On a cold morning in early January 1966, the Norwegian bulk carrier MS Holtefjell arrived at The Port of Vancouver. A few days later, she departed en route for Hamburg with a cargo of Canadian grain and a brand new deckhand.
At the age of nineteen, I was bound for Europe on my first great adventure.
My journey began soon after Holtefjell arrived in Burrard inlet. Security was lax in those days and I simply walked up the gangplank and boarded the vessel. Nobody paid me the slightest attention as I made my way to the back of the ship, up a few sets of stairs and finally to the impressive door labelled “Kaptein”. With a mix of fear and excitement, I knocked.
“Kommer i”, said the voice behind the door, and I stepped in to the carpeted hush of the Captain’s cabin. He was seated behind an impressive desk, apparently busy with paperwork.
“What can I do for you?”, he said.
“I’d like to work my way to Europe aboard your ship, sir”, I said, as confidently as I could.
He removed his glasses and eyed me carefully. “How old are you?”, he asked.
“I’m nineteen, sir”, I replied.
“And what makes you think I will allow you on board my ship?”
“I understand that the Captain is absolute master of his vessel and that he can hire and fire workers and sailors as he sees fit.” I’d been told this fact by a neighbor who worked the Port of Vancouver as a “supercargo”, an inspector charged with safe loading and unloading of cargoes on ships entering or leaving Vancouver.
“I see”, said the Captain.
He asked me a few more questions about my studies in school, what jobs I’d had, why I wanted to travel to Europe, whether my parents were aware of my intentions and, most significantly, whether or not I held a valid Canadian passport.
He ended our brief conversation with a simple instruction. “Come back to this office tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock and I’ll have an answer for you.” And with that, he returned to the work on his desk. I could barely believe what I’d heard. I thanked him for his time and backed out the door and into the companionway.
I floated down the stairs towards the main deck, scarcely able to believe my luck. He hadn’t said no! He hadn‘t dismissed my bold request with a perfunctory wave of his hand, he’d asked me to come back! I allowed myself a quick peek down a few corridors, and walked confidently around for a few moments, imagining the possibility that this vessel might transport me away from my childhood home to another continent. Impressed with the ship’s spotless interior, I listened for a few moments to the gentle hum of machinery and then beat a hasty retreat lest I be found out for the impostor and trespasser I surely was.
The cold, wet air of a Vancouver January greeted me as I descended the gangway to the dock. The inch-deep slush from a morning snowfall soaked my shoes as I walked along the dock, but I was oblivious to the discomfort. I turned and looked again at the vast bulk of Holtefjell as she lay dockside, huge conveyors feeding an endless torrent of Canadian grain into her holds. “Maybe”, I thought to myself as I turned away, “Just maybe, this dream will come true.”
For weeks, I’d been watching the Ships in Port column in the newspaper. This handy reference listed the schedule of every freighter that arrived or departed from Vancouver, including the ship’s name, origin, destination, cargo and most useful of all, the exact location in the harbour of each vessel. I was willing to accept anything bound for Europe, but my neighbor had advised me carefully.
He said that bigger, newer ships were better than old ones, that modern grain-transporting “bulk carriers” would have the best accommodations, that ships of the Scandinavian countries were undoubtedly the best maintained and on no account should I attempt travel on ships from either England or Greece.
Holtefjell fulfilled all the requirements. She was Norwegian, which meant she would be safe, clean and well-maintained. She was a bulk carrier, so good accommodations for the crew were likely, and at 36,000 tons, she was huge. In fact, she was at that time one of the largest ships ever to transit Vancouver. Best of all, she was brand, spanking new. In fact, she was on her maiden voyage. She’d travelled from the shipyard in Norway directly to the Far East, where she’d had some final installations to her electronics systems and then on to Vancouver. The grain I’d watched loading was her very first cargo. In short, she was absolutely perfect in all aspects.
I knocked on the Captain’s door at precisely one o’clock the next day and was greeted by the same “Kommer i” I’d heard before. With the Captain was another man, an officer by his uniform, and he remained seated as I entered and greeted the men.
The captain handed me a large brown envelope. “You must report to the Norwegian embassy either today or tomorrow morning and have these papers signed by the authorities there. Bring them back to me by tomorrow before noon. We sail tomorrow night.”
I was pretty sure he said “we” sail tomorrow night. My heart jumped, my eyes widened and I must have looked a little confused. After a moment of silence, he grinned at the other officer who then grinned at me as he stood and offered his hand.
“Welcome aboard”, he said.
I half-awoke to the sensation of being in an elevator. First I felt was ascending, perhaps to mens wear. Then, a few seconds later, descending again, maybe to furniture. The sensation repeated, over and over, up and down, slowly, as if in a dream.
