The Blue Funnel Line

Learning the Ropes

The duties of a Junior Ordinary Seaman differed quite considerably from that of a Deck Boy, in fact, you were doing the same jobs as the Able Seaman, but for a lower wage of course, this was understandable, considering our age, and the lack of, or limited experience that we had. I would be introduced to watch keeping for the first time. As a Deck Boy we were sometimes  allowed on the bridge, to clean the brass, or scrub the decks, and even an hour or two on the wheel, just to get the feel of it. But we were not allowed to do a watch. On October 22nd 1969, less than a year after leaving training school, I sailed from Birkenhead on the Perseus for my third trip to the Far East, but this time I would be on watch for most of the voyage.

I think now would be as good a time as any, to give you some background to some of the ways we did things, when at work or at play. This would apply to most British Merchant cargo ships, that plied their trade throughout the world, in the decade between 1965 and 1975. The only thing I would add to this, on most tankers, sea watches would be kept on all the time, whether at sea or in port, because their stay in harbour was short, and all the watch keepers were needed when loading or discharging.

Perseus; on deck, Bosun, Carpenter, Bosun’s Mate,  three Leading Seaman*, seven Able Seamen, two Ordinary Seamen and two Deck Boy’s. Sounds like a lot of men, but these ships were “heavy” as we would say, in as much that you needed every one of us, especially when arriving at a port, or the day we would sail. Blue Funnel ships had four cargo derricks to a hatch, because in the Far East, very often the ship would be loaded from the quay, and from a Junks or barge tied up along side at the same time. And at sea even on long passages there was always a lot going on.

* Very few companies would carry Leading Seaman, all they were in fact were A.B's with company contract, and their wages were consolidated, into a monthly salary.

Unloading into a barge at Nagoya Japan


Watches; When in port all of us would be on “day work” with the exception of one A.B. as night watchman, he would look after the moorings, the lights around the deck, and also keep an eye on the gangway, usually he would be on from 7pm to 7am. But when we sailed we set “sea watches”, these were 4 hours on and 8 hours off, they worked like this; 12 to 4, 4 to 8, 8 to 12, if the wheel was on there would be three men to a watch, that’s nine total. The way the sea watches worked is quite interesting.


Sea Watches

Two men in a watch (no wheel)

  First hour Second hour Third hour Fourth hour
A.B. 1 (First Lookout) Lookout Stand by Lookout Stand by
A.B. 2 (Second Lookout) Stand by Lookout Stand by Lookout

Three men in a watch system (used if the wheel was on)

  First hour Second hour Third hour Fourth hour
A.B. 1  (First wheel) Wheel Wheel Stand by Lookout
A.B. 2  (Second Wheel) Lookout Stand by Wheel Wheel
A.B. 3  (Farmer) Stand by Lookout Lookout Stand by


The term “Farmer” comes from the time when ships carried livestock, and the men that looked after them were not seamen, so they wouldn’t know how to steer a ship, notice that the farmer in our watch doesn’t do a wheel, hence the name.

Standby was usually spent reading a book in the mess-room, and if needed for any reason a small bell would ring, activated from the bridge.

Watches were changed, twice a trip, so that every one had a change; if you were on the 12 – 4 outward bound, which was normally about a month. After the first port Far East, you would change to the 8 – 12, and once you left the last port for home, you would pick up the 4 – 8, on a three month trip this was about a month on each watch. My favorite watch was the 4 – 8, but everyone had their preference, and sometimes the lads who preferred the 12 – 4 for example which was the worst in my eyes, would stay on that watch for the whole trip. The 12 – 4 was called the “Grave Yard” watch, and if you were on it you would know why it got its name, apart from the officer of the watch on the bridge, which would be the 2nd Mate, you had the ship to yourself, because you never saw the engineers, as they hardly ever left the engine-room when on watch.

After your watch you had eight hours off, and then you would start all over again, but everyone would move down one, first wheel would become second wheel, second wheel would be farmer, and the farmer would be first wheel in the next watch. A very fair way of doing things, as no one was particularly keen on the wheel, so every third watch, you never went near the thing!!! If and when the wheel was put in automatic, which would normally happen on long passages, or once we were clear of the land, then there would be two men on watch, working an hour about on lookout, this would be in the hours of darkness only, during the day they were still watch keepers, but they would work their watches on deck with the day workers.

