The beginning

I suppose the first question should be what made me want to become a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy in the first place?

After all, I had no connections with the sea, and none of even my distant family were sea farers.
I think it all started when I began working, at a radio and TV repair shop during the weekends, to earn a few pennies extra pocket money. Up until that time, I knew I wanted a technical job of some sort, and had vague thoughts about joining the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy. Both had a lot of high-tech equipment, excellent training as well as allowing one to travel around a bit. I was not however sure I could settle for the discipline and regimentation both services also contained. I had never even thought of the Merchant Navy, and never knew there were such things as Radio Officers then. Its not something that was publicised very much. If anything, the Merchant Navy had a rather sordid public image, despite its heroic efforts during the 2nd World War. Mental pictures of drunken sailors, rough callous officers, and men who had one or more girls in every port were far more frequent than those of the truth, which was that of a hard working, dedicated band of highly skilled people. Just how hard working and dedicated they really are, I only found out later.

Whilst still at school, I had a part time job on Saturdays working at Mildemay Electronics, a small radio and TV shop in Chelmsford, repairing radios, TV’s, electric irons and other assorted household electrical equipment. It was very convenient, being just around the corner from where I lived, and gave me a bit of pocket money. My father knew the owner, as he was one of his own customers, so it was not too difficult to convince him to give me a job at weekends. The shop had a repair engineer working full time called Derek Chard. I obviously got to know him as we worked together in the workshop. He was about 26 years old, had recently left the sea having got married, and had not wanted to continue his sea going career. He was an ex Radio Officer.

We became friends, and I used to spend quite a bit of time with him, experimenting, constructing various electronic gadgets and making radio control systems for model boats. (Some of these went disastrously wrong, requiring long cold and frequently wet hours of waiting at lakes, and the throwing of many stones to bring the boat back to shore!. (Such was my introduction to ships – albeit only model ones). He explained some of the work he had done at sea, and the places he had visited. This all awoke an intense interest in me, and I resolved to try a job in that direction.

A few enquiries at the Marconi Marine Company (conveniently located just up the road at the Widford roundabout), showed that they would only be too pleased to employ me once I became qualified. It seemed they were looking for likely people to expand their team of Radio Officers. I was only 14 years old at that point, but now had a firm goal in mind. As I needed science and maths "O" level GCE qualifications to start the studies, I left the Blessed John Payne school when I was 15, as they did not offer all the subjects I required at that time.
I took a "further studies" course at Braintree College of Further Education culminating in 4 GCE "O" levels after a 2 year course of study. They were English, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. The Chemistry master implored me to take up chemistry and to study further for my “A” levels, as he thought I was a "natural" and consistently got 95 percent or more in his exams. Although I was interested in Chemistry, and enjoyed it, I wanted to travel, and doubted a chemist would get around much. I was sure that a job as a Marine Radio Officer was what I wanted. Even at this point I was very interested in radio communications and electronics. I had badgered my parents into buying me a second hand R1155, an ex wartime RAF communications receiver for my birthday, which I used to tune around the short wave bands. It was a lot better than the old broadcast radio I had used up until then.


One of the instructors at Braintree was a radio amateur with the callsign G3MUL. With his encouragement we started a small amateur radio club at the college, based in the physics lab. We built small construction projects and even operated a small exhibition station for the College at its annual open day. When I had got my GCE’s, I left Braintree and enrolled at Dagenham Technical College in their MRO (Marine Radio Officers) course.

Dagenham School of Marine Radio and Radar

The Marine Radio course at Dagenham was a Department of Trade approved 2 year full time course of study, leading to a 2nd or 1st class certificate of competency in Marine Radio. These certificates enabled one to operate a marine radio station, and were therefore essential for a future Marine Radio Officer.

The 1 st class was required if one wanted to be the chief operator on a passenger ship. My aspirations did not then extend that far. I was being supported entirely by my parents, who did not have much money to spare, so I decided that the shorter term of study for a 2nd class would be sufficient. Further study would always be possible, perhaps even company sponsored.

