Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 19 — More Voyages to the Indies—British Honduras
More Voyages to the Indies—British Honduras
Instead of living on board ship while in London, we were given an allowance to cover the cost of board and lodgings ashore. This meant I again took up my room in Canning Town, at the boarding-house that catered mainly for marine engineers; several other New Zealanders made this house their headquarters. The hours of work on the Savan were from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, with a half-holiday on Saturday, and all Sunday off. This gave us much more freedom, for with no steam up there was no necessity for an engineer to remain on board at night. We always had about three weeks in London between voyages, and this provided further opportunities of seeing the great metropolis. There were several homes in London where I was made welcome, but I also saw a good deal of the theatre life. The music-halls were always an attraction for seafaring men, while light opera and musical plays were also patronized.
Harry Lauder had created a sensation on the London stage, and his latest song, “I'm The Daftest o' The Family,” was a huge success. What a great draw he was may be gathered from the announcement in the London papers of that time that he had accepted an engagement in New York at £1,200 per week. Harry was a good business manager and could hold his own with any of the music-hall proprietors. Dan Leno was a comedian of another kind. His acting was inimitable and his facial expressions often made the audience rock with laughter before he had spoken. His playing the part of a man who had gone to buy something for his wife at the underclothing department of a big store was an extraordinarily clever piece of mimicry. Other comedians of the time were George Robey, Harry Randall and Harry Elsom. The latter had a quarrel with his management who, out of spite, put Elsom's name on the programme in small print. Elsom took them to Court for libel and won! Vesta Tilley, immaculately dressed in evening clothes and bell-topper, impersonating the young man about town, always gave an outstanding performance. page 248 While the comedians of the period succeeded by clever acting, humour and song, some of the comediennes of the music-hall introduced an amount of vulgarity that amazed me, for it did not seem like England to allow such licence. The Peggy Prides could never return to the stage of to-day. Many years later, I was surprised to hear an elderly French woman say that in France, when she was young, it was always London that was spoken of as a naughty city, just as Britishers speak glibly of Paris as being noted for its wine and women.
It was now mid-summer and I was able to fit in a game of cricket for Tottenham; this turned out to be the only cricket I was to get during my first three years at sea.
I was surprised to learn that instead of bunkering in London, the Savan steamed up the coast to the Tyne, took in coal, and was soon on her way back to London. Another week loading and we were away on my second voyage to the West Indies.
Again a good trip and once more making St. Lucia the first port of call, we went on to discharge our cargo at the same ports. Finishing at Georgetown, we returned to Trinidad, to load a full cargo of pitch. We steamed along the coast of this island to the port of La Brea, which is about thirty miles south of Port of Spain. It was interesting to walk over the pitch lake on Sunday afternoon. The name suggests a liquid like tar, but to my surprise the pitch was solid and except for a slight sponginess, was little different from walking on a bitumen road on a hot day. As the lake is about a mile from the wharf, the pitch, picked out as though it were coal, was shovelled into large buckets and conveyed on a wire rope to the wharf. The weather was extremely hot and to prevent the pitch sticking to the ship's sides and bulkheads, the holds were white-washed throughout. In a few days we were fully loaded and steamed out of the bay on our direct run to London.
Trinidad pitch is the best quality of all bitumens, but could not then have been faced with the present-day by-products of the oil-fields, for we were told that there was an export duty of five shillings a ton. This was, of course, a valuable contribution to the Exchequer, but in open competition with the newer product would be bound to prove something of a handicap.
Another fine trip across the Atlantic saw us make London in good time. When it came to discharging, it was found that the heat of the tropics had made the pitch settle down, and the page 249 particles so stuck to one another that it had literally to be picked out. It also stuck to the sides of the holds and unloading was very slow, but we appreciated the extra days in London and I again saw a good deal of the theatres.
Part of our cargo was for Amsterdam so, when half discharged, we left for that port. It was my watch when we left the docks. Steaming slowly down the Thames, the engine-room telegraph suddenly rang “Stop,” “Full Astern.” Presently there was a slight bump. The Chief came down and told me we had hit a barge and that the old Savan was steering badly. It turned out that when we had discharged the London portion of the cargo the vessel was trimmed to an even keel, perhaps slightly down by the head. This made for bad steering, especially in a flowing river. Seafaring men will know that ships are always loaded a little by the stern to make them answer quickly to the helm.
