Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

Posts Tagged ‘last days of sail

A sailor’s life – 62. New York, New York

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New York, Liberty by night

New York, Liberty by night - postcard sent 1922

America had been “dry” for eighteen months when the Shell oil tanker Pyrula dropped anchor off New York in autumn 1921 under the stern, sober eye of Miss Liberty.

In Times Square legitimate restaurants and bars had closed, and special investigator Izzy “the human chameleon” Einstein and his straight man Moe Smith were already hundreds of arrests into their extravagant career as prohibition agents – sniffing out under the counter liquor in a variety of plausible disguises, from expansive cigar salesmen to thirsty longshoremen.

It was the age of the speakeasy, just “ask for Joe”. There were several thousand underground drinking dens in Manhattan already by that winter, varying from dingy doorways behind which tired bar girls pushed illegally stilled liquor and the lure of sex, to glizy private social clubs peopled by flappers and dapper men in spats. Here, the cocktail grew up, to hide the taste of bad booze. It was the era of jazz, and racketeers and movies.

But the British crew on Pyrula were not destined to see much of the bright lights of the Big Apple. By the time the first snows fell that winter, Bert found himself moored in the open roads off Brooklyn, three miles from the nearest landing stage, as officer-in-charge on a floating fuel pump.

Pyrula was a big ship – 520ft long and “as wide as Union Street,” as Bert wrote to his people back home in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. She had started life as the White Star steamer Cevic, one of the “cattle boats” carrying livestock and immigrants between the US and Europe. She had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty in 1914 and she saw action as a decoy warship – a dummy Queen Mary, with cylinder tanks built into her holds to carry oil. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum had bought her after the war and Bert had joined her as Mate in Barcelona in September 1921.

Shell oil tanker Pyrula 1921

Shell oil tanker Pyrula 1921 - Bert Sivell collection

They were bound for New York via Tampico, Mexico, through the hurricane belt. There were 70 officers and crew aboard, all housed over three decks amidships, and his room was the most luxurious he had ever had in all his ten years at sea. It was the size of the sitting rooms in the houses along the street where he had grown up, with electric lights, a fan for hot weather and a bell to the steward’s pantry.

The master was an old sailing ship man who was delighted to discover his new first officer had served his time in sail.

Captain Baxter was nearly 60 and had been 20 years in sail before he and his ship were taken over by Shell. Dolbadarn Castle had been demasted and converted to a motor ship, Dolphin Shell, and Baxter had just returned from three years’ service with her in the Far East. Pyrula was his first steamer.

Dolbadarn Castle, Dolphin Shell - photo Kees Helder

Dolbadarn Castle, Dolphin Shell - photo Helderline.nl

He knew the ship to which Bert had been apprenticed at 16, and had met the captain, James Donaldson, in ‘Frisco in 1893. Bert for his part had not a bad word to say about the gentlemanly old sea dog — not even when he brought aboard two tiny chinchilla monkeys, which ran amok among Bert’s fresh paintwork with dirty paws.

“Every evening after tea the old man comes up on the bridge and we have a yarn about the old sailing ship days,” he wrote home in his weekly letter to his waiting sweetheart. “He is really very interesting. Some of the places he has taken his ships need considerable skill to get in. He bought a couple of monkeys in Gibraltar. They are the queerest looking things that ever I saw, very lively and climb all over the place. One has a special liking for my shoulder and when walking up and down the bridge this little article will suddenly spring off the top of a door and land on me. They are quite small, not much bigger than a squirrel. I don’t know how they will stand the cold. We have also a couple of cats this trip, stowaways from Gibraltar.”

The orders had been to collect a cargo of oil from Tampico in Mexico and take it to New York, where Shell was keen to grab a slice of the city’s booming 796,000 barrel a year bunkering fuel market. With the US price of oil off the wharf at $1.85 a barrel, the group’s accountants had worked out that they could make over a dollar a barrel profit shipping it up from Mexico, even including freight and handling and the Mexican government’s 14 cents a barrel tax.

New York, Gay White Way 1922

New York, Gay White Way - postcard sent 1922

For some time, the directors had been casting about for a site in New York harbour to build a shore depot with fuel tanks. In February 1921 proposals were “laid on the boardroom table”, as the company minutes show, to buy and develop a 22 acre site which had been found on the New Jersey waterfront opposite Staten Island. It needed dredging and a pier, and was to have cost an estimated $665,000, but by late summer the scheme had been rejected amid doubts over the vendor’s title to the land and it was decided instead to make do with a cheaper option: an elderly depot ship and a young officer-in-charge.

That August Bert was offered the job – and the prospect of a pay jump from £26 to £35 a month, which was most welcome to an ambitious chap saving up to marry his girl as soon as his first leave was due, in eleven months’ time. He was 26, and had been with Shell for two years.

At home, unemployment was rising. Demand for British coal, steel and woollens slumped after the war. The empire’s  markets were in tatters. On both sides of the Atlantic ships were being laid up. Men were being laid off. The old industries struggled, and in the midst of it all a much younger industry, oil, grew strong.

