The Shanghai


Mike Massarelli

I was raised in Morfa Nefyn.  When I was a boy, I spent my time on the beach with the boatmen and the lifeboat, as many my age did, and worked for Wil Butcher, Wil Ty Mawr, delivering meat on a bike. Everyone had a small job at that time, for pocket money.  When I was 14, I had to decide what to do after leaving school.  I had two choices.  One was to become a butcher with Wil, and the other, to go to sea.  I thought for a long time about Wil’s offer and talked about it with my parents.  I liked working in the shop but one part of the job I couldn’t do was to go to a hut in a field, called Wheldon’s field – he had been a butcher too – and slaughter, hang and skin the lambs then throw the entrails into some stinking hole in the field that was full of flies.  No thank you.

The sea was my alternative and that’s where I went.  I sent away the application forms for training and I was accepted to go to the National Sea Training School in Sharpness, the Vindicatrix, where many have been, and started there 2 January 1961 for an eight-week course. I went by train from Pwllheli with a full kit bag and somehow got there.  It was an old ship with a camp nearby.  The training was on the ship and we slept in billets on the camp.  It was quite hard going there at times but at six each morning we were dressed in full gear, marching around the camp about four times before breakfast – which was porridge like mud and the rest of breakfast not worth mentioning.  We learnt everything concerning ships and ship work.  I knew some already as I had been to Captain Jones classes at the Central School in Pwllheli.  Captain Jones came from Trefor and he prepared boys who wanted to go to sea. I remember some of his sayings, one in particular that he was always quoting, “you’re the one that does the work on the deck, if you can’t nobody can.”  He was a good teacher.  Everything had to be done properly.

After finishing on the Vindicatrix, I had to go straight away to the Shipping Federation in Liverpool, without going home, to sign in and have a medical and then I went home on leave. It was nice being home after being at the Vindicatrix, good food for a change, though mam had sent me some food parcels while I was training.  I had been home about three weeks when the day came. Hywel Post came up with a telegram, for Meic to go to sea, he said.  I had to be at the Shipping Federation by ten on the morning of 18 April 1961, five days after my 16th birthday.  I went to Liverpool and stayed at a B & B at the Sailor’s home at 1/6 a night.  What an eye opener – it was a real dump.  It used to be a women’s jail and that’s what it still looked like.  I hid my money, watch and everything else in case they were stolen.  In the morning, the breakfast was burnt black pudding and a lump of bacon resembling a rock.  I went on to the Shipping Federation and signed on a ship named the Salmela, one of the Salvesen Company of Leith.  This was a whaling company but had started in general cargo with new and lovely ships.

I caught a bus from Pierhead to Canada Dock and on to the ship. I thought her a massive ship.  Finding my way to the mess room, I met the bosun.  He was a huge, strong man from the Shetlands, with hands like a shovel.  I couldn’t understand when he spoke, my English being poor enough, but with his Scottish accent, it was worse.  I had to see the chief officer to sign the Articles, which was a contract with the Company, to be on the ship.  The chief officer appeared, another massive man, covered in gold braid and I felt a like a tiny titch standing by him, like a schoolboy, thin and rather scared.  After this was over, a sailor showed me around the ship and told me there was another Welshman on board and that he spoke Welsh.  Brian Roberts was from Llangefni and a good soul – he looked after me. He was a JOS, Junior Ordinary Seaman, and had been sailing for about a year before getting this job. The Scottish crew decided that because Brian was older and taller than me, he would be called ‘Big Taff’ and I would be called ‘Wee Taff’.  We were able to share a cabin and I was glad to share with a Welshman

The ship consisted of 66 persons from the Captain to the deck boys and I was one of the three deck boys.  The way of things has always been that the deck boys on their first trip worked in the mess room.  We had to keep everything clean, set the tables, serve the sailors and wash the dishes – it was just like working in a café.  This wasn’t what I expected because I hoped to be working on deck, but every sailor’s been through this.  The title for anyone doing this work was Peggy but I was lucky because there were three deck boys and we were able to work two weeks in the mess room and a month on deck and that’s the rota we had throughout the trip.