The school was housed on the top floor of the Dagenham College of Further Education in Longbridge Road. It consisted of several rooms for theoretical instruction, as well as a large room with Morse keys, headphones and paper tape morse readers and transmitters. It also contained a couple of RCA AR88 receivers for listening to live Morse transmissions. We also had a completely fitted out ships radio room, with receivers, transmitters antenna switches etc. Another room contained a couple of marine radar systems. The radio and radar antennas were on the roof of the building, at a height similar to that of a normal ship installation.

For the first few months, we just studied the theoretical aspects of radio. Also, right from the very beginning however, we were started on an intensive course of Morse code training. This comprised the first four hours of every morning, where we, unhappy students, first had to learn the code, then had seemingly never-ending practice with receiving and rhythmic sending. The result was however, that at the end of only 4 months, everyone without fail, was up to a speed of nearly 20 Words Per Minute sending and receiving. Our main instructor was an ex Scheveningen Radio operator, and could send beautiful Morse code at 25 WPM for hours without tiring. He was the perfect example for us.
As we became more advanced in our technical theory, we graduated on to instruction and fault finding using the equipment in our radio cabin. Here we became quite good not only at finding faults, but also reading the minds of our instructors. Each had his own set of favourite problems.
A dud valve might be inserted, or a piece of paper wrapped around a valve pin so it didn’t make contact. Some would unsolder a component or remove a wire. “Use your eyes and nose” was drummed into us, until it became second nature to thoroughly examine visually before laying on hands. It was great experience, and helped me no end later at sea. We were also introduced to the “keep one hand in your pocket” rule when dealing with high voltages. I think this has saved me from a number of rather unpleasant – and potentially fatal - electric shocks. It is impossible to service equipment, especially on a rolling ship, without the occasional slip!
I also had a sort of “second hand” connection with marine radio through working at Chelmsford Metals, a scrap metal yard in Chelmsford, during my college holidays. Here I found large quantities of old, scrapped marine radio or radar equipment from Marconi. A lot of their obsolete equipment ended up there, as well as various electronic components, valves and a considerable quantity of ex post office equipment too. It was a veritable gold mine for me. Without really trying, I obtained a real “inside view” of magnetrons, RF power valves, CRT’s, coils, variometers, variable capacitors etc. I could dissect broken valves and other components to see how they were made. It was also very hard physical work, but the pay was good for a student, and it kept me fit. I sometimes used to buy a scrapped transmitter or receiver, and use it for my Amateur Radio interest. This way I became familiar with some of the older equipment, their circuits and in using them to listen to some of the ships and marine radio stations at home. The Seagull and Seamew (ex trawler 2 MHz R/T equipment), some old lifeboat radios and old radar sets such as the Quo Vadis were taken apart and the parts used for my own projects. A old Marconi CR150 receiver, using wartime EF50`s with 2 tuned RF stages, was salvaged and got working. It was heavy, big and ugly, but I still consider it to be one of the finest radio receivers I have ever owned.

