Once Upon a Time There Was… 

In the following story I have not indicated places, names or dates.

Once upon a time there was a young ‘line up man’, hereafter known as ‘line up man’. He was ‘lining up’ for the world’s first floating bookship. The job involved preparing for all aspects of an upcoming ship visit to a port. Arranging official permissions for public to visit the onboard ship exhibition, customs, immigration, appointing shipping agent, organising concerts, conferences, and all kinds of meetings onboard and onshore. In addition all manner of things that what was home for 140 crew from 25 nations might be needing.

Usually those who did line up went in small teams of 2 or 3 for mutual support. However on this occasion said line up man went alone. He was excited. It was a small, remote island nation the population of many mid-sized towns in the UK. Line up man arrived and found accommodation with some young people from another Christian organisation. One of his first tasks was to find and set up an office. Upon being introduced to the Crown Court Interpreter (hereafter CCI) he kindly said line up man could use his office facilities. The office also seemed part of the Ministry of Information. The arrangement proved fortuitous as the CCI was a mine of information. Anybody who was anybody he knew and could fix or arrange most things. 

The CCI was also a Christian and decided that one of the most important things would be to get line up man to speak at a Bible study he was involved with. This was quite normal as line up man would usually seek spiritual and material support from the churches in whatever port or country the ship was planning to visit. So it was that at appointed time line up man went along to the meeting. As was the custom everyone sat cross legged around the edge of a large room. What was not normal was that the Bible study was in the home of the prime minister of the country (hereafter called PM). It could be said that line up people should be ready for anything. This was such a case. Young line up man said his piece in front of the PM and rest of the gathering. Line up man had been urging the importance of prayer and that there was a ‘spiritual battle’ involved in bringing the ship into the country. Line up man was very surprised at the response. Those attending took the message to heart in an unexpected way. A spokesman for the meeting said that not only would they pray. They would also partially fast for the next 3 or so weeks before the ship arrived! Everyone appeared in agreement including the people line up man was staying with. Whether it was the immaturity of youth, potential embarrassment in front of the PM or more likely pride the line up man felt obligated to join in this proposal.

Now one thing line up man liked was his food and line up was not a relaxing or easy going job. A lot of energy was involved in going round government offices getting permissions, church visits, arranging publicity, dealing with port authorities, ship chandlery etc. etc. Cutting back on food for 3 weeks seemed a bleak prospect. After a few days of eating very little line up man was getting quite faint. He recalls sheepishly going to others fasting to ask if he could break fast and start eating breakfast. It was no problem. However line up man felt a bit shameful when others were not doing this. A few more days passed on this one meal a day regime. Yes you’ve guessed it, line up man was still feeling very weak. Anticipating further embarrassment he then asked if he could also eat evening meal. This was again no problem but did nothing for his sense of letting people down. Nevertheless line up man did enjoy low key visits to a local hamburger place. The two meal a day arrangement proved sustainable (just) till the ship arrived. 

One day while the above was going on line up man got a message from the PM. He wanted to see him and was waiting outside line up man’s office in his chauffeur driven government car. Line up man wondered somewhat anxiously what issue of import would cause the PM to personally come and see him. Had he caused offence in some way? Duly going out he joined PM in the car. There was no problem, rather the opposite. The PM wanted to have a time of prayer with him. The PM was a man of faith and left an impression on line up man. Despite wielding authority he was humble. At other times it became known to line up man that his wife (a princess) and two of his daughters shared his faith. Indeed his wife helped with line up by creating an invitation list for the opening reception of the ship when she arrived. 

On another occasion during this line up time the king of the country had to go overseas to represent his country. Now the PM was of royal lineage and a close relative of the king. When the king was out of the country the PM became the acting king. 

One day line up man got another message from the PM during the time he was acting king. Would line up man like to visit him while he sat on the throne? Not a normal invitation but an offer he was excited to take up! In retrospect it was probably an offer he would be ill advised to refuse. As it was had he not met the PM on several occasions. The offer almost felt like from a friend so this should not be that different. So the time arrived and line up man duly turned up for the appointment. He felt quite grand signing visitors book while waiting. The person ahead of him on the list was the Canadian ambassador.

