Well M’hearties the winds of chance have once again shifted and it turns out that the Chinese are having none of our “receiving spare parts as we sail by” malarkey and are insisting on completing full port entry and departure formalities (with all the attendant monetary and time costs that would incur) so we are about to alter course again to once more to the NE and head up the outside of Taiwan thus avoiding the weaker currents and heavy traffic congestion that the Strait of Taiwan is renowned fo. In about 3 hours once we have cleared the western edge of Macclesfield Bank (I shit you not the middle of the South China Sea and we are skirting place called Macclesfield Bank )
Midnight position was 14* 48’N 113* 07’ E
Course 013 Sea state Slight (less than 1 meter)
Wind NE 8 knots, temp 28 degrees, water depth 4,000 meters.
No poem today, instead I would like to tell you a little about one of my favourite characters I have sailed with over the years (and there have been a few) but this guy often springs to my mind and I realise that I have absorbed some of his idiosyncrasies.
JJ was a Captain I sailed with in the late 90’s on the aggregate dredgers on the south coast of the UK and is one of those characters that stays nestled away in the “great person – great memories” section of ones memory bank.
He was early 60’s, (and I hope still alive) stood about 5 ‘ 9 “ powerfully built (not fat) and had a classic “sailors gait” about him. He spoke clearly in a Hull accent, with a rich deep baritone voice that was almost a caricature of what a sea captain should sound like. He was always meticulously clean shaven and had a full head of neatly combed, black hair, (that possibly benefitted from a touch of brylcream now and again) and he had a rugged weather beaten, lived in face, that would often crease into a mischievous smile that occupied the whole of his face. His general demeanour was one of warmth and enjoyment.
He dressed fairly casual and comfortable on board (jeans and checked shirt and thick jumpers in the winter months) but scrubbed up a treat with crisp white shirt, tie, blazer and slacks all well fitted and good quality and he always looked sharp and dapper when he would go ashore in two or three select ports. He didn’t go ashore every port and I can’t remember him coming to the pub with the others on board. Where he did go will remain a mystery, and although I asked him once or twice, he would have a crafty glint in his eye and would tap the side of his large nose and exclaim, That’s for me to know and you to wonder about Mr Mate”
He always called me Mr Mate and my affection for him probably came from him triggering a memory response from my childhood being transfixed by the Onedin Line (the bits spent at sea, as opposed to the airy fairy plot line) and he sounded like the Captain of a sailing vessel with his strong Hull brogue and precise way of talking.
When I sailed with him he was a man who made it quite clear that he could not abide bullshit in any of its forms, was absolutely confident in who he was, his ability as Master of the vessel, and completely at ease in that environment. He is one of the strongest characters that I have met over the years and who made a huge positive impact on me, and can say it was privilege to know and sail with him.
One of his great loves was words, he enjoyed the use of words and always strove to choose the correct words when he spoke and swore rarely but with devastating effect when he did. He was also always looking for ways of helping to increase the seafaring knowledge of the bridge team and also getting us to join in on his regular pranks played on the pilots, or the head office, and also to help make life on board a bit more fun. I think the following stories sum up his character perfectly for me and hopefully give you some insight into the character of the man.
(Whenever I use speech for him make sure that you imagine (or put on) a full Hull (sort of Yorkshire ish) accent spoken clearly and with a rich resonance and a slight questioning almost piss taking edge to the inflection)
On one clear moonlit evening we were making passage from the Owers Bank (off Selsey Bill) towards Newhaven when JJ appeared on the darkened bridge.
“A beautiful moonlit night tonight Mr Mate?”
“Aye that it is JJ, that it is. We are running with the flood now so should make the tide at Newhaven comfortably”
“Glad to hear it Mr Mate. Now tell me (his favourite saying and one that you knew preceded a nautical themed question that you may or may not know the answer to) “Now tell me Mr Mate what word would you use to describe such a moon”?
