Alan's Blog



I Went to Sea.....

It was a Sunday afternoon in 1977 when my (now ex) wife and I visited her folks for tea. Trying to escape the incessant chatter of the mother-in-law, I picked up a copy of the Sunday newspaper. Inside, I came across a half-page advertisement. Esso Petroleum were recruiting people to go to sea on their tankers. The starting salary was £500 per year more than the £4500 per year I was receiving from my current job as an electrical instructor at an apprentice training centre. Having fairly recently married and with one child, and the likelihood of another on the way, I was tempted. The normal tour of duty was a not too onerous 3-months. It would certainly help our finances which were running into the red almost every month – and I could eat all the food I wanted on board at no charge!

I was suitably qualified and applied for the position of Electrical Officer. I was summoned to the Esso office in Fawley and there I met Mr. Pritchard, a former Chief Engineer, now shore-based as a ship manager. I could hardly understand a word he said as he had some sort of speech impediment, but I must have convinced him I was up for the job, or, more likely, they were desperate, as I was offered the role there and then even though I'd never been on a ship in my life other than a couple of trips across the English Channel, or to the Isle of Wight, as a passenger on the ferry.

Photograph (left) My passport picture taken in May 1974

Before I could get started, I had to go through the rigmarole of obtaining a Seaman's Discharge Book and a British Seaman's Card. This was not as easy as it might seem as I had to be in the Merchant Navy in order to obtain them. A bit of a chicken and egg story. I couldn't join the Merchant Navy without them, but couldn't obtain them without being in the Merchant Navy! Eventually, the various officials spoke with the right people at Esso and I received my documents. The photograph (below left) is from my Seaman's Discharge Book on 30 March 1977. The photograph (right) is from my British Seaman's Card on 13 June 1984.

Two training courses then followed; a Tanker Safety Course at what is now Warsash Maritime Academy then a trip to Leith, near Edinburgh, for a rather tough firefighting course. After these two weeks of training, I was deemed fit to go to sea on tankers and joined my first ship, the steam ship Esso Cardiff (47,000 dwt – built in 1963) on 21 May 1977 in Fawley. The Captain was John Anderson from the Shetland Isles. The Chief Engineer was Stuart Murray, a quite formidable giant of a man to whom I reported almost as soon as I'd boarded.

To say I was nervous as I ascended the gangway was the understatement of the year. I was welcomed at the top of the gangway by 'Taff', a rather grizzly, husky-voiced old salt. I never learned his real name. He took me into the accommodation block and found someone to take me to my cabin. It turned out that 'Taff' was aged about 56 and was an AB (Able Seaman); a great character who I came to think a lot of during my time onboard, not only on that trip, but on the many others that I made on this ship in the future.

As a 'new boy' I was to be given some idea of what I'd taken on by the ship's regular Electrical Officer (or 'Lecky'), Eddie Ralph, a Scotsman, who was ashore when I went aboard on this Saturday evening. He returned a little inebriated and said he'd see me the following morning. I opened one of the doors to the engine room from the level of my cabin and looked into the abyss of the machinery space. I was frightened to death by what I saw. My first thought was "Now what have I got myself into?"

I stayed on board with Eddie until 7 July, when I was given almost a month's leave before returning to the ship when Eddie went on leave on 5 August. Eddie returned on 1 October and I was sent to Kalundborg, in Denmark, to join the Esso Warwickshire two days later. Waiting for the agent to arrive to take me to Kalundborg, I teamed up with another crew member (a steward) also heading for the same ship. Once on board, I met another 'new boy' whose name I have long since forgotten (Martin?) but who had worked for the same organisation that I did ashore, although we never met until on board ship. He didn't stay at sea for long. My flight from Heathrow to Copenhagen was my first ever commercial flight and nearly put me off flying forever because of the turbulence. It was a really bumpy ride. Unlike the Esso Cardiff which became my favourite ship, I hated being on the Esso Warwickshire. I was never happy there and only returned for one other trip, partly spent in dry-dock, in July and August 1979. I'd enjoyed working with Eddie but, sadly, I never saw him again and have no idea what became of him although I made several trips on the Esso Cardiff during the following years. He was a really pleasant chap and we had a lot of laughs together.

The really huge VLCC and ULCC tankers that were too big to enter port fully loaded used to come alongside the modified Esso Cardiff and transfer some of their cargo into our tanks. This would reduce their draught sufficiently to permit them to then proceed into Europoort (Rotterdam) where they could discharge their remaining cargo. Sometimes, this lightening operation would take place three times before they were high enough in the water to allow them to head for Europoort (see photographs below).

