Backwards and forwards across the Atlantic.
My first husband was in the Merchant Navy, and I spent the first three years of our marriage at sea with him. This was my second trip – the States, South Africa, and back again.
It was about three weeks each way – three weeks, for me, of having nothing to do, unless I made the effort to find something to do. That’s the problem with being a Supernumerary – there’s nothing that has to be done.
I always volunteered to run the bar. That would entail making sure the fridge was stocked, keeping an eye on the optics (see what I did there?) and totting up the bar book once a week. The bar was run on an honesty basis – a book sat on the bar, with each officer’s name in it, and they were trusted to tally their drinks as they went along. At the end of the week, I took the book and added it all up, and the appropriate amount of money was taken out of their salary.
The bar was run on a not-for-profit basis, and because we were at sea there was no duty to be paid either. So drink was cheap. A can of beer – 10p. A gin and tonic – 15p (and 10p of that was the tonic).
I also always volunteered to clean out the swimming pool. The pool wasn’t big – I guess about 4 metres each way, and chin deep on me. They were always cunningly placed just behind the funnel, in exactly the right position to pick up every bit of crap that came out with the smoke.
After a couple of days there would be a thin layer of black bits on the surface, and a tide mark round the edge. So I would empty it (a system of valves discharged the water back into the sea, like pulling the plug out of a bath), scrub round the edges, and then re-fill it (pumping the water straight out of the sea again).
But most of all I was mindful of not wanting to waste time. I’d started to take a correspondence course.
Before we got married, I’d been working in the claims department at General Accident insurance in Sheffield, and they’d started to put me through the exams to become an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute. I decided to carry on with the exams. I was very aware that while I was travelling the world my contemporaries were either at University or starting out in their careers. And if I wasn’t careful I’d end up a few years down the line with lots of interesting photos – and nothing much else to show for it.
This was the early 80s – no internet, no email. A correspondence course was exactly that – assignments written on paper and sent by post, and the results ditto. There was a tutor somewhere with a very interesting collection of foreign stamps!! My father-in-law would pick up the post that was delivered to our home address – course books, assignment results – and post them on to us.
But, I hear you ask, how could he post them on to you when you were moving backwards and forwards across the Atlantic all the time??
Letters to the ship had to be addressed to the company Head Office in London. They would know the schedule for each ship, so would send it out to the agent at the next port, who would bring all the post on board with him. Funny to think all of that’s now been replaced with a simple ‘Send’ button.
And after three weeks of finding things to do, we were back in Capetown. Then East London and Port Elizabeth, and finally Durban.
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