I joined the S. S. VIKING STAR belonging to the Blue Star Line of London, on the 1st of April and no one needs to remind me of the day. I travelled up from Liverpool in my brand new cadet's uniform (and, of course, it was too big to allow for my growing - let's remember it was the start of the worst part of the depression and money was hard to come by), but more about that later. I arrived in Newcastle and found that the ship was down the river in North Shields. I finally found my way there - it was raining hard, a filthy night, and my bag was heavy but I found a boy who toted it from the train to the Coal Staiths for 2 pennies. That was a walk of about two miles and a dirty one too.
My first sight of the ship really was a sickener. She had been laid up for nearly a year at the buoys and had just been taken off them to bunker (coal - so you can imagine, or can you, because I really don't think you can). She was a ship of about 8,000 tons flush decked, with a three-tier bridgehouse; number 3 hatch or the bunkers amidships and the afterhouse and fidley around the funnel which was large, had a dome top and looked awful. Coupled to the fact that she was rusty from end to end and covered with coal dust.
I found my way up the ladder and after stumbling through feet deep coal - and coal dust that was more like mud), I found myself in the officers' alleyway and managed to locate the cadets' room. My two mates were lying in all their glory - dungarees, coal dust, et al - in the lower of the four bunks. The room was thick with smoke, both ports were open, and it looked as if they had been open for the past year because everything was so dirty it was impossible to tell what colour the bulkheads were. I found they were both 3-year cadets and well experienced. They both suggested I should beat it home forthwith and, frankly, I think I would have done well to have done so. I was taken to see the "mate", a hard case "Georgy" who hated two things - the sea and "silly ass cadets." I got small change from him. I went to meet the Captain, a very old gentleman of over 71, who had shares in the company, had been an ex-Salining shipowner, and was in his dotage. He promptly forbade me to go ashore because the Tyne was full of pubs and loose women. Needless, to say, I stayed on board that night and earned the derision of my mates who came beck stoned and said they had had a fine time. I still wonder if they did, I was sent to bed after a very poor dinner, but it was all new to me and I think I put up with it and made as if I liked it, but doubted if I really did. The next day I was up at 5:00 a.m., got tea for the other two, shaving water and a bucket of water to bathe in, scrubbed out the room and bathroom--that really was a misnomer as it was about the size of a wardrobe, 3 feet by 3 feet and 6 feet high and there was nothing in it but cold air of which there was plenty, so we bathed in the room which, as I said, had four bunks in it, one settee like a shelf and nothing else. All our gear went into the spare bunk. I then went out on deck to try and clean up the mess, shovelled coal all day, had meals off the table in the pantry - and what meals! Ugh - weren't fit for pigs.
We left the coal berth, went to get water and on the 4th of April we sailed for the River Plate. What a trip! We shovelled coal all day and after it was out of one deck, we shovelled it into another deck and into the stoke hold.
The ship was a refrigerated cargo ship carrying chilled and frozen meat so the whole vessel below decks had to be cleaned to the most perfect standards in the 17 days taken to get to Buenos Aires. We were at it from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every night and we managed to get her to the state that we started loading, after a minute inspection, soon after we docked.
In Buenos Aires it was no stopping day and night, and in three days we had a half full ship. We went to Freybentos for frozen lamb and corned beef, then back to Buenos Aires for frozen offal (hearts, livers, etc.); then up to Rio for more meat thence to Santos for bananas. Not once did my feet touch the shore except to go on the quay to paint the hull. If we were not looking after cargo we were painting the hull and it was all very hard work. Food had improved and our room had been painted so it wasn't too bad but we knew no better and that's one reason, I think, we stuck it out.
The homeward-bound trip to London from Santos was chipping and painting, and get the ship to look something at least clean, because she was a vessel that no one could ever take pride in - she was just a misfit built after the first World War in depression periods, and was cheap and nasty in every way.
We were only four days in London and out again - no leave at all. So it went on with only one variation and that was in September when we changed our run and went out to the Pacific Coast to Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia, Everet, Tacoma, Portland and San Francisco, also to Los Angeles for fruit, fresh and tinned. After calling in Kingston for coal bunkers, we went to the Havre, Hamburg, Rotterdam and Copenhagen to discharge.
It was after the Christmas trip that I left the VIKING STAR and went to one of the best cargo ships in the Blue Star Line, the turbine flyer, SULTAN STAR. I will deal with her in my next letter - this rather wonderful ship which, for a number of years, held every cargo ship record to the Plate, Australia, New Zealand, and to the best of my knowledge, was never fully opened out but did over 24 knots while I was on her and she was a coal burner too.
It might interest you to know what I paid for my sea-going kit. I will give it to you in English money and will convert it later for you. Uniform, 60 shillings - shoes, 8 shillings - uniform cap, 4 shillings - badge, 3 shillings - socks, 9 pennies - ties (2) 7 shillings - bridge coat, 4 pounds - white uniforms, 30 shillings (top quality, too). My whole sea-going kit was 36-Pounds. 1 shilling at the present rate of exchange is 14-cents; 1-Pound is $2.58. The Captain's pay was 24-Pounds a month; the Chief Officer's, 18-Pounds; the Second Officer's, 15-Pounds; the Third Officer's, 12-Pounds; the 4th Officer's, 11-Pounds. The cadets were paid 5-Pounds and that was a huge sum as most cadets got 10 shillings a month. The Bosun was paid 9 1/2-Pounds; R.B., 8-3/4-Pounds; stewards, 7 1/2-Pounds and the Senior Captain in Cunard at that time got 550-Pounds a year.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.