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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

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
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