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A bit about me as a Radio Officer

To be able to operate as a Radio Officer at sea one needed to become qualified. I attended a course at Southampton College of Technology, East Park terrace, Southampton (now part of Solent University).

We occupied the 7th floor with its wonderful views all over Southampton and the outlying areas. The pictures around here are what we were all aiming for - the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Certificate of Competency and Authority to Operate!

Having left school with (by today’s standards) a few ‘O’ Levels I spent the next two years learning as much as I could about Radio & Radar and trying to learn Morse code to become a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy.

We were taught theory by Eric Tremayne, Morse code by Ron Fisher and Radar by Frank Mahon. Others were involved but they were the main ones. We had electronics lab lessons with Dennis Brown (‘One and a third turns, Laddie’ one of his sayings) in room E08 on the ground floor out the back in the Engineering section.

Once we had a reasonable amount of theory under our belts we had practical lessons using and repairing the various bits of kit that we would eventually sail with. Oceanspan transmitters (don’t forget lads, ‘One hand in your pocket when the power was on’! Atalanta receivers, Lifeguard Auto Alarms and so on…

We would use them, break them and repair them, I enjoyed it!

The certificate to the left is the ‘Radar’ certificate. This was extra to the PMG certificate above and would allow us to earn a little more when we eventually got our job.

I enjoyed Radar lessons. We had that monster of an all-valved Hermes radar. Hundreds of valves all glowing…

The principles of radar, wave-guides, the coil of co-ax cable in the door of the transmitter unit that acted as a delay line, the magnetrons and klystrons, all new brain fodder, loved it!

I sailed on several ships with the Hermes radar and used what I had learned many times. Having so many valves in an environment such as a ship’s bridge, with all the vibration it was not a case of ‘if it failed’ it was ‘how long can I nurse this thing along before it fails again’ and ‘I hope the bl**dy thing doesn’t fail just as we enter the Chesapeake Bay’ (or similar).

Prior to joining one of my ships I was sent by Marconi to Chelmsford to train on a brand new radar. It had transistors and one IC (Integrated Circuit) in it! It was a quarter the size of Hermes and more reliable.


I have found a link to a few photos of Southampton College of Technology Radio & Radar rooms HERE

The picture on the left I see is dated April 1971, so must have bee taken on the bridge of Cluden. I cannot remember why I was looking smart in my uniform, it was a rare outing for it. For most of the time when we were at sea we were more casually dressed such as in the picture below!

Throughout the time I was at sea (September 1970 - June 1973) Morse code was the means of communication between the ship, via the radio room and the shore station.

Marconi International Marine Company had an office in Southampton. It was on the corner of High Street and Bernard Street. With my newly issued ‘ticket’ in hand I walked into the Marconi office and declared that I was here and that I wanted a job as a Radio Officer. This is not something you could get away with today but, they were short of ROs and welcomed me in. I was given a job and told to wait for instructions to join my first ship.

As an aside:

Whilst at school I went on the school’s cruise ship Nevasa https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Nevasa

For 10 days in November 1966. We left Southampton, called in a Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria (where we were taken to Cairo and saw the pyramids, the Sphynx and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities which houses all the good stuff from Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus) and then on to Venice from where we flew home. During my time aboard Nevasa I made friends with some of the Indian crew. I have always had an affection for the people of India. One of these guys that I got on well with was Antiono Fernandez who hailed from Goa and we exchanged addresses in the hope that we might stay in contact. Now everyone knows this never happens so I thought nothing more of it.

We were at home, it was Friday night about two weeks after the Nevasa trip and we were getting ready to go out for the evening to the local Community Centre when there was a knock on the door. Standing there was Antonio Fernandez and three of his mates. They had got a taxi all the way out from Southampton to Holbury (12 miles or so), they were very smartly dressed in their suits and we were all gobsmacked!

