from a Hong Kong shipping company. He did not say who was doing the asking or why, but even if he had, I would not have said anything, believing him rather pretentious and conceited as did many others onboard. A look at the stamps on the envelopes I was given, revealed one envelope had come from Hong Kong and it was this one that I opened first. More than forty years have now passed since first seeing the postcards inside, and I still think they are two of the most attractive postcards any shipping company has ever issued.

Although nothing more was said to me about either of the two envelopes that had contained postcards, I decided it best not to write to any more shipping companies for a while. There were still the three Japanese companies to worry about, and the possibility of replies from all three companies turning up at the same time would surely arouse the old man’s curiosity.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - July 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!


Most Popular

  • Oil Leak Survey of WWII British Tanker Wreck +

  • Saint Brandan - "Vital Spark of the South Atlantic" +

  • Six LNG Carriers Join BP Fleet +

  • Tragedy of the “Stellar Daisy” +

  • Museum Says ‘it’ is the End of the Line for ‘Her’ +

  • 1
  • 2

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • Crowds Tribute to the Last Tyne +

    Annie Blaker The last of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s famous Tyne class lifeboats was launched for the last time at her Read More
  • Clyde’s Vital Role in Onshore Windfarm +

    Clydeport Clydeport has played a vital role in the building of the UK’s largest onshore windfarm on Eaglesham Moor, just 20 Read More
  • Museum Says ‘it’ is the End of the Line for ‘Her’ +

    Scottish Maritime Museum The Scottish Maritime Museum, at Irvine, has abandon hundreds of years of maritime history and tradition and decided to stop Read More
  • Six LNG Carriers Join BP Fleet +

    BP Partnership Class Six new 173,400 cu m capacity LNG carriers have joined the fleet of BP Shipping, of London. Read More
  • Warehouse Boosts Import of Forest Products +

    Freight A new £17mn warehouse is to be built at Liverpool by the national logistics provider Jenkins which specialises in paper, Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Changes in Tolls for Using Panama Canal +

    MSC Pohlin The Panama Canal plans to modify its tolls structure for all types of ships “to better serve the global maritime Read More
  • Largest LNG Carrier Sails From West to East +

    Al Safliya The largest LNG tanker to use the Panama Canal since it was expanded less that three years ago passed through Read More
  • Oil Leak Survey of WWII British Tanker Wreck +

    Coimbra Wreck The US Coast Guard were evaluating a plan to remove oil from a tanker that was sunk in the Second Read More
  • Line Sells Long Beach Container Terminal +

    Long Beach Container Terminal The Hong Kong shipping group Orient Overseas (International) Ltd (OOIL) is selling its Long Beach Container Terminal, California, to a Read More
  • Terminal to be Extended After Record Year +

    Viau Montreal The Viau container terminal at Montreal, Canada, is to be expanded so that it can handle 600,000 teu a year. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3


  • “Prelude” Makes its Debut With First LNG Cargo +

    Prelude The first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has left Shell’s floating LNG facility Prelude some 475kms north-east of Broome Read More
  • Special Navigating System to be Fitted to VLCCs +

    AR Nav Following two-ship trials, augmented reality (AR) navigation systems are to be installed on 21 very large crude oil carriers (VLCCs) Read More
  • Work Starts on Hybrid Series +

    Grimaldi Hybrid In China, construction has started at the Jinling Shipyard on the first of the Grimaldi Group’s new hybrid roll-on, roll-off Read More
  • Tragedy of the “Stellar Daisy” +

    Stellar Daisy The very large ore carrier Stellar Daisy, 266,141dwt, was owned by Polaris Shipping, of Seoul, South Korea, and had been Read More
  • Line’s Special Offer to Help Clean Up the Seas +

    The Ocean Cleanup The Singapore shipping company APL is providing free shipping for the non-profit Ocean Cleanup organisation that is working to develop Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • Fourth Dreadnought Named HMS “King George VI” +

    Dreadnought Class UK News The fourth member of the new Dreadnought class of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines will bear the name Read More
  • US Navy Orders Flight II Landing Platform Dock +

    LDP30 American News The contract for the construction of LPD30, the first Flight II Landing Platform Dock of the San Antonio Read More
  • US Navy Seeks Faster Ship Delivery +