We reached Gravesend only after many anxious moments experienced by the pilot and our Captain. Out in the estuary we had more room to manœuvre, but it was still not pleasant for those on the bridge. The old Savan was steering such a zigzag course that when darkness fell the Captain hoisted two red lights, one above the other on the masthead, to signify that we were not under proper control.
On the following afternoon we approached the entrance to the North Sea Canal. It was a thrill to see what I had been taught at school—that some parts of Holland are below sea-level. Amsterdam is about twenty miles from the coast, so it will be appreciated that it was a great engineering feat on the part of the Dutch to connect their capital city with the North Sea. Prior to the building of this canal, Amsterdam's only connection with the sea was through the shallow waters of the Zuider Zee. As we steamed along, it seemed strange to be looking down on the land beyond the wall of the canal. The old-fashioned windmills, typical of Holland, could be seen dotted about the countryside. We, in New Zealand, think of a windmill as providing only enough power to drive a water pump; in Holland, they grind their corn and do many other jobs with power develped by those huge latticed blades on the slowly turning wheels. From the deck of the ship we saw bright young women with coloured dresses, aprons and clogs, and one thought of the song, “Gretchen von Gretchen, page 250 You Do Look So Fetchin' …” The men, too, all smoking the old Dutch pipe with bent stem, looked fine in their national dress.
Ships naturally steam very slowly up this canal, so there was plenty of time to take in everything as we passed. On berthing at the wharf one noted the friendly attitude and pleasant manners of the Dutch people. Picking out our pitch cargo again meant more delay, but in a place like Amsterdam I'm afraid one forgot about the owners having such a bad time with a cargo that must have proved unprofitable.
A whole day off in this fine old city proved an unforgettable experience, for one was able to visit the Art Gallery and see some of the famous and priceless paintings that the old Dutch masters gave to the world. I engaged a man to show me over this gallery, so gained a far better impression than would have been otherwise possible.
It was interesting to see the canals that run through the city. Amsterdam is shaped like a half-circle, with streets radiating from the central area, and others, like rims crossing the spokes of a wheel, run round the city in ever-increasing semicircles. It would prove tedious to recite the buildings and places I saw. Suffice it to say that this capital city of Holland impressed me greatly. The people, too, looked jovial and happy. The world was a happy place in those days—at least it seemed so to me. I had seen the Chinaman at Hong Kong, the Filipino of Manila, the French at Marseilles and Havre, Spaniards at La Garucha, the natives of the West Indies, Portugese at Madeira and now the Dutchmen, all full of laughter, chattering and friendly, and appearing not to have a care in the world.
We received a visit from a man selling pictures in oils and water-colours, and many were good. To judge by his appearance he himself was an artist, for he wore a black felt hat, long hair, beard and large bow tie. Try as he would, he was unable to effect a sale. The prices of the pictures were in excess of the amount an officer or engineer usually spends at a port of call. Finally, in desperation, our artist friend turned to us with a look of scorn, and said disgustedly, “Englishmen! Roast beef and football!” and walked away. How we laughed! Many years afterwards I was to hear this jibe matched by a quick reply from an American who, when asked what had impressed him most in New Zealand, said, “Sheep and goal-posts!”page 251
From Amsterdam we sailed straight to the Tyneside to bunker, then back to London, where we were soon loading again for the West Indies.
The Bay of Biscay was again kind to us, and on the rest of the journey we had our usual calm sea and warm weather.
By now I had discovered that these Scrutton boats did not get a great share of the passenger traffic between London and the West Indies. The Royal Mail Company, with ships of the liner class trading out of Southampton, won most of the substantial tourist traffic to the islands. We still carried our few passengers, but it will be appreciated that carrying cargoes like pitch, and leaving for London direct from the loading wharf over the bay, do not sound like catering for passengers.
