Followed by photographs and information about Wick Radio/GKR and its staff in the final days of its service.
An unsolved mystery of the sea:
Fated is a true story presented in the genre of fiction in order to give anonymity to the people involved.
All the events set out in this book actually happened at the times, and on the dates stated. The extraordinary sequence of coincidences impressed the author, who experienced them first hand, to such an extent, that he felt compelled to set them down for others to ponder.
Good Friday, April 3rd, 1953: A British freighter leaves the Mersey bound for the Far East on a routine voyage. The chief steward, Scouse, is an amateur numerologist and deeply superstitious. He sees unlucky omens in the sailing date and in numbers derived from the ship’s name and Official Number. The strange and dramatic events that happen along the way reinforce his fears that, somehow, the voyage is running parallel with the Crucifixion. There will be a tragedy, ‘Death for the unlucky one.’
Senior officers hold Scouse in disdain. Morgan, the third engineer, accuses him of blasphemy. However, the steward transmits his fears to MacTaggart, the fourth engineer; and to Tommy, a supernumerary male nurse. Other men grow anxious. The Chinese crew sense that there is a bad ancestor aboard.
Then tragedy strikes, shrouded in mystery.
A decade later the mystery deepens when an incredible story surfaces, which, if true, holds shocking implications. So much so, that one of the ship’s ex-officers feels a compulsion to investigate. His quest, leads him into a remote rainforest where he draws blank after blank until, at last, everything takes on a bizarre perspective when a strange and little known fact comes to light.
With the exception of Chapter 25, all the characters in this book are fictitious.
Born in Manchester, Charlie Gregory served in the Merchant Navy and Army before moving to Scotland where he met Elizabeth, his wife. They now live in Wales and have three adult children.
The book is available from Amazon KIndle, price £1.54
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The midnight tide, Good Friday, 3rd of April 1953.
Beneath scudding night clouds the freighter Rev James nosed out of Birkenhead's Vittoria Dock into the murky waters of the Mersey. Her massive black funnel, devoid of rake and sporting a white dog collar, proclaimed she was “one of the Reverends.” Her excess lifeboats, tiered in pairs along the lower bridge and boat-decks, told of the days she carried pilgrims to Jeddah for the Hajj.
On the bridge, her master, Captain Johnson, with this, his first command, now underway, struggled to conceal the surge of excitement that welled within him. At forty-two he was the youngest ever Reverend James Line captain. With no radar to assist him, he drew comfort from the company's insistence that, in areas of high traffic congestion, as many pairs of eyes as possible must scan the shipping lanes.
Now, with a Chinese quartermaster on the wheel and an experienced port-pilot on hand to advise him, he moved agilely between the vantage points from where his officers, each backed by an apprentice, were manning the telegraph or, huddled in greatcoats on the bridge-wings, gazing intently at the kaleidoscope of navigation lights that formed the midnight tidal circus of the river.
Satisfied that all was under control, Johnson turned and strode briskly from the wing into the wheelhouse where, after his habitual glance at the compass to check the ship's heading, he paused to stare thoughtfully through the window and over the foredeck at the darkness beyond. His eight thousand ton charge was now surging down a channel, between familiar sandbanks, towards the Crosby Lightship, which, pitching and rolling on a confusion of swells, forever waved hellos and farewells to passing mariners. Beyond, lay the open sea... the world... the wedding... his career... and the rest of his life...
On the fo'c'sle and over the stern the Chinese sailors, wrapped against a chill wind that gusted off the Irish Sea, blew into cupped hands as they shuffled away from their stand-by stations towards their lair in the cramped accommodation a few feet above the rumbling propeller shaft.
Below, in the oil-fumed heat of the snakes and ladder world of the engine space, men in toil and sweat-stained boilersuits ran back and forth and clambered up and down in response to urgent demands from the ceaseless clanging telegraph, amid the throbbing din of power plant, pounding pistons and the whirring shafts of steam turbines.