    FFGX Rendering American News The future frigate program for the US Navy is getting fully underway and some idea of the urgency Read More
  • HMS “Dragon” in £75 Million Narcotics Seizure +

    HMS Dragon British News Whilst on patrol in the Gulf, the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon seized and destroyed ten tonnes of Read More
  • New Generation of Enterprise Confirmed +

    USS Enterprise American News On 31 January, the US Department of Defense announced the awarding of a block buy contract with Huntington Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Oscar Goes to Italy +

    Oscar Wilde Irish Continental Group has entered into a bareboat hire purchase agreement for the sale of its 1987-built Oscar Wilde to Read More
  • CalMac Heritage +

    Columba I include a fine poster and artist’s image of the famed Macbrayne paddler Columba. Read More
  • Russian Adventure +

    Ocean Adventurer To the North East Coast and arriving at Aberdeen for the first time for many months, I witnessed a passenger Read More
  • Further Delay for LNG Powered Glen Sannox +

    Glen Sannox The drama surrounding the much delayed new ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne continues to rumble on with the latest, not unsurprising, Read More
  • Pentland Ferries Loses Appeal +

    Hamnavoe Scotland’s Pentland Ferries has lost its appeal against Scottish government state aid for ferry services between the mainland and the Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • The Green Band of Marstal +

    Bessie Ellen The Danish Maritime Museum had the schooner Bonavista built on the island of Aero at Marstal and this year they Read More
  • Norweigan National Day +

    Thorodd I was in Montrose on the Norwegian National Day, 17 May, when its independent constitution from Sweden was confirmed in Read More
  • Port of Aberdeen Fifty Years On +

    Aberdeen Harbour Extension Project When I first arrived in Aberdeen in 1968, I couldn’t believe my luck. Read More
  • Thames Tributary Barges +

    Lady of the Lea Most of the rivers flowing into the Thames had their own barge type. Read More
  • Dry Rot and Dry Dock +

    HMS Victory For some time Victory, the 110gun ship of the line, has had trouble with dry rot and is in danger Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • Lifeline Cash for “Waverley” Agreed +

    Waverley The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS) has announced that it will provide immediate funding to support efforts to “Save The Read More
  • Viking Glory Celebrates Keel Laying +

    Front Altair The construction of Viking Glory is proceeding on schedule. Read More
  • The Majestic River Rhine +

    MS Charles Dickens In September of this year, my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful Riviera Travel river cruise on the majestic River Read More
  • What Next in the US-Iran Saga? +

    Front Altair Over the last year, the escalating trade war between the US and China has created many headlines, not least in Read More
  • Modus Expands Fleet of Hybrid Autonomous Vehicles +

    Saab Seaeye Modus has placed an order with Saab Seaeye for the next vehicle in its Hybrid Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (HAU V) Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Every Ash Cloud Has A Silver Lining +

    The ash cloud crisis continues to cause uncertainty as we see sporadic closures of airspace and cancelled flights, and this Read More
  • Damen Group Superyachts +

    Amels With 25 projects underway, business is booming for Amels, the Dutch luxury yacht builder. Read More
  • Singer Andrea Bocelli Trades Up in Size +

    Stella del Nord Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor and song writer whose work spans both popular music and classical opera is a Read More
  • Plans for Greenock Terminal Approved +

    Greenock Ocean Terminal Plans have been approved for an iconic building on the banks of the Clyde at Greenock to welcome cruise ship Read More
  • Leixoes Cruise Terminal, Gateway to Porto +

    Leixoes Cruise Terminal With the growth of the cruise industry, many ports worldwide have been active in developing or improving their port facilities. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places

Suez Canal

The Creation of the Suez Canal - Part Two

IAt the end of 1858, the company’s Works Committee convened for the first time. It included an impressive assembly of Read More
Mv Saint Brandan

Saint Brandan - "Vital Spark of the South Atlantic"

In 1876, James Gardner commissioned a small vessel to transport quarried stone from Ballachulish to Glasgow. He also opened an Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features


Tribute to the "Mercury"

In the summer of 1968, the training ship Mercury in the Hamble River closed down after many years of training Read More
SS Eastern (2)

MT Arthur Foss

“The last vessel to escape Wake Island before Japanese forces captured the island” Read More
  • 1
  • 2