This is a story of the sea. Looking back now after more than half a century there is an aspect to it all that is surreal, but it happened. At the age of 15, because of circumstances, I found myself at two in the morning at the wheel of a cargo vessel called the Blue Cloud bound for Gloucester, Massachusetts with a load of frozen cod blocks from Newfoundland.
My cousin Neil and I had been signed on as crew because, while we were given a trip to New England by Neil’s father on the vessel, the Blue Cloud was not licensed to carry passengers so we were signed on as crew. Blue Peter Steamships owned the Blue Cloud as well as others in a well-known fleet of cargo boats. They were the Blue Peter and the Blue Trader, the Blue Cloud, and a few more.
To be truthful, Neil and I had very light duties – mainly helping the cook and helping with general cleanup around the Blue Cloud. It was vacation as much as anything else and we were “crew” to keep everything legal. I was sick half the time anyway with the smell of salmon being cooked along with cabbage and turnips mixing with the smell of diesel. There was also a good late summer sea running most of the time. The Blue Cloud plowed along at about nine or ten knots. You know at NTV our backup generator room runs on diesel. When I go in that concrete generator building with all its machinery and breath deeply, I smell the Blue Cloud.
One of the great rewards of that trip down to New England is that one of the real crew, a fellow named Clayton Rogers, would let me take the wheel late night for a while. He wouldn’t do it in the daytime because he said the captain, a fellow named Williams, might spot the wake of the Blue Cloud straying from a straight line. Captain Williams always kept his eyes open and ran a tight ship. Clayton Rogers would let me stand at the wheel in the middle of the night and keep the Blue Cloud on course. There was a compass to watch, and a big radar housed in a brass binnacle that told us if anything was nearby. On this particular night I was at the wheel and the Nova Scotian coast was more than 10 miles away on our starboard side. Another ship was about 12 miles ahead of us and off our bow on the port side. In those days it was all miles and not kilometres.
In the semidarkness I had the wheel and Clayton watched from the next chair close to me. He was smoking a cigarette. I was on top of the world. The throbbing of the engines and the sounds of the ship were intoxicating.
Suddenly, I became aware there was someone else on the bridge. Captain Williams had come up from his quarters off the bridge and below it. He asked Clayton about the course we were steering and where we were. Clayton told the captain our course direction from the compass and told him we were off the Sambro Lightship which in those days was anchored off Cape Sambro, Nova Scotia.
Captain Williams then came to my shoulder and peered at the great brass binnacle where the compass was housed. I was shaking with fear. I had expected a torrent of words but there were none. Captain Williams looked at the compass and then he looked at me and spoke.
“Steady as she goes Mr. Furlong; steady as she goes.”
Then he turned on his heel, said goodnight to Clayton and was gone from the bridge. To this day I don’t know whether Clayton knew Captain Williams was coming from his quarters to the bridge or not. I have a hunch he did know and that the whole thing was born out of an act of kindness.
I have lost track of them both. The Blue Cloud I found out years later was sold somewhere down in the Caribbean after she had done long service here for Blue Peter Steamships.
I do know I will never forget the kindness of Captain Williams and Clay Rogers to a 15-year-old boy standing at the wheel of a ship named the Blue Cloud one night off the coast of Nova Scotia many years ago.
You can contact Jim Furlong at [email protected]