We sailed from Liverpool for a three-month trip to Australia and back and I was looking forward to it.  We steamed down the river Mersey, dropped the Pilot at the Bar Light Vessel and away we went!  I was on the deck for the first month.  My first job was to put away the ropes, taking them down to the lower fore deck and fastening them on the racks. As we passed Holyhead, the orders were to ‘throw the dunnage over the wall’.  I understood nothing but followed the actions of the other sailors.  There were tons of wood on the deck which had been used as frames to hold the cargo in place but which were no longer of use.  These were 3 x 2 and 4 x 4 planks and everyone threw them over the side into the sea.  That’s when I realised what driftwood was.  I knew that driftwood came from ships but hadn’t realized that this was the source.  After a storm, everyone was on the beach collecting the wood and now, there I was throwing it over myself.  The people of Penllyn will be pleased with this, I thought.

Soon we were out in Open Ocean and the next stop would be the Suez Canal.  I never thought I’d be sea sick.  Oh my goodness, I was ill.  For a week and a half there was a swell on the beam of the ship and the ship rolled slowly day and night.  Being a new ship, there was also the smell of fresh paint.  I was very happy to see land after rounding the Bay of Biscay.  I was also beginning to long for home but when the sea calmed and we reached the shelter of land, I felt better.  We passed Gibraltar, into the Med and entered the Suez Canal.  I remember that moment because I took a photograph as we entered – I think I still have that photo. As it happened I was on look-out on the Monkey Island so I got a pretty good photo.  After entering the canal, we had to wait on the quay for a Pilot and our turn to go through. People were talking about the Gilli – Gilli man, and that we’d see him soon.  Not knowing who this was, I asked Brian who replied that I’d soon find out.  Then this little old man appeared, dressed in a cap and a long mackintosh, just as though it were the middle of winter though it was very hot.  This was the Gilli – Gilli man.  He performed tricks with ropes, with eggs and with a small bird, all for money or whatever he was given. He was quite interesting.  The boys gave him money or a bar of soap or such things.  He was delighted.  I imaging he was very poor and was glad of anything.  The bum-boats came alongside the other side of the ship.  These were small boats selling things like T shirts and shorts.  A bucket would be lowered down to them with payment and the goodies were placed in the bucket and hauled up.  I bought a T shirt, shorts, a sunhat and flip flops for two bars of Sunlight soap and a Lifebuoy soap and a little money.  This was my first purchase abroad. I’d never seen flip flops before but since everyone else was buying them, I thought that I had better buy some too.  The soaps had been given to us by the Company, two blocks of each a week, probably our rations for washing our clothes.  We’d cut these blocks to small sizes and scrub our jeans on the deck.  I wore my flip-flops immediately but within two hours, my feet were suffering!  My toes were burnt from the sun and the piece that went between the toes had rubbed the skin to raw flesh, not helped by the heat from the metal surface of the deck.  I was soon back to socks and shoes.

It took some hours to go through Suez Canal.  I can remember a few things, like seeing a group of mourners carrying a body in a bag with a load of wailing people following behind. Another memory is seeing five or six ships, two of them British, anchored in a kind of a pool and I was told that they had a skeleton crew, who were flown in and out on a four month rota.  They had been there since the Suez War in the 1950s and weren’t able to leave, having been bombed or something.  One or two were half submerged.  All had been hauled to one side to keep the route clear for other ships. I’ve heard no more about this state of affairs.

We continued on through to the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean and to Australia.  I wasn’t sick again.  Melbourne was the first port of call and I was looking forward to it.  A couple of days before arriving, we began to prepare the derricks by rigging them.  These are cranes and the main one was the Jumbo, for heavy lifting. There was a lot of work rigging the Jumbo, a lot of work hauling things back & forth but everyone understood their work and I learnt by watching them. We reached Melbourne and I couldn’t believe I was there, so far from Wales.  After docking, we opened the hatches.  I understood that this was the first time that these modern hatches, called Macgregor Hatch Covers, were used. You only had to hook them on the winch and haul them open then they rolled like a concertina to one end of the hold. They were very handy, not like some of the ships I saw later with three sheets of thick, stiff canvas with planks under them and wooden wedges around the hatches – they were heavy and difficult to handle.

The following day, we had half a day off.  We all went to town and I thought that we would go for a walk and see some places but I was disappointed.  After about half an hour of walking, everyone went into a pub.  It was one o’clock in the afternoon and I refused to go in.  I couldn’t. I was only a young boy of 16 from Morfa Nefyn and had never been inside a pub.  I sat outside on the step and sometimes one would come out to check on me and to try to persuade me to join them but no way, I wouldn’t.  After about four hours they came out and we all went back to the ship.  After that, I went off with someone else, someone who liked to go around and see new things.

