The Blue Funnel Line

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Away to Sea

In The Beginning: Life at sea as a Deckhand started off as a Deck Boy, and the criteria to join was simple; You had to be over sixteen, reasonably fit, be taller than five foot two, have perfect 20/20 vision, and a clean Police record. I’d fail miserably with most of them today!!! My first task was to fill in an application form, which duly arrived by post in a big envelope with a picture of a “Bluey” in the top left hand corner. I was lucky with this part of the proceedings, Mr, Tommy Williams, a native of Rhiw, and a retired Bosun from Blue Funnel, kindly filled in the form for me in August 1968, just a few days after my sixteenth birthday. Next hurdle was the interview, for this I had to travel to Birkenhead to Blue Funnel’s main office at Odyssey Works, which was situated next to the Blue Funnel loading berths, and here is where I got my first glimpse of a “Bluey” well three of them in fact, can’t remember their names, but all three were smartly painted up, and in various stages of loading and / or preparation for sea, I was hooked!!! All I had to do now, was get this interview out of the way, plus the six weeks in Blue Funnel's very own "Deck Boy" training school at Odyssey Works, learning the trade, rope work splicing, knots etc, and with a bit of luck I would be joining my first “Bluey” before Christmas. The interview, and the six-weeks at Birkenhead went without a hitch. Well I think they did anyway, there was an anxious moment or two at the interview, when after I filled in the aptitude test, I heard someone whisper, that at least he spelt his name correctly, and the Interviewer also commented later, this time to me personally, that there is no way that I could be sent to the shops to buy groceries, as I would never be able to work out if I had been given the right change or not!!!

Taken at Liverpool, December 3rd 1968, the day I officially became a Merchant Seaman

Mid December, a telegram reached Rhiw from “Odyssey” with clear instructions in it, about what I would be doing with myself for the next 38 years, it had a pre-paid return, and Elsie at the post office assured “Odyssey” that I would turn up on time. And on December 18th 1968, I traveled by bus (No 4X) from Caernarfon to Liverpool, stayed the night at the Seaman’s Mission, and next day, with all the crew assembled at Lime Street Station, we boarded a train for Hull, and by mid afternoon I was walking up the gangway of the “Hector” for my first trip to sea, and within an hour I was signing her ships articles, and became one of two "Deck Boys" for this coastal voyage.

Job Description!!!

Now before we go any further, lets break down my job description as a “Deck Boy”, the boy part of it is quite straight forward and easy to work out, to me a “Boy” is a male human, aged between a baby and 18, I don’t think many would disagree with me on that one, it was the “Deck” part of my “Job Title”, that would have come under closer scrutiny today, at any job description analysing convention. Now to be fair on ship owners, they had to have a constant flow of recruits to man their fleets, and deck boys were a vital part of that chain, Blue Funnel for example had over forty British crewed ships, with two deck boys on each of them, and given the fact that after nine months sea time (That’s actual time spent on a ship) deck boys were automatically promoted to Junior Ordinary Seaman, J.O.S. So with this information at hand, it was clear that nearly eighty boys had to be encouraged to leave home and go away to sea every year, and that’s just with one company, and in 1968 Britain had one of the largest Merchant fleets in the world, and literally thousands of “Deck Boys” had to be found every single year, and this chain could not be broken at any cost. Imagine for one moment if ship owners then were advertising for “Dishwashing Boys” “Toilet Cleaning Boys” or even worse “Toilet Unblocking Boys” every school leaver in the British Isles would have been filling in application forms for train driving jobs, there would have been ships laid up all over the place, and the whole economy would have just ground to a halt, and within a month Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister would have been stacking shelves at “Kwiks".

So for my first nine months at sea, and a £6 weekly wage, I was a “Peggy”. The word comes from “Peg Leg”. In days of old when a seamen would loose a leg, whether through battle or accident, they didn’t pension them off, as would be the case today, but they would be kept on, and because they couldn’t go aloft, they would just do the jobs inside the accommodation that no one else wanted to do, and I’m quite positive that, many a mutiny had been avoided over the years, because of a few chosen words “We’ll get the Peggy to do it!!!” I won’t go in to the gory detail, or what many of the jobs entailed, but suffice to say that it wasn’t the happiest time of my life, but like every Deckhand  that had come before me. (and many after) If one wanted a life at sea, this part of it had to be endured.