The time came for the meeting and he was ushered in to the Throne room. The acting king (PM to me) was enthroned at the end of a very long table. Line up man sat at other end of table unsure of what the protocol should be. Impression was his chair was at an angle so there was no direct ‘face to face’. The natural focus was the view from a big window looking out to the ocean. A single tanker ship lay at anchor a few km offshore. They appeared to be alone but there may well have been inconspicuous aides nearby. Exact details of conversation are somewhat lost to line up man’s memory. He does though recall his feelings. The king spoke of his country and its needs. The challenge of representing a small country in a big world. Not really feeling he could relate to such matters line up man responded with what he did know. He began to speak of how they had met previously at meetings and thanked him for this interest and enthusiasm for the upcoming ship visit. At that point line up man was reprimanded for becoming too personal. Did line up man not know that when on the throne the king (or PM, line up man was confused) would only speak of matters of state? Line up man had not shown respect to the office. At that point it was good to be able to focus out to sea and try and forget where line up man was. Why had he not been trained in the art of speaking to kings on thrones?

The time in this small country was not all drama. There was also the mundane. One need was for line up man to have a haircut. Without much thought he went along to a local barber. What he didn’t see before it was too late was the use of the trimmer on top of his head instead of scissors. He was now almost a ‘skinhead’. More humiliation! 

So the great day came when the ship sailed into port. Standing on the quayside to welcome the vessel’s arrival into port line up man’s lack of calorie intake and shaven appearance shocked his fellow crew. One even thought he had spent time in jail. 

Despite what seemed blunders by line up man the ship visit went well. Many visitors from all sectors of society were welcomed on board. Friendships made and people were touched. The international crew had many opportunities to share their lives with the people. An opportunity in part made possible by a man with authority yet who was humble. At end of the visit the PM felt the time had been a great blessing to his people. He assured the ship crew of his prayers and was on the quayside to say goodbye as the ship departed. As for line up man he flew off to his next adventure.

Nothing to Lose

Captain Scott, at rest after day’s adventure. **

The spring /summer of 1973 was for me a transition period between finishing school and starting studies at Glasgow university. With time on my hands I applied for and was fortunate to get a 26 day scholarship to join the adventure sail training vessel ‘Captain Scott’. Purpose built in 1971 in Buckie, Scotland it was a 380 ton three masted top gallant schooner. 52m long and 30m high she was the largest sailing vessel flying the British flag at the time. The ship was staffed by a variety of experienced sailors. This included officers from the UK’s army, navy and air force. 

Later in life I spent some 10 years associated with another vessel, the engine powered MV Logos. The Captain Scott, however, was a sailing ship, though it did have diesel motors as back up if needed. The time I spent on board has been my only experience using sails before or since. However the time was intense and a crash course in the basics of sailing with the wind. The primary job of the professional crew was to take us raw recruits and shape us into an effective team who could operate the schooner. 

As trainees we were from a variety of backgrounds. One cohort came from the services themselves. People recommended by officers for possible promotion. Another group were folk from industry or business, again maybe being assessed for management potential. The third group were school leaver types such as myself who had got a scholarship. We were younger than the rest and didn’t have a lot at stake. The others potentially had career prospects on the line. Everyone’s time on board would be assessed by a simple pass or fail. No other form of grading. These simple two possibilities heightened the tension for those hoping for promotion or CV enhancement. Being classed as a failure is not a great bargaining chip when wanting that job as a manager or possible officer material. Also for those sent by their employer they may not have chosen to engage in three and a half weeks of arduous mental and physical activity in cramped quarters. For me it had been a free choice. Although I enjoyed it immensely there were still challenges I had to face.

Captain Scott was ran as a kind of naval version of ‘Outward Bound’. Discipline, endurance and the ability to work together were important to its ethos. I suppose it was designed to make men of boys. Named after the Antarctic explorer Richard Scott there was a figurehead of him on the bow. The vessel’s home port was the little village of Plockton, Wester Ross on the north west coast of Scotland. I made my way there and joined along with a new batch of trainees.

As I recall there was 42 of us joining what was the 15th such course since its inception in 1971. We were split up into 3 watches of 14. Over the coming days we would be moulded into a team sailing round a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There was also an expeditions officer who organised forays into the mountains that surround the rugged and largely remote coastline. For some brought up mainly in the city this region of the UK would be very different from what they were used to. Both my parents come from the NW Scotland. As a result I had spent many holidays in a similar area nearby so was familiar with the terrain and coast.

Our route from Plockton 21st May – 16th June 1973

Certainly the discipline was tough. Lieutenant Commander Victor Clark’s initial lecture was no doubt to stamp his authority on this his new crew. He did make an impression by telling us he was allowed to keelhaul those who did not follow orders. Then proceeded to show how you go about it! Thankfully he did not use actual people to demonstrate! He did command respect. With several dozen sails and a myriad of ropes all with a specific purpose there was a lot to instil in us.

Commander Clark had a long and very distinguished wartime, naval and Admiralty career. At the time he was nearing 50 years at sea. Amongst many adventures upon his retirement from the navy he spent 6 years on a 48,000-mile voyage sailing round the world in a 9 ton yacht. It included nearly a year shipwrecked on Palmerston Island, a coral atoll in the Cook Islands. One highlight of the course was him showing slides and relating stories of his odyssey. 

