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Blue Bar No 2

"...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!"
Part One
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2


Gordon Sollors at 18
Myself, age 18
I signed on the Empire Abbey in January 1946. The War in Europe was over, the War in the Far East was over, but the repercussions of the war were still very much in evidence. Food and clothes were still rationed; thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen were still awaiting demobilisation. Even the men of the Merchant Navy were not allowed to leave their reserved occupation until they received the permission of the government. Some of the older men who had rejoined the Merchant Navy at the outbreak of war were allowed to leave, then the men who had been at sea for the full length of the war were allowed to leave, then came the turn of those who had joined during the war. The longer one had been in the Merchant Navy, the sooner one was allowed to leave – that is if one wanted to leave. My turn would not come around for another year, until January 1947.

The nation had been shocked by the revelations of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in their Concentration Camps against the Jewish People, and by the Japanese Army against their Prisoners of War and Civilians in their Far East Prisoner of War Camps. War Crimes Trials were under way in Nuremberg, Germany, and in Japan.

Almost immediately after the cessation of hostilities in Europe, there was a General Election in England. (I was not old enough to vote.) A Labour government was elected with a “landslide” victory. They had big plans for a National Health Service, Nationalising the Railways, the coalmines, road transport, and the nation’s steel industry. So, although the fighting and killing had stopped, the social consequences and aftermath of the war were very much in evidence, and part of every day life.

However, going to sea in peacetime was a much less hazardous business than in war time. I had already made three trips since the war ended in the previous May. The major differences were that all ships now sailed alone, and there was no blackout. In fact, for those of us who had never sailed in peacetime, there were one or two things to learn. Some Mates required the lookout on the fo’c’s’le head to check the navigation lights on either side of the bridge, and the masthead light. If all lights were on, the man would have to shout up “Lights abright” on the hour, and before he went below. We used to think that this was just to make sure that the lookout was not asleep! From my own experience, I heard some peculiar things shouted up to the bridge – in fact we often shouted up anything that sounded even remotely like “Lights abright” - other than “Lights abright”!

One of the major differences faced by Merchant Seamen just after the war, was that the Reserve Pool now had a register for all seamen. Seamen were now asked to become “Established”. I am not too sure just what the benefits of “going established” were, but it would appear that there were some. Certainly “Established” seamen were given priority over “Unestablished” seamen when it came to getting jobs, although there were no shortages of jobs at this time, so that didn’t make much difference; it was thought there would be an advantage in this line in years to come. I think “Established” seamen also had some sort of leave entitlement advantage, but I can’t be sure about this. It is also likely that they received slightly higher “Unemployment Pay” whilst on the ‘Pool. During the war, all seamen had been entitled to two days leave for each month spent on articles. This was now reduced to half a days leave for each Sunday actually spent at sea. Guidelines were set for what counted as “a Sunday at sea” for leave purposes. Even so, since I didn’t intend remaining at sea forever, I remained on the “Unestablished” list. It made no difference once we were aboard.

There had been much talk about what would happen to our “War Risk Money” once hostilities ceased. Currently, an AB received £14 per month in wages, and £10 per month War Risk Money, giving him £24 per month. There had been much speculation as to whether the War Risk Money would be ended with the cessation of hostilities, or whether it would be incorporated into a standard wage. As it turned out, the latter course was adopted, and the standard wage for an AB became £24 per month. These then, were just some of the differences faced by seamen after the war. Although I had been at sea since March 1942, by January 1946, I still did not have three full years “On articles” to my name. I had passed an “E D H” (Efficient Deck Hand) test in August 1945, and was entitled to sign on as EDH, giving me the same pay as an AB. This was fine, but there was nothing quite like having the magical (and coveted) “Eligible for AB Rating” written over a Mercantile Marine Office stamp in the front of one’s Discharge Book. (I actually had mine stamped in May 1946 after we returned from this trip.)

On the 14th of January 1946, I was sent from the ‘Pool’ in Canning Place to sign on a ship called the “Empire Abbey” I was told that she was lying in Huskisson Dock, and would be signing on that afternoon, and that she would be sailing the next day. Having just travelled from home that morning, my case and kit bag were still at Exchange Station in the “Left Luggage Office”. I immediately got my bags from the station, and carried them down to the Pier Head, where I caught a train on the Overhead Railway. It is now surprising to me, the distances I (and of course, many other seamen) would carry two fairly heavy cases. It appears that the use of taxis was only for those special occasions such as “Paying Off” etc., (when one was a bit more “flush” with money!) I found the ship, and took my bags aboard, and claimed a bunk. There were one or two others there, but as no one was actually working, there was no food until 5 PM after we had signed on.

