Thursday, 4 October 2007

MY STORY Chapter 5 - A Life on the Ocean Pt 1 -Crossing the Atlantic

I have been so encouraged by your comments that I am endeavouring to get on with this story a little more quickly.
Yes this is me and I am not pretending

When I look back on this chapter of my life, I realise what a privilege it was. How many 21 year olds get to sail the ocean on a fairly small ship and experience the delights and terrors of the seas and the excitement of each new port for such a prolonged period. I was at sea for almost a year.

As I mentioned in the last chapter, Alan came home from an interview on a Monday evening and said, “We are sailing on Saturday!” Having spent 8 years on large oil tankers with British Petroleum, he took this job as Chief Engineer on a small cargo ship in order to get more experience, and how small it was.

That week was very hectic as I had to arrange passport, visa, jabs etc. and think about what I might need for the next year leading a very different life to what I was used to. As we were going to be spending time in America I had to travel to my home town in Liverpool where there was an American Embassy. In those days, and yes this is true, one had to salute the American flag before being given a visa.

So with all the preparations made and all the goodbye’s said, we arrived at the ship, berthed in Middlesbrough on the East Coast on Saturday morning armed with bags of wool, knitting patterns, embroidery, Scrabble etc. We did not need books, the ship had a library and that is where I got my first taste of James Bond.

The first rumour that went around the sailors and deckhands quarters was that the Chief was into knitting big time. The second was that the Chief had his daughter with him. At one point early in the voyage our cabin boy asked if he could have a date with the Chief’s daughter! These guys were not used to having such a young Engineer Officer. Alan was only 28 at the time and considered very young to be in that position. I was the only female on board. I remember the ship gently swaying at the quayside and wondering how I would take to the motion.

We duly set sail down the river and began sailing North past the Scottish coastline. This confused me as I had assumed we would be sailing south and through the English Channel. I learned that going ‘north about’ was the shortest route, the earth being the shape that it is, but also the harshest weather would be experienced this way. We were on our way to Nova Scotia, the ship being chartered by a Canadian company, and we would be spending our time sailing up and down the Eastern seaboard of the American, Canadian and Mexican coasts, stopping off at many ports on the way. As it happened, in the North Atlantic, we experienced the worst weather Alan had ever encountered in his previous 8 years at sea.

At one point we just had to ‘hove too’ for 3 days. This means forsaking our planned course and turning into the wind and going virtually where the ocean took us. I was never actually seasick but there were times when eating wasn’t easy and I dosed myself up with Sea Legs. The other Officers were amazed when I would appear each day. They were expecting me to be holed up in our bunk. During this Atlantic crossing there were 3 separate times when we were in bed at night when one of the firemen came to tell Alan that there was a fire in the engine room. Can you imagine my terror when Alan leapt out of bed and ran post haste to the engine room? Each time it was dealt with satisfactorily but I had no way of knowing until Alan returned.

The furniture in our cabin was hooked to the bulkheads (walls) and in the worst of the weather would just fly out and slide and crash between one bulkhead and another. To look out of a porthole could be very disorientating as one minute I would see sky and the next the rolling sea as the ship rolled and pitched its way through the waves. When in our bunk one could not relax, in these times as it was just a matter of wedging oneself in. One memory that has always stayed in my mind is of listening to a particular song on the radio. It began… Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by….. To this day if I close my eyes and think of that song I can almost be transported back to the sights and sounds of the day.

So in this atmosphere I gradually settled down to a routine sea life. We had quarters that consisted of a day cabin furnished with 2 sofas and 2 armchairs, plus a desk and a bedroom with one double bunk, wardrobe and wash basin. I had to share a shower and toilet with 4 other engineers. There was no lock on the bathroom door so Alan had to stand outside. This was a very basic ship although I don’t think Ellen McArthur would have thought so! We had a cabin boy to tidy and clean the cabin for us but I decided I wanted to do that myself, after all I had all the time in the world. Alan had very little to do also as apart from filling in the daily log, he was only there to deal with emergencies and see that the other engineers and engine room workers did their job and of course ‘carry the can’ if any problems arose. For the uninitiated there are 2 departments on a ship. The Captain and his staff of various officers, galley staff and deck hands and the Chief Engineer and his engineering department.

On a daily basis while at sea I would go to the galley (dining room) at the other end of the ship, quite a feat on the open deck in bad weather, especially negotiating the slippery ladders. We are not talking about a liner here, just a cargo ship with an empty hold that could toss like a cork on the ocean. I would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there and in between amuse myself knitting, embroidering, reading, playing patience, listening to the radio and playing Scrabble with Alan. I would also visit the bridge, and yes, I did get to steer once! I liked to just watch the sea and sky go by and I would check our progress in the chart room. Later on in the good weather I would lie on deck and sunbathe. Sailors and deckhands (I am not talking about ships officers) could be quite superstitious in those days and one of their beliefs was that a woman on the bridge brought bad luck. Hence I was blamed for the bad weather. After lunch the whole ship’s company who were not on duty (including me) would have a siesta from 1.30 – 3.0 pm when we would be woken by our cabin boy with tea and cakes.

