As a school boy I was reared in the country side of County Dublin, in a place called Grange Road Rathfarnham, about a half a mile away from the famous school of the Irish patriot Patrick Pearse the leader of the nineteen sixteen rebellion. The Grange Road at this time in the nineteen fifties was just a narrow country road with large private farming estates on either side. We lived on the farm called Elm Park, just across the road from Marley Park, which is now a public recreational park.
On the farm where my father worked looking after horses and cattle, and the land, we could not have been any further from the sea than where we lived. I think my yearning for the sea life came from my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather William Curtis once owned a small sailing boat, called the “Willie”, he was a member of the Wharf Sailing Club, and won outright a cup presented by Farrelly’s public house on Sheriff Street in Dublin. I never saw this sailing boat of my grandfathers, nor indeed did I ever see my grandfather, as he died some years before I was born but I am sure it is from him that I got the salt water coursing through my veins.
As a child on the farm I can remember we had a clothes line in the field at the front of the house, this line was supported by two poles , and in order for the poles to stay upright, on one end there was plank of wood about six inches wide supporting the pole. The top of this plank was the bow of my ship. In the strongest of gales I would run up the plank, hold onto the pole and ride the waves in my imagination, fighting off pirates and travelling the seven seas. I would stand with the wind blowing through my hair, Captain of all I surveyed. There was also another very good reason for my interest in ships and things to do with the sea.
While I lived in the countryside, I was sent to school in Dublin city. The destination of my bus was in the centre of Dublin right beside the river Liffey. At this time ships were virtually docking in the city centre, so every day I would see ships called such names as Echo, Apollo, Juno, loading barrels of Guinness for shipment to Liverpool on a weekly basis. I was fascinated by the derricks, wires, cables, and anchors, the smells and general excitement as cargo was unloaded and loaded. The barrels of Guinness were carried on barge boats down the Liffey from the brewery at St James Gate, to the sea going vessels for shipment to Britain.
The barge boats had special funnels that could be dropped down when they went under the bridges on the Liffey at high water. Crew on board the barges would wave at us as we stood on O’Connell’s Bridge trying to look down the funnel as the barge passed beneath us, but all we got was a face full of smoke. As a young school boy I could never have guessed that one day I would actually sail on ships named Echo and Apollo, ships owned by the very same company as the ones I had watched as a boy.
I knew no one who worked at sea and had no contacts with anyone involved in the shipping business, but my uncle Terry did. In nineteen sixty four he called to my mother and told her that a crew member was signing off a ship in Dublin, and they were looking for a replacement cabin boy, my life at sea was about to begin. I joined the British ship MV Bay Fisher on the 25th of January 1964. The ship was a coastal vessel trading between Ireland and Britain. The time of the year being January and the middle of winter, it meant I was in for some very rough weather, and of course, lots of sea sickness. I was so sick I thought I would die.
I was so ill, my stomach ached and my head was spinning. During all this time I still had to carry on with my duties as cabin boy, cleaning the accommodation and serving meals. As each gale came and went, my sea legs began to appear, and the sea sickness got less and less, and the excitement and awe of the power of the seas began to take over.
This was the beginning of my sixteen years at sea travelling to over forty two different countries, experiencing hurricanes, typhoons, and surviving my ship being attacked and sunk in the Vietnam War.