After going up the coast to Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville and Wallaroo, we went on to Cairns and then took about one day to sail to a small island Nauru in the Pacific Ocean to collect phosphates and deliver them to Cairns.  When we reached Australia, I saw a ship alongside, the Reubens, which I was sure was the ship my brother Stanley, was on. I went over and there he was. It was good to see him as I hadn’t seen him for a long time.  His ship was homeward bound while I was outward bound.  It wouldn’t be long now before we too would be heading for home.

Most of the cargo was offloaded in Australia, with the rest to go to the Philippines.  We were due to go to Manila, load up in the Philippines then back to Australia before going home.  In the Philippines, we had to clear all our cargo, everyone down to clean the holds and then sailing next morning for Japan!  No one could understand why we were going to Japan!  Japan wasn’t on the list – we were supposed to go back to Australia, then home.  So, we were going to Japan, nice, I didn’t mind.

We reached Osaka, Japan, at nighttime, docking about 5 o’clock. Nothing much to do that night, we ate and went to our cabins.  Waking the next morning, we went midships for breakfast.  On the deck of the ship were hundreds of Japanese.  They were everywhere, on the funnel, on top of the masts, on stages over the sides, all over all the decks.  ‘What on earth’s going on?’ I said out loud to myself.  It looked as though a war had broken out.

“What was that, Wee Taff?” one of the boys asked me.  “Well, what’s happening?” I asked him.  “I don’t know,” he replied, “but there’s something fishy going on here.”

The Bosun came along the deck, wild as fire, waving his arms in the air, his face red with anger and shouting, “We’ve been shanghaied lads!  The bastards have shanghaied us!  I’ve got three wee bairns at home and we’ve been trapped on this ship!”  He was wild with anger.

I didn’t really understand so asked one of the boys what he thought.  “Huh,” he said, “It means we’ve been signed on by an American company for a two year contract to run between Japan and the States and the Philippines and many other places as well, so we’ll be on this ship for two years without going home.”   “Oh, good God,” I said.  Well, what a disappointment, I almost wept with waves of longing for home.  Not to be going home for two years, TWO YEARS!  We all looked around to see what the Japanese were doing.  They had changed the ship’s colours overnight, they’d painted ‘United States Lines’ in white on both sides of the ship from bow to stern, changed the colours of the funnel, the masts, the housing, all had changed and there we were, trapped.  Everyone felt depressed, so many had family back home –“but two years away”, we were all thinking.

We could do nothing about it. In those days, the rule was that when you signed on a ship for a deep sea voyage, the contract was for two years but usually, the regular runs lasted only about three to four months.  This situation hadn’t happened before and it had to happen to me!  Another point, if a ship didn’t get cargo to go home within the two years, the shipping company had to fly us home from any country in the world.  But this two years is a long way off. 

Someone noticed the chief officer going into the mess room, carrying a piece of paper.  We all followed him and there it was, it was official, it was on the notice board – ‘Chartered by the United States Lines of America’.  Everyone was silent, saying nothing.  That was a very painful moment.  Brian and I went down to the cabin to talk about it.  We were missing home but we had to accept the situation since we couldn’t change the way things were.  The Bosun had gone ashore with others, doubtless to drown his sorrows.  The Captain didn’t blame them – more than likely. He was probably doing the same thing with the Mate.

Some days later, everyone was slowly beginning to accept the bad news but we were all silent. Things were not the same.  Dockers were loading the ship, men and women working in the holds day and night, then going from port to port until the ship was full, places like Tokyo, Fujisawa, Kobe, Nagoya, Shimizu, the last port being Yokohama.  The day before we sailed for America, we were given a half day off.  We bought radios, tape recorders, tapes and records, anything for entertainment as we had a long time to spend at sea.  We all went to a pub, including me – my first time – I had no problem this time, not like in Melbourne.  So there, in Yokohama, I had my first alcoholic drink, not much, just one bottle but the others had a good spree.  When we went in, I heard the barman ask, “Are you John Limes?”

“Yes,” we replied.  *20 yen a bottle,” he declared.  1000 yen was the equivalent of one pound at that time and John Lime was the name they gave the British.  A load of American sailors came in, throwing around their dollars.  I noticed they had thick wads of money in their hands.  They were charged 3000 yen a bottle, for the same beer that we were having.  I asked the barman why that was and he explained that they hated the Americans for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.  They also hated the way the Americans flashed their dollars and that he was getting as much out of them. It would take years but eventually Japan would be ahead of them and then would kick them out.  The Americans were happy enough to pay the price, they didn’t care as they had plenty of money, not like old John Lime.