One of my favourite frequency bands was the so called “Trawler band” around 2 MHz where the fishing boats used to talk to each other. This also included the amateur “Top band” as well as the R/T distress and calling frequency and various marine coastal station frequencies. Living near the East coast, I became quite familiar with the voices at North Foreland Radio (GNF), Humber (GKZ), Niton (GNI), as well as those a little further away, Landsend (GLD), Cullercoats (GCC), Wick Radio etc. Even foreign stations became familiar, Scheveningen (PCH) Norddeich (DAN) and Ostende OST amongst others.
The R/T distress frequency (2182 KHz) was sometimes monitored in bad weather, and I experienced some exciting, breathless moments when men and ships were in danger - and sadness too, when ships sank, the voices stilled, and people lost their lives. It all came very much closer to home, and gave a true sense of what I would be doing. After I had improved my Morse skills, I also used to listen to the 410 – 512 KHz MF band, especially the 500 KHz distress and calling frequency, as well as the various HF frequencies of Portishead Radio and other foreign marine coast stations.
Not being content with just listening, I improvised my own low power medium wave music broadcast station, using an old radio receiver local oscillator and a tape recorder. This was well before the times of Radio Caroline and the other pirate broadcast stations, and was just a bit of a technical experiment on my part to see how it could be done. Later I migrated to the 40 meter broadcast band with a bit more power from a number 19 set, which was a wartime army tank transceiver with about 15 watts output, and an indoor 6ft whip antenna.
I could not transmit long however as my two small 6 volt motor cycle batteries powering the set were empty within 10 or 15 minutes. The 19 set rotary transformer needed POWER! It then took several hours to charge them up again. Probably my only audience were school friends in the neighbourhood, but it was great fun. I used to love lighting fluorescent lamps 2  or 3 feet away from the whip. No worries about radiation in those days. That it was also illegal never really occurred to me at that time.
I then modified the 19 set for greater power, high level modulation and mains power supply. I then started having contacts on the amateur bands. This was my downfall, as the family TV set used to go totally white when I transmitted on a bigger antenna! I used to only transmit during the day when my parents were not watching it. One of the local amateurs however contacted my parents who promptly put a stop to my “pirate” activities.
Still wanting to “go on the air” however, I studied for, and passed, my City and Guilds Radio Amateurs Examination, as well as the Post Office amateur Morse test in 1966. This enabled me to receive my amateur call sign G3VCH shortly after. It was then that I really started to learn about the practical aspects of radio frequency design and engineering. Learning by doing! I found out that theory and practice were two very different things, and that one did not necessarily agree fully with the other!

I built HF and VHF radio transmitters, receivers and converters. A number of them did not work as planned (if at all!) and on occasions, the results of my home brew attempts were highly spectacular to say the least! They say that valves were very forgiving, however some of the ones I used never forgave me for what I did to them!
I used to drive them unmercifully. They used to glow a lovely violet inside which flickered as the transmitter load changed. The anodes used to sometimes glow cherry red, and I even got one valve so hot that its glass envelope softened and slowly collapsed around the electrodes inside. I obtained a lot more output power than the manufacturer’s ratings, even if only for a short time! It all served to help me towards my goal however, and made some things much easier to understand than if I had not had my amateur licence to experiment with.

Marconi Apprentices Radio Club (Chelmsford)
I had a number of friends who were training with Marconi Wireless Telegraph (not the Marine company) and I often used to visit their club station and take part in their social meetings. At this time I think the leader of the group was Peter Chadwick G3RZP. I hesitate to say he was a president as it was a lot looser organised than that, but he instigated or supported various projects. His rallying phrase of “It has to be modified” in a broad North Country accent, when something did not work as planned, still rings in my ears. The social gatherings mostly took place in the Railway Tavern almost under the railway bridge in Chelmsford, and often lasted long after hours! The Marconi Apprentices club itself was on the 3rd floor of an old run down building called Dorset House, opposite the railway station and conveniently situated for the local pubs.

We had managed to “obtain” a naval high power synthesised transmitter type NT201. This could easily give 2KW output, but drew so much power from the mains that it made the lights flicker alarmingly when used. It was also very heavy, and made the floor sag until we managed to find some reinforced joists to stand it on. We had various other salvaged transmitters and receivers (e.g. an old Marconi Marine Worldspan and a CR150 amongst others), which we repaired and modified for our own ends. Some of these were also very big and extremely heavy. I sometimes used to think the old house, despite its ill repair, must have been excellently built to enable it to stand our several tons of communications equipment on the 3rd floor.

