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The new Ulstein UK factory gave me much more to do than selling equipment which was my main occupation beforehand.
Ole Lars and myself had the job of sourcing suppliers of raw materials, machine tools and equipment. We could of course simply used the existing Ulstein Propeller A/S suppliers and we did for the most hard to find items but it would make no sense for example to source heavy castings and forgings in expensive Norway if we could get equivalent quality at a cheaper price in the UK.
Problem sometimes was whole industries had either contracted or disappeared altogether between us joining the EEC in 1973 and then. Once manufacturing companies close the raw material suppliers have to export to survive. For big propeller shaft forgings for example there were only two companies left in the whole of the UK who could supply us.
It was not all the fault of the EEC. Maggie Thatcher had decided Britains future would be based on service industry. The shipbuilding industry was thought of as a low tech third world operation and Brits could do much cleverer things.
This was typical of politicians being unable to see past the ends of their nose. Shipbuilding is a low tech assembly operation but lots of high tech equipment goes into a ship and those companies who supply rely on shipowners to specify them and shipbuilders to get it into their designs. As an island nation we needed a strong merchant shipping fleet and the politicians neglected it and the means to keep it strong but meanwhile the offshore business was booming and we went after it big time.
On one of my many trips abroad in connection with setting up the factory I visited an Italian company in Milan who manufactured vertical boring and milling machines which were Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC). We were a little concerned that they were not using a well known CNC manufacturer but an Italian firm in Florence so visited their plant.
We arrived late at night and drove past the Duomo which was floodlit. I had never seen such a beautiful building in my life before or since and on my return told Sue we had to go there.
Smoking and Corfu
It must have been around this time that we were both heavy smokers. BB was in a permanent relationship with Margaret II and the four of us smokers decided to go on holiday together to Corfu.
We found a nice little Taverna right on the beach at Agios Georgios run by a bloke called Mackie who did everything. Breakfast was yoghurt and honey then a cooked English to put a lining on the stomach before we hit the Retsina.
Corfu lies in the Ionian Sea just off the coast of Albania. It became part of the British Empire during the Napolionic wars, in fact they still play cricket there. The British improved the water supply, built roads and a university. They also made Greek the official language and in 1864 handed the island back to Greece
We drank a lot of a particular wine in Corfu. For those who have never had the delightful experience of Retsina, the Greeks used to use pine resin before the age of wine bottles to help preserve the wine in flasks. Once bottles were invented they had no need of it but they had become so used to the taste they continued to make it.
The Retsina was very cheap so we used to drink it like beer and would order a bottle like you would order a bottle of beer. That was crazy because it is the same strength as ordinary wine and gave you the same hangover if you drank too much but when in Greece...
The other silly thing we did was smoke. BB and Margaret II smoked like chimneys and when you sit around with friends smoking and drinking you tend to degenerate down to the lowest common denominator so by the end of our holiday we were fed up of smoking. I suggested to Sue that when we were back home and had smoked our duty free's we should give up and she agreed.
A couple of weeks later on a Saturday night we ran out of fags (for American readers fags are cigarettes as they are for English pubic schoolboys). We met up with many of our friends down at the Star Inn in Leith because they sold Timothy Taylors Landlord beer but everyone smoked in those days and we had stopped. It was one of the most difficult tests of willpower ever but we both managed it and we neither of us ever touched a fag again.
Sue had previously arranged for me to join a medical research group. They were looking for people who smoked of my age who had stressful jobs and I spent most of a full day in hospital taking every sort of test they could think of.
I sat down with the doctor who gave me the results of his tests which showed I was more fit than him and passed everything with flying colours but he said he wanted me to give up smoking. I asked him why and he couldn't give me a good reason.
I told him I would give up smoking when I felt it was doing me some harm which is exactly what I did.
Theresa Ingram read in a newspaper of a restaurant in Firenze and suggested a bunch of us have a weekend there.
It was the middle of winter when we arrived and the weather was sunny and crystal clear but 1°C.
