All at Sea - Part I. We sail for the Med
All at Sea 1
At the time, SS Himalaya was pretty well up there in the pantheon of luxury cruise liners. Launched in 1949, she was the first major post war project out of Barrow in Furness and at the time of her launch was the fastest and largest ship ever owned by P&O. So when we met in 1962, she was still pretty much ‘state of the art’, which, as I was shortly to discover, was far from ‘state of the art’ as we might define it today.
Himalaya offered First and Tourist class accommodation and with around 500 crew to serve the needs of 1100 passengers one can get an idea of the standard of service provided. However it was to be some time before we new recruits saw much luxury.
Not all the crew were European; quite a number were of Indian origin, mostly from Goa just south of Mumbai. They were employed in both the catering and deck functions of the ship and were generally speaking very good at their work as many of them had been ‘on the boats’ for years. However, there was discrimination and the accommodation allocated to the Indian crew was definitely inferior to ours which doesn’t say much considering ours was pretty basic.
Known as Lascars (from the Persian word for sailor) the deck crew lived in what were in all honesty pretty squalid conditions below decks at the stern of the ship – and certainly the noisiest part owing to the propeller rotation. The catering crew were virtually all table stewards and mostly employed in the Tourist Class saloon although I think there were one or two in First Class.
It was probably just as well that our accommodation was separate because they never dined with us in the crew mess, preferring to cook up their own traditional dishes and eat communally, all squatting around large dishes of curry and rice on the floor and eating with their fingers. I must say it smelled wonderful as I passed their quarters but I wouldn’t have wanted it in my nostrils all the time.
As I said, they were good at their jobs by virtue of long experience but the table stewards were particularly exasperating as they appeared to have only two speeds – slow and stop. Nevertheless they always finished their sittings, got their passengers out and were away long before the other stewards.
I also learnt quite quickly that the Goanese crew were useful in other ways. Being mostly Muslim they were abstemious with alcohol, also careful with money, which they saved to send home and so took every opportunity to earn a bit more. This included providing a laundry and tailoring service to us Europeans, many of whom, like me, didn’t have clue about such things.
Without relevant previous experience in the hotel or related industries new recruits to the catering section always joined as ‘Utility Stewards’, which in the case of Dave and I, meant we were assigned to the plate house – i.e. dish washing. However this was not the only thing we would have to do as we discovered when we clocked on in the galley at 6.30 the following morning.
Here we were issued with the uniform and tools of our trade that comprised two pairs of loose denim trousers, Wellington boots and a couple of blue and white striped cotton jackets.
Not that it occurred to me at the time, but looking back it was almost exactly the garb (apart from the boots) that one sees worn by prison inmates. In addition we were each given a galvanised bucket, scrubbing brush, metal scraper, wire wool scourer, a large block of hard soap, a couple of loose-weave cloths and several tea-towels.
The Second Steward then marched us off, back towards the crew accommodation where he stopped in the alleyway outside our cabins. Each of us was responsible for an area of the floor that was to be scrubbed by hand each morning after we had clocked on and would have to be inspected before we could go to breakfast.
The alleyway, which was about 10 feet wide, was marked off along the edge in 8-foot lengths and each was given a code.
Mine was S9, which translated as section 9 of the working alleyway that ran through the starboard side of the crew’s quarters; starboard being the right hand side when facing the front or bow of the ship, for those of us that didn’t know, which included me.
“Ok” he said “Get changed, fill your buckets with hot water over there in the ‘heads’ and back here in three minutes”
“Right. Get on with it then” he said “Let’s see what you’re made of.”
So while he lolled against the wall smoking and flicking ash on our floors we got down on our knees and started.
Well, you can imagine what sort of a job an 18 year old made of scrubbing a floor. What to do first? Soap on the brush or soap on the floor? How much water? And God knows what was in that soap because at almost took the skin off my hands.
“No that‘s no good,” he’d say. “Look there’s a scuff mark here” or “This looks like chewing gum – use the scraper”
How we came in the space of about three days to loathe that man! I’d have cheerfully scrubbed the floor with his face.
However, we eventually got the way of it. By watching the older hands we soon realised that the trick was less water and less soap too. In fact less of everything seemed to make the whole process faster and with vigorous use of the scraper or scourer for stubborn marks the job could be accomplished quite easily. As time went on we learnt from the older or more experienced stewards that less is almost invariably more and I think the same holds true through much of life.
Once “the old bastard” as we came to call him realised that we’d got it sussed he got bored with bullying us and only showed up for weekly inspections.
So that was how our days began. This was followed by breakfast which I have to say was always excellent and whilst not served in the same style as it was to the passengers, we were able to choose more or less anything we wanted from the Tourist class menu. However, leisurely it was not, because we had to resume work at eight o’clock.