The moon was at about 3/4s on the way to full so I said “I can’t think of any one word expect perhaps “waxing”? and about ¾’s to full”
He stood and grinned at me in the darkness and said “Yes Yes Mr Mate it is waxing but what’s the correct word for such a waxing moon”?
After some Hmming and pondering from me I admitted defeat and said “I don’t know the correct word for it JJ”
“It is a “gibbous” moon Mr Mate. A “gibbous” moon. A gibbous moon is when more than half is illuminated, and a “crescent” moon is when less than half is illuminated. You may illuminate yourself to the phases of the moon by checking the nautical almanac on the shelf above the chart table. Good night Mr Mate.”
That was his way of helping increase your knowledge and for a navigator working in strong tidal streams, as we often did it, was important for me to understand the effect that the state of the moon would have on the rate of flow. It was never done with any attempt to catch you out, but you could rest assured that another lunar question would follow in few days to see if you had heeded his advice to brush up on the subject. He installed / awakened in me a desire to always remain inquisitive about what I do as a seafarer and it made me a better one, and continues to do so as a direct result.
His love of words used to come into play whenever we were going to a port where pilotage was compulsory. We both had pilot exemptions for places like Southampton, Portsmouth, Langstone Harbor, Cowes, Shoreham and Poole, which were regular ports, but Littlehampton and Newhaven didn’t offer pilot exemptions so we would be expected to take part in JJ’s game of slotting the chosen word of the day as many time as possible into the conversation with the Pilot during the pilotage. The more adept I became at playing, the more unusual the words became. One in particular stuck in my mind when we were doing a run into Newhaven, and as soon as the pilot cutter was alongside and he saw that it was the one pilot who was not really given to much conversation, JJ rubbed his hands with glee and said “Well Mr Mate the word of the day is “parochial” and with JJ still grinning at me the Pilot was opening the wheelhouse door and off we went. Parochial!! for fucks sake!! As I was struggling to come up with way of introducing that into the conversation, every time I looked around there would be JJ grinning. In the end I made up a question about a fictitious crossword clue I was having trouble with and managed to say it about 5 times, which received a wry :”Well played Mr mate, well played” as the pilot disembarked. All it did was spur JJ on to find a more unusual word for the next time, the sort of word that couldn’t be further from the subject that a navigator would talk with pilot about on a river passage.
The Wind Up Merchant
We were alongside the quay in Shoreham and were weather bound after discharging our cargo the previous night. That had made a welcome change from two cargos a day for some time and I had been up the road for a few pints and game of pool the night before. I came up onto the bridge at about 9ish to find JJ stood there looking across the sand yard to the road and houses beyond. I put the kettle on and asked if he fancied a brew and he said “Tell me Mr Mate can you recall the name of the fellow that runs the sand yard in Zebrugge? Is it Van Higher or something like that?”
I had never met the chap but being Dutch I was guessing that Van anything sounded about right, and feeling a tad jaded form the previous night said “Yes that sounds about right, but I couldn’t be sure”
“No matter Mr Mate. No matter, it is time to have some fun” at which juncture he uses the cell phone we had on board and calls the company on the speaker phone (pointing at me with finger to his lips in the shshhh signal.
As the phone is answered by the new young and inexperienced secretary, JJ launches into a superb Dutch accent “Hey Hey It’s Van Higher here from Zebrugge I need some more stones Yeh yeh?? . When can you get me some stones? Put me through to the guy who sells the stones yeh?””
The secretary being a bit flustered says she will check to see if he is in and to check again who is calling and JJ says “ Van Higher Van Higher and I need the stones chop chop quick Yeh Yeh”
She says she will put him on hold while she checks with the sales manager and JJ hangs up the phone howling with laughter saying it would take them ages to suss out it was a hoax and with that he goes down to his cabin still chuckling to himself.
I settled down on the bridge to drink my coffee and looking out across the yard in the same direction as JJ had been looking earlier and the penny drops, as I suddenly see for the first time a sign that I have probably seen hundred times but never taken any notice of. Shoreham “Van Hire”.
