This month, I’m indebted to my good friend Mark Fenton for a story to bring a smile to people’s faces. Mark like myself was reared in a home where the sea was in our blood and we wanted nothing more than to sail away into the wild blue wonder. Maybe thats why we got on so well when we first met in a factory in Waterford. Friends ever since, he sent this story on to me recently of his maiden voyage. Just the antidote to the present Corona virus crisis.
When I was a child, all I wanted to do when I grow up was drive lorries or go to sea. The motivation for the lorries, was that my uncles in Cork drove regular runs to the continent or were hauling beet and molasses to and from the sugar factory in Mallow. But the sea was my first love, because my father Sean, God rest him, was a seaman. Not a sailor, not a weekend yachtsman but a true, deep-sea-going, bulk tanker, smelling of diesel and Old Spice, hard-working, hard-living and drinking seaman. He was, as it would turn out to be, one of the last of a breed and the likes of which is unlikely to be seen again on these shores. He was at home among the local band of salty characters, some of whom had exotic nick names like ‘Moochy Machi’, ‘Three-dog Kayting’ and ‘The Dinger’. Everyone either knew my father or knew of him and they knew he went to sea, and I the young me was determined to follow him.
We grew up at the end of the Rock shire Road in Ferrybank, Waterford. Our house was practically in the yard of the then fledgling Bell Lines, which grew to be a major container shipping operation. The skyscraping flour mills of R and H Hall was another neighbor on the North Wharf where ships came and went twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Our weekends and holidays were spent walking the river wharves and banks from Redmond Bridge to the Barrow Bridge, along the now defunct Rosslare railway line, dodging the boat trains, counting wagons on sugar beet trains and waving to the crew of passing ships heading in and out of Waterford City. Bell Boats, Rock Boats, B+I Boats, Purcell cattle boats, tramp boats and coasters carrying livestock, soya, coal, timber and combine harvesters…. we knew all the names, ‘Racer’, ‘Rover’, ‘Ranger’, ‘Skellig Rock’, ’Livestock Express’, ‘Miranda’, ‘Wakfuji Maru’… the list goes on. Global trade and transport were all around us. The ports of Rosenberg, Radicatel, London, Abudabi, Dubai, Karachi, Newark and New York were as familiar names to us as Kilmacow, Tramore or Wexford. And I dreamed of one day being at helm of one of them big ships traveling the oceans of the world.
It was clear to me then that there was no point staying on in school until I was eighteen when I could get away to sea at fifteen. From the 1950s right up until the early ’Eighties, this career path was possible and I had no reason to believe it would be a problem for me. However, the harsh economic realities of the time combined with a decade long dock strike in Waterford port, conspired to ensure that 1982 to 1985 were probably the worst time in Irish maritime history to attempt to embark on a seafaring career in my home town. The R and H hall boats were sold, Arklow Shipping had a reduced fleet, Bell Lines was struggling, opportunities on the cattle boats didn’t arise for an inexperienced 16 year old, it was a grim time on the quay side, the only boats going in and out of Waterford were few and far between, and foreign.
I had taken what was probably one of the last deckhand apprentice exams for Irish Shipping Ltd but by the time that competition was finalized, Irish Shipping had disappeared from the world’s oceans. In desperation, I applied to the Navy, my heart wasn’t in it and I held small hope of success. With my dreams on hold for the moment, I took a position in a supermarket and spent my days stacking peas and beans while wishing I was instead ploughing the ocean wave.
But I never really gave up hope and one day, out of the blue, I received a call from a shipping agency based in Cork. They had a vessel due in Waterford in a couple of days and needed a crewman ASAP. My enthusiasm made up for my lack of experience and I was offered the job. I handed in my notice at the shop, put my love life on hold and packed my bag in preparation for my first signing on. The night before the big day, my mates and I rallied in Jordan’s ‘American Bar, a traditional seaman’s pub on the quays in Waterford, to toast my luck and to wish me ‘bon voyage’. Wasn’t I the proud sailor next morning as I stood on the aft deck, heartily waving to the lads on the pier as the ship slipped her moorings and pulled away? I wondered where my first exotic destination was going to be?
