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Joining & Leaving

There are two particular agonies that occur in a Seafarers life and neither has anything to do with loss of life or shifting cargo.

The first one is awful, because it rips you away from the bosom of your family, or in a few cases your favourite barmaid. That phone call, or rather the torture of waiting for that phone call from the Shipping Company, which ends your leave and gives you joining instructions. You know it's going to come, you know your days are numbered, but all the same the wait is agonising. Once it comes however, and you summon up the courage to pick up the receiver, the veil lifts a little, you start to tune in, you're mind is already halfway there and you sometimes even begin to look forward to it.

The second agony is exquisite. You wake up in the morning, on board ship and know that today is the day you go home on leave. Or are supposed to, but more of that later.

Of course the reverse is sometimes true. I have known men count down the days and hours to get away from the nagging wife, screaming kids, mortgages, gas bills etc and paradoxically go all maudlin when the time comes to step down the gangway for the last time, to go on leave, back to the nagging wife, screaming kids, mortgages, gas bills etc.

The journeys to and from the vessel are fraught with pitfalls. In the former case, it is highly likely that you will join up with a shipmate en route. This can lead to disastrous hazards, not unconnected with alcohol. A Captain I know spent four days travelling by train from his home in Cornwall to join a ship in London with a shipmate. Somehow they went via Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, back to Liverpool then Edinburgh and eventually caught up with the ship, in Rotterdam.

Swivel, a second Engineer acquaintance, so called because he was very cross-eyed, once joined the wrong ship in Hamburg after a heavy night in the Red Light district. He didn't realise it was the wrong ship for three weeks, and nobody told him because they couldn't catch his eye.

This brings us to paying off. There you are, bags packed, signed off articles, waiting at the head of the gangway for your relief to show himself. You wait and wait, the ships about to sail and still no relief. The pilots due on board, the engines are being tested, and the message comes through that the Company wishes you to stay on because your relief is being held in custody by the airport police, for making lewd advances to an Airhostess.

It has been known, quite often, for the chap paying off to enlighten his superior Officer, with a few home truths about his table manners, personal hygiene, working methods or wife's morals. This enlightenment is usually undertaken on the last night on board, during a last drink with the lads. I knew a Fourth Engineer once, so desperate to get off, after staggering into the Chief Engineer's cabin at four in the morning and regaling his superior with a diatribe of such monumental evil invective, that he grabbed a passing docker and bribed him ten quid to impersonate his relief for half an hour while he made his escape.

Another indication of imminent leave is called the 'Channels' This peculiar phenomenon manifests itself in the inability to sleep when approaching your home port, which in British terms meant the English Channel. The sight of shipmates wandering around the vessel in a dream like state when they should be asleep, very often muttering, can seem very bizarre to the uninitiated.

Wives are sometimes summoned to collect their respective spouses if the pay off port is the home country. This can lead to all sorts of complications. It may have sounded like a good idea when first proposed. Have a look at the ship, meet the other chaps, have a nice drive back, stop off for a nice meal, bit of shopping, etc etc, but in reality to come on board and find your husband comatose after the previous night's party is not an auspicious start. It usually goes down hill from there. The wife finds herself also lumbered with a couple of other shipmates as well as their entire luggage who are also going on leave. The fact that their respective homes mean a detour of a couple of hundred miles doesn't enter into it. It was a smashing thought cooked up the night before in a fit of euphoria. 'Of course the wife won't mind, only to pleased.' And it has the added bonus of being able to stop off at a number of watering holes en route and not have to worry about breathalysers.

A Chief Mate of my acquaintance, who lived in Ipswich, told me that he once had a lift home in a Third Engineers car, together with an effeminate Chief Steward from Birmingham, when the whole plan back fired. The Third's wife turned out to be an absolute lush; she could down six pints before they'd knocked the froth off their first. The journey, a pub-crawl from Avonmouth, via Birmingham, to Ipswich took two days and in the end they got so mixed up, the Chief Steward was dropped of at the Mate's front gate in Ipswich and the Mate ended up in the arms of the Chief Steward's boy friend in Birmingham.

Paying off in some foreign port with the added delight of having to spend the night in a hotel, because there isn't a flight home until tomorrow, is full of pitfalls. The euphoria of leaving the vessel is enough, then add to it a large wad of money, blokes you know who are also in the same frame of mind and a recipe for some form of disaster is written in the annuls of legendry sea lore.

We paid off in Singapore and were booked into a hotel until flights home could be arranged, and as is the way of things the paying off party started on the ship and then progressed into the hotel bar, before even finding your room. The Captain was the epitome of Captaincy in all respects and spent the whole time on the ship in a sober, prudent like state of mind with no hint of a wayward demeanour. However he entertained his relief, an old friend and colleague with conspicuous intemperance and arrived at the hotel in a state of some distress. The Chief Officer and Second mate were half carrying the poor man and had the decency to take him as far as the lift in this multi story hotel and deposit his luggage around him before the need for a quick drink overcame their sense of duty. They were knocking back their first Singapore Slings and had completely forgotten their erstwhile Captain as he soared upwards towards an unknown fate.

We all left the bar after an hour or two, with the intention of grabbing a couple of hour's kip before getting ready for the evening's delights. The lift was called and as the doors opened we were met by the sight of our dear Captain in a state of undress, with suitcase contents spread across the floor and in a high state of indignation.

'Thank god you've come,' he said, after focusing, 'They've given me a bloody rabbit hutch of a room with no bloody bed, no bloody windows and what's more complete bloody strangers keep opening the bloody door and staring at me.'

And so we leave the ship, full of good intentions. The planned kitchen extension, drawn out meticulously on the chart table. The rockery with the water feature, a pump filched from the engine room store ready to fit, in the suitcase. The wallpapering, the new bathroom suite. Winning the lottery. The desperate search for a shore job…the list is endless.

The road to hell is paved with these intentions; none of them ever come to fruition. The weeks shoot by, the dreaded time approaches. Then Hell suddenly phones 'Had a good leave,' it says, 'Please join the MV….'


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