I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a cargo ship. Not something that may people have a clue about. I grew up thinking of it as normal. Standard. Something that even if not everyone did, they they at least understood the lifestyle. Now, it seems like a lifetime ago.
I’ve tried starting to write this segment so many times before but always scrapped it. Not as a blog post, but as an opening diary entry; or as the opening to a personal memoir, or an autobiography; or even as some based-in-real-experience fictionalisation. It always got scrapped because… well, I was young. I was an embryo, then a newborn, then a young child, while I experienced all of this. To me, it’s a bunch of muddled memories, some familiar faces and fascinating places – no names or dates or facts or figures. At least, far too few to write an informed, encyclopedic account. But that doesn’t mean the memory of this unusual childhood don’t remain.
It’s not something you see these days. I remember commenting recently, chatting online with fellow ‘children-of-merchant-navy-crew’; how it’s so much against today’s Health&Safety-centric world culture. Someone posted a photo of them sat on their dad’s shoulders next to a massive turbine in the engine room. Irresponsible parenting? Or an amazing experience for a child to have – traveling the world, outside of charter flights and all-inclusives and package holidays and theme parks.
Not to mention those strict rules about taking children out of school during term time. Of course, this was the late 70’s (before I was in school anyway) and the eighties. I’m not sure those rules were in place back then. We did some school work, of course. I recall mum coming out of school one day with a pile of work books to take with us.
Some names of places and things about them I recall; probably because on one of my later voyages, my mum made me do a project to take back to school with me, with a section on every place we went to on that voyage.
As far as I know, from family chats, when my parents first met, Dad was studying at maritime college. Not sure at what point they got married but he was working for a shipping company based in Cardiff Bay (way back in the days before it got rejuvenated and renamed as Cardiff Bay – it was still Butetown … or ‘the docks’, or ‘Tiger Bay’ … where Shirley Bassey was from). Although I remember being told that all of the ships they ran (or owned, or managed, or whatever) were far too big to come in to Cardiff Docks. From memory, I think every time we went to join Dad on board, or saw him off for a solo voyage, it involved a train journey to London, then a plane to wherever the ship he was joining happened to be docked at the time. Again, with no timeline in my memory, he went from 2nd mate (2nd Officer) to 1st mate (1st officer), to Captain, during my memory span.
In fact, I recently learned of a new puzzle piece to fit in – I went on a girl’s weekend to Lisbon, earlier this year. The conversation arose as to whether any of us had been before. I quite clearly remember mum telling us (my brother and I) that we weren’t going home as had been planned, but in fact, we were staying on and going to Lisbon, in Portugal. Shortly afterwards, plans changed again and it turned out that mum and brother and I would go home after all, but Dad would stay on. It was only during the discussion before going to Lisbon this year, that mum disclosed that it was at that point that dad was made up to Captain. He was asked to stay on and Captain the ship to Lisbon, but the family couldn’t stay on in case we were a distraction during his first command. I don’t know why – at the time I don’t think I’d ever heard of Lisbon, but I was extremely upset at not being allowed to go. I think it was just the thought of us going home without dad.
(Incidentally, I loved the city on my visit this year. Will definitely be trying to visit again in the future.)
There are other random memories … or, rather, a mix of memories, and incidences I’ve been told about and have seen or acquired photos to go along with the stories …
I quite clearly remember going to a place called Nouhadibou – it was one of the places in the project I did. It was (well, still is I suppose!) right on the edge of the Sahara desert. We weren’t allowed to go ashore, one reason why I suppose it stuck out in my memory. Usually, during a 24-48 hour stay in a port we got to go ashore and explore the locale at least once while the crew were loading or unloading coal or iron-ore. This place, even then (late 80’s? I think it was my little sister’s one and only voyage, and she was only a baby), on the coast of wild West Africa, was too dangerous for woman and children to be venturing alone. So I only ever got to see it from afar. Sandy coloured everything – ground, roads, hills, buildings, all appeared to be the same colour from our distance. I watched that movie “Captain Phillips” recently, and in addition to it just reminding me of living aboard ship, the dangers we might have faced didn’t seem all that real, at the time.
I’m told that I was on board during a trip Around the Horn – Cape Horn, right at the bottom tip of South America. One of the most notoriously rough shipping channels in the world. I can’t claim to marry the two up, but I have strong memories of being in rough seas, and the ship ‘rolling’ (tipping dramatically from one side to the other). I remember the edges of the dining tables in the dining room, had small ‘lips’, on hinges around the edges, so they could be lifted and clipped in to place, so eating during rough weather didn’t result in one’s soup pouring into one’s lap. And every door had one of those little clips to hold it open if needs be.
