I have never been lucky with boats.
I remember when I was about seven, the first experience I had with a boat was on the Fish Quay launchers. We used to get the wood fish boxes, turn them upside down and launch them into the river. They were really like rafts. Then we would sit on them and paddle out, not really far – about 20 or 30 yards. Invariably you ended up in the water, but it didn’t make any difference.
The water in those days was really dreadful but it didn’t do us any harm, except we got soaking wet. I would go home and my mam would say “Been on the launchers again, haven’t you! Al smack ya bloody arse for ye.” It didn’t make any difference, after a couple of days it would be the same thing again. That was my first memory of what one would call a ‘boat’ trip.
A few years later, I remember going on holiday with my mam and dad to Scotland. At Helensburgh I went on a little paddle-boat on the boating pond. These boats were made out of metal with a small paddle on each side, you paddled around the big pond. Unfortunately for me one of the paddles worked loose when I was in the middle of the pond. So there was I with only one paddle, going round and round in circles in the middle of the pond. Eventually the chap in charge of the boats noticed me. He had to wade out to me wearing large waders to rescue me and his boat. Fortunately the pond wasn’t very deep!
Remember the North to South Shields Vehicle ferries? Round the sides of these were places you could stand and look over (I’m not sure of the terminology, I think they were called bulwarks), made of wood with a gap every few feet to let any water run out over the side. These gaps were filled in with vertical metal bars about four to six inches apart for safety reasons. At this time my father had a 350cc AJS motor cycle, and I was on the back as pillion (I must have been about twelve). We were going to South Shields on the ferry. We drove up the ramp onto the ferry and then I don’t know what he did but we shot forward. The front wheel of the motor bike went straight between two of the metal bars and jammed solid. No matter how we tried to free it the wheel wouldn’t budge. We went back and forwards across the river four times! Eventually one of the ferry engineers came up from the engine room with a hacksaw and cut one of the bars to free us.
Shortly afterwards they changed the design of the bulwarks and only left gaps low down near the deck. I think we were the reason that was done. I remember my dad was a bit upset because the wheel was damaged. As a matter of fact he didn’t’ keep the bike much longer because we were quite poor (in fact I’m still quite poor). Shortly after he was doing some work at home (we lived in Church Street at the time) and he didn’t have a hammer to do the job. He took the bike down to ‘Staggies’ and swopped it for one to do the work. That story is quite true.
My next experience of boats happened in 1942, when I was seventeen. Being stupid I volunteered to join the Royal Navy. There is an old saying in the forces “never volunteer”. But anyway, I did and after basic training they asked for volunteers to go on minesweepers. Once again I was stupid enough and put my name down. I was stationed with the flotilla at Lowestoft, which was quite a large naval base during the war. Anyway, to get back to my story, we used to go out on mine sweeping patrol for five days then back into port for four days to replenish stores and do refits. Whilst in port for four days, half the crew were allowed shore leave whilst the other half stayed on board to work the ship.
On this particular occasion it should have been my turn to stay on board as duty Quartermaster. As Quartermaster you were given a white belt, a revolver, a truncheon and a whistle. I don’t know what you were supposed to do with the weapons, but that was what was issued. This night my opposite number, Arthur, wasn’t particularly well and asked if I would mind swapping duties. I said I didn’t mind, so he took over my duty for that night whilst I went ashore to the NAFFI where there would be films or a dance on and you could get something to eat.
I was sitting having a meal when the air raid warning sounded. Standing orders were that should an air raid warning sound you had to immediately return to your ship, to move it into the harbour and away from the jetties, to make a smaller target for the bombers. I left the NAFFI and started hurrying back to where my ship was berthed. It was the regulation that you always had to carry your gas mask and steel helmet. Because there was a raid going on I put my helmet on as I was running back to the ship. Anyway there was a heck of a do on and bombs were dropping. You have all probably heard the sound of a bomb, well, I heard a bomb coming down so I ducked behind one of those old cast iron telephone junction boxes. Remember them? They were painted dark green and stood about four feet high. Just as I did that the bomb hit some houses about twenty or thirty yards away. There was a deafening sound of a huge bang. I just dropped and lay there for a few minutes, quite dazed actually because it was so near. I was covered in grime, grit and dust and thought it was awfully quiet. Then I realised I couldn’t hear, it was a frightening experience. I was still a bit dazed but knew what I was doing and started to head towards the docks. Just then an ARP warden came up and asked if I was ok. I couldn’t hear him but knew what he was saying. I pointed to my ears and said I can’t hear. He took me back to the Aid Post and sat me down with a cup of coffee. Then my hearing started to come back and I told them I was alright.
I thanked them and headed once more for the docks. When I got to the dock gate the sentry stopped me and asked what I wanted. I told him I was based on the ‘Northern Star’. He asked to see my pass book which I showed him and he said “don’t go to the ship, come inside and sit in the Gatehouse.” Then he said “I’ve got to tell you that your ship has been hit by a bomb. It’s been sunk.” In fact the ship wasn’t there, it had disappeared, just disintegrated.
Because I had changed duties I was saved and all those on board lost their lives.
Those are my memories of boat trips.