Elastic Band Training

Port visitors to the MV Logos

For 6 months when I first joined the MV Logos my work was in the deck department as an AB (‘able-bodied’) seaman. Then for almost a year I was a member of two consecutive training programmes each lasting 5-6 months. Long before the widespread use of computers the programme was known as IT (‘intensive training’). The idea was that a group of men (women in later programmes) would be stretched in a variety of spiritual, mental and physical ways. It involved committing to a variety of goals. Most of the time it meant for very full days trying to achieve these targets. The philosophy was that the experience would stretch us like elastic bands. Hopefully then when the course was over our capacity for all kinds of things would be enlarged as a result. Whether this proved to be so is open to discussion. A few faltered under the stress, as if the elastic had been stretched one time too many. 

So it was in April 1978 whilst vessel was in Singapore I began this course that would dominate my life for coming months. 

An ingredient in the make up of the group was to make them as culturally challenging as possible. Plenty opportunity for misunderstandings and the need for frequent forgiveness! We were 10 young men from 10 countries and 4 continents. We had an older, more experienced and mature leader who graciously led this diverse group. The final ingredient in the mix was our accommodation. We were together in the bow (foc’sle) of the ship. Tiers of bunks fitted to the keel in a small triangular shaped cabin that came to a point at the bow. Each bunk had a curtain to provide some privacy. The confined area was made more claustrophobic with the ship’s anchor chain locker housed in the middle. Enclosed in a large box like structure most of the time the chains were a quiet but ominous presence that dominated our living space. Whenever the heavy anchor was dropped these large chains flew making a huge noise with bone jarring vibrations. Perhaps it was a misperception but it often seemed to me the ship arrived at anchor in ports early in the morning. Our dramatic living environment was further enhanced by being at the bow of a ship designed to slice through icy water. With its sharp bow the ship pitched severely in rough seas. You could literally be thrown in the air from your bed. The MV Logos had been designed to travel from Denmark to Greenland. She was originally known as the ‘Umanak’, after a town in Greenland.

Crowds visiting the MV Logos on board book exhibition

Days usually began about 6:00 am with morning exercises – a port run if in port or aerobics on the aft deck at sea. Whilst the rest of the crew might have time off in the evenings we were taking meetings, studying or doing jobs that no one else would do. Anytime our team could be called on to do whatever was needing done practically. The 15 hours / week goal of practical work were usually spent doing jobs unpopular with the rest of the crew. They included manually moving many tons of books around the cargo hold or setting up or taking down the on board book exhibition ‘tent’ on the foredeck. We were also employed using rags to remove grease from the engine room machinery. I remember once having to crawl into the water tanks to clean them. The tanks were located in the ship’s keel. Feeling that I could not back out was a fearful experience. To this day I have no interest in caving! 

Once a week we had to report ‘progress’ to our team leader on almost 30 different tasks. Long days were filled with trying to achieve these goals. This suited some temperaments more than others. I found it for the most part quite fulfilling. A few goals were only possible due to the unique opportunity a floating bookship afforded. We often had many thousands visit on board every week we were in a port.

Weekly ‘IT’ Report

We’d usually sleep relatively early at 10:30 -11:00 pm but once a week there was an extended time of prayer with the rest of the ship’s company. This went from 7pm till sometimes 2 or 3am or even later. It was mandatory for ‘IT’ people to always attend and stay to the end (one of our goals). The rest of the crew were more or less free to leave when they wished. Follow that with 1 or maybe 2 hours sleep before exercises and another long day. The training certainly lived up to its ‘intensive’ description. We did have to work as a team but there was also a lot of goals to be achieved individually. I suppose this led inevitably to competition between us. Despite our differing cultural and personality types we did form a bond between us and remain in touch with several to this day. 

A sad memory during this time of training was to lose one of our number. Abel, a Mexican, had gone swimming whilst we were in Taiwan and tragically drowned. I had just a few days before been talking with him. He in retrospect had seemed strangely at peace talking about the future in comparison to my uncertainty. In an amazing way several years later in 1985 I was again on board the LOGOS. This time it was in Abel’s homeland Mexico. His family visited the ship and sought me out as one of the few people that had known Abel just before he died. It was an honour to share with them my memories of Abel.

