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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 23 — Life on an Oil-Tanker

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Chapter 23
Life on an Oil-Tanker

Reporting again for service, I soon received word of my appointment as Second Enginer on the S.S. Cymbeline, a big oil-tanker trading across the Atlantic. The ship was in London at the time, so I had to put up with short notice. Promotion to Second gave me much more responsibility and, incidentally, more money.

Shortly after receiving our sailing orders one of the firemen could be heard singing, “For I'm off to Philadelphia in the Morning!”—the Pennsylvanian oil-field was our destination. Out in the Channel, then the Bay of Biscay, then mid-Atlantic. It was not a bad trip, for it was mid-summer, but sailors well know that to sail the Atlantic light ship is not a thing to look forward too. Oil-tankers do not carry cargo on the return journey, but, with our engines aft and the ship sitting by the stern, we were spared the racing of the propeller usually experienced on steamers with engines amidships.

Coming after delightful experiences with Grace's London County team, my voyage out East, with the prospect of seeing the Orient, provided compensation and lessened the disappointment naturally felt at leaving England at that time. Meanwhile I had seen much of the world and I'm afraid I faced this Atlantic trade with less of the spirit of adventure than I had three years earlier. Touring England with a county XI, staying at first-class hotels, and eating the best food England can provide was a very pleasant experience. It had lifted me far away from the frugal meals of cargo steamers. Now I was back again to life on a ship without refrigeration, and after a few days at sea reverted to the same diet as on the Claverhill. Years later I was to receive a delightful reminder of this change to plain food. It was in 1910 when Armstrong led an Australian cricket team through this country. We were playing at Wellington; on our side was young Donald Sandman, playing his first Test Match. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, one of the best in the city. At dinner on the last night, before catching the steamer for Lyttelton, there was a lull in the conversation and page 321 the ever-humorous Sandman, who revelled in the excellent meals served at this hotel, was heard to say, “Oh, well! Back to bread and drippin' to-morrow!”

Present-day ocean liners cross the Atlantic in less than a week. We took over a fortnight, for the old Cymbeline, though bigger than any of my previous ships, had little more speed. At last we approached the famous Delaware Bay, into which flows the river of the same name. This bay is more like a deep gulf and makes a fine harbour entrance to Philadelphia's wharf accommodation, which is up the river.

I had always pictured Philadelphia as an Atlantic coastal port, but, like New York, this great city is tucked away and well sheltered from the rollers of the Atlantic. It is significant that all the great harbours on this Atlantic seaboard, as far north as Nova Scotia, are placed well back from the coastline. After passing Cape May, on the north side, we steamed about sixty miles up the bay before coming to the river, then another thirty miles to the city itself. America's harbours are surely worthy of a great continent. All this was breaking new ground for me and, despite the amount of the world I had seen since going to sea, I was just as inquisitive and anxious to learn all I could of this historic part of the United States.

Loading a 5,000 ton cargo steamer was usually a matter of many days when general cargo was being handled. I had experienced the mechanical appliances that quickened the loading of coal cargoes and shortened one's stay in port: here was something new—oil carried in bulk and pumped into the ship by great pumps ashore. Huge flexible pipes were laid across the wharf and into the holds of our ship. All fires were put out, including the cook's stove, for there were oil fumes everywhere; this was in the early days of carrying oil cargoes in bulk. We rarely had more than two nights in port, so it will be realized what a hard run it was. There was some delay in our getting a loading berth, consequently I had a chance of seeing Philadelphia on this first trip. What a fine city I found it to be!

Like New York and Boston, Philadelphia had been settled by men of vision. They saw far beyond the precincts of their city; they measured the future by the size of the continent that lay behind them. Great buildings were erected and have remained worthy of the days that were to come. Like her rivals page 322 in the north, Philadelphia was gradually moulded into one of America's great cities. She did herself well in the erection of a fine City Hall (we call them town halls in Australia and New Zealand), fine schools and churches, and a modern railway station. Again, there were statues—many statues—with William Penn and Benjamin Franklin their home favourites. As in practically all American cities, there was a statue of George Washington, and an epoch-making one of Lincoln, in Fairmont Park. The mention of this famous park, for it is a beautiful place, reminds me that the Philadelphians boasted of it as being the largest city park in the world. It has an area of more than 3,000 acres. They are very proud of their old Liberty Bell, even though it was cracked and could no longer ring out its song of independence.

