I vividly remember my first day at work, 18th December 1972. I had to board a Norwegian freighter with my mentor. Sadly I have forgotten the ships name, but she was riding high in the water after having discharged her cargo, therefore her gangway loomed steeply in front of me. Panic overcame me as I contemplated climbing on board this vessel, but I managed to overcome my fear, thinking that I would be doing this on a daily basis from now on. Despite this experience, I had no further problems boarding ships large or small – the only exception being on a visit to Chepstow the following year. I had to visit a small coaster lying low on the river Usk. The only means of access was literally a gangplank, a loose plank, totally unsecured to ship or shore. The ship’s dog awaited my arrival with anticipation by growling at me in the most aggressive manner. This was one gangplank that I was definitely not going to walk down as I had visions of either falling into the deep mud of the Usk at low water, or being savaged by a rabid European dog! I therefore shouted over to a crew-member requesting that the master furnished the ship’s agent with a crew list, and then beat a hasty undignified retreat. I had no further gangplank incidents until over twenty years later, whilst doing a pleasant spell of relief at Swansea. A crew-member was paying off ship at Port Talbot, so I drove over from the Swansea office. The vessel concerned was a huge Indonesian iron ore carrier. Once again I was faced with boarding a large ship riding high in the water after having discharged her cargo of iron ore. Her gangplank banged ominously against her side whilst several Indonesian seaman shouted and beckoned from high above that it was perfectly safe to climb aboard. Being now older, wiser and less agile I disagreed with them and turned back from the ship. However, a kindly dockers foreman offered to take the discharge document on board for me, an offer I gladly accepted before returning to the safety of my office.
A typical day in port for me consisted of checking what new vessels had arrived from foreign ports. Then I would drive round to the relevant ships to collect and check their crew lists and stamp up any seamen who were paying off in port. Once on board, I usually met the captain or chief officer to conduct my business and shipboard hospitality was always traditional. It was rare that I was not offered a cold beer on board, and on several occasions I was invited to lunch. I especially remember lunch on the Finnish freighter Outokompu when the meal consisted of bacon and eggs with spaghetti.
I boarded many Soviet and other communist bloc vessels from Poland, East Germany and Bulgaria. Initially I was told to visit all soviet ships with a police officer from the docks board police for security. I therefore visited several such vessels in the company of large uniformed Welsh policemen. However, I soon abandoned this practice and boarded the ships on my own, having discovered that there was absolutely no danger for me in doing so. The soviet crews always behaved impeccably in port and on shore leave. No one was allowed to pay off, and drunken behaviour and desertion was unheard of. Doubtless, a seaman deserter would have condemned his family to a life in the Gulags. Despite this time being at the height of the cold war, Soviet captains were extremely convivial. The officer of the watch would escort me from the gangplank to the masters day cabin. There, I would be presented with a red form, IS6, which was grandly entitled “particulars of members of the crew of a ship arriving in the United Kingdom”. This document was always a work of art, either beautifully handwritten or typed without mistakes or alterations. Soviet crews were always exclusively Soviet citizens, but suspiciously large compared with the compliment of other vessels. To this day, I still retain one such crew-list and I still wonder which crew-member was the onboard KGB “Rezident”, or if there were several of them. We shall never know.