In September 1978 in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia we completed the course. I was then ‘rewarded’ with an invite to lead the next group of volunteers in IT. I was honoured but also felt weary and a bit bruised by my own recent experience. My immediate future was uncertain and initially thought I should leave the ship and work with the mission in India. However, after some weeks break I agreed to take on this task. This time I was asked to lead 7 Indian men. If I wasn’t going to leave the ship and live in India, India was coming to me! Again this was thought to make for a challenging cultural mix – and that it certainly was. India is like a continent in itself and my companions came from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds speaking several languages of which English was only one. Six were from south India and one from the north. What we all had in common was our sense of calling as Christians to serve each other as well as reach out to the world around. The programme would try each of us in our commitment to this in the ensuing months. So we began the course in the beginning of Nov’ 1978 in Tuticorin, South India. We set sail with the rest of the ship’s crew on a 9 day voyage to the Middle East.

One of the ongoing challenges from early on was the aforementioned weekly extended prayer meeting nights. We were supposed to stay till the end. Occasionally I would do a midnight round up in our dormitory to waken those who had succumbed to sleep back to prayer. It is not something I am proud to recall and it certainly reflected my inexperience and immaturity. My hope is team members have forgiven me for these and other instances of poor leadership. Suffice to say I was out of my depth.

One of our number before he became a Christian had been in the habit of taking cold baths at 3:30 am. Thankfully he stopped the bathing. However he did not see any need to stop rising at that time, switch on his light and read his Bible for 2 – 3 hours. This had some considerable effect on the sleep patterns of the rest of the team. Once again addressing this issue challenged my leadership abilities or lack thereof! Nonetheless I had great respect for him and his deep hunger for the Bible. I remain in touch to this day.

Intense learning experiences I suppose have the potential to reap both positive and negative effects. To me the positives are the discipline and some habits that have been helpful in subsequent years. The negatives were a legalistic approach to goal orientation and time management. Trying to achieve things which may or may not be important. Nowadays you might call it a tickbox or checklist mentality. It took many years to return to a more normal and phlegmatic way of life. When restless and feeling guilt for no particular reason I need to remind myself God is not standing over me with a clipboard ticking off a ‘to do’ list.

It might sound that this was a year to forget. Yes it was not easy and some things were very tough. Yet it was also an experience for which I am thankful. Those I learned with became companions and brothers. We also laughed, we celebrated and we enjoyed each other’s company.

I also know that in God’s plan broken elastic bands can be tied together and reused. In fact that is His business…

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3a NIVUK

Strangers and Pilgrims – Coming Home

For some weeks in 1979 I visited what was then Western Samoa in the South Pacific. An independent state it became known in 1997 simply as Samoa. Not to be confused with the American territory of American Samoa which lay to the south east! W. Samoa consists mainly of two inhabited islands in the midst of a vast ocean. I first visited on my own and was doing the job of ‘line up’, preparing for the visit of the ship MV Logos. See ‘line up’ tag links if interested to know more. Before going I had been given the name of one man that would introduce me to people who could help me with accommodation and contacts. Problem was that I only had the name and no address or phone number. This was before the days of mobile phones and social media so it wasn’t clear how I would find him. On arrival at the airport in the capital Apia I decided to take the airport bus which made a tour of the island’s hotels dropping people off. Money was very tight so was a bit anxious about taking a hotel but couldn’t think of any other plan. Anyhow got off at I think the last hotel on the route and went to reception to book a room for the night. While signing the visitors book whose name should I see but the one contact I was looking for. His room was next door to mine! What an answer to my prayers.

It was arranged for me to stay with an extended Samoan family. Their gracious hospitality was in accord with their culture and traditions. Three generations all slept on the floor in one room but I was given the privacy of my own room. At mealtimes I would eat first, watched by the father of the family. Then it was his turn to eat, followed by the boys. Then the mother and womenfolk. Finally, the poor girls ate whatever was left. I felt honoured but also the responsibility not to eat too much so as those following had enough to eat.

Western Samoa lies near the international date line. It is no mistake that this rather crooked line between north and south poles weaves its way through the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the earth. Mainly between remote islands and ocean. Imagine the chaos if the date line went through the heart of Greenwich, London instead. In 1979 W. Samoa was just to the east of the dateline** and was proud of its status of always having the last sunsets of any given day. Not to be outdone I noticed that the local newspaper in Tonga (west of dateline) had the strapline ‘where time begins‘.