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First Ship; The steam ship Hector was over 10,000 tons, and had just arrived home from Australia for the last time, she and her three sister ships, had been replaced by container vessels, which even then were eroding into the conventional cargo ships niche in the world market. Hector was being discharged of a mixed cargo, but the bulk of it was wool and frozen lamb. We left Hull between Christmas and the New Year for Bremen, up the river Weser in Germany, and I was seasick for the first, and last time in my life, it’s one of the many things, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Bremen was unbelievably cold, and at least a foot of snow on the quay, there was a lot of ice floating down river as well, and our mooring lines were solid, and we tide up with great difficulty. Myself the other deck boy and the two steward boys brought in the New Year at the Crocodile Bar, down the red light district, and on the way back to the ship, we had a cracking snowball fight. One thing that stood out for me about the Continental countries, and still does, life still goes on there in appallingly bad weather, here in the U.K. if we get an inch of snow, the whole country comes to a standstill, and the “Bitching” and “Winging” goes on for months in the press afterwards. But over there they take it all in their stride. We left early in January for London and the King George the V dock. I wish now that I had a camera, because this dock was full of cargo ships, and mostly British, there were Blue Star, Port Line, Shaw Saville, Ellerman, and many other company ships, all a hive of activity. These docks as you well know have long gone, to be replaced by Yuppie flats, and empty office blocks. After a few days, we sailed, and I saw the Llyn Peninsula from out at sea for the first time, as we steamed past on our way to Glasgow, where we stayed for over a month converting her fridge hatches to deep tanks for the Malaysian latex trade. I paid off at Birkenhead on the 9th of February 1969. Hector started loading that day, for her first trip to the Far East.

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Second Ship; My stay at home was short and sweet, and by the 14th I was walking up the gangway of my second ship “Ixion” at Gladstone docks Liverpool, she was a sister to the Hector, and like her, had arrived home from “Oz” for the lastixion.jpg (65656 bytes) time. We sailed for Glasgow, where again like her sisters, was to have latex tanks fitted. On the 25th the Bosun told me to go and see the Mate, “but don’t worry” he said  “you haven’t done anything wrong, this time”. I was to leave the Ixion first thing in the morning, catch a bus at the dock gate, make my way to the shipping office in the middle of the City, sign off the ship, pick my discharge book up and go home. My jaw must have dropped, because when the Mate looked up from the telegram he was reading, the grin on his face gave the game away.

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First Deep-sea Ship; By ten o clock the next day I was heading south, and the only thing I can remember about the train journey home, was the harrowing tale from an elderly Farmer from Shropshire sitting next to me, he had been up to Scotland buying cattle, his entire herd had been wiped out with Foot & Mouth. This stay at home was even shorter, and on the 28th after just enough time to pick up some summer clobber I joined the “Perseus” at Birkenhead. Unlike the Ixion which I had just left at Glasgow, the Perseus was gleaming like a new pin, her black ship side was newly painted, her funnel gleaming, and even her pink “Boot Topping” next to the waterline was like brand new. All Blue Funnel boats that loaded at Birkenhead got this same treatment, and when they left the locks for the Far East they looked incredible, as anyone that saw them at the time would remember.

The Perseus had six hatches unlike the “H” boats seven, but she was the same tonnage, and also steam turbine. We sailed on March the 1st for the Far East, calling at Curacao in the Caribbean for bunkers, we berthed at Caracas Bay and on a jetty hardly wide enough to take a gangway. This place was miles from anywhere, and the only thing visible was a small round castle on top of the cliffs, I was told that it once belonged to Henry Morgan the pirate, and on it’s ramparts were two old canons pointing out to sea. A small creek near the berth had a shark net across its entrance, and it was deemed safe by the Mate for the boys to have a swim, that is until one of the lads swam out to the net, only to find a hole big enough to drive a “Double Decker Bus” through it!!! It was only a short run to the Panama, and passing through the canal was quite an experience in it’s self. We picked up a Pilot and a boat full of riggers, who did all the work, they tied the ship up to huge tractors called “Mules” which literally dragged Perseus into the lock, once the gates were closed, it would only take seconds to lift the ship up to the next level and the process would start all over again. Then we steamed the fifty odd miles to the Panama City end of the canal, and we would come down and into Panama Bay in the same way. Going through the canal was a day off for everyone, except the helmsmen. I think that Mates stopped giving jobs out in the Panama many years earlier, because there was so much to see, that nothing would have been done anyway. Once clear of the canal and away from the land we hardly saw a ship all the way across, you may find this hard to believe, but it's true, this shows us what a vast ocean the Pacific really is, when you consider what a major shipping lane it was, and still is, between the canal and Japan. We passed close to the Hawaiian Islands, not more than three or four miles at it’s closest, and we would listen to American country and western stations on the radio, but the reception would be lost as soon as the mountain peaks of Kauai Island fell below the horizon astern. And we could smell Japan days before we arrived, and the sea would turn a strange colour, a kind of muddy yellow, that’s how bad the pollution was. In Japan we called at three ports, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe, then through the Inland Sea, and up to Pusan in Korea, Chilung in Taiwan and on to Hong Kong.

