A sailor’s life – 26. Monkbarns: out of the half-deck
Bertie Sivell was still three months short of the end of his four-year sail apprenticeship when Monkbarns entered the Mersey off Liverpool in May 1915, his first time in a “home” (British) port port in two years. The war that was to have been over by Christmas, wasn’t. His father wrote to the master, Captain James Donaldson, for advice.
“I have nothing to write but what is favourable to your son,” the Old Man wrote back. “He is a smart, intelligent, clever, well-doing lad and there is no doubt he will quickly get on in his profession. If this war was over your son would out-distance eight out of every ten, but at present it is numbers only, no matter what their ability is.”
Donaldson advised against sending the lad back to school for formal training. “He can do all the problems now,” he said, signing off: “With kind regards, hoping he enjoyed his holiday as it will soon be over, yours truly, Donaldson”.
It was not a disinterested response. After four years working unpaid in the half deck, Bert was a skilled hand the elderly master could ill afford to lose. Which was why the end of his indentures that August found Bert back at sea, bound for New York with a cargo of salt. Donaldson put him on the crew list as an Able Seaman at £1 a month, but in fact Bert had taken over as acting 3rd mate on £2 10s a month “as per arranged with the owners,” Donaldson noted on the back of the sea-stained John Stewart & Co contract.
It was to be the start of a rapid career.