Living and travelling near the dateline plays havoc with your diary. On one occasion I flew from Western Samoa to Tonga which was on the western side of the date line. Diary entry says I left Apia at 3:15pm on Sunday 28th October 1979 and arrived Tonga 4:50pm on Saturday the 27th. It was weird having 2 Sundays that week! About a month later I was on board the MV Logos. We set sail from Western Samoa on Sunday night at 11:10pm on the 25th November. Our destination was Fiji to the west of dateline. My diary has the words ‘NO MONDAY’ scribbled for the 26th November.

Such novel (to me, not to locals!) cultural and geographical experiences were of course exciting. However living for some months in such remote parts and often alone did leave me feeling vulnerable and lonely at times. One of W. Samoa’s most celebrated visitors of a bygone age was Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a Scot and a famous writer who spent his last days on Samoa. He was the author of much loved and world renown classics including ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘Kidnapped‘. His writing never impressed me as a boy. It might have had something to do with his works being prescribed English reading for most Scottish school children at the time. My interest however was awakened during my stay in Samoa. Despite dying over 90 years previously I was intrigued that his memory was still revered by locals. Known in Samoan as ‘Tusitala’ (‘teller of tales’) he had been buried in Samoa.

So while there I resolved one day to visit his grave. It was reached by climbing Mt. Vaea. Stevenson had written an epitaph as a poem which was inscribed on his tomb. Reading the last few lines spoke to me profoundly. Poetry can give space to feelings in the journey of life you can’t describe, awakening longings you are scarcely aware of. 

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, 

and the hunter home from the hill. 

RL Stevenson

About a year after my visit to Samoa I flew back from the Far East to the UK. After 30 countries and over 3 years away my thoughts were much on coming home. Although I’d had many separate travels during these 3 years there was also a sense of having completed one long journey. When leaving the UK in Sept 1977 I had no idea how long my time away would be. Here are my notes then of the return trip back to UK…

The journey to the U.K. was interesting: From Bangkok I flew via Delhi, Bombay and Rome to arrive somewhat weary in Frankfurt, West Germany to discover the airline had lost all my baggage. Truly forsaking all was becoming a reality – thoughts of returning home after over 3 years away with a Bible and a few notes as sole possessions filled my mind. I spent a night at the Int’1 HQ for both MV DOULOS and LOGOS in Mosbach, West Germany. The next day saw me travel luggageless on to London via Paris. In the air approaching London I was awakened from slumbers by my name being called on the plane’s tannoy system — surprise luggage was on this plane: False alarm as it didn’t materialise on the airport’s conveyor belt. Eventually it came on another plane — it was all quite a test as in 3 years of travelling no such thing had happened. Nov’ 1980

These experiences evoked a variety of contradictory emotions. The following is a short poem I wrote during that homebound journey. Like Stevenson’s poem it helped give expression to my feelings at the time.

In Christ we are always coming home

As coming home is our hearts meeting the object of our treasure

For we who love Him what joy to know this daily experience

Of meeting the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever

At whose feet our hopes are never disappointed

However many ‘homecomings’ I have in this life the true calling is that ‘here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (Hebrews 13 vs 14).

** At midnight on 29th Dec 2011 Samoa moved west of the dateline and missed out on 30 Dec in the process. It was said to help trade with Australia and New Zealand.

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled

Crowds visiting the on board book exhibition on MV Logos in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – Jan 1987

In early 1987 Elisabeth and I were living on board the MV Logos. For both of us it had been our home previously before we got married. This latest period we had spent nearly 2 years travelling around the Caribbean, Central and North America and the north coast of South America. As I look at my diary of the time it was probably the most intensive time of our lives so far. Constant travelling and adjusting to many cultures it was also rewarding. My job involved coordinating onboard and onshore programmes as well as the advance preparations for future ports the ship would visit. It meant a mixture of being on board for some time and then travelling ahead of the ship to other countries and ports. Then return to the vessel, usually in another port from that I had left**. In the meantime Elisabeth’s job involved personnel responsibility for the women on board. 

