Tuesday, March 20, 2018

It was October 1959 and I was on top of the world having just passed “First Mate Foreign Going” and, after a weekend of celebration, decided that, with nothing better to do, I would call in at my company’s head office and let them know of my success.

The Spirit of Rathlin was built by Arklow Marine Services and provides an all-year-round link for passengers and a limited number of vehicles alongside the Rathlin Express catamaran which was introduced in 2008.

The Company in this case was the South African Marine Corporation, more commonly known as Safmarine, and, in 1959, it was just starting out on a mind-blowing expansion, to an eventual fleet of 57 ships at the advent of containerisation.

When I dropped in at the head office in Cape Town the fleet numbered eight ships, six on liner trades to the USA and Europe, and two tramping. The Company had a constant shortage of officers and engineers. Promotion was rapid. A Master’s certificate guaranteed a position of Chief Officer and officers well-known to the Company, with a proven track record from cadet through to chief officer, were finding themselves as Masters at the age of 30, and superintendents a few years later.

I strolled blithely into this personnel department nightmare, quietly prepared to announce my success and then being told to go home for a bit of leave before being called. This was definitely not to be. The Chief Personnel Officer was a charming fellow named Peter Etherington, who made me welcome, proffered his congratulations and then got straight down to business.

He was desperately short of a third officer for the Vergelegen, due to sail that evening. Would I do the Company a favour (which, of course, would not be forgotten, etc etc) and sail in her as third officer, but on a second officer’s salary of £72 per month? Well, why not? I had just had six weeks study leave, was footloose and fancy free and, if it put me in the good books of the personnel department, so much the better.

A quick trip home to pack and advise the folks, then back to the Victoria Basin in Cape Town, to the Vergelegen. She was an AP3 Type Victory ship, built in 1945 as the Westbrook Victory by the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, USA. She was powered by Westinghouse turbines, which pushed her along at a steady 15 knots. She could do, rumour had it, if pushed and being hunted by a submarine, up to 18 knots. She was a small ship by later standards, being of only 15,199 tons displacement, 10,789 tons deadweight and 161 metres in length.

As built, she had been fitted with twelve gun positions; a fully equipped hospital; longrange deep fuel tanks, and a thousand tons of ballast. She had spent eighteen months as a troopship carrying 2,500 troops before being laid up in reserve. In 1946 she was put up for disposal and, in January 1948, was purchased by Safmarine, and extensively modified. Her holds and hatches were re-modelled, and luxury accommodation for 12 passengers fitted on the boat deck. Following the custom of the day, this was decorated in white pegamoid leather furniture and light eau-de-nil paint work. The passenger accommodation was airconditioned throughout.

By contrast, the officers’ war-time accommodation had been left untouched and my cabin was a small hutch at the after end of the lower bridge deck, and very spartan. It was furnished with a steel bunk, a chair and a cupboard. The nearest bathroom was at the far end of the alleyway and shared with the other officers and cadets. Directly across the alleyway from my cabin was a tiny compartment completely filled by a massive Sperry master gyro compass.

At that stage Safmarine was naming its ships after South African Dutch colonial wine estates, and the name Vergelegen was derived from one of those. Pronounced “Fairghe- leeghan”, with a guttural “g”, it meant “far-lying” and always proved almost unpronounceable to American and British officialdom.

I found that the ship, in common with other Safmarine ships, was in impeccable condition and well-maintained. The Vergelegen was also, I was to find, a happy ship.

On storing my gear in my little hutch, I duly reported to the Master for signing on. He was Captain George Smith, an Englishman and ex-Union-Castle officer who was stocky, slightly plump, completely bald and the soul of affability. I found him a charming man and a pleasure to sail with. While signing on I found that I had a readymade group of friends aboard, in that I had sailed with two of the engineers in a previous ship. The Chief Officer, Denzyl Collins, was a true Safmariner, having come up through the Company from cadet; the second officer was a Scotsman, Jock Parks, ex Elders and Fyffes.