The ship was a war time built ship, and was under charter to the Ministry of War Transport, but in this case, it was being managed by Elders and Fyffes, the big banana importers of Garston, Liverpool. Elders and Fyffes was a well known Liverpool company, who had quite a substantial fleet of “Banana Boats” (or “Skin Boats” as they were known colloquially,) that ran to the West Indies. Avonmouth was also one of their major ports. Their boats were mainly a fleet of fine looking “Intermediate” passenger/cargo boats. Intermediate denotes that they were a bit larger than ordinary cargo boats, but not as big as other ocean liners. Empire Abbey, however, was a general cargo boat with some “cold storage capacity”. This meant that she had one or two holds that could be refrigerated.

In the few years I had been at sea, I had often heard stories of the somewhat ferocious reputation of the “Skin Boat Firemen”. I’m not really sure just how this (reputation) evolved. It seems that being “down below” (in the stokehold) in the tropics, is a pretty tough sort of a job, and requires men of a certain type of “toughness” to perform it (especially if the ship is a coal burner.) Whatever the origins of the story, I was not about to question it, and decided that I would be as polite as possible to these people, or just steer clear of them as often as I could. Empire Abbey was not a coal burning ship, so maybe the firemen would be a bit more sociable than their reputation suggested.

We signed on in the saloon during the afternoon, and we each collected our mattresses, bedding, and cutlery from the Chief Steward. The “Crowd” as we collectively called ourselves, seemed to be a pretty good bunch, and we sorted ourselves out into watches and cabins. Here again, I was delighted to see that we were three to a cabin, which was pretty good for British ships in those days. The other two members of my watch were an Ordinary Seaman whose name I now forget, and an AB of Finnish extraction called Atso Vinberg. We all got on very well together. Atso was a big, easy going, good looking bloke, with typical fair skinned Scandinavian looks. In later conversations I discovered that he had not been home to Finland since before the war.

Having signed on and established ourselves aboard, most of the crew, being local lads, went home, whilst we “out of towners” drew a meal from the galley, and went ashore later, returning later to spend the night aboard.

We sailed the next day, and discovered that we were bound for New York. At that stage, I don’t think any of us knew just what cargo we would be loading, but New York and back didn’t seem like too long a trip so in general, we were quite happy about that. The ship was “in ballast”, which means that we had no cargo, just “something" in the holds to keep the propeller down below water level. Just what the ballast was, I’m not sure, but it did not put the ship right down to her marks, and as a consequence, the propeller at best, was only about three quarters immersed. This meant that there was much more noise for us from the continual splash, splash, splash, of the propeller blades continually hitting the water, since our quarters were right above it. However, even in a light sea, the ship’s movement tended to make the noise less annoying than it might otherwise have been.

It was January, and cold. We hadn’t been at sea for too long before the weather began to live up to it’s North Atlantic reputation. Lookouts were removed from the fo’c’s’le head to the Monkey Island just above the wheelhouse. I liked doing a lookout from up there because I always marvelled at the sea, and the manner in which it could throw a ship around when the wind and waves started performing. When the seas were aroused to such ferocity, I found it exhilarating to stand on the Monkey Island and watch them crashing over the fo’c’s’le head, as the ship headed into them, with the resultant tons of water rushing down the foredeck and then overboard again via the scuppers. Far from being the lovely blue or green that we were used to, the seas really looked more grey like and threatening. In that sort of weather, one never sees the sun during the day - or the moon at night. During the day, it was just as if there was the grey sea, the grey clouds, and us. (Even the ship was still painted in its wartime Admiralty Grey.) At night, there was even less to relate to. It was cold, and it was windy, with the wind seeming to be working up to gale force. Being “light ship”, the ship was easily caught in the wind, and blown off course, and the man on the wheel had his work cut out just keeping the ship within a few degrees of the given course.

Normally, a trip to New York in a ship like the Empire Abbey, would have taken between ten and fourteen days even with unfavourable weather. However, "the Abbey" was not making very good progress against the wind and the mountainous seas that we were experiencing. We had been at sea for something like ten days or so. We were quite used to the pitching and tossing of the ship as she rode each wave. As she reached the top of a wave, the bow would head down into the seas, at the same time, the stern would lift right out of the water, causing the propeller, once it lifted clear of the water, to race, making an awful noise, and making sleep for us even more difficult.

I am quite sure that there was a procedure in the engine room for governing the revolutions once the propeller was clear of the water, but with the racing that we could hear from our bunks, it never seemed to work – or at least, not as well as we would have liked! The weather showed no signs of abating, if anything, it was getting worse.

"....And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" is continued in Part Two: Our Problems Begin