Ship ahoy!

hmsconway

1 Corinthians 16 : 13 – stand firm in the faith an apt moto.

In a number of my blogs I have mentioned HMS Conway Nautical College, and some of my readers have asked various questions, so I thought I’d do a more detailed blog of ‘The Conway’.

In the mid 1800’s Great Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world – in fact the British fleet was larger than the combined fleets of all other nations.

Because the British requirement was so large it caused problems of lack of seamen and officers. The British Government at that time produced a report in 1848 because safety standards were so low. At that time there wasn’t any formal training of officers in the merchant navy.

The Government passed the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850, which established a system of examining masters and mates who wished to sail deep sea. A further Act of 1854 set the system that British vessels had to have certificated officers, who had been properly trained, in command.

Liverpool ship owners realised that they needed to set up a system to train officers for their own future. They created the Mercantile Marine Services Association and one their first acts was to create a school for the training of boys to become officers in the merchant navy.

The MMSA (as it became known) asked the Government for help in the form of a Royal Navy ship to use as a training school. The vessel offered was quite large and would have cost too much money to refit as a school, so they asked for a smaller ship, and the Government offered a sixth rate frigate, called HMS Conway. She was 26 guns and 652 tons.

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HMS Conway 1859

She was fitted out in Devonport, which is in the UK, and sailed to the River Mersey to be moored off Rock Ferry, on the Birkenhead side of the Mersey, which is across the river from Liverpool.

The school opened for ‘business’ on the 1st August, 1859, after an extensive conversion from a man of war to a ‘school’ ship.

The Conway was so successful that by 1861 they had outgrown the sixth rate ship, and a larger vessel was obtained from the Government, HMS Winchester, which was a fourth rate frigate. She  was renamed Conway and the ‘old’ Conway was renamed Winchester.

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HMS Conway – nee Winchester 1861

In 1864 Queen Victoria recognised Conway’s success in training boys for the merchant navy by granting £50 a year to be distributed in prizes and a gold medal. In the Conway Chapel in Birkenhead there is a medal board with the names of every winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal. Later the medal became known as the King’s medal and when I was on the Conway 1960 – 62 it had reverted to the Queen’s medal.

By 1875, due to Royal patronage, they’d outgrown the old ‘Winchester’, so they had to find a larger ship – this time the Government offered HMS Nile, a second rate frigate. She was, 2,622 tons and designed for a crew of 850.

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HMS Conway – nee Nile 1875

The conversion took over a year, but by 1876 HMS Nile had become HMS Conway and the old ‘Winchester’ sailed away as HMS Nile.

A thirteen year old boy attending HMS Conway for two years and passing the examinations at the end of his time, would only have to do three instead of four years as an apprentice sailing deep sea. Shipping companies realised the value of hiring a Conway cadet, because they used to donate various prizes (binoculars, sextant, tankard, books, gold / silver watches) for those cadets who achieved the best passes in various subjects.

During the air raids in WW2 the cadets had a ring side seat of the bombing of Liverpool and Birkenhead. The Germans used to drop magnetic mines by parachute in to the river so as to explode when close to a ship. One fell close to the Conway and only the drag of the parachute kept it from hitting the ship. Although much of her was wood she still had a lot of metal on and around her. It was this incident that caused the authorities to decide to move the Conway to a less exposed site.

From a personal aspect during one of the raids my grand mother’s home, which was not far from Birkenhead docks, was hit, and in the language of the time ‘they were bombed out,’ which meant that they had lost their home. Fortunately they were in an air raid shelter when the bomb hit the house.

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The above photograph is of the local underground railway station near my grandmother’s home, which was bombed.

At that time my mother was living with my father’s mother, who was a widow, while Dad was at sea in the Royal Navy. The house was near Cammell Lairds ship yard, and they were fortunate that their house was spared amongst so many lost in the area. Much of the bombing was against the ship yard.

HMS Conway was moved to a safe location off Bangor in North Wales, where she stayed from 1941 to 1949.

The demand for qualified sea going staff in both the Royal and Merchant navy had cause an over crowding problem on the Conway so she was moved to a mooring in the Menai Straits off the Marquis of Anglesey’s home Plas Newydd. The Marquis had agreed that certain land based facilities could be created on his estate, which eased the over crowded ship board life.

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By 1953 it was evident that HMS Conway required a Dry Dock – the last one being in 1937 and she was after all 114 years old having been launched in 1839 as HMS Nile, and there were very few wooden walled ships left.

Arrangements were made and tugs allocated to take the old ship through the Swillies, which is a stretch of water between the two bridges that link the mainland of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey. It is a dangerous area with the northern tide meeting the same tide from the south. Ther area has shoals, sandbanks and rocks.

The journey started well, but during the time she was in the Swillies the tide became too strong for the tugs, and the Conway ran aground on a rock shelf.

conway_agroundAs the tide dropped it was realised that only the forward part was on the rock shelf and the stern area was overhanging the end of the rock – she broke her back.

brokenbackYou can see how the line of the ship has changed

framedTaken from ashore at the bow some time later.

Only a handful of cadets where onboard when the loss occurred, because it was during a holiday period.

Some fast thinking had to be done to arrange accommodation for nearly 200 cadets when they returned from leave and realised that the ship was a total loss. The Marquis of Anglesey was very generous in allowing the Captain of the Conway to take over some fields and build a tent ‘town’ to accommodate everyone. The Marquis also promised land on which a new college could be built, after everything had been sorted out.

When the cadets returned for the winter term they found that the tents had been removed and barrack style camp had been created.

conway_camp_aerialThe large house at the top of the picture is Plas Newydd – the Marquis’ home.

Each hut could sleep twenty cadets with a small bedroom at one end for the cadet captain.

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I took this photograph in 1961 of the hut (as it was called) where I lived at the time and designated Starboard Main. The hut had one toilet, and outside was a small drinking fountain. But for showers and other facilities we had to run quite a long way. We were never allowed to walk, unless we were in a squad. See below.