For the first couple of days before we sailed, we were employed to do a whole range of fairly menial tasks that mostly included fetching, carrying and cleaning jobs associated with readying the ship for the boarding of the passengers.
My first trip was to be a two week mini-cruise to the Mediterranean calling at Casablanca, Naples, Palamos and Gibraltar, all of which sounded the most exotic and romantic destinations imaginable to us new recruits, most of whom had never been out of the country.
Boarding was scheduled for the Friday afternoon and was planned to give passengers the opportunity to settle in before Himalaya sailed at six and to be clear of the Solent and well down the Channel by the time dinner was served at 7.30.
In those days the departure of a big ship from its berth in Southampton was always something of an event and even when only leaving for a short cruise could be relied upon to give rise to a fair amount of razzmatazz.
Although the ‘back-room’ crew such as we Utility Stewards were supposed to keep a low profile and very much away from the passengers we all managed to get up onto the fore-deck which was the crew’s designated recreational area to watch the goings-on.
As the appointed sailing time approached, Tannoy announcements were made on board reminding friends and family to go ashore and were accompanied by strident sounding of the ship’s siren to indicate its imminent departure. Then a local military band came marching along the quay and entertained all and sundry to a medley of popular tunes whilst the last stragglers left the ship. Finally, as hundreds of coloured streamers were thrown between the passengers along the rails and the well-wishers on shore the bunting-draped gangway was swung away and the ship secured for sea.
Huge capstans whined as the thick steel hawsers securing Himalaya to the mooring bollards were released and drawn in-board whilst on the sea-ward side a couple of powerful tugs gently eased the great white lady away from the quay until she was able to start her own engines and set sail down the Solent. From this point on, life for the crew, and especially for us ‘untouchables’, dropped into a routine totally associated with mealtimes on board the ship.
The early morning job didn’t change apart from the fact that it simply became so much a part of routine as to be unnoticed. However ‘plate-house’ duties whilst equally predictable really were something else.
There were two dish-washing areas serving the Tourist and the First Class restaurants. Whilst the work in each area was effectively the same, the First Class dish-washers among whom I found myself had this fanciful notion that we were a cut above the others.
Perhaps this was because we were disposing of a better class of left-overs from plates emblazoned with a posh logo. Now that was snobbery above and beyond but I guess if your life is washing dishes you need to find your self-esteem where you can.
The plate-house consisted of a square area with stainless steel surfaces all round, one side of which fronted onto the alleyway between the galley and the doors out of the restaurant. It was onto this surface that the waiters or ‘wingers’ as they were known would deposit all the dirty plates and cutlery on their way out of the restaurant and en-route to the galley before returning to the restaurant along the opposite leg of this one-way system.
Along this surface of some 12 or 14 feet were three equally spaced holes through which we had to scrape all the left-overs into metal dustbins underneath the surface. Large rubber grommets around each hole served to prevent plates from getting chipped.
With plate-scrapings comprising a revolting mixture of moist food detritus, fish-bones, sauces, gravy etc. the dustbins were extremely heavy and as they had in due course to be disposed of overboard this presented quite a challenge in itself not to mention some interesting adventures.
The restaurants on board were located quite low down in the ship and not that far above the water line, and while the restaurants themselves were air conditioned after a fashion, the galley and plate-house area was not.
I guess it stood to reason really that with all the heat generated in that area any form of air-conditioning would have had its work really cut out to make much impact. As a consequence the working conditions were at best too hot and at the worst indescribably awful.
Except in the roughest of weather we always worked with the portholes open and in order to further improve the ventilation someone had invented the ‘air-scoop’. This was similar in effect to sticking your hand out of an open car window while in motion and diverting a cooling draught of air inwards. This metal blade protruded out of the porthole and most of the time worked very well to improve the ventilation.
However, just occasionally; and you’re probably ahead of me by now; being fairly close to the water the blade would catch the odd higher wave and direct not cool air but a deluge; not just a little splash, but gallons of cold sea water onto whoever had the misfortune to standing in the wrong place.
This always caused huge hilarity to everyone but the unfortunate victim, although the bottom line was that we all suffered because with the floor inches deep in water we were all slithering around all over the place. It wasn’t until I experienced this for the first time that I understood why we’d been issued with ‘wellies’, although we rarely wore them, finding flip-flops or even bare feet more comfortable. Looking back at the situation through modern ‘health and safety’ eyes it is almost impossible to believe but at the time we didn’t give it a second thought.
There were six of us in the plate-house. Three receiving and scraping, two loading and unloading the dishwashing machine, and the other stacking up the crockery for collection by the wingers, which brings me to another little curiosity about the job.
