Bread and Butter - another seafaring tale.

One thing you can be sure of as an apprentice is that if there is an unpleasant job to be done, you will be the one to do it. Early in my first trip in Pando Strait I discovered that there was a buzzer installed in the cadets’ study connected to a button in the chief officer’s cabin. The insistent and impersonal sound of that buzzer was a frequent reminder of one’s status as the lowest form of marine life. Until, in a moment of inspiration, I followed the cable back to an obscure point … and cut it.

“No Sir, we didn’t hear the buzzer. It doesn’t appear to be working Sir.”

The electrical officer was persuaded to temporarily abandon his day job of running the officers’ bar in order to troubleshoot the problem. But he never found the break, and I never heard the buzzer again.

In my next ship, Uganda, which I joined in March 1972, there was a telephone outside the cadets’ cabins which was used to summon us. There was something sufficiently personal about answering the telephone, so we did not attempt to sabotage it. It was an unforgiving instrument, however, and on one occasion it rang while were in the middle of “smoko.” I answered, and heard the voice of the second officer calling from the bridge for a cadet to run an errand for him. The second officer (who later went on to become the commodore of Cunard Line) had a good sense of fun, and it was quite possible, even for a cadet, to share a joke with him. But somehow, on that occasion, the telephone managed to filter the humour out of my reply that overtime rates would apply during “smoko.” His reply is unprintable, and my ear seemed to burn for hours afterwards.

Uganda was a marvellous ship. She had been built on the Clyde in 1952 by Barclay Curle and Co. for the British India SN Co., as a passenger liner for the service between the UK and East Africa. She was originally designed to carry 167 passengers in first class and 133 in tourist class. Her public rooms evoked the heyday of the Raj. For example her Smoking Room, with its fine timber panelling, elephant tusks, leather armchairs and fireplace, resembled a club where dinner jacketed gentlemen and officers in their mess kits enjoyed their after dinner brandy and cigars. I know I did. One could still smoke on-board ships in those days.

In 1967 she was converted into an educational cruise ship and, thereafter, in addition to her 300 passengers, she carried 900 school children in dormitories that had been installed in her holds. She continued in that role until April 1982 when she was requisitioned for service in the Falklands. Discharging her students and passengers at Naples, she proceeded to Gibraltar for conversion into a hospital ship.

She arrived in the Falklands in May and was immediately pressed into service treating casualties from HMS Sheffield. She remained in the Falklands for two months while her surgeons treated 730 casualties, 160 of them Argentinian, and performed 504 operations. Nicknamed “Mother Hen” by the three small “ambulance vessels,” HM Ships Hecla, Hydra and Herald that operated with her, she was also affectionately known as NOSH, for Naval Oceangoing Surgical Hospital.

That was not Uganda’s first brush with hostilities, however. On Trafalgar Day (21st October) in 1969 she was steaming off that historic cape while one of the history teachers accompanying the students delivered a lecture on the battle that had bloodied those same waters 164 years before. As the students listened attentively to the story of how Nelson led his two columns to break through the combined French and Spanish line, a Spanish shore battery opened fire. Britain and Spain were not at water, but the Spanish gunners, their tempers inflamed by the recent passing of a new constitution for Gibraltar, that had re-stated its allegiance to Britain, had decided to reinforce Spain’s closing of its borders to British ships and aircraft. Uganda was outside the three mile limit, but some of the shells landed within half a mile of her.

Uganda was an enjoyable posting for a cadet.  She cruised some of the most interesting waters in Europe and the Mediterranean, so watch keeping bought familiarity with famous landmarks and headlands that deep sea captains normally steered well clear of. In port there was the opportunity to join the educational tours to the historic, the exotic and the beautiful. And at night there were the passengers to spin tall tales to. Many of the students, both boys and girls, were in their late teens and the same age as the cadets, so it was easy to strike up friendships, although anything more with the girls was regarded as a capital offence. It was not hard, however, for a young cadet, with his hormones raging, to be overwhelmed in the presence of a party of attractive young women.