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I took this photograph in 2004 from approximately the position of my hut to the building that contained the showers, and you can see how far it was for us to run at 6.00 am on a winter’s morning in North Wales. It was COLD!

In 1956 a company from South Wales was given the task of dismantling the ship. On the night of the 30th October the ship caught fire. It was built out of wood that had been polished and scrubbed for over a hundred years with wax and polish – the fire grew and grew. The local fire brigade fought it for three hours, and it looked like they where winning until the wind changed and they had to retreat. The fire burned for eighteen hours and could be seen for miles.

It was August 1961 when the foundation stone was laid for the new college. One hundred and two years to the day that the first cadet had joined Conway in the Mersey.
In 1963 as the cadets left for summer leave they didn’t know what to expect on their return. None could remember the move from the tents to the camp area and now the camp would be demolished during leave and the next chapter for HMS Conway was in the new buildings.

new-collegeThe official opening was performed by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on the  6th May 1964.

Although I wasn’t at the opening I have read one comment made by the Duke during his opening presentation – ‘Education is not a system for accumulating facts, it must prepare people to meet the responsibilities and challenges of civilised life.’

A handy comment in today’s shattered world of terrorism.

By 1973 the world had changed and British shipping was in decline – partly due to containerisation.

The demand for cadets had fallen and the cost of maintaining the college grew and grew. Cheshire County Council took over management and eventually the shipping industry changed and some shipping companies wanted to train their own cadets as long as they had ‘A’ level passes in national exams. This drained the application numbers from Conway, because if a cadet was taken by a shipping company he was paid, whereas his family had to pay for him to attend Conway.

I left the sea because it was believed that one large container ship would put six standard ships out of work – and the thought of competing for jobs against more experienced merchant navy officers helped me make up my mind to leave the sea. The fact that I wanted to marry also helped me to make this decision – so I joined an airline.

During its life of 115 years HMS Conway trained over 11,000 cadets – and Britain from having a merchant fleet larger than the combined fleets of all other nations, has now the tenth largest fleet in the world. (as at 2006).

They used to say ‘and you’ll find on the bridge a Conway boy . . . . ‘ not many left – a few lines below of the Conway song called – ‘Carry On’

From every distant sea and shore,
You’ll hear the cry
“Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
And you’ll find on the bridge a Conway Boy,

If you wish to know more you can buy the latest history of   HMS Conway from Amazon. A very good read by Alfie Windsor ex Conway 1964 – 68.

The picture at the top of my blog shows part of the Swellies and one of the bridges linking mainland Wales and Anglesey.

An uninvited guest of Franco

For whom the bell tolls – it tolled for me on this holiday –

franco In 1961 I was invited once again to accompany my friendly schoolmaster for another trip to Europe, but this time it would be southern Spain, staying in a hotel rather than YHA. We’d moved up market. I was also asked if a friend of mine would like to join us because the group would be larger than the YHA group the previous year.

We used the train service this time from Merseyside to Dover, and had our fill of the smell of steam and blackened smuts suspended in the clouds of smoke from the engine.

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A ferry carried us to Calais, in France, where we boarded a coach to take us to Sitges, in Spain.

The coach crawled through the late evening town traffic until it came to the motorway (freeway) at which point the driver flawed the accelerator and we were truly on our way to sunny Spain.
The excitement of the trip began to fade as evening became night, and the chatter of the students drifted in to sleep. I tried to sleep, but the movement of the coach and the smell of the plastic seating, caused my travel sickness to return.

The occasional whisper as a student pushed another’s head from flopping on their shoulder would interrupt the steady throb of the coach’s engine. Every couple of hours the driver would take a rest by calling his colleague who sat close to him. During the change over process the coach didn’t stop. The current driver would stand gripping the steering wheel, while keeping his foot on the accelerator; his mate would slide in behind him, place his foot on the accelerator, and grab the steering wheel. The first driver would then move away to rest and sleep. It was a sight to see, and very smoothly accomplished so that the speed (about 100 km / hour or 60 mph) didn’t alter. I’m not sure how many of the students watched this change over; perhaps it is just as well that many, if not all, slept through the process. Seat belts were still in the future.

The single-decker coach was modern for the 1960’s, but nothing like today’s intercity coaches. The only time we stopped during our road trip to Spain was for toilet breaks. If anyone required a toilet the driver would be warned and the passenger would have to ‘hold on’ until we reached the appropriate place. On stopping everyone was told to leave the coach, even if they didn’t wish to visit the toilet, and walk around the car park area. It seemed a good idea at the time, but then we had the problem of counting everyone back on board in the half-light of petrol stations or a café’s poor outside lighting. Our schoolteacher leader would count everyone at least twice, and then get me to count the students again, once all were onboard. The last thing he wanted was to write to a parent and tell them that their daughter was lost somewhere in France.

The total distance from Calais to Sitges is about 1350 kms (865 miles) and from memory it took us around fifteen hours.
It was not until lunchtime that we arrived in Sitges only to be told that the hotel did not have enough rooms for all of us, and they (the hotel) suggested that two ‘guests’ sleep in a small apartment near the hotel. Our leader asked if I, and the other ‘helper’ (who was my friend) would mind sleeping in the apartment, because he wanted to keep an eye on the younger members of our group, in the hotel. We were quite happy to agree because the whole idea was a new adventure for us.

Sitges is located on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, about thirty-five kilometres south of Barcelona. It was a very pleasant town with a church on a headland that jutted out in to sea. The beach was very clean, and not too crowded. I have no idea what the place looks like today, but I have happy memories of Sitges.

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The famous Sitges church Sant Bartolomeu I Santa Tecla in the background

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& perhaps a walk along the beachfront.

