Insight into a career at sea during the 1960s

Ray Nelson and Morpeth Rotary President Andrew Hamnett.
Ray Nelson and Morpeth Rotary President Andrew Hamnett.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Club member Captain Ray Nelson gave a talk to fellow members about getting his first job in the Merchant Navy, which began 50 years ago.

The choice was unusual as he lived in Manchester, had never been a sea cadet and came from a long line of teachers.

Family holidays were to the Isle of Man by ferry from Liverpool and at the age of eight, he had been very impressed by the look of the officers on the bridge.

When, aged 15, he saw an advert in the Manchester Evening News for deck apprentices with Shell, he ‘just had to apply’.

He was interviewed by the staff engineer, who told him about the long hours that included some dirty work and hours spent in a boiler suit. He would be working six days a week and have only 18 hours in each port.

Although he was stumped when he was shown a model of a tanker and asked why the engine was at the back (it was to minimise the risk of fire), Captain Nelson passed the interview and medical, so just before his 16th birthday he got a letter offering an indentured navigating apprenticeship.

He was to attend at Plymouth Technical College for an entrance test on maths, English, science and general knowledge and an eye test.

He passed and was indentured to Shell for four years on a surety of £50. He was required to be diligent, obey reasonable orders and keep out of ale houses and places of ill repute. In return, he would receive pre-sea training for six months, followed by 12 months at sea and more college.

Pay was £175 a year at £14.10s a month, rising to £360 by year four, and with four days leave a month. Luckily he got the job before the GCE results, as he only passed two.

His crying mother saw him off on September 9, 1965, with a single ticket to Plymouth to prepare for life at sea as a deck officer.

The studies at the college were basic seamanship, maths, trigonometry, ship construction, charts, navigation and ship stability.

After three months, he was made a cabin leader of 4 Upper Deck at the hostel and after another three months, he was ready for sea.

One week after going home, he got a telegram to say he was required to join the MV Armoria at Singapore as a deck apprentice. Before that, he had only been abroad on a school trip to Belgium.

It was rare to be required to join a ship outside of the UK, but a seaman strike was threatened. Three apprentices set off from Heathrow to Singapore with the plane stopping at Frankfurt, Athens, Beirut, Bombay, Karachi and Kuala Lumpur.

After two days of travel, they arrived to overpowering heat and humidity in May and were met by the shipping agent. He told them the ship had been delayed for a week and they were to stay at the Seaman’s Mission in Connell House, an 1820s colonial building on Anson Road with a magnificent garden.

They got to know Singapore very well using cheap taxis to get about. At that time it was an authentic eastern city without the glass and steel high rise developments he saw on his next trip in 1982.

Just before joining the ship, he severely damaged his knee in the swimming pool and following an operation in hospital, he was surprised when he came round to be given his torn cartilage in a small glass bottle as a souvenir.

After recovering, he joined an 18,000-tonne white petrol tanker, which spent the next eight months in the Far East. Ship rules were strict and although he was training as a navigating officer, he was not allowed on the bridge unless invited and that was not often. When on deck for the first time in his white uniform, he was yelled at and sent packing by the chief officer.

They traded in and around Indonesia, loading oil. One of his jobs was to clean the mess and debris from the tanks, which took 18 to 20 hours by hand.

They loaded cargo for New Zealand, but at Wellington there were no dockers to discharge it so the crew were asked to do it. They were paid an extra £15 a day and as his normal wage was £15 a month, he paid off all his debts in three days.

From there, they went to Singapore to load oil for a US port near Saigon. As there was a war close by, they got double pay and he was suddenly well off. It did not cross his mind that he was sitting on 18,000 tonnes of aircraft fuel half an hour away from a major conflict.

One day they swam ashore from the ship and walked through a village to look around before calling at a US compound to ask for a lift back. The US staff said it was a dangerous village that they had not dared to enter for the last nine months.

By the time he got home just before Christmas 1966, Captain Nelson had become a confident 17-year-old who knew his way around.