Wightlink Ferries…Summer 2008

It was June 2008 and I was looking for a new seasonal job, to accompany my quite temporary and inconsistent (and with hindsight, non-contractual, casual) job in the bars and retail points in the Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth (and also in the BIC), and because I wanted to do something different, yet again. By chance a visit to the university in Bournemouth to hand in an assignment saw me pop to the notice board, where in the jobs section Wightlink were looking for staff. I had never looked at that notice board before. Something, this time made me do it. I sent an e-mail and before I knew it, I was interviewed, successful and was ready to work as a bar and lounge steward on board the Wightlink Ferries, on their Lymington – Yarmouth route. It was a dream job, as a child I had a love of ferries, boats, and of course people. Manys a time I used the Sealink and P & O ferries (and probably that ill-fated ‘Townsend Thoresen’ company) from Belfast or Larne till Stranraer or Cairnryan. In the 1980s they became my summers and my escapes with family from wee Northern Ireland. Now for the first time, I’d be working on a boat…

The training was short, thorough and enjoyable. Familiarisation of the three Wightlink vessels was the main part of the training. The three boats I’d be working on would be Cenwulf, Cenred and Caedmon, all 3 of which were around 35 years old. They had been running on the Lymington – Yarmouth route for a good few years and considering their age, they were excellent boats. There were 5 main decks on the boats (all three boats were built the same), which were:
1. Lower Lounge (underneath the car deck – rarely used)
2. Main car deck
3. Mezzanine deck (for cars and also two side lounges)
4. Lounge deck (where I worked in the bar/cafe)
5. Bridge deck (where the captain sits)
In the first few weeks I became familiar with everything on the boat.

The training also included Lifejacket and Emergency Procedures, which I enjoyed. Life jacket demonstration is a very important part of the job. You never know when an emergency could happen. This included being aware of “working party red” and “working party blue” (for fire, and other emergencies).

Once the training was done, we were assigned onto a crew. I was put into the “K” crew, where the Mate was Andy Gell, we called it Killer Crew or Killer Gell on occassion. All the other staff were English and there was me, the only Ulsterman on the Wightlink crew. The first few shifts on board the boats full time involved switching round with crews though, so I met lots of different people through that. I worked with Joan and John Smith, older members of staff, set in their ways, but very friendly to work with. There was also the abrupt Tony Toms, an islander who had worked there for years. I also worked with Natalie Smith. But my favourite duo was Steve Parrish and Simon Eatwell. We bonded well as stewards, using comedy and newspapers to get us through days when the boats were quiet. After all this chopping and changing I was fully trained as a steward, this involved becoming “king of toast.” Toast duty was the most hated, yet somehow most loved part of the job. You used to hate the big orders and remembering what the customer looked like as you ran round the lounge shouting “2 toast”, but the adrenalin rush was great and you knew that by 10 am breakfast menu would finish and there would be no more toast! Just bacon baps, sausage rolls and pasties, which were all done in the microwave.

“K” crew meant I was the steward for that crew, with Shaun Emm, being the senior steward. Shaun and I worked together the whole summer on the crew. We were the two stewards in the lounge/bar/restaurant on board. There were two tills and we would have one each. On busy days at peak times and weekends, we would have an extra steward, this would be either London dancer Alex (who left soon after), a local guy, Jon and the perky pretty Jo Wegeulin, who we all agreed we would rather work with. The crew was normally 10 staff, with a maximum of 512 passengers allowed per sailing.

The staff or crew for “K” would normally be 10 persons:
1. The Captain or Master
2. The Mate or 1st Officer
3. The Bosun
4. Crew Member 1/Deck Hand
5. Crew Member 2/Deck Hand
6. Crew Member 3/Deck Hand
7. Chief Engineer
8. Engineer
9. Senior Steward
10. Steward
(11. Extra Steward)
(12. Extra Deck Hand/Crew Member 4)
So I was always crew member number 10, also my muster card was 10, I was “Muster Number 10”, essentially the least important of the 10 crew, because we could sail without me on mode 9 (rather than mode 10), but I never saw it like that. We were all one crew, one team!