US destroyers laid up at san diego, california, 1922

US destroyers laid up at San Diego, california, circa 1922 - collection Naval Research Center

In ten days after leaving Gibraltar they sighted only four ships, even along the US coast.It shows that the Yankee trade depression is just as heavy as our own because in normal times this coast is alive with shipping, mostly American coastal traffic it is true but even coastal traffic means work for someone,” Bert wrote.

Bert reported 600 vessels idle in Newport News, VA. Worse than any port in England, he said. And New York and Philadelphia were said to be the same.

The men who had deserted the Red Duster for big Yankee wages during the war were on the beach too. “The few American ships running will only carry Americans. None of the crews of British vessels calling here ever desert their ships now, so there is no chance of the stranded ones getting away.”

He had scant sympathy. He had served the war in sail, running saltpetre from Chile for the munitions industry and Jarra wood from Australia for pit props. He had endured low pay, bad food and rough men, but it had taught him his trade and in the summer of 1919 he had been very happy to exchange his crisp new sailing ship master’s “ticket” for a dry berth on oil tankers and three square meals a day.

He was a qualified captain, but it had taken him nine months to climb back to first officer. Officer-in-charge of an oil depot ship was another step up, but it was hard work.

nassau street, new york

Bustling crowds on Nassau Street, New York, posted 1920s

Some weeks Bert was on his feet for 63 hours at a stretch, taking oil from the tankers that ranged alongside them in the deep roads, and discharging it into smaller lighters that tendered among the big ships along the Chelsea piers where the White Star liners and Cunarders docked. Tossed by the backwash of the great Atlantic passenger ships that brought him his mail, far from the bright lights on shore, he watched the immigrants arriving from the old world, huddled at the railings for a glimpse of the new.

There was no telephone aboard. If he needed to talk to the agents he had to take the motor launch ashore and phone from the quay. He visited the office in Manhattan twice a week, taking in lunch at his favourite Chinese restaurant up town. It had an orchestra and dancing, which he watched. He loved jazz and occasionally took in a show or a movie. If he enjoyed other diversions, he did not mention them in the letters and cards he fired off to his fiancee, Ena Whittington, on the Isle of Wight.

Marooned on Pyrula, a mile offshore, with a mainly Irish and Scandinavian skeleton crew of fourteen, prohibition made little impression on Bert, although he was not himself was not averse to a tipple, as he admitted as he nursed himself through the ‘flu that laid waste to New York in January 1922. For several days he had lived on hot malted milk and rum — “shocking, and in a prohibition country too,” – and many a ship master shared a dram of the real McCoy with him after the oil had been pumped across, for it was a cold job.

When a Sinn Fein flag, ensign of the Irish free state, appeared on the bulkhead in the crew quarters he prudently ignored it, but when one of the firemen (stokers) succumbed to what Bert suspected were the effects of “moonshine” he had him packed off to hospital ashore, smartly. The authorities tended to ask unwelcome questions about where booze had come from. But the patient was outraged to discover his pay was stopped while he was laid up and threatened to sue. On discharge he refused to return to the ship, and he died of alcohol poisoning in another hospital two weeks later, one of thousands of victims across the US. (“So that settles his lawsuit,” wrote Bert, unsympathetically.)

Shell tanker Pyrula, master's sitting room, 1922

Shell tanker Pyrula, master's sitting room, 1922 - time exposure with cat in foreground, probably growling

By the beginning of February the snow was 2ft deep on the deck, and all the pipes were frozen up. As the ice melted, it trickled into his rooms in 26 places. Between ships, the stowaway little black cat that had survived the hurricane was his constant companion. It followed him around the deck like a dog and sat on the safe in his room as he worked, growling at its own reflection in the wardrobe mirror.

Unable to get ashore, Bert’s pay had never quite reached the £35 a month he had been promised; the ASPCo deducted meals at 3s 6d a day for each man. Overtime rates had been abolished the previous October (“though we still have to work overtime, or face the sack…”) and in March, the pay itself was cut by £2 4s a month, the second time in a year. In May it was to go down a third time, they were told, by £1 2s. “We shall soon be going to sea for our health,” he wrote dolefully, but to his surprise only one of his crew quit.

By now, Bert was counting the months until his leave, when he was to go back to the island to get married and set up a home of his own ashore. He had been at sea since he was 15 and never home for more than a few weeks until the summer he’d met Ena.

However, at the end of March, all his plans were thrown into the air. After months at anchor, Pyrula was moved to a permanent berth beside a pier on Staten Island. Pier 14, Clifton, had power lines from the shore and Bert got a telephone in his room. Trains and trams ran past the pier gates straight to the Manhattan ferry and the shows, and in the evenings after work, he was able to take a walk.

By  late spring Bert was writing chattily home about the 25 cent movies, the talent nights at the local palais and several sightseeing trips he’d enjoyed in a friend’s automobile.

Life on the pier was a bustle of activity, with “noise and all sorts of things going on” day and night. One week a small steamer turned up and discharged a cargo of cork, lemons, sardines, and almonds into the shed beside the tanker. All day the scent of lemons hung strong about the wharf. Pyrula had just taken on coal, but Bert uncharacteristically left his ship black with dust from stem to stern rather than risk dirty water running off and spoiling the fruit.

