The silver grey sea

In mid 1962, after two years at HMS Conway, I graduated. British India Steam Navigation Company, also known simply as BI, accepted me in August, as an indentured cadet (apprentice).



House flag and funnelflagnfunnel

Once I’d been accepted I applied for a British Seaman’s Card and a Discharge Book



I had the paperwork to prove that I was a sailor, but I’d never been to sea.

In mid September I was order to join the tanker, Ellenga, on the 12th October, which was moored in the River Fal, just off the town of Falmouth. The vessel had been in dry dock and was about to sail for the Persian Gulf for a cargo of oil. For someone who didn’t have any intention of going abroad I was doing a lousy job of staying in England.


This is Ellenga  37,420 dwt built 1960 – the picture was not taken in the River Fal

  On joining I became one of four cadets, and the other first trip cadet turned out to have been in my class at HMS Conway! Seeing each other helped us to fit in to our new life. Each cadet had his own cabin, and we all shared a Goanese steward who looked after our requirements. I didn’t have any idea before I joined that a lowly cadet would be entitled to the services of a steward, and we had a wine account!
Later I realised how lucky I was to join B.I.S.N.C. A Scotsman, William Mackinnon in 1856, had started the Company, and he set certain standards for the benefit of the officers and crew; conversely he expected a high standard of service from his employees. B.I.S.N.C. was a proud company and highly regarded by both officers and crew. Many of the crew had spent their whole life in the service of the Company, and they considered it a great honour to be in the Company’s employ.


British India Steam Nav Co’s first ship – 500 gt built 1856

We sailed early afternoon, and as a first trip cadet I was ordered to the bridge and told to watch and observe and not to get under anybody’s feet. This gave me the opportunity to see the British coastline sink lower and lower in to the silver-grey sea, while on our port side the haze of the French coast could just be seen on the horizon. Eventually, both the British and French coast disappeared, leaving us all alone in the Atlantic Ocean heading for the gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, and then on to the Suez Canal.


I was on the Ellenga for about nine months and all of the cadets worked alongside the crew, because hopefully one day we would be watch-keeping officers and we would be expected to know how many men would be required to do a certain job, and how long is would take.
malimIn addition, we were expected to learn Hindi, because that was the language that the crew understood. Many of the crew spoke some English, because they had worked for the Company all of their working lives, but as an officer one was expected to speak Hindi. I still have my Malim Sahib’s Hindustani a book,  which includes all nautical terms and words in common use both ashore and afloat, quoted from the front cover. (Malim Sahib = Ship’s officer).

I only wish I’d spent more time reading this book.

When I left home my father warned me about being sent for a ‘long weight’ or a ‘bucket full of steam’, so I was well aware of the tricks played by older hands.
Not long after joining I was told by the First Officer to get the Cassab from the forecastle store. Remembering Dad’s warning I made my way to the store and lay down on a coil of rope to have a doze. I figured I’d report back in about twenty minutes.
I dozed for a few minutes when suddenly the daylight from the doorway was blocked, and I rolled over to see why. It was the First Officer, and he was not at all happy with this first tripper. It was then that I was told in no uncertain terms that Cassab was Hindi for storekeeper, not some fictional item!

My life as a first trip cadet became a mixture of boredom and extreme interest. We were expected to learn the layout of all the deck pipes that carried the cargo oil, including the cross over values to switch oil from one tank to another and the position of the firefighting equipment.
On the other hand we had to take part in chipping paint off the rusted areas of the deck and bulkheads using a small hand held bronze hammer. We used bronze hammers because they were made from non-ferrous metal and would not cause a spark.

hammerThe blisters were free – a bronze chipping hammer circ 1962.

A spark on a tanker was the last thing anybody wanted, because it could ignite the gas that seeped on to the deck from the crude oil. We used to receive regular warnings of tankers in distress due to gas igniting. I don’t remember ever reading that the damaged vessel survived, the report usually reported that the tanker had blown up due to gas ignition. The reports made comforting reading for those of us chipping away.
Once the bare metal had been exposed we would paint it with red lead paint (in today’s world, H&S would have a fit). After the red lead had dried, we used grey undercoat followed by the white topcoat. A 30,000 ton ship has a lot of metal to chip by hand. Many of the later ships in which I sailed the cadets and crew used an electric chipper that had several heads spinning at high speed, so making it easier to clean a large area quickly, but those vessels were not covered in gas.
The bane of using the non-ferrous hammer was that it quickly became blunt and required more force to belt the rust away so as to expose the metal deck. It was hot sweaty work in a Persian Gulf summer.

