The one person who loomed larger than any other on the Sheaf Royal for the deck cadets was chief officer Richard Williams. He held the power to bring joy or complete misery to our lives. The chief officer, or mate as he is more usually referred to, is the senior ranking deck officer and second-in-command of a merchant vessel. Among the mate’s many responsibilities are those of looking after whatever the shipping company may bless or curse him with in respect of deck cadets. On the Sheaf Royal that was me and George. While others called Richard Williams ‘Dick’ or ‘Dickie,’ George and I had to call him chief. We called him a few other things too, but only when he was out of earshot.
My run-ins with the mate began during my first week on the Sheaf Royal. I used to think that it was because he was from Scotland, and I was not. George was Scottish and received marginally better treatment. In the mate’s eyes I was English despite my mother being Scottish, and the fact that I had grown up in Guernsey. He called George by his Christian name and me by my surname. When the captain told him to call me by my first name (as the captain did) he started to make up nicknames.
Dickie Williams seemed to enjoy shouting at his cadets. One of the worst shouting incidents took place when we were cleaning the holds at sea after discharging a cargo of iron ore in Mobile, Alabama. The next cargo was to be grain and the holds needed to be spotless. I was driving a crane removing a 45-gallon drum filled with iron ore sweepings from one of the holds. The ship was rolling and due to confusion over the hand signals George was giving the drum bashed into the hatch coaming – just as the mate walked out on deck. He turned the air blue and told me to get out of the crane so that he could demonstrate how to do the job properly. He made an even bigger hash of operating the crane than I had. He quietly walked away and left us to it. That evening he came by our cabins, told us we had done a good job, and gave us a couple of cans of beer each.
Two years later George told me that he had overheard Dickie Williams telling someone on another ship that we were the best two cadets he had ever sailed with. I wish he had told us that at the time! However, for all the trauma of being first trip cadets with chief officer Richard Williams, George and I benefited greatly from what we learned from him and from the trust he placed in us. We might have still been boys, but he generally treated us like men. He gave us responsibility and it felt good, even if some of that responsibility involved tasks that could be considered unpleasant, like cleaning the bilges after a grain cargo. We were also hungry for knowledge, and I guess that prompted his continued interest in us, even if he maintained a strictly ‘I’m the mate not your mate’ attitude to his cadets.
Jesus took a very different approach with his cadets, who He referred to as disciples. Like George and I most of them were just boys in terms of age. I don’t think that Jesus shouted at His boys when they got things wrong, any more than He shouts at us when we mess up. It is more the way that Jesus lived and the words He spoke that speak loudly if we care to listen. Needing to listen more includes those of us who regard ourselves as followers of Jesus. Beginning to follow does not mean we have arrived. It simply means that we are first trip cadets with a lifetime of learning ahead of us. All overseen by a Heavenly Father who is infinitely more patient than a certain Scottish mate on the Sheaf Royal.
Jesus said: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” (John 10:27-28a NLT)