Trips were arranged to various places of interest including a bullfight at Tarragona, sixty-five kilometres south of Sitges. I believe the authorities have renovated the old bullring and now it is used for Castells, or the building of human towers – see the picture below. Also music festivals and sporting events are held there today. I don’t know if it is still used for bullfights. In a way I am glad that I saw the bullfight, because the experience put me off bullfighting for the rest of my life. At the time of my visit to the bullring everything was new and exciting, including the next experience.

bull-ring

While in Sitges it rained heavily one night, the first time in months. The day after the rain my friend and I met a group of semi professional boxers from Liverpool. They had camped in a dry riverbed, and all was well for a few days, until it rained and the river washed away or damaged much of their equipment. They had ridden to Sitges on their motorbikes.

We recognise some of their names, and once they found out that we were from Merseyside (Birkenhead is across the river from Liverpool) they asked a favour of us. They wanted to ‘camp’ in our apartment for a couple of nights while they sorted out their gear and fixed their motorbikes. We had plenty of space and thought that it wouldn’t be a problem, so they moved in to the apartment.

The boxers went out on the first evening and my friend and I had our meal in the hotel with our group of students, and returned to the apartment to go to bed, which was around 10.00 pm. The sun, sand and seawater had tired us out.

The next thing I knew was when a rifle butt struck me in the back. From a deep sleep I was brought suddenly awake and tried to protect myself. A soldier, or militia, in a green uniform, was indicating that we should get up and get dressed. We did, very quickly. While getting dressed I could see another soldier looking over our balcony in to the street. Before we went to bed we had two potted palms, one each end of the balcony. It appears that our boxer friends had returned from a night out and decided to have a pot plant competition (the pot plants were very heavy) to see how far they could be thrown from the balcony.

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This picture illustrates the small balconies and the narrow Sitges streets.

The soldier pushed my friend and I down to the street and motioned for us to pick up a broom each and to start sweeping the street.

soldier      sweep

He had a rifle and I had a broom – I began to sweep the street. The boxers had been ‘corralled’ along a wall by additional armed guards.

It appears that after throwing the potted plants the local neighbours called the police, who, when they arrived met the drunken belligerent ‘boxers’. Not wishing to get in to a fight, the police called the army, (General Franco was still in charge of Spain). Shortly afterwards my friend and I were sweeping the street.

The army tried to get the boxers to start sweeping up their mess, but when a guard pushed one of the boxers; the boxer threw a punch and flattened the guard. That was it!

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We were quickly ordered in to a line and surrounded by armed troops and marched off to the local police station. The boxers treated the whole thing as a joke and started to sing ‘Working on a chain gang’ and other prison type songs. My friend and I were not at all happy at being included with our drunken acquaintances.

At the police station I asked to see the British consul, but the Spanish police were not having anything to do with consuls, particularly a British consul. At that time the Spanish government was demanding that the British return Gibraltar to Spain, so the police were quite happy to lock us all in a small cell below street level. The cell was square shaped with three solid concrete walls, the outer wall having bars high up over a small window, where we could just see the pavement if we held on to the bars and pulled ourselves up to check the street outside. The fourth wall was a wall of iron bars, which also contained the door. The cell was not large enough for us all to sit down (nothing to sit on anyway) and the toilet was a hole in the corner of the cell on the outside wall, without the usual cistern, pan and seat.
The two side concrete walls had graffiti scrawled across them, and some Spanish words, which I couldn’t understand. It was a depressing place and it smelled of urine and other waste products. We organised ourselves to be as far away from the toilet area as possible. My friend and I were left in the corner near the meeting of the iron barred door and the concrete wall.

The boxers kept singing, for what seemed hours, until they eventually stopped as they slowly sobered, and realised where they were.

On the floor we used a large oblong piece of bread which was used as a football, and tapped from one to another. Not that we could kick it far, considering the smallness of the cell, but it did help to pass the time. I tried to sleep standing up and then I tried as I squatted down, but this brought too much pressure on my knees forcing me to stand again.

The grey light of dawn brought some relief, because in the cellblock there was only one small light bulb that glowed by the main door into the underground cell area. Perhaps we could make someone understand our need for the British Consol in daylight.

gaollAs daylight strengthened the outer door of the cellblock was unlocked and a guard entered. We asked for food and something to drink. The guard pointed to our ‘football’ and bent down to turn on a water tap over the toilet. Leaning over the toilet we were just able to catch a single handful of water. The other hand we used to balance ourselves away from the open toilet hole. The cold water was welcome, but I was concerned that it might not be normal drinking water so most of mine went on washing my face to try and get rid of the tiredness.

The now sober boxers, asked to see the officer in charge, and when the officer, who spoke English, arrived, they spoke up and told him that we had nothing to do with the damage. It was obvious that my friend and I were much younger than the boxers, and after a few minutes the officer opened the cell door and let the two of us out. He relocked the door just in case the boxers thought of escape.

My friend and I were taken upstairs and told to stand in front of the officer’s desk. He then lectured us and told us to behave while in Sitges, and that he didn’t wish to see us again. We quickly agreed with everything he said, although later I considered that we were only guilty by association, and innocent of any wrongdoing, unless helping fellow British travellers was a crime. At the time we would have agreed to anything just to get out of that stinking cell.

We were able to get back to our apartment for hot showers and a change of clothes, before making our way to the hotel for breakfast. We acted as if everything was normal, even though we did yawn a lot. I didn’t tell our leader because I didn’t wish to add to his worries, nor did I want our adventure to get back to our families.

The rest of our time in Spain was sightseeing local places of interest, sun bathing on Sitges beach and eating. All holidays come to an end and it was another fast drive to Calais, ferry to Dover, and the train home with a great suntan and the experience of being a gaolbird.

The Spanish holiday was my last overseas trip for over a year, because I knew that I had final examinations before leaving HMS Conway in 1962 and the results of this examination would determine the shipping company that I’d join – if any shipping company would have me.

1960 – whether I liked it or not the winds of change

wind01       wind

I’ll never go abroad – which was a stupid comment that I made at thirteen, comes back to bite me.

