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Jobs at Sea Index


Life as a ...

  • Cadet Purser - David Dickinson
  • Junior Engineering Officer (5/Eng/O) - Steve B

  • Public Room Steward (PRS) - Bob Johnston



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Cadet Purser

By David Dickinson

click to enlarge


A Cadet Purser on ss Otranto in January 1954, which in retrospect, was just an office boy, running here and there at the whim of the other purser staff. Using the Banda machine for printing, which used blue sheets where the colour could run. This was a predecessor to the Roneo machine. All the passenger and crew lists were done on these plus the cargo manifests etc. Soon after the ship sailed we ran off the first passenger list, which of course had to be updated after every port. Copies had to be available for the agents and officials at each port of call.

I was the first called when cables came in during the night. I had to then go up to the office and decode them. After a time I got to know message prefaces and depending on their urgency would not decode them until the morning. One five letter code was XOKIY which meant “please pay passenger”, the company used to accept funds for passengers at the London office and the Purser would make the appropriate payment on board. However, when one was addressed to the Captain, again with a special preface, it would need instant decoding (and of course the further away we got from England it was usually in the middle of the night). When done it was enveloped and I had to go up to the bridge and deliver same to the officer of the watch whose decision it was to decide whether or not to wake up the Captain.

Voyages to Sydney took over 30 days and the company had 30 different menus for those days although the breakfast one rarely changed except when we picked up fresh fruits etc. Lunch and dinner changed every day and had added extras depending what had been picked up at a port of call. During a one class ship voyage the menu, whilst interesting, was small in comparison to those of our first class ships. Interestingly, even though we would be picking up migrants from Italy and Greece they would generally have to “enjoy” English food with a French influence.

One role was to go to the Captain for his signature on some letters. Although we had lady Assistant Pursers they were at that time “glorified” stenographers who had shorthand and of course they answered passengers queries at the office. Many also had one or two European languages and were able to help passengers with such things as wanting to change cabins, complaints and send mail although we did have a letter bureau attendant who sorted mail inwards and outwards and sold postage stamps for the next port of call. We also had an Assistant Purser who was a cashier and as well as cashing traveller’s cheques, was able to sell foreign currencies of the various ports of call and exchange same when passengers returned from ashore.

We also had an afternoon shift starting at 1600. It was at this time when we prepared the daily “Good Morning” sheet advising the activities for the day and noting land sightings plus advertising the noon mileage sweep which proved to be very popular with passengers guessing the ship’s run over 24 hours. (Run from noon to noon and announced by the Bridge).

In those days there was nothing like the activities we see today. On a 14 day cruise there were lots of deck games, quoits, deck tennis, sometimes cricket plus some indoor activities. The Fancy dress night was a major event and for days the entertainment staff were helping passengers with their designs. Bingo was another prominent activity and well supported. Late afternoon the pianist always played in the lounge and at night we had dancing. Cadets had to be off deck by 2200 unless he was the duty Officer! On a later voyage I was the Sport’s AP and it was one of the best roles as you were out on deck most of the time helping with the various games and competitions.

More to follow.

As a comparison, below is a job ad for a Cadet Purser today;

Cadet Purser Assigned To Crew Office Duties

Reports directly to the Administrative Director, responsibilities include embarkation and disembarkation procedure of guests and crew members, preparation of final lists (passengers and crew manifests) and documents to be presented to the Authorities, passports and visas control, crew accounting management.

He/she co-ordinates with the Port Agent regarding embarkation and disembarkation activities ensuring compliance with local Authorities requirements.

He/she is also the point of contact between Head office and onboard personnel.

The position requires a high level of confidentiality, due to the nature of the information being processed.

Candidate must have:

High school Diploma. A University Degree is considered a plus.
Certified computer skills and fluent English (Spanish is a plus).
Organization abilities; personal attributes to include attention to details and Guest oriented problem solving.

Selection will favour candidates with administrative experience (preferably in Hotel).

Language Requirements:

Good knowledge of the English language is required.