Fung, the tall scowling white-jacketed Shanghai steward, knocked on the door of my poky cabin in the gloomy alleyway that led to the galley and saloon, then entered without invitation. 'Ship no good,' he grumbled under his breath, plonking the “stand-by extra” can of water into the receptacle above the sink. We each got three cans a day to cover drinking, shaving and ablutions. 'Too big yin,' he muttered, shaking a head of thick black hair as he turned to leave, 'too sma’ yang.'
Though he said it in English, I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. Aware that any witty retort would fall among the rocks, I followed the slim young steward out of the cabin without comment, then turned and headed for the radio room. It was time to announce our departure to the world.
Out on the well-deck I shivered slightly and quickened my pace. The logic of making this tired old girl the career threshold for our brand new captain and two first trip apprentices was obvious.
Shinning up a ladder to the boat-deck, where the blustering wind snatched fume ridden smoke from the giant stack before hurling it down in a two fingered gesture of pollution on the sleeping streets of the receding town, I smiled wryly at the irony that also made the Rev James the ideal venue for the swan song of a slim, quiff-haired, harum-scarum, eighteen year old tearaway junior radio officer, like me.
Entering the radio room, housed in one of the two container-like sheds at the aft-end of the boat-deck, I was in a battleship grey world, peppered with a complexity of dials, knobs, and colour coded wheels.
The other shed was my boss’s cabin. He spent his life in an office in the bridge accommodation where he worked as a purser.
Now, while flicking switches on the emergency receiver and transmitter, I snatched a cigarette from the Woodbine tin that lay forever to hand on the working surface. Then, swinging the pointer over the receiver dial with one hand, I flicked a lighter under the weed with the other and took a deep satisfying drag.
This is the tale of lackaday Charlie, I recited as I exhaled a cloud of pale blue smoke over the equipment while checking to see if the Calling and Distress Frequency, 500 kilocycles, was clear. Joined on Fools’ Day; signed on Thursday; sailed on Friday.
All systems “go,” I pressed the Morse key and twiddled the tuning knob on the emergency transmitter until the pointer swung over the aerial meter with a short sharp howl of surprise. I was paranoid about the emergency equipment and often used it for short range work, to make sure it still worked. The only virtue I saw in myself was my knowledge of procedures and the faint possibility that I would hit the big-time if the ship ever got into trouble.
All set; I began rattling the telegraph key rhythmically, calling Seaforth Radio in pristine Morse code; 'DAHDAHDIT...’ I keyed, 'GLV DE GBZN’, ‘Seaforth Radio from Rev James,’ before announcing that I had a ‘TR’, ‘Traffic Routing message,’ for him.
Seaforth boomed back and told me ‘DAHDIDAH’, ‘K’, ‘go ahead.’
I spelt it out for him, letter by letter; the gist being, 'leaving the Mersey bound for the Far East.'
The morning of the second day, a few minutes before eight, soaking wet, I wrestled the door of the radio shack against the Atlantic wind and struggled into that same draught ridden radio room. Pointe du Raz was falling astern and the ship, with her heavy, laborious roll, was continuously dipping her side into the sea, scooping water, and flinging sheets of wind torn, skin stinging spray over the boat-deck.
Earlier, at breakfast, I watched Captain Johnson, inappropriately referred to as the “Old-man;” firm-jawed, handsome, fit, and youthfully slim, gleefully rubbing his hands together as he rose from the table. 'She's doing over fourteen knots,' he shouted to the engineers who were still eating. Then he turned and marched from the room, his proud demeanour telling everyone present how much he loved this ship, his ship!
Then the chief mate, Mr Platt, a big bull of a man with a bulging forehead, thin lips and bushy eyebrows, who had just come off watch, strode into the room, announcing to the world in that foghorn voice of his, 'She's a terrible sea-ship; rolling twenty degrees with hardly a sea running.'
There was a grunt of acknowledgement from the men at the tables, continually bracing themselves against the motion as they ate. It also explained why I got soaked every time I poked my nose outside the accommodation.
The fourth engineer, MacTaggart, a wiry young man with a pointed nose and black curly hair, was leaving the saloon as I arrived for breakfast. Waylaying me, he confided, in a broad Govan accent, that he was having trouble with the stewards.