My first adventure abroad was just after I’d just turned sixteen in 1960.
Billy Beedles, who was a family friend and a schoolteacher asked me to accompany him in August to help shepherd a group of fourteen-to-sixteen-year old during a YHA (Youth Hostel Association) trip around Germany – the YHA was called DJH in Germany (Deutschland Jugend Herberge). Because I was tall for my age, looked older than my years, and I didn’t attend the same school as the other students, the schoolteacher considered that I was ideal as his ‘offsider’. Of course I didn’t have a passport, but at that time one could obtain a twelve-month passport for a large discount on the ten-year passport.

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The above passport was for the years 1961 / 62.
It is identical to the passport I had for 1960 / 61

The British were just starting to take European holidays after the financial hardships of the post war 40’s and early 50’s, and YHA was cheap, and cheerful.

We travelled by coach from Birkenhead to Dover, which is on the south coast of England, where we boarded a ferry to Ostend, Belgium. The trip from Birkenhead took us hours and hours, even though the new M1 motorway between Birmingham and London had opened the previous year. The one thing I always hated was bus travel – it made me ill, and I was very glad of my Kwells travel tablets. Even the smell of the inside of a bus today brings back bad memories.

Due to the very long journey from Birkenhead to Ostend, the group leader had booked us in to the Zeebrugge youth hostel, which was a short distance along the coast from Ostend. The one thing I do remember about Ostend was a particular coffee bar, which had a jukebox. Jukeboxes were not new to us, but we’d never seen a jukebox linked to a TV screen. For one Belgium franc (well before the EEC and the Euro) we were able to play popular songs and watch the singer on the screen. This is the only memory I have about my first visit to a foreign city.

scopitoneZeebrugge was more interesting because it has a strong link to Birkenhead and Merseyside. During WW1 in 1918, the Daffodil and the Iris (both Mersey ferries) took part in the commando raid to sink obsolete ships in the main channel at Zeebrugge, to prevent German vessels leaving port. Although badly damaged, and with many killed and wounded, the two ferryboats managed to return to England, and eventually the Mersey.

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The top picture shows both ferries after reaching the Mersey. They had many shell holes and the superstructure had been riddled with machine gun fire. The funnel of the Iris was kept as a ‘memorial’ for some time, not sure where it is now.

Mersey ferries check this link for more details via the BBC.

In honour of their contribution to the raid King George V conferred the pre-fix ‘Royal’ on both ships, and they became the ‘Royal Iris’ & the ‘Royal Daffodil’. The second descendant of the ‘Royal Iris’ came into service in 1951, and it was in the 1965, on this ‘Royal Iris’, that I danced with a young girl who would later become my wife, fifty three years ago.

Our transport around Germany was by rail, which was electric, whereas the British system was a mixture of steam and diesel engines. The high-speed trains of Belgium and Germany were exciting to us, but we did miss hanging out of the window and breathing in the unique smell of steam and smoke from the engine. Even so, the German trains had a character of their own, modern, fast and efficient.

The first stop after leaving Belgium was Cologne, which I found to be an interesting place. In 1960 the war had been over only fifteen years so growing up in the UK most of the Germany city names were very familiar. The one place that we didn’t hear much about, but knew of from school, was Bonn, which at that time was the de facto capital from 1949 to 1990. The old capital, Berlin, was under the control of the four powers, America, Britain, France and Russia.

I found Bonn to be a dull city, and was not sorry to leave, via train along the banks of the Rhine to the spa town of Bad Honnef. ‘Taking the waters’ was all the rage, and of course we had to try the water, and from memory I was not all that impressed, because I didn’t know what to expect and the mineral taste was completely different than the tasteless water that came out of the tap at home.

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On the other hand it was new to me, it was different, and it was foreign, so I drank another glass of the famous Bad Honnef water.

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Colour film was too expensive for a sixteen-year-old, but I could still hang out of the window for pictures of our train journey across Germany.

A further short rail trip from Bad Honnef, took us to Koblentz (or Coblenz). The YHA facilities were in the castle and overlooked the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine. I was fascinated that I could see the two different waters, because they were naturally coloured – the Moselle was green and the Rhine blue, and after they had met, they became the normal brownie river colour that we all recognise. I can still remember the view over sixty years later.

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The Moselle flowing in to the Rhine.

The photograph has been taken from the area of the YHA, around fifty years later. I’m sorry to note the absence of colour in the water.

We enjoyed our stay in Koblentz, the town being ‘old German’ buildings (I don’t remember any modern buildings), cobbled streets, heavy rounded glass shop windows, a real pleasure of a place to just stroll around and absorb the atmosphere. Of course, I was too young to drink alcohol, but we made do with ginger beer (it was the same colour as real beer) so we would sit in the sun and watch the young German girls as they promenaded around the main square. I wasn’t too young to admire girls.

4053976-festug_ehrenbreitstein-koblenzKoblentz YHA was inside this castle

Bacharach, further up the Rhine again, was our next stop, and it was quite a change from the other towns and villages that we had visited. The YHA was located within Bacharach Castle, which from memory was very different from the Koblentz Castle.

bacharach-hostel-building

I do remember one evening when many of the students were in the Great Hall, which was being heated by a very large fire in a huge pillared grate that felt like sandstone, when a young man dressed in leather shorts with shoulder straps (braces if you are English, and suspenders if you are American), thick leather climbing boots, and socks folded down around his ankles entered the room dragging a long heavy rope behind him, and shouting for help due to the rope’s weight. I assumed that this person was the YHA manager or was employed by the YHA. Several of us ran over and helped drag the rope in to the hall, where we were instructed to lay it out in a single long length. We were about to take part in an international tug of war!

The tug of war was to be a knockout contest, and was to be in front of the large grate as the flames danced up the chimney. The overhead lighting was dimmed so that the fire illuminated the two teams trying to pull each other over a marker chalked on the wooden floor.

The rope didn’t have the feel of ‘real’ rope; it was very smooth and softer than the rope I would handle later when I was at sea. The British team asked me to be the anchor-man due to my size. Using my limited knowledge of knots, taught to me by my father, I tied a Bowline knot to secure myself to the rope. This knot created a loop in the rope, which I put around my chest. Regardless of the weight put on this knot it would not tighten further than the original pressure when it was created, so protecting me from being injured.

