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THE SEA 1964–1966

Earlier it had been another sleepy afternoon, deckhands in their denim workclothes; some modified into shorts, some splattered with red oxide paint, but all with their knife and marlin spike dangling from a belt, out scraping and painting the bulkheads on the hot metal foredeck. The wheelhouse doors were wide open, trying unsuccessfully to entice a cooling breeze from the stagnant, warm equatorial air as the ship, fully laden and low in the water, sliced its way through the shimmering, glassy water. Dolphins had raced alongside as I came on the watch, gracefully and generously sharing our bow wave with the flying-fish, before launching themselves into our dimension for a few seconds – but then black clouds were coming at us from an ever-decreasing horizon, a decision not to change course and it had gone dark…

The bosun had his orders and he directed operations with a rough tongue, his West Indian patois peppered with ‘raas klaats’, his hands moved windmill-like and an experienced crew obeyed, battening down the hatches and stowing all loose gear away. Down on the main deck all hands turned to, galvanised, instinctively going from task to task; a sense of urgency and excitement took hold, teamwork against the elements, and once it was done, only those on watch would have to turn out. The wind we’d been praying for earlier whipped up small waves, their crests jostled each other for height. We had almost completed the task and our unsteady meandering up and down the wet deck became gross staggering as the rolling of the ship increased. The watch was well over by the time we, Doherty and I, the officer cadets, retired to our cabins behind the funnel on the lifeboat deck – wet through and tired, the excitement of the change caught us babbling like fools. Talk of previous storms coloured our conversation as we changed our clothes – I for a spot of rest and Doherty for the bridge and his watch. The waves were higher, the wind stronger, the sort of talk to give confidence where it was lacking.

Our trampship-progress along West Africa’s coastline behind us, we were set for Amsterdam, Hamburg and then dry-dock. The trip had been an eye-opening trudge through Dakar, Freetown, Abidjan, Takarodi, Cotonou, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Douala, and had seen us well into the Niger delta, and up to Sapele to load logs onto the afterdeck – the ship straining at her moorings as the river tried to expel us to the sea. Our route was not dissimilar from that taken by slave traders hundreds of years ago, a sobering thought to me now, but lost on me at the time. At each port crazy risks were taken as we danced on sliding hatch panels as they opened over yawning holds – we were mad, young, impetuous … idiots. Whilst waiting for agents to sort out a cargo and anchored outside Takoradi, the ship was almost empty and high in the water and some of us more inexperienced crew-members took turns at the thrill of jumping off the stern and letting the current carry us round to the pilot’s ladder, which, clinging to the rust exposed hull and fully extended, was only just reachable when on the top of a swell. The wiser members of the crew just watched, their blank expressions should have given us a clue, but only spurred us on to more daring forays away from the ship, treading water and calling for confirmation of being farthest from the ship – later in the day slops were thrown overboard to the five or six circling sharks…

As I peered from my porthole the ship lurched into a trough, waves soared up and away from us, thirty feet at least, with crests of white flecking spray pointing out the direction of the wind. The ship creaked and shuddered as the propeller whirred out of the water, we were now on the crest and through the mist and failing light I could see other monstrous waves forming to take the place of the one we were riding. All the while the ghostly whining and shriek of the wind as it whipped through the rigging. I lay on my bunk and my mind again took flight…

June 1964, and my dad had just brought me, on the back of his scooter, down to the dry-dock in Durban’s Harbour. My mom had managed, through a neighbour, to wangle me passage as a deck-boy on the Norwegian MV Thorscarrier. I went on board whilst my dad stayed on the wharf, a vodka and seven-up was forced on me as I went below aft to check out my quarters. I was to share with a French Canadian, with me sleeping in the top bunk. East Africa was a revelation for a white sixteen-year-old fresh out of Apartheid South Africa, a ten shilling note from my dad as I left, wide-eyed visits to red-light districts in Lourenzo Marques and Mombassa, getting drunk too often and vomiting, my seventeenth birthday in Montreal, condensed milk sandwiches, and Audrey and my first real kiss, in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland.

Durban High School: I had really made a mess of my secondary education – after such a promising stint at Bellair – I was one of the day boys embarrassed in class for not having bought all the textbooks, in my shiny-arsed grey trousers, Bata Toughie shoes (the ones with animal tracks on the soles), then doing the fifth form for the second year in a blazer one size down. Both Apples (Hedley Appleby) and I had failed our end of year exams in 1963, both ended up in Form 5G, bunking off school and regularly dreaming of going to sea on a Castle boat … and now here I was two years later, on the MS Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool.

Then, a small boat, the Sarie Marais (I think…), pushed its way into my thoughts, through thick green viscous and then out on high swells as it followed its usual course on a trip around Durban Harbour and out through the breakwater onto the high sea, taking in the beach-front skyline – out past the shark nets on Addington and North Beach. It was the early 1950s and my mom had taken me on my first remembered trip on the sea. To the obvious delight of my mom the boat rolled and lolled about, dipping into valleys of blue where the beach disappeared and then rising high where she pointed out hotels on the beach front, she loved the sea… Our return to the calmer waters of the harbour was greeted by the glorious sight of a Sunderland flyingboat skimming the slightly choppy harbour and landing, its bow-wave and elegance reminiscent of a giant swan landing in a pond. My dad later made a wooden and brass model of the Sunderland whilst he worked at Harts, a ‘pots and pans’ factory at the bottom of Jacobs Ladder… wonder what happened to that? Blimey, mind-dredging now…

Fear and a particularly violent roll brought me back, drawn and white knuckled, sleep was out of the question, although maybe I had been asleep. Eating and drinking were also an obstacle course and then the test was to keep it down.

Midnight came and I went up on the bridge to relieve Doherty. The second mate took up his watch out in the night’s elements, from the wing of the bridge, his yellow oilskins making disturbing shapes on the rain streaked glass of the wheelhouse door. I stood at the wheel, the course 027° impossible to maintain. The captain, an aloof man with not many friends on board, skulked in the corner of the darkened bridge occasionally yelling ‘Port, to Port man for goodness sake!’ as the ship erred to starboard and started to take the storm broadside, ‘Into the waves laddie!’ From my protected vantage point in the darkness I watched as huge waves broke over the bows, tons of water covered the bow section with spumes of spray and green luminous curls. In that eerie light that accompanies tropical storms elements moved as if in slow motion and my horizon was the wave immediately before me.

As the watch wore on the rivet loosening jerking of the ship as the screw threshed exposed, became less and less frequent and a sense of safety, a confidence, new-found, filled me. The erratic course became easier to hold, the captain left the bridge and I whistled tunelessly as relief flooded through my tensed muscles. The second mate entered the wheelhouse, his oilskins dripping water, he winked as he passed on his way to the radar and chartroom and the bottle of brandy he kept hidden in there. We smiled as soon as we had downed our drinks, the brandy could be traced as it made its way to our stomachs and then sent its warmth extending and insinuating itself to all the extremities of our bodies.

The last hour of the watch saw a quarter-moon appear from behind scudding clouds and lay down its long reflection over almost gently rippling water. The ship ploughed on and the storm and its uncertainty were quickly forgotten, perhaps only to be remembered in another storm or as part of a collection of embroidered stories to impress, just like this one, perhaps.

From Writing Some Wrongs, Alan Rutherford
published by Hand Over Fist Press, 2007