Was I still dreaming? I opened my eyes and saw the unfamiliar surroundings of my tiny cabin, looking just as it did last night when I fell asleep. “Ah”, I said to myself. “You’re in the ship. You’re aboard the bulk carrier Holtefjell, and you’re on your way to Europe.
But why do I feel like I’m in an elevator?”
It all seemed impossible. The being-in-the-ship part made sense, I but why the elevator? I got out of my bunk and drew the curtain away from the tiny porthole and peered outside where I saw improbable things. The deck of the ship stretched away from me hundreds of feet into the distance, dull grey and drab. A seemingly endless row of hatches, open for nearly a week while the cargo of grain poured into the ship’s holds, were now closed. I saw nautical stuff; chains, capstans, levers, bollards and ventilation ports. Far ahead, on the fore peak, a flag-topped mast supported a ladder to a phone booth near the top. On the right hand edge of my view was a railing made of steel pipe, grey like nearly everything else on this winter morning.
And beyond the railing? Nothing but grey emptiness. In fact, it was the Pacific Ocean, the blurred horizon slowly rising and falling, first above the railing, then disappearing from sight below the deck. Only then did I understand the reason for my elevator dreams. As the ship rolled lazily in the swell, my location on the huge ship rose and fell perhaps twenty feet. This non-stop, slow motion elevator ride was soon to be my undoing.
Holtefjell had sailed near midnight and as soon as we’d passed under the Lions Gate Bridge at the harbour entrance, I’d retired to my cabin. Apparently the stress of departing on my first ever intercontinental journey had little effect on my ability to sleep, because I was unconscious until I awoke from my elevator dream some seven hours later.
A loud knocking on my cabin door was immediately followed by the face of a seaman peering through the doorway, apparently sent to ensure I was awake.
“Vakt”, he said in a loud voice, looking at me intensely and pointing at his watch. “One hour. Breakfast!”
I nodded understanding and he disappeared. His duty done, he left me to get dressed for my first day aboard ship. It turns out that “vakt” means “watch” in Norwegian. Not the kind of watch that you wear on your wrist, but the kind of watch that you stand while aboard ship. It was nearly time for me to report for work.
A few minutes later, as I climbed the several sets of stairs to breakfast, I noticed a vague sense of unease. Not quite dizziness, but disorienting and definitely not pleasant. I dismissed the feeling and strode confidently into the mess, where a dozen or so sailors were also beginning their day at sea.
I drew myself a coffee from a machine and sat at an empty place at one of the tables, unsure of how to proceed. A steward in a spotless white uniform was serving some of the other sailors and I sat patiently, awaiting my turn. I had no chance to order breakfast, it simply appeared in front of me. I noticed a few of the sailors smirking as I inspected my first meal aboard ship.
It looked appalling. The entire plate consisted of white blobs of unfamiliar gelatinous material surrounded by similar white blobs of what appeared to be boiled potatoes. It smelled awful. I mean really awful. Or offal, actually. As in long-dead stuff. I picked at the ugly mess and tried a small piece of potato. Soaked in melted butter, it was palatable, nearly tasteless, but like the rest of the the breakfast, it smelled absolutely horrible. The gelatinous material was lutefisk, a Norwegian specialty. My serving was apparently made from cod, which according to Wikipedia, has an “intensely offensive odor”. No kidding. My stomach heaved again, this time with more authority.
Made from dried fish soaked for several days in lye made from the ashes of birch trees, lutefisk is notorious. For my first day at sea, it seemed an unwise choice for breakfast, and as the vague sense of unease I’d experienced on the stairway had returned with a vengeance, I decided to forego the lutefisk and instead chose a piece of dry toast to go with my coffee.
I noticed the sailors snickering among themselves and I realized the truth. I’d been had. I grinned ruefully and toasted them with my coffee.
I reported to the bosun, a chief petty officer and manager of the ship’s deck crew. He gathered several of us together and instructed us in the use of the large fire hoses that were coiled on the deck. We needed to erase all traces of the dirt and detritus of urban Vancouver from the ship and our job for the next few hours was to hose down the exterior of the entire ship with seawater.
As he talked, my mind wandered. I looked out at the vast empty ocean and briefly contemplated my situation. Here I was, still in my teens, with little experience of the real world, expected to perform like a grownup. There was nobody here to help. Nobody’s shoulder to cry on, just me. I realized that I needed to do well here on my first real job alone in the world.
The feeling of unease returned. My stomach heaved again and my head swam.
