Reflections on life

SIX WEEKS AT SEA IN THE SEVENTIES, PART ONE.

February 1977 Rotterdam, Holland, I’m 29.

I’m sitting close to Peter, my husband of three weeks, on the deck of a tugboat crossing the harbour to join our ship. It’s the start of his next four month assignment as Chief Officer, and I’m to travel with him for six weeks. It’s cold and grey, and we rise and fall with the waves as the tug slows down and comes closer to one side of the huge gas tanker that rises out of the water ahead of us.

“I think no one’s told them you’re coming” he said, “it’s just the rope ladder.” Then I see it, tumbling down the side of the ship until it reaches the water. “You go first, I’ll be one step behind with my arms around your back.” He reaches for the ladder and puts his weight onto one rung, I step onto the one above, grab the ropes, and swing myself up from the deck of the tug, too terrified to utter a sound. “Don’t look up or down, one step at a time, go…”, and we begin, stepping in sync, so he really is right behind me, and steadily we make the long ascent, my eyes fixed on the ropes.

At last I see the ship’s rail just above and raise my head and shoulders over the side. A voice shouts “Christ, It’s a woman!”, and two young men rush forward to help me onto the deck. Feet are thumping all around me as more men muster into a line, eyes dead ahead, backs rigid, saluting my husband as he surveys them. “Good morning, gentlemen, this is my wife. I think she’d like to see our quarters now.” “Of course, sir”, one of them leads the way, and we cross the deck to a steep stairway leading down to the officers quarters and into our cabin. The minute the anxious young man has left we fall on the bed laughing, and I ask him not to be too hard on them.

There’s nothing in the least romantic about a tanker carrying Liquified Natural Gas, it’s simply a huge container with living quarters and the bridge stacked at the stern, and our first port of call is Southampton. We’ve joined at Rotterdam because Peter is a specialist in managing the loading and unloading of liquified gas, a tricky business that requires experience, so he is to prepare for delivery. He gets straight to work and I settle in.

It’s a slightly uncomfortable first few days. There’s a crew of British Merchant Seamen – the captain, who is polite, quiet and rather humourless, Peter, and second, third and fourth deck officers. Then there are the equivalent in engineers, and a radio and medical officer. We meet in the wardroom for meals, a large comfortable space with a bar where the officers gather for drinks before dinner. I find most of them a little reluctant to talk to me, and ask Peter why. He grins, there hasn’t been a wife onboard for months so they’re all accustomed to swearing freely and keep checking their language when I appear. So I make myself as agreeable as I can, joking about my ungainly arrival over the side of the ship, and before long they relax.

There’s also an Indian crew who cook, clean and serve us, and Saghir, a slim, solemn young man in his early twenties who runs the bar with gentle, soft spoken courtesy. And way below another Chinese crew man the engines and are rarely seen. Meals are good, plenty of curries, and I listen and learn as the officers talk about the issues of the day on board.

The rest of the time is my own, to read in our cabin or the wardroom, or walk the deck for some fresh air. Peter is on watch from four until eight, morning and evening, and I sometimes visit the bridge with him, watching as he gazes out to sea, occasionally pointing something out on the horizon that I can’t find. He is tall and straight, with piercing blue eyes narrowed against the light, sandy hair and a beard, every inch a seaman who first became a deck apprentice at sixteen. Now he is thirty three and hoping soon to become a captain. 

I barely see him whilst we are in dock, then we set sail again, out of the English Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, down the coast of Portugal and through the Strait of Gibraltar. As it gets warmer I spend more time on deck, looking out across the ever changing sea, searching for dolphins leaping, other vessels, watching the light change between the ship and the endless horizon. 

Whilst Peter is still on watch I go up to the wardroom earlier so that I can sit at the bar and talk to Saghir, whose sad, soulful eyes at first express surprise that anyone would want to speak to him, other than to ask for a drink. Over several days he opens up and I ask him about the lives of the Indian crew and the Chinese. They are all on contract for several years, spending nine months at sea at a time, but it’s a good job, and steady money to send home to their families. He misses his very much. 

We arrive at Gibralter in brilliant sunshine, where we’re to leave the ship and fly to Cairo to join another as it travels through the Suez Canal. After our last meal Saghir approaches, tears in his eyes, with a little parcel. I hug him, and am moved to see he has written, beautifully, “to my dear Madame, from Saghir”, and inside there is a lavish bar of scented soap. As we watch the ship sail away from the rock and disappear over the horizon I’m surprised to feel a lump in my throat.

The Suez canal cuts through the 120 mile stretch of land between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, creating a much faster shipping route between Europe and the Indian Ocean than sailing round the continent of Africa. The shipping agent drives us and three other officers joining with us from Cairo to the town of Suez, explaining on the way that sailing through the canal is a carefully organised affair and something has caused a delay.

The canal is only sixty one metres wide so it’s a one way system. But there is a sizeable lake midway, where the north and southbound vessels can pass each other. This means that each ship seeking passage must join its allotted place in a queue, and timing is crucial or passing in the lake will go awry, which is what’s happened. The engine has failed on a vessel sailing south, halting the whole system, and no ship can move until it’s fixed. Ours is at the head of the Red Sea waiting to travel North, but we can’t join her until it’s confirmed when she will pass through the canal.