Antennas were draped around the building wherever we found a convenient support. Not particularly efficient perhaps, but they did radiate a signal of sorts. At least we had no problems with TV interference, as no one lived nearby. We did however have a couple of reports from local pubs about “strange noises” from their music systems! I seem also to remember something about the Chelmsford Cathedral public address system “hearing” us during a sermon by some prominent churchman or other. It was not far away, so we had to be a little careful when running high power!
Dorset House has long been demolished, but interestingly enough, the building now standing in its place is used by Cable and Wireless Marine division, so the link is not completely broken.
We were known as being a bit of a strange bunch by the Chelmsford police, who were based not far away. Not exactly dangerous, but people who perhaps needed watching. Occasionally we would be paid a visit in the early hours of the morning. They would depart quite happily after a cup of hot coffee and a chat, but their eyes were everywhere!
We could sometimes be found skulking around Chelmsford in the dead of night testing out home made walkie talkies or doing field strength measurements of our club station transmissions. For our own security, we always carried a copy of our radio licence with us to ward off any unhappy consequences when meeting with our uniformed friends. They were always very suspicious, and could at times be rather unforgiving!
Once when stopped on my way home at around 2am by the local police patrol, I explained where I had come from. “Oh, you’re one of THEM” was the taciturn reply as the three police officers disappointingly climbed back into their squad car and drove off with squealing tyres. They didn’t even want to see my licence!

I also became a member of the official Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society, and through them rubbed shoulders with some quite distinguished people in the field of radio. I visited the house of Louis Varney G5RV, one of the pioneers of radio communication, who lived not far from me. He had a very impressive home made transmitter, inside a home constructed 6 foot rack standing in his sitting room, which was also his radio “shack”. It had some beautiful high power valves glowing brightly behind a glass window, with lots of knobs and meters. The 600 ohm twin feeder antenna leads came in via window feed-through insulators from the garden, then looped direct to an antenna tuning unit which was a part of the transmitter rack. It all looked very professional. As a young lad, I was suitably impressed.

I also got to know the retired General Manager of Marconi Marine, Ron Ferguson who was licensed as G4VF, who also lived not far from me. I first teamed up with him during a radio amateur field day, where my Morse code skills were much in demand, and learned a little of how he started as a radio officer at sea. He was a grand old Gentleman with silver-grey hair, who always used his own polished brass hand Morse key, sending impeccable rhythmic code. He greeted my intent to go to sea with warm enthusiasm, which went a long way to confirming I was on the right road.
To me he was just Ron, and he never gave a hint who he was, or some of the more interesting things he had done during his life. I only found that out by accident, and with some surprise considerably later.
I became friendly with another local amateur with the next call to mine, G3VCG. He and I used to build all sorts of interesting things. One however which sticks in my mind was a 20 meter grounded grid linear amplifier using 4 x TZ40 triodes from an old audio amplifier. These were magnificent valves with carbon anodes, and when run with over 2KV on them, could deliver copious amounts of power. The monster was built without any sort of chassis, open on the bedroom floor. Transformer, valves, rectifiers and tank coils all totally free. It was lethal, but we were careful. The valves got so hot they started to burn holes in the carpet, and used to glow a flickering electric blue inside when in operation. The eerie blue glow and red heaters looked like some infernal machine. When Dons station was inspected one day by the GPO, he was asked what that mess was on the floor. Don told the truth “That’s my linear amplifier”. The inspector just laughed, never realizing that it really was!!