I should have paid better attention, for now things were moving fast. Hoses were uncoiled and attached to spigots on the deck. Several men grasped the hoses at intervals along their length. I fell into place at one hose and waited to see what would happen next. Valves were opened and the hoses came alive. They were like wild things, thrashing and writhing as the pumps began to work. We were expected to tame these beasts.
And we did, eventually. Or at least, the crew did. I was simply along for the ride. One sailor, who’d apparently been through this ritual before, manned the business end, aiming a high velocity stream of water with cunning accuracy. The rest of us simply held on for dear life, keeping the hose at bay while he did most of the thinking.
Several other crews were similarly engaged with the washdown procedure elsewhere on the vast expanse of decks. It certainly made sense. I could see black, dirty water washing over the side, the remnants of Vancouver’s sooty air and dirty longshoremen’s footprints disappearing into the ocean. Once that dirt was gone, there’d be none left to track into the ship’s interior. Other crews were similarly engaged inside, cleaning everything in sight. For the rest of the voyage, the ship remained spotless, inside and out.
We worked all morning. Holtefjell was huge, some eight hundred feet overall, and the decks seemed endless, but by noon I was done. My watch was over. My seasickness had steadily increased during the morning and by noon I was all too ready to leave the rest of the crew to finish the job. All I wanted to do was retire to my bunk and the blessed relief of horizontality.
I got a little sleep that afternoon and it was with dismay that I awoke to the same loud knocking at my cabin door and the grizzled face of another sailor informing me that I was due back on deck. It was nearly 8 PM, the beginning of the second half of my watch.
I struggled to the upper decks, my head and stomach even more woozy than before, and I was told by the bosun that, for this half of my watch, my duties would be supervised by the officers in command of the ship. I was to report to the bridge.
More companionways eventually led me to the highest point of the ship’s accommodations, the navigation bridge. There, I saw the captain and the officer who first had bid me “welcome aboard” just two short days ago.
They looked at me with ill-concealed amusement. I apparently looked a little green. “Not feeling well?” asked the officer. “Don’t worry. It will pass. Did you have any supper?”
Supper, in fact food of any kind, was the last thing I wanted. The only thing I did want was to return to the blessed comfort of my bunk, but that was not going to happen.
The officer explained that the evening segment of my watch would consist of two sections. I’d do two hours in the bridge steering the ship, and two hours in the little phone booth I’d seen at the top of the mast on the bow. There, I’d be lookout. My sole responsibility was to watch for lights and report their presence to the bridge by the telephone which I was assured was hanging on the wall.
I’d do one hour of lookout followed by an hour of steering and I’d repeat that process for the duration of my four hour watch, ending at midnight.
“Any questions?” asked the Captain.
Too intimidated and too nauseous to even think, let alone ask intelligent questions, I demurred.
“Right. Off you go then. Your first duty is bow lookout on the foremast. Give us a communications test when you’re inside the lookout station. And get something to eat. It’ll help settle your stomach.”
Taking the Captain’s advice, I set off in search of something to eat. The time for real supper had long since passed and the mess was dark and empty, so I retrieved a can of Coke and a Mars bar from the emergency rations I’d stashed in my cabin.
I stepped outside onto the deck and into the pitch dark of the winter night. Armed with a flashlight and my make-do supper I began the long walk to the fore peak. It took a few minutes and as I walked, the cool, fresh ocean air seemed to wash away the seasickness and I began to feel better. The reality, the absolute immediacy of my situation washed over me. I felt elated and proud and scared and delighted all at once.
I arrived at the fore peak and stood at the bottom of the ladder, gazing up at the phone booth fifty feet above and contemplated my next move.
I stood alone near the bow of the ship, examining my work station thirty feet above me on the mast. You can see the lookout’s position in the image above, on the foremast among the flags.
From the deck, I could barely make out the shape of Holtefjell, her blunt businesslike shape looming ever so slightly darker against the black sky. I was suddenly aware that it was very quiet. Now that I was far removed from the constant low grumble of the engine far aft, I could hear only the swish of the ocean as it moved past the hull nearby. I hesitatingly began to climb the thirty-odd feet up the ladder, my bare hands gripping the cold steel.
“Gloves”, I thought. “I should have brought gloves”.
This was the middle sixties, long before such concepts as ladder safety were common. Protected by nothing but my death grip on the ladder and buoyed by the invulnerability of youth, I soon reached the door to the metal cell that was to be my home for the next hour. I gratefully climbed inside and the door clanged shut behind me. I latched the sea door closed and turned off my flashlight.
I was inside a vertical metal cylinder about three feet in diameter. It was much smaller than it appeared from the deck and there was barely enough room to stand. Although it had several small windows, there was nothing to see. It was pitch black everywhere I looked. There was also nowhere to sit, so there was nothing to do but stand and look. That’s what you do as a lookout, right?