On this voyage we called at several other islands farther north in the Leeward group. A stay of a few hours at Montserrat, then across to complete our loading at Antigua, and we were homeward bound. As on our first voyage, the return journey included a Continental port of call—this time Antwerp. Another fine trip and we were again steaming up the Channel.
On the first part of the run to the West Indies, we occasionally saw big liners that trade to the Far East, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, or to South America. We were, however, far from the beaten track of the fast Cunard and White Star liners, which, at that time, traded between Liverpool and New York. It was, therefore, something of a thrill to learn that the Deutschland, Germany's crack Atlantic liner, was overhauling us when we were in mid-Channel. I was on watch at the time, but told the donkey-man to go up now and again to keep me advised as she rapidly gained on us. I first saw her when she was about half a mile astern, but was scarcely down below again when my man called out, “She's abeam, sir!” By the time I reached the engine-room door on deck she was actually ahead of us! Doing her twenty-four knots, this big, four-funnelled liner made a fine sight. She had won from the Lucania the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, and the Germans were justly proud. She was making for Bremen, so we did not see her again.
It was interesting to enter in daylight the wide mouth of the Schelde, the estuary of which is about thirty miles long, then steam on up the river for another ten miles to reach the busiest and greatest seaport of Belgium. Antwerp handles an immense page 252 amount of sea-borne traffic, for it is also a convenient port for industrial cities of western Germany. It is not generally known what an important part both Antwerp and Rotterdam play in handling inward and outward cargo for Germany. Rotterdam is on the mouth of the Rhine, which penetrates far into the land of the Teutons. I was given a day off, so decided to take the train to Brussels, Belgium's capital and her most beautiful city. I was thrilled to see the wonderful architecture of her old and famous buildings. The Cathedral, the Palace with the lake in front, the Bourse and the Palais de Justice, and the park with its lovely trees all added to the beauty of this glorious city.
There were splendid monuments, the most outstanding being that of Leopold I. I got a surprise when I suddenly came upon what must be one of the most extraordinary pieces of statuary to be seen anywhere; this is the “Manneken Pis,” which represents a small boy in the nude standing on a pedestal making water, with the city water supply providing a steady stream. One had to stop, stare and laugh. They told me the legendary story of how, many years ago, it was the custom when a son and heir to the throne was born, it had to be proven in public that he was a male. Another version was that the little Prince got lost and when found was in the attitude depicted by the statue; I don't know which is correct.
I was rather ambitious that day, for late in the afternoon I enquired if it was possible to pay a visit to the battlefield of Waterloo. Although this famous place was less than twenty miles away, the fact that I had to be back in Antwerp that night made me abandon the idea. On the following day I had only the forenoon ashore, so had another hurried look round Antwerp. Like all old Continental cities, there was a wonderful cathedral.
Next day we left for London, berthing on the following morning in the East India Dock. After discharging the balance of our cargo the Savan went into dry-dock for annual survey, and all on boad appreciated this extra week in London. There are some ports one is glad to get away from, but never London. I was able to see numbers of friends, spend more evenings in the West End, and see more and more of the entertainments under the bright lights of the city.
At last we were away again on my fourth and last voyage page 253 to the Indies of the West. We had another fine trip, and were soon moving from island to island.
Four voyages to the West Indies had enabled me to acquire much knowledge of these famous islands, and learn of their importance in the fabric of the British Empire. Long before Australia and New Zealand had been discovered, and before any part of Canada figured as a British possession, these islands had been the scene of bitter fighting between three great powers. In the end, the indomitable spirit and the fighting qualities of the men of old England prevailed and, except for one or two islands, the Leeward and Windward Groups became a British Colony. Spread out like a string of pearls, no two islands are a hundred miles apart.
Although the Savan's main ports of discharge were the four I have already described, we always called at additional islands to complete our loading. On one voyage we steamed past the French island of Martinique and close to the port of St. Pierre, which, but two years earlier, had been practically obliterated by a devastating volcanic eruption. On the bright sunny afternoon when we passed, the volcano, at the extreme north of the island, and close to the port, could be plainly seen. It appeared as though someone had emptied a huge barrel of cement mortar over the mountain, for the grey-coloured lava was clearly visible as the setting sun shone on its western slopes.
