Sea Stories

Compulsory Companions thrown together stay together

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British seamen cynically but in friendly fashion describe themselves not as the crew members or shipmates but as Board of Trade Compulsory Companions. That said, the bad eggs thrown together by circumstance were few and far between. From sailing day, a ship’s crew who were complete strangers to each other a day earlier became firm friends. 

Apart from being trained and experienced seamen these ‘Board of Trade Companions’ hailed from different cities and often a foreigner might be one of their shipmates. Many seamen were Aran Islanders and totally alien to city life and especially British culture.

Shipmates from Liverpool but one Scotsman. You guess.

Over the next months which could become a year and more these once strangers shared the same cabins, ate and entertained themselves in the one mess, and, of course, worked together day and night. No commuting to do as their vessel which was to be their home for many months was maybe 300 feet or 200 metres in length.

I imagine much the same can be said of the other services such as the armed forces. People, especially men often found themselves in the unlikeliest company and had to make the best of things. It is a great way of forming one’s world-view. Togetherness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Shipmates from the four corners of the British Isles shared their lives and experiences during their vessels 14-month world tour.

It is interesting how attitudes changed so radically in such a short period of time. Those of a certain age will identify the humour of so many children in a bed that when one turned, they all turned. For a child to have his or her own bed in the 1950s was practically undreamed of. The only concession we boys had was that we were not obliged to share a bed with our sisters. The thought would have horrified us mites.

Although it didn’t often happen it wasn’t a big deal to kip down with a mate if circumstances left one no choice. Those who watched the movie; Boats, Trains and Planes starring Tom Hanks will have been in tucks as it occurred to him and his hapless travelling companion that sharing a motel bed was a matter of little choice.

Jock Smart with his back to camera

I will never forget the expression on my teenage sons’ faces when I suggested they share a hotel bed when we were motoring through Europe. Both looked at me like I was something they had scraped off the bottom of their shoe.

The only compulsory companions we are likely to share company with these days are travellers sitting next to us when on an airliner. I was facing a 7.5-hour flight to Washington D.C. on an aircraft that to me looked no bigger than a Spitfire with windows in its fuselage.

A polite smile and a greeting from the person in the adjacent seat is the least we can expect. The lady occupying the window seat resolutely stared out of the window throughout the journey; not a smile or simple hello passed her lips. Perhaps she had personal problems.

I groaned when on the return journey I found myself in the middle seat of the central aisle of four seats. On my left a gargantuan American whose blubber spilled over on to my lap. Thankfully I had to my right a couple of bright and breezy teenagers who rollicked with good humour to lighten up the wearisome miles.

Shipmates on Columbia Star were mostly Aran Islanders Scotland’s most remote islands

Throughout an adventurous life I have bunked down in the unlikeliest places and chanced upon the oddest of travellers. Happily, there have been no bad experiences; just different ones. As Shakespeare surmised; the world is a stage and we all play a part on it. Yes, it is all part of life’s rich tapestry, Will.

Title image: Enugu Palm


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