Firenze in winter is the best time to go. We were able to wander around the Uffizi gallery with very few other people. This gallery is one of the most visited museums in the world and holds a rare and priceless collection of art from the Italian Renaissance period of the 13th century.
Works include the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli and Madonna Enthroned by Giotto di Bondone who was also responsible for the design of magnificent Bell Tower of the Doumo which so impressed me on my last visit.
At the Pitti Palace we seemed to be the only ones there apart from the ghosts of the Medici family who once owned it and pretty much everything else in this city. The place is stuffed with works of art from Raphael, Rubens, Caravaggio and Titian which reminds me of a limerick:
As Titian was mixing Rose Madder,
His model was sat on a ladder,
The position to Titian suggested coition,
So he jumped on the ladder and had her.
We managed to find Theresa's restaurant who were just finishing lunch so they gave us a cup of coffee and a seat. The waiter then explained that there was only one sitting at 7pm and we must be on time or we would lose our booking.
We arrived on time and found a space among the fur coats on the coat stand. We then sat at one long table and everyone was served the same meal. Quite delicious with carafe's of wine and Vin Santo, a sort of holy dessert wine to finish.
We admired at length the beautiful floodlit Duomo and this was just one of many more visits to this wonderful city
During my training with Lister Blackstone Marine I worked for a time as a service engineer. Lister engines were one of the most popular of those fitted in canal boats so I used to spend a long time on these during my working day. When Sue suggested we take my kids on a canal boat holiday it seemed more like a busmans holiday to me and I resisted it. I was eventually persuaded and there followed 4 years in a row on different canals.
The first one we hired a narrow boat on the Birmingham and Worcester canal, sailed down to join the Severn at Worcester then downstream to Tewksbury where we turned upstream on the river Avon to Stratford. We then navigated the canals again to Birmingham to rejoin the River Severn and retraced our steps to the hire company. This was called the Severn Ring.
One of our final stops was Stourport where we went into the pub alongside for lunch. Here we met Tiny, so called because he was so large! Tiny was a shedhead defined as a Gloucester Rugby Union supporter who was to be found in a stand they call the shed at their Kingsholm ground. Tiny would drink a gallon of beer at lunch and the same in the evening.
Needless to say this took some keeping up with but Sue seemed to be holding her own. During a pee break Tiny professed admiration for Sue's ability to match him pint for pint and put it down to her Kiwi breeding. She confessed to me later that her frequent visits to the loo involved two fingers down her throat to make room!
Our next undertaking we hired a big 70 foot narrow boat and invited the Watsons and Francis Gillain who was the current girlfriend of Tony Jarratt, better known as J Rat. We cruised the Oxford, Grand Union and Stratford up to Birmingham. Here we made a diversion for the day to Dudley by canal. The girls took the kids to Dudley Zoo and the blokes caught the bus up to Bathams Brewery at Brierly Hill and became completely rat arsed.
On our return journey we gave J Rat the tiller and were all watching telly in the forward cabin when the telly suddenly landed on the floor. J Rat in his inebriated state had hit one of the piers that used to be used to collect canal tolls.
We decided to stop there for provisions and walked up a narrow path between high fences. We emerged into a terraced street with a shop and a pub which we could not pass of course. On our return to the boat we had not seen one white face.
The third expedition was in 1980 to celebrate the year of my 40th birthday and we did the Cheshire Ring. This time we took Steve and Moira Moore.
I think we started off from somewhere near Stoke-on-Trent and headed first for the Llangollen Canal. There is a superb aqueduct called the Pontcysyllte which spans the River Dee. We stopped for lunch at a Banks's pub just before the aqueduct. I had a few too many of course and nearly slipped off the boat as we set off. If I had done that a bit further on I might have fallen 125ft to the River Dee with nasty consequences.
In fact there have been many deaths on this section of canal over the years and the biggest single cause was drunkenness among those not working on the canal.
Once you cross the aqueduct you follow the valley up to the town of Llangollen. I can safely say there is no canal more beautiful than this section although the Brecon Canal would come in a close second.
