Am Bratach No. 220
February 2010


Hello sailor!
Fiona Burnett hears about 19-year-old Donald Morrison’s adventures in the Merchant Navy

Choosing a career in life is never plain sailing. Much depends on exam results, although nowadays even if you qualify for the job of your dreams the job you want isn’t always out there and students have to alter their career paths. It’s a stressful time in a youngster’s life. How do you really know what you want when you leave school?

Nineteen year old Donald Morrison from Balnakeil, Durness, knew exactly what he wanted. To join the Merchant Navy. Back on dry land after a voyage overseas taking him to Australia and the Far East, I finally nab him for a chat.

Donald’s career was inspired by the many hours he spent in his father’s workshop, tinkering with engines, seeing how things worked. “Dad’s a ferryman so he’s got boats. It just inspired me with the boat side of things. And, then, my grandpa used to be in the Merchant Navy so I saw pictures and my mum told me stories about him.”

 Donald Morrison.

Not only is Donald following his dream but he’s taken along his best friend too! Especially handy when the majority of the crew don‘t speak English. Unknown to themselves at the time both lads applied to the same three companies for a job.
“My best mate in Durness primary was Liam Wood and then he left to move down to Argyll ’cause his dad’s a fish farm manager. I never saw him again until S3 at high school. And ever since we’ve been best mates.”

Leaving Kinlochbervie high school at seventeen, Donald worked on his cousin Ian Mackay’s fishing boat until his engineering course began at Glasgow College of Nautical Studies seven months later. “I loved it,” said Donald.

He has sailed and flown to many countries over two years in the Merchant Navy, sailing to Russia, Norway, Holland and Germany, Ireland, England, Australia, China and Hong Kong, flying out of Singapore and shortly flying to Barcelona to board a ship there.

Sadly there is not much time to look around. “You’ve got so little time ashore,” said Donald. “You’re in for less than twenty four hours.” He would have enjoyed exploring Hong Kong but couldn’t get ashore “as the taxi boat was going to be about $1000. Far too much for a five minute journey! Best place I probably went to was Gladstone, last port before I signed off in Singapore.

“I’ve even passed round Durness five times!” said Donald. One time when passing on his way to Ireland to sign off he spoke on the ship’s radio to his father who was up at Faraid Head. He turned to the captain: “Och, can I not get my dad to come out with the ferryboat and take me off?” The captain replied: “Yeah, yeah, if you get him to take a case of whisky out!” Ireland it was!

There was no shortage of visitors to the ship when Donald was anchored in Indonesia. “Wee canoes came with a heap of guys in them and they came up onto the ship and they were asking for any scrap metal or anything we could give away to them. So we went down to the engine room and got a heap of old paint tubs and stuff and gave them that. And the next day they came back to us with a heap of fresh fruit. Different fruit, fish and prawns!” The plot thickened when the next morning women in canoes arrived desperate to join the crew who refused them to board. The fruit was a better and safer option!

The delivery of fresh fruit was a bonus as there was a distinct lack of culinary skills in the kitchen. Most of the crew were Chinese and their “unqualified chef” was in need of a crash cookery course. Meals were bland. “Rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner!” Another dish served was duck, “completely sawn with an electric saw and the head and everything was just lying there!”

Fun times aboard came in the form of Saturday BBQs and Karaoke sessions. “The chief engineers rule basically. He was a Philipinno and over there it’s a big thing.” Cadets on the ship aren’t meant to drink but other crew members would buy drink for them. There were numerous parties to celebrate special days in each country, like China National Day.

When he’s not at sea, Donald spends most of his time studying at the nautical college in Glasgow, staying in halls of residence. Joining at seventeen meant he had a curfew imposed. “Me and Liam were always wanting to go out most nights, but we had a curfew until eleven o’clock and we had to be back by then, otherwise we’d get a letter to our company,” said Donald. “But we could get round it if our parents phoned up and said it was okay for us to stay out. So I could never get hold of Dad and I knew my mum would say no so I didn’t even attempt that so I phoned my brother instead and got him to make out that he was my dad on the phone. That worked!”

Once after a good night on the town he couldn’t get back in time and had not informed the halls that he would be out late. Arriving with Liam and a few other lads he realised that his bedroom window was open. After a precarious clamber up to his room he attempted to climb in through the window but got stuck and found himself dangling from a fair height, legs flapping frantically. If that wasn’t bad enough, his efforts were caught on CCTV and an angry security guard appeared, got him inside and showed him the video! Thankfully no action was taken.

His recent trip found Donald in the same country as his sister Catriona: Australia. A chance to meet up with her would have been great. Unfortunately, Donald’s boss received his leave request too late and couldn’t make appropriate arrangements for him. So brother and sister were separated by three hundred miles.

The first ship Donald boarded was not such a stickler for discipline whereas the second ship was very different. “Room inspection at ten o’clock. Everything had to be tidy. Floors all mopped and bleached if they needed it.” A rude awakening from his first experience. Uniform must always be worn at breakfast, lunch and dinner and always when visiting the bridge of the ship.

The ship, built in Tokyo, was five years old with no major work to carry out in the engine room, just routine maintenance. “They reckon China will be the biggest in ship building over the next few years.”

After two hours working “You’d just be soaking — you’d have to change,” said Donald. “The lowest I ever saw it was forty-five degrees. Roasting!”

But however far Donald travels, links with the home country are apt to appear. For example, at a company interview, he discovered that the interviewer, a previous captain of his boat, Lester Pink, knew exactly where he came from. He had some years ago been forced to anchor in Loch Eriboll for shelter due to severe weather.

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