At mealtimes, MacTaggart relieved the other engineers in time for food. That meant that he, MacTaggart, had to grab an early breakfast. There was no cooked meal ready at that time in the morning, and the stewards, now preparing the saloon for the officers' breakfast, stubbornly refused to bring him any serial. The cook, yelling excitedly, objected to him helping himself in the galley. That led to MacTaggart having a toe to toe, fists clenched, stand up row with the whole gang. Now MacTaggart was depressed. He felt that he would be fighting the catering department for the rest of the trip. He had no clout or backing.
'I wish tae God I'd never signed on for this lot, sae I do,' he whined. 'And my cabin's crap, a pokey little hole with no running water, sae it is. And when I pull the plug in my basin the water just runs intae a bucket underneath, sae it does.' All his grievances came pouring out. 'They said she was old. They never said she was this old. Christ, my bunk's narrower than my shoulders, sae it is.'
He didn't ask a lot from life. He joined the ship with nothing more than a brown paper bag that contained only those things he desperately needed, and nothing else. Except, that is, for his lucky shroud; the piece of red velvet, which he swore, had once adorned a lavatory seat in the dockyard when a female member of the Royal Family was visiting; and which now lay, like the Turin Shroud, in a casket at the bottom of his bag.
I made sympathetic noises. I'd already flagged up the stewards and galley crowd as a gang of bolshie Chinese commies. I sensed their aggression on the day I joined. MacTaggart could have big troubles on that front. Yes, the accommodation was grim. 'We're all in the same boat,' I clichéd, comfortingly. 'She's thirty years old,' I waved my hand up the alleyway, 'built in 1923; so we're living in 1920's conditions.'
'OK. Sae we can't help that,' he conceded, changing tack. 'But why did we sail on a Friday? It's unlucky for a ship tae sail on Friday. Everyone kens that. This was Good Friday. Sae that's worse. I'm already having trouble with the stewards. Something bad’s going tae happen. I can feel it in my water, sae I can.'
I'd heard that about Friday too. I was surprised that a first trip captain would sail on such an unlucky day. Then I dismissed it as an old salt's superstition. 'Money,' I told MacTaggart. 'It costs money to stay in port. Don't worry about it. It's much worse for me. I joined on April the first, All Fools’ Day. So I really do have problems.
Now, in the radio room at the start of the first of the day’s four two-hour watches, I spun the tuning knob over the dial of the main receiver and brought the pointer to rest where Portishead Radio, kingpin of the nine Area Transmitting Stations that straddled the world in the British Empire Scheme, was running an automatic tape, endlessly pumping out his call sign GKA GKA GKA... in a pulsating stream of mellow toned Morse code.
At 0800 the tape stopped abruptly. Then, like the conductor of some single-note symphony, a shore based radio officer, many miles away, began rhythmically moving the baton of his Morse key while I, pencil in hand, along with scores of other ship-borne radio officers, citizens of the British Empire, kept time to the rhythm of his fist, like the string section of an ocean scattered orchestra, as we copied the call signs of his traffic list into our open logbooks, the first job of every watch.
For fifteen or twenty minutes we fell into a collective trance as, like automatons, we spelt out the thoughts of a distant telepathist whose galloping Morse, vibrating our eardrums and commandeering our minds, automatically left letters on the page without any thought or effort from us.
We were all, conductor and players, extensions of a globe encompassing, Morse-lubricated machine, honed to ensure that a message, handed in anywhere in the British Empire, destined for one of the Empire's ships, would end up at that vessel's nearest Area Station, be advertised in a list such as this, then collected and delivered to its final destination by the vessel’s radio officer.
List finished, I glanced over my shoulder. I had felt the gush of wind as someone opened and closed the radio room door while I was writing. Now the chief steward, a dapper moustached Scouser from Dingle, was standing there, wearing his perpetually worried expression.
‘’Lo there Sparks,’ he greeted, while selecting a cigarette from the tin I offered as I rose and turned to face him. ‘Ah was up checkin’ yer oppo’s cabin fer the inspection, like. So Ah thought Ah’d pop in and bum a ciggy while Ah was passin’, like y’do.’