As I was to discover some weeks later, a key element of the waiting job is to be able to get your passengers served as quickly (within reason) as they want to eat, thereby giving yourself less time at work and more time off duty. To achieve this you need to have available a ready supply of clean plates. Stands to reason I know, but once a meal sitting begins, the supply of clean hot plates in the galley soon dries up.
Then each waiter has to fall back on the supply that he has, if wise, put by in his own ‘dumb waiter’ – the little heated locker near to each serving station in the restaurant.
This in turn relies on the relationship he has built up with the guys in the plate-house, which in reality means how much he pays them.
So you have this interesting little bit of graft going on. Passengers tip the waiters to get that bit of extra special treatment and behind the scenes the waiters are paying off the dish-washers, the chefs, the locker men and so on so that they can actually provide that extra special service to the passengers.
As everyone’s favourite meerkat says “Simples!”
I guess the clever waiters are the ones who actually manage to pay out less than they receive so leaving a small margin for themselves.
There was one memorable day when I did come to regret wearing the ‘wellies’ although to be honest, with or without, the result would have been equally revolting.
As I mentioned, disposal of the food waste presented something of a challenge, mainly because of the weight of the bins when filled.
A few yards from the plate-house there was the disposal chute (I never could understand why it was not actually inside but there you go!). This was a tube about 10 or 12 inches in diameter that widened at the top into an aperture about 2 feet square with a metal cover that was screwed firmly down closing the chute.
About 12 feet long, the tube dropped vertically before bending and opening out of the side of the ship more or less on the water line.
On the day in question, Dave and I had struggled to drag one of the bins over to the chute. Having opened the cover, we’d managed between us and with some considerable effort to up-end the bin into the chute but unfortunately for some reason or another, the contents jammed in the chute and of course the weight on top of it meant that it was well and truly blocked.
Apparently this was not an unknown occurrence because to one side against the wall there was a long wooden pole and as one of the chefs nearby pointed out to us, all it needed was “a good poke”.
If we had noticed the small crowd of onlookers that was gathering, albeit at some distance, we might have had some inkling of what was about to happen. However between us we were so busy jointly ramming away with the pole that we didn’t pay any heed.
Once again here, you may be ahead of me. Suddenly the ship gave an unexpected roll, and forced upwards by the sudden ingress of a large volume of water into the bottom of the tube, the entire contents of the now tightly packed chute exploded volcano-like into the air and cascaded down onto the pair of us accompanied by whoops and shrieks of hilarious laughter from the assembled onlookers.
Further description is probably superfluous but with regard to the wellies, they were full to the knees with a revolting mixture of plate scrapings and seawater. I never wore them again.
There were few benefits to dishwashing even allowing for the dubious honour of handling first-class leftovers, apart perhaps from the sheer basic nitty-gritty of it. By this I mean it is a leveller and does not allow any silly pretensions because when a group of people are all doing the same rock-bottom job and are all equally wet, filthy and at someone else’s beck and call there is no room for attitude.
However, there was one little perk in addition to the tips from the waiters.
At the end of each session there was this unwritten but generally understood agreement that because it was such a rotten job, on the way out of the galley we could help ourselves to the odd item from the cold pantry.
This was on the basis that the activity went unnoticed, so yes it was a tacit permission to steal.
For me, the cold pantry meant fruit and as much as I could reasonably secrete in my bucket beneath a pile of tea towels.
Dave and I had just left the pantry, me with grapes – my great weakness and he with bananas and were on our way back to the cabin when he got waylaid chatting to someone on route.
Now, as I said, grapes are my weakness and so by the time I’d got back to the cabin I’d already munched my way through quite a few and as he didn’t arrive for some time I simply carried on eating. In my own defence it was probably as much to do with the need to re-hydrate myself after the shift as anything else like greed for example - surely not!
As I mentioned previously, Dave was an east-ender with an original cockney accent and I’ll never, ever forget his outburst when he discovered that I’d eaten almost all the grapes.
“You bleedin’ gannet you” he railed.
“Free pahnds. There must ‘ave been free pahnds of bleedin grapes and you’ve scoffed the bleedin lot. Don’t fink you’re ‘avin’ no bananas”
I had no defence but I’m pleased to say he didn’t hold a grudge although he wasn’t slow to remind me of the occasion during the months we were to be shipmates.
The episode earned me the nickname ‘Grape Gannet’
Next time I'll tell you about our ports of call on a two week Mediterranean cruise where I learnt the surprising strength of Spanish San Miguel beer and discovered a beautiful island.
These blog posts are extracts from my first memoir - Stepping Out from Ashtead -on Amazon if you want the whole story now.