Category Archives: Shedward Seawards

Hedley, What’s a Tumescence?

A quiet day after a busy night getting our ship into port meant that the captain and the 1st mate had gone off to their cabins to stock up on sleep. It was a dead cert we would either have to shift ship half a dozen times during the coming night, or we would have to load cargo at stupid o’ clock.

Daz and I, the deck hands, have been given a ‘job and  knock.’ In other words, do this and then you’re finished for the day. I can’t remember what Daz’s job was but mine was to paint the base of the shower in the officer’s bathroom.

To give you an idea of this little coaster, the Breydon Trader, let me describe her. Small – even by coaster standards – she was a low air-draft vessel designed to fit under the bridges on the Rhine. When I signed on, she mostly sailed between the east coast of England and Holland, an area of the North Sea known as Sully’s Ditch. Her masts could be lowered and, if push came to shove, so could her wheelhouse and funnel. No bridge was too low for the BT. She also was shallow drafted and could get into places where there was very little water under her.

The BT

The BT

Inside, the captain’s cabin and day room, the mate’s cabin, the officer’s bathroom and officer’s toilet occupied the forward end of the accommodation. The deck hand’s cabins were aft. Between the officers and the hoi-polloi was the galley-come-messroom which was the size of a large cupboard. The rest of the BT was her hold. The important bit. We certainly lived in close quarters. Luckily, it was mostly a very happy ship.

Usually, there were four on the crew but, at the time, I’m writing of, we had the luxury of a trainee deck hand – my sister, St F.

So, there was me, on my knees with paint and brush in the officer’s bathroom, when St F came to read me a story. Unlike most ships, the BT could run on batteries when alongside. Engine shut down and silent, generators shut down and silent, you really could hear a pin drop, so St F had to read very quietly from her book, Voyager in Bondage. – an interesting choice for a sixteen-year-old girl to read to her big sister… Sailors eh? There are only two things that either of us can remember from that literary masterpiece – one being that the male object-of-desire had ‘buttocks like bowls of soft white dough.’

After half an hour, just before our Voyager in Bondage got to a big orgy scene, I’d finished painting and St F closed her book. Amid much girly giggling we were packing up to vacate the area when a voice from the mate’s cabin said, ‘Awwww, I was listening to that.’

Some weeks, or maybe months, later, a new mate came to the BT. Smart, well read and prone to taking his clothes off when he’d had a few too many, Hedley fitted right in. And here’s where the other thing St F and I remember from that book came in …

Me aged about 22, taken by Hedley on BT

Me aged about 22, taken by Hedley on BT

The girlfriend of a mutual friend of St F and I was, shall we say, a little annoying. Watching a film with her could be trying because she couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up with the plot so every few minutes she’d ask her fella, ‘Dave, why are they doing that?’ or ‘Dave, what does that mean?’ St F and I, rather cruelly, would imitate her (not when she or Dave were around!) and Hedley became our favourite target.

In the mess-room over dinner, in the pub over a pint, in fact, anywhere we could get away with it, one of us would ask, ‘Hedley, what’s a tumescence?’ Thank you, Voyager in Bondage for the endless hours of fun that we had with that. I can’t remember if he ever gave us the proper, dictionary definition but, if he did, I can guarantee that St F and I will have jammed our fingers in our ears and said, ‘lalalalalalalala.’ Sometimes we’d wonder aloud if he had buttocks like bowls of soft white dough – but not too often, in case he decided to show us.

Well done Hedders for not pushing us over the side!

By the way, Hedley, should you ever read this, do you remember the night in Mistley-in-the-mud when you went ashore for a pint? You asked if anyone wanted anything bringing back… There was a Danish ship just along the quay from us and I said that I’d rather like a tall, blonde Dane.

At closing time you sloshed aboard after a good night in the pub. I was sitting in the mess when you came in.

‘Aha,’ you said. ‘ I couldn’t find a tall blonde Dane exactly. Will this do?’ From a bag you produced four large cans of Carlsberg lager.

