We left Papua New Guinea, and we turned left. We were heading home, from about as far away from home as it is possible to be.
My first husband was an officer in the Merchant Navy, and I travelled with him – 4 trips in 3 years. We’d joined the ship in Hull, sailed across the Atlantic to the Panama Canal and on to Tahiti, then Fiji, and various other South Pacific Islands, before arriving in Papua New Guinea. And this post is about the journey home again.
We skirted the north coast of PNG. It was hot, it was humid. We wouldn’t be stopping again until we got to Suez, and we wouldn’t be getting off the ship again until we got back to the European coast. This meant several weeks at sea.
Everything fell into a routine – watches, meals, sleeping, lying by the pool.
We had to make our own entertainment (this was 1980 – the internet simply wasn’t a thing). Someone organised a tournament, prize was a case of beer – darts, table tennis, cribbage, draughts. Someone else made a lilo out of the inner bags of boxes of wine, which worked remarkably well in the pool (and says a lot about our drinking habits). I tried to learn to dive and failed spectacularly. I honed my table tennis skills.
My husband was the 3rd Mate, so he worked the 8 – 12 watch. That’s 8am to 12 noon and then 8pm to 12 midnight every day, seven days a week. He got up at around 7, to be showered, into his uniform, go the saloon for breakfast, and then up on the bridge in time to hand over and be on watch for 8. I slept a little longer, and the steward would bring me tea and toast around 10. Then I would head up on to the bridge and watch the world go by from the bridge wing.
We had lunch together – I was looking forward to the curries by this stage of the trip – and then he headed to the cabin for a sleep ready to go back on watch at 8 that evening, and I would spend a bit of time by the pool. Dinner was around 6, which meant a shower, change, and into the saloon – white damask tablecloths, stewards in white uniforms, picture of the Queen looking down at us.
After dinner he was back on the bridge for 8pm, and I would head to the bar for a drink. There were videos to watch – there was an organisation called Walport Telemar that delivered videos to ships. We would get two or three boxes of videos – always an eclectic mix. Some classic movies, some ‘ahem’ grown-up material, some sit-coms, some sports, even some kids’ stuff, and the odd documentary. By the end of the trip you would have watched Every. Single. One. Of. Them. The Railway Children was a big hit on one particular trip…
I took photos of islands as we passed them – lots of photos of sea, sky and a lump of land. And one photo of just the sea and the sky, because for most of the time that’s all there was. People laughed at me for taking it, as there was ‘nothing in it’, but looking back it’s the one that sums up the whole experience the best. I’ve no idea where it is now – left behind when life moved on, I suppose.
Now and again we’d have a barbecue. Oh my, the barbecues. There was a small deck behind the accommodation – the guys would bring out flags and pennants to decorate it. The barbecue itself was half an oil drum on legs, with a rack over it. It was a matter of pride to light it in one go with the stub of a cigarette. The food was phenomenal, I’ve never tasted steak like the steak we got at a Bank Line barbecue.
We headed out across the Indian Ocean, sailed between Sri Lanka and India, then up the Red Sea to Suez. No opportunity to go ashore.
A Russian pilot came on board in Aden to guide us through the Canal. This was the first Russian I’d ever met – it was the height of the Cold War, so this was a pretty big thing. He wanted to know if we carried any perfume in the bonded store, as he wanted to buy something for his wife. This was the moment I realised that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear on the news, and that we’re all pretty much the same really.
Through the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and the Great Bitter Lake, then more Canal and on to Port Said and the Mediterranean. When I was little my father worked for a shipping company, and I can remember him reciting all the principal trade routes and the main ports. I just loved the names – Valparaiso, Trincomalee, Antananarivo – and The Great Bitter Lake. Something that I’d heard as a child, that sounded like it was from a fairy story, turned out to be true.
It was December, and once we were through the Canal and out into the Med the weather started to turn cool. Strange to be wearing jeans and socks again.
Our thoughts turned to Christmas – and would we be paid off in time? The lads’ thoughts turned to home – girlfriends, wives, kids. Rod Stewart had released ‘We are Sailing’ five years previously, and it seemed to be on a continuous loop in the bar – and after a drink or two the lads would join in the chorus.
Did we get home for Christmas?? You’ll have to wait and see…
One of my lovely readers has asked me to post a picture of the ship we were on – here she is. Photo courtesy of banklineonline.com.
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