‘Any time,’ I told him, lighting my cigarette from the flame he waved under my nose. The inspection that gave him his morning jitters was a Reverend’s tradition. At nine thirty every morning, Reverend James Line captains strode round their ships like hospital consultants, followed by a tiny knot of departmental heads.
Aboard the Rev James the retinue was made up of Platt from the deck department; Tubbs, our stocky chief engineer; Scouse for the catering department; with Doc, our ancient surgeon, trailing in the rear.
During this theatrical mimicry of naval discipline, the Old-man ran his fingers over freshly scrubbed and polished surfaces, peered into dark places and squinted into crevices, re-performing the act that he had witnessed countless times during his sea career, while regurgitating the witty clichés of yesterday’s sea-captains, which were now, as then, delivered as an impromptu performance and greeted by guffaws of dutiful laughter.
‘I was talking to the fourth at breakfast time,’ I told Scouse. ‘He’s having a hard time with your saloon and galley boys.’ Might as well stir the shit for the catering department, I thought.
‘Yeah,’ Scouse edged towards the door. I could read his thoughts. This kind of conversation could affect his pension. ‘The Shanghai boys are hard work at the best o’ times,’ he told me diplomatically. ‘But this lot think there’s a bad ancestor aboard. They’re jumpy as hell. If Ah say anythin’ ter them they leap up an’ down an’ scream like a crowd of hysterical schoolgirls.’
‘That’s bad news for MacTaggart,’ I persisted. ‘He’s a worrier. They’re making it worse for him. He thinks there might be a curse on him because we sailed on a Friday.’
Scouse opened the door. ‘Tharr applies to us all.’ His voice was serious; his expression more worried than ever. ‘Commencin’ a voyage on Good Friday on the third day o’ the month is askin’ fer trouble,’ he muttered, stepping outside.
‘Why? What’s the date got to do with it?’ I wanted to know.
‘Everythin’! Burr Ah’ll tell yer some other time,’ he said darkly. ‘Ah’ve gorra get ready fer the inspection.’
I followed and stood in the doorway, watching as he paused to peep round the corner of the radio shack, gauging the spray for his dash across the boat-deck. Before closing the door I stood savouring the outside world, the roar of the wind and sea in my ears, the regular clump! as water came aboard, the splash and patter of pelting spray. All interwoven with the rhythmic din of the sailors who, crouching in the lee of the accommodation, hammered at rusty decks with stubby chipping hammers, a prelude to shouting and slamming down counters as they gambled their pay on mah-jong, and smoked dreamweed deep into the night.
Down on the main-deck, Sang, the chippy, clad in a navy duffel coat; cloth cap pulled over his forehead; made his unsteady way aft at the end of his morning rounds, carrying a bucket and rope, head bowed against the weather. The ship’s routine was in full swing.
I glanced round at the brass clock that peered from the radio room bulkhead like the bodiless Cheshire cat that haunted Alice in Wonderland. ‘You’re a cat in disguise, aren’t you?’ I told it, as if suddenly realising. ‘I recognise you. You can’t fool me. Those red triangles that sprout from that black-blob nose in the middle of your face are really your whiskers. You’ve got a little keyhole mouth. And your name’s Tiddles.’
The red triangles were a marking that all ships’ radio room clocks displayed, to highlight the three minute Distress Frequency silence periods that commenced at 15 and 45 minutes past each hour. The clock reminded me that there was an hour to kill before I copied the Atlantic Weather Forecast. After that I would tune to Rugby Radio and feed a time signal, via a buzzer, to the bridge where the third mate would check the chronometer.
‘So what do you think Scouse meant?’ I asked Tiddles as I closed the door against the wind. ‘You know, about Good Friday and the third day of the month?’
Tiddles didn’t answer; just tut-tutted, mysteriously.
In the radio room, as we steamed off Cadiz, I turned the gain high and kept watch by loudspeaker while rummaging through the filing cabinet to see if there was anything I should know about. I’d checked the tools and spares with the shore squad before we sailed. I had everything I needed in that department; from a contact burnisher to a vice; from resistors to valves; from insulators to a main aerial.