This moving about from island to island presented me with opportunities of learning something about the nature and the potential value of the trade of the colony. I was surprised at the part cocoa played in the export trade, for its value exceeded that of sugar, which I had always thought was the principal product. Sugar and cocoa were common to all the islands, but at some we loaded coffee and cotton, as well as fruit. Mention of the latter reminds me of an amusing incident on the Savan. We had some cases of fruit stacked on deck and, to the Mate's annoyance, it was discovered that someone had broken into one of the cases, and each night more of the fruit disappeared. The Mate said to us, “I'll catch the b ….” He caught him all right, for that night he set a rat-trap in the case; next morning one of the firemen came on watch with a bandaged hand. Harsh and perhaps cruel—but effective! As we cruised among the islands, I was to learn of the lime-juice page 254 of Montserrat, the spices of Granada and St. Vincent, and the rum of Demerara, Barbadoes and St. Lucia.
All this study of the physical features of the islands proved extremely interesting, but even more fascinating were the tales of great adventurers and sailors of long ago. The names of Raleigh, Drake and Rodney will suffice to show that many of Britain's famous men of different periods played a part in the adventure and fighting that occurred in and around the islands of one of Britain's oldest colonies. As on the Claverhill, it was the Captain and Chief Engineer who supplied me with most information, but I never missed an opportunity of discussion with our agents, all of whom knew something of the history of their own particular island—if not of the whole group. On my second voyage, I purchased a history-book and re-read the lessons of schooldays, which, combined with the stories told me on board ship and ashore, helped me to gain a general knowledge of the eventful past of these famous islands. My previous assignment of Drake to a place in history was solely on account of his annihilation of the Spanish Armada. Here, I was passing over scenes of his earlier and daring exploits. The tale of his attack on San Domingo is an amazing one and is recalled by some of Mountbatten's Commando exploits of the second World War. Our old skipper never tired of reminding us that Drake was a product of the Mercantile Marine!
On this, my last voyage to the West Indies, we were ordered to proceed to Belize, in British Honduras, Central America, to load a cargo of mahogany for London. After being used to steaming overnight, distances of eighty to a hundred miles, from one island to another, this trip of nearly two thousand miles was like an ocean-going one. Completing our discharge at Georgetown, we set off in steaming hot weather. After passing between Trinidad and Tobago, we turned to a more westerly course and were soon travelling along the coast of Venezuela. There is little doubt that but for the difficulties in the way of penetrating the interior, the Spaniards would have developed this part of South America into a great colony that might to-day have borne the same relation to Spain as Brazil does to Portugal. Great rivers, of which Orinoco is the largest, give access to the hinterland, but tropical fevers strike down the strongest men. This accounts for Spain being content to page 255 hold this coastline—known as the Spanish Main—along with the great islands of Cuba, San Domingo and Puerto Rico on the north side of the Caribbean Sea.
In a few days Curaçao was pointed out in the distance. The Dutch as well as the British were intrepid explorers, and here we find them in possession of islands right up against the mainland. This seemed to be further evidence that in the earliest years the Spaniards looked upon small islands as chicken feed, for all could have been theirs for the taking.
We were now crossing the great gulf that reaches down to Panama. On the starboard side we caught a glimpse of distant Jamaica, the biggest island of the British West Indies. In two days' time we reached our destination. Belize is a famous old pirate station where frigates, galleons and galleys raced with their plunder. Trade between Mexico and Europe was on a considerable scale long before the North Atlantic became the principal route between the Old and New Worlds. It mattered little to these desperate pirates whether it was bullion from the goldfields of Mexico, or valuable inward cargoes for the inhabitants of that Spanish colony. British ships trading to the West Indies were also fair game.
The island of Turneffe stands some distance off-shore, but there are many little islands between this and the mainland, and one could almost think they were sentinels keeping guard. Inside is a fine open bay, across which we steamed to drop anchor off the town just before dark. This far-distant place is seldom seen by tourists. It was interesting to hear stories of the old-time pirates and learn something of the history of the place.