The day came to leave Japan; the ship was fully loaded going to America.  It was ‘batten down the hatches, clear the decks’ and away we sailed early morning.  Portland was the first stop followed by San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and down to a couple of places in Mexico, San Salvador then through Panama up the Gulf of Mexico to San Antonio, New Orleans, Huston, Corpus Christi and on to Jacksonville, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston.  On then to Canada, Montreal and Quebec then worked our way down through Panama and on again to Japan.  After unloading in Japan, we went off to Hong Kong and the Philippines.  Loading again and back to Japan and on to America and that’s how it was for the rest of the trip, backwards and forwards.  Twenty three times we went through the Panama canal. It was three weeks sailing between Japan and America, so I was glad that I had bought the radio.

It was quite a trip, through some good weather but we had some severe storms too. One trip in particular I remember well when there was a huge storm.  We were on the way from Japan to America when we had a radio message that we were heading for a typhoon. We were too late to turn back.  All the captain could do was to alter course to try to go around it.  We were due to meet it in 12 hours but we had little time for it met us in 6 hours.  We didn’t get caught right in the middle of it but we were well hit by it. It damaged the portside lifeboats, the portside superstructure, the gangways; all the bulwarks were ripped, looking as if they had been bent. The ship looked as though it had been bombed.  We couldn’t steam ahead, just keep the ship head on to the sea. The captain slowed down the engines so that we could keep the ship head on to the waves – and they were massive waves.  We looked up at them as though we were looking up at a mountain.  I still don’t know how we survived that.  When we were going up one big wave and down to the trough, the next wave was breaking over us and pushing the ship down into the sea.  We could feel the ship vibrating itself back up.  I don’t know how the ship managed to come back up.  If she had broken then, we’d have been finished. There would have been no chance to get to a lifeboat then, that would have been the end.  The only thing the boys said was, “Don’t run for the lifeboat Wee Taff, go for the inflatable boat on top of the poop deck.”  There might have been a chance, but no, I don’t think so.

Well, we came through it and when we reached America, the welders came on to repair the damage and to repaint.

After about eight or nine weeks, I had to go for my steering certificate, that is, my training to steer a ship.  I had to do five hours steering under supervision then a minimum of ten hours of steering on my own. During the solo ten hours, the mate gave me all sorts of orders, to alter course, return to course, checked me on my compass work, on degrees and all sorts of tests but then I had done it and was promoted to JOS – Junior Ordinary Seaman.  There was a little more pay, not a lot but it was something. 

I thought of home sometimes and missed it and tired of the voyage, going from one place to another and having been on the ship for a year by now.  During the storms, everyone thought more about home. We could do nothing but sit and ride them out. The arrangement, during all storms, was to put down the dead lights on all cabin portholes, close all storm doors.  Without this, there would be a lot of damage, all the cabins being aft of the wheelhouse in the centre of the ship. And the mess room too, where we ate, the most important place!  We had to go through the propeller shafts tunnel which was at the bottom of the ship, a small tunnel about four feet square with a large shaft turning in the middle of it, the one that turned the propeller from the engine. In some places along that tunnel, we had to go on all fours to avoid being hit and there was a small handrail here and there to help avoid the shaft.  That’s the way we had to go as it was too dangerous to go along the decks.

Earlier on the voyage we crossed the Equator.  The sailors got hold of us, the three deck boys, all of us on our first trip.  They stripped us of our clothes and painted us all over with grease.  I didn’t understand what was going on and was scared but then I learnt that it was the custom for someone who crossed the Equator for the first time, to be dipped in tar.  Thank goodness that there was no tar on this ship.  I had a lot of trouble getting the grease off afterwards.

After about twenty months on the voyage, everyone was expecting some good news, being in Japan now for the about the tenth time.  We hoped to hear some news of what was to happen but no news came and back we went for America, offloading cargo along the coast before reaching Panama, everyone on edge, waiting. After going through the canal, we went to New Orleans, Miami, Jacksonville, Savannah and then the ship was empty.  By now, everyone was really on edge.

The good news arrived.  We were to call at New York and Boston then to go up to Canada, Halifax, St. Johns, Montreal – then London and home!  We were all absolutely overjoyed at the thought that we would be home mid March, everyone was in a good mood and looking forward so much.  We began to pack, couldn’t wait.  We had all bought suitcases in Japan, four or five suitcases each because the ship had been home for us for two years and we had collected a lot of things.  I still don’t know how we managed to accumulate so much.

