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The Sheaf Royal sailed from Rotterdam on 22 December 1973. I had never spent Christmas away from home before and wasn’t sure what to expect. There were decorations including a Christmas tree, and there was a Christmas dinner, but that was about it. Life went on pretty much as normal. Watches had to be kept on the bridge and in the engine room. Catering staff had to work, and only the day workers were allowed time off. Jesus wasn’t mentioned, even though it was His birthday.

The officer’s smoke room on the Sheaf Royal – decorated for Christmas (Dec 1973)

Meanwhile the Sheaf Royal was heading south and west, past the Azores towards South America. Fellow cadet George and I were kept busy with hold cleaning and bilge diving (as we called it). We got to do a bit of painting out on deck as the temperatures climbed and Jesus whose birthday we had forgotten blessed us with some sunshine.

The next cargo was to be iron ore, which we were due to load in Puerto Ordaz, nearly 200 miles up the Orinoco River in Venezuela. I was amazed that a ship the size of the Sheaf Royal could sail so far up a river, although she was not the largest ship to navigate the Orinoco. A pilot was required, although pilots have not always prevented ships from grounding (or colliding) in the Orinoco. I recall that when recording everything in the movement book on the bridge we used the acronym TMOPA (to master’s (captain’s) orders and pilot’s advice).

The presence of a pilot on the bridge of a ship relieves neither the captain, nor the officer of the watch (OOW) of their responsibilities. None of the Orinoco pilots who assisted on the Sheaf Royal spoke good English, which increased the potential for mishap and the requirement for the old man and OOW to be on the ball. You can’t just go with the flow when navigating the Orinoco. You need to have brain and eyes and ears switched on. Especially when guidance is being provided in a form of English more commonly used by Manuel the Spanish waiter on Fawlty Towers (click for link if you have never heard of Fawlty Towers).

The wake of the mv Sheaf Royal entering the River Orinoco in January 1974

Similarly, the presence of Jesus on the bridge of our lives is not an excuse for us to sit back and let Him do the work. The relationship between Redeemer and redeemed is not like that. We are required to play our part. He has already done the difficult bit – leaving His Father’s side, taking on human form, and living life at a level of poverty most of us have no understanding of. After three years of itinerant ministry He faced false arrest, a rigged trial, and the cruellest of beatings followed by the most painful of deaths. So why do so many of us sit on our backsides in fancy buildings we think are the church expecting to be waited on hand and foot? That’s not the way the church worked back when it began. Has the church become like a ship that has run aground? How could this happen when the church has the one Pilot who can truly be trusted? Perhaps He is speaking a language we have failed to understand?

Here’s how it all began:

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshipped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 NLT)