Life on the High Seas (1)

Rookie Sailor (1)

After five years of occupied Norway and another year with all kinds of restrictions, I was 15 and seething with desire to get out and see the world. Further trudging through school loomed ahead, fencing me in. At the time, just after WW2, 15-year olds were allowed as deck boys, mess boys, galley boys, wipers etc. So, as soon as I turned 15, in the autumn of 1946, to the chagrin of my parents, I quit school and went to sea. This led to my spending the first few years of my early youth in the merchant navy.

War sailors      

At that time, just over a year after Japan surrendered, a majority of the crews still consisted of men who had sailed throughout the war.  Many had not been in Norway for 10-15 years. All of them had served in convoy duty, and some had experienced being sunk by torpedoes or mines. Out of the 30 000 Norwegian sailors who served during 1939-1945 war, 3.640 – 12 % – went down with the 706 Norwegian ships that were sunk. Once the wartime losses were replaced, Norway’s merchant fleet was the World’s fourth largest, crewed by 35,000 seamen – 90% of them Norwegians.

I signed on as mess boy on the tanker ”Kollbjørg”, Odd Berg, owners. I was one of a group of 20 relief crew that included three deck officers. We were to replace those out of the crew of 41 who were leaving ship in Stockholm. From the train station, we were taken down to the harbour. ”Kollbjørg” was lying at anchor, so we went out to her by tugboat in the early morning. We were shown our cabin and bunks, and we two mess boys were ordered to don working clothes right away, and put to work 20 minutes after we set out feet aboard.

norsol
Motor tanker «Kollbjorg», 12800 tons deadweight, built in Belfast 1943.
Straight to work

The work was to deal with the three mess rooms aft, one for the deck hands (11 men), one for the engine hands (9 men) and one for the NCOs (5 men). I landed the deck hands’ mess. 11 men had just finished breakfast, and on the table there remained two trays with altogether 11 (cold) fried eggs. I asked what to do with those, was told: Dump them! I was 15 years old, came straight from strict rationing in Norway, and had not seen an egg for six years. There was only one thing to do: Eat them! All 11 eggs went down – no problem …

All of the 21 who were left of the previous crew had been sailing throughout the war. One of them had been torpedoed three times – his back was like a plowfield of scars from glass splinters – he had recurring nightmares. Our cook had crossed the North Atlantic 52 times during the war, and had never set foot in a lifeboat except for boat drills.  They were all good sailors, and our captain ran a tight ship. Great instructors they all were for a rookie sailor, thorough and strict. It was a hard transition, of course – straight from schoolboy to grown up practically overnight.

At sea, the war was still on

From Stockholm we went on to Antwerp. On the oceans, the war was still going on in grisly reality. Mines were floating around by the hundreds – we went the whole way at reduced speed along a buoyed channel that was being kept free from free loose mines by mine sweepers. The wages reflected the war situation. As mess boy I had 154 kroner ($ 28) per month basic wage, on top of that came 100 % for war risk and an extra 50 % for tanker risk, altogether 385 kroner ($ 77), a hefty salary at that time.

The trip to Antwerp took four days with winter storms and head seas. In the merchant navy there are (were) two kinds of ailments not considered valid excuses for not working: Hangover and seasickness. The cure for both is food and hard work. As soon as we hit open sea, I became terribly seasick. When I was at my worst, they put one of the deck hands to keep watch on me – I was not allowed to slink off for a single minute. He kept force-feeding me so that I always had something to throw up. I was allowed to creep into my bunk 9 at night, where I passed out until 6 in the morning. Then the same torture was repeated:  get up, eat, throw up, carry food from the galley, throw up, wash up, throw up more … If I had been able to, I would have jumped overboard. After three days of this regime, the seasickness disappeared – and I was never seasick again on that ship.

Later, I found that the cure is good for one ship only – aboard a new ship, you become seasick again, but usually much milder and with a speedy acclimatisation. This is due to each ship having a different motion at sea. However, on every ship there is one place where you are never seasick regardless  of the seaway: at the wheel. The feeling of control and your close attention to the ship’s every move eliminates any seasickness.

