After a period ashore in London, studying at Marconi House in the Strand for his PMG 1st Class certificate, Neil Semple returned to sea.
The following ten years were not to be very happy ones, partly because all my ships were pretty undistinguished cargo boats, tankers, and downright tramps. I think I should possibly be thankful that I was always in employment in the twenties because it was a period of mass unemployment. Salaries became stagnant and actually gradually decreased over those years. Conditions on the tramp ships also deteriorated as shipowners tried to save on such things as seamen’s food, the upkeep of the ships themselves, reductions in manning, and the most serious of all, there was a tendency for ships to be overloaded. Several serious marine disasters during the decade following the war were directly attributable to poor maintenance and overloading, the latter particularly being quite illegal.
My first ship following my period at school was a Donaldson Line cargo ship, the Argalia which had started life during the war as a standard ship named War Kestrel. I was to sail on several of this class of ship during the next twenty years. They were of the three island type, very strongly built, with absolutely no frills. The Argalia had a completely open bridge on which was sited a steering wheel, a binnacle, and one telegraph, absolutely nothing else in sight. One of my mind boggling memories is of taking weather reports up to the bridge during a howling North Atlantic westerly. The scene resembled a half tide rock with the old man and third mate crouching behind a wisp of canvas dodger, while the man at the wheel looked to be frozen to his job. He had so many clothes and oilskins on that he looked like something from outer space through the flying spume and the howl of the wind. I was glad to get back to the comparative warmth of the radio room which was only one deck down on the lower bridge. After my passenger ships of beloved memory, I was to be really taught what bad weather on a small ship could be like. The winter of 1919-20 was a bad one on the North Atlantic, and probably made a seaman of me at last. I was never afraid of anything the sea could do thereafter.
The single trip on the Argalia ended in Liverpool where I was quickly appointed to rather a nice ship with a beautiful name, the Crown of Toledo. She was a Glasgow registered vessel of 5,806 gross tons belonging to Prentice, Service, & Henderson, a company which was bought over by T. & J, Harrison of Liverpool at the end of the voyage. This was sad because the Crown Line was a good company with a very contented and loyal staff. The trade was mostly to the west coast of the United States and so I looked forward with keen delight to the prospect of seeing the Golden State with my own eyes.
The Crown of Toledo was a comfortable and well found ship with a rather unusual radio room situated off the dining saloon. It had been a passenger room at some time and was quite commodious. But it really was pretty unsuitable inasmuch as it was a combined radio and sleeping berth with two bunks stacked on the inboard side. Although this was the first time I had come up against such an arrangement, the practice was widespread. Wireless at sea was still in its infancy and older ships which had been built prior to the advent of wireless were required to improvise to some extent. The bad feature of this practice was that, as the emergency storage batteries were fitted in a cupboard in the radio room, one was living constantly in an atmosphere polluted by sulphuric acid fumes. At a later date, regulations were enacted putting a stop to this and it became the law that batteries should be housed external to the radio room. However, we were not very fussy about such things and I suppose there was a good deal of ignorant tolerance of our living conditions in those early days. I was now the ‘senior’ and had a first trip ‘junior’, an Englishman named Jefferies who disappeared from my life without trace following the voyage. I can’t remember if he was unhappy or not about his shipmates because the ship was unashamedly Scottish, the Chief Officer came from the island of Bernera and Macleod the 2nd Mate was actually from Iona. Many of the deck hands were also from the islands and much Gaelic was spoken on board. Being from Kintyre myself, I was accepted grudgingly as one of them but the fact that I was non-Gaelic speaking rather weighed against me.
The Crown of Toledo made a good passage south-westward from Liverpool to Panama, where we bunkered at Cristobal, near the port of Colon at the Atlantic end of the new canal which, although not completed, was now navigable by day.
After a pleasant voyage of about ten days we arrived at San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles which at that time in 1920 was a very pleasant little town with a small population of around 5,000 and a very good harbour which had a large proportion of the US Pacific fleet at anchor in the roads. Our stay there was very short, about two days and so we were not able to do any sight seeing, mainly because the captain would not issue any money and, in any case, we had many more ports to go to and it would not have been wise to start spending too soon. It must never be lost sight of in those memoirs that I was always hard-up, a fact that greatly circumscribed my sightseeing throughout my time at sea. As radio officers we had much free time in port but lacked the resources to make as much use of that time as we would have liked. However, I was always a good walker and I did not really miss all that much during the period between the wars.
