The Araluen, featured on an Australian marine website.

The ship was the Trinder Anderson tramp the Araluen which I joined in Belfast as Second Mate in 1967 subsequent to it being ‘jumboized’, which in those days meant having an extra hold welded into the middle of it, turning it from a five hatch ship into a six hatch ship. Actually the process had not gone totally according to plan. The shipyard had not bothered to check the stability of the bow section, so in order of operation, they had cut the ship in two aft of number two hatch, filled the dock with water, opened the gate and started to float the bow out, but it had fallen over, trapping the gate open. It took some time to fix, and thereafter the pointed end of the ship seemed to be angled slightly to starboard.

I was 24, still a young man, but by then fortunately had had some experience, having navigated sugar boats across the Atlantic a few times and on one occasion taken the Crystal Crown to Duluth at the head of Lake Superior and from there to Beira in East Africa; so I was not daunted by the fact that our voyage was to be from Rotterdam to south China, although before joining the ship I had been encouraged to sign on by the suggestion that it was to go to Australia.

Those of you with a bit of a feel for Middle-Eastern history may remember that 1967 was the year of the Six Day War, when the Israelis trounced the Egyptians in a brief conflict. I have read some accounts of the war that suggest that the Egyptians were caught unawares when the Israelis carried out a pre-emptive strike, but I remember that as the Araluen was transiting the canal we could see the Egyptian army digging in on their side of the waterway, and also the pilot telling us that they were going to win, with no trouble, so that  can’t have been quite right. What is undisputed is that the Israeli airforce carried out a strike which disabled all Egyptian aircraft.

We, on the Araluen, left the canal and set off down the Red Sea, within an hour or two hearing behind us the noise of heavy artillery, and then seeing vessels that had been intending to go north through the canal, drifting about while waiting for instructions. The convoy, composed of 15 ships, which went in as we left was to be trapped in the Bitter Lakes for eight years. It became known as “The Yellow Fleet”.

The captain had, one might say, already shown his true colours when he expressed a lack of trust in the autopilot, and so the wheel was manned at all times, and out of sight of land he insisted on taking a sight at noon with the Third Mate and I.  He never indicated whether this was due to lack of trust in me or just because he was fond of the task but we did not like it, if for no other reason than it took him a lot longer to work it out that it took us, which usually made us late for lunch. But as we made our way down the Red Sea I saw that at noon on one day the sun would be virtually overhead, which gave us the opportunity of using “Captain Anderson’s Method”. The technique required us to take three altitudes at predetermined times about five minutes apart, and since the sun was passing directly overhead, three position lines would be achieved, providing a precise location for the ship. The Third Mate and I had done all the work for the sights, so all we had to do was take the three altitudes at the appropriate intervals. The captain arrived on the bridge and while we were doing our thing he took a conventional noon sight. As a consequence we produced a result in moments and had to wait for fifteen minutes while he did his calculations. When he found out what I had programmed he walked away and never joined us at noon again.

His involvement in the navigation of the ship did not however come to an end at that moment. I had drawn all the lines on the chart to take us from Rotterdam to China skirting the southernmost point of Sri Lanka and then going onwards towards the Malacca Strait. Once we were in the open waters of the Indian Ocean it appeared that the captain had an aversion to following the lines I had drawn, and once the non position had been pencilled on the chart he would alter course in what seemed to me to be a random direction, but maybe it seemed like that to him as well, because later in the day he would probably appear on the bridge again and make another alteration, and later another, so that when it came to the tiime for my morning sight I had a dog leg of courses and dead reckoning positions to deal with. But I would manage to put a cross on the chart at noon, and then he would start again from that point. We also found that while he seemed to have not trust in my navigation he would respond to external inputs, and so if I wanted us to set a course to starboard of what was currently being followed, the Third Mate and I would tell him we had seen ships on the starboard horizon, and off he would go. And we never to got to see Sri Lanka at all, we left it about 50 miles to port.

We arrived at the port of Zhanjiang with our full cargo of urea (crystalised cow’s piss to most of us), which was a long way from the political centre of China, with no further problems, naturally making our way northward many miles off the coast of Vietnam, then at the height of the war. Oddly once in China, the local football team challenged the ship to a game, and since we had a white crew we managed to put eleven players together. On the day of the event hundreds of people turned out to watch, although I don’t remember who won.

Those with a feel for Chinese history will remember that by 1967 the Cultural Revolution, and all that entailed, was taking place, One of the results of this was that much of the formal administration of the country had broken down,  including the lighthouses on the coast. When we left Zhanjiang we were aware of this, but it was still my job to get us to our next port of call which was to be Shanghai, and the Araluen was required to skirt the jagged coastline of the Chinese mainland for several days, passing between it and the island of Taiwan. We were hampered by the fact that the radar was broken down due a fault in the aerial and the ship was so light that there was insufficient draught forward for the echo sounder to work. Neither of these technical difficulties would have constituted a major problem had it not been for the weather conditions which, unusually, consituted a thick fog, combined with gale force winds.