Day workers; In port it was always 8am to 5pm, but sometimes a good Bosun would let us sneak away earlier, especially if the Mate was on a half day himself, and out of the way “Whilst the cats away” and all that!!! But at sea there were two ways of working the day. The most popular system was, 6 to 8, 9 to 12 and 1 to 4, the six to eight bit in the morning was the time we used to scrub the decks, or just a wash down. It was the best time of day to find flying fish around the decks, and you’d be surprised, how high up the top decks they would be found, and some would be quite big, I once saw one the size of a large mackerel. The Chinese firemen used to love them, but I never got around to eating one myself.  The other system was 8 - 12, 1 - 5, the same as in port, with an early “Knock off” on Fridays for “Board of Trade Sports” at 4:15pm (Lifeboat & Fire drill)

Job & Knock; Another good and popular way of getting things done was the "job & knock" the Mate would have a fair idea how long it would take to do a particular job on a ship, I will use painting the main mast as an example. Say it takes four men seven hours to paint the mast, the Mate would say we could have a "job & knock", then there would be a mad flurry, and we could quite easily finish it in four hours, and that was it for the day, and within no time, all four of us would be showered and up the road. This would leave everyone happy, the Mate had his mast painted, and we had a half-day!!!

Painting a ships mast

Field Days; Another twist to the watch keeping system was a “Field Days” say for example you were on the 8 to 12 watch, you would do your watch as normal from eight in the morning till twelve mid day, but the Mate may well want you out in the afternoon to do any job that needed doing, then you would be asked to work a field day, and come out on deck to work for three or even four hours in the afternoon, this of course was overtime, and a ship with plenty of “Field Days” would be very popular, and the word would soon get around that a particular ship, was o good job!!! The 12 to 4 watch would have their field days in the morning and the 4 to 8 could work in the morning or the afternoon, and the day workers could come out in the evenings after tea and at weekends, which would push wages up quite a lot for the whole trip.

My pay slip for the trip, notice the overtime, at £90.3.9d, has nearly doubled my wages.

Half Day; In port things worked in a different way, time off was our priorities, and most Mates would give a “Half Day” in port every week, this was as implied, we would knock off at midday, and have all afternoon and the night ashore, these were very popular, especially in good ports such as Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore, or even some of the Japanese ports, where a trip to the local second hand markets was a must. Most Blue Funnel ships were very good with the overtime, and their half days, and I never had a bad trip with them.


crew_bar.jpg (61087 bytes)

Crew bar on the Perseus 1969

Apart from the crew bar, there were several other things to do on long sea passages. Once we reached the tropics, we would erect a swimming pool on the deck, this was a steel framed affair, with wooden boards fitted all around, and a large canvas bag would be placed inside, then we would fill it with sea water with a fire hose, it was about chest deep, and about ten foot wide by fifteen long, and many an evening would be spent in it, just to cool down after another hot day. We had a library full of books, that ware changed at the end of each trip by the British Sailors Society. A film would be shown once a week, a 16mm projector and screen would be set up in the officers bar, and these were very often new releases, not even been around the cinemas back home. Horse racing was a very popular evening as well, there would be a large piece of canvas spread out on the deck, about fifteen feet square, and around the edge were numbered squares, and on the starting line there would be six wooden horses. Two large dice would be thrown, the first dice would be the number of the horse, and the second would be how many squares it could move, and bets were placed on any horse you fancied!!! And as the night wore on, when the lads were in good spirits, there would be a lot of banter and leg pulling, and a really great laugh. The card game Cribbage was a religion in its self deep sea, and it was by far the most popular past time, there would be at least one game a night in the bar, and sometimes many more. Darts tournaments would last the whole trip, there would be four teams, Deck, Catering, Deck Officers and Engineers, and some of the best darts players I ever saw were on these ships, the grand final would take place on the last leg of the voyage, and just about every one that was off watch would be crammed into the bar, a buffet would be laid on, as well as a river of free drink, it was often the climax to a good trip.


Thanks to Steve Hanson for the crew bar photo.


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