So we’re to be taken to a small hotel near the port to wait, and that may mean a few hours or a few days, but we must stay close – when word comes for us to leave that means right away. Looking out of the car windows at the dusty desert around us I’m excited to see the town and experience a little of Egypt before we leave.

It’s hard to take in what we find when we arrive. Noisy, dusty streets of white painted buildings riddled with holes from bomb blasts and bullets, some all but destroyed, others with most of a wall missing, shored up with piles of rubble and sandbags. Twenty years ago there was three months of warfare during the Suez Crisis, and ten years later the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, and it looks like little has been touched since.

Yet the town is teeming with life, everyone in robes, children playing in the dirt, and we come to a halt outside a white house with a large, blackened hole where the doorway used to be. The hotel. Men are sitting at little tables outside, smoking and talking, and one of them rises to greet us, showing us through the curtain that has replaced the door. Inside it’s so dark it’s hard to see and we fumble our way upstairs to a bedroom where there’s an iron bedstead with a thin, rock hard mattress, two pillows like sandbags, a bare light bulb, and nothing else. 

We all meet at the tables outside for a beer and before long plates of indistinguishable stew are brought by a graceful robed figure with a beard, there are no women in sight. We joke about who will try it first, but it’s actually quite good. One of the officers is Irish, a God send, his wit and warmth unite us, along with his whisky, and we tell tales in the gathering dark, hoping the car might arrive at any minute and spare us those beds. But eventually there is no alternative, and somehow the night passes.

There is no bathroom, but a toilet with a handbasin shared by us all. When I visit early the next morning I’m surprised to find a small boy sitting on a stool outside, smiling cheerfully and requiring payment for toilet paper, by the sheet. I go back to our room for money, and miss my turn. And he’s there all day, clearly pleased to have visitors.

We come to live at the outdoor tables, for breakfast, good bread and coffee, followed by lunch and dinner which don’t vary much. On the first morning we cheer each other with our certainty that word will come any time now and we’ll be on our way. But as the hours pass it’s harder to keep our spirits up. Every now and then one or two of us will take a short walk through the streets around us, but only five minutes away, just in case. Twice a day the shipping agent arrives to tell us there is no news yet, please be patient.

As the light begins to soften and fade on the third evening, we sip our beer and conversation has all but died. Suddenly the car arrives in front of us, stirring up the dust in its haste. We must go to the port, now, our ship will sail tonight, a tug will take us out to meet her. Gathering our things in haste, we scramble into the car and bump along unlit, potholed roads in the darkness.

An official from the Ports Authority and a Customs Officer are to meet us so that we may be cleared to leave Egypt. Arriving at tall, closed gates we wait, a little tense as we’ve been urged to hurry. Two men eventually appear, the gates are opened and we enter on foot, with difficulty, because we’re still in darkness. The port is rarely open at night and is unlit.

A heated discussion breaks out between our Shipping Agent and the other two Egyptians. It emerges that there’s not even a light in the Customs office where our passports and documents are to be examined, and they’re arguing about who will go and get a candle. Eventually two of them leave in the car, returning about twenty minutes later, leading us along a quayside to the Customs office with one little flame flickering in the breeze from the water.

The Customs Officer assumes command from his seat behind a table, asking that each of us sits in the chair opposite him, one at a time, whilst he examines our paperwork. He takes a passport, holds it close to the candle, and peers at the face opposite. Then he examines the authorisation from the shipping company that confirms we are to board the vessel. Standing around him in the dark we shuffle from foot to foot, anxious to be gone.

The Irishman is last in the chair, and with the leisurely calm of one who calls the shots the Customs Officer examines his documents, then looks across at him through narrowed eyes. The Shipping Agent translates. His passport says John Larry Murphy, but the authorisation document says Larry John Murphy – how can this be so? Clearly, the shipping company have simply made a mistake. But this is considered inadequate, and a long, circular conversation takes place, drawn out even further by translation each way. John Larry, or Larry John, remains calm and smiling, patiently repeating, whilst the Ports Authority official urges haste. 

A siren sounds, it’s the tug that’s waiting to take us out to the ship, and finally the Customs Officer gives way. We gather our bags and head outside, led by the candle, but only as far as the pier. We’re on our own after that as the man from the Ports Authority snuffs it out and puts it in his pocket as he leaves. 

The lights of the tug are shining on the water, what looks like quite some distance away at the end of the pier. But from here to there is darkness, and we discover that the wooden planks beneath our feet are a maze of bombed out holes. Feeling his way with each step, one of the officers talks us forward, Peter carries our bags, and I follow him. Sometimes I see the lights of the tug reflected on the water through a hole right in front of me, and quickly step to one side. Slowly and carefully, rallying each other in the dark, we find our way to the tug and speed across the bay to the waiting ship.

I’m so glad and grateful to see the vast bulk of the tanker rising above of the water ahead of us. No rope ladder this time, there’s a rigid metal staircase ready for us, and helping hands to take our bags. With infinite relief we climb up to the deck where the Captain is waiting, another Irishman, tall, broad, jovial and welcoming. The ship will be underway very soon now, the wardroom has food waiting if we’re hungry, and of course a drink or two. We’re all grinning, weary but elated, and all I can think of is a clean, free toilet and long, hot shower. 

And tomorrow, the Suez Canal.

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