Someone once said ‘everyone has a story in them and in some people that’s where it should stay’ but for me it unlocked a lot of things. These are a mixture of tales of my youth and adulthood in the Australian maritime industry, not just my seagoing years but also the time I worked in allied maritime parts of the industry that are equally important such as the ship berthing crew, as a ships agent, a lecturer of maritime studies and an examiner for marine certificates of competency and service in the Royal Australian Navy Reserve forces. It was never intended to be literature or scholarly but to bring back to life, in both positive and negative aspects, the memories of a life that existed, before those memories are gone forever.
A Very Ordinary Deck Boy
Having left school at age 14 with a very limited education (mostly of my own making), it was necessary for me to get any sort of work. I knew what I wanted to do and that was to go to sea in the Merchant Marine, following in the footsteps of my two older brothers but this was clearly out of my reach just yet because of my age. An advert in the morning paper for a messenger boy at a well-established sporting goods store in the Brisbane CBD set me on the path to my first job. It wasn’t a particularly unpleasant job, but more importantly for me was that it gave me the time and opportunity to make an application for a job as deck boy with the Queensland Department of Marine and Harbours who were responsible for a large fleet of dredgers, hopper barges and small tugs working along the Brisbane River. At age 14 this was the nearest I could get to work in the maritime industry as you had to be 15 to go to sea. By good fortune and the efforts of my eldest brother, some six months later I was offered a position as deck boy on the dredger Groper on the Brisbane River.
This was a ‘ladder type bucket dredger’ which meant it had an endless chain of very large buckets extending from the top of a high tower down to the floor of the river. Once started these buckets traveled continuously with the empty bucket on the downward sweep into the water, scooping up a load of mud and sediment then coming out of the water on the upward travel. When the bucket reached the top of the ‘ladder’ it would spontaneously ‘tip over’ and empty its contents onto an angled ramp positioned to spill the mud into the hopper of a motorised hopper barge moored alongside. When the hopper barge was full it would be cast off and another barge would immediately take its place alongside. The noise of the grinding chain of buckets was continuous and ear splitting (no ear protectors), the mud and sediment being dredged up from the riverbed gave off a constant stink and when the mud was tipped out of the bucket onto the angled ramp some of it would splash over the side of the ramp onto the deck of the dredger making it very slippery. No Occupational Health & Safety concerns!
Early the next morning I arrived at the jetty to board the crew ferry with about 20 other seaman and be transported to the Steam Dredger Groper. On arriving alongside the dredger, I had to manage to get across from the small moving tug onto the dredger without injuring myself, a tricky manoeuvre when you have never done it before. Once onboard work started immediately preparing the officers mess room for lunch, cleaning the officers’ cabins, serving the officers their meal, cleaning up after their lunch, cleaning the crews mess rooms, washing their dishes (they collected their meals themselves from the galley), cleaning the toilets and showers. Then a quick shower and be ready by 4.30 pm to jump back onto the crew ferry tug for transport back to the jetty. After 6 months of this I was 15 and ready to go to sea.
At that time the Australian Maritime Industry was heavily unionised which meant I had to join the Seaman’s Union of Australia at the first opportunity. I was given half a day off one afternoon and made my way to the ‘union rooms’ in the Trades Hall building. I was told to have a head and shoulders photo with me. The union official gave me a pep talk about the value and importance of being a loyal union member, I took the ‘Oath of Fealty’ which is a medieval pledge of allegiance, in this case to the union, I paid my membership joining fee and the first quarter ‘union dues’, my photo was pasted onto the front cover of my ‘union book’, and I was now a proud member of the Seaman’s Union of Australia.
Next was to the Government Mercantile Marine Superintendent (the Shipping Master) only to be told I had to have a letter from my father agreeing to me going to sea and stating my date of birth which I duly obtained.
Next was an eyesight test with the government ‘shipping doctor’, the standard letter test for long vision, the Ishihara colour test for red/green colour deficiencies which I passed and was given the report to take back to the Marine Superintendent. Nowadays you also have to pass a lantern test where you are placed in a dark room and red, green, or white lights would appear in various combinations that you had to identify. Gradually the intensity of the light on display was lowered until it was nothing more than a spec of light.
Finally, a medical and a chest X-ray at a Government clinic to check for TB which was rampant through the 1950s. On passing this I was issued with a card showing that my ‘lung fields ‘were clear. The Marine Superintendent told me to always carry it with me as it was an essential part of signing on a ship when I got a job. Because of the infectious nature of TB and the close living arrangements onboard many of the ships in that era the X-ray had to be repeated annually and a new card issued that had to be current when signing on a ship. Some years later this requirement was abandoned as it was realised that the effects of regular annual X-rays could also be detrimental to your health due to the radioactivity of X-rays.
Advancement from deck boy to the next higher rank of ordinary seaman required 12 months sea time on a seagoing merchant ship and this was the basis for most deck boys who had a job staying on their ship until ‘they got their sea time in’. While there were many Australian manned merchant ships trading on the Australian coast at this time not all of them carried a deck boy as part of the manning scale. It all depended on the size and tonnage of the ship. Some would carry none, most would carry one and the larger tonnage ships would carry two. For the unemployed deck boy this could mean a long stay on the engagement roster. I attended the engagement ‘pick up Centre’ between 10 and 11 am daily. At week five a job came up on the ship Manunda a large coastal passenger ship.
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