The top drawer was full of the day to day stuff that I used in the radio room; message forms; logbooks and the like. The next drawer contained a stack of Notices to Mariners and Notices to Ship Wireless Stations. I grimaced, pushing the drawer shut. The notices were full of corrections for the stack of manuals; books; lists and documents that it was compulsory to carry in the radio room. ‘I hate paperwork. I'll start that tomorrow,’ I told myself, but I knew I wouldn’t. I had long since drifted into bad habits and always put off doing corrections and accounts until it was a panic job.
The first folder that I pulled out of the next drawer made me pause. I frowned, puzzled. It was a list of equipment, identical to the equipment in this, my radio room. This list didn't belong to the Rev James. It was for a ship called U.S. Artist. That's odd, I muttered. The U.S. Artist is a U.S. boat.
I stood looking at the list, frowning and trying to make sense of it. The U.S. boats, as we called them, were ships whose names began with U.S. They were all on the United States run. ‘So what’s this list doing here?’ I wondered...
The unmistakable twang of a McKay transmitter, coming from the loudspeaker, now readable, now lost, like someone plucking a Jews Harp among the cacophony of Morse transmissions of scores of tones, speeds and volumes, suddenly interrupted my train of thought.
There it was again. ‘... DAHDIDIT DIT...’ ‘DE GBPN...’ my opposite number in another Reverend James Line ship, the Luke John, asking ‘all stations’ if anyone could give him a copy of the local weather forecast.
Returning the file to the drawer and pushing it shut, I strode across the room, hand-cranked the phone then told the officer of the watch, 'The Luke John's in the area.'
Our navigating officers wanted a running commentary on all company ships in the vicinity. 'What are their positions? What is their next port? What was their last port? Who is aboard?' It wasn't idle curiosity, just wanting to know where acquaintances were. It was a matter of pride. Reverend James ships dipped flags in salute to each other as they passed. All the Reverend’s bridge officers wanted to be first on the trigger. They wanted to know, well in advance, what other ships were in the area. Armed with that knowledge they had a sailor stood-by, ready to leap for the halyard as the other ship hauled over the horizon.
Shoving the phone back into its holder I flicked the switch on the emergency transmitter, which I kept pre-tuned to 500 kcs. As I sat down I began to call the Luke John... ‘GBPN DE GBZN’, I clicked on the key, ‘Luke John from Rev James...’ intending to give him the forecast.
Before I could make contact with the other ship the radio room door was snatched open, wind fanning the pages of my logbook. A round faced Chinese quartermaster, in a blue polar necked jersey, hovered for a moment then stepped inside, thrusting a crumpled piece of paper at me. ‘Flom cappin,’ he told me.
It was a personal message addressed to 'Master Luke John' and signed 'Master Rev James.' The text declared, in effect, 'Yippee! I'm a captain!' Johnson was delighted and proud.
Minutes later I was in contact with the Luke John and moving to a working frequency.
In answer to my announcement of the message, the other radio officer told me 'DIDAHDI...’ ‘R ERE QTC1’. Meaning, 'understood, I have a message for you too.'
As we exchanged signals I found that his was a message of congratulations from his captain to my captain, handed in the day before. The Luke John's captain had already heard about the promotion on the grapevine, and that we were outward bound. He composed his message there and then and gave it to his radio officer to 'send at the first opportunity.'
Messages and forecast exchanged and receipts given, the Luke John’s radio officer keyed, ‘MNI TKS WX OM KRS BV’; radio-speak for ‘many thanks for the weather old man, kind regards and bon voyage.’
‘FB’, I told him. ‘DIDIDIDAHDIDAH’, ‘fine business,’ followed by the signing off signal.
‘DIT DIT’, he tapped his key twice.
‘DIT’. I tapped mine once, the radio equivalent of ‘bye or cheers.’
I rose and phoned the bridge again. 'Message for the Old-man,' I told the third mate, who looked so much like a character from Dickens that we called him Sam Weller.
'I'll send the quartermaster down,' he told me.
Shortly after the quartermaster had collected the message, Sam Weller was back on the phone. 'Report to the captain immediately after your watch,' he told me curtly.
‘I dunno why, but I smell the doghouse,’ I told Tiddles. It was something in Weller’s tone.