The summer season went by so quickly last year. I was doing 5-6 days a week on the boats and also picking up hours on my days and nights off in the Pavilion Theatre. There were lots of early starts – may favourite shift was “the early turn one”, which was 5.15 am – 12.30 pm and that was me off for the day. The shifts were split and varied though and sometimes we would have 8 trips on a shift, sometimes 12. But never more than that! We didn’t get breaks at all, but we were rarely busy all the time for the whole shift and I would drink copious amounts of tea, coffee and hot chocolate during the shift. Each trip from Lymington to Yarmouth would take 30 minutes, then we would have a 15 minute turnaround time and back again. That would continue the whole day. Three boats rotated the journeys evenly and I would work on all three boats at different points. If one boat got delayed or had a problem, it would be a “domino effect” and the whole day of sailings would be affected, we would get paid overtime, sometimes we would be up to two hours late.

My job onboard was a steward, which meant working in the shop/bar in the lounge and looking after the passengers. As there were only two of us working in that part of the boat, we would find ourselves responsible for almost all the passengers. There was also a lower lounge (which wasn’t really used anymore, and was actually a fire or flooding hazard because it was below the car deck) and two side lounges. Dogs and pets were not allowed in the main lounge, but on the outer decks and in the side lounges. The bar/shop was small. In terms of cooking all we had was a microwave and a toaster. In terms of drinks we had hot drinks, soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. Th snacks were buts, crisps, chocolate bars. Plus we had a range of gifts and other items, I can’t remember everything we sold, but I’ve done a wee list below.

What I once sold or served on the Solent:
– regular tea
– earl grey tea
– fruit teas
– hot chocolate
– coffee
– cappuccino
– decaf coffee
– Budweiser
– Becks
– Fosters tins
– Stringbow tins
– Strongbow Sirrus
– Smirnoff Ice
– Ale of Wight
– Fuggle De Dum
– Duck’s Folly
– Kronenberg tins
– Toast with butter, marmite or strawberry jam
– Sandwiches
– Cornish Pasties
– Hot Slices
– Sausage Rolls
– Bacon Baps
– Dairylea Dunkers
– Flapjacks
– Muffins
– Shortbread
– Biscuits
– Malt Loaf
– Pepsi
– Tango
– Diet Pepsi
– 7UP
– Still Water
– Sparkling Water
– Orange Juice
– Milkshake
– Apple Juice
– Yoghurt Drink

I worked about 5 days a week on the boats, if we were late we got overtime, sometimes we also had drill shifts. This would be ideal for doing “mock emergencys” where we pretended there was a fire on deck, a customer fainted and such like. I had a drill card, which I still have which details all the drills and training I did. The paperwork was quite intensive, but necessary when you consider we were working on a ship. I just had a look at my folder and it’s massive.

Shaun Emm was my senior steward for most of the summer, which meant he was basically my line manager. We got on well, and he never really had to give off to me or complain, I’m pretty sure I always did a good job. Looking back I don’t remember even one argument, not many jobs I can say that about. In the mornings until 10 am we would do breakfast, which was basically tea, coffee, orange juice and a pretty poor selection of “breakfasts.” No eggs, beans or bacon…Well we did bacon baps, to be microwaved in 60 seconds, but they were unpopular. The main thing was doing toast! This meant I would stand by the toaster for 4 hours with a piece of cardboard! Now how does that work??

Basically on the till Shaun would take the order for a customer for either 1, 2, 3, 4 or 6 pieces of toast. Out the back in the kitchen I had one toaster which could only fit 6 pieces at a time. I would have the butter, knives and plates all ready for the orders. As well as the knife and the slicing board. Then with my piece of cardboard I would write down a description of the customer as they ordered to Shaun at the till! A bizarre way to do it, but that was the Wight link way. No ticket numbers, seat numbers or waiting for toast. I was literally the toast waiter for four hours. Service to the table, recognising the customers by virtue of a personalised description scribbled on the back of a piece of cardboard. I would have to make a note of the number of pieces of toast, male of female, where they were sitting (if they had sat) clothes colour, distinguishing features. It did get confusing when customers:

1. ordered for someone else
2. took their clothes off
3. put a hat on
4. sat outside on the open deck
5. moved seats
6. were in the downstairs lounge.

