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RMS Durban Castle
My life at sea started at an early age, I was born into a large family, I was the sixth out of ten children. During the war, with air raids every night in 1945 my mother up and left all 10 of us. My father was working abroad as an engineer and when he came home all of the younger brothers and sisters were put in the care of the Shaftesbury Homes. I was sent to Fortescue House school in Twickenham and spent the next four and a half years in care.
Whilst there, I became aware that part of Shaftesbury Homes was the Arethusa Training Ship, this was my first brush with a seafaring life. I was determined, as soon as I was old enough, to join the Arethusa Training ship. This ship was run by the Society for boys who wished to go to sea in either the Royal or Merchant Navy. I knew then, at an early age, I wanted to go to sea, then at last reaching the age of fourteen and a half years I was sent to join the Training Ship Arethusa. On January 15th, 1951, I joined as a boy rating. It was a nice sunny day and my first sight of the training ship, as I walked up the road, was the four yellow masts towering above the tree tops. Looking over the River Medway, I remember the excitement walking on board this famous ship with her proud history, then putting on my uniform for the first time and then becoming part of the ships company. Life onboard was one of strict discipline, but fair, and I soon settled in to the ship’s routine. We were taught seamanship, morse code, semaphore flag signaling, knots, splices, rope and wire as well as normal schooling. Sports played a large part of life onboard ship and I also joined the band which was quite nice because every weekend in the Summer the band would attend local fetes and fairs, marching and playing, it was great fun.

Every six weeks we would carry out ships maintenance which included painting, cleaning, ships rigging and, on the shore establishment, the swimming pool and our normal school work at that time continued. I will always remember my time on the training ship with fond memories.

Then on September 4th 1952 came the time for me to leave the Arethusa. I had to choose whether to join the Royal or Merchant Navy. For me there was no contest – the Merchant Navy was the road I chose. The chance to see the world after six years in care was exciting, and I shall always be thankful for the care I received in the hands of the Shaftesbury and Arethusa Homes. On my leaving day, I was given a small suitcase with a sports jacket and trousers, oil skins and a ten shilling note. I was taken to the Royal Group of Docks in London where, having got my discharge book and identity card, Mr Saddler of Shaftesbury Homes took me down to the Docks and at the bottom of the gangway pointed up to the Quarter Master telling me to report to the Chief Officer. I looked up at this beautiful Lavender coloured ship, RMS Durban Castle, and what a wonderful sight she made. As I went up the gangway, half way up I turned around to say something to Mr Saddler and there was no one there. I realised then that I really was on my own. As I walked to the top of the gangway the ship was being loaded with general cargo and passengers luggage. The smell of the docks, the spices will always remain with me.

Having reported to the Chief Officer I was put to work on the bridge looking after the wheel house and cleaning brass work and making sure that everything was ship shape.

The next day we got ready for sailing, I hoisted the Blue Peter and saw the boat train coming down to the Quayside and lots of passengers boarding with their cabin luggage. The pilot came on board and hatches were battened down, tugs made fast fore and aft. The pilot took us out to the river and then on down to Gravesend. It was a start for me of a lifetime of adventure.

Kevin Wells We set sail for Gibraltar going down the English Channel through the Bay of Biscay. When we stopped at Gibraltar a small amount of cargo was unloaded for the Royal Navy. Around the ship were small bum boats selling an assortment of goods and souvenirs. At 1700 hrs we set sail entering the Mediterranean and altered course for Marseilles at which we arrived at 0800 hrs the next day. An aromatic scent of wine and pine trees is one I shall always remember. We stayed overnight unloading cargo and passengers, taking on new passengers and set sail for Genoa.

I remember a really busy port with two or three Italian liners moored next to each other. The bomb damage from the Second World War was still very much in evidence. It was a shame such a beautiful port had sustained so much damage. We set sail in the early evening for Port Said. On the way we passed the Island of Stromboli which was erupting and we could see smoke and ash rising into the sky on a lovely sunny day.

Two days later we arrived at Port Said to await transit through the Suez Cannel. Waking up in the morning and looking out of my porthole, I saw endless sand dunes very close, which was quite amazing. It took us 12 hours to reach Port Suez going through the Bitter Lakes. We then entered the Red Sea and made for Port Sudan. We arrived there a day later and when the dockers came onboard to unload cargo I stared in amazement at the native dockers, at the way they were dressed in rags and their hair plastered with camel dung with big ivory combs sticking out, which they used for combing and scratching their heads. All the dockers had masses of flies swarming around their heads; it really was an amazing sight.

The next day we sailed for Aden where again there was a small group of boats around us where you could buy lots of souvenirs, cheap watches, cameras etc. We also took on bunkers that would last the ship until we were back in the UK.

On leaving Aden, we rounded the Horn of Africa going south to Mombasa where we stayed overnight. I remember we were only allowed shore leave if we went in pairs because of the Mau Mau Terrorists. Seeing the Kenyan Policeman at the dock gates wearing his red Fez hat and smart uniform he looked very impressive. We unloaded cars, general cargo, some passengers disembarked and new passengers came onboard.

We then sailed to Tanga and then on to Zanzibar with its wonderful spices. The island was very pretty and we anchored so that cargo was unloaded into barges.

There was no crew leave on this occasion. We left the same evening for Dar-Es-Salaam which surely was one of the most beautiful harbours I have ever seen. The ship entered a narrow entrance into a lagoon where we dropped both anchors and the stern was moored to palm trees on the shoreline. We stayed overnight and left the next day to sail to Biera and then on to Lorenço Marques.

Our next port of call was Durban in South Africa and what a change that was. Even if you went surfing you had a whites only beach and shark nets all along the bathing area. I remember we had a ride in a rickshaw with a large Zulu in all his finest headgear. He looked very noble and I was impressed. When we came into the harbour I remember seeing hundreds of African prisoners all chained together with leg irons building a new breakwater. I felt so sorry for them, the guards had rifles and whips.

We then left Durban to call at Port Elizabeth and then on to East London and our final port in South Africa was Cape Town. I could never forget the lovely view of Table Mountain with a layer of cloud across the top.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - January 2015 Issue
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