INFLUENCE IN MY LIFE
is often used to get the brain working during creative writing
courses, and I suppose I must have responded to such a
requirement when on such a course, or indeed when I was
tutoring such a course. Since the person who might have had
the greatest influence on my life was a ship-master it has a
place here. Anyone wishing to contribute a similar memoir is
welcome. The writing competition is almost at an end.
When I think about it, it might have been the
hatch covers that caused the trouble, or at least the fact
that I would have nothing to do with them.
Whenever the ship was working cargo the "old
man", that's the name we seafarers have for the captain, used
to expect the mate of the watch and the apprentices to open
the hatches. A desire prompted by the wish to save crew
overtime. The crew would have been really pleased to get out
there at seven in the morning, rig the derricks and swing the
hatch slabs off to the outboard side of the ship, then get
down into the tweendecks, lift off the hatchboards and pull
the roller beams back forward and aft. They would have been
pleased because they would have been getting overtime for the
So for me there was a bit of a principle. I had
no wish to deprive the crew of their overtime, but more
importantly I resented some-one attempting to take advantage
of me. So every time it was my turn to help open the hatches
the Mate had to come out and take my place. I would watch them
doing it and no-one ever said anything. Particularly the old
man, whose only communication was a snarl, if ever we happened
On the other hand he might have disliked me
because of the time the radar blew up.
This happened when the ship was heading north
towards Panama through the Archipelago de las Perlas, a dense
group of tiny jungle covered islands. Solid water was falling
out of a black sky reducing the visibility to almost zero,
except in the lightning flashes. My job at the time was to try
to find out where the ship was, so I would stand on the wing
of the bridge ready to take a bearing of something using the
bridge repeater. There would be a flash of lightning and I
would take the bearing of an island the image of which was
retained on my retina like an art photo.
Then I would plod into the chartroom dripping
water and try to plot the position on the chart. I was having
moderate success with this process because the lightning
flashes were frequent and vivid and close to the ship. However
the captain must have decided it was time for him to intervene
because he arrived beside me in the wheelhouse brandishing the
key to the radar, and it is probably necessary to explain that
in those days all shipmasters were under the illusion that
there was only so much time available in a radar before it
would break down, so it could only be used when it was really
We now know that this is not true and that
radars are better left on rather than being switched on and
off ad infinitum, but then the radar would be locked and the
captain would keep the key.
The captain sneered at me but did not speak.
This had become his normal form of greeting after the problems
with the hatches. Then he approached the radar and inserted
the key. He turned it to the right and flicked the on switch.
There was a terrific bang from the radar set. The old man
stepped back stunned and we both watched a small mushroom
cloud form over the viewfinder. I laughed.
On the other hand it might have been the time
he nearly ran onto the shore at Curacao. Curacao is the
remains of a volcano sticking out of the sea and the harbour
is in what used to be the crater. As a consequence the
entrance is quite narrow and we were all standing on the
bridge as the old man headed for a house on the south side of
the entrance. I really had no idea he was so short-sighted,
but I could actually see people through their lounge window
before he realised he was so close. It was only the quick
response of the engineers to his double ring astern that saved
him. He looked at us as if it was our fault, and I suppose he
was right. One of us should have warned him.
Anyway, when I think about it, he was the
greatest influence in my life. After six months with him in
charge I determined that I would never ever sail on a ship
where I could not get off if I didn't like it. No more sailing
round the world for me. Being close to home became the first
principle in any job application, which is why thirty five
years ago I stopped going on deep sea ships and why
twenty-five years ago I became involved in the offshore oil
industry, and why I am in Aberdeen today.
Oh, and this is a true story.
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