Early in February 1969 I left my job as forklift truck operator at a tobacco warehouse. I had given myself two weeks to find a ship to work my passage to Canada. I had arranged to fly with Air Canada on a fly now-pay later scheme sponsored by my grandfather if I was unsuccessful in finding a ship in that time. I had thought I would give emigration a try for 6 months, so it did not seem that I was going to leave for ever. I had partings with friends, some heart-achingly sad. My girlfriend and her mother were unhappy. I was comforted that a good friend was going to look after my girlfriend. (He ended up marrying her, and we have been close friends ever since). My brother David inherited my flat and furniture.
It may have been a Monday morning, but I recall it being foggy. I went down to the Docks and found a Norwegian ship, the M/S Lundefjell, a vessel operated by the Fred Olson Lines. I asked to see the Master, and he told me that if I had my Immigration papers, I could join his ship – the Lundefjell was leaving that night, February 11, 1969. The suddenness was exhilarating: I rushed home on the Underground and packed an old canvas trunk that had been given me by the parents of my best friend. David and I both went to the Docks, by which time it was dark. We had a teary parting since we were close.
But I went nowhere for a few days. The ship did not leave the docks that night because there was a work stoppage. Very British that. I had told everybody I was leaving, yet I was too proud to declare that I was not going anywhere for a while.
I was bunked with a young seaman; tall, blond, silent. Norwegian. Many of the seamen were silent; if not blond and tall. My job was to help the Officer’s Pantry Maid. Women traditionally worked on the Norwegian Merchant Marine. Norwegian prostitutes were once given the option of working on ships or going to prison, and the tradition of women on ships still continued. There were three maids on the ship. I worked for the Captain’s maid. The petty officers and the men were looked after by their own attendants. The woman I worked with was not initially pretty, but after 2 weeks on the ship began to look very attractive. Being 20 I must have seemed very young and inexperienced. She had little to say to me; apparently reserving her kindness and chatter for afternoon relaxations with one of the Officers; after which, she and he always seemed happy and relaxed …
After a few days, the ship finally got going for Rotterdam, where we picked up more cargo. I found a lady’s wallet on the sidewalk near the ship and had the dreamy adventure of tracking her down at her address and personally giving it back to her, hoping for a liaison. My fantasy was not realized: she smiled, thanked me warmly and firmly closed her front door on me. As she should have done, of course.
From Rotterdam the ship sailed to La Havre in France for a couple of more days. And from there we went on to Vigo in Spain. Finally we headed out across the Atlantic. The weather was lovely: I enjoyed lying on the rear deck in the sunshine watching the sea gulls drifting back and forth over the rails. The Master told me that the crossing was the smoothest he had had since the War.
My work was easy enough. I prepared food and laid out plates for breakfast, mid-morning coffee, lunch, tea and supper. I learned to wet the table cloth beneath the plates to prevent them from sliding in the gentle swell. I also washed the dishes and cleaned the Officer’s cabins. Whenever I had trash and scraps, I heaved it over the sides. But one day, I neglected to look downwind first and was startled by very loud yelling in Portuguese coming from a rubbish-festooned Cook who had been smoking at the rail. I regretted my carelessness, because the cook was about the only person in the crew that was talkative and friendly to me.
The M/S Lundefjell was scheduled to visit several ports on the East coast of Canada. The Master told me that he would let me off at the last of these. Halifax, Nova Scotia, was to be the first stop, some two weeks after I first stepped on the ship. Just before we got to Halifax a big storm started and we just made it into the harbor before the worst of the weather struck. The Master changed his mind, and told me that I was free to leave the ship at Halifax. Perhaps he realized how excited I was. He had the Radio Officer write me a Testimonial on his behalf – I still have that document: it is probably my first unsolicited testimonial. He kindly gave me $200 and wished me good luck in my travels.
Canadian Immigration officers escorted me to the empty, cavernous Immigration Hall. Although I had the correct papers and had been quizzed at Canada House during my application, I was interviewed by a trainee Immigration officer who gave me what seemed like an unnecessary hard time, perhaps for the practice. But in the end, on February 27, 1969, I was free to walk in the snow blizzard to the train station to start my life in Canada.