It was not long before we were away out into the Atlantic again, bound for Antwerp, so once more I was able to roam round this old city I had visited two years earlier in the Savan.

And so I crossed and recrossed the Atlantic. The Cymbeline usually loaded for London or Avonmouth, at the head of the Bristol Channel, which tapers to become the estuary of the River Severn. The return journey was always to Philadelphia so I had further opportunities of exploring this old city. The people were proud of their Quaker colony, as it was called, when founded by William Penn in the year 1683. The more I saw of this city the more I realized the justice of their claims to be the pioneers of industry in the United States. Cramps' great ship-building yards, established in 1830, were here, as well as a naval dockyard that ranked as one of the most important in the United States. I discovered many things that surprised me, among them being the fact that these people of Quaker origin established the first paper-mill in the United States, the first great foundry, the first insurance company, the first bank and the first medical school. This was an amazing performance that goes to the credit of these sturdy pioneers.

While these people have created a hive of industry in their own state, they have also left behind them some of the brightest pages of American history. Philadelphia was actually the capital of the United States for ten years following the civil war. It is rather sad to relate that just as I found on Bunker Hill at Boston, evidence of actual armed contest with the English—as page 323 they were then always referred to—here again I found that the British had fought and taken possession of the city during the Revolution.

Americans are proud of their independence and it was at Philadelphia that the declaration of Independence was signed. Independence Hall, where the signatures were attached, and Independence Square stand to-day as monuments of that great epoch-making event.

I came across all sorts of places of historic interest. Right in one of the main streets is still preserved Betsy Ross House: it was here that the woman of this name designed the first American flag of stars and stripes. A huge statue of William Penn is to be seen; he looks quaint in his big Quaker hat, braided coat and knee breeches. It must be about a hundred feet high. It is said that a team of horses could be driven round the brim of his hat! The wooden statue the Germans made of Hindenburg in the first World War was of similar proportions. Prompted by charming sentiment, the Philadelphians dismantled, transferred and rebuilt the old home of William Penn in Fairmount Park. It looked fine in such beautiful surroundings. Americans look back and remember affectionately their old founders and leaders, just as do the British who have so many names to honour. The Americans speak of Billy Penn, just as the New Zealanders speak of Dick Seddon, and the Australians of Billy Hughes.

To go into details about the old and modern buildings of Philadelphia would be repeating the story of Boston, described in earlier pages: there was the same growth and development, and the same change in architectural design. I finish on Fair-mount Park. In Christchurch, New Zealand, we are proud of our Hagley Park, an area of 630 acres in the heart of the city, which was once thought to be too generous a provision made by our pioneers. Sydney has her Moore Park and Centennial Park, the latter covering many acres. London, too, is proud of her many parks and great areas like Wimbledon Common, but I believe the Philadelphians can substantiate their claim that Fairmount Park exceeds in size, and equals in beauty, any of the city parks in the world. In my own home city we are pleased to claim Christchurch as a place of beautiful residences. Philadelphia justly boasts of being the “City of Homes” in America.

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Philadelphia is one of the few cities in the United States where cricket is played. I am sorry not to have seen J. B. King play. The Englishmen rated him among the best bowlers in the world, and the first of the swingers. He once flicked Ranjitsinhji's off-bail off before that batsman had got the hang of his bowling. The Indian prince squared matters next time they met. The Philadelphians have made many cricket tours of England, and were very well liked, while English teams often went to Philadelphia. The Americans play the game in the delightful spirit of English amateur cricket, and had they taken to cricket instead of base-ball the English-speaking world would have seen contests as stirring as those between England and Australia.