In fact, I was one of those on board for the final passage of the Esso Cardiff when she travelled to Ulsan, South Korea where she was scrapped on 13 October 1983. Her final passage was from Rotterdam, where she'd had her Yokohama fenders removed, to Ulsan after 40 days at sea at economical speed. It was the only time I spent four months away from my family as I'd joined her on 18 June 1983 in Fawley. After leaving Ulsan we'd been taken to Pusan where we stayed overnight in a hotel. The following morning, we flew to Narita airport in Japan where we boarded a Boeing 747, my only flight on this 'Queen of the Skies'. We flew to Anchorage, in Alaska, for refuelling. In the terminal building there was a huge polar bear, stuffed and mounted in a glass enclosure. The views from the terminal building towards the distant mountains were stunning. After our brief stop, we flew over the North Pole and headed south to Heathrow airport. I then travelled to the home of my parents in Haywards Heath, Sussex. I probably stayed overnight before driving my car home to East Langdon, near Dover. By the time I got home it was exactly 4 months after leaving; my longest sea trip.

I paid-off the Esso Warwickshire on 11 November 1977, the Friday before Remembrance Sunday, and was able to spend Christmas and New Year at home; always a special treat for seafarers and one I also managed the following year, 1978, and in 1982 and 1983 (returning to sea on 30 December of that year, thereby missing the New Year celebrations). I was very lucky to get all these Christmases at home (four out of seven) when so many of my colleagues weren't as fortunate.

The Esso Warwickshire had been modified to allow connection to the Spar 1 Buoy in the Brent Oilfield in the North Sea (photograph above left).

The photograph (above right) is a view of the Officers' Saloon on the Esso Warwickshire.

My next few trips at sea were all on board motor ships, rather than steam. I first joined the Esso Milford Haven on 22 January 1978 whilst the regular 'lecky' was on leave until 21 March, a trip of only two months. I was pleased to leave as I hadn't had a great trip and was even more pleased not to be sent back there in the future.

After quite a long leave, I joined the Esso Clyde on 7 May 1978 for almost two months, paying off at Littlebrook power station on the south bank of the River Thames near the Dartford crossing on 3 July 1978 and heading straight for Teesport where I joined the Esso Severn on the following day for a few weeks before paying off in Londonderry on 31 July 1978 to head for home leave. I enjoyed my trip on the Esso Clyde, and returned a few times at later dates. I became friends with the Chief Officer, Peter Russell and his wife, Merilyn, to the extent that I took my family to stay with them for a few days whilst we were both on leave at their home near Goole. Peter later went on to become a very highly regarded ships' Master (Captain).

I re-joined the Esso Clyde for my next trip on 25 September 1978 but this turned out to be a very short trip as I became unwell and was taken into hospital in Bremen, Germany on 10 October 1978. I was only kept in for about a week before flying back home for some convalescent leave after which I joined the Esso Mersey on 6 January 1979. Apart from my one trip on the Esso Milford Haven I enjoyed my trips on this class of vessel, each of which were around 20,000 dwt and carried a variety of cargoes. It also gave me further experience in working with 3.3 kV electrical equipment which was of great interest. The Esso Cardiff was also equipped with 3.3 kV bow thrusters and the generation equipment that powered them. The 3.3 kV systems on board the newer motor ships were much more up to date and sophisticated in the distribution of this voltage to various equipment on board, through a large transformer which enabled 450 V and 3.3 kV generators and machinery to work together.

I paid off the Esso Mersey on 22 February 1979 in Bowling, near Glasgow and got a train to Immingham where I re-joined the Esso Clyde once more, again for a short trip, leaving on 4 April 1979 in Milford Haven. I was granted a nice long leave of two months before heading for my least favourite ship, the Esso Warwickshire on 5 July 1979, again in Milford Haven which was always a rather difficult journey because of its remote location in the most western 'corner' of South Wales. Back in Milford Haven again on 26 August, I was delighted to be paid off and go home


Joe Carrigan (C/O/E) in the control room of the Esso Mersey in February 1979.

After my leave it was back to the Esso Cardiff once more which I joined in Le Verdon, in France on 5 October 1979. As far as ships were concerned, it was like going back home as I always enjoyed my trips on this old timer, despite the tremendous hard work and long hours that were involved in keeping her going. I used to work an average of about 80 hours a week whilst at sea, so it was always nice to go home for a rest. I actually worked 100 hours in one week whilst on one of the motor ships. Going to sea certainly isn't for an easy life. I missed being at home for Christmas, not leaving the ship until 13 January 1980 where I went home to face a disaster. The newly built and equipped kitchen had suffered a fire and my first glimpse of home were the burnt-out shells of kitchen units stacked in the garden awaiting to be taken to the rubbish tip. This was something I could have done without.