We had a nose at the Anderton Lift. The engineer that designed that also designed to old hydraulic ship lifts at Strépy in Belgium. We then navigated the Bridgewater canal into Manchester.
Getting out of Manchester was difficult. There are a flight of 6 locks, each one has a pub and each one is a different brewer.
We eventually tore ourselves away as far as the Macclesfield canal where we found a rare Hancocks pub. It then rained all the way down the canal back to our base.
Our fourth journey was the Oxford Ring. This time we had the Watsons plus Dennis Streets and Sarah Muir from New Zealand.
We travelled South down the Oxford canal to join the Thames. At Teddington you have to wait for the tides to navigate the tidal part of the Thames before joining the Grand Union Canal back up to complete the circuit.
This trip was completed in 1981. The reason I know that was that we stopped at a pub on the Grand Union. The girls went into the bar to watch Princess Di get married while the boys concentrated on the beer in the garden. Princess Di was married in 1981.
The beer or the sun must have gone to Dennis's head because as we left the mooring he decided to give everyone a brown eye or it might have been his sense of Royal occasion. Whatever the reason it had Steven and the rest of us in stitches.
That was the final narrow boat journey we made but it could have sowed the seeds which led to us buying Harmonie II and sailing the continental waterways. The English canals are a completely different proposition to the European mainland. For a start you either have an automatic lock or a lock keeper and most are still commercial. It is a constant battle between those commercial operators who are there to make money and us tourists who just want to enjoy ourselves.
In England the canals are a much smaller scale, the narrow canals mostly only 7ft wide and there is a pub at most locks which you have to work yourselves, the locks not the pubs! With few exceptions most of English canal architecture is picturesque and shops are close at hand for provisioning.
The problems now rather than when we cruised them is overcrowding. You can wait for hours at a flight of locks which can quickly ruin your best laid plans for getting back to base.
Paddle Steamer Waverley
The Waverley is the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world. She is based on the River Clyde and earns her upkeep taking folk 'doon the watter' out into the Firth of Clyde and around the inshore islands. There used to be many ships plying this trade and it was a popular excursion for Glasgow folk.
During much of the summer months Waverley travels right around the British Isles visiting most holiday resorts.
I was visiting a shipping company one day in Glasgow where the superintendent engineer was involved in the operation of Waverley and he asked me if we could machine a few bearings for them which I agreed to do. When the castings arrived there was about a tonne of them but he also sent me 100 tickets for a trip 'doon the watter'.
I hired a double decker bus, invited all employees and their families, Andor Moldskred and his wife Solveig came over from Norway and we even had our accountants along. We boarded Waverley at Glasgow Quay and set of on a glorious summers day down the Clyde.
On arriving at Dunoon we discovered the Highland Games were on. Waverley was going on to Rothsay and Arran so we decided to spend the day at the games along with a few others. Some hours later when Waverley appeared again, most of those who stayed aboard were the worse for drink, in fact some were unconscious!
We boarded the bus which had to make a 'comfort' stop at the motorway service station on the way back. Only problem was the service station was closed and I can still remember the row of bare female bums along the grass bank!
It was around this time that I began to slow my caving activities but it was one particular caving trip that finally convinced me to give up entirely.
I was on a caving trip to Yorkshire with the GSG and we decided we would go to the bottom of Stream Passage Pot. This is one of the entrances to Gaping Gill (GG) which is one of the largest underground chambers in Britain. GG is open to the surface and every year there is a winch meet where people are winched the 360ft to the bottom but otherwise you have a hard caving trip to get there.
As you can see from the adjacent survey the cave descends mostly vertically down four pitches. In those days pitches were descended using lightweight aluminium ladders whereas these days you use single rope techniques (SRT) like abseiling or prussicking.
Being one of the more experienced of the party and perhaps wanting to cement my reputation as a 'hard man' I laddered the cave straight through the stream. You would usually try to hang the ladder out of the water flow but this was how a 'hard man' caved!