Some shore life diversions were less welcome: one night they were burgled, together with the Standard Oil tanker lying beside them, and a four-masted schooner nearby. While Bert slept, the thief or thieves bypassed several night watchmen and the catches on all the doors. “When I woke up at 6am I found my room like a shambles and clothing lying around everywhere.” They had taken his watch, chain and binoculars, plus an overcoat from the steward’s room and shore-going clothes from the other tanker, but missed Pyrula’s pay roll, which was in Bert’s safe, and a gold watch he had brought as a present for Ena.

At home, Ena was busy sewing for the wedding, amid much envy and ribbing from her mates at the milliner’s in Ryde where she now worked. On Pier 14, Pyrula shifted record quantities of bunker oil, the young officer-in-charge was mentioned in letters to head office, and Bert made a momentous decision. His leave was fast approaching. He’d been away three years. He was entitled to go home. But it was rumoured that the agent wanted him to stay.

“If I am ordered to remain here it would be very unwise to kick,” he wrote. “Because I would only prejudice my career in this company.”  He would lose Pyrula and his next ship might be out east, where Ena could not follow.

“Come out and marry me,” he telegrammed.

Read on: To have and to hold, Pyrula 1922-1924
Previously: Hurricane at sea

White Star Cevic as dummy Queen Mary

White Star Cevic, future oil tanker Bayleaf-Pyrula, as dummy Queen Mary

The White Star steamer Cevic disguised as the battleship Queen Mary in 1914, note dummy first and third funnels with no smoke

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A sailor’s life – 58. Spoils of war, 1921

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shell oil tanker mytilus 1921

Shell oil tanker Mytilus, 1921

Bert Sivell saw in New Year’s Day 1921 in drydock in Rotterdam, as officer in charge of the Shell oil tanker Mytilus – surrounded by the company’s new “war” boats having their names changed to shells.

Absia was there (ex War African), and Anomia (War Expert), and Marinula and Melania, and the four-masted Speedonia. The War Rajput (soon to be Conia) was due in and War Matron (Acasta), and his first ship, Donax. His last one, Orthis, had just sailed.

“There’s a big slump in cargo steamers just now and many are laying up, but ours cannot get around fast enough,” he wrote. In Britain, a national coal strike had erupted in October.

rotterdam postcard 1920

Rotterdam postcard view, sent 1921

“No dear, the coal strike will not delay our docking,” he had written to Ena when it started. “It has done something far worse: it has driven the job out of this country altogether. Did you read in the paper a day or so back about a big ship repairing contract being transferred from North Shields to Rotterdam? That was this firm. They had five Monitors at Shields, being converted into tankers*, but owing to labour troubles in the ship yards and coal mines they towed them over to Rotterdam to finish converting. Think of the amount of work going out of the country, and the money…”

Britain had emerged from the first world war millions of dollars in debt to the US and with its overseas markets in tatters. Pent up domestic demand masked the damage briefly, but as the men poured home to their civilian jobs, suddenly there were too many men and not enough jobs. Wages began to slip. During a flying trip home in January with the ship’s accounts, Bert passed down Oxford Street on the breezy top deck of a double decker bus and noticed various groups of unemployed ex soldiers including a band of veterans busking for pence outside Selfridges. Trade was bad, he noted.

But out along the Heijplaat in Rotterdam business was booming. Tiny neutral Holland had emerged relatively unscathed from the war between its big neighbours – give or take the thousands of Belgian refugees and the rationing and the Spanish ‘flu.

Heijplaat, Rotterdam 1960s

Heijplaat, Rotterdam - "Half garden city, half dockyard", opened in 1920 with 400 homes, three churches, a public bath house and a 'dry' cafe (Photo 1960s)

Bert had arrived in the Netherlands aboard Orthis in December, still dodging sea mines and funnel still sparking “like a Chrystal Palace display”. He saw in the new year from a pontoon in the Maas, on the wrong side of the river from the centre of Rotterdam. The Dutch kept up new year properly, he reported, all work having stopped at 1pm and not due to restart until Monday. Cafés, bars, picturehouses and theatres were all open, however, and there were lively crowds on the streets, including several fights, which he dodged. “I did not fancy a night in jail.” He did not like Rotterdam, nor the Dutch much.

Within weeks, however, the harbour was heaving with Shell ships and Bert found himself surrounded by new ships and old friends. “I have just had one of the best weekends since I have been in Rotterdam,” he wrote.

“In my last letter I told you that the four-masted barque Speedonia belonging to this company had arrived. Naturally, being fresh out of sail myself, I was interested in the vessel, so on Saturday afternoon I went round to her. I just drifted aboard casually and saw a man holding up the cabin doorway. It struck me I should know him so I started to yarn, and in the course of our conversation I tumbled to where we had met: he was 3rd mate of the four-masted barque Grenada and we were together in Newcastle NSW in July and August 1913, and again in Gatico and Tocopilla (Chile) from October to December of the same year.  I had not heard anything of him since. We went ashore together on Saturday evening and I piloted him round the sights.

