The Captain’s Missus—or—Why I Trailed

The Captain’s Missus—or—Why I Trailed

3 February 2023

The following describes my experience of travelling with my partner, Captain S M Ross, whose job was to carry food and goods worldwide as a member of the British Merchant Navy. Then, in the 1990s, Mrs Thatcher encouraged British shipowners to get rid of the expensive British, acquire a flag of convenience and foreign crews, and carry on as usual. Britain kept a few ferries and warships. For safety, shipowners also kept British senior officers, of which Captain Ross was one. Partners were very important to those left.

A very large poster in the officers’ bar listed 15 reasons why beer was better than a woman. A cat-like female with a surgically enhanced cleavage, in the act of removing huge sunglasses (just for starters), crouched beside the laddish litany, just in case you’d missed it. If only.

Not long before, I’d read a piece called ‘Men Who Trail’ about husbands who follow their partners to Strasbourg or Brussels (when we were in the EU) and get on with the unglamorous business of bringing up the kids and running the house while she’s out in the ‘real world’ dealing with the banana quota and the green pound. As I wept over their painful adaptation to invisibility, I wondered how they would cope with total-immersion trailing, going to work with their partners for months on end with no role, dangers galore, and posters from planet yob.

As a career, trailing was never an option I had considered, until I became attracted to and married a merchant navy officer and we were forced to be apart for eight months every year, which—despite my love of solitude and writing—was ridiculous. So, when even the word separation made us foetal, and he went off after every leave as though going to the gallows, I knew I would need to trail. That way my writing life could still go on, or so I thought.

At sea, being married is not just something you happen to be, but the sum of all you are. Because they think you have nothing to do (the laptop is to do his paperwork), what is really benign incarceration in an all-male open prison is seen as pampered leisure on a cruise, with you in the role of kept woman who can’t wait to go ashore and shop. ‘Going ashore to spend all his money,’ someone would always quip at the first and every subsequent port with such regularity I soon realised there was little point in attempting their reconstruction. Rare is the male who can grasp that leaving home, family, paid and unpaid work and making endless arrangements to keep it all ticking over in your absence is not a jolly but a career in advanced juggling, albeit one which you must invent as you go along.

After all, shipping companies didn’t introduce trailing way back in the 1960s because they cared. Trailers were then a perk to keep men at sea at a time when there were plenty of jobs on land. And latterly we were a perk—to keep those still left at sea sane. But not all mariners liked having women about, some because they were coy about swearing or mooning, others because they were men’s men (but not gay you understand) and, still lurking on every vessel, were those who believed we are bad luck, even as they lapped up our bon mots and fed on our animation.

There was a time when being the Captain’s missus had cachet. Flowers when you arrived, agents’ cars to whisk you away in port and meals out with all the swank you could handle. But that was in the braid-heavy days before Mrs Thatcher decided Britain didn’t need a merchant navy, when senior officers were minor potentates, when the Red Ensign fluttered worldwide and the Bahamas was a holiday destination, not a registry British shipowners couldn’t wait to join.

My first trip to sea was a rapid learning curve. My partner was the chief officer on a container ship and I had agreed to join him, so when the London office had okayed everything, I packed up and was about to walk out the door when a terse note advised me that it was not their policy to carry ‘common-law wives’. As he had told them we were legal and even offered to produce proof, this was beyond baffling, until it came out that someone somewhere had assumed we were only pretending to be wed as I still went under my own name.

Even when that ‘misunderstanding’ was sorted and I joined, I was no sooner up the gangway than the chief steward (they still existed then) took me aside and, with polished condescension, suggested I change my name as it simply wasn’t possible for him to do his job if my name was different from the person I said I was married to. It was for my own good, he added—without irony. I was able to ignore that of course, but even the management company had trouble remembering my name and at least once booked air tickets in the name they would like me to have (his) which resulted in my not being allowed on board in some god-forsaken place without waving my marriage certificate under increasingly important noses and grovelling so pathetically that I eventually convinced them I must be the Captain’s missus and not some sleazy pick-up. Surely these are not performances trailing men going under their own names ever have to give. There is simply no male equivalent.