It was also how a raving idiot caved as it was the middle of winter with the stream coming of the Ingleborough mountain as snow melt and all I had to keep me going was a Mars Bar.
Arriving at Gaping Gill main chamber we found ourselves in Henslers Passage. I once took Eric Hensler down Swildons Hole on Mendip on his 50th birthday and that guy was a real hard man so any passage named after him was going to be tough and it was. 100 metres of flat out muddy crawling.
On the way out having eaten my Mars Bar we began to ascend the pitches in Stream Passage and with the snow melt running into the top of my wet suit and out of the bottom I began to feel very cold and tired. Just before Chris Watson went up the ladder of the last pitch I asked him for a tight lifeline once he was up. He was a little too enthusiastic as I neared the top and pulled so hard I wedged underneath the overhang of the waterfall.
From experience I knew that it was impossible to pull me up so I either had to finish climbing myself or let them lower me back down to the bottom and if I did that then I would probably be a rescue case so I summoned up my last reserves and climbed out.
Funnily enough some years later some girl fell off a pitch in Stream Passage having only eaten a Mars Bar and had to be rescued.
A few weeks later Chris Watson collapsed and died during some keep fit exercises. Apparently unbeknown to anyone including him he had a hole in his heart. I will always miss Chris and have never quite got over the shock of someone so young and fit having so recently pulled me out of a cave dying so unexpectedly. We cared for his wife Moira for a long time after at our Edinburgh Flat.
1979/80 World Trip
I had to visit Japan to investigate sourcing a machining centre for the Ulstein UK Factory so we tied it in with another trip to NZ. This time dear old Bonner managed to get us a deal on a 1st class round the world tickets (ROW) with Pan-Am. I had told him we did not want to risk flying on the DC10 which was dropping out of the sky regularly at that time. Pan-Am did not fly to NZ so we did a side trip down there from Singapore.
In Singapore I visited my optician who chastised me for not looking after my glasses, tested my eyes, fitted new lenses and sent me on my way very little out of pocket rejoicing.
Ulstein had opened a new office there and put Morten Ulstein in charge who was away travelling so we stayed a couple of days in his flat.
Wherever we travelled in the world we always tried to sample the local cuisine and I asked our new Singapore office manager, Anthony Toh, what he ate for breakfast. I met him the next day and he took me into a little park opposite the office and we ate noodles, not Singapore noodles because they are an invention which has nothing to do with the city.
We also had lunch with some clients and were treated to Fish Head curry. Sticking up out of a bowl of curry was a huge fish head and they all fought for the eyes with their chopsticks as it considered the delicacy of the dish. It put me off eating it but Sue thought it delicious as they allowed here to eat one of the eyes.
Our New Zealand side trip was just to visit all the friends and rellies before we returned to Singers to continue our ROW flight on PA1 to Hong Kong. On arrival there we were met by our agent's representative who we had nicknamed Superwong with a message to call Ole Lars in Norway who told me there was a ship with a Thruster problem in a Kowloon dry dock and would I please fix it so I did but it took a couple of days.
Superwong was driving us back to Hong Kong island after completing the ship repair and asked us where we would like to eat. I said I would like to eat on one of the big barges in Aberdeen Harbour which I had never done and he said he would have to return to the office to get some more cash. I said not to worry as I would pay but should have known better. We caught a sampan out to a barge and were confronted with a huge aquarium with lots of sea creatures, some of which I had never seen before so I told Superwong to make a selection which was served.
I bit into a giant whelk or a starfish or something and began chewing. 10 minutes later I was still chewing and excused myself to visit the toilet. Not a meal I can say I enjoyed which cost a months salary but I learnt a lesson.
In the evening we had an excellent western style meal in a restaurant on top of our hotel overlooking HK harbour with our agent Thoresens Norwegian manager and his family which concluded in the basement night club dancing. Over dinner he asked if I had any plans for the next day and would we like to borrow the company Junk for the day. I of course accepted and he told me to go down to Aberdeen harbour and look for a 45 foot wooden Junk flying a Norwegian flag which was the only one in HK.