The Atlantic continued in amiable mood, for August and early September are the calmest months in the northern hemisphere. We were often on the beaten track of the Atlantic liners, and the sight of one always created interest on board our ship. They would slip past us, just as the Deutschland had raced alongside and passed the old Savan in the Channel. There was now even greater international rivalry, and the ships that made for the English Channel were frequently seen. It is strange that American ships did not attempt to win the coveted honour of the Blue Riband. Italians were building bigger and faster ships, and these crossed our tracks to enter the Mediterranean. The French had entered the race and crossed to Cherbourg, but just as Test Match cricket has remained mainly England versus Australia, so the real fight for supremacy in the Atlantic was Britain versus Germany.

September turned to October and this meant the beginning of winter. The autumn tints of the maple on the banks of the St. Lawrence which had been such a joy to me the previous autumn were very different from the white-crested tops that now began to appear with monotonous regularity on the waves of the Atlantic. November followed, and now I knew that the stories of this great ocean were true! On my trips to the West Indies the only place really rough seas were encountered was in crossing the Bay of Biscay. To Philadelphia it was the North Atlantic all the way. A 5,000-ton ship was considered a fair-sized oil-tanker in those days, but she was like a toy to those mountainous seas. The giant liners, while sometimes finding it necessary to slow up a little, continued to page 325 cut through the top of the waves, thus slightly reducing the up-and-down motion of the ship; with the Cymbeline, when light ship we simply went right over the top and down the other side. It was at times a hair-raising experience, for in mid-Atlantic the seas can and do reach heights that justify the name of mountainous seas. Of all the oceans I travelled, none equalled the North Atlantic for roughness in a raging storm. The monsoon in the Indian Ocean was a terrifying experience, the gales across the Bay of Fundy were bad enough, but the great depth of the Atlantic enabled the hurricanes of that ocean to beat up a bigger sea than in any other. The fury of the typhoon must, of course, be the most terrifying storm in the world, but, then, no ships willingly attempt to ride it out; all make for shelter. In the Atlantic there is no turning back—ships great and small ride out the storm and take what is coming to them. With the engines of the Cymbeline situated right aft and the engineers' quarters over the stern, no description is necessary to enable anyone to appreciate the discomfort experienced when an Atlantic storm lashed its fury on our innocent-looking tramp steamer, playing its humble part as a unit in the great British Mercantile Marine. In rough seas, when loaded down to her marks, she often resembled a submarine breaking surface! These were my last months at sea and they were packed with incident and experience.

Philadelphia had proved to be a rich field for my enquiring mind. The countryside was near where the troops of the north, little more than forty years before, had marched to do battle against the brave men of the South. I met men who could speak at first-hand of this tragic happening in the life of America. My preconceived idea was one of sympathy for the South, yet we know that Lincoln was right—there just had to be one United States. The strained feeling between the North and South remained long after the war was over. It was amusing to read in Bobby Jones's book, Down the Fairway, of the famous American golfer, a Southerner, on his first visit to New York, saying in a note to his father, “These Yankees aren't half bad after all!”

I wish I had known then of Colonel Henderson's classic on the life of “Stonewall” Jackson, which tells so vividly of the happenings that took place little more than a hundred miles from Philadelphia, or that it had been possible to read page 326 Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind which, on its appearance, so thrilled the world and gave a glimpse of the domestic side of the times of the great civil war.

It is remarkable how eagerly one seeks the opportunity of getting a close view of historical events of the past when able to visit the actual scene of a battle. On one of his visits to England, via America, my old friend, Arthur Sims, with his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, broke the journey to visit the battlefields of Virginia. He borrowed a guide from a state department at Washington, and set off to complete the picture that history had imprinted on his mind. Less than a day was sufficient to convince him that his guide did not know as much about the North-South War as he did! He sent his man back to Washington and went on himself to study the battlefields, and to piece together, bit by bit, the moves that won and lost battles and made or broke generals. It was bad luck for the guide that in Sims he encountered one of the most able New Zealanders. Sims could quote Henderson backwards and after his visit I am sure few men possessed such an intimate knowledge of the war that at first divided, but in the end consolidated a great people and created the United States of to-day.

These visits to great American cities enabled me to get to know something of the people of the States. Many of them said, “I guess,” and “I calculate,” but in the South it reminded me of New Zealand to hear them say, “I reckon.” The great majority of Southerners had a pleasant, easy roll in their speech, for the men of these parts did not have that nasal accent that characterizes too much American speech.

