A mercantile lesson for life: pay attention to the basics

MICHAEL COX
Last updated 07:12 01/10/2012

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Michael Cox

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He wasn't cut out for the British Merchant Navy. His mum had coddled him as an only child and dad sent him away to sea as an apprentice, to toughen him up a bit. Tony and I, plus two other 17-year-olds, shared a small cabin on the Motor Vessel Durham, a New Zealand Shipping Company cargo-cum-training ship carrying about 40 cadets. We were starting a four-year adventure that, if all went well, would convert us from leggy, pimpled youths into solid, confident, self- sufficient Second Mates approved by the British Board of Trade.

Each of us had been sent the required clothing list for our first six-month return voyage from London to New Zealand. It ranged from a cummerbund [one black] to underpants [six pairs - white]. It was with these garments that Tony finally came adrift.

In the tropics, as the temperatures climbed, an unpleasant odour started to pervade our cabin. The First Mate, on one of his regular inspections, picked up this odious scent. We were called to our cabin and told to tip out our cabin drawers on to the deck. This pretty officious First Officer delved among the piles with his little swagger stick; I think he must have been turned down for Sandhurst Military College.

The source of the smell was located in Tony's pile. Six very used pairs of underpants, once white, were isolated from everything else and he was told to take the offending articles up to the main deck. There Tony was told to strip and he was hosed with a saltwater hose and scrubbed with long-handled deck brooms. No-one had ever told Tony about washing his gear; Mum had always done it. When one pair was "past wearing" he just opened another packet and put the offending article out of sight, probably hoping that they would be picked up by Mum at the end of the voyage.

The merchant navy was not for the squeamish, nor for the "mother-coddled". My heart went out to Tony that day. He survived his vicious scrubbing without any tears and one of the rules of the sea was learnt by all of us: cleanliness is next to godliness. This rule ran only second to the fear of fire at sea. There's nowhere to hide or run to in the event of fire at sea, hence we had fire drill every week, Fridays at eight bells in the afternoon watch [4pm for you landlubbers].

Tony's grotty underpants were not wasted. He was made to sew them to a 40-fathom line of manila rope, one fathom apart, and they were thrown over the stern and towed overnight where they were washed very clean by the waters of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

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Tony lasted only one trip. On return to London Royal Albert docks, berth 33, we all left the ship to go on two weeks' leave. We beginners were just happy to have survived our first voyage. Tony didn't return. Last I heard of him he had become a truancy officer in Bedford or was it Birmingham? His maritime sojourn would have done him no harm; indeed, he may have learnt something from it.

I completed my four years and another six as various Master's Mates on a range of vessels. But I never forgot that first voyage of self-discovery. My father, a former Royal Navy man, had warned me I should forget the shining buttons and gleaming cap badge, because they would have to be earned. We were told we were little more than ballast and treated as such. There was fatuous bullyingthat, although unpleasant, was no worse than that suffered at my school. As first trippers, we carried out all the menial tasks. We scrubbed decks, served at meal tables, washed dishes and cleaned brass. Even now I never smell Brasso without feeling queasy with seasickness spasms. We did two-hour tricks on the wheel, learning how the 12,000 tonnes of a ship moved in heavy seas, followed by two hours on lookout forward in the eyes of the ship. We had two hours' schooling fitted into our 10-hour day: spherical trigonometry, ship construction, signals with morse and semaphore and learning the rules of the road for navigation by heart [no shore leave until you had them off pat]. I can still rattle them off- even better after a couple of stiff whiskies.

Like Tony, I learnt some hard lessons. When I first stood before the National Party selectors of the Manawatu electorate, I told them about my first job as a 17-year-old apprentice on the Durham. I was instructed: "At 6.30 you are to sit on a lavatory. Do not think of using it. You're there to warm the seat for the Cadet Captain!” A sobering start to my working life, but I used that experience to tell the selectors of their candidate, and later MP for Manawatu, that I had indeed “started from the bottom up.”

- Waikato Times

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