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Career change, 1993

Career change, 1993

Career change, 1993

Second winter in the Gulf of Botnia. Sailing between the North Sea and Sweden with timber and paper reels as cargo.

The ship was fine but the work was boring. I had enough of sailing in ice and cold weather and was dreaming about working in warmer regions.

One day, stuck in the ice and waiting for the icebreaker, I was reading a newspaper article about building an airport in Hong Kong.

For the large fleet of dredgers, they were looking for qualified officers. I had good memories of Hong Kong. During my time as a cadet, it was the home base of the cargo ship I sailed on. Many days (…and money…) I spend there sightseeing and shopping. Each port call we stayed there for about two weeks.

Yes, I wanted to go back there.

The next time, the vessel arrived in Rotterdam, I signed of and paid a visit to several dredging companies in Belgium and the Netherlands. They all offered a good contract, and the wages were much higher then on the cargo ships.

I choose for a Dutch, family owned, company as they promised fast promotion. The dredger, for which I was planned, was already underway to Hong Kong, so in the meantime they send me as a second mate to a ship that was working on the island of Texel.

In college, we learned everything about cargo ships. Dredgers, tugboats, or other work vessels were never mentioned. Therefore, I did not know what to expect. I had seen dredgers working in ports and inland canals and they were muddy, rusty, small, and noisy.

From Den Helder, we sailed out with a fast boat to sea, and I kept on looking around for a muddy and rusty boat.

After an hour, I saw a big ship on the horizon. It looked like a tanker to me, but to my surprise the crew boat was heading for it, and we went alongside.

My dredging career was about to start.

Summer of ’84

Summer of ’84

Summer of ’84

Summer of ‘84

Mate’s ticket in the pocket, world here I come!

…. 182 application letters later, reality sinks in.

No mate-jobs available. Classmates were applying for jobs as ordinary sailors.  There was a crisis in the shipping industry.

A bit desperate I was thinking about a career switch as postman or bartender.

Then my eye fell upon a small announcement in a local newspaper. “Mate wanted for a Cyprus flagged coaster. Call for more info.”

Considering the options, discover the world or serving drinks, I reached for the phone.

Yes!! I had a job. Ok, it paid less then serving drinks but I wanted to see the world.

First week of September I had to embark in an old dock in Rotterdam. Now day’s rich people are enjoying drinks in expensive apartments, but at that time it was a shabby area with derelict warehouses.

The night before I could not sleep. Packing luggage. What do I need? Do I have to pack my uniform? In other words I was nervous.

Next Saturday morning, my father, younger brother and my best mate brought me to Rotterdam for the official start of my maritime career.  Off course I sailed already one year as cadet, but that was different and I will write about that later.

The day before, the owner told me that the ship just arrived from Suriname with a load of rice and was now berthed in the Spoorhaven. As we reached the given location, we could not find the ship.

I went looking for a telephone booth (..this was in the pre-mobile period..) and called the owner.

Apparently we were at the right location so I stepped once more to the waterfront for another look.

What I thought was one of the many inland freighters, was actually the ship I was looking for.


My first thought was: “Do they seriously cross oceans with this?”

After the initial shock, I went on board.  The ship seemed desolated and all the passageways below deck were blocked with boxes of beer, crates with vegetables, engine parts and other things.

After a view minutes a cabin door opened and a sleepy head looked around the corner. It was the cook who arrived late last night.

He showed me my cabin and told me that the captain and the rest of the crew would be on board Monday.

After saying goodbye to my family and friend, I had a good look around. The more I saw, the more I liked it. The ship was build in the beginning of the sixties and it looked like maintenance has never been a priority all those years.

Starting in the wheelhouse with lots of polished wood and copper, down to the galley and a tiny mess room. The crew’s quarters were located below the main deck.

It looked small and worn out. This was my home for the next six months.

The bridge deck, behind the wheelhouse, was the lifeboat. A beautiful piece of wood craft and, to my surprise, used as storage for potatoes and fresh vegetables…

In front of the accommodation was the cargo hold. It was closed with wooden hatches and covered with tarpaulins to make it watertight. According to the teachers at the nautical college, it was an ancient system and not seen anymore. How wrong were they!

Monday morning, the captain, engineer and two sailors arrived. The captain was a friendly man who sailed already six months with the ship. The engineer and one of the sailors had just finished school, like me.

The whole day we where busy with getting used to the old-fashioned hatch cover system and discharging the rice. The next morning we received orders to shift to another berth in Rotterdam and load coal for Perth, Scotland.

Loading went fast, and a view hours later we were underway to the other side of the North Sea.

Now it was time for my first navigation watch. The captain gave me a short explanation of the navigation equipment. It was short because there was not much on board. Radar, Decca MK12 navigator, a magnetic compass a radio direction finder and a broken echo sounder was all. The radar was only for emergencies and not to be switched on without captain’s permission. After that he went to bed with the instruction not to wake him, unless we were sinking..

Two days later we arrived in Perth and started immediately with discharging.

For the next six months, I had the time to know all the small ports in the UK, West Germany, France Belgium and Spain. We made only short trips. Two, or three days sailing, and two days in port. At sea, I was working 6 hours on and 6 hours off. In port I worked from the start of the cargo operations until it was finished. Long days with never enough sleep.

Retriever    Loading china clay in Charleston, South UK, 1984  

After six months, the owner asked me if I wanted to go to another, bigger, vessel.

On a cold freezing February morning, I signed off in Ghent, Belgium and travelled straight away to Rotterdam for the next challenge.