David has added his views of the new job description;

I see they have to report to the Administrative Director whereas I think Purser was a better title. When asked what I used to do I said I was a trainee Hotel Manager as I’m sure the younger generation would have no idea what a Purser was!

Interestingly he still does Gangway and Passenger (now called Guests) duties and coordinates with the local Agents, documentation. We had a crew accountant supervised by a Senior Assistant Purser (SAP), certainly such a low level employee as a Cadet had no contact with Head Office. Education, in my case, didn’t include a university degree and what were computers?

Fluent English, it helped with a European language, we had no Spanish crew more like trying to understand Geordie, Scouse and Glaswegian and perhaps a touch of Irish!!!!

Also of course nobody asked about Hotel experience although I am sure some of the older joining Assistant Pursers had Hotel experience but in front of the bar!

The whole story of this first cruise can be seen here.

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Junior Engineering Officer (5/Eng/O)

By Steve B


The working life of a Junior Engineer is spent entirely in the tropical conditions of an engine room. The non-working life of a 'fiver', in the 70's, was spent replenishing the vast quantities of fluid lost at work and hunting crumpet, both missions feverishly pursued and quite often accomplished at the same time.


Oriana's Plates


One very important job of a Junior is to drive the ship. The controls either side of the gap are identical and each side operates a different engine which in turn drives a different propeller. The unusual thing is the control panel faces aft so the panel on the right is actually controlling the Port (left) propeller and the left side controlling the Starboard (right) side. 


The terms Port and Starboard go back hundreds of years to the days of sail where the steering gear and rudder was actually on the right hand side of the vessel so you could only tie up to port on the left for fear of damaging the rudder so it became know as the 'Port' side. On the steering side, close to the helmsman, was a wooden board with a small hole in it and to navigate the helmsman would pick out a star through the hole and hold course by keeping that star in the hole at all times so this became known as the 'Star Board' side. 


Sorry I digress! The big silver wheels opened and closed the steam to the engines. The inboard, as you can see in the picture, marked 'Ahead' made the ship go forward and the middle wheel was marked 'Astern' which made us go backwards. The round thing on the panel which is in the middle of the three at the bottom is the telegraph which copied the command from the Bridge and it would continue to ring until the lever was moved to match the setting the Bridge had requested, this is called 'answering the telegraph'. It was then the job of the Junior to open or close the valves to make the engine revs (revolutions per minute) suit the request i.e. slow ahead, half ahead or full astern (which really meant hit the fucking brakes, we're going to hit something). This activity mainly happened during 'standby' when coming in and out of port, but often a request would come down in the middle of the night to change the revs after the navigator had recalculated his course and position and needed a speed correction to make sure we arrived in port at the right time.


Courtesy of Steve B

Nevasa's Plates

Another very important task was to keep a constant eye on the boiler feedwater tanks and keep them full at all times. Without boiler feedwater the boilers ran dry and automatically shut down, hence no steam, and on a steam ship no steam meant no nothing, you lost everything. I know this quite well because while on watch on Nevasa I got so involved with trying to repair something I forgot to check the feedwater tanks and the next thing everything went black and the ship stopped moving in the middle of the Mediterranean, a powerless ship is suddenly at the mercy of the power of nature and King Neptune. In a way, in retrospect, I'm rather glad it happened as I witnessed an amazing scene. The engine room panic button had been pressed and every engineer turned to in varying states of dress or undress. The Chief Engineer, Willy Patterson, calmly took position on the plates and began issuing instructions to each and everyone to do a particular task and return ready for the next instruction and low and behold the ship slowly came back to life. He was like a surgeon during a heart transplant. My respect for senior ranks increased ten fold after that and I was truly humbled by their expertise, knowledge and above all their professionalism. It was an experience not to be missed and to be honest I don't remember even getting into trouble for it which really did amaze me as I expected to be put ashore at the next port.    