The formalities completed and the ship battened down, we sailed that evening for the usual Safmarine coastal discharge trip – Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). The discharging completed, we then turned around and headed back down the coast in ballast, with a brief stop in Port Elizabeth to land a crew member with appendicitis. It was then on and around the Cape of Good Hope and up the West Coast to Walvis Bay, in what was then South West Africa but is now Namibia.

In those days this was a forlorn and desolate port which existed mainly because of the large pilchard fishing industry and nearby copper mines. The roads were paved with salt, there was not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere and most of the houses were built on stilts, to raise them above the level of the drifting sand blown in from the surrounding Namib Desert. Besides the houses, there were a couple of general dealer stores; two fish factories and two hotels – the Mermaid and the Flamingo. The latter had a small cinema and an Oningo Bar and was a popular spot with seafarers where they could enjoy a meal and a drink at the bar before taking in a movie, which made for a pleasant evening. Here we loaded a full cargo of copper ore for Corpus Christi, Texas.

On departure from Walvis Bay, we settled in for the long run across the South Atlantic to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It was by no means a trying crossing. Safmarine’s ships were very well run with top class “Cape Coloured” crews and excellent food. A cinema was rigged every evening on the boat deck if the Purser had not organised some other form of entertainment, and a wood and canvas swimming pool soon made its appearance on the fore deck.

Officers dined in the passengers’ saloon and uniform was de rigueur. This was a grey uniform with black shoes and epaulettes with silver stripes. In the evening a black tie was added. Usually with a fancy tie-pin as was the custom of the day. In winter we wore normal merchant navy “blues”. At 5pm every evening the Captain and all his officers and engineers would gather in the passengers’ lounge to socialize with the passengers before dinner. There was no excess drinking and after dinner we were free to either break away or join in the evening’s activities.

As third mate I would relieve the mate on the bridge for his dinner and do the evening watch from 8 to 12. The bridge still showed signs of the ship’s war-time origins. The deck was coated with a red composition and all the fittings were painted grey with no brasswork visible. There was a large wheel, but no automatic pilot, so there was always a quartermaster on duty as well as a bridge look-out. On the starboard side was a large American radar set and, in the centre, ahead of the helmsman, a magnetic compass. A flag locker and two engine-room telegraphs made up the rest of the furnishings.

Across the front of the wheelhouse were three large portholes with heavy ports which swung upwards, and were held by suspiciously fragile-looking chains. I took care never to stand under them. Across the front of the bridge, and ahead of these ports, was an enclosed walkway with large armourplated windows. This was floored by wooden duck-boards which made an unholy noise when you walked on them. A quaint anachronism was the striking ship’s bell clock behind the quartermaster. This would strike out the time and the quartermaster would then repeat it on the ship’s bell mounted outside the bridge front, by tugging a fancy embroidered rope above his head. It was actually quite reassuring when off-watch to hear the bell chiming out the passing of the day!

Corpus Christi, situated almost on the Mexican border, is a lovely city of palm-lined streets and pretty tiled-roof houses. We were berthed almost under a bridge next to the harbour and much to our surprise, because of this, received a number of casual visitors. It seemed that there had been, until recently, a South African Air Force contingent at the local air station. A number of people who had known them had seen, from the bridge, the South African flag and our port of registry of Cape Town on our stern. It was apparent that our Air Force predecessors had made a good impression and so these visitors had come down to the ship to have a look around and say “Hi”. I wish that the same could have been said about us. Our Second Officer, “Jock” Parkes, decided to visit one of the local bars and found himself in good company and thoroughly enjoying the live music show. However, at some stage in the late evening the band struck up The Eyes of Texas are Upon You and Jock, who was ever the comic, started clowning around with the words. In a trice his newfound friends forcibly evicted him and sent him back to the ship in disgrace!

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - an Issue
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