We spotted the boat and caught a sampan out. On board we met the Chinese skipper who asked us where he should take us.I consulted the chart and selected Lantau island which in those day had no roads or cars only bicycles. The Skipper had never ridden a bike before so we trained him and set off around the concrete bike paths through the real China.
Back at the quay there was a big tarpaulin on the beach providing shade for a few tables where the skipper ordered a shellfish dish which a lovely as the previous days was awful and a fraction of the price.
Back at HK airport where you used to shake hands with the high rise flat dwellers as you landed, we discovered that PA 1 was hours late. This happened a lot as PA1 just kept flying around the world getting progressively later. I had an appointment with a machine tool manufacturer in Tokyo and did not want to be late so prevailed on Pan-Am to find me another flight which they did and we were rushed out onto an Al Italia flight straight away. It was only when I looked around I realised we were on a dreaded DC10 but we survived, the meeting was made and I ordered our first machining centre from Makino.
The Makino salesman took the pair of us out for a meal that evening and then he didn't quite know how to entertain Sue as women are not usually one of their customers so they just took us to a bar with the usual ladies of the night supervised by the mama sen. The girls were delighted to have someone other than boring old men to talk to and got on like a house on fire with Sue!
On the way home we spent a couple of nights in LA arriving late at night at a down town Travel Lodge. It was locked and chained and took some persuasion to get them to open up as we had picked a rough area. We had a breakfast of Mexican Burritos at the cafe across the road and then checked into the more salubrious surroundings of a Howard Johnson further out of town.
It wasn't long before we realised we had not built a factory big enough for our expanding activities. When it came to assembling everything before testing and despatch we needed more room. The answer was to build a fitting shop extension on to the side of the existing factory. This would give us the room to install some more machine tools we needed which we also needed in the space vacated.
We had by this time employed a small team of service engineers so David Borthwick became more desk bound. We were pursuing ISO 9002 quality standard and employed David Stiven as our quality engineer who also managed the contracts so we needed more office space. We therefore decided to erect a second office storey which the architect had previously planned. I also added a garden on the flat roof but my board refused to allow the small additional expanse of this luxury.
Imagine my indignation when I next went over to Norway and saw Ulstein Propeller's new huge conservatory complete with restaurant and potted palms and indoor garden! There seemed to be different investment rules if you were Norwegian.
My new office was also the board room and I had a window cut though to the factory floor. This was not for spying but so the shop floor could see that the boss was at work when they started work and would still be there long after they left and I didn't get payment for overtime. That was how you worked in those days if you were salaried and not hourly paid.
Every day I would walk round the factory and chat to everyone to ensure they were not nursing any grievances or there were no problems I should know about. Everyone knew they were able to talk to management whenever they wished. They elected our fitter as shop stupid except he was actually a very bright bloke and we both saw eye to eye on most things.
Computers & Communications
We had already outgrown our first Wang mini computer and installed a larger one using the Unix operating system. Winchester Disk drives had now been overtaken by technological advance and other designs were now of a much larger capacity, much smaller and lighter but we still needed an air conditioned room to house all the kit. We had dumped the daisy wheel printer for a dot matrix one which was miles faster, quieter and handled all of our printing needs.
The revolution of the internet was not yet with us until 1983 so emails were a thing of the future although this was the year IBM introduced the Personal Computer (PC) running the Microsoft disk operating system (MSDOS). Our method of written communication was by telex or fax and here we jumped the gun. With our new Unix box we were operating an accounts, word processor and a stock control system. The software company we were using had also developed a program to send messages internally between terminals. The software could also convert telex files and send those as a digital message so I installed a Wang terminal on every desk.
Our receptionist, telephonist, telex operator could then direct telexes digitally to whoever they were addressed and the recipient could reply from their terminal on their own desk. They could also raise invoices, write letters and communicate with each other. It would not be too long before we all had PC terminals on our desk as well, connected into the unix network but we were already light years ahead of most companies our size and leaving our parent company for dead.
You will find the continuation of our story here.