At six o'clock next morning I was awakened by the rattle of a winch working and, looking out of the port-hole, saw a raft of logs being hauled from the shore. It was a slow job, but in time the timber was alongside and a quantity allotted to each hatch. The logs had been hewn in the bush, just as much of the hardwood in Australia is prepared for the market, and as are birch and silver pine railway sleepers in the forests of New Zealand. It would not have been possible to raft Australian iron-bark, for it will not float; mahogany, on the other hand, is very buoyant and the native lads ran from log to log without the slightest concern. Lifting from the water into the holds was very different from the usual loading methods of timber page 256 ports, where a few hundred feet are made up into a chain or wire rope sling and hauled up from the wharf or railway truck. Here, each log was picked up with a pair of prongs, as a stone is lifted into position on a building. The native boys were very nimble and had an uncanny knack of fixing the prongs exactly in the centre of the logs. And so each winch worked away, handling log by log, with black fellows down in the hold storing the timber. It was slower than the usual method of timber loading.
We were busy in the engine-room, having broken one of the piston rings in the low pressure cylinder on the run from Georgetown. We had spare rings on board for the H.P. and M.P. cylinders, but not for the L.P.; this meant repairing the broken ring. The Chief told me to do the job, which meant fixing a steel strap on the inside of the ring and fastening with bolt studs. It was an easy matter to prepare the strap, but it was a more ticklish job to scribe the holes in the ring and bore so that the pressure was inwards, holding the broken parts tightly together. The Chief stood over me in the final stages.
It was on the Sunday that I was to have an experience that I cannot readily forget. Our Chief Officer, usually called the Mate on cargo steamers, was fond of yachting and asked permission of the Captain to take one of the life-boats, rig it up in sail, and spend the day among the islands—a thousand islands, they said, but there could not have been as many as that. On a warm, sunny morning away went two mates and three engineers. The latter did not know the first thing about sailing, but with a pleasant breeze and the Mate at the tiller, there was little to do. Everyone was as happy as Larry and we chatted and laughed, called our Mate a typical old pirate, and the ten to fifteen miles' run to the nearest island seemed little more than an ordinary harbour trip. On arrival there, we were to be repaid with an amazing close-up picture of luxuriant tropical vegetation and trees such as I had often seen from a more distant view in other parts of the world. The channels between the islands were often no wider than the streets and lanes of a city. With the sail hauled down, we paddled with the oars here and there, entranced with the scenery. The bottom of the sea was of pure white coral, and the water was as clear as crystal. We moved out of the sun into the shade of overhanging trees, and again into the open, page 257 as we came to wider channels between the islands. We revelled in the cool shade, for it had become very hot as the sun poured down its vertical rays. Before finding a place to lunch, the Chief Officer suggested that we should have a bathe. A better place could not be imagined to peel off and dive into the lovely warm water. All my shipmates were from the British Isles, and some were half-undressed before I had time to say: “No! There may be sharks about!” They all laughed, for the water was so clear, with the coral making a depth of twenty or thirty feet appear not more than a few, and we had not seen anything in the way of fish as we paddled about. I stuck to my guns and insisted on the danger. I told them of the lad having his legs nipped off up the Brisbane river; of the boy who dived off the wharf into the calm water in middle harbour, Sydney, to be grabbed by a shark almost as soon as he touched the water; and more stories of the man-eating monsters of Bondi and Coogee, which, every year, take toll of one or two over-venturesome bathers. By this time some of my mates had buttoned up their shirts again, and finally all agreed, with regrets, that discretion was the better part of valour.
After lunch, we again moved in and out among the small islands, some of them only fifty and a hundred yards long, so it was easy to understand the term—“a thousand islands.” Presently we came to a jetty, and the noise of our laughter attracted the attention of an old man who invited us to have a drink. He was a Greek and said his place was known as One Man Island, for he lived alone in his snug little home, built of pit sawn and hewn timber. We sat round his living-room to have drinks of coconut milk with “something” added! He did not tell us what it was, but it had a pleasant taste; the “Belize Cocktail” would have been a good name!
