A few posts ago, I mentioned the seven short stories from When I Am Not Writing Poetry that are set in the merchant navy: three short snapshots and four longer pieces: The Beginning, Cargo, The Sailing Board and Such Sweet Sorrow. While the snapshots and The Beginning are true stories or are based on real events, the other longer pieces are complete fiction… although heavily based on my experiences.
Cargo tells of the life a third officer on board a general cargo ship bound – as I often was – for New Zealand. Cargo on board, loaded mostly in the UK, varied hugely from trip to trip, although there were usually cars or car parts, possibly agricultural or other machinery, steel in some form or another and a variety of chemicals. All carefully recorded and mapped to their positions in the holds, having been loaded to ensure that they would be accessible in the various discharge ports. The small section of a cargo plan – colours faded after half a century – shows the upper decks of the forward two hatches. In the secure lockers, there is whisky, paper, some cartons of books, and some personal effects, while in the open space between the lockers and elsewhere are 28 tons of tubes, chemicals, bags of lime, drums of bleach, three cars, pallets of alkathene, steel plate and so on.
It was the second officer’s job to decide where cargo was stored on board. A complicated task as quite often the ship would be loading at three ports in the UK for discharge at a number of ports in Australia or New Zealand! The second officer would be more-or-less ably assisted by the third officer who would be eager to learn the skills of loading cargo. It would be his job next! And the job that always fell to him was the creation of a master cargo plan and a set of smaller copies – all hand written and coloured in the days before computers and photocopiers! It always amazes me that we did not even have a calculator on board and yet, within five or six years of leaving the sea I was using microcomputers – albeit early and very basic ones – in the university!
I do not recall if the third officer had to make deck rounds while the ship was at sea as the story suggests – I suspect that he didn’t. I do not remember ever doing so! Although later, as a second officer on container ships, the metal ‘lashings’ holding in place the containers stacked on deck had to be checked regularly. But, for the story, I needed some means of getting him onto the foredeck each day!
Each ship carried a ‘chippy’ – a carpenter, a senior seaman on board – and one of his daily jobs was to sound the fresh water tanks to determine how much was left for showers and drinking! This was done by dropping a rope with a series of brass segments at its end down pipes from the deck into each tank. By chalking each brass segment, it was possible to see how deep was the water in the tank when the rods were withdrawn. And this simple task formed the basis of a story when it became inexorably linked with something from the cargo plan that the third officer could not forget!
The story of The Sailing Board came from nothing more than the recovered image of a sailing board (above) and is pure fiction! Pure fiction… but so many elements are true… or based on people that I met on board one or other ship. I have just brought them together in a story!