A Very Able Seaman

All the nice girls love a sailor

All the nice girls love a tar

For there’s something about a sailor

(Well you know what sailors are!)

Bright and breezy, free and easy,

He’s the ladies’ pride and joy!

He falls in love with Kate and Jane, then he’s off to sea again,

Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!

So go the words of a jolly old song I remember hearing many years ago. I have no idea whether the words are true. As far as being the ladies’ pride and joy, I can only say that I am sure that it applies to the lady of my house and her thoughts about me.

Yesterday I had a remarkable chance to find out. For all my life I have loved trains, my earliest dreams were about driving the steam engines I used to watch and travel on as a nipper. I spent many hours dreaming dreams in the Barry Scrapyard owned by Dai Woodham. Sadly I am not sure my dream of being a train driver will ever come true.

Imagine my surprise then to be offered the chance not to ride on a train but on a ship. My friend Bob became the creator of dreams yesterday when he offered me the opportunity to travel on a ship sailing the murky waters of The Bristol Channel.


ImageThe Flinterbirka is an 83-metre long ocean going vessel weighing 3481 tons dead weight. It had recently sailed from Latvia carrying a consignment of wood to Cardiff Docks. Bob is a ships’ agent and my friend. Knowing that I like to make ordinary days special, he arranged with the ship’s captain, a fine Dutchman to take me from Cardiff Docks, down the Bristol Channel to Barry Docks where part of the cargo had to be offloaded.


Bob dropped me off on the dockside shortly before 9.30pm the time the ship was booked to travel through the lock gates of Cardiff Docks for its epic voyage to Barry. In the eyes of the world a mere hop in the dark, but to me a chance to explore a world of which I knew nothing about. I was about to become a merchant seaman. I often wondered what it would be like to be called an able seaman and now I was about to find out! JK eat your heart out!

I made my way to the bridge of the ship and met the captain. He invited me to make myself at home, find my sea legs and enjoy the voyage! I wanted to salute him and say ‘Aye ‘Aye Cap’n, but I thought better of it. I said it in my mind though.

I gazed at the bank of computers and radar screens, fascinated by everything I could see.


Shortly before departing we were joined by the two pilots, one trainee and one real pilot. The waters of the Bristol Channel are dangerous and the ships’ channels have to be negotiated with great care.


We made our way through The Roath Dock and then through a cut and crossed the Queen Alexandra Dock.

The Queen Alexandra Dock, the last & largest of Cardiff great docks was opened by King Edward VII on the 13th July 1907. By then, coal exports from the South Wales Coalfields via Cardiff totaled nearly 9 million tons per annum. By 1913, this had risen to 10,700,000 tons, making Cardiff the biggest coal exporting dock in the world.

At the end of the dock there is a lock, where we stayed for a short while to allow a smaller ship to join us.

We went down to the level of the open sea outside. I gazed across at the barrage and the great city of Cardiff beyond. The sea was calm and all was well. As we left the port, the trainee pilot took control and guided the ship out through the channel, past Penarth Pier and along the coast.


The hum of the engine and the sea breeze in my face caused me to think about coming out of retirement and becoming a real merchant seaman. I thought of some of the great sea farers of history, Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, James Cook and Ferdinand Magellan and I can honestly say none of them had ever been as excited as I was as we sailed down the coast. For those great men The West Indies, The New World, New Zealand and other famous places were their playground but for me something better, far better.


We sailed past Lower Penarth, Lavernock Point, and Swanbridge with the lights of the Captains Wife glimmering in the mild Spring night. Then the excitement of seeing Sully Island shrouded in mystery, covered with a cloak of darkness.

As we passed Sully the captain made me a cup of real Dutch Coffee, it was beautiful, sipping it in the moonlight with the sea breezes ruffling my graying hair.


Next came the bright lights of Dow Corning with Cadoxton perched above it. I hovered between the bridge chatting with the captain and the outside standing on deck watching my fellow seamen working away below me.

The flashing green light ahead marked our destination, the lock gates to Barry Docks.

Visitors to the seaside town of Barry which lies to the west of Cardiff, might be forgiven for thinking that the place held nothing more important than a pleasure beach, a fun fair and a few empty docks that seem to have little or no purpose.

Yet there was a time when Barry was the largest coal exporting port in Britain, possibly even the world. That may have been a long time ago and the town’s days of glory may be gone, but what a glory they were. The development of Barry as a port was down to two things – the rapid growth of the south Wales coal trade and the dynamic personality and business acumen of David Davies, the very first Welsh millionaire. Work began on the new dock at Barry on 14 November 1884, along with the construction of the new railway link. Everything was completed in double quick time and the dock opened for trade in 1889.

In due course, further docks were added and while exports in the first year were just one million tons, by 1903 they had multiplied to over nine million. By 1913, the year before the outbreak of World War One, Barry had surpassed both Cardiff and Penarth to become the largest coal exporting port in the country.

I thought of the history and the thousands of ships to have entered this historic port as the pilot and then the captain steered the ship carefully into the dock entrance and again into the lock. This time the lock took us up to the level of the water inside.

Before long we made our way through another cut before berthing at the dockside.


I thanked the captain for his invitation and fine hospitality and helping to turn an ordinary day into something rather special.I shook his hand but held back from giving him a salute, although in my mind that’s exactly what I did… and he deserved it!

Waiting down on the dockside was a friend who will probably never know how much I appreciate his thoughtfulness. He was there to take me home and I was about to find out if the lady of the house, like all the other nice girls, really does love a sailor. Maybe she’ll call me Popeye and I can call her Olive!!


Thanks Bob!

Author: rogernewberry

Full time, husband, father and grandfather.

One thought on “A Very Able Seaman”

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