I’ve digressed a little here, so back to our Atlantic crossing. Apart from the weather and fires there were other episodes of note during this time. One being, I was asked by a sailor if I would shorten his new jeans. I duly turned them up and cut the bottom off at the top of the turned up bit instead of on the crease line. I am not a sewer! A very red faced Barbara had to return them about 5 inches too short! Would not have mattered today, in fact might have been fashionable, but certainly not then.

Another time a sailor asked me if I would cut his hair. I had never cut hair in my life. I made it so uneven through lack of experience and rough seas that I had to end up doing what was then known as a “crew” cut – well after all he was part of the crew. These days a razor set at number 2 would probably do the trick.

Another more unpleasant episode – I would wash my clothes by hand and hang them to dry on the deck outside our cabin. I began to realise that I had less underwear than I started out with. After the Captain had arranged a thorough search of the ship, my missing clothes were found shredded in the bilges at the bottom of the boat. It turned out that our cabin boy had stolen then and had been wearing them. Life at sea, especially for women, was certainly not without its trials.

It took 21 days to cross the Atlantic, yes that's 3 weeks, and in the next chapter we will be visiting Nova Scotia and that certainly had many life experiences to offer.


Vee said...

How exciting! This would make great material for a book. I'll be sure to come back to read all the installments. (I'm hoping that you visited the Maine coast, too.)

Penless Thoughts said...

These "chapters" of your life are so much fun and so interesting.

You were one very brave youne woman!!!

nikkipolani said...

Barbara, I second Susan - you are one brave woman! I wouldn't mind reading more of your digressions as well.


Wow! what adventure. You were and still are a beautiful lady. I am so glad you have all those great memories.

I like the idea about having to salute the flag before getting a visa. I enjoyed reading your story. connie from Texas

Willow said...

I agree all around. The digressions are just as interesting as the 'story line'. You have a wonderful adventurous spirit.
And, yes, this story has the makings of a good book.

Betty said...


By comparison, I have led an extremely dull life......I am tell us more....Betty

dunster1 said...

I am enjoying every post, have you considered writing a book?

Have a lovely weekend.

Nonnie said...

Thank you for sharing this. It's really facinating. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

la bellina mammina said...

WOW! What a great story and how lucky you are! And you're gorgeous! :-)

Jeanne said...

I love your stories.
Keep them coming.
Love Jeanne ^j^

Linds said...

I smiled as i read this, Barbara.... I can identify with a lot of what you said, only I went to sea for the first time in the mid 70's, and on the newest and biggest of container ships in those days. We even had a swimming pool! And i have a photo of me at the wheel too. I took my steering certificate, and when I passed, the stewards made me a special cake and sang Congratulations, while doing the can can in the dining room. Hysterical.

Lorrie said...

What a wonderful adventure!

Susie said...

Hi Barbara,
This is a far cry from the life at sea I've experienced on cruise ships!
I laughed at your cabin boy wearing your underwear!
My brother was a chief engineer on a tanker and sometimes my SIL would sail with him. She always had interesting stories to tell. She would sometimes cook for the crew. Did you ever do that?

Merisi said...

what a fascinating story!
I once went out on a sailboat to the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and I got so seasick, I was hanging there on the railings all the way back. You are one brave beautiful person! :-)
I am looking forward to read more of your stories.

Susan Kelly Skitt said...

Barbara, Hi! I'm new to your site and have enjoyed reading about your life. What an adventure! I love what you say in the "About Me" section too... how wonderful to know Christ! And what a good thing to be married for so many years. You are quite the handsome couple!

Blessings to you from Pennsylvania, USA.

(P.S. I saw you on Inspired's site.)

Oh, and I'll be doing my 100 things post soon, just in case you're interested :)

Britt-Arnhild said...

How wonderful to read this story from your life Barbara. I am so thankful for your sharing.

Mary said...

I crossed the Atlantic twice by sea in the '60's - on Cunard's original Queen Mary and the Holland America 'Statendam'. Have to say they were definitely more luxurious than your cargo ship - but I bet you had the most fun!! How brave you were - we had rough crossings but, like you, thankfully I was not seasick - though many were!
Enjoying your story Barbara - thanks for sharing.

melissa @ the inspired room said...

This is so exciting, I am getting behind, but I will catch up really were brave to get on that boat, really! But what an adventure most people have never experienced!


Teresa said...

That had to be exciting! Just like your walks, you write so that I feel like I was right there. You were quite courageous! And, what was with that cabin boy??? Sounds like it was a good idea for you to tidy yourself.

Immanuel Lutheran Preschool said...

i am brand new to your blog...traveled to England our 8th time this summer. I feel I found a treasure in the sea when I discovered this blog. I too am a Christian woman, 60 years, next month 61... have a few blogs myself...

one is

I am looking forward to more of your recollections, photos, and life, etc!

thanks for taking me back to England as I sit in my double lazy boy with with my husband of 38 years. I have been reading many of your entries to him as I discover something something new. God bless!