Speedonia - shipsnostalgia

Shell oil carrier Speedonia, one of six sailing vessels in the company's fleet, 1921

“Sunday morning I was busy doing accounts when the Donax appeared on the scene. Naturally there was no more work that day and after dinner [lunch. Ed] I dressed and went round to her. She was lying at the installation, only about a mile away as the crow flies, but five miles when one has to walk it. It was a lovely day and I quite enjoyed the walk. I got round about 3.15pm and strolled along to the messroom, where I found the chief engineer playing draughts with the Marconi operator. He was very surprised to see me, because they all thought I was still on the Orthis. We adjourned to his room and give each other all the news and then the Chinese boy came in with the chief’s tea. He nearly dropped the cup when he saw me and got a ‘ten cent’ wriggle on to bring me one. After about an hour with the chief I blew along to see Captain McDermid.

“When passing through the saloon I ran into my own former boy. His face broke into a big oriental smile immediately and he started bowing and saluting alternately. It was really very amusing. Then I got into the old man’s room and his first question was if I was married yet. We had a long yarn about everything and he fished out a bottle of port.”

Captain McDermid said Shell was negotiating building forty more Donax-type ships in the US (“just think of the masters’ jobs”) on top of twenty-six already under construction at yards around the world. Thirteen were due to be commissioned that year, he told him.

McDermid was senior Shell man and he predicted great things for Bert; the company’s eye was on him, he said. Sailing ship qualifications were the golden ticket.

But Bert’s rapid progess had not passed unnoticed lower down the pecking order either. The 2nd mate on one of the other tankers challenged him to his face: why was Bert chief officer on a bigger ship after only 18 months in the company?

By late February, when Mytilus’s new master Captain (“Little”) Hill stepped aboard, Bert had been in Rotterdam for four months and he was ready to go, but it was still a shock when the orders came for Abadan.

Read on: In sickness and health, Mytilus 1921
Previously: The wife’s tale II

*Renamed Anam, Ampat, Delapan, Doewa, Lima, Tiga, Toedjoe and Satoe

A sailor’s life – 56. Wives on wharves

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merchant navy officer's wife, 1920s

Wife on board (Ena Sivell in fur coat), merchant navy, 1920s

I often get a yarn with the ‘old man’ on the same old topic – marriage. His chief argument is that marriage is no good for a man going to sea, because he is seldom home. He says it is only keeping another man’s daughter, but I argue what could be better than for a man to come home from a voyage and find his wife waiting with outstretched arms to greet him, because if a girl really loves a man she is willing to put up with her man being at sea most of his time and will make the most of him while he is home. Am I not right, darling?”
Bert Sivell to Ena Whittington, December 1919

The “old man’s” view of women was jaundiced. Captain McDermid – all of 35 – had been engaged once himself, he told Bert during their first trip with the Shell oil tanker Donax. But his girl had spent her last penny to get a fur coat. When he saw that he turned her down, he said, because if she would spend her own money like that, what would she be like with his?

Shell oil tanker Donax (1)

Shell oil tanker Donax (1919), Captain McDermid

But McDermid’s bark was worse than his bite. Though unmarried himself, he was happy to wire ahead so that the 2nd Engineer’s wife could be waiting on the pier head as the ship came alongside in Shellhaven on their return from the Baltic, and three days later when the tug took her and the chief engineer’s wife off again as Donax left for the States, he had three long blasts blown on the ship’s whistle as a farewell to the ladies. (“The tug replied by giving a series of blasts, trying to make Hip Hip Hurrah, so the wives had a good send off. There were four British steamers lying at anchor there and I expect they wondered what had gone wrong.”)

London Tilbury and Southend railway pier and ferry, Gravesend

London Tilbury and Southend railway pier and ferry, Gravesend, Bert’s route to Ena and home

In a “home” port, like Shellhaven in the Thames estuary, Shell’s married officers – and married officers only – were permitted to have their wives living aboard with them. “They have to pay their own expenses, but the firm makes all the arrangements, which is very good of them,” Bert wrote, enviously.

He himself managed only snatched evenings on a sofa at Ena’s digs in Tunbridge Wells, arriving at 6pm and running for the 10.10pm train for Charing Cross, Tilbury, and a midnight walk back to the ship. Once he managed a trip to his parents on the Isle of Wight. Donax had arrived at Thameshaven at 2pm, they were tied up by 5pm, he’d hailed a tug to Gravesend, and run for the ferry to Tilbury just in time to catch the London train. He had got to Ryde as the clocks were chiming 3.3oam.

Small wonder he was envious of married colleagues. ” Here is another chance you have missed,” he wrote in April 1920. “You could have met the ship yesterday afternoon and stayed on board until tomorrow morning. A little spell like that about twice every two months and the drydocking every six months will not make married life so bad after all, eh! sweetheart, and there is always the prospect of the three months furlough.”

london docklands undated view tower bridge

London docklands, undated – not always a comfy spot for the wives to hang around, waiting for their husband’s ship

The cranky former RFA Oakol, latterly the Shell oil tanker Orthis, to which he was transferred that May offered even more opportunity for the men to see their wives (“… The 2nd mate’s wife was aboard almost before the anchor was down…”) due to the time she spent in Millwall dock and Shellhaven while the engineers struggled with her engines. Bert managed many more trips to Tunbridge Wells after work, and several to Ryde – taking Ena with him on the night train.