Well Hedders, old mate, I thought you’d had the last laugh – and it’s taken me nearly thirty years but, guess what? I’ve finally got myself a tall blonde Dane. XXX

Me n Roger

Me n Roger


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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Shedward Seawards


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Yes It Was Real Russian Vodka With Real Russians

Well some of it was. Some of it was vodka from the 24 hour supermarket close to the quay.

Alongside Ocean Terminal in Greenock, my little green ship with the rainbows on her hull is doing a crew change. Off go the campaigners from our last stint (sorry can’t remember what that was now – Atlantic Oil I think) and on come an influx of Scandinavians for a trip into Norwegian waters. Then, oh oh, engine problems. Engine problems of a serious nature. The ship is forty years old and our problem requires that a retired engineer from the company that built her engine is flown to Scotland to help.

I have long had a penchant for tall, fair Nordic types and you can imagine my dismay when, en-masse, the Scandinavian contingent decamped to their home countries and the future of the campaign was cast into doubt. Boo hoo. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t simply hoping to spend the next however-long ogling my shipmates but, hey, it’d been a long trip and a girl can look can’t she? Remember I said that.

During the two weeks of our lay-up a lot happened. We made friends with people at the Faslane Peace Camp and I spent a good deal of time ferrying peace-campers across the loch to the ship so that they could use our showers and washing machines. We filmed Marines filming us filming them. Children from the local area came along the quay every evening to spit at us. Some tried to stick knives into the rigid-inflatable boats that we carried on deck. Mounted police officers came along to chase the kids away – and they would stay away – until the next evening. And I got bumped up from 2nd Mate to 1st Mate. In my past seafaring life, I’d gone from deckhand to 1st Mate fairly quickly but when I went to work for Greenpeace, I’d been ashore for a while so going in as 2nd Mate made sense. When the moment came to step up a rank, I took it very seriously. I didn’t want to let anyone down, least of all an organisation that I really believed in.

Fast forward. Our engine problems fixed, the new crew settled in, the Norwegian campaign still on and our Scandinavians have returned. I’ve been a good girl, working hard and staying aboard night after night. I didn’t drink in those days as a result of seeing too many lives flushed down the toilet through alcohol but, it’s our last night in port and I thought I’d relax and have a beer with my dinner. Oh silly me to think that one beer was enough of a celebration.

Crew meetings and crew briefings are an important part of a Greenpeace ship’s routine and on that night a briefing took place to explain what we would be hoping to achieve and how we’d do it. Drilling rigs and climbers and rigid-inflatables all got a mention. Questions were asked and answered and then – it was party time! And believe me, Greenpeace knows how to party. Firstly, the main campaigner, a gregarious and charming Russian called Dima revealed his duty-free vodka. Numerous Norwegian and Swedish activists followed suit. Then, our British crew, not to be outdone, did a quick tour of Tesco and came back with a trolley-full of vodka (country of origin unknown).

Remember I said ‘remember I said that’? Well, at this point a rather nice Norwegian chappie called Michael had noticed that there was a spare bunk in my cabin. Neither daft, nor backwards in coming forwards, Michael had weighed up the pros and cons of living in a multi-berth cabin on the lower deck (known as The Bronx) or sharing a large, airy berth on the fo’c’sle deck with the mate. The Bronx, Mate’s cabin … Trust me it’s the cabin that won. When he said, ‘Do you mind if I move in with you,’ I didn’t know where to look. Ahem, tough lady sailor went red and said, ‘Er, no, that’s fine.’  Suffice to say, I was a bit shy about going to bed that night – or maybe it was the beer.

Vodka had been flowing around the messroom for a while when I noticed that Sacha, our Russian Chief Engineer and Dima were hosting a Russian drinking game.

‘Ha ha!’ I thought. ‘I’ll have some of that, enough with the goody two shoes image!’ I approached the two of them and said ‘Can I play?’

