Wives and sweethearts, may they never meet.
The wife’s perception of her seafaring husband can contrast totally with his shipmates’ view. The very nature of his calling is instrumental in fostering this concept. It’s an unnatural life in essence for a married family man, and a Seaman’s wife has to be a very special person to accommodate the ‘on-off’ relationship required when her husband spends over half his married life away from home. The coming together of wives, husbands and the sea usually happens in the home port, when wives came to visit the ship for the duration of its time alongside. It is a time fraught with intrigue and subterfuge.
‘My husband has never touched a drop of alcohol in his life,’ I was once told by a very severe looking Second Engineers wife on one such visit, while she was waiting for her husband to meet her in the saloon.
I didn’t tell her that for the last fifteen years to my knowledge, her husband never touched anything else and at his very moment was sleeping last night’s debauchery away in the shaft tunnel. ‘My husband and I decided not to have children because of the nature of his work, and besides, he is not of a very passionate nature,’ is another favourite expounded by wives of a seemingly serious disposition.
Oh really… then why has he paying allotments to mothers of children in every port from Durban to Vancouver?
‘Of course, without my husband this ship would fall apart, the Company couldn’t do without him,’ said one wife, who was under the impression that her husband was the Chief Mate.
Is that right…Then why do we call him Steward while he makes our beds and serves at the table?
One Captain’s wife, on one surprise visit, was greatly surprised to find articles of women’s lingerie in her husbands’ wardrobe. Her husband, a gentleman rake of unparalleled magnitude was also a quick thinker. He needed to be.
‘I have to confess,’ he told her, ‘of a desire recently, to dress up in women’s clothing from time to time to relieve the stress of the job.’
His wife, a pillar of society in her hometown, a Lay Magistrate and all round ‘do-gooder’ believed him and took him away for a month's golfing holiday in Scotland to relieve the symptoms!
There’s a well-known toast in the Merchant Navy, ‘Here’s to wives and Sweethearts…may they never meet.’
Except they do meet occasionally, and not only wives and sweethearts but wives and wives, and on occasion wives and boyfriends The boyfriends and boyfriends concept happens more times than I care to mention.
It is not uncommon for innocent junior officers having to pretend that the lady lying in his bunk is his girlfriend, put there quickly by his senior because his senior’s wife has arrived unexpectedly and he has had to think quickly.
On one ship I had the honour to serve on, the Chief Officer managed to keep a wife, two girlfriends and an irate husband apart for four days by living and sleeping in the chain locker, while the rest of us made excuses for his absence.
Talking about chain lockers, on another ship we were always surprised to see the girlfriend of the bosun seemingly be the first on the board in every port we berthed in from Antwerp to Cape Town.
‘She must have some money,’ said the Captain one day at lunch. ‘All this travel must cost a packet.’
It only transpired long afterwards that she never left the ship. She was regally looked after by the bosun, living secretly in the forecastle. He and she paid off in Antwerp after four months and a good time was had by both!
Of course, wives are allowed on most occasions to join their husbands for a voyage or two. This in my experience is always a disaster. The sea seems to do something to a women’s libido. It may be the ship's motion, it may be boredom, but it’s probably seeing her husband as he really is. Or rather seeing how his shipmates really are and coming quickly to the conclusion that’s how her husband must also behave when he’s out of her clutches.
Some wives leave the ship early because they’re fed up, some leave the ship because they’re seasick and some leave the ship with one of their husbands fellow shipmates.
One Second Engineer’s wife, in a ship I was serving on, conducted an onboard affair with the Chief Officer mainly in his cabin wardrobe because that’s where she seemed to spend most of her time while her husband scoured the ship for her. He found her in the end after a tip-off. She was stark naked, holding a large G and T and pretended to be sleep walking!
Then we have the bossy sort of wife who wants to organize the recreational habits of the crew. In essence, this means she wants control of the ship’s bar. This results in cabin drinking and invariably defeats her objective.
It has also been known for previous abstemious wives to become raging alcoholics within a very short space of time. A case of if you can’t beat ‘em…join them. It’s a bit unnerving to find the fifteen stone wife of the Second Mate snoring her head off in your bunk when you come off watch.
‘Dear John’ letters from wives and girlfriends also cause amusement; mainly because they are expected and often even hoped for. They always start off in the same way; telling you about the weather, then about the chap they’ve met and how much you would get on if you ever met him. We used to pin them up on the ship’s notice board for all to read.
‘One third Engineer from Swansea, who spent a great amount of his time at sea, in order to avoid his scheming girlfriend, eventually received the customary ‘Dear John’. It was short and to the point and said ‘Dear John, couldn’t wait, married your father, love Mother.’