During the last year at college, we did a short training cruise on an old converted fishing vessel called the Glen Strathallan. She was around 800 tons displacement, with an old fashioned triple expansion steam piston engine as the main power plant, but her coal fired boiler had been converted to oil in an effort at modernisation and reducing operating costs. The fish holds had been converted to dormitories for about 20 or 30 sea cadets, all sleeping in the two holds in two-tier bunk beds. There was only the Captain, the Chief Engineer, a cook and the Bosun as regular crew. All the rest were cadets with their teachers or (as in our case) trainee Radio Officers. We had to do a bit of everything, taking turns to stand bridge and engine room watches, steering, painting, cleaning on deck as well as steward duties, helping in the galley and learning the black art of navigation. It was a very interesting experience.
As we had no operating certificates yet, our instructor (who obviously did) had to do the actual wireless operating. It was of course illegal to operate without the proper qualifications. (The old ship was using an ancient 100 watt IMR MF transmitter running from a rotary transformer housed in the cupboard underneath, fed from the 240 volt DC mains. Modulation was by means of the unsmoothed 400 Hz HT supply – all very primitive and probably dating from the early 50’s! As far as I remember, the transmitter was not even crystal controlled.) The short messages we sent only consisted of a TR (Track Report, consisting of ships name, position, port from, port to, speed and ETA) which we sent to North Foreland Radio (GNF) on clearing London. Occasionally our instructor (the one from Scheveningen Radio) would send the odd test transmission to show us how it was done, or to demonstrate a point of instruction in the classroom lessons which still took place inside the main cabin. At night, when we were at anchor off Southend, the small steam powered DC generator was stopped to conserve fuel, and apart from some battery powered riding and anchor lights, all was dark and very quiet. You can imagine what high jinks us young trainee radio officers had then!
We had travelled down by train and joined the ship at the Millwall Docks in London. It was highly interesting being inside what was then one of the biggest ports in England. The old ship was berthed in a little forgotten corner into which the wind seemed to blow almost all the rubbish that was floating around in the dock. The water looked scummy, dirty and rather unpleasant. It took a full day to get the old lady ready for sea, and to get up steam. The boilers were old, and had to be heated slowly to their operating temperature to prevent leaks. The docks were busy, and we could watch from the old ship’s railing as numerous vessels steamed silently past, through the locks, out into the Thames and on to mysterious destinations. It struck me even then just how quietly ships moved. Only a few hundred yards away, and despite the thousands of horsepower, all you could hear was a gentle hum from fans and ventilators, and sometimes a faint panting from the main diesel engine.
That night, I and a couple of others investigated some of the many dockland pubs nearby. The area was somewhat run down, with many rows of terraced houses outside the docks themselves. Despite the run down appearance, lots of pubs were to be found in the area with interesting names and probably histories as well, conveniently placed near the dock entrances. Myself and a friend investigated a few – just out of curiosity of course! On the way back, we met two girls who needed a push to get their car started, and whose father was very suspicious indeed when they invited us home for a coffee at around midnight. I often wonder what would have happened if he had not woken up!
The next day we sailed slowly down the Thames in wonderful weather and brilliant sunshine, as far as Southend. I well remember my first sight of large ocean-going ships, ploughing along with a large creamy bow wave, coming up fast astern, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, and then overtaking us with ease. We could only make about 9 knots even going flat out, and their wake made us roll and pitch gently. It was a really stirring sight. At that time, London was still a busy port, and merchant ships of all nations and all sizes passed up and down the Thames using the various London Docks, as well as those at Gravesend or Canvey Island.
We anchored off Southend at night, and, sailed around for a while during the day, doing navigational exercises with the Decca Navigator (a hyperbolic navigational system used around the European coasts) and practiced using the radar. We were even introduced to the old wartime Consol navigation system which was still in operation at that time. I was quite amazed at how accurately one could navigate using such instruments. One exercise had us giving steering commands to the wheelhouse above, from a darkened main cabin, relying only on the Decca navigator. We were trying to manoeuvre close to a particular buoy which was marked on the chart we were using. On opening the curtains, we were very often only yards away from our chosen object. Considering we were unskilled, and had no navigation experience, it was remarkably accurate! Other jobs such as chipping and painting the ship and looking after the engine had also to be done. There was never a dull moment.
After anchoring in the evening, the engine had to be wiped down with oily waste and kept absolutely gleaming. This wiping down was also a part of our job and gave a great feeling for the size and power of the machinery used on even a small ship. The engine room watch had to carefully clamber all over the engine, wiping off all traces of water after the ship had anchored. The Chief engineer used to supervise this, and was very particular. I think he was rather proud of his engine.

