The Empire boat Royal Star.

I joined my first ship, - after a three year training course at H.M.S Conway, - as a Cadet ‘Officer’ on 27th April 1959. ( Funny how some dates stick in the mind!) It was the Blue Star ship California Star, berthed in the South West India Dock of the Port of London, and my first job was to clean up the messy cabin that had been left for me by the boys I replaced, who had disappeared on leave. The second was to carry a hold-all to the local pub, and fill it with beer for the ship’s deck officers. Never mind that I was still underage, this was the London docks and anything goes!

I only stayed with the ship while it went around the U.K. coast, discharging logs from British Columbia. It was a nice ship though, built during the Second World War, as an ‘Empire’ boat – meaning that during the war she had been owned by the Ministry of War Transport and managed by the company. Fortunately I was to sail on her again before long.  

My first deep-sea voyage was carried out on the old Royal Star; royal by name, but the comparison stops there. She too was an ‘Empire’ boat, but of another class.

My first port outside the UK was Rotterdam, where I bought a pipe to smoke, as that seemed to be the thing to do at that time. I practised by walking on the boat deck at night – where I wouldn’t be seen – until I quickly gave up on the idea and threw the pipe overboard, because smoking it burnt my tongue.

This voyage turned out to be one of great interest, because we were to carry the annual out-turn of frozen lamb from a big ranch in a small place called Puerto Natales in Patagonian Chile. This meant that on my first trip to sea, I would traverse the Straits of Magellan in winter.

We bunkered en route, in St. Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands, and stopped next in Montevideo, before proceeding to Punta Arenas, the most southerly city in the world at that time.( pop. 50,000). From there we entered the Straits proper. I can remember our night transit as being blessed with no moon, because the lighthouses that we would take bearings from were fairly low candlepower, and it was raining heavily. The Second Officer, with whom I shared the bridge watch, was a lazy fellow who relied on the navigation of the ship by a 17 year old – something of a risk. Had he taken some bearings himself he would have known that I wasn’t as accurate as I should have been, because I could hardly see in the pouring rain. Anyway, with a bit of good luck, daylight found us in heavy swells at the western end of the Straits. From that point we turned north and sailed into the fjord-like waters of the West coast of Chile. We had to pick up a pilot at a very narrow channel,  that took us to the inland waters of Puerto Natales and the ‘frigorifico’ at Puerto Bories.

The route to Puerto Natales.

The Kirke Channel was the name of this gap between the rocky islands, and we had to wait until the small ‘pilot’ boat assigned to lead us through it, hoisted a white flag – there being no voice communication in those days. I remember the ship fair whistling through this narrow gap, which was no more than twice our beam. I felt that I could touch the land on either side!

We were there for about 10 days, as the loading was very slow. As the junior cadet I was dispatched ashore at 0400 every morning, to become a tally-clerk at the frigorifico. The lamb arrived already pre-slung, one load of approx. 1 ton to a dolly. The job entailed counting the legs/carcass - broken legs were rejected - and then watch as the dolly moved along a small gauge railway line to the ship at the end, about a mile away.

Puerto Natales was a small town, and our visit was one of the annual highlights. The owner of the ‘estancia’ ( ranch) where the meat came from, invited the ship’s officers to dinner, and that was quite an event. The ranch house was like something from ‘Gone with the Wind’, and he had a cellar of fine Chilean wines. He also had a penchant for accurate World News, and listened to the BBC on short wave radio every night. His second language was Welsh, there having been many Welsh people that had emigrated to this part of the world over two centuries ago.

I was impressed by the ecological effort they were making, to find the best grade of grazing grass, and they had about 40 different varieties that they monitored, to find the ‘best fit’.

When we returned to Punta Arenas my daily task was similar, but now I had to go a long way, in a rickety bus, with the work-force, to the ‘frigorifico’, again at 0400 in the dark of early morning. The difference here was that I ate my meals with the foremen, and the food served in the canteen was good, and I especially remember the good-looking young waitress.

Heading north again we stopped at Rio Santa Cruz, Puerto Gallegos, in Patagonian Argentina. It being winter there were ice floes in the rivers. It was quite an experience, and not normal ‘shipping’, as I came to know it, and all too soon we were homeward bound.

The albatross and the dolphins fascinated me, but I was kept hard at work, normally assisting the ship’s carpenter with his duties. Our own food was very poor as I recall, and we seemed to miss/lack fresh vegetables.

We had been given a frozen lamb carcass as a present by the ranch owner, and this drew some attention when I carried it to the train at Euston station in London, on a blistering hot late August morning in 1959, in one of the hottest summers on record. As the train travelled north to Liverpool, the carcass was thawing out, and I got even more stares from concerned passengers!

This is an excerpt from Captain David Smiley’s autobiography  “Beyond the Blue Horizon” now available as an eBook.

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