From Canada now heading for the U K – back to Britain at last, the end of the trip, a light at the end of the tunnel.  Seeing the coast of Britain, I was so happy.  The start of the trip back home was good but then we had three days of bad storms, keeping the bow to the sea as before, so that lost us some three days.  After that, there was nothing to hold us back, full steam ahead!  We reached the London docks about two in the afternoon – bad news, we had to stay there overnight before we could have a berth, a ship ahead of us having been delayed.  It was a long night but one more night made little difference after being away for so long.  We docked at last and all the sailors declaring that this would be the first and last time they’d go on a Salvesen ship.  Later I decided the same thing – I didn’t want to be caught like that again.

When the pay off time came, the chief mate said that it was a rare thing to go onto a ship as a deck boy and leave a Senior Ordinary Seaman!  I went to the Officers’ Mess for the money, the salary for the trip.  It was quite a lot.  I got £391.05p in cash to take home.  I saw that I had 2,355 hours of overtime in the two years on top of the normal 56 hours weekly.  I didn’t have a bank account in those days so I put the money in my shoes and hoped I wouldn’t lose them on the journey home.  Well, that was it, the end of the trip.  After the training, I joined this ship 11 April 1961 and finished 21 March 1963.  I was 15½ going to train and I returned one week before my 18th birthday.  That was some trip – a real Shanghai!

Brian and I took a taxi from the ship to the station, carrying four or five suitcases each.  We’d had to leave much on the ship, couldn’t carry any more – the cleaners would have a field day!  We reached Bangor some time at night and Brian’s father was there to meet us.  He had a van to carry all the luggage.  I stayed at Brian’s house in Llangefni that night and the next day, Brian’s father took me and all my suitcases home – it would have been impossible to travel any other way.

I didn’t know what to think or to feel, on reaching Morfa Nefyn.  We landed outside the house, my mother was waiting for me, and my father.  I could see them looking out of the window so in we went with my luggage. 

“Hello mam, I’ve come back.”

“Do you know,” she said, “if I didn’t know that you were coming home, I wouldn’t have known you, you’ve changed so much.  You’ve grown, you’ve altered.”

"I was just a boy going away to sea two years ago"

I have to say that the Salmela was a good ship with a great crew, all helping one another and we had wonderful food.  It could have been worse, it could have been a poor ship with bad food, like a ship I was on later.  I’ll mention the Pardo of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company.  We had a ten week trip to South America.  What a ship!  My cabin was at the bottom of the ship, right at the back and above the propeller.  Eight bunks had been squeezed in and the ceiling of the cabin was up in the poop deck, about twenty feet high.  It was a narrow cabin, with metal lockers like army ones, one each and they weren’t big enough to hold a broom.  Next door to the cabin was the steering gear, an old steam one, which went chu chu chu chu each time the wheel was turned.  That was noisy!  It was hard to get used to it and it was hot with no way of cooling.  And the food – terrible food, like rations.  There was no fresh milk. We were given canned milk, sweetened condensed, shaky-shaky we called it, half a can each weekly which we mixed with two or three pints of water to make it last and one can of condensed Ideal milk – connie-onnie we called that and again watered it down.  There was no sugar to be had, no coffee.  There was tea but it was like mint sauce leaves, completely tasteless.  Food – the soup was like water no matter what flavour it was supposed to be – rubbish.  The food was awful but we had to eat it or starve.  There was no food to be had when we reached South America either – that was a dump of a place.  When the trip was over and we were sailing up the Mersey, the mate asked if we would go on another trip on this ship – no way, said everybody.  He couldn’t understand why not!

When the trip on the Salmela ended, one thing I found odd.  After everyone had been paid off, all went, without saying goodbye to anyone.  Having spent two years living together, I found that strange.  During the voyage, some had harmed themselves so that they would be flown home, not many, only three or four – one was so desperate to go home that he had dropped a shackle on his foot so as to be paid off in the States.  One was genuinely ill and another broke his arm.  I understand that this was done regularly in the old days when the ships were away for a long time, but I could never do such a thing.

After some three weeks home on leave, Brian and I went to Scotland to see some of the boys. Brian drove us to Aberdeen, Peterhead and Edinburgh. It was nice to see them but I didn’t see any of them after that.  I didn’t see Brian either.  It’s a strange thing how people move from place to place, moving on and forgetting about where they’ve been.

 List of ports that the Salmela called at on the voyage.

Other vessels that Mike sailed on.


Many thanks to Mike for all the photographs, and for sharing this fantastic account with us. And a very special thanks to Mrs Gwerfyl Gregory, who painstakingly transcribed the story for Diolch yn fawr iawn.


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