“It will be a taste of what is in store for you in future, dearest, when we are married and you have to suddenly fly off to Glasgow or somewhere else on receipt of a wire. You will get quite used to night travelling.”

Captain Harding had his own wife aboard Orthis as often as possible and was generous with time off for his unwed chief officer. The likelihood of transfer “out East” hung over them all, if not to Palau Bukom in the Singapore Straits, where the Shell group had historic concessions, then at least to Batoum on the Black Sea, where a pipeline delivered oil from the Anglo-Persian’s newly acquired Caspian wells. The cosy brief domesticity in Shellhaven or even Millwall or Rotterdam was a rare interlude, to be grabbed with both hands, spurred by the arrival of charts for Batoum that May.

Orthis, converted by Shell from the RFA oiler Oakol

Shell tanker Orthis (1920), Captain Harding

When the company tried to ban wives, the men were outraged. “There is a new ruling coming out in the firm that no wives are to be allowed on a vessel with benzine in,” Bert reported. “Some fanatic, I suppose, thinks it dangerous, but I have an idea that rule will be broken a few times or many will leave the firm.”

And they cheered the master of a Belgian time-charter ship who let go from the wharf and anchored in the stream when ordered to put his wife ashore while loading. “The installation manager was aboard within an hour, asking him to resume and saying his wife could stay.”

Time snatched with husbands aboard oil tankers was not an unmixed blessing, at least for the wives. “They have been trying to kill us all just lately here by letting go a lot of gas,” wrote Bert from Shellhaven in August. “They purify petrol by passing some acid through it. This acid is then run into the sea and the end of the pipeline is not far from us. They run this stuff away in the middle of the night and the ‘sniff’ is thick enough to cut. Nearly all the Europeans on board are bad through it. Last night it nearly turned me up and I have been queer all day.”

Summoned by telegrams, expected to park children and leap onto trains at little or no notice, and then kick their heels on wharves in strange ports until someone had time to pick them up, the lot of a merchant officer’s wife was not as simple as it had been in the days of sail. Then, each ship was a small business venture, and it was common for a master to own a part share. Property ashore was idle money, so many captains simply took their wives with them – resulting in children born and raised at sea. As late as the 1920s, there were still wives in sail.

When Bert Sivell joined his third Shell oil tanker, Mytilus, in Rotterdam shortly before Christmas 1920, Captain Jackson had both his wife and his little daughter living on board. Bert couldn’t wait to be married himself.

Read on: The wife’s tale II
Previously: A trip to Dublin, September 1920

A sailor’s life – 53. Christmas at sea, 1919

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Traditional Christmas pudding

Traditional Christmas pudding

Christmas dinner 1919 aboard the Shell oil tanker Donax was a feast beyond the wildest imaginings of a boy from a windjammer, raised on the regulation pound of salt gristle and pint of stewed peas.

The previous year, Bert Sivell had been in the tropics, a very young and rather uncompromising mate under sail in the Indian Ocean aboard the old three-master Monkbarns.

Christmas dinner then had been half a dozen Australian chooks, picked up by the “Old Man” in Bunbury WA during the Armistice celebrations and eaten three to a bird, with plum duff for afters and an impromptu concert on the foredeck as night fell. Among the teenage apprentices – for whom Bert made Christmas eve hideous by setting them the filthy chore of “tarring down” the rigging – the memory of their subsequent slap-up Christmas day “feed” had glowed undimmed and still written about fifty years later.

On Donax, Christmas began at 11am in the middle of the cold grey Atlantic, when the captain mustered them for port wine and cake in the saloon. Officers only, of course. Bert did not record what libations were offered to the Chinese crew. In the saloon there had been toasts to the king and to “our loved ones at home” – with much sly winking at Bert, newly engaged with a framed photo of my grandmother shyly smiling on his desk which they’d all been to inspect.

Christmas dinner à la Shell had featured hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, lamb cutlets and peas, chicken and boiled ham, plum pudding flaming with brandy, and fruit, all washed down with claret, beer, stout or lemonade.

“After dinner we all sat around smoking. The old man was a little merry and gave us two songs, the Bandoliers and Land of Hope and Glory. It would have been better had he had a voice…” wrote Bert. By 10pm the party was over and everyone was back to work. As 2nd mate Bert’s watch was midnight till 4am.

Bert, then 23, had joined the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company in September 1919 as 3rd officer, notwithstanding the crisp new master’s certificate in his pocket, but by Christmas nine weeks later he had been promoted and a new man fresh from the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. had moved into his old quarters. The new junior was three years older than Bert with only a 1st mate’s certificate “and a steamship one at that”, wrote Bert, smugly. “He’s a bit swanky, but he’ll soon lose that in a tanker.”

nautical charts

Nautical charts

As 2nd mate, Bert was now in charge of the tanker’s charts – inking in the Admiralty’s monthly list of corrections to lights, rocks and shoals on any of the 1,000 maps Donax carried. But the years in sail had taught him skills the more pampered steamship men could only gape at. He became the ship’s unofficial barber (“Europeans only”), and drew regular audiences too as he stitched up a rip, darned a sock or patched his boots.