The Captain Scott and its ethos became a reality through Commander Clark’s vision and determination. With Kurt Kahn (founder of Gordonstoun School) he enlisted Prince Philip’s aid in finding sponsorship. I (and I suspect hundreds of other young men starting out in life) am thankful for his leadership in making it all happen.

His 2nd World War exploits and sailing mishaps didn’t shorten his life and he lived till he was 97. Mariner and adventurer this vicar’s son had another side to him. His naval obituary says he was sustained in 1941 by Christian’s quotation in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ “When thou passest through the Waters I will be with thee; and through the Rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” (Isaiah 43 verse 2).

Ropes everywhere**

The training wasn’t all at sea and the final ‘test’ was a 3 day traverse over remote Scottish hills where we were to survive without coming in contact with civilisation of any kind, not even roads. At the end we met up again with the vessel at another place. In small groups shadowed by the expeditions leader it was a welcome break from being on board.

In order to function safely there were many rules to follow. A course failure could come from disobeying one of them. One of these was no smoking or drinking during the entire course. This wasn’t an issue for me but for those who were regular smokers it was a huge discipline. An infringement meant failure. I was amazed at the vigour and detective work from officers when a cigarette end was found in the heads (toilets). This threat of failure led to resentment with some. Indeed one guy’s anger led to what could have been tragic consequences. He dropped a heavy metal sailing needle from a great height, narrowly missing one of the officers. Another officer had his canoe holed. It was rumoured to be the same guy who had done it.  

We trainees all slept together dormitory style in the mid-section. Port and starboard bunks lining the hull and tables for eating in the middle. Waking up procedure was the bosun entering and sharply blowing his whistle. From then we had 30 seconds to be on deck naked where you were hosed down with salt water from a powerful fire hose. If you flinched or were late on deck you had to stand still before the hose an extra long time. There can be few more effective ways of being fully alert from slumber in under a minute. This routine was OK at sea. However I recall us once being on deck anchored in Tobermory Bay (Isle of Mull). We were being duly hosed down when the early morning mist lifted to have a full view of Tobermory waterfront. I have often wondered what anyone in the harbour would have thought of a couple of dozen naked figures on deck. 

As stated we crew were in 3 watches. I think it was 8 hours on, 16 off or maybe at sea 4 on and 8 off. Some activities were done either as a game or in competition. A 3 masted schooner has many sails. The captain could, for instance, ask all 3 watches to select a hurricane sail from the claustrophobic depths of the keel locker. Each watch had to fight the other off. I do not like closed, confined spaces and found it hard. Caving is not something I have ever wanted to do. There were also mundane things such as tying knots, mending sails and scrubbing deck.

Another game would be races from bow to stern where your feet should not touch the deck. Involved making use of the extensive rigging. Going aloft to reef the sails was difficult initially. Grateful that we were clipped on most of time. Getting over my feelings of vertigo I eventually became more accustomed to the height.

Getting over vertigo!**

Life under a large sailing ship is from a bygone age. All 3 watches, not just the one on duty sometimes had to get up whether daytime or middle of night if captain decided we needed to radically change direction by adjusting or adding sails. The entire crew was usually needed to hoist or lower. She could sail at 18 knots in a stiff breeze. There is something absolutely thrilling being aloft and suspended over the open water when moving at speed. Being with people who had immense experience of sailing meant this unique vessel’s potential was realised.

I did it – ‘conducted myself in a seamanlike manner’!

As I wrote this post I googled what I could find about the ship. Amazed to discover there is a 23 minute film about the Captain Scott and the training course. I do not feature in it as it was done in 1972, a year before my time on board. If interested you can see it here. It captures the atmosphere well. The 1970s style fashions on display are also interesting!

POSTSCRIPT – The Trust that ran the Captain Scott operated these courses from 1971-77. Thereafter it was sold and became based in Oman. Renamed ‘Shabab Oman’ it has until recent years operated as a sail training ship for the Omani navy.

** All photos except my certificate are by kind courtesy of Bruce Mike Roberts (course 23). Sadly I don’t have any I took. Can’t even recall if I had a camera!

East or West?

A few of Stockholm’s 30,000 islands!