It was great fun, and because the German members were the greatest number, they had more bodies from which to choose and so won each heat against all other countries. It wasn’t long before the larger boys from different countries agreed to join an international team to compete against the German team. The international team won three out of five ‘pulls’ or should it be ‘tugs’. Perhaps the German team was tired after defeating all the other nations independently, but they couldn’t hold out against a combined international team. Every time I see the film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, with Richard Burton & Clint Eastwood, and the scene where all the main characters are seated around a long table across from a large fire in a medieval fireplace, I think of Bacharach and the tug of war.

From Bacharach we sailed back down the Rhine towards the coast. The name of the paddle steamer vessel was the ‘Bismarck’, and I can remember thinking that I hoped we didn’t suffer the same fate as the 1941 ‘Bismarck’.

bismarck

What more could a teenager want, but to be aboard a wooden decked river boat with the sound of the steady throb of the engine, the paddle wheels slapping the water as we glided down river, with pale smoke from the vessel’s funnel drifting towards a clear blue sky. All was well with the world as I leaned on the rails and viewed the vineyards, castles, scenic Germanic buildings, which I am sure are still in use today.

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River traffic and castles as we sailed down river.

Bacharach was our last ‘new’ place before making our way home, via Bonn, Ostend, the ferry and the long bus ride to Merseyside.

The eyes have it . . . or do they. . .

During school assembly in March of 1959 when I was still fourteen, the headmaster of my school asked if anyone wished to take an examination to enter a merchant navy officer-training establishment called HMS Conway.

I discussed this opportunity with my parents, because I planned to stay another year to gain nationally recognised educational certificates in various subjects before applying for  a job. The extra year at school would take me to July 1960 when I would be sixteen, and looking for a job.
Most of my class friends planned to leave in July 1959 (when they were fifteen) to take up apprenticeships, working in the local shipyard or Port Sunlight soap works. None of which attracted me, which is why I wanted to stay on the extra year to take the examinations. The thought of going to sea and seeing the world suddenly became my desire.

My parents agreed that I could attempt the examination, which required a weekend at Plas Newydd (HMS Conway’s facility) on the island of Anglesey, in North Wales.

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Plas Newydd the home of the Marquis of Anglesey.

In addition to being the Marquis’ home part of the house was used by HMS Conway’s captain, Captain Hewitt and his wife, as well as first term junior cadets.

The examination had several written parts as well as an oral examination. I suppose the oral part was to see what we looked like, and if we were aware of world events.

It was weeks before I was told to report to HMS Conway for the weekend of examination, and further weeks before I received a letter of acceptance, and my father received notification that I had been awarded a scholarship, because Conway was a fee-paying school.
Overall the planning and waiting took months, and it wasn’t until close to Christmas 1959 that I was told that if I was able to pass the eye sight tests then I would be join HMS Conway for the September term in 1960.

I had to take the eye test at the Ministry of Transport in Liverpool, (UK), because all merchant navy deck officers had to have 20 / 20 vision and were not allowed to wear spectacles. Besides the traditional word chart and the colour chart,  Blind

to make sure I wasn’t colour blind (a deck officer could not be colour blind), I was given a test in a very dark room, where I was required to spot red, green and white pin pricks of lights as if I was on the bridge of a ship. The positioning of the lights would allow a lookout or the officer of the watch, to know the general direction of the other vessel.
I was able to see some of the lights, but not all and I failed the test.

Eye test fail 001As I left the testing centre I was given the above form that stated that I had failed, but if I wished to challenge this result I could apply to London for a more detailed test at my own expense. If I were successful in the London test, all of my expenses would be reimbursed.

After discussing the failed eyesight test with my father, I borrowed £5.00 from him (a weeks wages for an sixteen year old), for the return train ticket to London and the second eye test fee. I passed the London test.

Eye cert Pass 001

On returning to Liverpool I visited the MoT eye-testing centre to let them know that there was nothing wrong with my eyes. They asked me to take the test again, which I did, and failed again.
At this point someone had the bright idea to switch on the light in the testing room. I had been placed on a wooden box to view the screen, which showed the red, green and white lights, but because of my height (6 ft 1 inches) and being on top of the box, this made my eye level to be just beneath a cross-beam (the testing centre being in a basement).

On taking the test one was lead in to the testing room, which was in total darkness, and you were helped on to the viewing box. The idea of total darkness being that you would gain your night vision faster than being plunged in to darkness by switching off a light.

In the dark one has a tendency to sway slightly, because you do not have a point of reference on which to focus. The swaying was enough for me to see the lights some of the time, and not be able to see them other times, due to the beam! It made me wonder how many others had been failed, and accepted that they had an eye ‘problem’, and perhaps never going to sea, but ending up in a job that they hated.

At least I collected my £2.00 reimbursement for the second eye test, my train costs and 7/6d for my trouble. I returned the borrowed £5.00 to my father and kept the ‘profit’.

Wales – land of my mother

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I’ve always loved North & Mid Wales, perhaps because my mother was Welsh and only when the family moved from Caernarvon (Carnarfon to be PC) to Birkenhead, when she was thirteen, did she start to learn English. When my mother spoke of the move she would comment that she moved to England, which sounded strange to me as a child, because Caernarfon was only about eighty miles from Birkenhead, but it is in England so I suppose she was correct.

When Mum wanted to tell her sisters anything that I shouldn’t hear, it was always in Welsh, which was very convenient for them because they never had to whisper.

My grandfather had a butcher’s shop just off the Castle Square at 17, Pool St, which is now a branch of the Lloyds Bank

Lloyd and funny enough at 16 Pool St across the road is

Jones Dafid Wynn Jones the butcher!

It passed through my mind that perhaps the family lived across the road from their butcher shop, but I think it more likely that they would have lived over the shop, because I doubt that they were rich enough to have owned two properties, or even to have rented two properties.