Though I have to say I made less than 5 mistakes as “toast man!”

The description card on any given Cenred day could have read:

M – 2 – blue shirt, grey hair
F – 4 – white top, big boobs
F – 3 – pretty blonde, sitting by aft window
M – 2 – grey hair, looks like john major

I tried to make the descriptions comical, though the customer was never allowed to see them, except one young lady once asked, and I had written for her “f – 2 – very pretty, blonde, green eyes, about 19…”
I don’t know whether they still have the same procedure for toast on board the newer boats Wight Light, Wight Sky and Wight Star, but it sure kept me entertained as I listened to wave 105 of a morning doing toast. I also sometimes burnt the toast. I’d say I wasted about 10 slices all summer (in 6 months). We never cooked the heels and we used to eat them with butter and marmite out the back on a quiet run. The 7 am and the 7.30 am from the island were the busiest toast runs. I could toast 3.5 loaves in one trip some days. It was easy…

The toast always finished around 10 am, which meant you would refuse to cook toast any time after this, especially when working a late shift. The only hot food available would be cornish pasties, hot slices and sausage rolls. Mind you we did the other random lunches – fruit, salads, sammijes, kids cheesey dippers and buns. Or as the americans will have ye call them – muffins. On a half hour crossing to the isle of wight there wasn’t much call for anything else really. Customers were fairly satisfied by our choices…

The cafe doubled up as a bar. We didn’t have any beers on tap, but did a good range, including four types of Isle of Wight branded ale, made by Goddards. These were:
1. Fuggle de Dum
2. Duck’s Folly
3. Goddard’s Best Bitter
4. Goddard’s Ale of Wight

There were drill turns once a week roughly, where we would have an incident, and have to act on it. There were normally just 10 crew on board and I was usually muster number 10. This meant looking after passengers in any emergency. In the incident stage, it was simply standing by the workplace and maintaining services while waiting for other announcements.. Beyond this we would have to don lifejackets (big bulky old orange ones!) for the general emergency stage. Incidents could be fire related or non fire related. Fire related was the code “working party red” and other incidents were “working party blue.”

I did quite a few shift swaps and ended up working with other crews as well on overtime. This including working with the Scot Phil Hampton along with Debbie Harris, another perky young blonde. There was also the older pairing of stewards – John and Joan Smith – they weren’t related and were an odd couple, but still fun and different to be around. My favourite was when I worked with young Simon Eatwell, he was senior steward and deck trained, but normally worked as a steward. We became good mates and often had a pint in his local in Lymington. Canadian Senior Steward Steve Parrish was also good banter and a man of wisdom. He once remarked how “that young Jonny is coming in here, taking photos, having a laugh and he will write about this one day on his blog…” Well, Steve, this is for you then.

The boats were often delayed meaning we could sit and relax and chill out in the cafe, often me with my iPod on dreaming away to the world as the Cenred, Cenwulf or Caedmon fought their way back to the English mainland.

Work advantages – free toast for breakfast, free hot drinks (and fizzy soft drinks), free transport on any Wightlink service, discount off Stena Line and most other UK ferry routes, shift work.

Work local – The Waggon and Horses (Last stop before the ferry!!) at Lymington.

My “K” Crew
1 Master/Captain (varied)
2 Andy Gell (Mate)
3 Chris Franks (Bosun)
4 Chief (varied)
6 Dave Hobby
7 Simon Tollorvey
8 Craig
9 Shaun Emm
10 Jonny Blair

Other people I enjoyed working with at Wightlink – Simon Eatwell, Steve Parrish, Jo Weguelin, Debbie Harris, Paul Malyon.

Boats I worked on – Cenred, Cenwulf, Caedmon. I also was on “Wight Light” a few times, but it was not functioning as a passenger vessel at the time, as it was still awaiting approval to sail daily on the Solent.

Songs which charted at the time, or we played them on board on Wave 105, they will forever remind me fondly of Wightlink:

5 years time:

Champagne Supernova (Where were you while we were on the Isle?)

Gabrielle Cilmi – Sweet About Me:

Once upon a time, YOU WERE SERVED BY JONNY BLAIR on board the good ship Cenred.

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