20th October 2001
My first morning on board and alarm bells began to ring. No literally, I was woken up by an unearthly clattering of bells. I suddenly remembered reading the safety notice on the back of my cabin door which stated that the signal to abandon ship was seven or more short blasts followed by one long blast of the ship’s bell or horn, I began to count the rings …five, six, seven, s#*t! With my life flashing before my eyes, and a hangover beating the back of my eye sockets with drumsticks, I readied myself to abandon ship.
That is I readied myself mentally, deciding to stay put for the time being, and wait for the cabin to fill with smoke, or for the ship to list heavily, something which would make my position in the bunk untenable. The corridor outside began to fill with the sounds of an unhurried early morning, as people walked past to the showers. Somebody farted loudly. It dawned on me with a huge sense of relief that we weren’t sinking, but the bell was in fact the crew’s early morning call. Having looked death in the eye I was now wide-awake, and knew that I wouldn’t get back to sleep. I decided that I would abandon ship after all, but not before a full English breakfast and a shower.
In the mess room I sought the medicinal properties of a cooked breakfast and several cups of tea. George had excelled himself and despite his gruff exterior, I think he he takes a lot of pride in his cooking and his galley.
Feeling much revived I went for a shower, but having never lived on a ship before, I didn’t know the routine or etiquette involved. It sounds silly I know, but I wasn’t sure if it’s okay to walk to the shower (which was a fair distance from my cabin) in a towel, or should I wear my clothes and undress when I got there? I reconnoitred the shower room and found that there was nowhere dry to put clothes, and so I returned to my cabin, undressed and feeling like a self conscious cat burglar, pattered back down the corridor in a towel.
On deck it was a beautiful morning, the sun was rising crisp and fresh. The port was peaceful and empty. I walked along the harbour and looked at the Japanese long lining fleet which lay in a neat row alongside. They were immaculately clean and painted pure white, like no fishing boat I’ve ever seen before. I kept walking and went past a massive stockpile of road salt…there must have been hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it ready for the winter, forming a seasonal and man made mountain.
I pushed on to the east harbour where the houses were coloured orange, red and green. This part of the town was like a separate village and oozed old-town charm. A few people stood on their door steps, nursing a mug of coffee, enjoying the crisp morning and views across the harbour. As I passed, each called out a ‘good morning’, and I felt as if I had lived there all my life and was among old friends. It was completely different to home, but also very similar.
I came across some ramshackle fishermen’s shanties, with boardwalks out into the sea. Each one a postcard of quaint Newfoundland. After a while longer the town petered out altogether and the road narrowed into a cliff path. I walked through a valley which opened on to the sea. It was carpeted with vibrant autumn-coloured plants and beyond that you could see the harbour mouth, lighthouse and the coastline in the distance. I read a sign and learned it was called Ross’ valley. Pleased with that.
The path wound around and took me to a castle on the top of signal hill, where I learned that Marconi received his famous first transatlantic radio signal from Cornwall. As I got to the top I saw the Canadian fisheries patrol vessel the Leonard J Cowley leaving harbour and pointing her bows out to the fishing grounds. Out of the wind, the sun was warm so I sat in the shelter of a gun on Queen’s Battery for a while watching the boat go out to sea.
In the visitors centre I was amazed at some of the pictures of the harbour frozen solid with 70cm of pack ice and other pictures of icebergs taller than the cliffs behind the lighthouse. I managed to find a postcard of it in the shop and spent my last few cents on it to send home.
The lady in the shop was very friendly and we chatted about icebergs and the impending winter. She said winter was fierce, and I believed her after seeing the pictures. The Newfoundland accent is an unexpected musical mix of Irish and Canadian and I could have listened to her for hours. I told her that I was going to sea tomorrow and her face changed completely, taking on a very sad and resigned expression. She muttered ‘good luck’ before she glazed over and was gone into a world of her own imagining. I wondered what she knew that I didn’t.
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