As my eyes gradually adapted to the dark, I became aware of the telephone hanging on the wall and I remembered my instruction to call the bridge when I’d arrived.
“Bridge”, said the tinny voice in the earpiece.
“Um”, I said.
I should have thought more about what to say. I gathered my wits, intent on doing this correctly.
“Bow lookout reporting on station. No lights visible. Horizon clear.”
“Roger”, said the voice. There was an electrical click, and the earpiece went silent.
Tom Clancy would have been proud of me.
And there I was — lookout. Alone with my thoughts in a tin can halfway up the mast of a freighter, somewhere a hundred miles off the coast of Oregon.
My job was to look for lights, but there were none, save the three lights barely visible far aft aboard Holtefjell. On either side were single red and green lights, and sitting high above on its own mast, a white one. The dim, coloured lights were navigation lights, indicating the port and starboard sides of the ship. The white light on the mast was far brighter, and it was those white lights I was to look for on the horizon. That specific type of navigation light, located on the highest point of the vessel, appears over the horizon before anything else and is the first indication of a ship’s presence.
Ooooh. My stomach heaved. My head swam. The seasickness was returning.
In the lookout’s station, the ship’s rolling was far worse. Distracted by the novelty of my situation, I’d been able to ignore this motion, now considerably amplified by my position high above the deck. I attempted to ignore the horrid feelings and concentrated instead on the empty blackness outside.
To no avail. The symptoms intensified. I recalled the earlier advice I’d been given about eating something to help settle my stomach, so I pulled out my mars bar and the coke and ate my first solid food since that single piece of dry toast at breakfast, a lifetime ago.
Years later, I’d received similar advice while shooting a training film for an ocean rescue lifeboat operated by the Canadian Coast Guard. The tiny vessel was intended to survive heavy seas and it had a particularly round bottom shape, designed so that it would roll right over rather than founder. This characteristic made it roll continuously and extensively that day in the waters off the coast of British Columbia and the rolling motion was making me ill. Mentally, I cursed the naval architect, author of my discomfort.
I was shooting with a film camera and, much like reading in a moving car, the combination of looking through the viewfinder and the vessel’s motion conspired to make me extremely seasick. This was not a good situation, since I had no option but to continue working. I did manage to continue, but only between seemingly endless bouts of heaving the ever-decreasing contents of my stomach over the side.
The lifeboat’s Captain, ever helpful and sympathetic, said to me between barf sessions: “Peter, do you know the absolute best thing to take for seasickness?”
“Uh, no”, I said, wiping my chin.
“Really?”, I said, feigning interest.
“Yep. Tastes just the same coming up as it does going down.”
And so it was that night in my little lookout’s cell. As the relentless motion of the ship increasingly occupied my attention, my make-do supper began to make itself unwelcome inside me. I barely had time to get the heavy steel door open before, in a single endless jet, I vomited the Mars bar and the coke outwards, into the darkness.
Strangely enough, ejecting the mars bar and the can of Coke from my stomach into the Pacific night made me feel much better.
The rest of my hour in the lookout station passed without further incident either nautical or intestinal, and I spent the time in quiet contemplation while I scanned the horizon for lights. After my allotted hour had elapsed, it was time to leave my little metal cell.
As I climbed carefully back down to the deck, I happily saw no remnants of my supper anywhere on the ladder or on deck and I began my walk back down the length of the ship full of optimism. My motion sickness seemed to be abating and I was on my way to the next part of my evening watch. This second hour I’d spend in a much more interesting and friendly environment on the navigation bridge.
If there’s one type of film set that cameramen universally enjoy lighting and shooting, it’s a control room. They are very special places, full of mystery and high tech intrigue. Dark spaces punctuated with the dim light of electronics and glowing screens, barely-visible characters engaged in hushed conversation while hunched over exotic technical instruments make for great storytelling, interesting lighting and challenging film making. It’s all very cool and technological.
Although my chance to light a ship’s bridge at night was still in the distant future, tonight, the mystery and intrigue were immediate and real. I entered the navigation bridge silently, reverently, through the chart room at the rear. The bridge stretched nearly the full width of the ship and was filled with radar screens, compasses, engine instruments and wall to wall windows, all black and mysterious. With their backs to me stood the Captain, the officer of the deck and, in the exact center of the bridge, a third person, a seaman. He was the helmsman, and it was him that I’d come to relieve.