Antwer­p

We stayed in an Antwerp shipyard for five weeks of continuous noise and dirt. ”Kollbjørg”s armaments from the wartime convoys had been removed earlier – one 105 mm aft and one 75 mm on the fore-deck, four 20 mm pom-poms on amidships (and cabins for 12 gunners aft) – but the gun platforms and gun placements remained and had to be removed, and the ship dry docked for re-certification. Wooden decks were installed on top of the steel decks aft and amidships.

Then (and now) Antwerp is a real shipping city – a huge commercial port with more than 100 kilometres of quays. All along the quays there were ample offers of entertainment, including the whorehouse street of Schipperstraat. A bar with the Norwegian name ”Fattige Augusta” (Poor Augusta) was close to the dry dock, and became the main hangout for our crew every night.

As rookies, we were shown the ropes by our elder shipmates, including some ground rules for taking care of ourselves, such as: ”Never trust anyone you don’t know, don’t use a wallet, never keep all your money i one pocket – spread it around in different pockets, never get drunk alone, if you desire female company, do it while sober and drink later (never the other way around), and stay away from fights». All advice useful for an eager 15-year old.

Style

Style (”steil” in Norwegian) are the unwritten laws that govern conduct aboard ships. They vary from ship to ship, but some ground rules ar fixed. Style governs everything: When the coffee breaks are for the day crew, that deck hands use the cabins on the port side of the ship and the engine hands use the starboard ones, the laying up of ropes and lines, there are style rules for everything. One set of styles are for sea use, i.e. when the ship is under way, another set rules things when the ship is in port.

At sea: never lock the door of your cabin – for two reasons: One is the psychological one: Anyone who locks his door does not trust his shipmates. A practical reason: a collision or an explosion may cause the door to be stuck, and locked doors are harder to open (there was still a real risk for hitting mines – the war  ended only a year previously). Never enter a mess room without a shirt, or t-shirt on – no sleeveless (singlets or tank tops) allowed. It was bad style to be smelly. Showers were put to good use – cleanliness aboard Norwegian ships was high.

Basic style was «no alcohol at sea». You may be as drunk as you wish when the ship is in port, but not at sea – valid for all ships and all aboard. No homoexuals! – this was enforced with zero tolerance on all ships . At the smallest sign, the culprit was thrown ashore in the next port. Everybody had to learn and abide by the declared style for the ship.

In port: Always lock your cabin door, and keep  all strangers out of mess rooms, cabins and corridors – never invite aboard anyone who does not belong to the ship into cabins or mess rooms. The mess rooms are sanctuaries for eating, coffee drinking and card games. No drinking of alcohol in the mess rooms, and no binge drinking in the cabins – «drink on shore!» Never bring women aboard – not only do you run the risk of being robbed, but you also expose your shipmates to the same risk. Such needs are to be taken care of ashore.

On commencing service on another ship, new rules might apply and had to be learned – the basic rules, however, were the same all over the Norwegian merchant navy.

Suez

We left Antwerp in January 1947 for Suez. The Bay of Biscay stretch, from Ouessant til Finisterre, was gales and head sea all the way, and an empty tanker is extremely uncomfortable. In the aft mess rooms wet table cloths kept plates and cutlery in place, even if the worst heaves created close to negative G. The cure that I had previously undergone proved to be good – I went through the ordeal without problems.

12 days out of Antwerp we arrived at Port Said, my first encounter with the chaos that surrounds the Suez canal ( in 1947 max. allowed draught was 35 feet, ships under 25 000 tons dw). We were surrounded by bumboats and boarded by a horde of Arabs who peddled all kinds of goods around on deck. ”Gamla Moses” (Old Moses) was in charge of the bumboats – he was generally trusted by Norwegian ships, and managed to keep the worst of the rascals away.

The new Suit

One of the sellers was a tailor. He hooked me, measured me up and down, and offered to have a nice brown pinstripe suit ready for me when we came back from Abadan up through Suez again, in about a month – 12 Egyptian pounds down, 12 by delivery (500 kroner) – more than a whole months wages, but the captain said it was OK and logged me for it. As it turned out, we did not go to Europe again from Abadan – we were directed to Freemantle in Western Australia, then from Abadan to Madras, after that to Chittagong in Bengal and then Bombay. More about that later.

