Christmas is probably the time of year everyone wants to spend with their relatives. This is what my parents must have thought too in December 1966 and so my mother and I got on board of the vessel Vlieree, a very ugly coaster my father was captain of in those days.
We quite often joined him, in- but also beyond holidays, on a number of coasters from different shipping companies, even in the days he was only 3rd mate and I was a baby, till I was about 17. It was a nice way to see a bit of the world, and now, as I am getting older, I sometimes think back of those days.
We celebrated that Christmas in a foreign port with everyone on board (cook, first mate, second mate, first and second engineers, perhaps even a third, and four sailors of which one or two were from Africa), all of us in the hut of my father, proudly called the “salon”, which was also his office and it had a sort of dinner table with a small couch.
It was my honourable duty to give everyone a present.
At some point we left, my memory fails me here, I think it was from Sweden, with a shipload of iron ore, to Caen in France.
But the weather deteriorated on the North Sea. My mother, always seasick although she spent the first 24 years of her live on a ship, had to stay in bed with a bucket at the foot end to throw up in. I had to stay in bed too, as the ship was tumbling about in a rough sea.
Normally I would sleep in the captains salon, a small living room-hut if you like, and on other trips in a spare cabin, but on this particular voyage I stayed in the same bed with my mother, my father’s three-quarter bed in fact, where there was nearly room for the both of us. See her throwing up didn’t make me feel better, so I did the same thing.
Meanwhile it became New Years eve, but we had no notion of that. The cook, who was depressed because he had recently divorced his wife, was always drunk, but he tried to make something of a New year’s dinner anyway, which we couldn’t attend to in the messroom being sick and in bed and so he kindly took some of that dinner to the cabin for us, but it was blown of the plates as he walked outside over the deck. The plates went too I think.
I had a bottle of Fanta and a comic book and I guess I slept a lot. For days we stayed in this storm. My father was at work all the time, sometimes allowing himself some sleep. Every time my mother would ask him where we were, he would answer: heading for Texel’s Lightship. This answer we got for days! The ship just didn’t move ahead, it seemed.
The very old first mate had to take a night shift, but fell asleep. He had probably been drinking too much. The young African sailor he left in charge with the helm, had no clue of what he was doing.
My mother was never afraid in a storm, she knew that fog was much more dangerous at sea. And as she was too sick to think of anything. I had no idea the ship was in trouble. I did not feel worried. I just trusted my parents on this one. It was the hot wall of the overheated engine room the bed was against that bothered me, and my mother on my other side telling me to stay on my side of the bed, when I found out I could not. And the throwing up, the sour smell. Sometimes my father would come into the sleeping cabin to empty the bucket. During these days we never once had to go to the toilet!
At one point my father woke up in the middle of the night. There was seawater coming over the ship, and it went into the cabin as soon as he opened the outside door, which was reasonably normal to happen in a storm, but that water contained sand. This was a very bad sign. He ran upstairs, to the pilothouse and immediately took over the helm. The ship had gone into the shallow waters near Vlieland and Terschelling, the island where we lived. The Wester Gronden, as my father knew very well, are very dangerous. Lots of ships had run aground there during hundreds of years. He managed to get the ship out of it, not a second to soon.
The storm ended and we reached the port of Vlissingen (Flushing) as that was as far as we could go. We never reached Caen. When we entered port I tried to get out of bed, because I all of a sudden needed to go to the toilet, I saw a wall of water outside the porthole and was literally thrown to the wall of the cabin. We did not capsize, but the ship was listing heavily and had been doing so for days. My mother and I had not noticed that before. This explained why I would constantly roll over to her side of the bed.
My mother and I eventually left the ship in Vlissingen the same day, on January 4, my 9th birthday, to go home. The crew had a present for me, a box of compasses and the old first mate gave it to me solemnly. The cook gave me a bouquet of flowers and cried. I knew why, it was also his ex wife’s birthday, he had told me that. And he was drunk of course.
We found out we had lost quite some weight, and that was it. It was not till years later I was told the whole story and that we had almost been shipwrecked. But still I learned a lot. That it is a good thing children can trust their parents no matter what, and that you can survive on a bottle of lemonade and a comic book for days. And that my father was a very good seaman.