‘Yes of course,’ said Sacha and handed me a water tumbler which was about the only unused glass left aboard the ship. I held it out towards his vodka bottle. Sacha, who had sailed with me for over a year at this point, knew that I didn’t drink so – he filled the glass almost to the top. Then he handed me a potato and a slice of bread.

‘Drink vodka in one, bite potato, eat bread,’ he said.

I did that twice. Obviously, combined with my earlier beer, this had an effect on me because whilst sitting on a sofa chatting with my pal Mucky Dave, another engineer, I noticed that Sacha and Dima were corralling a bunch of drunken, growling fools under the large, round mess-room table. Apparently they were all being ‘tigers under the table.’ Now this intrigued me. What did this involve? And how could I become a growling ‘tiger under the table?’ I asked Sacha.

‘First you must drink more vodka,’ said the wicked man, knowing that I had no tolerance for booze. Stupidly, I downed another tumbler-full. Instant realisation hit me. I knew that very shortly I was so going to regret that last slug. Instead of getting under the table, I returned to the sofa with Mucky Dave. 20 minutes later the first waves of a vodka-too-far hit me. ‘Time for bed,’ I thought.

I remember my new cabin mate bending over my bunk later that night saying, ‘drink lots of water.’

‘I have,’ I groaned from under my duvet. My devil-may-care, I’m gonna be a party girl persona had come to a grinding halt. By half-past-ten I was in bed. Some party animal.

At 0700 when my alarm went off, Michael poked his head from under his duvet.

‘You’re not really going to get up?’ he asked.

‘I have to,’ I wailed wishing that I didn’t have to. Wishing that I was at home. Wishing that I was dead. But, I had a new Bosun to settle in and there was an emergency muster scheduled for later that morning. New crew members had to know where their muster points were, what their duties were in an emergency and how to get into lifejackets or survival suits. It was my job to ensure this all went to plan. I crawled from my bunk, I staggered down the stairs, I lay down on a couch in the messroom. Every few minutes the new Bosun came to give me an update on what he had the deck crew doing.

‘Well done,’ I told him. ‘You’re doing great,’ I said. ‘Please go away, you’re making my head hurt,’ I never revealed. And he kept coming back. Eventually I dragged my sorry carcass up to the wheelhouse to find the Captain and discuss the forth-coming drill. Tip-toeing in so that my footfalls didn’t make my head pound, I balanced gingerly on a seat. The Captain, Jon, took one look at me and burst out laughing.

‘The problem with you, Lol, is that you don’t do this often enough,’ he said when he’d regained control of himself. I rested my head on my arms and moaned.

‘What you need is a coke,’ Jon said and disappeared all the way down to the mess to get one. ‘Here you are,’ he handed me an ice-cold can straight from the fridge. ‘Drink this,’ he offered the can. ‘And then go back to bed. I’ll handle the drill.’

Gratitude poured from me as I negotiated the stairs. Bursting into my cabin, I remembered my new roomie. I looked across at his bunk to see him peering at me through bloodshot eyes. ‘You’re back then?’ he asked before covering his head and going back to sleep.

It has been sixteen years since that night. I never did find out how to become a tiger under the table. And I’ve never been able to look at a glass of vodka without a rolling, greasy, sick-feeling in my stomach since then.

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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Shedward Seawards


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A Mighty Oak Has Fallen

Captain Ian MacDougal

Captain Ian MacDougal

I wasn’t in your fan club. Two adventurers from opposite ends of the spectrum, we didn’t gel. I found sailing with you difficult and frustrating and come the end of our trip together, I was happy to leave your company without a backward glance. But … I was in a minority of one. What does that say about me? More importantly, what does that say about you?

It’s not only today that people who knew you have posted flattering, loving comments about you. They always have. Your kindness, your patience, your sense of fun have all been admired by the many who love you and I respect every single person that has ever enjoyed your company.