Life aboard

Most ships at the time – the forties and fifties – both tankers and cargo vessels – had crew accommodations both amidships and aft. The officers’ quarters were amidships, everyone else lived aft (the poop). Tankers had the galley and the large mess rooms aft. On «Kollbjørg» we were 30 sailors under deck  aft, in two-man cabins with bunks over/under – the deck hands on the port side and the engine hands on the starboard side.

Air condition was barely invented, and nonexistent in the merchant navy. Cabin ventilation was by an air duct with two nozzles in each cabin – with all in use, the ventilation was zero. There were wind scoops that you could stick out of the portholes to catch the wind, weather permitting. The ship’s freeboard determined the use of the portholes – fully loaded, a tanker is so low in the water that the seas swamp the tank decks even in good weather. In heavy seas the portholes had to stay closed.

We spent more than half the time in the tropics – sometimes months on end. Real cold we experienced only when in Northern Europe in winter. As soon as we had passed Suez south bound, we dragged our mattresses up on the boat deck and slept beside the life boats – you just had to watch the ship’s course and avoid being woken up by the morning sun. Life on the boat deck was only interrupted when we were in port – then we had to stay in our cabins below deck.

At the Wheel

I soon found out that if I sneaked up on the bridge and the weather was nice, the officer of the watch would let me take over the wheel form the helmsman for a while. The helmsmen didn’t mind a spell of relief, and the officers liked that I showed such interest. Autopilots didn’t exist at the time – the wheel had a direct hydraulic connection to the steering gear that was located aft, and the steering was pretty direct. Fully loaded, the ship’s displacement (weight) was about twenty thousand tons – empty about eight thousand. A fully loaded tanker and an empty one were two totally different animals. Fully loaded the ship’s response was sluggish, and it took a lot of experience to foresee the ship’s reaction to the wheel.  There were many tricks to be learned in order to maintain a straight wake – the sign of a  good helmsman.

As time went on, I took on such spells at the wheel quite often, mostly on Saturdays and Sundays so as not to be accused of failing in my mess duties.  As I acquired the skills, I was allowed to stay at the wheel in rougher weather also, so, as the months passed, I became quite good at it. The captain was pleased, and in the end he let me handle the ship in heavy weather, learning me to use preemptive rudder and counter-rudder and foresee how much and to what side the ship would veer in the next wave – it became intuition-like.

Gasoline

At this time, «Kollbjørg» hauled gasoline, which was only possible because she was a young ship, less than six years old. Gasoline generated heavy rusting of the tank walls and ship’s sides. The last 10-12 days before we were to load a new cargo, «wind men» were rigged – great canvas ducts that led the wind down into the tanks to drive out the gases. After that, tank cleaning was carried out manually. 28 separate tanks were emptied for thick flakes of rust and sludge that was hoisted up and emptied overboard.

The process eroded the tank walls and the hull (this was long before double hulls were introduced) – the steel was gradually eaten up in 5 to 6 years. From 1948 onward, we switched to kerosene, and later to light fuel oil – after 8 years, however, steam coils had to be installed to haul crude oil, which had to be heated.

When we carried high octane aviation gasoline and leaded gasoline for cars special attention was required in the tropics. The tropical sun led to very high temperatures in the decks and tank tops. Sea water had to be pumped on deck in daytime – which helped, even if the sea temperatures in the tropics stay around 30 to 35 degrees C round the clock.

Back to Europe

When we finally got a cargo for Europe we had been south of Suez for 6 months. Back in Port Said I was handed my elegant brown suit and a bill for the remaining 12 pounds.

The snag was that during that half year I had grown two inches and gained 20 pounds in weight – my arms and legs stuck miles out of the new suit. The captain said that it was not the tailor’s fault that I had grown like beanstalk, nor that Kollbjørg returned 5 months too late – so, the tailor got his remaining 12 pounds. The super new suit I sold a few months later to a pawnbroker in Antwerp – one useless lesson wiser.