The helmsman stood behind a console that looked much like a lectern. He faced forward, his gaze moving between the officer and me. He was obviously glad to see me because my arrival signified his freedom. The officer nodded and he left without a word. We would trade places and he was bound for the lookout’s position in the tiny metal cell I’d just left. I was grateful that I’d left no trace of my stomach’s contents on the ladder.
The Captain left the bridge, too, leaving just me and the officer, a man about ten years older than me, dressed in an official uniform with a white shirt and tie. He had just one stripe on his sleeve. A junior officer and a relative newcomer to the world of ocean-going commerce.
“How are you feeling?”, he asked in excellent English.
“Much better, sir”, I replied. And it was the truth.
“Good”, he said, beckoning me over to the helmsman’s station. He took the wheel himself and began to me how to steer this eight hundred foot long, thirty-six thousand ton bulk carrier through the night.
In daylight, the ship steered itself. Once the desired course was input, some wizardry of gyroscopes or compasses did the work automatically. Remember, this is the mid-sixties, well before computers, so a ship’s autopilot was fairly advanced technology at the time. But its reliability was as yet unproven and at night, the rules governing navigation dictated that the ship must be under manual control. That’s where I came in.
The ship was steered by a spoked, shiny metal wheel about a foot in diameter. Turning the wheel drove the rudder left or right until you stopped its movement by re-centering the wheel. The rudder stayed where you put it until you moved it back with an opposite movement of the steering wheel. An indicator showed the current rudder position much like a hand on a clock face. Midships rudder was an arrow pointing straight up, and port or starboard rudder was indicated by the arrow pointing anywhere between ten and two on the dial.
A few feet ahead of the helmsman’s station, mounted on the ceiling above the windows was a display about two feet wide and a foot high. This was the course indicator. A horizontal row of numbers inside the box slid to left and right, and the ship’s current course was indicated by a vertical red bar on the center of the display, on top of the numbers. My job was to keep the correct number exactly centered under the red bar. Currently, we were offshore Lincoln City, Oregon and our desired course was 180 degrees. Due south.
A huge vessel like Holtefjell takes a long time to respond to steering inputs, so it took a little while to get the hang of steering. Once you’ve detected that you’re off course, it may take a half minute or so for the result of the rudder input to appear on the course indicator. Making things more complicated, the row of numbers didn’t remain still. As the ship rolled from side to side, the numbers moved from side to side, too, varying as much as five degrees with each roll. The actual course steered wasn’t immediately apparent, you had to average the swings over time.
Like any newbie, at first I over corrected and, after several wild swings in direction, I gradually learned to make small corrections and patiently await their results. If you’re not paying attention and forget to return the rudder to zero (midships), the ship will continue to turn, quickly increasing the error, requiring bigger, faster corrections in the opposite direction to get you back on course. Things can get out of hand quite quickly.
All of this is apparent to anyone watching, because the course indicator is front and center on the bridge. My lack of skill was obvious to both of us as the numbers slid wildly off course as I fought to learn to steer. The officer said little. He just pretended not to watch.
All too soon, my hour on the navigation bridge was up and the other seaman returned from the lookout station. We exchanged places, he took over steering and I spent another hour watching for lights from the little cell on the mast. This was followed by another hour on the bridge and at midnight my evening watch was done. I gratefully fell into my bunk, my first day at sea finally over.
“Vakt!”, said the voice, accompanied by familiar loud knocking on my door. This time, no face appeared. I had twenty minutes to get ready for work.
Breakfast on my second morning at sea was much more familiar and much more appealing than my first. The lutefisk never reappeared, and I ate a welcome meal of cereal, coffee, toast and fruit. My seasickness had completely disappeared and I was famished.
There were three other “workaways” on board. Australians, they were travelling together and had been hired like me to work their way to Europe. Unlike me, they shared a regular four-man seaman’s cabin. I was lucky enough to be assigned one of the single bed accommodations reserved for the owners when they were aboard. The Aussies worked a regular eight hour deck crewman’s day and didn’t stand watch as lookout or helmsman. They were several years older than me and they kept to themselves, seemingly slightly resentful of my special treatment. Smug little asshole that I was, I didn’t discourage their attitude. After breakfast the four of us received our next assignment.
Holtefjell’s fifty-foot wide hatches were covered by huge sliding doors, operated by massive, heavy chains pulled by winches. All told, there were several hundred feet of these chains, each one composed of steel links six inches wide and each link weighing probably ten pounds. Since this was the ship’s maiden voyage, these chains were brand new and were protected by the manufacturer with a layer of thick, sticky black grease. This was inadequate long term protection against rust, so the deck crew’s job for the foreseeable future was to remove all of the grease and paint the chains, first with “red lead”, something probably forbidden today, then a finish coat of dull green to match the rest of the ship. Finally, we’d re-apply a thick coating of grease.