It wasn’t all bad – I loved to hear you sing, I appreciated that you watched me and another crew member suffer a massive fit of giggles in an Oostend bar (neither of us were drinking, we were just – high on life) without understanding the joke. I loved to hear that you were a wrestler, a stunt pilot, a ship builder and I admired that you knew your ship from keel to t’gallant because you were there at her inception. And I am grateful that you allowed me to fulfil a long-held ambition to sail on a square-rigger. I met many, many people who I still hold dear seven years later. So, thank you.

I will not pretend to have changed how I feel because that would be false, and I am not a liar, but I am sad. I have shed tears. A man like you should only have left this world after being struck by lightning – twice – but none of us can choose how we exit life (unless by our own hand.) You weren’t electrified by the heavens but you are still absent from this world and there is a vacuüm because of that.

Unlike you, I don’t have a god or a faith and I don’t believe that you will ever know what I have written here. I am writing for me – and for any of your friends that might read this – but I want you, and your loved ones who will be in such pain, to know that you were a mighty man. A captain, a seafarer, a shanty singer and a person of note who will be remembered as a one-off, an unrepeatable man of many talents.

Goodbye Ian, safe sailing in your heaven.

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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Shedward Seawards


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Weekly Writing Challenge – Backward.

Tits on the Fo’c’sle

‘I’m dragged out of a warm bunk, sent out on deck to moor up with ropes that won’t bend because they’re frozen and it’s dark and I can’t feel my fingers and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you know what? I bet when we go to the pub someone will say to me “Oh, so you’re a sailor. Do you like your job?” Hah!’ Sam blew across the top of her mug of coffee before taking a sip. It was a pointless gesture – the coffee was already cold. It had arrived cold.

Huddled against the bulwarks to avoid the wicked blade of the January wind, Sam and I faced each other across the fo’c’sle. Two indistinct shapes in the early morning dark, we barely resembled human women with our layers of old sweaters, woolly hats and ratty, cargo dusted coats but my sister, St Francis, picked us out against the backscatter from the lights on the canal banks. She too was cold. She too would rather have been in her bed but she had an advantage over Sam and me. Her mooring station was aft, right by the back door into the accommodation. Right next to the galley. St F could go inside and get warm. Bless her for thinking of us up front. Bless her for bringing us a hot drink. Or at least, a drink that was hot when she started out on the seventy metre journey to the bow.

‘Just inside the locks,’ our captain had said. The berth that we had been assigned was just inside the locks. He lied. Or, if I’m feeling generous, he was mistaken. Either way, Sam, St F and I spent two freezing hours out on deck waiting to tie up. We didn’t dare to leave our stations because we didn’t know where we were going. You could bet a pound to a bent hat pin that should Sam or I have headed aft for a warm up or a pee, the berth would mystically appear right in front of us. On a tatty old tramp coaster we didn’t have the luxury of a VHF radio to communicate with the bridge. Colin, the captain, could come out on the bridge wing and shout instructions at us but he wasn’t leaving the relative warmth of the wheelhouse to let us know what was happening. Bastard.

Back in the locks, all had been brightly lit and busy. Ships, barges, rope men and three tired, bleary-eyed women forcing heavy, iced ropes around the bitts to secure their ship to the quay. There had been the usual ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ among the rope men when we had entered the locks but Belgium, even as far back as the late eighties, had been a more enlightened place than England and so we didn’t have to endure the usual obscene gestures or innuendo-laden comments that our countrymen inflicted on us when they saw a female deck crew. Or maybe we just didn’t know the Belgian for ‘Ooh look, there’s tits on the fo’c’sle!’

Ten minutes the other side of the locks. On the seaward side with the freshening wind and the peak and trough of the swell, the pilot had clambered up from the deck of his cutter to guide our ship into harbour. It wasn’t a long climb, our ship wasn’t that large but he looked nervous. He swung his leg over the gunwale, ascertained that I was the mate and looked around at Sam and St F.

‘Is the captain also a woman?’ he asked.