In our free time we studied, via correspondence courses, for our examinations to become deck officers.

‘Ellenga’ took me to some strange places. Our first port of call was Port Said as we transited the Suez Canal. We didn’t stay long in Port Said, just a few hours while the authorities created a convoy to transit the canal. ellenga-suez-canThe canal was only wide enough for vessels to go one way, so a group of vessels will travel southbound to the Bitter Lakes, or a ‘cutting’ where the southbound convoy can stop and allow the northbound convoy to pass. While transiting the canal local ‘bum’ boats came along side, and those that had the company contract would hitch a ride through the canal; so that when we reached the ‘cutting’ they would carry our mooring lines ashore to bollards. If we passed the cutting we would anchor in the Bitter Lakes. Before the canal was built there were salt valleys in the area, which became flooded after the canal was opened; hence the name of Bitter Lakes.

Mixed with the crew of the ‘bum’ boats we often had trinket sellers and entertainers.

port_said_bum_boatsThe sellers sold souvenirs, mainly to passengers on passenger ships, rather than the crew of tankers. Regardless, once we knew these entertainers / sellers would be aboard we locked everything down – cabin doors, windows, doors to the accommodation and any loose pieces of equipment belonging to the ship. We never locked our cabins at sea, but we did when ‘strangers’ were on board.

During my first trip through the Canal I was introduced to the Gully Gully man, who was an outstanding conjuror. On the main main deck he had an endless supply of day old chicks, and he could make them appear and disappear, and we (cadets) were only a few feet away from him. We couldn’t see how his tricks were done. He made the chicks appear out of thin air or our shirt pockets; he was very good and would have been top act for a TV show. We paid him as one would pay a street entertainer and when he had covered all of the officers and crew, and considered that he had made enough for the day, he shinned over the side and dropped in to a small riverboat that was following us.

poolOnce we crossed in to the tropics the small pool that we had on the tanker came in to its own. It was the cadets’ job to pump out the water each day around 6.30 to 7.00 am and refill with fresh seawater. Many times we noticed flying fish flying-fish in the pool; they had ‘flown’ in during the night, perhaps attracted to the deck lights. We would catch the fish as the pool’s water level dropped and keep them in a bucket of sea water. Once we had them all we would present them to either the deck crew or the Chinese ‘Johns’. The Chinese ‘Johns’ where Hong Kong Chinese (Cantonese was their language) and they were either engine room fitters or the carpenter. We cadets had more to do with the carpenter than the engine room fitters.
I don’t know why the Chinese crew members were called ‘Johns’, but perhaps it was due to the first Chinese person to take our British nationality in 1805, was called John Anthony.
The link for John Anthony makes interesting reading.

Kuwait (see picture below) is an oil rich kingdom that has its main city named after the country, but we were not to berth at the main city of Kuwait, but Mina Al Ahmadi the oil port a few miles outside the city. kuwaitAt that time they were separate towns, but I think that Kuwait city has expanded so much as to combine Mina as an outer suburb today. Once along side (an oil jetty) we were told that we were not allowed outside of the refinery, and that the perimeters was guarded by armed guards, and a metal fence with barbed wire on the top.Loading 30,000 tons of oil would not take long; perhaps twelve to fifteen hours and the cadets had the job of supervising the loading under the officer of the day. If we had time we would be allowed to visit the ‘canteen’ within the confines of the refinery. This canteen was a corrugated metal building and was restricted to foreign crews only.
Since joining the tanker I’d learned how to smoke and drink beer (I was a fast learner). The cost of a carton of two hundred cigarettes on the ship was eleven shilling and four pence (tax free of course) BUT the cost of the same carton of cigarettes in the Mina ‘canteen’ was seven shillings and six pence, a huge saving considering that I was paid four pound two shilling and six pence a week, for an eighty four hour week – we were not paid overtime.
To say that the purser was upset when we returned to the ship with a number of cartons of cigarettes would be an understatement.