My grandfather’s problem was that he had four daughters – my mother, born in 1909 was the youngest – but he didn’t have a son to take over the butchery shop. In the early part of the twentieth century, and living in Wales, daughters did not run or own a butchers shops. His other problem was his generosity – he allowed his customers to run up bills, because they were his friends, and as one would expect there came a time when his friends couldn’t pay for one reason or another. The mixture of poor payers and the lack of a male to carry on with the business was all too much, so the family ’emigrated’ to England.

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Castle Square around 1900

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Castle Square a hundred years later.

A short while before moving to England my mother’s eldest sister married a local man, so we always had a place to stay when on holiday.

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In the 1950’s I was old enough to be let out on my own and I spent hours in and around the castle. I became so well known at the castle that they gave me the same concession as a local – I was allowed in for nothing.
Later in life I revisited the castle, once in 2004 & again in 2008, (I paid each time) and I was very pleased to see that a lot of care and attention had been spent on the inside of the castle, because now it had become a major tourist attraction. Perhaps the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 had helped create the demand. There have been two investitures in Caernarfon castle in the twentieth century, 1911 and 1969.

As a child the other attraction for me was swimming across the Aber River or this is what I thought the river was called. Later I found out that the river is called Seiont River and ‘aber’ is a Welsh word that means ‘river mouth’ in English, and for years I thought I’d swam the Aber River – we live an learn.

Swing bridgeThe old bridge that I used to cross the river and sometimes swim under when the tide was right.

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The new bridge installed in 1969

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All our yesterdays – I would dive in to the river from about this point and swim across to the trees – I could do it at ten, but I doubt that I’d do it now – too far.

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The red car is near where I was standing in the previous photo.

The first picture in this blog is of the Welsh flag flying over Harlech Castle, which is in mid-Wales. You can just see the sea, which used to lap the bottom of the battlements.

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It is now a long way from the sea. During a siege the castle was supplied by sea.

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The castle can just be seen – I had my back to the start of the sand hills, the sea was further away again from the sand hills.

Men of Harlech the original was as a poem, which was later set to music. In the film Zulu the song that the British (Welsh) soldiers sang was written especially for the film.

Rick Rescorla check this link for something different linked to the music of Men of Harlech and the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York.

To drive from the mainland to Anglesey we would have to cross the Menai Straits.

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P5131829rBuilt by Telford and opened in 1826

Holiday 049rWhat ever the weather I never get tired of the scenery in Wales.

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I did manage to swim the Straits a couple of times, to the house on the other side, and back again, all in one go. At sixteen it seemed a good idea – I slept well that night.

The photo was taken from the Marquis of Anglesey’s home on the Anglesey side of the Straits.

As a child, North Wales was more than castles, bridges or swimming in rivers it meant Gronant, and beaches, where the sun always shined, the sand was clean and the water was warm.

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The boy on the left is yours truly abut 1953, my best mate, John, was three years older than me, but the age difference never bothered us, and we stayed friends for over sixty years – he died a couple of years ago.

We’d never heard of ‘flop flops’, you either had sandals or you went bare foot.

Gronant 1Try peddling these things across grass . . .

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I told you the water was warm . . . me on the right.

The accommodation at Rainford’s Holiday park was a wooden bungalow, which didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet. John and I had the job of keeping two large buckets full of fresh water for the kitchen which we hauled from a central tap. The public toilets were ‘dry’ toilets, so you only visited this area of the camp when you had to  . . ..

We spent a fortnight of living in shorts and running bare foot everywhere everyday unless we went in to Prestatyn for a knickerbocker glory.

knickerbockerglory_bluesmThe treat of the holiday, cost was 1/- when I first went to Prestatyn, (which was expensive, so it was a great treat), but over the  years the price grew to 2/6d by 1958, which, I think, was my last visit to this ice cream shop and my last visit to Gronant.

The whole experience of Gronant was the creation of great memories – we didn’t even have a radio never mind an iPad, smart phone, DVD player etc and our amusement from dawn to dusk was self created using twigs as guns for cowboys and indians and going mad by spending 6d for a bamboo poll with a net on the end so as to fish in the gully that ran from the shore to the sea. With hindsight we were fortunate in not catching anything, other than stings from nettles.

The importance of oil fades in to history for Dubai.

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I wrote three months ago about out recent visit to Dubai, with air conditioned bus stops, very clean railways station and the largest shopping centre in the world.

The above photograph shows Dubai Creek flowing sluggishly towards the Persian Gulf in 1964 – I never dreamt that I would return as a tourist fifty two years later!

The Dubai of 1964, which was my first visit, was nothing like the Dubai of today. In 1964 cargo was unloaded in to dhows or barges, because they didn’t have the docking facility for ocean going vessels.
We went ashore in small dhows and walked up the beach or the bank of the Creek to get to the market. Our buying interest was for Japanese radios, record players, and Chinese toys which were made from tinplate with very sharp edges. I bought a mechanical cat requiring batteries to take home. I doubt that it would be allowed in to the country today – health and safety. The market and the town was always very hot and dusty.

 DXB marketThe local Dubai market or Souk in 1964

DSC06375rThe Souk in 2016 . . .contrast with or should I say without customers??

To put things in context, in 1964 it was two years before oil was found, and a year before the airport runway was asphalted. Dubai was a trading port, and had been for hundreds of years, but what a leap of faith for the people to build for the day that the oil will run out. Currently I think only five present of the country’s revenue comes from oil, the remaining ninety five percent is mainly trading and tourism – i.e selling sun shine (and snow skiing, would you believe), to sun shy Europeans, particularly in the European winter.

I think that Dubai is a destination that is on many ‘bucket lists’. If you do visit Dubai try Emirates Airline, which has been voted the best airline in the world for 2016 by Skytrax based on fare paying passenger ratings. Unfortunately I haven’t flown with Emirates, yet.

What did I see ? I don’t know.

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In 1968 I was third mate on the cargo ship in the picture, when we were sailing from Colombo (Ceylon, as it was then) to Muscat in Oman.

