Trip to Italy and the Mediterranean

May 1964

Having passed the examination for a Master’s Foreign Going certificate in March of 1964 and later taken occupation, together with my wife, of a new bungalow in St Margaret’s near Dover, I was quite busy at first with getting the house and garden sorted out, or at least to make a start on it. I was offered and grateful for a relieving job as Second Officer, one day a fortnight during April, on the 1961-built car ferry Free Enterprise where I had been promised a full-time job from June when the ship went from one-and-a-bit crews to three, for the busier summer season.


After a month of this, I needed to get a more lucrative job, so I contacted several short-sea companies and went up to London for an interview with the Marine Superintendent of General Steam Navigation Co (GSNC) and was appointed as Second Officer on the Philomel joining on 6 May in St Katherines Dock, London. Obviously, I didn’t let on that I only needed a job for a month as that would have been prejudicial to the offer. An officer from another GSNC ship came on board and demanded to know how I had got the job which was a ‘Foreign- Going’ service to the Mediterranean and apparently highly sought after. My main concern though was how long the trip would be and whether I could get back to London and pay off before 11 June when the Free Enterprise began her summer schedule. Just in case, I had lined up a friend who was a North Sea Pilot to cover for me if I was late home.

Philomel had been constructed in 1956 by AG Weser of Bremerhaven for Manchester Liners as the Manchester Venture and designed for their Great Lakes service, newly extended to serve Chicago. To enter all the small canals and ports there, she was of only of 1,662 tons with a length of 78.63m, breadth of 13.25m, and a depth of 8.13m. Her bow was nearly vertical to fi t in the locks, and she had three holds forward served by winches and derricks. The accommodation block and the engine room were all situated aft, and the single diesel engine could get her trundling along at about 13 knots. In the winter, when it was all iced up in the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, she and her sister ship, Manchester Vanguard, were employed in trading to the Canary Islands by an arrangement with Yeoward Lines.

Due to “unfavourable commercial factors” the two ships had been sold to GSNC in 1961, renamed Philomel and Sheldrake, and employed on their Mediterranean service to Italy, and they were the largest of GSNC’s cargo ships. The tonnage of 1,662 was fortunate for us in that ships over 1,600 tons had to carry a Radio Officer, which was always comforting in case the radar played up. The accommodation was very good and, perhaps surprisingly, my cabin was larger than the one I had on a newer 8,500 Ton Bank Line ship.

After a call for more general cargo at Southampton, we motored down through a rough Bay of Biscay where, due to the ship’s small size and its all-aft arrangement, I didn’t feel like eating any meals. Once clear of the Bay and around the corner into the Med, the weather improved such that life became a pleasure again. I was interested to see that the ship hugged the coast of Spain all the way up, with Captain Lawrie scanning the weather forecasts very carefully to detect any sign of the dreaded ‘mistral’ with northerly gale force winds suddenly occurring. When the good weather continued, the Captain was able to cut the corner off and, from the Costa Brava, head over to the French coast at Séte. If the mistral had been blowing, they would have continued hugging the coast all the way to Italy. It was eye-opening to me, after the caution of ‘deep-sea’ ship operation, how close to land these small ships were happy to pass. In particular, we purposely passed close to the Isle of Levant, where naturists were said to sport themselves; while it was very scenic, no naturists were seen.

Still sheltering from a possible mistral, we proceeded close along the Cote d’Azur to our first Italian port of call, Savona, just south-west of Genoa. Then it was on to Genoa itself where I was able to get some time off ashore to have a look around and post a letter. I tried to buy a stamp for my letter, but without any knowledge of the Italian language, I couldn’t make myself understood, and had to buy a phrase book to find out that a stamp was a difficult-to-guess ‘francobollo’. Mr Towner, the Chief Officer, is married to a lady who comes from Genoa. Her family are still here, and as a result, the C/O speaks Italian and, apparently, with a Genoese accent.

The weather had continued to be absolutely perfect with light winds, warm temperatures, and blue skies; in total contrast to the ship’s previous voyage here in March when I was told the weather was awful. We continued on down the coast with a call at Livorno (Leghorn) and then on towards Naples. When opposite, but out of sight of Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, I was on my 12 to 4.00 afternoon watch when I spotted men on a nearby fishing boat waving like mad. I rang standby on the engine, called the Master, and brought the ship to a halt near the fishing boat. By this time, the C/O had been roused and went on the deck to ask what the problem was. The fishermen said that their radio was on the blink and could we radio to Civitavecchia to tell their base that they were all right otherwise. For this assistance, up came a large basket of various seafood, enough for all the crew, and enjoyed for that evening’s meal. This was rewarded the next morning by my being woken by the breakfast bell at 8am instead of having to turn out after 2 hours of sleep for docking stations at first light. I flung open the curtains to find we were alongside in port and was further rewarded by a perfect view of Mt Vesuvius framed by the window. After a further call at Salerno (of WW2 fame) we motored on to our final port of Syracuse on Sicily’s east coast. We had a few days alongside here and shore leave allowed us to visit some of the many antiquities of which the area abounds.


On the return voyage, the excellent weather held, and we passed close to Gibraltar and even closer to Cape St Vincent, which made it so much more interesting. Going across the Bay of Biscay, I again found that I couldn’t stomach any food. I think the all-aft accommodation, corkscrewing, and moving up and down like a lift was the problem. After a short call at Southampton, we arrived back in the River Thames, and I was interested to see that the Captain, having a Pilotage certificate, steered the ship himself, using the conveniently placed Arkas autopilot, nearly all the way up-river to St Katherine’s Dock in London.

I paid-off on 8 June, allowing me three days’ leave before joining the Free Enterprise on the 11th. I was very grateful to GSNC for the employment at this time, and I remember being surprised at how similar the job was to what I had been doing ‘deep-sea’ for the previous three years or so.


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