Gothenburg, Sweden – 03:00 hours, Monday 5 November 1973. I was sixteen years old and had joined my first ship a week earlier. The ship was in Gothenburg for the equivalent of an annual service. After a week alongside in a shipyard we were due to move down river to a dry dock, or in our case a floating (dry) dock. The company had saved money by paying off the Chinese deck and engine room ratings when the ship arrived at Gothenburg, so we were skeleton crewed (I was much thinner in those days). This meant that the only manpower (or to be more accurate boy power) available on deck consisted of two first trip deck cadets. David Welford and George Cuthbert.
The Chief Officer (more usually known as The Mate) already hated me. He liked George because George was Scottish. The Mate was also Scottish. I am only half Scottish. Fortunately when it came to move down the river at three in the morning the shipyard had loaned us some riggers to assist. Unfortunately, The Mate had chosen me to join him on the fo’c’s’le (forecastle) head while we moved from our berth to the dry dock.
The first thing that went wrong was when I was sent aft to fetch coffee for The Mate. By the time I had walked the few hundred feet back to the fo’c’s’le, half of the coffee had parted company with the mug, which was covered in grease from my working gloves. After this was thrown at me I went aft again where I devised a solution for getting a clean and complete mug of coffee from the officers’ pantry to The Mate. I resisted the temptation to add ingredients other than water, coffee, milk and sugar.
The next problem came when The Mate told me to go down into the fo’c’s’le and fetch some heaving lines. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for as I had only been in the Merchant Navy for three weeks at that time – two of them spent on a shore-based induction course, and one on a ship that hadn’t moved from her berth until that point. I selected a coil of rope and wandered back up the ladder to face a torrent of abuse from The Mate. In summary, I was completely useless and I knew nothing. The reason I knew nothing was that no one had taught me much at that point.
One of the Swedish riggers took me back into the fo’c’s’le and showed me what a heaving line was and explained its purpose. A heaving line is a light rope with a weighted monkey’s fist (a knot) on one end. It is thrown from ship to shore, and the end left on the ship is attached to a mooring rope so that the men on the dock can pull the much heavier rope ashore.
In time I became very familiar with heaving lines and quite proficient at throwing them. But I needed to be taught. I needed to be shown how to handle a heaving line, and mooring ropes, and to carry out all the other tasks associated with the operation of a ship. There is an important lesson here for followers of Jesus and the church. Remember Philip and the Ethiopian who couldn’t understand the words of Scripture he was reading? What if the modern day equivalent to the Ethiopian lives next door to you, or is a colleague at work, or is a friend whose knowledge of Jesus is limited to Christmas celebrations?
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Romans 10:13-15 (NIV)