As we sat talking, someone said: “What's that?” pointing to the side of the wall, about the height of the picture railing. We all turned to view what was obviously the backbone of a fish.
The old man said quietly, “Oh, that's the backbone of a shark I caught off the end of my jetty a month or two ago!” then added, “It's the biggest one I ever caught, so thought I'd keep it as a relic.” Our chaps stared, blinked, and looked at me. We all laughed, but it was not a hilarious laugh! When we told the Greek the story he shook his head seriously and said, “Oh, no—you can't swim here!”page 258
The Royal Humane Society does not grant bronze medals for all forms of life-saving, but it is certain that had I not remained adamant that day, someone would have been torn to pieces in the warm, still waters around those islands.
Our stay at One Man Island had taken up a good deal of time and we realized the need to hurry to get back to our ship before dark. After thanking our host of this outlandish part, we rowed away along the narrow lanes of beauty, but did not have time for any further exploring, even though the late afternoon sun threw longer and darker shadows, making the scenery even more beautiful. We were soon out in the open bay and this time the Mate had to bring out his yachting capabilities, for we faced a light head wind, and this meant tacking from port to starboard and back to port. To our disgust we were soon to feel the breeze fall away with the setting sun, and before long were hardly moving. Presently the sail began to flap and our craft lost all way.
Here was a nice situation! Ten miles to go, with nothing but the oars to take us back. There was no alternative, so we took it turn about, with a long, long pull. The sun was fast setting and as darkness so soon follows sunset in the tropics, we were left with but the foreshore lights and the lights of our ship at anchor to guide us home. At first it was fun, with the engineers now pulling their weight, for we were younger than the mates. We sang songs and bucked ourselves up in other ways, but before long the swish of the oars was the only sound to be heard, for it was becoming hard work and to make matters worse the tide was against us. Two hours after dusk we reached the gangway of our ship to be met by our anxious Captain. By then we were all-in, tired and hungry, with blistered hands and sore seats. It was certainly a day of experiences. A hot bath and hot dinner from a kindly cook (in days when cooks did not demand overtime) who had kept our meals in the oven for us, soon restored our spirits. Lounging in deck-chairs in the hot evening brought comfort and rest to our limbs, and in the ensuing chatter it may be taken for granted that the shark story found a place.
Belize needs little description. Being anchored off-shore, none of us saw much of the place. This very old town had simply grown of its own accord. When I read recently of the town being practically wiped out by fire, I was able to picture page 259 how the flames would lap up those old buildings. Furniture-makers throughout the world would be amazed at the prosaic uses to which their beloved mahogany has been put in this old haven of the pirates of long ago.
At last we were loaded. It had been a long stay. We got away in the forenoon and again had a good view of the protecting islands. We also understood the choice of Belize as a refuge for hard-boiled, plundering sea-dogs.
When leaving a port in which repairs have been carried out, it is the practice of marine engineers to keep a close watch on the parts that have been overhauled. Sound and touch are their chief guides. Needless to say I listened intently to the working of the low-pressure cylinder. The rattle of the broken piston ring had disappeared and the smooth-running of the engine denoted the success of the repair job.
As we steamed due north towards the Gulf of Mexico, the temperature of the sea made it apparent that we were at the fountain-head of the great Gulf Stream. Commencing in these parts, it flows around and across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Straits of Florida, up the North American coast for some distance and then turns across the Atlantic. It is this warm stream moving across the North Atlantic which alone saves Scotland and Norway from being icebound during the winter months, and gives England a more temperate climate than she would otherwise have. The temperature of the sea is regularly kept by each watch in the engine-room. In the north of the Red Sea the thermometer on the old Claverhill registered 82 degrees and in the region of Singapore it was the same. Here, in Central America, it jumped to 84 degrees; I think this must be the warmest sea-water in the world.
A few hours out from Belize there was a bang and a rattle round the back of the main engines. A feed pump valve was broken! The engines had to be stopped at once, and soon the “white feather” was showing; the blowing off of the boilers made a tremendous noise. The Chief rushed down and soon we were busy putting in a spare valve. It was unbearably hot—more so because we were at a standstill.