I had five months leave to get the kitchen sorted out as Esso had asked me to go back to college and take an additional qualification – and gave me three months 'study leave' in addition to my usual leave. I didn't let them (or myself) down as I passed all three exams with credit. I was both relieved and delighted to have done so well.

On 14 June 1980 I was back on board the Esso Cardiff where I stayed for almost the next three months, leaving on 10 September. My next trip was another two-ship trip, starting with the Esso Mersey­ on 6 November 1980 for almost two months, being paid-off on 4 January 1981 in Fawley and then heading straight to Littlebrook to join the Esso Clyde once more on 6 January 1981 where I stayed until I went on leave on 15 February when I paid off in Sete, a very pretty town in the south of France often  known as 'Little Venice'. The colleague with whom I left the ship chose a meal of raw beef in the restaurant that evening before we flew home the from Marseille following day (a flight by the now defunct Dan Air – commonly known as Dan Dare after the space character in the Eagle children's comic). Needless to say, perhaps, but my colleague suffered somewhat after eating his raw beef. The after effects staying with him during the journey back to England, or in his case, Scotland.

After a rather short leave, I was heading back to the Esso Cardiff once more, which I joined on 6 March 1981. Having studied for the extra qualification required by the company I wanted to go to the next level which would qualify me properly as an engineer. I applied for study leave but my request wasn't granted as I was informed that I had already qualified to the level they wanted me to be. Having started studying after a long break, I wasn't going to be stopped at the final hurdle to become an engineer. The company told me that they would do their best to get me off the ship in time to sit my exams. I contacted the personnel department near the time I needed to pay-off and was told the date had been 'pencilled in'. We came into Fawley on that date, 7 April 1981 and there was no relief waiting for me. I booked a taxi to meet me on the jetty. I then informed the Chief Engineer, Howard (Howie) Stokes of the situation and told him I was leaving the ship, relief or no relief. He took me to see the Master, Captain Mike King who told me that the consequences might be rather serious. I'd known both of these men for some time and was well regarded by them both but I was determined to sit my exams. I left the ship and went home. Jumping ship was a serious 'crime' for an officer to commit so I thought I may get fired. Sure enough, I was called to an inquiry and, rather to my surprise, I kept my job - purely because I'd got a very high reputation in the company and they didn't want to lose me. The HR person, Malcolm Coleman, a former Purser on board our tankers, denied all knowledge of telling me that he'd 'pencilled me in' to leave on the day that I jumped ship. No matter – I was off the ship, able to study for and sit my exams – and still employed.

The sea isn't always smooth - photographs above on the Esso Cardiff.

I worked hard at my studies and took the two exams, passing both of them with Distinction, the highest grade achievable and well worth taking the risk of jumping ship as this proved to be the foundation of my later career as it qualified me to apply for another certificate and then register as an Electrical Engineer and was later to become the basis of my receiving an Honours Degree in Engineering from the City and Guilds of London Institute.

On 19 June 1981 I was back to sea, this time on the Esso Severn where I stayed for almost two months. For some reason or other, I was then given almost three months leave, probably because I'd built up some extra leave time by my having shorter durations of leave in the past.

The Esso Severn, dressed overall to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981 - Tyneside.

Also, I'd been suspended on full pay pending the inquiry into my jumping ship which may have contributed to this extra leave period. Not that I was complaining, of course.

I flew to Hamburg to join the Esso Cardiff once more on 10 November 1981, knowing full well that this would mean Christmas at sea and away from my family. I was paid-off in Hamburg on 12 February 1982 having completed almost exactly three months on board. Another three-month trip followed on this ship from 7 April 1982 until 16 July 1982 when I paid off the ship in Lyme Bay and was taken by pilot cutter into Brixham late on that day. I could hardly sleep that night in the hotel as the silence, after three months of ship-board noise, was painful to my ears. To get home, I rented a car as there was a public transport strike going on at the time and it was the only way I could get home. The only car I could rent was a Mercedes Benz 190 which was the most uncomfortable car I've ever driven, having seats more akin to park benches. My already injured back from years before suffered terribly and I was in pain for a week after my drive to Haywards Heath from where I was able to complete my journey home in comfort using my own car, a Citroen GS Estate.

After my leave, I went on to complete two trips on the Esso Tyne, one from 19 September 1982 until 12 December 1982, then from 14 February 1983 until 27 April 1983 when I paid off in Augusta, in Sicily, where Mount Etna had erupted and was clearly visible from the ship, especially the lava flow at night which, glowing red as it flowed down the side of the volcano, was a tremendous site. This eruption lasted four months and caused the local authorities to explode dynamite in an attempt to divert the flow of lava.