When the 3rd engineer banged his head and went into violent convulsions in Helsinki, Bert had been the only officer aboard with first aid training and he nursed the injured man on the messroom table for five hours (!) until the Finnish doctor arrived aboard. (“The 1st and 2nd mates both lost their heads, so I kicked them outside for a start, and put the chief engineer out in the snow also as he wanted to faint.” )

When the patient was ordered to hospital ashore, Bert and the 4th engineer gleefully obliged. It was the first time they’d set foot on dry land since leaving the UK, as they’d been too busy minding the pumps during the oil tanker’s brief dockings at Philadelphia, Copenhagen and Reval (Talinn). On the way back to the ship in the taxi, they treated themselves to a sneaky detour. “It was fine walking on the crisp snow. There were plenty of one-horse sleighs plying for hire, and all the boys had their toboggans. I saw some beautiful shops, but neither of us had any money.”

Only later did they discover how badly ill the 3rd engineer was. His sea career was finished. “He can never take charge of running engines after having fits,” wrote Bert. The man was only 26 and married.

*

Bermuda Tamarind vale postcard 1920

Bermuda Tamarind Vale postcard 1920 - unscheduled stop due to engine trouble

Donax spent New Year 1920 in Louisiana, rattling the ship’s whistle into the empty night 35 miles up the swampy, flat mosquito-plagued Mississippi, where a handful of wooden houses clustered round a general store near a single oil well on the edge of a large sugar plantation. Bert knew it as Good Hope, but it was to become better known as Norco – today an oil town of 4,000 souls still labouring under the unlovely acronym of the New Orleans Refining Co.

From Louisiana the oil tanker set off back into the Gulf Stream bound for Europe, laden with best quality Water White kerosene for Sweden, but the engine trouble that had dogged Donax since they left Rotterdam struck again.

Although the company was already experimenting with ocean-going diesel engines, seven-year-old Donax had oil-fired steam reciprocating engines, and Bert wasn’t impressed. (“We were stopped an hour and a half while the engineers were tinkering up the machinery to make it go,” he wrote, less than a week out. “It’s not all honey apparently in a steamer.”) The breakdowns continued the whole trip, averaging about once a week, “and always on my watch,” Bert noted, dourly.

Then a boiler split. It was the disadvantage of oil-fired steamers, or so he said. The bunker oil picked up in the US burned hotter (280F) and less uniformly than coal and cooled dramatically each time pressure was lowered for the many brief ports of call, causing the metal to crack.

Stockholm harbour 1920 postcard with airship

Stockholm harbour 1920 postcard with airship - or 'dirigible' as Bert Sivell knew it, writing home that February

One day out of New Orleans they were “leaking like a basket”. When the second boiler came out in sympathy five days later off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the Old Man and the chief engineer held a council of war. Limping back to the UK for a week of repairs and a spot of unscheduled home leave was no longer an option. The master decided to head for Halifax, Nova Scotia, 450 miles north, and whistled up his 2nd Mate to dig out the charts.

“My job was soon over,” wrote Bert, Halifax NS was one of the very few places in the world the tanker did not have charts for, but as he arrived on the bridge to report, he found the Old Man and the chief engineer still calculating headwinds and fuel consumption.

Sail-trained Bert was amazed. It seemed immediately obvious to him that the limping tanker would do better to head not north towards the Arctic against the winds but south with the swell behind them, aiming for Bermuda –  300 miles back the way they’d come, but with fairer weather all the way. Being Bert he also said so.

Pre-prohibition bar, Port Arthur Texas, postcard 1920

Port Arthur Texas, 1920 - on a rare trip ashore that March, Bert found prohibition had struck and the bar, pictured left, was dry. Instead, he attended a jazz exhibition at the fire station. "A terrible row..."

“I nearly had to laugh out loud at the look of amazement on their faces. They had not thought of that. We had been steering for Halifax for half an hour by then, and immediately the vessel was turned round and course set for Bermuda. Fancy the 2nd mate of a vessel telling the captain where to get his repairs done, and engineering work at that.

“So now we are crawling to Bermuda at about 6 knots. We are unable to go faster because we cannot keep steam, the boilers are leaking so badly that cold water has to be constantly pumped into them to keep them full…”

Captain McDermuid was suitably grateful: after one more trip to Texas and back, Bert was promoted – to another ship.

McDermuid had served in sail himself, a single year in the four-masted Juteopolis (later Garthpool), but it cut little ice with his snippy 2nd mate. (“He’s a steam boat man,” wrote Bert, “although he would like you to believe he had been years at sea in sailing ships. He often tries to tell me how things were done in sail, but he gets very muddled. He was never there long enough to learn anything…”)

Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Oakol letter

Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co letter promoting Bert Sivell to the former RN oiler Oakol - about to be renamed Orthis

On arrival in London a letter from the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co. was waiting.