We struggled northwards, and since we had the China Sea Pilot, one of the multiple volumes produced by the Admiralty Hydrographic Department, intended to assist with navigation all over the world, we had available to us drawings of many of the small islands of which the Chinese coast is composed. We therefore hoped that by edging in towards the land during daylight we might see an island, and therefore identify our position; but no luck.

Eventually our dead reckoning position put us north of Taiwan, and I attempted to convince the master that he should turn the ship round, so that I could get a position with the radio  direction finder, using the aircraft beacons on the island.  The DF aerial was helpfully placed just ahead of the funnel. But the captain refused for no reason that I could readily understand and so we trogged on seeing nothing except for the occasional junk ghosting silently past us under sail.

Came a time when for some reason the captain thought that maybe some effort should be made to repair the radar, and so the radio operator was instructed to climb the mast and see what he could do. He pointed out that it would be really difficult for him to do this considering the head wind, and so the captain turned the ship round. At last I was to have the opportunity of getting a position so without further ado I dashed into the chartroom and managed to get the bearings of two Taiwan beacons – this just before the captain appeared behind me and switched off the set. But I had been successful and I immediately plotted the position on the chart. The captain elbowed me to one side and drew a course from my new position towards the approaches to Shanghai.

Back in 1967 the commercial traffic on the Yangze consisted mainly of junks, and to get the ship to its berth it was necessary to employ a boat going ahead of it to clear the way. We were the only western ship in the port and we were assaulted for 19 hours a day by martial music and shouting in Chinese so loud that we could not hear ourselves speak, and had a vew of dockside buildings several stories high completely painted in slogans. On the river ferry boats passed with hundreds of young people dressed in blue workgear, waving little red books. Whether this was a display for us alone or for the population as a whole we never found out.

We were allowed ashore and were directed towards a store where all sorts of stuff could be purchased and to what had once been the Shanghai Club, well known as the foremost watering hole for the toffs of the Far East. It was now a seaman’s club; what a fall from grace! There was no sign that our exploration was limited, but we were never sufficiently enthusiastic to try to go anywhere else. At the seaman’s club we could buy beer, and at the shop we could buy such things as Chinese tea mugs, and be given posters and magazines mainly showing the villanous American soldiers killing the innocent Vietnamese. Although we exchanged our British pounds for Chinese currency there were no Arabic, or even Roman numerals on the banknotes, and we learnt to use the illustrations as a means of determining value, for instance ten tractors probably made a combined harvester. (How much was that beer? Two tractors. Wow, good value and so on).

Eventually our cargo of rice was loaded and without any feeling of regret we set sail for Dakar in West Africa, now with the radar repaired, but being banned from using it by the captain who thought that there were only so many hours in it before it would break down again. But this was no problem for me because it was an early transistorised model, and so was silent in operation. I could switch it on, get a position and then switch it off again without the captain finding out.

On the homeward passage the captain once more refused ever to follow a line I had drawn on the chart and I was fortunate to be on the bridge during the 12-4 when he came up and altered course to collide  with the Horsburgh Light. Later we were sailing north through the Malacca Strait in the middle of the night when he appeard on the bridge and altered course again to go aground on a shoal, apparently not taking into consideration the fact that we had altered the clocks by thirty minutes, shortly before he had arrived. I had got to know him pretty well by then and so I checked what he had done and called him back to make a correction.

Even if the Suez Canal had been open, the company would have probably chosen the option of routing the ship round the Cape of Good Hope, and so we set off in that direction. I had hopefully drawn a line skirting Mauritius which would have given us a good position from which to head for the cape, but in the event we were not even in radar range when we passed; I had secretly switched it on when I judged that we were abreast of the isand. However during our approach to the coast of South Africa I was able to switch on the radar, get a position and then switch it off again, pretending that I had managed to get the ship’s position using a running fix off a prominent feature, just visible on the horizon. There was no way South Africa could be avoided, since we were due to go to Capetown for bunkers,  but once there no shore leave was allowed for the crew – did our leader think we were going to desert? That is except for me. I had an aunt who was a bit of a world traveller, and co-incidentally she happened to be in the city at the time of our visit, and so I was allowed to meet her for lunch.

We trogged on the Dakar, which turned out to be a bit of a dump, and were were not enthusiastic when the ship received orders to go the Albania to load steel for China – could we imagine anyone taking steel to China today? Depression settled over us. How were we going to face another four months of this hell? But as we prepared for departure we received news that we were to go to Middlesborough for the steel. Oh joy! The articles of agreement would allow me to sign off, and I did. Later I sailed on another of the company ships and we went round the world, but that is another story.


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