My last view of the Esso Tyne anchored off Augusta in Sicily.

As previously mentioned, I was back on the dear old Esso Cardiff on 18 June 1983 for its final passage to South Korea – a four-month trip away from home for me, but well worth it for the satisfaction of taking my old friend on its last trip, albeit a sad one. Leaving the ship on 13 October 1983 was rather a sad occasion for me, saying 'goodbye' to my favourite ship.
The passage was a wonderful experience for me as we travelled through places and seas where I'd never previously travelled; the Suez Canal, the Bitter Lakes and the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea were all new to me.

Photographs above show the breakers yard in Ulsan, South Korea.  
Photographs above are of the South Korean workers cooking and eating their meal on board the Esso Cardiff.


One of my duties on this trip was to make sure the Suez Canal searchlight was operational. This hadn't been used for many years so I took this project very seriously. Luckily, there was nothing major wrong and I soon had it working. As we traversed the Indian Ocean, the sea temperature was so high that there was insufficient cooling for the steam plant and we had to slow down even further.

It was crossing this ocean that the extractor fan in the Chief Engineer's toilet stopped working, much to his disgust. The motor had let in water during a tropical downpour and the motor windings had shorted and burnt apart. I managed to effect a repair, soldering links across the broken windings and soon had it back in operation. Even though I'd taken great care to seal everything, the next tropical downpour caused the problem to re-occur, this time the motor being unrepairable. The Chief Engineer, John Emptage, was not amused as any smell lingered in his toilet for some time afterwards.

Having spent Christmas at home I arrived on the Esso Humber on 30 December 1983 which allowed my colleague to have New Year at home which was great. I stayed on this ship until 3 March 1984 and it really was a troublesome trip. The vessel had been converted to run in an 'Unmanned Machinery Space' mode (UMS) and it was never reliable. I spent most of my time trying to make it work without success. Even the simple task of closing the cubicle door, gently, would bring-up a selection of alarms. It was so bad that the Chief Engineer decided that the engine room staff should resume watch-keeping instead of relying on the UMS equipment. No doubt he was getting sleepless nights worrying about this rubbish equipment.

The photograph above shows the Esso Humber in snowy Gothenburg, Sweden.

During my leave, I happened to be chatting to a fellow amateur photographer, Derek Packman, who was a Senior Chief Engineer on the Townsend Thoreson cross channel ferries. He mentioned that his company were looking for Electrical Officers so I applied. I was interviewed by the personnel manager, John Cotton, who was rather dismayed by the fact that I had to give three months' notice to Esso before I could work for his company as he needed people to start straight away. As this was near the beginning of my leave, I offered to start with Townsend Thoreson (TT) straight away and work for several weeks before going back to sea with Esso for just over a month. All I needed from John was a letter confirming my position and I'd put in my resignation to Esso immediately. I received the letter very quickly! I tendered my resignation with Esso and started work with TT on board the Pride of Free Enterprise. I had to work shifts; a day shift being 13.5 hours and a night shift of 11.5 hours, there being half an hour handover at each end of the shift. I soon got into the routine.

On 28 June 1984, I was back on board the Esso Humber, this time in dry-dock in South Shields. My imminent departure from Esso had caused some shockwaves and Mr. Pritchard, the ship's manager who'd originally interviewed me more than seven years previously came to see me to try to persuade me to stay. He offered me more money, as well as promotion and said I could 'name my price' as they really didn't want me to leave. I informed him that he was too late with his offer as I'd already signed-up to join TT. After dry-dock, we sailed off and I eventually left the ship on 23 August 1984 in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. One week later, on 31 August, I was back on board a TT ship and the start of another sea-faring type of life, much different than being 'deep-sea'. I left the seafaring life on 31 January 1989. By this time, P&O had taken over TT and made life very difficult for their seafarers – a good reason to leave!

The European Trader, the TT ship on which I spent the most time whilst working for this fleet. This vessel was engaged on the Dover to Zeebrugge route.

The above is pretty much a diary of the various ships I served on, and when. It doesn't describe much of the work I did or most of the characters I met, let alone the places I visited. However, one thing I will add is that I love being on board ship - I feel so much at home - the seafaring life must have got into my blood. Going abroad (unless I have to fly) always means using one of the ferries. I never use the Channel Tunnel (an abomination of a white elephant if ever there was one). The sea trip across from Dover to Calais or from Harwich to Hoek van Holland is something I look forward to as part of the holiday which I genuinally enjoy.