I still vividly remember my very first engine room watch. I was standing at the main engine controls, right next to the engine itself, looking in terror at the vibrating high pressure steam piping coming from the boiler, imagining what would happen if they burst or sprang a leak. I had a vivid imagination, and the pictures it conjured up were not pleasant. I had also, not long previously, seen a film “The Sand Pebbles” with Steve McQueen, where just exactly this had happened. It didn’t do much to ease my mind! Then there was the high pressure water feed pump for the boiler, which often jammed for a few seconds, then with a heart-stopping clang, would start again. The big firebox with its oil burners, pumps and sight glasses cast an eerie flickering glow. The generator, its huge open flywheel a high speed blur and wreathed in steam, with only a flimsy wire mesh guard stopping anyone from touching it. Then of course there was the roar of the ventilation fans, and the all pervading noise of the massive three cylinders, open crankshaft and connecting rods of the main engine itself. It was over two stories high, and as long as a bus. The brass handrails gleamed in the dim light and its three pistons hissed and thumped as they moved. Occasionally, the chief engineer would go away to do something incomprehensible to unknown dark humps crouching in dimly lit corners of the engine room, leaving me alone. My heart was in my mouth until he returned. The noise, dim light and vibration, the smell of steam and oil are still with me to this day.
I remember how as an experiment, I pushed against the side of the ship when she was in the dock, and after about 5 minutes of hard pushing, managed to get her 800 or so tons to move slowly away from the quay. It demonstrated that you don't need much power to slowly move a ship. A lesson which the old canal barges (with literally only one horse power) demonstrated only too well, moving many hundreds of tons using just a single horse. The power required however rises very steeply as speed increases, which is why the amount of engine power required to propel the big, fast, container ships, huge warships and liners is truly astronomical. The SS United States, reputed to have been the most powerful passenger ship ever built, is said to have had well over 200,000 horsepower hidden in its main engines, and could do 20 knots even in reverse!.

I obtained PMG certificate No G-2701 (2nd Class) on the 20 June 1967

This was something I had dreamed of for the entire 2 years. I then had no other wish than to go to sea. I had no back up plans, and the fact that I might actually fail the exams was unthinkable. The tension while waiting for the results was tremendous. In fact I was physically sick shortly after the results were made known, and had to go home before the certificates were ceremoniously handed out. I received mine, without ceremony, a few days later. A few did not pass, and stayed on to re-sit the exams. Some went on to study for their first class “ticket”. One or two who did not make it, gave up completely, and left the college to try their hand at a different job entirely. The standards were high, and either you passed or you did not.
To celebrate our success, four of us went to the local pub across the road from the college. Money was tight, and we just had enough between us for one pint of beer. We ordered a pint of bitter and four straws. The publican looked at us VERY strangely, but it was known that the radio officer students were a funny
bunch, so we got it. We all dipped our straws into the glass, then on the command SUCKED. Great fun, especially fighting for the last bit at the bottom! Shortly after, the class disbanded, each to go his own separate way. Some joined Marconi like me, others went to P and O, Blue Star and various other companies.
The world is a big place, and I never met up with any of them again.

I joined the Merchant Navy on the 20th July 1967 as a Radio Officer with Marconi Marine.
This had been agreed beforehand, and Marconi had given me a 50 Pounds "sub" (a loan) to help buy my first uniform and other requirements. A friend of my mother also loaned me 100 Pounds to help with the first expenses. These were not inconsiderable, requiring 3 sets of white tropical uniform shorts, shirts, socks and a pair of white uniform shoes. The epaulettes had also to be bought, as well as the cold weather blue (doeskin) uniform jacket and trousers, black shoes and socks, three white long sleeved shirts and a black uniform tie. A Merchant Naval uniform cap completed the requirements. These were all obtained from a merchant naval outfitter’s in London. My mother thought I looked very smart, I was not so sure, and thought I looked a bit silly. I had never been one for dressing up. It was part of the job however, so it was all packed, and I was ready to go, somewhat nervous at what was in store for me.

Marconi East Ham
I was ordered to the Marconi East Ham Depot where I had to wait in a dim sombre panelled waiting room with a few other (presumably experienced) radio officers. Nobody talked much, and I did not feel like starting a conversation. I was much too nervous. One, a gentleman from the Radio Officers Union regaled me to join, which I duly did. Apart from him however, I was virtually ignored by the more experienced men - which was actually a bit of a relief! Our names were called out over a loudspeaker to see the personnel officer for our next appointment. It seemed the days of sending the names in Morse code (as I had heard used to be the case) were gone! For this small mercy, I was much relieved.
I was interviewed by the personnel officer, a Mr Padfield, and told to join my first ship, a Ben Line passenger cargo vessel as a trainee Radio Officer. I was also introduced to my Chief, a Mr Nelson Whitehead, who had sailed on the ship many times before and was a regular Ben Line man. He was a New Zealander, and tended to speak his mind. For all that, he was a fair and experienced officer, and we got on well.