Presently we heard sounds from the deck: “Bang! Bang!” Then again the crack of firearms. As the Second was doing the repair job, the Chief turned to me and said, “Run up and see what that noise is.” On deck I was to see a sight I shall page 260 never forget. The First Mate was leaning over the hand-rails with a revolver in his hand pointing down to the sea. “Bang!” it went again. Rushing to the side I saw a shoal of sharks swimming slowly past and right under our eyes. They were big fellows, too, shovel-nosed sharks, and appeared to be only a few feet under the surface, but this was sufficient to make them immune from hurt from the Mate's revolver or the Captain's more penetrating rifle from the bridge. The Chief and Second had to come up and have a look too, for the sharks kept coming and going. It was an amazing sight to see them swim slowly past as though in formation. This second shark incident certainly added weight to the Greek's words to us on One Man Island; we were more thankful than ever that we had not attempted to bathe on the Sunday.
Crossing Yucatan Channel, between the southern part of Mexico and Cuba, we passed Cape Antonio at the extreme end of this island. Turning almost due east, we passed Havana, known throughout the world for its cigars. Now in the Straits of Florida and fast approaching the shores of the State of that name, we felt the advantage of travelling with the Gulf Stream which flows at several knots. The Bahamas were on our star-board side, but we did not get a close view until passing between the mainland and the Great Bahama, the most western island of this famous group. Steaming on up the coast, we called at Newport News to replenish our bunkers, and in a few hours were on the last stage of our journey—the straight run across the Atlantic to London. My good luck held for, although we were now crossing at a much higher latitude than the usual run home from the West Indies, the weather was still good and the sea comparatively calm.
This was my last trip to the West Indies; these voyages had occupied twelve months and during the whole of that full year the only really rough weather I had experienced was during the nine days' run to Madeira on the first trip. My voyage out East on the Claverhill and these trips to the West Indies more than completed the eighteen months' service at sea which is necessary before qualifying to sit for a Second Engineer's certificate.
When we were berthed in the East India Dock I felt as though it was the end of one great voyage—as indeed it was— and I was loath to say good-bye to good comrades whom I page 261 would probably never see again. I was kept on for a few days until the new Third arrived. One of the first jobs was to take out the piston ring of the low-pressure cylinder. The Superintendent Engineer, when he saw the repaired one, said, “It's good enough to be put back again.” Praise from the man responsible for transfers and promotions was something to value.
I was able to look back with a great deal of pleasure on these runs across the Atlantic. There had been a happy atmosphere on the old Savan, and this means a great deal in life aboard ship. Our Chief, John Reid, was a splendid Scotsman. This tall, gaunt man could be stern as well as kindly, but only once or twice did I see him lose his temper. Leaving London on the outward journey, we were often troubled with drunk firemen. There was never any difficulty getting out of port, for we always had the donkeyman to help in maintaining sufficient steam. The trouble usually started when the watches were set and the engineer had to do his best with his firemen. We were out in the Thames Estuary when the pressure gauge began to go back and back. Going into the stokehold, I found one fireman lying on the stokehold plates hopelessly drunk. The other fellow was also intoxicated, but able to stand up and was singing away as he tried to rake and slice, with but very little effect. I at once set about to help him. An engineer's ear becomes trained to the beat of his engines, and our Chief on deck could tell that the steady throb was not there, so down he came. When he saw the drunken fireman on the floor he gave a yell and with one bound to the ash cock, took hold of the canvas hose, turned on the sea water, and put it full bore on to the drunken man, with immediate effect, for he “came-to” quicker than Jack Hulbert's mother-in-law on the golf links! Only a Chief Engineer could have taken such action. One watch was always sufficient to enable these firemen to get over their bouts ashore and we would have no more trouble for the rest of the voyage.