My wife is Swedish and for almost 40 years I have been travelling to and from Sweden. Sometimes several times a year and occasionally a year or two with no visits. Short period stays for a few weeks up to one period where we lived and worked in the country for 2 years. It has been a privilege to get snapshots of the changes and trends in a country and culture over a generation. All aided by in-laws and Swedish friends as expert guides. Despite seeing a lot of the country I really have still only seen a small part. Much of the time the places visited have been in the main populated areas in the south of the country. Between the 2 biggest cities and south of that to the coast. Sweden is a big country with relatively few people. As an example the UK has 11 times more people per sq km. than Sweden. It is all relative and the north of the country is far more sparsely populated than the south where most live.

Gothenburg on the west coast and the capital Stockholm on the east. In many ways different but with some geographical similarities. One such is that each city has an archipelago. A string of islands off their respective coasts. Gothenburg’s look like they have exploded out along the coast whereas Stockholm’s seem more swirling in and attached to the city itself. Quite a few who live on these islands work in the cities and commute into their respective metropoli by ferry. A refreshing way to start and finish the work day. The lifestyle reminds me of when I lived in Sydney. There I stayed in the northern suburbs of Manly but went to work in the city by ferry. Salt spray and fresh winds do wonders for the frazzled office worker. 

To me one remarkable thing about Sweden is the eye watering taxes people are prepared to pay. That might sound like a negative but there are advantages to living in what is a very egalitarian society. One of them is that many of these islands have free car and passenger ferries for both locals and visitors. Ran by the state you can enjoy free island hopping by bike, car or on foot. No skimping on the service from early morning to late at night. Some services run every 10 mins during the day.

This generous government policy also keeps the islands populated and accessible. If you have a second home on an island you can regularly visit. Also many go for day trips or weekends so local tourism and businesses thrive. In addition a number of close knit islands have bridges joining them. Further enhancing the convenience of moving around the islands. The islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago are car free and there are some passenger only ferries where you do pay. Not sure what the rules are for paying and non-paying ferries.

Lilla Varholmen to Hönö Island ferries

I have only visited Gothenburg’s northern archipelago and most seem to be mainly rocky with not a lot of trees. Not unlike Scotland’s west coast in parts. The few of Stockholm’s inner islands I have seen have more abundant tree life. Although ferry travel is made easy, living on these islands is not cheap. Houses are expensive. Sweden manages to combine a benevolent and generous form of socialism with competitive markets and a very entrepreneurial society. 

Stockholm, sometimes called the Venice of the north, is itself a collection of islands. It has more of everything compared to it’s smaller sibling Göteborg in the west. Thousands of islands in its archipelago (though not all populated), more wealth and more people.

The islands on both coasts often have picturesque harbours and an abundance of pleasure craft. All giving an air of relaxed and lazy living. As a mere observer with no real insider knowledge Stockholm’s islands seem to have more of a cosmopolitan air, perhaps inevitable given it is the capital. Gothenburg’s seem to have more of a local feel and its houses (I imagine) having more vibrant colours. 

The islands, whether on east or west, have a rich and interesting history. One example is Rörö, the northernmost island of Göteborg’s archipelago. Now it is a beautiful nature reserve with lovely walks. In days gone by locals got an income from luring ships with bonfires onto it’s rocks. They would then kill any surviving crew and plunder the cargo. The graves of an English crew are said to be buried along the island’s rocky western shore. In Rörö’s harbour today a lifeboat station has pride of place. Saving lives instead of plundering and killing. Times have changed. 

The islands on both east and west coasts have been strategic to the defence of Sweden through the centuries. Vaxholm is an island cluster on the way in from the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. It has been strategic to the defense of Stockholm from enemies to the east for centuries. A lot of the substantial buildings are of a defensive nature, such as military barracks or castles. The defence of the capital is still a concern today as every so often a foreign submarine appears in its waters. Vaxholm castle even has a mines museum in its courtyard. The Oxdjupet strait was a strategic waterway on the main passage into Stockholm. Guarded on the west side of the strait by Oskar-Fredriksborg castle and Fredriksborg fortress to the east. For 300 years locals worked on filling in this strait (yes 300 years!) as a means of preventing ships entering Stockholm. Times have also changed here and now this waterway accommodates large liners and ferries on their way into and out of Stockholm.

During the Cold War many underground bunkers were installed on both east and west coast as well as on the mainland. Their locations were hard to detect buried under rock and designed to survive nuclear attack. Some years ago I visited one of these in Gothenburg’s archipelago. Located on an uninhabited rocky outcrop it was well hidden from the pleasure boats that passed by. Along with hundreds of others it was destined to be demolished. 

I will not be drawn on whether east is better than west. Suffice to say I come from the port city of Glasgow in the west of Scotland. To the east we also have a capital city, Edinburgh. 

One thing I can say is that on a summer’s day seaside ice cream tastes just as good whether looking over the Baltic or the Kattegat. In fact good ice cream tastes the same wherever you are.