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Henry Morgan's Castle Curacao

 

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Mid Atlantic 1969 Perseus

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Perseus in Curacao 1969

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Perseus Panama Canal 1969

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Loading in Pusan Korea 1969

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Hong Kong; What can possibly be written about this jewel of the East, that hasn’t been written before. It was just an unbelievable place back then, and I can’t think of anything bad to say about the place, it was just sheer bliss. We used to load cargo from sailing Junks, not the ones that prance around the harbour today, so that tourists can take snaps of, but proper working Junks that had come from China, and all the family would have come along for the ride. From grannies to tiny babies, the smallest children would have dog collars around their ankles, with a stout bit of rope attached, this was then tied to some anchoring point well inboard, so that the infant couldn’t wander too close to the side. Every meal time the Dockers, who had their own cooks on board, would stop and have their meal, they sat in a large circle on the deck, and if we walked past, which was every meal, we would be offered a bowl of what ever that happened to be on the menu that day, that’s why I described Hong Kong earlier as “Sheer Bliss” And the Chinese were the nicest people you could ever wish to meet, always smiling, generous to the point of embarrassment, and nothing was ever too much trouble for them. The only thing that clouds my memory of Hong Kong is this “Peggy” thing that kept cramping my style. One day it was my turn to clean the crew bar, but I used to leave it till after morningcrew_bar.jpg (61087 bytes) smoko. (Tea break) Anyway who came walking down the alleyway with the Mate but the big man himself Mr Julian Holt one of the owners, very smart he was as well, round gold rim glasses, Bowler hat and pin stripe suit, He only wanted to see the bar, (As the Perseus was the first in the fleet to have one) and I was the only one with a key. You can just imagine the rest, the place was a tip, with empty beer cans all over the place. I don’t think the mate talked to me again for the rest of the trips!!!!

The Perseus bar was built by the ships Carpenter, Dennis Cassidy, from Holyhead, I was on my first trip, and Dennis was on his last. He left the sea as he was getting married when he got home. The bar was named after him "The Cassbar" Dennis is on the left in the bar photo. Thanks to Steve Hanson for the photo.

A couple of days later we sailed for Singapore, and on to Port Swetenham (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city’s port, now called Port Kelang) where we loaded rubber bales, and filled our latex tanks. I was told several times when I was with Blue Funnel, that just one tank full of latex paid for the whole trip, and we had several of them on the Perseus, so maybe Julian Holt if not the Mate, did forgive me for that bad day of mine at Hong Kong!!! Then on to Colombo, Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was called) Here I saw the biggest Tugboat of my life, it was more than half the length of Perseus, an old steam thing, probably coal burning as well, with billowing clouds of black smoke coming from its tall rusty funnel which completely engulfed his tow. There we topped up the hatches with "Ty Phoo" tea chests, before we headed for home. Whilst on passage in the Indian Ocean, I remember seeing the peak of Reunion island, rising well above the high clouds from a deep blue ocean below, and even though the photograph of it that I took was lost a long time ago, the image is still vivid in my mind. A few days later we berthed at Cape Town in South Africa for bunkers, which used to take about eight to twelve hours to complete. And as soon as we left the second mate posted on the notice board, the day, and exact time we would be in the locks of the Gladstone dock Liverpool, and do you know what, he was bang on, and that was with two weeks of steaming ahead of us. We arrived at Liverpool, on the 28th of May, having circumnavigated the globe in just three months, and bang on time!!!

I was to do one more voyage on the Perseus as deck boy, and with the passage of time, the two trips have merged in the old gray matter department, the only difference that I can definitely remember are, on the second trip, when we were half way across the Pacific, the American first men on the moon, splashed down not far from us. And the other thing, we hit the tail end of a Typhoon off the Japanese coast, and this wrecked our make shift swimming pool, which was erected on the forward deck.

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By the end of 1969, with four ship stamps in my Discharge Book, two of them from Far East trips on the Perseus, and a cheap Hong Kong “Homeward Bound” tattoo on my arm, this was all behind me. I had now reached the dizzy heights of J.O.S, a whopping pay rise of £3 a week, and I was finally let loose around the decks. But that’s another story………!!!

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Many Thanks to;

Perseus photograph from Capt Gwilym Owen.

Hong Kong photograph from Mr Gwyn Jones.

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