I was on the ‘graveyard watch’, which is the midnight to four AM and noon to four PM. I loved the time after midnight because the ship was quiet with most people asleep except for the helmsman and the lookout in the bow.

Cleaning out some papers recently I found a copy of a report that I’d written after an incident that I experienced one night during the voyage. It was the 09th June, 1968, which was the local time in the Indian Ocean, but 08th June GMT. The local ship’s time being 03.50 am.

Without going in to too much detail I thought I’d try and describe what happened.

I was in the chart room when I heard a single bell from the for’d lookout, who was stationed on the forecastle, at the bow of the ship – one bell meant that he can see a light on the starboard bow, two bells would mean the light is on the port bow and three bells would mean the light is dead ahead.

I walked out on to the starboard bridge wing and observed what looked like a moving star approaching from the North West – which is 315 degrees on a compass heading and we were steering 307 degrees, so it was just off our starboard bow. Most vessels in the 60’s had open bridge wings i.e open to the weather, and not part of the sheltered bridge area where the helmsman stood. Many ships today have enclosed wing areas, little if any open air area is available to the watch keeper.

I followed the strange light through binoculars because at first I thought it was a plane, but I couldn’t see any side lights or shape to the object. The light from the object was very bright. I checked the radar screen for targets, but the screen was blank, which wasn’t a surprise because the radar would screen approximately 40 nautical miles at sea level, but would not ‘see’ a flying object. The lack of target on the radar screen told me the light was not attached to another ship.

The light drew closer and as is curved over the ship and headed south I didn’t hear any noise. At no time was it moving fast, so I didn’t have any difficulty in following it through a telescope, which magnified better than the binoculars. It was brighter than any star. As it curved south I called the second mate to the bridge to witness this light knowing that he would take over the watch in a few minutes at 4.00 am.

We both observed the light, which was at an altitude of about seventeen degrees above the horizon. At this altitude the light stopped and appeared to hover. We watched it for about twenty seconds when we noticed a second moving light to the right of the first. It was not as bright as the first, but it was now moving towards our ship. It passed astern and headed in a north north easterly direction. I can not say if the second light was from the first bright light or independent of the first light.

The second officer left the bridge and I returned to watch the first light, but was unable to find it amongst the stars. I stopped looking and moved to the front of the bridge just in time to hear the bow lookout ring three bells, he’d seen a light dead ahead. I focused on a third light as it approached my ship from ahead. This light passed us on the starboard side and headed in the same direction as light number two.

untitledI downloaded the night sky for the Indian Ocean on the night of the 9th June 1968. The stars were so bright that you had the feeling of being able to touch them if only you could reach that high.

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The above is to illustrate the vastness of the cloudless sky, but I am not sure of which part of the sky.

I was unable to judge the height of the lights because the sky was cloudless, and the moon had set. Except for the occasional light from my own ship, aft of the bridge, the light pollution forward was nil. The night vision of the lookout and myself couldn’t have been better.

The weather at the time was as follows –

Cloudless sky, we didn’t have a moon (it had set), it was extremely clear with a westerly wind at about three knots. Air pressure was 1003.3 and the air temperature 83 f. Our course was 307 degrees true, at a speed of 14 knots.

I did report what I’d seen to the meteorological authority in the UK, but never heard back. It was also logged in the ship’s log.

Last week when I found the report this was the first time I’d read it since 1968.

 

 

Whether the weather is what we want . . .

According to some people Mark Twain said, ‘Everybody talks of the weather, but nobody does anything about it.’, but he didn’t make this comment, it was his friend Charles Dudley Warner who said Twain’s famous comment first.

When I was at sea in the 1960’s we tried to do something about the weather. We didn’t have the luxury of satellite communications which supplies immediate weather information. Nor did we gain information from floating sensor buoys radioing weather information back to base. They hadn’t been invented.

What we did have was a network of ocean going cargo and passenger ships reporting their local weather along with a set of climate readings every six hours to a meteorological station ashore. The shore based station would collate all the readings from various vessels and hopefully they would be able to forecast the local weather a few hours or a day or so ahead.

On most ships at set times, the officer of the watch would take the temperature of the sea water, temperature of the air, barometer reading for air pressure, estimate the wind force by comparing what he saw from the wing of the ship’s bridge to a photographic chart of the waves.

wind-at-sea

The chart above gives an idea of the state of the sea linked to the force of the wind. The chart that we used in the 60’s was not as well presented as the one above. The watching keeping officer would then record his estimate of the wind’s speed.

Once the wind’s speed had been decided he would check the clouds and use a ‘cloud chart’ to estimate the height of the clouds and the type of cloud.

cloudchart (1)

Again the chart above is far more detailed than the cloud chart that we had in the 60’s.

There are ten types of cloud and twenty seven sub types, depending on the height of the cloud above sea level.

The various types of cloud have Latin names – a few examples are

Stratus, which means, flat or layered and smooth

Cumulus, which means heaped up, or puffy like a cauliflower (sometimes called cauliflower heads.)

Cirrus, these are very high clouds and wispy in looks,

Alto, medium to high level

Nimbus,  a mass of cloud that can be jagged in shape, which can be a sign of rain or snow.

Once he had decided on the height and type of cloud, the wind direction, the force of the wind, and the sea temperature, the air temperature and the barometer reading he would then estimated his vessel’s position. All being well he would have known the exact spot at noon with a sun sight or early evening with a star sight and from that position he would have estimated his position for his report by dead reckoning. In the 60’s we found our way around the world much the same way as Columbus or Cooke. We used a sextant to ‘shoot’ the sun at noon, and we took star sights at dusk.
The one thing that Captain Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame) had in 1789 during his epic 3600 mile forty day open boat voyage, after the mutiny, was a good sextant.

sextantThe above picture shows a sextant – I had two when I was at sea – one I bought on passing my exams, and later sold when I got married (we needed the money), and the other (dated early 1930’s and similar to the one shown) given to me by an old sea captain, which I have kept as a memento of my time at sea.

