Believe it or NotNov 20, 2021
In 1966 I was 17, fresh out of high school in Montréal and pining for the country I had grown up in, Belgium. I decided to work my way across the Atlantic on a freighter. This was something that was done quite often back then, and after many months of trying and many disappointments, I finally found a ship that would employ me for passage. It was the Sunclipper, a smallish freighter flying the Norwegian flag. We sailed out of Montréal on November 9th, 1966, headed for England, carrying bales of onions, barrels of grease and ingots of aluminum ... and me and my guitar. I won't go into the horrors of the crossing here. Suffice it to say that the North Atlantic in November is no place for sissies at the best of times, but the Sunclipper snapped a huge steel rod that connects one of the pistons to the propeller shaft and we floundered for six hours in the middle of a mighty storm while they replaced it. Yes, they had a spare! The crossing, which was supposed to take 9 days, took 12. I was sure we were all going to die out there.
But we didn't. We reached England on the 21st of November, sailed up the Bristol Channel headed for our port, Avonmouth. It was a beautiful morning and I distinctly remember spending that morning up in the prow of the ship. I was so anxious to get off that ship, to get my feet back on solid ground, that I had positioned myself as far forward as I could, as if maybe that would get me there sooner. Our docking at Avonmouth was just as dramatic as the crossing as the captain couldn't get the engine room to reverse the propeller to slow the ship down as we neared the dock. I will never forget the dockworkers who were waiting for us all started to slowly move backward, away from the edge of the dock, as they began to realize what was happening. We hit the dock at a shallow angle and eventually, through much noise, friction, dust and snapping cables, came to a stop.
But that's not the point of this story.
A few years ago, I was thinking about all of this and wondered if there was an image of the Sunclipper online. I had done a search before but nothing came up. This time, however, a thumbnail of it appeared in Google images. I clicked on it and I was taken to a page at ShipSpotters.com. There it was, a beautiful crisp photo, black and white, of the SS Sunclipper. I drank it in for a few minutes. Then I noticed below a caption with some of the details of the photo.
"SUNCLIPPER ....passing Portishead on 21st November 1966 inbound for Avonmouth"
I couldn't believe my eyes! That was the year, the month, the crossing ... I was on it. I immediately looked at the prow of the boat and saw a small figure, chest, shoulders and head, and I knew, without a doubt, that that was me up there, 48 years ago. After picking myself up off the floor, I noticed that there was an email address for the photographer, who evidently was a dedicated ship spotter with over 600 images at that site. So I wrote him. He responded! His name is Malcolm Cranfield. He was 18 on that clear cold November morning in 1966. He is as amazed as I am about this. He told me that was one of his first ship photos and that he'd email me a higher resolution image. The 1000 dpi file he sent only confirmed my belief that the figure in the image is indeed me -- was me -- 48 years ago. I could even make out my Beatle hairdo.
I now have a framed three-foot-wide blow-up of that photo on the wall of my office and I have told Malcolm that if I ever get back to the UK I will seek him out and take him to his local pub for a pint or two.
Believe it or not.