But my beaming smile was quickly disappearing as I realized something was terribly wrong. The ship was turning about in the broad basin of the river and was heading inland towards the open span of the Redmond Bridge. Horror of horrors for a would be Waterford salty sea-dog, it dawned on me that , my first port of call could only bet a place called Fiddown, a little village 14 miles upriver in County Kilkenny not far from Kildalton, the biggest farming college in Ireland. My face was frozen as it dawned on me that I was probably the first person in my seafaring family to head away to sea and to end up in a village in the heartland of Irish agriculture. It took us about four hours to plough our way up there (pun intended) and when we tied up at the little quay, I swiftly secured a lift home from a Michael O’Brien and was sitting at my mother’s table in time for tea. My father told nobody – it would have been unpardonable for a Fenton to head to sea and end up in the middle of Co Kilkenny.
Unperturbed by this little hiccup I rejoined the vessel later that night and next morning we set sail for the port of Swansea, I held my breath as the ship slipped under the centre span of the city bridge and I waved up at the people looking down on us.
By the time we dropped the pilot at Passage East I was on the bridge and as the vessel made open sea between Dunmore and Hook head I couldn’t help but feel a little bit nervous, particularly as I noticed that all the trawlers were steaming towards the shelter of Dunmore. I was wise enough to know that those men would go out in any kind of weather and seeing them heading for shelter had to be a bad omen. We spent two days and two nights between the lights of Dunmore and the beacon of Hook Head, bow into the storm without making any headway. When we eventually arrived in Swansea I thought I couldn’t possibly have been more ill. I had never been to Swansea before and probably because I was so ill, found it to be a rather depressing place full of coal and electricity pylons. Here we loaded coke for St Helier in the Channel Islands and with a quick turn-around we were gone. The trip down to the Channel Islands was uneventful although quite rough, particularly around The Needles and Lands End. Arriving safely in port, I was a bit more upbeat about prospects. Which was just as well because things were about to take a turn much for the worse.
The first sign of disaster was when the ‘Old Man’ informed me that I was to take over the duties of cook. My culinary skills at this stage in my young life were confined to making toast. The second sign was when it became evident we were running out of food and water soon after leaving St Helier for Dieppe. The old man felt we would make it but the weather had other ideas. I still have nightmares about the nights between the lights of Phare de Cap Levi and Phare de Getteville on the Pointe de Barfleur in North West Brittany; I saw visions of death as the elements hammered our little vessel like a pencil in a swimming pool. Every now and then we would rise up on the crest of a massive wave only to find ourselves at the top with no support, to fall with a sickening slap, lights out, propeller spinning uselessly in the air and stalling on entering the sea again where the lights would go out. But we survived. The storm passed and we arrived in Dieppe.
But not before I learned something new about myself. Each morning the captain, the first mate and the chief engineer had a rasher, a sausage, and an egg for breakfast while the crew ate only cereal. This particular morning I was faced with the following dilemma: I had no bacon or sausages and just one egg. So who was to get the egg – the old man, the chief or the mate? I boiled it up and ate it with toast, before calling everyone else to a cereal breakfast. There was muttering but no mutiny.
In Dieppe, we were to load soya for Belfast, but here too was another dockers’ strike. By now, the shine was wearing off my dreams of a life at sea and as we were heading to Belfast I thought, I’d call it a day there. As they old sea-dogs say, after many other adventures, I arrived home on Christmas Eve, my mother was delighted to see me and never asked any questions. Neither were any explanations offered. Since then, my career path has not strayed from terra firma but I still get a great laugh from recollections of my short but sharp seafaring adventure.
My thanks to Mark Fenton, who shared this lovely, humorous, account of his first and final shipping out. He made it further than I ever did! Livig through these unprecedented times with the Corona Virus shutdown, we need every and any oppotunity to smile. I’m indebted to Mark for just such a tonic. If you want to pass on any comments to Mark, if you email firstname.lastname@example.org i will happily pass them on.