The world had gone mad (again) in 1982. The British and the Argentineans were at war over what seemed like a desolate island with apathetic sheep that did not care which country’s flag flew over the sheep-dip. At that time, I was working on cargo ships as an engineering officer and an offer had been extended to me to participate in the Falklands war. They wanted me to work on a cargo supply ship that would bring supplies to the British Navy in the war zone. They were offering over 1 ½ times my normal pay (danger money). Over a cold beer I considered the logic. I would go to no-man’s land, I would be working on a ship that did not have any means of defending itself, and I would be working in the heat of the engine room that would be a tracking point for the Argentinean Exocet heat seeking missiles. Even fully armed navy ships such as the HMS Sheffield had met with disaster at the hand of the Exocets, and many people perished. I finished my beer and decided that the sheep would have to fend for themselves.
Little did I know that my involvement in the Falklands war would take an unimaginable twist of fate. Some people joked that it was an Irish-English thing that made me “take on” the British navy, others may say that the guilt and safety concerns for the innocent sheep got to me.
The story unfolded at Portsmouth harbor in the South of England, where the cargo ship I was working on was anchored. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in July at the end of the Falklands war. I had been on the night shift in the engine-room and had some free time at hand. I was given permission to take the cargo ships little sailing dingy (called the Jolly Boat) out for a sail in the harbor. The chief officer Brian kindly used the ship’s crane to lower the Jolly Boat into the water for me. I assembled the rigging, and in no time, I was sailing off into the distance with fresh air in my lungs, leaving the scenic English countryside behind. After an hour of sailing, I was at the mouth of the large harbor and the wind started to die. I was becalmed without even a set of oars to help me. I sat in the dingy and started to take a nap in anticipation that it could take some time for the wind to pick up again. I needed to doze off to prepare my brain for the night shift. I was young and fearless without a care in the world and soon I drifted off to sleep.
To say that all hell broke loose would be a big understatement. Imagine you suddenly wake up in a small boat to the thunderous sound of a ship steam horn bellowing. I jolted awake to see a huge ship towering over me and a mountainous bow wave rolling in my direction. The ship was so close that I could hear people screaming at me (bad English curse words!). There was no doubt in my mind that the ship was traveling at high speed and was frantically trying to steer around me. The black smoke from the funnel and the size of the bow wave gave a clear indication that they were running the engines at full throttle, and steering at full rudder to avoid hitting me. The ship that towered over me was no ordinary ship; it was the huge British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. The HMS Hermes was coming back from the Falklands war and had turned sharply around a corner to enter the deep channel of the harbor, only to find me in my little dingy in the middle of the channel, with windless sails slapping as the boat rolled from side to side.
Back on the cargo ship, the chief officer had been watching the event play out. He was an avid photographer and was observing me through the telescopic lens of his camera as the HMS Hermes succeeded in evasive action. The wind picked up shortly afterwards, and I made my way back to the cargo ship, paid a high- speed timely visit to the bathroom, and reflected on my close call with death.
The chief officer Brian was in tears of laughter. He told me that this was the funniest thing he had ever seen. I joined in the laughter, took the mocking from my fellow ship mates in my stride, and this became one of many unusual stories that were to color my life while traveling to over 75 countries.
The lesson I would like to share with you from this story is simply that when bad things happen, you can most times use a positive attitude, a sense of humor, and literally celebrate it with laughter. When I was home nearly a year later, I received the attached photo and note from the Chief Officer. It hangs on my bedroom wall in a picture frame, and 28 years later it still makes me chuckle whenever I look at it.
In the following BBC news headline from July 21st, 1982, it mentions that the HMS Hermes came into Portsmouth harbor surrounded by a “small flotilla of boats”. Makes me wonder……..