We wanted to go out. We had no food or drink to offer them. It was, in retrospect a little embarrassing but I had taken some 8mm movie film whilst on Nevasa so we decided to invite them in and show this film to them. Each 50’ of standard 8 film runs through in about 4 minutes and I had taken 4 films, I hadn’t even had time to splice them together into one unit.

We all sat and watched the films together and then they went, presumably to find a taxi and we went out. We couldn’t even help them get a taxi as we didn’t have a telephone then.

This episode gradually slipped into the dim and distant past as such things do… until I joined Cotswold. Who should be my cabin steward but the very same Antonio Fernandez! It really is a small world.

Fags, Food, Booze & Entertainment


Fags


A ‘friend’ at school persuaded a rather gullible me to take up smoking. This happened in the middle of our 5th year (Year 11 today). Unfortunately for me the habit ingrained itself and I became a habitual smoker, much to the chagrin of my non-smoking parents.


By the time I arrived at college (September 1968) I was well hooked, this went on and I eventually went to sea. What an eye-opener! Cigarettes that were costing 2s 6d (12½ p) for a pack of 20 were now about 9-10s (45-50p) for 200.

I found my job as a Radio Officer to be quite a nervy job and often lit the next off the last. Sometime around December/January 1973 we went up the Persian Gulf. I was not prepared for the heat, remember we were on a non air-conditioned ship so cabin temperatures were in the range 110F-120F and this was winter time!

This brought a warning signal to me. I was finding it difficult to breathe accompanied by chest pains. There was nothing for it, I had to find a way of giving up smoking. I had tried (many times) to reduce my consumption but they did not work and usually resulted in consumption going up.

I had to persuade myself that I was cheating myself out of good health, mean it and believe it. I needed a plan.

We were up the Persian Gulf miles from anywhere and we had run out of that which I decided would be my ‘cigarette substitute’ – Rose’s Lime Juice. We would not be taking on such supplies until we arrived in Durban some week or so away. This gave me time to work myself up to the challenge that I had set myself.

We arrived in Durban and took on supplies, fags, booze, Rose’s Lime Juice and all the other provisions we needed. The departure from Durban was my chosen time to give up smoking. I had already run out of fags, bought the Rose’s Lime Juice – ready!

OK, you’ve guessed, I bottled out and went down to the Chief Steward and bought 400 Benson & Hedges and they had gone up in price, they were now 55p for 200! Tear into the first pack and take a drag, normality restored! Then a second!

But ‘You said you would give up’ ‘Cheating yourself out of good health’ Oh, the guilt! That was the last cigarette I ever smoked. The date was 28th February 1973 and we had just left Durban (ingrained in my mind!). I left the ship some months later with 398 cigarettes and gave them to my shore-side friends who were very grateful.

About a week after giving up I had a very difficult and testing time. The outsides of ships are painted white which is highly reflective. The crew were repairing some rusty railings just outside my radio room door. The flashes of the arc-welding were close by and (unknowingly) quite powerful. After the all-day session I ended up with arc-eyes Health & Safety had not been invented then and I was unaware of the dangers of even incident arc welding damage. The symptoms of arc-eyes are akin to having sand in your eyes for two weeks. It was a trying time for me.

I have never smoked anything since.


Food


The food served up on each of the ships was variable. On the whole it was quite good. Cluden was probably the worst - Consomme Lettuce (a brown peppery liquid with shreds of lettuce) springs to mind.

Cotswold was probably the best.

At the time most aspects of shipping fell under the auspices of the ‘Board of Trade’ and they stipulated that certain types of food should be made available. One that springs to mind were prunes. These were known as ‘The Board of Trade’s Little Black Workers’ and were served at least twice a week!


Booze


I have included booze in this section as the stories are much the same across all of the ships on which I sailed. There is, apparently a commonly used pet name for the Officer’s Bar on board ship ‘The Pig and Whistle’. This name was not used on any of the ships on which I sailed but it was usually the Radio Officer who ‘ran’ the bar. By ‘running the bar’ I mean checking stock and ordering back to the Chief Steward or Purser, making sure it was open, clean and often serving. We had to set our prices to cover costs and keep a very modest set of accounts to check for this. Spirits were served from optics, beer by the half (rare) or pint and the variety of mixers and cordials. The beer was always a lager to assure that it could be kept in the hostile temperatures and timescales of sea-life, the brand determined by what was available at the port when we loaded it.