Dear Sir,
We hereby beg to appoint you acting chief officer of our MV Oakol at present lying in the East India dock, London. Your wages in this position will be £27 4s a month, promotion and increased pay to date from 1st May. You are to proceed on board immediately to take up your appointment, handing this letter to the captain by way of introduction, Yours faithfully, etc

Read on: Flaming funnels, Orthis 1920
Previously: War and peace, Donax 1919

A sailor’s life – 49. Clan Line, or Shell?

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Shell tanker Donax 1919, private collection Bert Sivell

Bert Sivell, formerly Mate of the sailing ship Monkbarns, joined the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co (Shell) in autumn 1919 with a crisp new Master’s ticket in his pocket barely a fortnight old.

He was 24, with hands-on experience of shipwreck, war and mutiny, but he signed on as humble 3rd mate in the oil tanker Donax for £18 5s 6d a month, ”all bedding, linen and uniform accessories to be supplied by the Company”.

He had arrived back in Britain just in time for the national peace day celebrations that July – parades and bunting and industrial unrest. After nine years at sea studying by kerosene lamp between watches, sitting scrambled tests in ports around the world for hurried promotions, he was to spend some weeks with his parents on the Isle of Wight, attending college on the mainland each morning, and relaxing at the weekends cycling through the country lanes or tramping miles across the chalk downs with friends. (“Girls, of course,” he wrote to the girl who would be my grandmother.)

Peace day postcard

Peace day postcard

When he graduated top of his class with 89% marks after seven weeks, he was offered a job immediately, as 4th officer on a steamer departing for India that night. But he turned it down, saying “he was on holiday and had a few more girls to see.”

He posted off an application to the Clan Line of Glasgow, a comfortable, regular passenger-cargo steamship service to India, and then kicked himself when the Clan’s job offer finally caught up with him in Rotterdam two weeks later, in what was to be the first of many thousands of dreary out-of-town Shell oil refinery berths. But he didn’t repine at taking Shell’s shilling. Or not much.

The wave of national rail and coal strikes that racked Britain that summer almost as soon as the celebration bunting came down would have prevented him joining the ship, or so he reasoned.

And by then he was also discovering some of the advantages of life in the growing Shell oil tanker fleet. “A man can make money here,” he wrote home.

The food and pay were good, he said, and he had a comfy bed and a Chinese “boy” to bring him tea in the mornings and clean his shoes. “It seems to me life is one continuous meal aboard here. In the last ship we used to get one meal a week.”

Monkbarns had been 267 feet long and 23 feet wide, with a very old Old Man, two very young mates, sixteen teenage apprentices and a barely competent crew of a dozen or less, depending on desertions. Shell’s oil-fired steamer Donax by comparison was 348ft long and 47ft wide (… “half the length of Guildford Road, and about as wide…”) with a young master, four ambitious mates, a chief engineer with five junior officers of his own, a Marconi wireless operator, and more than thirty Chinese firemen and crew.

floating sea mine

Sea mines still menaced the shipping lanes in 1919. "When they float high out of the water, they are supposed to be 'dead'. Personally I have no desire to poke one of them to see," wrote Bert.

Life on Donax too was a world away from conditions aboard the old windjammer. Third officer Bert Sivell had his own clean, modern quarters with fitted cupboards, a writing desk and and armchair, electric lights and a fan, “and a dozen other things that one would never dream of in sail,” he wrote. The Chinese “boy” woke him at 7.30am each morning with hot buttered toast (“Real butter. Not margarine…”), and polished his boots until they shone like glass. Captain McDermuid was a jolly fellow, only 34 himself, who had welcomed his new juniors aboard with a bottle of wine. And the day the ship took on stores, Bert wrote in wonderment: “More stores have been sent to this vessel for a fortnight’s trip than would have arrived on the last one for a year.”

On top of the good pay, Shell offered a provident fund – 10% of salary, matched by 10% from the company plus a 15% annual bonus; three months holiday on half-pay every three years; and a £3 a month war bonus – because of the many sea mines still adrift undetected in the shipping lanes around Britain.

Above all, prospects for promotion were good. Anglo-Saxon Petroleum was expanding. Rapidly. In 1919 alone the company bought no fewer than 23 ships, to replace the eleven lost during the war. They were a mixed bag of former RN oilers built for the Admiralty and converted dry cargo carriers managed by the wartime Shipping Controller, but the company was agitating for permission from the National Maritime Board to raise its salaries by a further 40% (according to Bert’s new captain) to man them all.

It had been a snap decision to join Shell, but Bert never again left the booming oil giant, nor the girl – my grandmother – whom he had equally hastily met, wooed and won that August.

Read on: The girl next door
Previously: Oil tanker apprentice, 1919

A sailor’s life – 48. Oil tanker apprentice, 1919

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Tilbury docks, 1920s

Tilbury docks, 1920s. Collection: National Education Network

Most of Britain’s sailing ships had been sunk or sold by the time Bill Jefferies was old enough to go to sea in 1919. So he signed on with the British Tanker company and became devoted to oil tankers instead. (“Remarkable ships, in many ways” he murmured, half to himself, as he committed his memories to a tape recorder at the end of his life.)