Once, I was warm. Toasty warm. Laid under my duvet, half on my front with one leg drawn up to counteract the rolling of the ship, I may have been dreaming but if I was, the images broke and skittered away when the knock came and my cabin door opened.

‘Lorraine, it’s time to get up,’ said the captain. ‘We’re picking up the pilot in five minutes.’

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Posted by on September 13, 2013 in Shedward Seawards


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The semi-submersible rig is under tow but hove-to. My ship is deliberately getting in the way because we’re protesting about oil exploration in this area. It’s summer, we’re a long way north and it’s light most of the time – but not at midnight when I come on watch for a twelve-hour stint. It’s dark then and the fog that’s been hanging low over the shiny-smooth sea is blurring the lights from the rig.

‘The tug is going to keep the rig head to wind, like she is now,’ our captain, Jon, tells me as I rub the last of my too-short sleep from my eyes. The residual warmth of my bunk is fading fast and the chilly, clammy fog is creeping in the open bridge doors to wrap me in a damp embrace. ‘If she changes direction and starts moving towards her location, call me.’ He means if the tug and her tow make a run for it, we have to mobilise my half of the crew, who are on standby, and launch the RIBs and put people in the water as a human barricade. I truly hope this doesn’t happen, I’m tired, I could do with a quiet watch. On the other hand, twelve hours of staring out at the red, rusty ballast tanks of the rig could become ultra tedious.

Jon goes to bed and my watchkeeper and I settle into our watch. Half an hour passes then I must rouse myself and go into the chart room for the shipping forecast. The sugary notes of Sailing By trickle through the crackly speaker and fade into a moment’s silence before the posh voiced announcer informs me that there are warnings of gales in Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire …

‘Lorraine.’ My watchkeeper, who is on lookout in the bridge, cuts across the gale warnings.

‘Mm?’ I’m busy assembling pen and paper and writing down anything relevent to our location.

‘Lorraine, you’d better come and look at this.’ She sounds worried. This is not good timing but I must go and look and Oh my God! The bloody rig is no longer head to wind but is moving TOWARDS US! And she is very bloody close. Are they coming aboard for a cup of tea or what? Quick appraisal – there is no sea room to starboard as the rig is close by the starboard bow. Is there enough room to port to swing the ship away and head into clearer water? Maybe but it’s a risk. I don’t want the arse-end of the ship to smack into the rig’s leg. Praise the lucky star that was watching over us that night because at that moment, the second engineer came up to get a breath of fresh air.

‘I don’t know if it helps,’ he said. ‘But the astern engine is still running.’ Oh thank Christ for that! And before you ask, no, I couldn’t simply go astern to get away unless one of the two engines is set to go astern. As we generally dodged about on one engine, going astern wasn’t usually an option. Bless the decision to keep that engine running and bless that engineer for letting me know. I rang slow astern on the telegraph and waited eons for the engineer on watch below to respond. The needle on the rev counter vibrated and slowly we backed away from the marauders. I’m watching the rig, I’m watching the variable range marker on the radar, I’m willing our old tub to pick up a bit more speed and contemplating ringing half astern. I’m under orders not to get more than a mile from the rig but I’d like to get to get to a point where I can no longer reach over the bow and touch the damn thing. The gap grew, the rig became hazier as fog filled the space where we’d been. I almost breathed a sigh of relief. Almost. But then I remembered the RIBs weren’t back on board in their cradles. Due to the need to launch them four or five times a night, the previous watch had left them tied alongside.

‘Check the boats!’ I shouted at my watchkeeper. She ran out on deck. Seconds later, she was at the door. ‘Blossom’s sunk!’ she said. I hot-footed it out to look over the side. Yes, Blossom, our only non-Rigid Inflatable Boat was submerged.Only her painter lines had prevented her from sinking completely. Her aluminium hull had no transom and being tethered for and aft, instead of swinging around when we’d come astern, she had simply scooped up gallons of Atlantic seawater and been overwhelmed. Back in the bridge, the VHF radio had come to life. Ships all over the area were informing each other that the Greenpeace ship had turned on of her small boats into a submarine. Ha ha.

