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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The nature of the world’s sea trade routes means that relatively few mariners have the opportunity of circumnavigating the globe in the course of a single voyage. I was fortunate to do so on just the one occasion. Even more fortuitously, I was able to sail in the company of my wife, courtesy of the famous Blue Funnel Line of Liverpool.

Our honeymoon had ended with a Saturday morning ferry crossing of the English Channel on the last day of summer in 1968. An equinoctial gale meant that many of our fellow passengers succumbed to seasickness, although I was very pleased to see that my wife, Anne, showed that she had good sea-legs. Perhaps, I thought, she might one day agree to accompany me on a proper sea voyage. The following Monday was the day that we had planned to start looking for a new home together. Unfortunately, it also brought a telephone call from India Buildings requiring me to present myself on board Blue Funnel’s Peleus at her loading berth in Birkenhead’s Vittoria Dock. With no leave due, I was unable to negotiate, but it was suggested that my housing quest could be delayed by allowing Anne to join me on the voyage.

Blue Funnel had merged with Elder Dempster’s that year to form Ocean Fleets, but I had been too busy taking my Master’s exams and making my minor contributions to the wedding preparations to notice any substantial change other than receiving a new cap badge. I was also given the title of Senior 2nd Mate and so could wear an additional half-band on my gold braid. The biggest change, however, was that I would be on ships trading to new places and with unfamiliar working practices. This meant that both my new wife and myself could look forward to three months of a very different life.

The Peleus was the largest dry cargo ship that I had ever sailed in and it made a very impressive first sight that September morning as I drove over the Duke Street bridge to join her. Her substantial midships block was topped by the solid and upright funnel that was one of the earliest and most famous of maritime trademarks. A suite of twenty-two derricks held the promise of busy days in the major ports of the Far East. Her two jumbo derricks, however, would be little used since the foremast one had only its topping lift in place, while the mainmast one was bereft of any rigging. I was soon to become familiar with her six hatches, each of which had multiple ‘tweendecks and numerous smaller compartments, but I was content for now to leave the cargo work to the two other junior officers since there was pressing work to occupy me on the bridge. Lacking deck apprentices to whom I could sub-contract the task, I began by tidying the workspace prior to dealing with the chart folios which were soon due to return from their updating by Kelvin Hughes. There was plenty of cleaning needed: electrical repairs had left the wheelhouse with a fair residue of debris while the chartroom also looked overdue for some organisation.

Washing out the chart drawers provided a clean home for the contents of a dozen or so duck canvas folios, while removal of several obsolete Admiralty Pilot volumes brought some order to the bookshelf. Further clearances to a dockside skip allowed the settee to be made more presentable and then some work with the Brasso added the final gleaming touches to my domain. It was only after we had sailed that I found out that my cleaning had been rather too radical when I was called to the bridge to explain the absence of the ‘slate’. This was one of Blue Funnel’s idiosyncrasies that I was unaware of; the practice of making a rough deck log on a specially inscribed panel called a slate. This would appear to have been the nondescript hinged wooden contraption that I had discarded in my enthusiasm to provide a clean and gleaming bridge. The ship’s carpenter eventually made an acceptable replacement, but I never really escaped the verdict of both the Mate and the Master that we Elder Dempster men were solely intent on sabotaging the proud traditions of Alfred Holt’s foundation.

I was on safer ground when I discussed with Captain Curphey, before my crime was revealed, our route westward to the Orient. It was an unusual direction to travel, of course, but the closing of the Suez Canal the previous year (with two Blue Funnel ships trapped therein) made a route via Panama the best way of providing a rapid transit of cargo to Japan. He kindly reminded me that it was Blue Funnel practice to leave any positions made on the chart intact for examination after the voyage by the Nautical Adviser based in India Buildings. I would find that many of these tracks in eastern seas were compulsory ones but, since much of our journey would be in unfamiliar waters, I was to use the same routes from the previous voyage. Anxious to assure him that my navigational experience was not restricted to West Africa, I asked if he expected to use great circle sailing across the Pacific. I was relieved to hear that rhumb lines would suffice since the distances saved were of little consequence to his beloved ‘Queen of the China Seas’ with its eighteen knots of service speed.

Our sailing day arrived and Anne was pleased to find out that she would have the company of the Purser’s wife for the voyage. After the usual boat stations assembly following the departure inspection, both Anne and Christine were welcomed by the Marine Superintendent and wished ‘bon voyage’. That was accompanied by a firm reminder that they would be responsible for the tidiness of their quarters and the avoiding of any obstruction to the ship’s daily routines. I had my first experience of the lengthy choreography of leaving Birkenhead’s dock system and then we enjoyed a peaceful Atlantic crossing to Balboa. I was keeping the 12-4 sea watches whilst the two wives were able to enjoy sunny afternoons sitting out on deck, although there was little of interest for me to point out to them. No marine life bar a few porpoises, some scattered strands of sargasso weed. Two landfalls, firstly off the Azores and then the transit of the Mona Passage were both made in hours of darkness.

Our quarters were in one of the larger staterooms that had last seen use in those days when the Peleus had carried up to 30 passengers through Suez to the Orient. One of the only three ships built by Cammell Lairds at Birkenhead for Blue Funnel, the accommodation was of its immediate post-war era, all mahogany panelling and chintz furnishing. Anne likened our bedroom to the interior of a coffin although it did benefit from a window and we had both a spacious dayroom and bathroom attached. The ship’s steam turbine also guaranteed an absence of vibrations and oily perfume. On the day before our first Sunday accomodation inspection, that ritual fondly known to all seafarers as ‘Parks and Gardens’ or ‘The march of the unemployed’, our cabin steward added to his customary serving of morning and afternoon tea the offer of vacuuming the suite carpets. Since this consisted of the unravelling of enough cable to make up a decent length heaving line, some extensive conversation, and the restoration of the cable to the vacuum, little actual cleaning took place. Unfortunately, this favour had attracted the attention of our rather irascible Chief Officer who told us off for contravening the domestic arrangement decreed for wives on board. Duly chastened, Anne made sure that she located the stowage of the vacuum cleaner herself and then used it freely when it was otherwise not required elsewhere.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - April 2019 Issue
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