Our cabin was tiny. Once when ship was in Puerto Rico we had a few days off shore in the home of an American couple. When asked how big our cabin was we said it was about the size of their walk in wardrobes. However it was our home. The 140+ crew of Logos were split up into different ‘families’ as a kind of smaller grouping to celebrate birthdays and other social occasions. They were led by a married couple and so we had a ‘family’ of about 10 singles of various nationalities. We would usually meet in our little cabin.

In our cabin with our ship ‘family’ on MV Logos (1985-87). Photo taken from cabin door.

My on board ‘place of work’ was also very small. Porthole-less, it had enough floor place for a swivel chair and a small desk. Entire office reachable from chair. I shared this space with the Chief Steward Mandy. The room was dominated and divided by the forward mast, almost like an unwanted guest. Mandy on the port side and I on the starboard. Being far forward on the ship the area was prone to pitching if there were rough seas. Elisabeth also had a little cupboard like space as an office underneath the main internal stairway.

Mandy and I, and mast, in our shared office

In January 1987 we were berthed in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. I had visited several times previously organising the ship to visit. On one occasion Elisabeth and I were able to do so together and stayed at the home of an American missionary couple. They had a beautiful, tropical garden. The husband was a real romantic. Every day he picked a fresh hibiscus to put on the breakfast table. 

Anyhow back to life on board Logos. One evening in our cabin I stretched for something on a shelf and was literally floored by an intense chest pain. This was followed by difficulty breathing and moving. The ship medic didn’t know what it was but gave me pain killers. After a few days I was still in pain and very breathless. It was decided to admit me to a local private hospital where they told me I had pneumonia. There they put me on a drip for 2 days. However no one could say what was the problem. After hospital I was back on board but was told to rest. 

I was discouraged by my situation. All the more as no one seemed able to diagnose and thus treat me. Some were saying it was my heart, others my lungs.  An X-ray seemed to show that I might have pleurisy or pneumonia. One time lying in bed my gaze fixed on the small poster on our cabin wall. It was the words of Jesus to his followers…

Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me.”  John 14:1 KJV

My pain or my fatigue did not disappear but at that moment I felt Jesus had spoken to me. In context he was speaking to those who were fearful of their future without him. Yet for me his words of comfort to a troubled heart had both an emotional and literal meaning. 

Over the subsequent weeks my pain slowly eased and gradually I got a bit stronger. I returned to my previous tasks and travel. However it was clear that to fully recover Elisabeth and I needed to take things at a slower pace onshore. Elisabeth was also experiencing frequent migraines.

And so it was that in March 1987 we said goodbye to shipmates in the lovely island of Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles. Friendships had been forged through living and working together. Leaving such a caring community was not easy.

As we flew back to an unknown and unplanned for future in the UK we received a double blessing. No extra charge for our 80kg of luggage as we shared our situation with the airline. These were possessions from our home of 2 years and not from some exotic 2 week Caribbean holiday. Then as we waited in the departure lounge our names were called to the flight desk. Thinking there was some problem we were asked…

“There had been a mistake and the plane was very fulł. Would we mind if we were put in first class?”

Think you know the answer to that. 

Back in the UK my condition remained for some months. I was checked out by two doctors and a cardiologist. They gave assurances that whatever I had had it was not pleurisy or pneumonia and could not detect any problem with my heart. Maybe it was some kind of physical reaction to stress. Some things both then and later in life do not get explanations. It’s at times like that I need reminding of Jesus’ words on our cabin wall many years ago. 

POSTSCRIPT Little did we know that March 1987 would be the last time we would see this vessel that had been our home on and off over a 10 year period. On the 4th of January 1988 the ship ran aground. She had struck a submerged Chilean rock in the Magellan Strait in the very south of South America. Miraculously no one was lost and all the crew were safely rescued by the Chilean navy***. Today she is a rusting hulk resting on the same rock, half in and half out of the water with our cabin home submerged. However I would rather remember Logos as a tool that was utilised. It took people to welcome and serve the 6.5 million who walked up the gangway in 108 countries over 17 years. God had used the simple faith of a bunch of largely young and inexperienced people to touch many lives. That story continues to this day with other ships.

MV Logos, as I remember her.

** In another post I recall a visit to Haiti ( Poignant, Hopeful, Maybe Even Joyful ) where I detail more of what this advance work involved in the region. Similar work in other parts of the world can be found by clicking the tag ‘line up’ on this site.

*** You can read an interesting article here by Kathy Knight who was on board when the ship ran aground