Cadet Williams, with a complexion officially described as « fresh », has joined the Merchant Navy. Too small to steer and see where he’s going at the same time, he’s already aroused the ire of the training officers. It isn’t his fault that he’s only a slight fellow…
On another occasion we were manning longboats. These are very long rowing boats with huge oars, and 2 rows of 5 rowers. This time there was another training officer in command. The problem was, as I was only 7st 12lb, the oar felt heavier than me and was a lot longer than I was high.
I managed to keep up rowing with the other cadets until the order was shouted: “Oars!”, which was to bring the oars to a horizontal position: No problem, and then: “ Toss Oars!”, which meant you then put them in the vertical position.
(At this point I must remind you that these oars are spelt with an O!!)
All of the other cadets managed to bring them up in perfect unison except of course yours truly who was struggling not to fall overboard because of the weight of the oar. The cadet behind me reached forward, after yet another scream of: “Williams! What the ……………..?” , and put his foot on the end of my oar while I grappled with the rest of it until it too was upright.
Again, I didn’t win any popularity contests with the trainers, and worryingly, it looked like a pattern was starting to set in…
Chantimor consists of 11 ex-pats, marooned in Brittany, who sing Sea Shanties.
Some of us have even been to sea…
The first month!
There I was standing at the end of a small jetty with my parents on a cold November evening, looking across the river Thames into thick fog, listening to the dipping of oars and small splashing sounds slowly getting closer and closer.
« What was I doing here, all 5ft 3 inch and 7 stone 12lbs of me », I thought? Then it all came back to me about my present predicament. Several months earlier I’d been talking to our Careers Master and he’d asked what I wanted to do in the big wide world:
“I want to work with animals, Sir”, came the reply
“Don’t be stupid boy, there’s no future in that”, came his response, “What else do you like?” It was one of those situations, common in my case, when you are taken unawares and just open your mouth and spout nonsense.
“I like the sea, Sir” …. To this day I haven’t a clue as to why I said that. We lived miles away from the coast and spent our annual holiday in my dad’s static caravan at Borth on the west coast of Wales.
The next thing I knew, was that I was in a Merchant Navy administration building in Cardiff sitting an exam to allow me to become a trainee navigating officer: a Sea Cadet.
So as I stood there reflecting on my young life in the bows, a small rowing boat came out of the dense fog and gently bumped the jetty. With a tear in my eye I said goodbye to mum and dad, climbed into the boat, and was rowed away, disappearing into the depths of the fog.
I boarded the Merchant navy training ship the HMS Worcester, an old ferro-concrete warship built in 1906, and the adventure began.
The purpose of my apprenticeship was to train me in the art of safety, navigation and general seamanship to enable me to finally become a deck officer and follow a career path to Master of a ship. This first introduction to training was purely for safety and was for 3 weeks before I was put on board a ship to sail off into the unknown. It was a 3 week period full of highs and lows which I will never forget.
Several incidents have really stuck in my mind mainly to do with my lack of stature and the consequences of that. One of our tasks was to master the driving or piloting of a motor boat, easy you may think, but not quite so!!
There were about 20 of us in my intake of cadets, of which 6 of us plus the training officer boarded the small motor boat. All went well with the other cadets steering and pulling the boat alongside the HMS Worcester and tying up. We had to look and be competent, understand commands, steer safely, navigate the various buoys and other small boats in the vicinity. All was well and the task was successfully accomplished by all of the cadets until of course it came to my turn.
“Easy”, I thought, after watching my fellow cadets. I jumped down into the cockpit and proceeded to take over command of the boat. Straight away I realised there was a problem; being so small I couldn’t stand in the cockpit and steer and actually see over the front of the boat all at the same time. So I decided to improvise and stood on the seat by the wheel so that I could see where I was going. I thought that was a pretty clever idea as I managed to navigate around the various obstacles safely without too much problem.
“Take her in and tie her up alongside the Worcester”, ordered the officer,
All went well until I had to attempt to slow down while approaching the ship because I was standing on the seat and I couldn’t reach the gear lever. “Oh dear”, I thought ( or thoughts to that effect!!) The officer started to look agitated and when I jumped back down into the cockpit I got the timing wrong and couldn’t see a thing in front of me.
Then came the piercing scream: “Williams what the f*** are you doing? Look where the f*** you are going!”
Whoops too late, we crashed straight into the side of the ship and the officer by now was apoplectic. I was panicking trying to turn the engine off and my fellow cadets were struggling between laughing and the fear of drowning and of the screaming of the officer. Needless to say I was not the most popular cadet that day and I spent the rest of the day keeping my head down,(easy for me), and avoiding the angry officer.