It was January 1958 and I staggered with the weight of a kit bag that was as large as my 15-year-old five feet two inch frame. Like many of my contemporaries, I had after leaving school spent time at Leith Nautical College, more familiarly known as ‘The Dolphin’. This was now over for me and I was about to face the big adventure and join my first ship.
The Tees Dock at Middlesbrough was a hive of activity as I struggled to find my way past bales of rubber, lengths of bamboo, large crates and exotic timber. Indeed I was getting my first inhalation of the smells of the Far East. The ship I was about to join, the ss Benmacdhui listed heavily to starboard in the dock. The 80-ton jumbo derrick had been rigged and was in the process of lifting a 50- ton locomotive destined for Singapore.
After climbing the gangway and setting foot on deck it suddenly struck me that I was now entering a world of reality and all I had learned at sea school had deserted me for the time being. On arriving on board I was duly signed on as deck boy in the presence of the master and the shore-based shipping master.
My wage was eight shillings and seven pence per day or £12 17/6 per month, with one shilling nine pence per hour overtime rate. A deck boy was more commonly known in the merchant navy by the rather derogatory term “Peggy”. The origins of this term appear to be lost to time but I believe that in the early days of sail a lady by the name of Peggy assigned herself to the task of keeping the sailors’ quarters clean and washing plates, cutlery and other chores. This was a deck boy’s main task but at times he would be allowed on deck to learn in time the intricacies of seamanship.
Leaving Middlesbrough our next port of call was London but nearing the Thames we were engulfed by fog so dense that we had to anchor for three days unable to proceed further. Leaving London we proceeded to Hamburg.
Rough weather prevailed enroute, so bad at one stage that the tattie locker on the poop was washed overboard. I was now in torment from seasickness but it was only an insight into what I was to expect in the Bay of Biscay and later.
The River Elbe was lightly frozen over as we made our way towards Hamburg and the shattered ice made an eerie noise as we steamed through it. As we edged into our berth I was to see the collapsed remains of the submarine pens that had been bombed in the wartime.
As cargo, Ben Line ships carried everything from the proverbial needle to an anchor. On departure from Hamburg on passage to the Far East our manifest contained a host of items, among which were Morris and Austin cars; many tons of condensed milk and Ribena; State Express and Woodbine cigarettes: and Scotch whisky to replenish the colonial types that still held out in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - December 2011 Issue
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