Ships don’t seem to have “home ports” any more – they circle the world like the proverbial Flying Dutchman – their crews hopefully relieved by great iron birds at the conclusion of their tour, wherever the ship happens to be at the time. They might have a port of registry written across the stern, but they almost certainly never go there.
Our home port was where the voyage began and months, or even years later, ended. It was London, where the company had its head office, where the management hung out and from where all the “we fail to understand” letters originated. We had our own regular berths in the Royal Docks, a short walk from the dock office, where various superintendents had their lairs and from where we lesser mortals would be appointed to our ships.
We even had our own gangs of dockers on the loading and discharging berths and various hangers-on like the shore gang, who served under the shore boatswain aboard the ships in port, once the deep sea crew had been paid off. These folk lived the life of Riley, sailors who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, go to sea; home every night, with their voyages confined to the length of the Royals and a trip to the dry dock.
“While this chaos swirled around them…”
Old Joseph Conrad beautifully described how once the ship Narcissus had docked in London, her crew just disappeared like the morning dew when they were paid off and the well-ordered vessel was taken over by the landsmen who reduced her to chaos in a few hours. Well, half a century on it hadn’t really changed much.
All sorts of people would arrive on board, bearing bits of paper authorising them to take things away, carry out repairs to bits of the ship’s equipment nobody had told us needed repairing, or just come for lunch. Meanwhile the officers “standing by” the ship just carried on in the usual fashion, while this chaos swirled around them.
You sort of hoped that they really were authorised to be doing this work. A friend who worked for a passenger liner company told me that in their home port a team of carpet layers came along and stripped out all of the nearly new carpet from the public rooms and disappeared with it, for ever.
On another occasion in their home port a gang of “engineering specialists”, bristling with sufficient authority to bamboozle the stand-by senior engineer, had made off with a lorry-load of white metal bearings, worth a fortune. I don’t doubt that there were plenty of fiddles enjoyed by our shore gang and their kinsfolk (they all seemed to be related), but it probably wasn’t at this elevated scale. But people would front up to the officer of the day, shove a piece of paper under his nose with a “would you mind signing this, squire” and go on their way rejoicing.
One Sunday morning in the Royals, with the ship as quiet as the grave a shipmate was shaving when a swarthy looking chap turned up and said that he had actually bought the ship and was taking possession.
He had a huge Gladstone bag stuffed with padlocks to secure his purchase. My friend didn’t know what to think but got on the phone to the marine superintendent, who told him that the ship had indeed been sold, but nobody had thought to tell the officer in charge.
But it was nice to go to a port where there were the same familiar faces, voyage after voyage, year after year. The same people always seemed to do exactly the same jobs. The shipworkers, who were a sort of foreman stevedore and the go-to person when there was a cargo problem, would become friends, even though you might only see them for a week once or twice a year.
“Memories of our home port return”
I swear the same winchman, who was sitting at the starboard winch at hatch No.3 when I was a first trip apprentice, was doing exactly the same job when I docked in London on a ship twelve years later. Maybe they just felt comfortable in the same role, every day. Possibly they had inherited the job from their fathers and had containerisation not come along to spoil all our lives, would have passed it on to their sons.
Standing by in the home port, you had to be on your toes as superintendents and even directors of the company would appear on board, invariably with something critical to say, if a flag was tangled up, you had forgotten your hat, or the lunch was not up to their expectations. It was usually OK, as the shore gang had its own catering staff that took over the ship’s galley and looked after us, while they were feeding themselves well.
You didn’t know what was going on in the world on our long voyages to the other side of the world, but in the home port you got to hear some of the company gossip. You could wander up to the dock office to collect the mail and chat to the secretaries, or try and ingratiate yourself with the lovely lady who did all the officers’ appointments.
You sort of felt that it might help you get a better deep sea ship, or the voyage you were looking for, or avoid sailing with the dreaded Captain X, whose ship was due to sail in a couple of weeks’ time. That was a long time ago, but on occasions I have flown from London City Airport, built on these old docks, memories of our home port return.
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Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.