Here you will find the stories from the men and women who sailed on the ships, what was it really like to be working on a ship in a raging sea and in the pitch dark of night, the real stories some funny some sad, some good and some bad.
Dedicated to all the brave men and women who sailed the vessels from the Leith Shipyards.
The following is a great tale from John Wilson who sailed on M.V.RAPALLO
She was one of Ellerman Wilson Lines out of Hull. Many of the seamen called the Wilsons 'Green Parrots' I never did find out why. The hull was green but why parrot.
She was my favourite ship and I joined her as Deck Boy - Peggy in King George dock in Hull after seeing her name and destination on the board at the pool in Posterngate.
My first glimpse of her caused a bit of trepidation because I saw a seagull swim by in the dock and I could have sworn she rolled in it's wake.
Going aboard I discovered that I had my very own cabin located in her counter starboard of the screw. My very own porthole too. I wondered how many men had also called this cabin home and what stories they could tell.
I took great pride in that cabin and soon had the brass dogs gleaming and the tile deck as white as snow. Later in the trip I was asked how I managed to get the deck so white and I told the seaman that I had used carbolic...I didn't though I used a strong mix of Tepol and detergent....his efforts with carbolic lifted his tiles.
She was going to Canada and was carrying sandbags as ballast. I was told that her only cargo was a small steel box that had been welded to the bottom of #3 hold the contents of which were unknown only that it was worth 3 million pounds.
We set sail from Hull and the plan was to round Scotland and take the great circle route. Her best speed would give us landfall in 9 days except hurricane 'Celia' had other plans. The 'old man' decided that sitting in the lee of the Hebrides was no answer so we set off for Northern Ireland and maybe a better chance to cross. Still no go so it was down the Irish Sea to see if there was any improvement to the South. There wasn't and that box we were carrying needed to get to Canada so ....batten down the hatches, deadlights and string a wire lifeline from the stanchions around the deck.
"Rapallo" was only my second trip to sea and to see even the grizzly old hands wearing lifejackets made me wonder if this second trip was my last.
Chaos in the messroom...soup in cups with cold sandwiches... One old salt saying "And you B****rd " each time a big green one came aboard and smashed against the portholes. He even called me that because I filled the sink too high and she took a roll sending greasy water with bits of carrot and gunk along the draining board, hit the rise at the end and propelled a gallon or so all over his head...
Sleeping caused a few problems because each time her stern lifted out the water the spinning screw would give you a good shaking. That was ok but when she 'missed a step' I learned first hand about Newton's laws of gravity. She'd catch the second wave under her forepeak and that would jolt her stern down which included my bunk. I'd be left in mid air and should she happen to take a roll to port my bunk would end up 4 or 5 feet to the left so by the time I came back down again my bunk was not there only the hard deck. I crashed onto the deck 3 or 4 times before having the sense to lash myself in. I think people pay up to 5 quid these days for rides like that at the Annual Hull Fair.
I don't remember for what reason but I had to go focsle I think it was to get something or other off Chippy..not a long stand or a skyhook because I'd already done one trip so was smart enough. I still had my Vindi beret but a blast of wind snatched it off my head and deposited it on the crest of a wave on the port quarter Odd you know as I watched it disappear in a trough and then reappear further away before sinking out of sight forever that I couldn't think of a fitter place to have lost it..a tremendous storm in the North Atlantic a piece of Vindi back at sea.
Always I enjoyed seeing men walking up or down the deck with a slant, first / this way then \ that and often at an angle so acute that you could actually walk along the base of the bulkheads. Knowing I looked the same to them made me feel like a real seaman. Nice how that roll stayed with you for a long time after coming ashore off each trip.
Do you remember experimenting by giving a leap into the air just as she started to dip into a trough...how quickly the deck would fall away under you. Being careful not to over do it or you'd likely break your leg or worse when you eventually landed. That bucket you were carrying feeling like it was full of lead and then full of feathers.
Getting whatever it was off Chippy I made my way back and one of those big green B****rds got me and swept me off my feet. I grabbed the lifeline and held on for dear life, I was shaken like a leaf in a wind storm straining to hold the line cutting my hand on a jag in the wire. I remember to this day how curiously warm the water felt...death passing me by.... Getting back one lucky lad.
I had my turns on the wheel and really enjoyed it but it was basically hard a port, hard a starboard to keep her going anywhere near the right course.
Crib of course was always full steam ahead in the messroom and that most thinkingest of games Chess. I spent many hours watching the moves and started to get the hang of it. Harry was the champ and I've never met anyone like him before or since... He was a 'Gentleman Sailor' always clean as a whistle even his shoes. He could work as hard as anyone but never attracted any sort of dirt on his clothes nor ruffle the creases in his Wrangler jeans. By the end of the trip I was champ being unbeatable. Harry wasn't too pleased I'd taken his title and the very last game we played he was within 3 moves of beating me when 'Rapallo' took a roll and scattered the pieces here there and everywhere. Harry wanted to re-set the pieces and finish the game and I told him no... 'Oh you B****rd' he said.