In between all that fun and frivolity the Junior is responsible for looking after the flash evaporators which makes fresh water from seawater basically by boiling the seawater and condensing the vapour leaving the salt behind. The worst part of this was periodically the salt which became caked on the evaporator coils had to be blasted off with a 5000psi water blaster and being inside the evaporator and in such a confined space this was extremely bloody dangerous as John Speed will testify having blasted off his toe while we were berthed in Copenhagen one time.


The other taxing job of a Junior is the constant inspection of the bilges, more to the point the level of water in them. It was a real shock to me to find out that all ships leak and water is constantly pouring in flooding the engine room. That's the reason the bilges exist with a false floor above them called 'the plates'. It's the Junior's job to operate the bilge pumps which controls the level of water in the bilges. Also down there in the bilges are the Junior's best friend, the shit ejectors! Everybody on board takes a dump a couple of times a day, as long as they'd remembered to take their salt tablets regularly, and it all came down to small tanks in the bilges which were controlled by ball cocks monitoring when they were full and would then automatically open a steam valve that flushed the contents out to sea (nowadays I believe it has to be stored and only pumped out ashore). If the ball cock got stuck (jammed with shit) the steam valve didn't operate and the shit had to go somewhere so it just overflowed into the bilges. Usually the first you knew that a shit ejector has failed was during the bilge inspection (shining your trusty bent neck torch down there) you saw what we descriptively termed 'blind mullets' swimming about. This is when you wished you'd never joined up and you had to take the cover off the ejector, CLIMB IN and clean the shit off the ball cock. Fabulous job!


click to enlarge

Courtesy of Steve B


Finally, the most important job of all was to make the tea for the 3rd Engineer who was in charge of the watch and who always had an insatiable thirst but as I said before, it was bloody hot down there.            


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Public Room Steward 

By Bob Johnston

What I remember about the job on Oronsay, November 1974-August 1975.


Built by Vickers –Armstrong Ltd; at Barrow In Furness, England 1951.

Working in the bar was fun even if the ship was old. I had made many friends and now I was feeling fairly relaxed and knew what the job entailed. The bar staff were great. I had the art of carrying a tray off to a fine art and I was getting used to the bar list. We had to get used to the red monkey jackets, bow ties and black pants at night. During the day if you were on deck you had short-sleeved white shirts with epaulettes which was much more comfortable but depended on which bar you got sent to. On Oronsay there were 7 bars;

Edinburgh Room Veranda deck

Kilt and Thistle A deck aft

Pipe and Drums Veranda deck

Tam O’Shanter Bar Veranda deck Island aft

Celtic Room B deck aft

Fife Room c deck aft

Burns Room D deck aft

I had the job working in the Pipe and Drums bar on veranda deck, which also serviced the Caledonian Room, where all the cabarets and shows were held. The bar was split up into 2 sides so I worked with about 6 guys who I sailed with for a few years. Most of us were in the same cabin, which slept 8, a little cramped but pretty much in party mode most nights. The bar opening hours at sea were 11.00am-2.00pm and 5.30pm-1.00am. Early morning coffee was served from 7.30am-9.30am continental buffet breakfasts.


As we were based from Sydney, most of the passengers were Aussies and it took a little while after English cruising to get used to the accent, they spoke so quickly. I soon got used to the slang used to ask for a beer and fell in love with the country and the Pacific Islands we started to visit. My first job was to get used to the bar list as we left Sydney, the cocktail list was long and the most popular drinks included Harvey Wallbanger (vodka, Galliano and orange juice 0.85 cents (Aus). A standard whisky was around 0.35 cents (Aust). Beer was basically the drink and I served thousands over the period at a small price of 0.25 (Aus), KB was the Aussie beer at the time (a good drop). If you smoked a packet of 20 cigarettes, nothing fancy, 0.30 (Aus) cents a packet. Basically you could smoke and drink yourself to death at those prices; I wonder why everyone had a great time on board!