As on the waterfront at Boston, I often heard the term “the God-damned Britisher,” which was matched by “the b … Yankee,” but these were just slang expressions and did not represent the real feelings of the people. I found the Americans friendly to a degree. That there was rivalry cannot be denied. I thought some Americans were jealous of the outstanding position held by the British Empire. The Hearst Press had made great play of the South African War and had created the impression that it was the case of a big fellow hitting a little chap. Hearst omitted to tell his readers that it was Kruger and his men who set about to drive all Englishmen out of South Africa. Naval supremacy was another bone of contention. Britain insisted on having the largest navy in the page 327 world, but everyone knew that this claim was due to Germany's undeclared challenge and not on account of any desire to outmatch America's power at sea. It was many years afterwards that one of our Ambassadors astonished a peevish American President by saying that as far as Britain was concerned the Stars and Stripes could fly on as many battleships and cruisers as they chose to build. This was said a good many years ago and still represents British opinion, for we must always be together if there is to be peace in the world.

On one of my visits to Philadelphia, we met undue delay in getting a loading berth and the Chief gave me leave for a week-end in New York. I stayed with my relative in Brooklyn, to whom I have previously referred. Six months earlier, my few days in the great American city had been at the end of winter. Now it was glorious autumn weather. Central Park looked a different place with the tinted leaves of the trees and the park crowded with visitors.

After one of my voyages, I had the great joy of a visit from my brother Alex who had come to England before going to America to enter a theological college at Xenia, in preparation for a life in the mission field. Afterwards he went to Brazil where he has worked for the Presbyterian Church for nearly forty years. He came to Avonmouth to urge me to return to New Zealand and take his place with my eldest brother who had, the previous year, started in business as a builders' merchant dealing in timber, cement, lime, etc. He painted a rosy picture of an income far beyond my modest earnings as a second engineer, but it was a difficult decision to make. My father had been a building contractor, and any young man knows something of his father's business; part of my engineering training had been in the pattern shop, so naturally I knew a good deal about certain timbers. This possibly encouraged me to give the matter consideration.

I remember we went up to Bristol in the evening and talked and talked until the last train left for Avonmouth. As I had not seen my brother for three and a half years, it will be understood how much we had to say to each other. He, too, was a keen cricket enthusiast and as we were now in the home county of the Graces we probably talked cricket more than any other subject.

In the end I said I would give a definite answer after another page 328 trip to Philadelphia, and cable my brother in New Zealand. My mind went back over the years, seeking for something that would guide me. During these months in the Cymbeline I had gained considerable experience in the handling of men. The Second Engineer on a ship has responsibilities far greater than those of the Third or Fourth; he not only directs work to be done according to his Chief's instructions, but runs the engine-room staff in his own way; it is the Second Engineer who selects the firemen. One learns to tell by the look of a man whether he will be suitable for the job. While every engineer on watch controls his own firemen, it is the Second who plans the work in port, unless it is a major job, when the Chief would always be consulted. I had been long enough in my present position to have gained all the confidence required to carry out a Second Engineer's duties. But where would it lead to? I had never intended to adopt a seafaring career; my object was to get my Chief Engineer's Certificate. I remember Mr. McGill saying to me on the Claverhill, “If you want to leave the sea, get away before you are made a Chief, or you'll never leave.” I had seen Chiefs who had rapidly become “fair, fat and forty” and then, not inclined to risk leaving on the chance of getting a shore position as good, would remain at sea. The Chief Engineer always ranks next to the Captain on board ship, so has already reached a comfortable and responsible position. It was obvious to me that it would not be long before I would move up to No. i position, and that I might find myself, as McGill had said, unable or unwilling to leave, and thus be destined to a life at sea. My love of home life helped me in my decision, as did the rough Atlantic seas we were then experiencing!

On arrival at Philadelphia I cabled my resignation, and the run home brought to an end eventful years at sea. Signing off at Penarth, where we went to take in bunkers, I went on to Cardiff, saw the South African Rugby team play Glamorganshire, heard a Welsh crowd sing their national anthem, and next day was in London.