As ‘Officers’ we had our own lounge, within the main accommodation area and often next to the ‘restaurant’ (that wasn’t what we called it but I cannot remember that now) and was well furnished, always had a dart board, a television that never worked and of course the bar.

Cockroaches are a way of life on ship particularly with Chinese crew. Cockroaches never bothered them. For more on this see ‘Cluden’. Cockroaches love beer. At the end of the evening the bar steward would always have to empty the beer slops trays away and wash them. On the odd occasion when this did not happen the person opening the bar the next morning was presented with a vision of cockroach rear ends sticking up in the air with the cockroach heads down in the grilles of the slop trays drinking the beer. Yes, we would have inebriated cockroaches. They were actually easier to catch because they were slower to move and didn’t always scurry for cover.


On one ship in particular we used to have ‘cocky races’ every Sunday lunchtime. We always had a copious supply of insect killing spray and would spray (from a close range) three vertical lines spaced by about a foot, up the bulkhead at the back of the bar. Two cockroaches were chosen and each put near the bottom of the bulkhead between the lines of spray (lanes) and the start signal was to spray a horizontal line under them. This caused them to run upwards to escape the spray. If they went straight up they also escaped the effects of the lanes. Eventually they would fall off and die as a result of the spray and the winner was deemed to be the one who climbed the highest.


The booze was fairly cheap. Gin was about 55p per bottle, and Scotch/Brandy were 60p. We used to charge about 3p per shot. Mixer cans were also about 3p each. Beer was about 5p a pint. No wonder we drank a lot! I learned how to make pink gins and was complimented many times.

Any excuse for a booze-up was a good excuse. We would have a booze-up when we left port, when we arrived in the next port, whilst we were in port and every Sunday. Everyone’s birthday, film night, any and every other possible excuse. I remember on one occasion that we could not find and excuse from the normal list of excuses so it was decided somewhat randomly that it was that seagull flying by’s birthday, we celebrated his birthday for him and he was blissfully unaware.


Entertainment


Having listed various methods of entertainment above there was one more that we all enjoyed and that was films. All the ships on which I sailed had a contract with Cattermoul Film Services. They supplied us with a Bell & Howell 16mm sound film projector with a screen and (not to spare any expense) an Anamorphic Cine lens. The films, chosen pretty much at random were delivered every three months or so to the ship via the local shipping agents. We would see the likes of Jungle Book (which we showed so many times we must have nearly worn it out), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Dirty Harry, indeed any Clint Eastwood film was a sure-fire success.

It was always my job to set up the projector and usually to show the film even if on duty. One got used to how long each spool was going to last and changeovers were slick so little ‘watch time’ was missed.

As said above, we usually had a television on board. This would have bee a multi-standard television to cope with UK PAL, French Secam and American NTSC. I don’t think I sailed on any ship where these televisions ever worked but nobody seemed at all concerned, they just never worked!


Darts was ever popular. You would have you resident expert and everyone else tried not to lose too badly but it improved your mental maths (well from 501 downwards).

Crib (cribbage) was played a lot. I used to be quite good at it but have not played since I left the sea.

When I joined my first ship (Benkitlan) the first thing my Senior R/O (my mentor) asked my was ‘Do you play Bridge?’ to which I replied ‘no’. ‘Good,’ he said ‘and don’t ever learn. You can be absolutely sure that you will be on ships where the Old Man (the Captain) and two others will be utterly avid bridge player and you would then be the fourth person to make up the bridge team and be ‘required’ to play bridge at every conceivable hour of the day or night.’ Needless to say, I avoided that situation but I was asked on many occasions to make up the numbers for a game.