‘Get the Bosun up,’ I told the watchkeeper. ‘Get everyone up and get that boat inboard.’ She ran off down the deck, her boots thump-thump-thumping down the ladder to the lower deck where the watch was sleeping in the messroom. I stopped the engine. We were far enough away from the rig now and I didn’t want to put any more pressure on Blossom’s painters. Then I had to answer the first of ever so many VHF calls.

‘We know that you dispute our 500 metre exclusion zone because we’re not in position yet, but it is still an exclusion zone and you breached it at 0115 this morning,’ Said a man on the rig. ‘I am just letting you know that we will be filing a report.’

‘Thank you very much, I copy that. Standing by on this channel,’ I responded to the rig. ‘How are the boats looking?’ I called over my shoulder to the engineer.

‘The crew are out on deck. Some are in another boat. They’re getting it sorted.’ he reassured me. The VHF got busy again, this time with a smug sounding Geordie on one of the big supply ships who made no attempt to hide his glee at my misfortune.

‘I see you’ve got a problem with one of your boats there. Unfortunately your pyrotechnics have floated away,’ he said, referring to the watertight plastic canister of flares carried in the boat for emergencies. ‘We can’t have pyrotechnics floating around an oilfield now can we?’

‘No, absolutely. We will pick them up as soon as we are able,’ I told him.

‘Righto. Well I’ll leave you to it. You look very busy over there.’

‘Thank you very much for the information, standing by on this channel.’ He was a liar, that Geordie. He didn’t leave me alone. The rig’s still charging towards us and they want to know if I intend re-entering their exclusion zone. You know, just asking, so they can make another report. Funnily enough, I have no wish to take this ancient tug within 500 metres of a very large lump of metal but in case no one’s noticed, the crew have Blossom attached to the crane but she’s still half-submerged. I cannot go move the ship right at this minute and, after all, you are coming at me… I didn’t say any of this over the radio though, I just assured them that I wasn’t intending on breaching their zone.

Then Geordie’s back on the blower. ‘We can see your pyrotechnics so we will go and stand by them until you’re ready to come and pick them up.’

‘Thank you very much, I will send a boat over as soon as one becomes available.’ I run out on deck to check on the rescue operation. Blossom is slowly being lifted clear of the water. One of the other RIBs has attached taglines to her stern and are guiding her and keeping her steady so that she doesn’t swing and smash into the ship’s side as she ship rolls.

Geordie boy’s on again. He has his big orange ship next to our tiny flare canister. ‘I see you have a boat crewed up, is it possible you could come and collect your pyrotechnics now?’ he wants to know.

Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck OFF! I am busy right now  checking on Blossom’s rescue and watching a God damned rig who is hell-bent on playing dodgems with us. Now fuck off you tosser!

‘Yes we do have a boat in the water but, as you can see, she is assisting in the recovery. As soon as she becomes available I will send her over to you.’

‘OK then, if you could send her to collect your pyrotechnics as soon as possible. We are still standing by them.’

‘Yes that’s all copied, thank you.’

‘OK, well if you could send your boat over.’

I said I would didn’t I? Now shut the fuck up. ‘Simon,’ I call down to the bosun on the lower deck where he is in charge of bringing Blossom aboard. ‘As soon as you can, release that boat so it can go over to that big orange thing and get our flares back.

‘Aye, aye, will do.’

Back in the bridge, the rig’s still coming.

‘You are now on the edge of our 500 metre zone, if you do not move, we will have to report you again.’

Leaning over the bridge wing, I check on Blossom. She’s out of the water. She back in her cradle. Quick, back inside. Whack the ship astern. The old lady shudders and picks up speed, backing away from the rusty-red wall of steel that’s steaming towards her. Blossom’s safe, though her outboard is full of seawater. The RIB’s speeding away to collect our flares, the rig is now a mile distant but what is Jon going to say. How come the noise hasn’t woken him. He will kill me. My first trip away with Greenpeace is going to be my last. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. I think I may spontaneously combust. All anyone will ever find is a pair of singed safety boots.