Equipped with wire brushes, pails of solvent, paint, various brushes and box after box of wiping rags, we began the task of dissolving the grease from the chains with the solvent, cleaning the bare links with wire brushes and painting them. Like painting a picket fence, painting chain links is endlessly frustrating. They’re all weird, inaccessible shapes and each link seemed to take forever. With no music on headphones, no podcasts or audiobooks or Internet radio, I was trapped inside my thoughts dwelling on the noxious nature of the work. From the beginning, I hated it. I sang Merle Haggard and Beatles songs to keep my spirits up.
Day by day as we progressed southward, the sun rose higher in the sky and the days became hotter and the work cleaning and painting ever more unpleasant. By noon each day, I was more than happy to abandon the others to the chain maintenance tasks. I had the entire afternoon off until 8 PM to do as I pleased and I welcomed the respite inside the cool interior of the ship during the hottest part of the day.
The work painting the chains was endless. One particularly hot morning, a half hour before noon, I found myself working alone on a section of chain well apart from the others. This bit of chain was hidden in a little alcove among the machinery, seemingly out of sight. Or so I hoped. In a moment of extreme laziness and poor judgement, I decided to forego the solvent and the wire brushing and the laborious removal of the grease, and I’d just paint over the existing stretch of chain, grease and all. Nobody would ever notice, right? Not in this tiny corner of the ship. I hastily painted over the greasy bit of chain, gathered up my tools and beat it for lunch.
I returned to my cabin after the end of my watch at midnight and I was surprised to find a small figure hanging from the door knob of my cabin. It was a barely-recognizable human figure, a crude sculpture made of twisted, paint-stained rags tied with string. It dangled by its neck from my door knob by a noose – a hangman’s noose. A note was pinned to the figure. It said, “And so shall Peter hang if he ever paints over greasy chain again”.
The horrible truth struck me. This little figure, this voodoo doll, was me. My ill-advised strategy to escape work had failed. Rather than have my work shirking remain forever a secret, I’d been busted within a few hours, Humiliated, I had to face the Australians and seek forgiveness. The pain of that conversation remains with me to this very day. I learned a valuable lesson from my poor attitude and I resolved to be a team player in future. You haven’t lived until you’ve discovered yourself hung in effigy.
A week or so passed, and each day moved us nearly five hundred miles farther south. We were in the subtropics now.
The days were hot and my previously cold and wet nightly journey down the deck to the lookout station had become a gentle stroll through the balmy night. By day, the steel deck was like a griddle, but in the evening it ran with condensation wrung from the humid air.
Albatross soared overhead, hitching a ride on the disturbed air from our passage. Flying fish, to me a mythological animal until I saw them with my own eyes, jumped from wave to wave, sometimes leaping so high that they stranded themselves on the deck. Huge yellowfin tuna sometimes cruised alongside, effortlessly keeping formation with us as we cruised at about fifteen knots.
Holtefjell had what’s called a “bulbous bow”. Rather than a sharp, cutting edge, the pointy end was really quite round, an almost spherical shape that ship designers had recently decided was more efficient at parting the waters. Dolphins discovered that the pressure waves created by the bulbous bow made for excellent underwater surfing and you could nearly always see several of them, cavorting just ahead of us. At the bow was a portal about two feet in diameter where the hawsers exited the ship at dockside. I found that if I laid right down on the deck, I could put my head and shoulders through the hole and looking straight down, watch for hours as the dolphins danced in the clear water thirty feet below.
We even had a swimming pool. Located aft, behind the ship’s mess and high above the main deck, it offered a commanding view of the surrounding ocean and our wake, trailing back to the northern horizon. When the weather warmed, the crew filled it with seawater and soon we had our own “steel beach”, complete with deck chairs and a barbeque. The water was warm and very salty, but a welcome treat, especially at night. It always amuses me to see photographs of swimming pools aboard cruise ships. Theirs are always in exactly the same place as ours.
Food aboard ship was excellent. Stewards served us graciously and there was always plenty of tasty items to keep us happily fed. The cooks were especially expert at pastry, and served with fresh, hot European-style coffee, I was a happy sailor.
Except for the chains. Every day, all morning, the chains were my taskmaster. My journal from the voyage complains endlessly about them. In fact, we were still working on the chains as we passed the Azores, nearly three weeks later.
My lazy shirking of chain painting responsibility had left me feeling low, but I did manage to recover somewhat, thanks to the officer with whom I shared my watch. The evening before our arrival at the Panama Canal, he saved my sorry ass with a single sheet of paper.