Signing On
We signed on articles at the shipping office at Victoria Docks. All ships crew have to go through this procedure, but it was a first time for me. It meant we signed on the ship’s articles of agreement, promising to abide by the rules and regulations contained in them. In return, we would be paid a fixed sum, and the ship would have to conform to the British shipping regulations with respect to our living conditions, leave, food etc. (These however were minimal standards, and reading through them reminded me of the bad old days of sail, with salt pork and "donkeys breakfasts" - the mattress one slept on stuffed with straw. Many of the regulations did not seem to have been updated since the early 1900's!). Also, we could not be compelled to stay on the ship for longer than 2 years, though that seemed quite long enough to me! It was usual to start and end a voyage in the U.K. however sometimes, especially with tramp steamers, it could be a long time before the ship visited the U.K. again. After 2 years, the crew MUST be released if they did not wish to re-sign, and if necessary, flown or otherwise sent home. It was not unknown however for some crew members to go as passengers or supernumery crew members on another of the companies’ ships, which was sailing for the U.K. This saved the price of the airfare, and was considered to conform to the regulations, even if the crew concerned were not too happy at spending another few weeks (or months!) at sea before getting home.
Later, many shipping companies changed to 6 monthly running articles, which then limited the longest period on board to 6 months. It was of course still possible to "voluntarily" re-sign on, and a number shipping companies tried to encourage this with various incentives. The costs involved in flying a crew home could eat up a significant percentage of the profits of a voyage, despite the special seaman's discounts given by some airlines. Very often, a foreign crew had different articles to the British Officers, sometimes having to stay on board for the full 2 years, whereas we could get off after 6 months.
Actually, as Radio Officers working for Marconi, we were only "loaned" to the ship. We were employed and paid by Marconi Marine, and signed on the ship at a nominal fee (which we never received) just to satisfy the formalities. Later, when working for Canadian Pacific, I was working for the shipping line itself, and signed on as a particular rank with its appropriate rate of pay.
I signed on the MV Benhope as 2nd Radio Officer at the grand rate of 1 shilling per month. Although signed on as the 2nd R/O, I was actually classed as a junior R/O. This was about the lowest form of life apart from perhaps a first trip deck cadet, and I was not allowed to be in charge of a watch by myself until I had completed at least 6 months service as a Junior or Trainee. Although the Chief Radio Officer may have allowed me to be on watch by myself, it was his responsibility to ensure that everything was correctly done, and I would always have to call him if anything unusual cropped up. Although not exactly looked down upon, I was also not really welcome on board. The typical comment being “Oh God! not another Sparklet” – A Radio Officer having been called “Sparks” from the very early days, I got the diminutive form of the name. Like in many close-knit communities, I was a stranger, and would have to prove myself before being accepted.
Under the old Merchant Shipping Radio Rules, I had to work an 8 hour watch (0800 – 1000, 1200-1400, 1600-1800 and 2000-2200). It was also some comfort to know that legally, we, as radio officers, would not be left behind. A ship of over 1800 tons could not sail without us! It must have someone on board with a Master Mariner’s certificate, a Chief Engineer’s certificate, a Cook’s certificate and a certified Radio Officer before sailing deep sea. Failure to have any one of these essential people on board theoretically meant the ship must remain in port. In practice of course, a dispensation could be obtained to sail without a particular certificate, at least until the next port, so I was warned that it was not wise to “push ones luck” and to return in good time from a trip ashore.
Marconi allowed me (as a junior R/O) to draw only up to 12 pounds a month as cash or bar receipts on board for my own use. (The excuse being they wished to protect me from spending all I had!) The chief steward kept a close eye out that I did not exceed my limits, and if it looked like I would, then he would “stop my tap”. No beer until the start of the next month – what a horrible thought! The balance of my 46 pounds per month salary would be paid into my bank account (minus tax and stoppages).
Oh! What riches.


Story I


Story II.