The cost of a bottle of gin on the ship was about eleven shillings, and in the Mina canteen it was seven shilling. Fortunately for the purser, I didn’t like gin.

Inside the canteen it was all plastic chairs and Formica tabletops, everything was utilitarian, because nobody expected sailors to have any taste or finesse. I suppose we didn’t do our selves any favours because most evenings there were fights between different nationalities. Some would say that this was the only way tanker men could let off steam. They were not allowed in to the city, they would not see their wives or girlfriends for months on end and every port they visited was miles away from the population due to the risk of explosion or fire from the cargo that they carried.

When a tanker man could no longer stand the smell of crude oil, or handle the working conditions, he would leave, and his mates would say he had ‘tankeritous’ as if it was a disease.

From my position as a first tripper, I accept that we worked for long hours and didn’t get Sunday off every week. It was the life style of being at sea at that time. For years after leaving the sea, if I suffered from a heavy cough I could taste the crude oil. Heaven knows what it has done to my lungs.

From Mina we sailed for five days to Little Aden, which was across the bay from Aden, in what today is known as the Yemen. In 1962 Aden and the surrounding area was still under British control. The Crater District of Aden town is situated in a crater of an ancient volcano. This area was the main business area and to walk around for a spot of sight seeing was exhausting in the heat. I doubt that Aden will ever become a ‘must see’ place on anyone’s bucket list, but then I thought the same thing about Dubai and Muscat, and loved visiting both places earlier this year.
My visit to Aden town was some months in the future when we anchored off Aden to change deck crews and boiler clean. Once again we ‘tankermen’ could not leave the refinery area of Little Aden.

After discharging our cargo it was five days sailing back to Mina during which time we cadets had the unenviable task of supervising the cleaning of all the used tanks – tank cleaning, what a joy, six hours on, six hours off, day after day. Two cadets per shift with four or five crew members, it was hard dirty work.

I am second from the left – Health & Safety, what’s that when tank cleaning in 1962. To be fair we were supposed to wear breathing apparatus when we were fifty feet (15.5 mtrs) down a crude oil tank, but it was virtually impossible to climb down the vertical ladders while wearing the equipment, and to work when at the bottom. In the heat of the Persian Gulf we wore as little as possible. We didn’t work down the tank for too long, because the fumes would make one light headed (similar feeling as if one was a little drunk) and one’s judgment could be affected, and we still had to climb the fifty-foot vertical ladder to the surface.
There was one tradition that we all enjoyed on a daily basis, which was the consumption of fresh lime juice at 11.00 am. limesThis tradition was an obvious a throwback to the avoidance of scurvy when at sea, due to the use of salt as a preservative, before refrigeration, and the lack of vitamin ‘C’ because they didn’t have the ability to store for long periods fresh fruit and vegetables. It was because of this use of lime juice, during sailing ship days, that American sailors nick named British sailors ‘Limeys.’

In addition to being a welcome break from work, it also quenched our thirst. The odd thing about this tradition was that we used the lime juice to help us consume two large salt tablets!
We had to be careful that we replaced the salt lost due to excessive sweating when tank cleaning. Ironic that we used yesterday’s preventative solution to help us prevent a related problem two hundred years later.











Author: 1944april

Traveled a great deal - about 80 countries - first foreign country I suppose was Wales, which was only 80 miles away from where I was born. Visited each Continent, except Antarctica, and I doubt that it is on my bucket list - too cold. I love Asian food, Australian wine & British beer & trying to entertain by writing.

2 thoughts on “The silver grey sea”

  1. You poor sod, I was warned by Mr Hutchinson (?) at Conway when he “arranged” my acceptance with Blue Funnel that he would never recommend tanker life. General cargo for me with days on end (weeks in Australia) in port.
    Anyway, my tales of seagoing life are on my web site , page 2 “Work history narrative”


  2. Only sailed on one tanker the rest were either tramps or ‘regular’ ships – after I left Ellenga all tankers in BI & P&O merged in Trident Tankers. Much preferred tramps . . . .:-o)


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