Sam Gee was E.D.H. and we became great friends. He had a radio and the wire led from his porthole to the cross trees on the mizzen. I snapped that wire on numerous occasions ..on purpose..during the trip with raising and lowering the aft derricks while he worked up forrad. He ended up shinnying up the mizzen to attach his Christmas tree ariel on the truck. 16 days out I heard a woman singing on his radio and whether it had anything to do with all the rolling and pitching we'd been doing I don't know but I thought it was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard. Sam was to become manager of the New York Hotel in Hull married with a child and then moved back down south in England and I lost contact with him. I do remember that his mother had a house called 'The Compass Rose'
A day before landfall the Bosun said it was good enough for us to do some work on deck. A very likeable fellow and he used to wear one of those baseball caps except this one was made out of thin p.v.c. and he was bald underneath it. Well the job he gave us was chipping the gunwales... I was chipping the upper and he the lower..chip, chip, chip, silence, clunk.. you got it the head flew off my hammer and landed perfectly in the middle of his hat..Now he had padding, I'd say about the size of a goose egg. Later in the day he asked me to help him bring in the log line so I got steam to the winch. I don't know what went wrong to this day but just as it was coming aboard he got his arm in a bight so I shut down the winch except it didn't stop and he was dragged screaming down the poop. The winch stopped after it had given him one good turn. He said I'll never work with you again you B****rd and he never did.
I woke up in the morning and 'Rapallo' was in calm waters which felt strange after over 2 weeks of being thrown about. I liked how green the water looked and looking up saw millions of pine trees on the shore....Canada... Beautiful. I walked forrad to see if any damage had been done during the storm and noticed some bent stanchions but more surprising was a little fish on the deck. All black with small lime green luminous spots on it's body. I picked it up and threw it back overboard and just as it left my fingers I could have kicked myself because I may have discovered a new species that could have been put in a bottle of formaldehyde and identified ashore. Years later I heard of a guy who found a blind fish in a cave and had it named after himself 'Smith' so there could have been a fish called 'Wilson' my claim to fame gone forever.
We picked up the pilot in the St Lawrence and I was sent to raise the courtesy flag the Maple Leaf. Now when I was at the Vindi one of the instructors showed us how to roll the flag up hoist it tweak the halyard and Bob's yer uncle. I hoisted it tweaked and it unfurled beautifully ...upside down. The old man glared at me from the bridge and I'm sure I saw steam coming from his ears. Trying to lower it caused more problems because it was still windy and the flag got caught up in the blocks on the mast and started to get covered in grease. The old man gave a violent jerk of his finger which needed no interpretation so I climbed the mast and got it sorted out giving a very low and apologetic bow to the pilot from the cross tree.
We tied up in Montreal and that box was unloaded and I got some time ashore. I was never ( well not often ) one to just visit the local dive because I liked to see how the other half lived. I took a ride on the then highest mobile staircase in the world atop of the Prudential Building. Went to feed squirrels on Mount Royal and got some denims from a famous place where it seemed most of the seamen visited though I don't remember it's name now.
Remember all the ships names painted on the quayside.. Did you ever see one saying "Rapa.. Well that's as far as I got before the Mate caught me and said any more of it and he'd have me scrubbing the entire dockside clean.
I was told I would be leaving the ship and did so quite a few times as it was my job to be swung overboard at the end of a boom in a bonus's chair to tie up and let go as we went through the locks on the Seaway. Making a mad jump for the Jacobs ladder as she got underway. A couple of times the gap was too wide so I ended up walking to the next lock.
Toronto, Hamilton, Detroit, Milwaukee and then Chicago. I really liked Chicago and went ashore to see if I could spot any bullet holes left by Al Capone. Being from Hull which is flat and industrial I was amazed to see two round skyscrapers the first 25 stories of each being a carpark. Below the buildings was an outdoor ice skating rink and I was fascinated watching a young girl dressed all in light blue figure skating round the ice as though she was born on it. I wonder if she ever got an Olympic gold medal later in life because she certainly was good enough.
I stopped at a cafe to experience my first American hamburger and along came a cop and sat next to me. Of course he was of Irish decent and was called O'Malley. A really nice guy and he showed me his gun taking out the bullets first and when he'd done swaggered off down the street twirling his night stick. Impressive or what to a young lad. I didn't have a hat so stopped in a store and bought one just like O'Malley's.. you know they looked like threepenny bits. It was 2 sizes too big for me and kind of flopped around my ears. That was the second hat I lost overboard 'cos that's what the old man told me to do with it.
The Chicago dockers were on strike so we all worked the cargo. Cases and cases of cherries.. of course a pallet of them slipped and were damaged so.....you can only eat so many cherries you know. $40 was my take from the work and up to that point was the most money I had ever had in my life.
It was a great trip back to the U.K. and we passed Wilson's "Rialto" and I thought the crew aboard her must have been mad to join her the way she was being tossed around...then I suppose we looked the same to them. I was to end up spending a night on "Rialto" in Le Havre because she looked a lot like "Rapallo" to me especially after an evening on French plonk but that's another story. :-) John.