Time and Tide: Oral Histories

Andy

Name: Andy Roberts
Year of birth: 1949
Place of birth: Margate, Kent
Place of residence: Deal, Kent
Occupation/s: Deep Sea Merchant Navy. Dover Coastguard. Volunteer with Dover RNLI.

SNAIL MAIL

Andy joined the Merchant Navy aged 16. He remembers a comment from one of his teachers at Faversham Grammar school: ‘You worry me, Roberts’!

In the Merchant Navy, he could be away for up to 18 months at a time. ‘Imagine today, a 16 year old, fly to Hong Kong, join your first ship and come home two years later. My poor mother, no wonder she cried when I went!’

Mail would be six or eight months old by the time it arrived. ‘I remember my sister writing me a letter, she’s only a year older than me, and she’d had a tiff with her boyfriend and they’d split up. I wrote back, it was about four or five months by the time I got her letter, giving her some advice. She wrote back, which I got about four months later, saying “What are you talking about, I finished with him a year ago!’

NEVER FOLLOW ME

In 1977 Andy married. ‘I took her away to sea with me for five years. By that time, I’d left the British Merchant Navy and I was working for the Shah of Iran, on Iranian ships and we were transporting, legally, arms and munitions up to Iran. My wife was the only lady on the ship. They wanted me for the navigation. … We had to go out of sight of land and stay at least twenty miles off the coast. It was about a 12,000 mile trip. 11,000 tons of explosives on board.’

Just after Andy and his wife returned home from an eleven-month long trip, the first Iran/Iraq war started: ‘The ship [I’d been on] – missiles hit the ship and they were all killed. So it sunk with all hands, except me and my wife.’

Andy returned to sea, with his wife. They had a big cabin, with a lounge and a balcony. They used to get the owners’ suite, as his wife was the only lady on the ship. ‘The last ship we sailed on … that ship, after we left that, she broke in half in the Atlantic, in a storm, and all hands were lost in that incident. She put out a Mayday but no-one got there. So, what I say to people is: ‘Go before me, come with me but never follow me’.

HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

In 1983, Andy joined Dover Coastguard. He was the Co-ordinator of the Search and Rescue Operations Room at Dover. He was at work on 6th March 1987, the day the Herald of Free Enterprise sank in the English Channel: ‘Quite an unbelievable night, it’s the biggest British flag civilian disaster since the Titanic.’

Andy was heavily involved in co-ordinating the whole British response: ‘helicopters, boats, divers, rescue teams’. ‘It was difficult to take on board the enormity of what they [Dutch Coastguard] were saying, and at that stage no-one knew. And when it actually rolled on its side it was in the channel, and there was a bank each side, if it had been a bit further, it would have been under water and everyone would have been killed. It went on all night, happened about six at night, but it went on more than all night.’

Andy was also on shift when the Marchioness went down. ‘That’s the reason they have lifeboats on the Thames now. They were having a party on board the boat and it sunk, and there was no rescue craft. It hit one of the bridges.’

THE LIFEBOAT

‘Men of steel and ships of wood. Every hand a vice, and every finger a marlin spike.’

Andy is a volunteer with Dover RNLI. ‘Dover Lifeboat is an all-weather lifeboat. She will go out in any condition whatsoever.’

‘In some respects, search and rescue is easier [now] with a greater chance of survival.’

When they went to sea, once they left the beach, there was no communication with anyone. One story … Ramsgate lifeboat, in the late 1870s, went out because someone had seen a flare, but when they got out there they couldn’t find anything, but then they saw a flare 10 miles in the other direction so they rowed and sailed to there. When they came back, it was two and a half days since they’d left. All their families thought they were dead. It really is quite amazing.’

‘All the crew of the lifeboats were once fishermen, they all had the skill. Now, 90% of crew on the lifeboats have no sea experience when they join the lifeboat. It’s a whole different ball game.’

Does Andy believe in an appeal of the sea? ‘Most definitely. With me, it was in the blood. I loved it. If you like the job and can afford to live on the salary, then you’ve won the lottery.’

What would Andy say to someone considering a career on the sea? ‘If you have an interest and an open mind, you will enjoy it immensely.’