‘What’s going on?’ Jon’s behind me.

My heart drops into my, so far, unsinged boots. ‘I er, I sort of sank Blossom,’ I tell him.

‘Oh,’ Jon pauses, looks out at the rig and then says, ‘Don’t worry about it, I do that sort of thing all the time.’ He turns away and strolls out on deck. Behind him, in the bridge, leaning heavily on the engine room telegraph the mate on watch is drowning in her own adrenaline.

Stress Mmm, Is That What This Is?


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You Just Had To Be There

You got a bit of cabin fever, I expect.’ ‘Yes, I suppose you could say that. I had the 4 – 8 watch and I found it hard going.’ ‘Did you see dolphins though?’ ‘Oh yes, there were lots and lots of dolphins.’ ‘And phosphorescence? Did you see that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see dolphins in the phosphorescence?’ ‘I did.’ ‘It’s amazing isn’t it?’ ‘It’s fantastic, they look like torpedoes and … wait a minute. How do you know all this?’ My sister, St Francis, was chatting with an acquaintance this morning. Having very recently returned from a sailing trip to Bermuda he has an evangelistic need to share his experience that all first-timers get. His wife, who didn’t go on the trip and who hasn’t been sailing in tropical waters is already full to the brim with his stories. In St Francis he sensed a kindred spirit. ‘We sailed boats down to West Africa when I was a kid,’ she answered his question. ‘Did you?’ ‘Yes. And I was in the Merchant Navy.’ ‘Were you?’ He’s only known St Francis for ten years. No reason he should have picked up such details in that short time.  

There is a picture of St Francis, windswept and tiny, on the deck of our motor boat. In front of her our mother is frozen in the act of slicing the first piece from a birthday cake. St Francis is three and she’s celebrating mid Biscay. She’s already experienced Breton women in traditional dress clucking over her. Later, in La Rochelle, she’ll see her first dead body which will drift across the harbour between us and the toy sailing boat that she got as her present. My father will cast the little yacht adrift when next we put to sea because none of us want to play with it any more.

And so on, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Western Sahara etc., etc., until, one day, she and I will be standing in the market in Banjul, The Gambia, gazing up at a very well-built pink-eyed albino woman as she sold our mother some fly attracting mutton.

Three years later, we were living in Nigeria and two years after that we sailed another boat down to West Africa. This time via Sweden.

St Francis has had cabin fever. She’s seen flying fish, whales, dolphins, and dolphins gliding through the eerie glow of phosphorescent waters on dark nights when the coast is an unlit shadow on the horizon. She knew exactly where her friend was coming from this morning just as she understood the wide-eyed, inarticulate little girl from across the road when she returned from a trip to Kenya, a few years ago. St Francis hasn’t been to Kenya but she knows the heat, the noise, the smells of Africa. And she knows that, unless you’re talking to someone who has been there, you cannot communicate the experience. No matter how many stories you tell and no matter how many pictures you take.

Which brings me to an awkward thought – I fancy myself as a writer and if I accept the truth of what I have just written in the last paragraph …


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The Captain’s Coffee Pot

The night was moonlit and calm as we rounded Finisterre and left Biscay behind. I had the midnight to four duty with my watchmate Marijke. Apart from the 2nd Engineer, everyone else was asleep. All was quiet. On the horizon, deck lights on fishing boats blazed too brilliantly to look at through binoculars but the boats were following a course that kept them away from us so I didn’t trouble my eyesight. It was a slow steam south for us on one engine  and the ship’s movement was gentle. Two engines meant the likelihood of shaking our fillings loose and popping rivets out of the hull (Yes, the ship was that old) and even then we’d have had trouble overtaking a rowing boat so a one-engine plod was OK by us.