Story III ut.

Chapters of the book

chapter ship
signing on
signing off call sign

1 M.V. Benhope London 02/09/71 21/11/67 London GUFY
2 S.S. Solen London 01/01/68 04/05/68 Stavanger GHPG
3-4 M.V. Silvercove
New York 14/06/68  24/07/69 Boston

5 M.V. Ivinghoe Beacon Rotterdam 22/10/69
18/06/70 Piraeus

6-7 S.S. Hemitrochus
Manila 03/09/70
29/03/71 Singapore

Marine Electronics Course

8 M.V. Canopic
London 02/09/71
09/09/71 Liverpool

Marconi Radar Course

9-10 S.S. Melo
Mina al Ahmadi 03/01/72
03/06/72 Singapore


Huge Ships and Consequences

Company Predictor Radar Course

Northern Star
Southampton 02/10/72
19/05/73 Southampton

13 Methane Princess
Tilbury 20/09/73
16/12/73 Canvey Island

14-15 D.C. Coleman
Tobata, Japan 06/05/74
23/09/74 Port Walcott, Australia
M.V. W.A. Mather
St John, N.B. 10/12/74
22/05/75 Punta Cardon, Venezuela

17 M.V. W.A. Mather Los Angeles, USA 21/07/75 18/10/75 Los Angeles, USA

Sailing round the Canaries

M.V. Fort Macleod
Istanbul, Turkey 03/12/75
23/02/76 New York, USA

M.V. Lord Mount Stephen
Southampton 08/04/76
15/04/76 Southampton

M.V. E.W. Beatty
Gijon, France 10/05/76
24/06/76 Rotterdam
M.V.W.M. Neal
Fukuyama, Japan 17/08/76
20/12/76 Port Talbot, Wales
D.C. Coleman
Rotterdam 16/03/77
18/06/77 Rotterdam

Fort Coulonge
Guayama, Puerto Rico 02/07/77
26/10/77 Bombay, India
Fort Coulonge
Wellington, N.Z. 25/02/78
17/6/78 Kawasaki, Japan
28 M.V. W.A. Mather Triest, Italy 16/08/78 20/11/78 Long Beach, USA
M.V. Fort Hamilton
Durban, R.S.A. 13/04/78
29/08/79 Kuwait
M.V. Fort Norman
Bremerhaven 16/12/79
5/7/80 Ghent, Belgium

Fort Steele
Guayanilla, Puerto Rico 06/11/80
06/02/81 Tampa, Florida

M.V. G.A. Walker
Maracaibo, Venezuela 27/3/81
25/06/81 Cape Town

M.V. Fort Calgary
Singapore 03/09/81
02/02/82 Inchon, South Korea

Fort Fraser
Long Beach, USA 26/05/82
21/10/82 Kobe, Japan
Fort Walsh
Singapore 16/01/83
24/04/83 Rotterdam

41-42 M.V. Fort Kamloops Esjberg, Denmark 26/07/83 20/12/83 Kunak, Indonesia
43 M.V. Fort Victoria Fukuyama, Japan 09/04/84 16/08/84 Vancouver, BC
44 M.V. W.M. Neal Rotterdam 14/12/84 12/05/85 Ulsan, South Korea ZBML

"Halcyon the Great"

45 M.V. Mississippi Antwerp, Belgium 02/05/85 26/06/85 Felixstowe
46-47 M.V. Mississippi Rotterdam 09/10/85 21/01/86 Antwerp, Belgium
48 M.V. Fort Calgary Long Beach 08/03/86 03/06/86 Bordeaux, France
49-50 Dart Atlantica Felixstowe 17/06/86 20/07/86 Felixstowe
51 M.V. G.A. Walker Tampico, Florida, USA 06/11/86 12/02/87 Salina Cruz, Mexico
52 Fort Macleod Manzanillo, Mexico 03/04/87 09/07/87 Rosarito, Mexico
53 M.V. G.A. Walker Salina Cruz, Mexico 15/10/87 12/02/88 Singapore

Captains, Characters and Stories




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Murphy's Law to Mariners

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