The Second Engineer was a Cockney, like the Third on the Claverhill, but did not have the same sense of humour. It was the Fourth and I who chummed up most. Williams of Cardigan was a splendid companion. He added life to the ship with his guitar, laughed more than anyone else and when excited broke into almost pure Welsh. I liked him very much. page 262 We did not have any changes of staff among the engineers during my twelve months aboard the Savan, but the Mates were changed almost every trip. One Mate—a real hard shot—when he heard I came from New Zealand, said, “I know Riccarton at Christchurch.” He also knew Randwick in Sydney, so was obviously a racing fan. In all seriousness he told us that he was once so hard up in Sydney, New South Wales, that he preached a sermon one Sunday morning on Circular Quay. He said the collection was thirteen shillings and ninepence! On another occasion a new Second Mate joined the Savan. He was a dashing young fellow, with a name well-known in trade circles in London. He said he had to leave home as a lad because of an interfering, mischief-making old maiden aunt. When pressed for more details he admitted there was a parlour-maid involved, but still blamed the old aunt!
As on the Claverhill, the mess-room talk was not only bright and entertaining, but often instructive. The Chief, like Mr. McGill, was keenly interested in politics, believed in Chamberlain's new policy, and was a Conservative. It was strange to me that these two men, who had both risen from the ranks, should be against the Liberals.
And so ended one of the brightest periods of my seafaring career.
Back in my old rooms in Canning Town, I was now ready to prepare for my examination. There were several schools in London where marine engineers were coached preparatory to going before the Board of Trade examiners. I chose that of Mr. James Boyd—“Jimmy” Boyd as he was known to everyone. A breezy personality, with a long beard and a wooden leg, he used to come stumping round the room to overlook our work and always had something bright to say. An old engineer of the P. & O. Line, he had traded to Australia in his younger days. Most of the young colonial engineers went to Boyd's school for their coaching. I had done a fair amount of study on the Savan, so needed only the final cram—for cramming it was. To pass for a Second's Certificate does not need a great deal of scholarship; all the examiners want is proof of a level head, with a good general knowledge of the operations of the main engines and auxiliary plant. Electricity and turbines had already been added to the examination page 263 papers, but the development of the motor-car, the motor engine and the approaching motor ship had caused them to direct their attention to the combustion engine. This was new to most of us, and Mr. Boyd, possibly knowing the mind of the examiners, gave us a good schooling on the subject. It certainly paid, for as it turned out we got some motor engine questions.
Perhaps the most trying questions for young engineers are the oral ones. I was surprised to find how nervous some are. They would often know the answer, but could not explain it. Such experiences have resulted in many humorous stories being handed down over the years. Everyone knows the usual answer to “What is a spiral staircase?”
To engineering questions there are many such makeshift answers. “Explain suction,” said one examiner. After a long pause, the candidate drew in his breath like sucking up water!
On another occasion a young fellow was asked: “Supposing the salinometer cock blew out and the engine-room became filled with steam—what steps would you take …?”
“The engine-room steps, sir!” came the quick reply.
The most humorous of all these questions and answers was the one about cutting off steam in the stroke of the piston. I should first explain that the Aberfeldy is a famous hotel, half-way along the East India Dock Road, and known to all British sailors. The question was: “Where (under certain circumstances) would you cut off steam?” The pupil was puzzled and hesitated whether to say half the length of the stroke, or more, or less, and finally could give no answer at all. Changing the question to a fantastic simile, the examiner asked, “Supposing you had a cylinder as long as East India Dock Road, where would you cut off steam?”
“At the Aberfeldy, sir,” replied the now more confident candidate!
When I called a few days later at the examiners' office, I was pleased to learn that I had passed, and lost little time in sending a cable to my mother in New Zealand. It is a strange thing with colonials that a London certificate was more prized than any other. Both London and Edinburgh degrees were valued in the same way by the medical profession, although there was a time when the Edinburgh one was preferred.
It was now necessary to put in another twelve months' page 264 service at sea before I could qualify to sit for a Chief Engineer's Certificate. I had no intention of adopting the sea as a career, and was anxious to complete my service as soon as possible, so without delay reported again for service.
Awaiting instructions, I enjoyed seeing London in every possible way and came to love the old city as all Londoners— all Englishmen, for that matter—love it.