I was getting used to the ship's officers as they would drink in my bar quite often as they entertained passengers as part of their social duties. The Captain was a man named Captain Terry, the staff captain was Captain Jock LeFevre. Each officer would sign for his or her drinks. I served the captain quite a few times and also in his cabin as he sometimes entertained in his cabin (cocktails prior to dinner). The first time was nerve racking but after the first time I had it sorted. I always had to ensure I looked smart so a new shirt was found from my laundry each time I got that job (the passengers loved being invited to cocktails in his cabin).


Some of my memories go back to bad weather and in the April of 1975 and our trip between Sydney and New Zealand, I still remember the dates Sat 19th April to Tue 22 April 1975. We had a great send off as we usually did from Sydney and the weather was good, sailed at approx 3.00pm in the afternoon I was working in the Pipe and Drums bar. It was always busy as sailing passengers were new and had done their first lifeboat drill in the ballroom, we as crew also had to go to lifeboat stations as well, (knew it well just hope I never have to use it!). Going up Sydney Harbour was a great sight going under the bridge past the Opera House. The only bad thing was the black smoke would bellow from her funnel and if you were down wind it was an experience never to be forgotten.

Black smoke (the poor engines).
We cleared Sydney Heads about 4.00pm in the afternoon and the ship as usual started to rock and the waves would break as the old girl changed course. As crew we would have a little laugh as the new cruisers would then start to turn green but it seemed to be a little rougher than usual. I looked out at the white caps on the water but took not much notice, as I was really busy. The ship would pitch and we would laugh, as passengers would struggle to get their footing for the first hour.

I had my dinner break between dinner sittings for passengers as things had quietened down in the bar, there were 2 restaurants Balmoral and Argyll, passengers went for dinner in 2 sittings 6.30pm and 7.45 pm. We all ate in the crew mess, which was up forward near my cabin, pretty good food, and as there were Indians on board as part of the crew from Goa there was always a curry. I managed to get my food and eat it as the ship rolled and pitched, as it was getting a little rough. You could always tell when it was rough in the crew galley as on the stoves there was a rail to ensure pots did not slip off the stove onto the deck.

My shift lasted until about 1.00am which was always quiet after dinner on the first night as most passengers were touring the ship and getting their sea legs. I was tired myself so went to bed early (2.00am). In our cabin there were 8 guys and I had the top bunk, which was a great advantage as most times everyone sits on the bottom bunks so going to bed early was always a problem. Each bunk had a curtain so you could close it and you had a light so you could read in privacy. As we were positioned at the front you could hear the noise of the bow rising out of the water and hitting the waves front on with a bang. You could also feel every creak the old girl had as she ploughed through the high seas. Oronsay had an average speed of 21.06 knots but in the rough she slowed down a little.

I woke early on the Sunday to get breakfast and knew the weather had got worse and some of the deck crew said – we are heading into a force 10 gale later in the day. I wondered why the deck crew were preparing deck ropes around the ship to stop pianos and ropes to help passengers from falling. This was the first time I had ever seen this activity put into place so I was getting a little worried (still not sea sick which was a good sign).



For the next two days the weather was bad and the waves broke across the bow and the ship rolled from one side to the other. It was too rough to go on deck because you would get washed overboard. The Captain announced to all passengers warning of the gale and letting them know outside decks were off limits. In rough weather the lifts got switched off, as it was too dangerous. I had a quiet couple of days, as most passengers got sick, except for the strong ones.

The ship was due to go to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand but due to the bad weather it was called off. By the time we reached New Zealand the old girl had sailed at an average speed of nearly 21 knots. Our round trip from Sydney to Sydney in approx 14 days around the Pacific, sailed 4470 nautical miles (don’t ask me what a nautical mile is!),

A nautical mile is based on the circumference of the earth, and is equal to one minute of latitude. It is slightly more than a statute (land measured) mile (1.0 nautical mile = 1.1508 statute miles). Nautical miles are used for charting and navigating.

We were lucky as we got time off in ports and we had a roster for going ashore so I went ashore in Auckland, we were always there overnight, got in early morning and left the next day at 5.00pm to catch the tide.

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