He remembered the “lovely women” who had brazenly boarded his ship during the month he as a “first tripper” had spent in Trinidad in 1919 waiting for cargo. The crew had dropped lines over the side to haul the girls up, and sold the shirts off their backs when their money ran out. By the time the ship got to Port Arthur, Texas, where the Americans inspected every man jack of them, there were less than a dozen men aboard who had not got VD, he recalled.

Oil tanker in channel outside Port Arthur, Texas, undated

Oil tanker in channel outside Port Arthur, Texas, undated

The captain had forcibly seen to it that the three apprentices kept their noses, and everything else, clean. “He put his big fist under each of our chins and shoved our heads back. And he said, ‘If I catch any of you boys going with any of these women, I’ll smash your faces in so your mothers never recognise you…” Then he took them to the hospital and made them look under the dressings at the ulcerated, seeping genitals of a seaman he knew who was dying there. Bill said: “I told my mother seven months later, when I got home, and she said Thank God for that captain.”

Bill’s mother was a doughty woman who had signed her younger son’s indentures and paid the bond as soon as shipping firms began to recruit apprentices again after the war. Bill’s brother Alf had been an apprentice on John Stewart’s barque Lorton with Algie Course and was one of the crowd of boys in Newcastle NSW with Bert Sivell in September 1913, revelling in the tennis, tea dances and charabanc trips organised by the mission while their ships lay along the Dyke. Bill recalled the excitement he had felt as a ten-year-old being rowed out to his brother’s ship at Tilbury when a wave splashed over him, and the burly seamen nodded sagely and said “that means you’ll go to sea too, lad”.

Apprentices from sailing ship Lorton, Sydney 1911

Apprentices from the sailing ship Lorton, Sydney 1911 - including AG Course, second right, front. From The Wheel's Kick and The Wind's Song, by AG Course

When Lorton was “sold foreign” in 1914, Alf  transferred to the barque Edinburgh. But in 1916 she was captured by the raider Möwe. The Germans had hauled out the crew and two live pigs and sent the old barque to the bottom of the sea with all sails set. The tropical night had been so clear, Alf Jefferies used to claim, that they could see her canvas shimmering whitely under the water after she’d vanished. Even the enemy commander was supposed to have sighed “Beautiful even in death”. Among the prisoners below decks, the squeals of the pigs being hoisted aboard the raider were reported to have given rise to the rumour that the Edinburgh’s captain had his wife with him, and that she was hysterical.

By the time Bill Jefferies went to sea, it was a much lonelier life than Alf had sketched. The old square-riggers’ crowd of apprentices had dwindled to just three on Bill’s oil tanker, and even before these greenhorns reached their ship a plausible bloke posing as the shipping agent managed to relieve them of their luggage so they had to be kitted out from the slop chest. Once underway they got seasick and the mate, an old sailing ship man, sent them down the hold to scrape paint pots while the tanker heaved and plunged in a south-westerly gale. After they’d been sick, to windward — another mistake they did not make twice, he ordered them to shift stores. For two days they were kept constantly on the move. But it worked. Bill never suffered sea sickness again.

“They really were a motley crowd, seamen of all nations except our enemies,” said Bill aged 90, remembering that first ship in 1919. “We had a British bosun, a Belgian carpenter – a tall man with fierce whiskers who used to cause a lot of trouble when he was drunk. We had Latvians and Estonians, two Chinese cooks, and a Dutch chief steward. The average seaman in those days was either very old or a foreigner.” The fierce Welsh captain who kept his apprentices out of trouble had been torpedoed five times, or so he claimed.

But by 1920, US production of gasoline (petrol) alone was 116 million barrels (42 US gallons per barrel) – from less than 7 million barrels in 1901. Across the world the oil industry was booming.

Coming next: Clan line or Shell?
Previously: In Remembrance

A sailor’s life – 46. Through a glass, darkly

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Model of the full-rigged ship Monkbarns

Scale model of the full-rigged ship Monkbarns

It was an undated newspaper cutting among my grandmother’s papers, clipped out and saved long after Bert Sivell’s death. A bit of yellowing ephemera laid by for the oil tanker husband who never came back: “On show in the Master Mariners’ Club for the next week or so – a magnificent scale model of the full rigged ship Monkbarns.”

The 21-inch model, “hand carved with authentic teak rail and working blocks”, had been made by a Trinity House pilot for a colleague who had served his apprenticeship in the old windjammer in the final years, by then one of a big crowd of teenage boys in the half deck. I could imagine the two old salts with their heads together, jealously overseeing and lovingly recreating every last detail: the tiny extended boys’ house abaft the main hatch, the little flying horse under the bowsprit, the wheel house on the poop that would have been welcome too in the stormy watches when Bert was minding the sails.

The little ship is perfect. Dustless and frozen in time, all sail spread and a bone in her teeth – tantalisingly beyond touch in her glass case in the sunny room in a private house when I finally traced her. Sea Breezes had again provided the answers. A letter dropped casually on the mat: “We’ve got her, come and see.”

This is no museum piece. She belongs to a real seafaring family, to sons and grandsons themselves once deep-sea sailors. Part of their lives. A hand-carved homage to a world now hull down over the horizon.

Read on: In remembrance
Previously: Boy’s own story

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll