An Apprentice in the 1950s was a lowly creature, used mostly as a low paid labourer on the ship. My ‘salary’ on first going to sea was £8 8s per month, which rose to the dizzying £13 16s a month in my final year. It was slightly better than nothing but only just!
We had a one hour ‘study period’ every day when at sea, followed by seven hours working on deck. Exams took place every six months to keep us focused! Cargo watches generally took precedence in port.
The work was generally on deck with the bosun or, if there were more than two Apprentices on board, we worked under the Senior Apprentice. Looking back, it was very good training as, by the time we had finished our four years, we had done most things on board the ship – although for the first two years, we were not allowed to go down the tanks or climb the masts for maintenance. After two years, anything the crew could do, we could do, and did!
As there seemed to be an inordinate amount of rust on the ships then, a great deal of time was spent chipping the decks, especially when the ship had no cargo and was gas free.
As most vessels of the time had wooden decks round the accommodation, a lot of time was spent ‘holystoning’ them. Using a brick of sandstone in a bracket with a broom handle attached, we threw sand on the deck and pushed the ‘holystone’ back and forth until the deck shone white. This was normally carried out when the weather was wet and awful.
On the ballast passage back to the loading port, tanks had to be cleaned and gas freed. This involved heavy ‘Butterworth’ machines that were attached to high pressure rubber hoses, held in place by ropes. The hoses were lowered every hour or so to near the bottom of the tanks, to wash away any remaining residue. On very large vessels the hoses were lowered on a winch, as the length was too great to be manhandled.
Every Sunday morning we had cleaning duties with brass cleaning at the forefront; there was a lot of brass, particularly on the bridge. Captain’s inspection was carried out every Sunday and everything had to be gleaming for that event.
Sunday afternoons, weather permitting, found us practising Morse Code using the ship’s signalling lamps, one apprentice being under the forecastle and another on the bridge sending messages to each other. We became very proficient in signalling as we were often called to the bridge on the 0800 to 1200 watch to ‘talk’ to a passing ship.
After two years we commenced bridge watches, the senior apprentice doing 0500 until 0700 and 1800 until 2000, whilst the others did either midnight until 0300 or 2000 until 2300 on the night watches.
My apprenticeship was completed after three and a half years, as I had already spent three years at the sea school. Then it was time to start thinking of enrolling in a Nautical College to gain a Second Mate’s Certificate.
by Terry Took © 2016
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.