The evening portion of my watch was by far the most enjoyable. While the daytime hours were consumed by the endless work of scrubbing, wire-brushing and painting chains, evenings were spent either on the fore peak working lookout, or on the navigation bridge, steering. Lookout duties were a solitary affair, but my time at the wheel was a companionable time. I spent my time on the bridge with the officer of the watch, David, and he and I we were always alone together for two of the hours each night from 8 to midnight.
Steering had become second nature for me now. By carefully watching the compass, I was able to anticipate exactly how much rudder to apply and when to cancel it out. It had become a game that I played subconsciously. As a result, David and I were free to occupy ourselves with conversation during the long evenings, and there were plenty of topics to discuss. Holtefjell herself was endlessly fascinating for me. A state of the art bulk carrier, she represented the best of nautical engineering for the middle sixties. Although an expensive vessel, I was amazed to learn that our single cargo of grain that far exceeded her cost of manufacture.
Many years later, I attempted to locate her in a register of shipping in the Vancouver Public Library. She was nowhere to be found. I was amazed and somewhat depressed to find that my dear friend had undoubtedly long since been scrapped. The useful lifespan of vessels like her is about twenty years.
Her propeller was a variable-pitch system, among the first vessels to employ this technology. Previously, if you wanted to reduce speed, you had to communicate with the boys below decks and ask them to slow the engine. That’s where commands like “Make your revolutions zero nine-five.” come from. Holtefjell lost or gained speed with a simple twist of a controller on the bridge. The engine continued to run at a constant speed, but the propeller changed pitch, effectively changing gears.
We navigated with the brand-new Decca Navigator. This system relied on a global network of transmitters, each one broadcasting a specific coded message. Restricted to areas near coastlines, the system correlated the messages from two or more transmitters and located Holtefjell’s position within a few miles. Once far from land, you were on your own. Compare that with GPS, which locates ships within a few feet nearly anywhere on the globe. Crossing the Atlantic, we were out of reach of the Decca transmitters and we had to rely on dead reckoning or celestial navigation.
To check on the accuracy of the Decca Navigator, and to refresh his celestial navigation skills, David decided that we’d take a sun shot. One afternoon while we were both off watch, we used a clock and a sextant, an instrument employed by navigators since the fourteenth century. It took us nearly half an hour to take the measurements and plot our position on the chart, but the result agreed with the electronic system within a mile or so. Close enough for jazz. A fascinating, way to spend an afternoon, especially since I’d just finished a few months earning the money for this adventure by working as a land surveyor’s assistant.
Our nightly discussions of navigation, international trade, life in Europe, engineering and a thousand other topics were a revelation to me, a city kid just out of high school. I was full of questions and the world was full of answers. I was rushing headlong toward adulthood.
We were eleven days out of Vancouver, off the coast of Panama and nearing the Canal Zone when halfway through the watch, David stood at a nearby console and flicked a few switches, temporarily putting us on autopilot.
“Come with me”, he said. “I have something I’d like to show you.”
I followed him into the chart room, just aft of the bridge, and he handed me a piece of what appeared to be graph paper. It was about two feet long and six inches wide and was covered with a fine web of blue gridlines. A red wiggly line was drawn down the center from one end to the other.
“That’s our course plot”, he said.
It was the output of a strip chart recorder, a device that plotted a record of our course over time. The desired course was at the center of the chart and wiggly line showed how far off course we’d been.
“That’s the plot of the auto pilot”, he said.
“Pretty good”, I said.
He then produced another, shorter chart with a similar red line down the center, except that it was much more wiggly, showing our course deviating significantly away from center.
“That’s a record of manual steering”, he said.
I had no idea such a record existed. If there were records of other sailors, there was undoubtedly a record of my steering, too. Was this my steering? I was mentally preparing myself for another fall from grace similar to the chains incident a few days ago.
“Here’s a sample of your steering”, he said, laying on the table a third chart; a chart of me.
I was amazed. And delighted. My little red line was nearly perfectly straight. I’d done a better job than the autopilot. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and looked at David. He was grinning, much like he did that day back in Vancouver when he’d welcomed me aboard.
“I showed this plot to the captain yesterday”, he said, “He was impressed. He has a special job for you. Tomorrow, at the beginning of watch, you must report to the bosun”.
The view outside my porthole the next morning was considerably changed. For the first time in ten days we were motionless. Holtefjell lay at anchor, surrounded by dozens of other ships all awaiting their turn to enter the Panama Canal.
After breakfast, I reported to the bosun as instructed. He handed me a box of clean cotton wiping rags and a large can of metal polish and said “On the fore peak is the ship’s bell. You are to polish it.”