Because trailing looks more like a holiday than the personality transplant it is, everyone considered me to be terribly lucky. ‘Away for the winter,’ they would say. ‘Some people have all the luck and all those exotic ports. Where is it this time?’ And if I dared show even the slightest hint of not being thrilled at the thought of yet another winter Atlantic crossing, or cruise through waters dense with pirates, I’d get a lecture on how dull their lives were and what they wouldn’t give to be heading for the Caribbean, which may well be true, but some excitement I can live without. And that includes winter Atlantic crossings and pirate-infested waters.

Piracy on the high seas is not—and never has been—romantic. Pirates are nasty, desperate and ruthless. They will scale any hull, threaten any life, and they come in fast boats, moving stealthily in armed gangs and intent on removing as much of the ship’s money, the crew’s possessions and sometimes the cargo, as possible. They board large container ships (not the super-sized) or small fishing boats, and your only protection are anti-pirate lights and fire hoses ready to wash them over the side if they are spotted—which they seldom are. And the worst of it is they always make for the captain’s safe, which is in the suite where you live, sometimes even at the bottom of the marital bed. The actual pirates may be employees of paymasters living safely in a tax haven.

Unfortunately, piracy is far from the only danger and definitely not the worst. That is, of course, the weather. At sea you can never imagine yourself immortal. In good weather you are grateful and in bad you are entirely occupied with the mechanics of dressing without falling over or showering without injury, while floors and walls lurch—throwing you around rooms and up or down stairs. Many a trailer has been injured in the course of her indulgence; just a momentary lapse of concentration and a wildly swinging door can start you on a subsidiary trailing career in search of cures.

The weather impact depends of course on the vessel. On a new or even not-so-new container ship with stabilisers you may seldom know you are at sea, while on a fruit boat you will constantly wish you were not, especially if it is old. The boats which delivered all that exotic and out-of-season fruit (which you may be eating as you read) bob about like corks, even in balmy weather, on a sea of undulating velvet, while in a storm they can roll 30 degrees for days on end, leaving you bag-eyed, slacked-jawed, totally unable keep your laptop on the desk, and insensible with lack of sleep.

Trailing across the winter Atlantic in a banana boat in a succession of storms was as unglamorous as it got. And doing it in old tonnage was so dangerous I daily questioned my devotion to a marriage which might literally sink—or maybe go up in smoke. There is no doubt that being at sea substantially increases your chance of incineration, if only because of the presence of all that combustible fuel. In even the best-run ships pipes burst, oil spills or electrics malfunction, and there is often only a computerised alarm system between you and an inferno. Then of course, if you are unfortunate enough to be there when the vessel becomes engulfed in black, acrid smoke—as I have been—there is nowhere to run to.

While most trailers may be lucky and avoid a serious fire, the chances are—on fruit boats anyway—they will have sailed with both stowaways and/or consignments of concealed drugs because, for a long time, banana boats from Colombia were conduits for both. Fortunately in Belgium and Holland the authorities know that the master was not drug running, but in Spain the ship was once arrested and people and dogs tore the vessel apart while pouring dire threats of how the Captain (minus his missus) would spend the rest of his incarcerated days. They found nothing, of course. They were on the wrong ship. It was a simple mistake that could have put a stop to more than trailing.

Of course it was not all pirates, stowaways and yobbish calendars; trailing had its pleasures, but cruise it wasn’t. Ships are male spaces: they smell, they’re noisy, and your quarters usually require more than an exotic plant to make them habitable. And, pleasant though your shipmates may be, they haven’t a clue what it is like to be female amongst them, let alone the only one. So a woman with an active mind and imagination needs either a room of her own or the inner resources of a contemplative. Preferably both.

Fortunately in this pared-down (almost-destroyed) Merchant Navy there was always a spare cabin with a desk where I could work and, given good weather, I got on very well because there were no distractions (apart from all the aforementioned). No meals to cook, no house to clean, and, best of all, no supermarket to loathe the sight of.

And then there were all those exotic ports we visited. True, automation meant that it was often for only a matter of hours, but there were places where labour was troublesome, or they didn’t have the latest gear, so we sometimes managed a night or two in port. And sometimes even a night out. Which was all nourishing grist for a wordsmith’s mill.

So trail I did. It may have been dangerous, alien and it certainly gave new meaning to standing by your man, but with a laptop, a grown-up partner and quite a lot of luck, it was sometimes the idyll and cruise everyone believed I was on. And as for those posters … whatever happened to my sense of humour?