Robert J. Watson has one of those distinctive stories. The kind of story that leads one to wonder “how come this guy hasn’t written a biography already?”
The truth is, we are writing a biography of sorts. This kind of interview series can be pieced together to create the history of an artist.
So, let’s continue on this journey.
The history of Robert J. Watson.
Q) Let me start by asking you, Robert, what does it take to be a merchant sailor?
A) I have said for many, many years, sailors are born into it. You will never just be one; and I think you need a sense of adventure, a longing to see the world, and a love of the sea you could never get ashore. You definitely need a sense of humour.
Q) What’s so important about a sense of humour?
A) Nick, you live in a tight community, and every day is different. The work is hard and sailors have a habit of playing practical jokes on each other. There is a saying: “You should not have signed on if you cannot take a joke.”
Q) So, joking aside, you are in the middle of the ocean. How does that feel?
A) It is the most wonderful feeling in the world. You can be a thousand miles from land, maybe even in a storm, but each day you smile because it is you and the sea. I also think you have to be a little scared. The sea demands fear. It is a respectful kind of scared though. The sea demands respect, or it’s likely to bite you in the arse.
Q) Many people warn of the danger of the sea. What is the real danger of the sea?
A) It’s anger and unpredictability. You just never know what is going to happen. I mean, you have to be just a little insane to do the job. When I signed on, I earned twelve pounds a week. You do not become a sailor if you want to earn money.
Q) It must be lonely being out at sea all the time.
A) The answer to that is yes and no. Yes, because you are so far away from everything. No because you are with people you trust with your life and, like I said before, the humour plays a big part.
Q) Let me ask you this, what is the daily routine for a sailor?
A) We got up and ate at around 6 am. If you are in port, then the priority is working cargo. A note about breakfast, Nick. You always checked under the egg in case the cook has left half a roach. Then you head out ondeck for routine ships work. Ticketed sailors might splice ropes; many days were spent painting and repairing the ship. It all depends on the days works sheets really. We would work till about six or seven. Then you showered off, headed ashore and spent your hard earned booty.
Q) It left plenty of time for you to read books then, Robert?
A) Funnily enough, yes. I was studying for my tickets so every moment I had free was spent with my nose stuck firmly inside a text book. I had a very hard task master in one skipper, and he pushed me and pushed me to do them.
Q) What was your first sea journey like?
A) I thought I was going to die. We set sail from London, and the Jersey sea sickness was the worst feeling in the world. The first officer told me hot sweet tea would cure it, for sure. Whilst I was making one, he said I could make one for him, too. Well, I have told you already that you need a sense of humour, right? He liedand the sweet tea–it makes it much worse. He just recounted the old saying to me, “Shouldn’t have signed on if you can’t take a joke, young Bob.” I stayed friends with him, and sadly he died last year. I will never forget him because he showed me how to be a sailor. In fact, I dedicated the last book to him.
Q) I was just thinking to myself– why the merchant navy and not the Royal Navy?
A) I did try for the Royal Navy. I wanted to be a marine engineer, but I was told I would have to go back to school. I was still considering it when then a job in the merchant came up so I took that instead.
Q) How long were you generally away from home?
A) You’d be away for around three months at a time. Then I would come home on leave. I did do a container run from a small place called Glasson Dock, and I could have been home every other day. My old man called it duck pond trading. So, I went back down south to work.
Q) You had some very interesting experiences with the U.S. Navy around the time of Vietnam, right?
A) You are making me think, now! We carried Bombs for the US Navy from Kent to Belgium, and we could only carry 200 tons at a time. When we got there, we unloaded into these massive yank ships. One time some smart arse Yank flushed the heads out over our decks. The skipper told the first mate to go and demand it be cleared up. So, I went with him .The big Yank stood there with the huge cigar in his mouth. George, the mate, said, “Hey, someone has just flushed all your crap onto our decks, we want it clearing up.”
This Yank took the cigar out of his mouth and looked at us like dirt. “Well, Bub,” he said. “If you can find the dirty bastard that did it I will surely make him clean it up.” That was the end of the discussion, really. The Yank put his sunglasses back on, and the cigar went back into his mouth. I was junior hand so I got to clean it up. I have a photo of me somewhere sitting on top of the bombs. Good times.
Q) Why did you eventually leave the sea, Robert?
A) Simple–I got married.
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