No chains for me today. I had a new job, one I didn’t fully understand until later in the day. The bell was made of brass and about a foot in diameter. Dull, weathered yellow, it had never been polished since it left the factory. As we weighed anchor, and took up our place in line for the canal, I set to work.
In mid morning we sailed under the Bridge of the Americas which joins the two continents at Panama city, entered the Miraflores locks and began the first stage of our 12 hour canal journey between two oceans.
Completed in 1914, The Panama Canal is termed by the American Society of Civil Engineers “One of the seven wonders of the modern world.”
It is an amazing feat of engineering. Following the loss of over 20,000 lives (mainly to tropical disease) and the expenditure of nearly 300 million dollars, two attempts at construction by the French were abandoned after thirteen years work in 1894. Later, American interests took up the challenge and, following contentious negotiations between Colombia, the US and the new country of Panama, the canal finally opened for business on Aug 15, 1914. All told, the canal cost over $10 billion in today’s dollars. It has proved a good investment. In 2018, it can cost over a million dollars for a single vessel to use the canal. The tariff depends on the vessel’s size and the type and quantity of the cargo.
We were a tight fit – Holtefjell was then among the largest ships permitted to transit the canal in 1966. I enjoyed the show as a team of electric locomotives winched the vessels into and out of the locks in a coordinated ballet of men and machinery. It was only after I’d spent a couple of hours polishing the bell that I realized the wisdom and generosity of the Captain. The bell’s position on the bow was the ideal spot for me to watch the action.
In the afternoon, I witnessed the payment for our use of the canal. In those days, and also nearly thirty years later when I again transited the canal, the payment system was rudimentary: cash only – And US dollars, please. I watched amazed as tens of thousands of dollars in cash were counted out on a cafeteria table and transferred from Holtefjell’s purser to the canal agent, who carried off the loot in a nondescript briefcase.
One interesting fact was related by the pilot, a local expert who came aboard to help navigate the tricky passage. He told us that the sun rises on the Pacific side of the canal before the Atlantic side. It’s true. Check out the map. It’s a good way to win a bar bet.
We arrived at the Atlantic side after dark, where we took on fuel at a lonely and desolate dock. I had no lookout or steering duties that night and, although many of the crew went ashore, David advised me to remain aboard. “The town’s name of Colon is appropriate”, he jested. “Besides, it’s a dangerous place if you’re unfamiliar with the ways of this part of the world.” It had been a long but fascinating day. Holtefjell’s bell was shiny, I was tired and my first ocean crossing began tomorrow. I took his advice and retired early to my bunk.
The trans-Atlantic portion of the journey took nearly two weeks.
My first ocean crossing proved mostly uneventful. I’d got used to the steady routine of painting chains and my nautical duties in the evening and the days passed slowly. Too slowly. My youthful impatience became overwhelming. I wanted to get there.
Somewhere in the Bay of Biscay we got some bad news. We were notified that our berth in Hamburg was temporarily unavailable and we were instructed to delay our arrival. Worse, a day later when we finally entered the English Channel, dense fog reduced visibility to near zero. We crawled along the word’s most densely-trafficked maritime corridor, occasionally glimpsing other ships that passed alarmingly close by, all the while listening to the monotonous bleating of hundreds of fog horns. I was growing crazy with anticipation. It was taking forever.
Finally, one morning at dawn we entered the Elbe River estuary and moved slowly up the narrow channel. We were still fog-bound and, although I could see nothing but grey mist, the smells and sounds of Europe surrounded me. I could hear car horns, traffic, even voices – foreign voices! Every sense except sight was saturated with Europe. I was beside myself with anticipation.
After an hour of this torture, the fog began to lift and I could see Europe at last. Disappointingly, my first view of Europe consisted of dreary docks, skeletal cargo cranes and black, cold water. It all looked different, yet strangely familiar.
We made fast to a grain cargo facility and for the first time in weeks, Holtefjell’s engine was stilled. It was time to leave. In the Captain’s office I signed a few papers acknowledging my discharge, including my pay of one Norwegian crown, bid goodbye to the friends I’d made and rode a tiny water taxi across the harbour to Hamburg.
By noon, I was standing on firm ground again, my feet squelching in a few inches of fresh, slushy snow. It reminded me of that day in Vancouver a few short weeks ago when I’d boarded Holtefjell for the first time. But now, with that brief taxi ride, I’d gone from one continent to another and from my cozy, familiar home, to a new land where I knew not one soul.
It was, even for a teenager, a striking moment. For a few minutes, I stood there in the cold, damp European winter and considered my situation and my options.
It didn’t take long to make up my mind. I decided to search out the train station and book passage to the land of my birth: England.