In passing conversation, I’ve always shortened my childhood to a logline-length “I went around the world, more than once, before I was 9 years old.” I found this diagram online of world shipping lanes. I have memories of most; except crossing the Atlantic. Although I’ve made up for it in more recent times, but I don’t recall ever visiting North America during my voyages as a child.
New Year’s Eve at sea : I remember having Christmas on board ship, more than once, I think. Mum made the kitchen crew put coins in the Christmas pudding, like my grandmother used to at home; so those lucky enough would get a treat of some pocket money (if they didn’t choke on it first!). We were around northern Europe, somewhere. I vaguely recall going in to toyshops, maybe in Germany or nearby, and seeing puzzles and other toys I’d recognise as being what we would find in the UK, but with foreign writing on them, and different symbols on the price tags. (These were the days before the almighty Euro too, when the UK wasn’t the only one with its own currency).
After Christmas, we sailed up towards Norway. We were anchored off the coast, I think heading for the port of Narvik, for New Year’s Eve. We had an amazing view of the Northern Lights. These days I would’ve probably been up all night with my camera, but as it stands, I have no pictures, just memories of that. There was a tradition (I don’t know if it was made up just for us or if it really was done every year) that the oldest on board would ring the ship’s bell, just before midnight, to ring out the old year; and the youngest on board, would then ring it again to ring the New year in. As it happened, this year was one of extremes. Regularly, a retired captain, Captain Hooper, known to all as Hoops I think, who had been allowed to travel on voyages for his own amusement after retirement, I think. (In all honesty, I never knew why; but if you were a retired seaman who’d spent all of your life at sea, could you imagine being stuck in your lounge looking out the window, or in the day room of some retirement home? Way to suck the remaining life out of you! I like to think allowing him to ‘tag along’ on voyages was a way of him enjoying his retirement. And a little rejuvenating I suppose, having children on board too.) Anyway, he was, by far, the oldest on board; so rung the old year out. My brother must have been 2 or 3 at the time and got to ring the new year in.
The other reason Narvik stuck in my memory, was when we were to go in to dock, after waiting at anchor, the pilot came on board. (Each port has its own pilot. They’re seamen who are so familiar and experienced with their own port, that they are brought on board visiting vessels to guide them in to port). He explained to my brother and me that it got so dark so early in Norway that all the children had reflective strips on their clothing and gave us both a plastic, reflective disk, on a string. I think the idea was to wear it as a necklace. I had that for quite a while, but I’ve moved house so often that somewhere along the line it’s gone. Narvik was one place we DID get to go ashore to look at. for some reason I remember it being pretty quiet. Mind you, this was a day or two after New Year’s, so it was probably still a public holiday or something. It was pretty dead (and snow-covered) in the town square…for some reason, I just remember a large tank parked right in the middle of the square. Also snow-covered. I think we had a photo of it at one point. Lost, in moves, again. I seemed to recall it being something to do with World War 2; so I looked it up recently, and apparently there was a lot of action there in and around 1940.
One year, we were there for ANZAC day in Australia (although it was years before I met anyone else who knew what ANZAC day was…maybe not even until we moved to New Zealand!), and I remember going ashore to a small, white chapel, possibly made of wood panels; with ceiling fans, and sit in a pew and join in a remembrance service. I remember going to a shop that sold touristy things and gifts, and for years afterwards my mum wore a night shirt that had writing on it, upside down, saying “I’m an Upside-down Aussie”. It was funny, to an 8 year old. My brother and I had a stuffed Koala each. We named the Brucie and Lucy. (we had two hamsters at home named that too…not sure which came first). I still have my Koala. I’m not sure if it’s made of real Koala fur but it certainly doesn’t seem like imitation fur; and it’s weird, for a stuffed toy, it quite hard, like a taxidermy kind of thing rather than a cuddly toy type of thing. She’s been lost a few times, and found again. And she used to have little plastic claws on her hands and feet but one of many pet dogs that have come into and out of my life over the years had a penchant for chewing those particular parts of her. She is now claw-less. But, she is one of two things that I still own, currently safe in my own home, from my days at sea.
The other is a Chinese doll, that was (apparently) given to me by the shipping agent in Hong Kong, I think. I’m amazed she’s survived this long, to be honest! Although, admittedly, every pane of glass on her bamboo framed case has been replaced.
I’m sure after I sign off this post, there’ll be more instances (like the fancy dress party, to which two crew members went as a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, my brother and I were Robin Hood & Maid Marian, my mum was Crystal Tips … amazing how creative people can be in the middle of the ocean with limited resources…) of things I suddenly remember. But at least I’ve finally made a start at logging somewhere that it ever really happened…