Probably my favourite time was on a wild wet and windy Wednesday when a wicked westerly gale had been whipping up the channel for three days and the vessel was sheltered alongside in Newhaven. I had just had my three weeks off and pulled up outside the yard in my hire car and had now sooner got out ready to dash on board to get out of the wind and rain, when there is JJ stood in front of me in full wet weather gear holding my wet weather gear as well saying “Come on Mr Mate, as a Westcountryman this will be right up your street, get back in the car as we have some wrecking to do and fun to be had.
Unbeknownst to me earlier that morning a beautiful privately owned 3 masted Dutch tall ship (sailing ship) which had also been weather bound in Newhaven for three days, had decided against the pilots advice and local knowledge to make a run for it out of the port, even though she would be running out onto a lee shore. Well she tried it and had promptly run aground on the beach, beam on and with the tide set to fall there was a tug trying to get a tow on her to get her off the beach. We were going along as JJ informed me “to cast a professional seafarers eye on the proceedings”, hence our wet weather gear complete with Sou’westers.
It is never good to see a vessel in difficulty and this was no exception, it took one glance from the pair of us to see that it would be going nowhere this tide, as just after we arrived you could see the two seamen on the heavily listed and buffeted focsle struggling with the tow rope, which parted nearly as soon as they had it fast. They slithered down the deck the best they could and leapt to the beach and scrambled safely ashore.
JJ and myself were chatting about the various methods and techniques that could be used to get her off and agreed that as the vessel was beached keel to the waves and the crew were safe, there was little to do really except wait for the next full tide and get two tugs attached before the waves began to effect her and help her upright and away as soon as there was enough water to float. She should then float of fairly easily on the steeply shelving beach and without too much damage. (whiych is what happened 10 hours later)
It was then that JJ noticed that the police had arrived and cordoned off the section of the beach with red tape and had policemen (ill attired to be stood on beach in a force 8+ westerly gale) stood every 25 meters or so. He looked me in the eye with a quizzical expression and said “Well Mr Mate the plot thickens, there is fun to be had, just play your part well” and with a large wink he set off towards the nearest policeman on cordon duty who was a ruddy cheeked young chap in his early 20’s.
JJ’s opening gambit was “Good morning officer, I was wondering if you could tell me your role here in todays events?”
“We have set up police cordon around the ship sir”, said the young policeman
“Aye Aye I can see and it leaves me confused and begs the question, what maritime salvage operation experience do you and your fellow officers have? And what assistance do you think a cordon will make?”
“We are just here to ensure that nothing untoward happens with the vessel during the operation sir.”
“Aye Aye I can see but my keen experienced nautical eye tells me something untoward has already happened, hence the ship on the beach. I was just discussing with my Chief Officer here, who is from the west country, an area renowned for its wreck.. I mean salvage, and we wondered how long you would be holding the cordon so as we might get better look at her to see what can be done”
“There is an operation in hand and we are to maintain a cordon there isn’t really anything to see here sir”
Now it was my turn and putting on an accent somewhere between Captain Ahab from Moby Dick and Brad Pits pikey in Snatch I say “ The omens are not good matey for the rope has parted! See yonder” pointing to the vessel and the tug that had already retreated out of the shallows. I was caught up in the playacting now and so turning to JJ who was trying not to laugh at my 19th century speak and said in a seriously foreboding tone “I fear for a falling tide Cap’n I don’t think the cordon will save her”
There was bit more to-ing and froing between JJ and the young officer but he had just been told to go and stand on the beach with about 4 or 5 others and wasn’t really equipped to deal with someone asking him what he hoped to achieve.
As we bid the officer farewell and plodded along the beach back to the hire car JJ was wondering why it would take 5 officers, all ill dressed for the job, with red cordon tape to do what one copper would have done easily, which was keep an eye that no scallys tried to rob it.
I was wondering how he had managed to get me so quickly and without question to join in his quest for a crack.
Characters like him come few and far between and if I may be so bold as to suggest that if you are fortunate enough to spend time in their company, then relish every moment of it