Once all of the information had been gathered it would be radioed to the local meteorological office, as well as London – by Morse code, not by speech.

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Other ships would be doing the same so with the help of Sparks (Radio officer) the officer of the watch could estimate the weather ahead of his own vessel.

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Times have changed, but I doubt that being at sea today is as much ‘fun’ as it was fifty years ago, before containerisation. I feel sorry for ship’s captains today – head office is only an e-mail away or a mobile call during his night, because someone at H/O doesn’t have the ability to work out time zones.

I’ve sailed in tramp ships that once we left a port we didn’t hear from H/O until the next port, and then only via the agent – sending messages, via the radio or telex (fax was still a little futuristic) was expensive, so bothering the captain half way around the world had to be justified to the profit and loss account!

On a recent cruise I asked the Captain if he, or his officers, still used a sextant in case of emergency. I was told that if there was an emergency, and he (the Captain) had to abandon ship, he would make sure that his phone was fully charged, so that he would find his positon via Google maps.

I wasn’t sure if I found this funny or not, and wondered if the coxswain of the lifeboat that my wife and I would be in, who might well be one of the hotel staff, be able to steer the boat by reading an old fashioned compass, or would the coxswain also be contacting Google for advice about which way is north?

Lifeboat

 

 

 

 

The great affair is to move

 

According to Robert Louis Stevenson –

‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.

The great affair is to move.’

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I visited the UK to take part in a reunion – it had been fifty years since I left the nautical college HMS Conway to go to sea – once at sea my great affair was to keep moving.

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My time in the Conway was when she was a shore based establishment in the grounds of Plas Newydd, the Marquis of Anglesey’s home and estate on the isle of Anglesey, which is off the north coast of Wales.

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My first three months were spent in the Marquis’ house, and you see can that the views across to Snowdon, which is on the mainland of Wales, are spectacular.

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The Snowdon range can be seen in the background – this picture was taken from the front of Plas Newydd.

Every cadet was expected to be able to be able to swim, and each year we had to take part in a swimming race across the Menai Straits and back again. The race was from Plas Newydd to the house that can be seen on the other side. We had rescue boats floating around just in case anyone was in trouble, but fortunately they were seldom required.During one swim the worst time for me was on the return when we had to swim through a smack of jelly fish – I was told that they were Portuguese men of war. It slowed us down as we waved the jellyfish away and hoped that the tentacles were not too long.

I was at Conway for two years and it took me that long to learn how to pronounce Llanfair PG, which was the closest railway station to Plas Newydd.

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The meaning in English is below

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Of course during the reunion we had to visit Snowdon, a mountain full of memories, because we used to climb this area and have to take part in initiative challenges.
Those of us who took part were in teams of three cadets.
One test that comes to mind was when the team that I was in came to a small lake and the waiting officer told us that at the bottom of the lake was a sunken submarine and that our job was to raise this vessel.
The sub was a large tank with a hole in it, which we had to secure before we could pump the water out so that the ‘sub’ would float. The water was freezing and of course we didn’t have any swimming trunks or towels, so we had to take it in turns to dive in and swim to the bottom to screw the plate back on to make the sub waterproof. The outside temperature was cold enough to discourage tourist  so there wasn’t any fear of us being charged as ‘flashers’. This was well before the PC brigade had been invented and well before the requirement of the current H & S regulations.
We were all between sixteen and seventeen years old, and it was expected of us to look after each other, to use our initiative, and common sense.

In all of the tests there was a requirement to workout certain maths, physics or navigational problems relating to the test, it was not all physical activity, but it was always cold.

My favorite memory of the climbing and hiking was that I used to carry Kendal Mint  cake for instant energy – it wasn’t ‘cake’, but a bar of whiteish chocolate, but not a chocolate taste. It worked wonders to keep me going.

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During the reunion and being fifty years older, we were taking the easy way to the top.

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Quite pleasant as we left the station

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 The scenery was just as dramatic as long ago and

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the summer weather was just as fickle.

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and some of us managed to climb to the top of Snowdon 1085 mtrs (3,560 ft) above sea level. I had to hold on to my glasses as the wind was very strong – check the two on the right trying to come down.

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My glasses, hands and everything else which was lose was in my pockets.

Sea Fever

I was fortunate to attend HMS Conway, which was a training ship (see picture below) to supply officers for the merchant and Royal Navy – most us went in to the merchant service.

The college began in 1859, and I attended ‘Conway’ between 1960 and 1962. During my time we lived in barracks because the old ship had run aground and broken her back in 1953 while being towed through the Swillies, which is a very dangerous stretch of water  between the North Wales coast and the Isle on Anglesey. She was on her way to dry dock in Birkenhead, but never made it.  . . .

Conway-01After leaving Conway in 1962, I went to sea, and my first ship was a tanker, the Ellenga, with a gross tonnage of 24,246 gt. At that time she was quite a large vessel.

Ellenga

Tomorrow we sail from Sydney harbour aboard the Diamond Princess, which is just under 116,000 dwt and nearly five times the size of my first ship.

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The above was taken last September, (2015), and the small yellow / green ship is a Sydney harbour ferry. The black vessel is a tanker bunkering the Diamond Princess moored alongside the Sydney Cruise Terminal, where she will be tomorrow when we join her.

For many of us who went to sea as young men (I was eighteen on my first trip) never lose the love of the ocean. One old Conway, John Masefield, captured the feeling of the sea when he wrote Sea Fever.

Sea Fever

By John Masefield.  HMS Conway 1891-94.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Punduastorm
South China Sea in 1967 at the start of a typhoon.
Cargo ship ‘Pundua’, built 1945, 7,295 gt
I think I prefer
Diamond Princess, built 2004, 116,000 gt
Tomorrow, thanks to our daughter & son-in-law, a hire limo will transport us for the expected hour’s run to the cruise terminal. Our check-in is 11.30 am, so all being well we will have lunch on board.
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