Seating for sailors wasn’t allowed in the 1950s when our fine vessel’s keel was laid. Instead, there were two small folding benches attached to the front bulkhead of the wheelhouse. They were positioned so that you sat (or perched) sideways on to the windows and you had to twist your upper body to see where you were going. With one boot propped on the heating pipe down at deck level, you would soon have one hot foot and acute backache. Marijke and I would periodically swap sides so we could twist the opposite way and warm the other foot. Neither of us sat in the tall wooden chair lashed to the gyro unit because it creaked and squeaked and looked ready to splinter into match wood at any moment. If the ship pitched down into a wave trough, the chair’s occupant could find herself thrown at the bridge windows with a thump. The benches were safer. Not comfortable but safer.

Time passed, the dim outline of Spain slid by on the port side and a cassette played over and over on the bridge stereo. Neither of us could rouse ourselves from our boredom to change it or stop it. Then, mid-watch, the internal phone rang.

‘Bridge,’ I said, rather unnecessarily, into the mouthpiece.

‘Hi, it’s me, Faike,’ the Second Engineer shouted above the rattling and chattering of the ship’s machinery down in the engine room. ‘I’m phoning out for pizza. You guys want something?’

I turned to Marijke. ‘Faike says he’s phoning for pizza. You want one?’

She thought for a moment. ‘Oh yeah, OK, shall we share one? A vegetarian special?’

I turned back to the phone. ‘Can we have a vegetarian special to share?’ I asked Faike. He said we could. I hung up and returned to my bench. And that was the most exciting thing that happened – until …

At 0345, Marijke headed down to the galley to brew up a fresh pot of coffee for the next watch. The captain’s watch. I’m an instant coffee kind of woman but I was in the minority on that ship, perhaps because many of the crew were mainland Europeans. The Dutch and Scandinavians and Germans etc often prefer ‘real’ coffee, ‘real’, strong coffee that you can dissolve a teaspoon in and our Swiss captain was such a fan of this evil, paint-stripping brew that he’d gone ashore in Amsterdam and bought himself a new coffee pot. Not for him the heavy-duty ceramic jug that had been aboard the ship forever. No, his was a modern, stylish glass jug and he liked his morning coffee made in it. Despite the benign weather, despite the slow easy movement of the ship as she rolled gently on little Atlantic wavelets, the sexy new coffee jug somehow managed to escape Marijke’s grip, slide across the galley and throw itself on the deck tiles where it smashed into modern, stylish glass splinters. When she reappeared in the bridge, Marijke was stricken.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘We’ll think of something.’

‘Good morning, Peter,’ I said to the captain when he entered the bridge ten minutes later. Marijke was below calling out her own relief.

‘Ha! Good morning! What is good? Can you believe Marijke has broken my  jug and now I must use this?’ He held up the ancient, indestructible ship-issue jug. ‘The weather is not even bad, the ship is not going up and down so how did she break?’ He leaned towards me and asked quietly, ‘is she stupid?’

I blinked at him in the half-light of the smudgy dawn. ‘Didn’t she tell you?’ I asked.

‘No. What?’

‘Well Peter, Marijke was defending the ship from aliens. She fought them off single-handed and the only weapon she had to hand was your coffee pot. That’s how it got broken.’


‘Yes really. If it wasn’t for her, we’d all be slave labour in underground uranium mines on Jupiter now.’

‘Oh,’ said Peter, chastened. ‘I did not know this. OK then, if she saved the ship from aliens what is the problem with one broken coffee pot?’

‘Exactly,’ I answered. ‘And it died a hero’s death.’

‘A hero’s death eh? Yes, it’s true. Now, you want to stay on duty or hand over the watch to me?’

I wanted to hand over the watch to him, it was his turn, after all. So I did. And then I went to bed and our little vessel sailed on into a new day free of alien invaders and with one Dutch sailor who wondered why she had gone from being in the dog-house to being hailed as the ship’s saviour.


Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Shedward Seawards


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