We proceeded to San Francisco at the end of our short stay in San Pedro and that was the place that I had been saving up for. It must be said that this beautiful city came up to all my expectations and remains to this day my favourite foreign port, although some others did run it very close. The Golden Gate entrance to the magnificent harbour was very much as I had imagined it through the eyes of R. M. Ballantyne and other writers of boy’s books. It was not marred as now with a huge suspension bridge (sister to our own Forth road bridge) and all the crossings in the splendid Bay area were by ferry. It would be difficult to imagine a better landlocked harbour or a bigger one. The shape of it can only be likened to a plan view of a gigantic vice with the jaws opened, with San Francisco City and the Mount Tamalpais peninsula providing the extremities. The Bay area itself runs roughly north and south and is approximately 60 miles long from Palo Alto in the south to about Sonoma in the north. The greatest width is at San Leandra where it is about ten miles. Right ahead coming through the gate is the famous island of Alcatraz which was at that time a maximum security prison, for the more desperate type of criminal. It has since been evacuated and put to other uses.
Across the Bay from San Francisco city lie the twin towns of Oakland and Berkeley the latter being the home of the University of California, probably the biggest in the World today. To the north, still inside the Bay lies San Pablo Bay through which are the approaches to the famous Sacramento River, made memorable during the gold rush of 1849. At that time San Francisco harbour was crammed full of sailing ships without crews. They had all ‘skinned out’ for the diggings, immortalised by the old sea-shanty ‘there’s lots of gold so I’ve been told on the banks of the Sacramento. During our stay in that delightful port we thoroughly explored the city and its environments. A day was spent in the splendid Golden Gate Park which looked out on to the Pacific and the new fine theatres and cinemas were well patronised every night. Sometimes we very daringly returned to the ship by way of the Barbary Coast which was the nickname of the dock road whose real name was the Embarcadero.
There were plenty of sailor honky tonk saloons where one could dance and drink and hob-nob with the local demimonde, but I do not remember any of us being any the worse. It was usual in most ports for us to go ashore in groups of at least four, not for protection I hasten to add, but just from sheer mateyness. I suppose hoodlums would hesitate to attack four hefty sailor men at the same time, but the eventuality never arose.
After a stay of about a week we set off for British Columbia, the western-most state of Canada, where a very pleasant surprise awaited me. I have to relate the fact that I had close relations in Vancouver Island, where we were now bound, and it was pretty certain that my mother would have apprised them of my approach. These were my Aunt Jessie McEwan, my mother’s oldest sister all the way from Glasgow, and her now large family of three boys and two girls, John, James, Bill, Janet and Jean. The family had immigrated to Canada from Glasgow around 1902, soon after I was born, and we had kept in touch with them to some extent. My uncle, James McEwan had died some years earlier leaving my aunt with the difficult task of bringing up a young family on her own. She was an admirable woman in every way and coped with the situation splendidly. Oddly enough, we had met John the oldest boy during the war when he came over with the Canadian Expeditionary force to fight in France. He would be about 22 at the time and he spent two leaves with us at High Ugadale farm.
After about a week’s stay in Victoria, the Crown of Toledo set off for the mainland city and port of Vancouver, the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway on the stretch of water called Puget Sound.
The west coast of British Columbia is not unlike the west of Scotland in many respects. It is studded with islands the main one of which is Vancouver Island and with another considerable groups further north comprising of Prince Rupert Island, Queen Charlotte Island and Prince of Wales Island. Puget Sound is formed by the channel to the south and east of Vancouver Island which itself fits into a large indentation on the North American coastline between Cape Flattery and the entrance to the Fraser River. The southern side of Puget Sound is bounded by the State of Washington and the Sound itself bites deeply into that state towards the great port of Seattle and, further on, Tacoma.
The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway both ran a fleet of small coastal type passenger ships to serve the various islands and also to maintain a commuter trade between Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle. The CPR ships were all ‘Princesses’ and resembled greatly the Clyde passenger ships. Indeed, one of the fastest in their fleet was none other than the old Queen Alexandra which they acquired from the Clyde some time around 1910. This ship was historic for being the first or second turbine steamer to be built and could do over twenty knots, a great speed in those days. The turbines were direct drive then and generated a high pitched hum which could be heard from afar. It was somewhat nostalgic when I stood beside the old Queen in Vancouver, now named Princess Patricia, and thought of the long summer days in long-ago, far-off High Ugadale, when we boys toiled in the hay fields and how we welcomed the sound of the Queen Alexandra as she rounded the north of Arran on her way from Fairlie to Campbeltown. The sound gradually rose to a high whine and, mingled with the strains from her German band it told us that it was about a quarter past three and that we only had about three more hours to do at that accursed haymaking.
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