It was the alleged misdemeanours of an aircraft carrier’s captain that reminded me of my bicycle. It was in all the newspapers in this northern hemisphere – the captain of the Royal Navy’s biggest warship being relieved of his command on account of his personal use of the ship’s car.
It was probably something that wasn’t covered specifically in the Articles of War, or a simple misreading of the Queen’s Regulations, but their Lordships took a dim view of the ship’s people carrier not being available for the ship’s people, when it was carrying the captain’s around.
You can imagine a bit of resentment, if the chief engineer had asked the chief stoker to nip up to the stores in the ship’s car to pick a spare cylinder liner or the commander (air) needed a spare nose-wheel fetched from a warehouse on the other side of the dockyard and the blooming skipper had apportioned the car again.
More importantly, consider the attitude of half a dozen chaps who were hoping that the car might be available to take them to the station to get the train on leave. Then the Master at Arms might have glimpsed it in the Waitrose car park, with the Old Man’s missus loading the shopping onto the tailgate. Which is why I was reminded of my bicycle.
It was our Master, a wise and patient chap, who offered me the advice, when I sought his permission to take a bicycle to sea with us on a voyage of unspecified length to the other end of the world. He saw no objection, thinking, as had I, of the distance between the berth and the dock gates in many of the ports we visited. But he asked who would might be empowered to ride the thing.
I had never thought of making it available to anyone other than myself, but the Master suggested that it should become the “Ship’s Bicycle”, and that everyone from the Chief Officer to the Galley Boy should, (at their own risk) have this facility at their disposal. He himself confirmed that he would not be seeking to borrow it, although he might ask his Tiger to run the odd message.
“We nearly lost it in one New Zealand port”
I clearly showed some sign of doubt at this, so he went on to explain, that if it was to be seen as being for my exclusive use, or even an “Officer’s Bicycle”, it would immediately be at risk when some low-ranking inebriate staggered up the gangway to be confronted by this offensive object, so redolent of rank and authority. Over the side and into the dock it would go! But a thoroughly democratic bicycle, available to all, would appeal to their sense of ownership, and their protective instincts.
I had my doubts at the time, but the Master’s forecast was absolutely accurate and there was never any trouble over the Ship’s Bicycle. It wasn’t particularly new – indeed I had bought it when I was fourteen – and it was looking a bit the worse for wear. So I was delighted to find that one of the old Quartermasters had painted it with our smart Atlantic Grey hull colour, with Silverene handlebars.
And it was very useful, on so many occasions and I never saw it abused, although I did meet it carrying three of our large ABs one evening as I was going ashore. But it was a stoutly made British Roadster, built in the days when bikes were made to last. There was some bearing trouble reported in the forward wheel, but the Second Engineer took it to the engine room workshop for a few days and it was as good as new when it emerged.
We nearly lost it in one New Zealand port, with the ship already coming off the berth when the Master spied the Ship’s Bicycle leaning on a warehouse wall. There was a scream from the bridge, our best line thrower at the after end of the ship heaved a line ashore and a linesman bent on the bike and threw it into the harbour.
The pilot was not amused by the sense of priorities being exhibited on the bridge. There was some concern about whether it would get mixed up with the propellers, as we were still running astern, but a couple of my sailors briskly hauled it dripping over the poop rail. A sluice down with fresh water and some oil and it was available for the next port.
I was nearly two years on that ship, eventually leaving her to take a ticket. I thought I might take the bike with me, but it seemed a pity to deprive the ship of a piece of equipment that seemed as useful as the windlass, or the emergency fire pump. So I said goodbye to my bicycle, sitting at the top of the working gangway, along with the elegantly decorated lifebelt, and available to anyone aboard.
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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.