One of our day time tasks was to host bridge visits for the school parties, and on one memorable occasion my friend Paul had the good fortune to lead a group of sixth form girls up to the bridge. Standing in the wheelhouse, the centre of attention, he was answering their questions with all the maturity and sophistication he could muster. Then one of the girls pointed to a grey cabinet with lights and dials at the rear of the wheelhouse, and asked what it was. The cabinet housed the controls for the ship’s impressed current system that protected the hull against marine growth. But in what must take the prize for one of the best Freudian slips of all time, Paul told her it was to protect the ship from marine orgasms!

But not all of the jobs in Uganda were so enjoyable. One morning the telephone outside the cadets’ cabins rang and I answered it. It was the chief officer, and he told me to get into a boiler suit and report to the plumber. Having absolutely no inkling of what was to follow I climbed into a clean boiler suit and made my way to the plumber’s shop. The plumber had a cheerful grin on his face and told me to gather up some spanners and follow him.

From the shop we made our way aft, and down into one of the lower holds. These spaces had not been converted into dormitories and were empty apart from amount of pig iron ballast and ship’s stored. Down the port side, about three quarters of the way up to the deck above, ran a large pipe sloping slightly down as it ran aft. On the inboard side there was a large, bolted, inspection plate.

The plumber explained that the pipe lead to one of the ship’s sewage plants, and that somewhere downstream there was a blockage, probably caused by something being flushed down a lavatory that should not have been. Our job, that is to say my job, was to remove the inspection plate so that a sani-snake could be inserted into the line to break up the obstruction.

To remove the plate I had to climb up the spar ceiling (wooden battens lining the side of the hold designed to prevent cargo from touching the ship’s side), hook an arm over the pipe to support myself, and undo the bolts. BUT, warned the plumber, there might be some pressure behind the plate, so I was to take out all but three and then slacken those off gradually, just in case.

Simple enough, so I did as instructed, and then began to slacken the last three bolts one quarter of a turn at a time. It was quite hard work balancing with my feet on the spar ceiling while keeping one arm wrapped around the pipe, but I kept at until finally I had all the bolts loose. The plate, however, was still firmly in place.

“Don’t worry lad,” called out the plumber. “It looks as if there’s no pressure in that line. Take this screwdriver,” he passed one up to me, “and wiggle the plate free with it.”

I put the spanners in my pocket, took the screwdriver and wiggled the tip in between the plate and the gasket. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the plumber retreating to the far side of the hold. Gently I pushed the edge of the screwdriver further in between the plate and the gasket. Up this close I noticed that the plate, the gasket and the pipe were all heavily painted. Clearly this plate had not been removed in some considerable time.

Nothing was happening so I pushed the screwdriver in firmly, and gave it a sharp jerk.

And immediately wished I hadn’t.

The old layers of paint that had been holding the plate in place gave way, and it slammed open against the three remaining bolts. Behind the plate was all the pent up pressure of the blocked sewage line, and now it had a way to relieve itself, spurting a foul smelling, brown, high pressure spray through the gap around the plate.

I ducked my head, screwed my eyes and mouth as tightly shut as I could, and hung grimly onto the pipe, waiting for the flood to subside. It seemed to go on forever, a high pressure sewage shower raining down over my head and into my boiler suit.

Finally the flow subsided into a smelly trickle and I was able to climb down the now very slippery spar ceiling to the deck. The plumber was trying very hard to contain his mirth, but then he noticed a soggy length of toilet paper wrapped over my right ear and completely lost it, doubling over and howling with laughter until the tears ran down his face.

I pulled the toilet paper off my ear and stood there, stinking and dripping, waiting for the plumber to compose himself. Seeing the disgusted look on my face he managed to pull himself together sufficiently to say.

“It might be shit to you lad, but that’s bread and butter to me … “

The rest of the sentence was swallowed up in another gale of laughter, and I took that as my cue to walk as fast as I could to the nearest shower, where I stepped in, boiler suit, boots and all, to wash myself clean of the plumber’s “bread and butter.’’

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