GUS Collins says there were two work options when he was a teenager, and one appealed more than the other.
“It was down the mines, or go to sea,” he said.
Gus chose the latter and, aged fifteen-and-a-half, joined the crew of a Swedish tanker.
He had grown up in Townhill, Swansea, before moving to his sister’s house on Kilvey Hill, St Thomas.
Then he was gone. The Merchant Navy and endless miles of ocean became his life.
His British ship was a coal-burning collier – Rambler Rose – then it was larger vessels. His horizons expanded.
“It was a great time,” says Gus. “I saw most of the coastal world.
“In the early years it was pretty rough – food was pretty scarce (on board), but then it got a lot better.”
Gus crissed-crossed the blue planet for 26 years.
“By the time I left the ships were like floating hotels!” he says. “They had gymnasiums, and the cabins were really luxurious.”
Gus says he really enjoyed himself in South America.
But there’s one place that really sticks in his mind.
“I felt really at home in Jamaica,” he says. “It was the Harry Belafonte (singer and actor) era. We had a really good time.”
Gus worked on what were known as banana boats.
“Everybody knew you, and you knew everyone else,” he says.
“We used to go to Port Antonio in Jamaica. There was an island nearby which was owned by Errol Flynn.
“He had died, but his yacht was still there.
“We used to put some beers and sandwiches on a raft and swim out there.
“The locals could you tell you stories about Errol Flynn. He used to come on board the ships, get things he needed like rope, and have a drink.”
Gus says a mariner’s pay wasn’t great, but that he loved the adventure.
He received a war bonus though in 1982 when the UK fought Argentina over its occupation of the Falkland Islands.
Gus was a quartermaster on an ammunition and supply ship called RFA Regent.
“We went out with the task force, taking supplies, ordnance and weapons,” he says.
“Our job was to circle around the fleet and replenish the warships.
“We still maintained speeds of 14 knots. We were constantly zig-zagging.”
Gus says conditions could be very rough, and recalls passing icebergs and a “constant twilight”.
But he says the North Sea could be just as hairy.
During his time at sea he remembers a lifeboat being washed away on one vessel, and an 85,000-tonne tanker having to slow to a crawl to navigate through one particular storm in the Bay of Biscay.
Gus says he never feared for his life, such was his confidence in his colleagues’ seamanship and the sturdiness of the vessels on which he served.
As the years passed, advances in technology, standardisation of containers and faster loading and unloading of cargo meant fewer crew were needed on ships, and time ashore reduced significantly.
Gus says more and more sailors were drawn from the Philipinnes and Cape Verde.
“I took voluntary redudancy in the end,” he says.
“But I was like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what to do.”
With help from a friend he re-trained as a financial adviser, which saw him through to retirement.
“I look back on the Merchant Navy as my real job, with fond memories,” he says.
“But seafaring was totally different in my day. You don’t have the sea training schools that we had, and you aren’t brought up through the decks like we were.”
Gus now lives with his wife in Crofty, North Gower – a village he describes as “a waiting for God type of place”.
But he adds: “I like the area, and it’s very safe.”
Gus has a son and daughter, and four grandchildren.
Until the coronavirus pandemic struck, he met up every month with fellow members of the Swansea branch of the Merchant Navy Association.
It was founded just over 20 years ago by the late Cyril Travers, who wanted a place for families and friends of seamen and women to meet, and a memorial to respect those who had died at sea.
The association raised £45,000 which, together with a donation from Swansea Council, paid for a monument in SA1.
“The names on it are mostly seamen who have no other grave but the sea -mostly war-time seamen,” explains Gus.
“We like to think it’s one of the finest of its type in the UK.”
On September 10, Swansea councillors agreed unanimously to confer the honorary freedom of the city and county on the association.
Councillors spoke of their pride in the group and the manner in which it represented the city
The aim is for the council to adopt the monument in the future and preserve it for future generations.
Gus, who is treasurer and a life president of the association, says membership has declined over the years.
“I’m 76, and I’m one of the younger ones,” he says.
The meetings on the last Tuesday of every month at the Railmens Club and Institute, Wind Street – although suspended due to Covid-19 – are popular.
“We all meet up, and we tell stories,” says Gus. “It keeps us together.”
The Swansea area currently has very few mariners.
One who should have retired by now is Martin Bowen.
He joined the Royal Navy in 1964, served for eight years, and then switched to the Merchant Navy.
Since 1991 he was worked for the British Antarctic Survey.
Martin, of Neath, recalls the thrill of setting sail in uniform a month after his 16th birthday.
“It was just a huge adventure,” he says. “You were single, and excited to go away.
“My first trip was 18 months out in the Far East – Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.”
He remembers the contrast between the bright architecture of the Far East and the “quite dreary” buildings in the UK.
After a while, Martin says regimental service began to jar.
“I used to work in the gun turrets,” he explains. “You’d be covered in dirt and grease, and an officer would say there’s a button missing from your tunic.”
He had friends in the Merchant Navy and, after a short spell in Swansea, went to sea again on tankers, cargo and container ships.
“At the time there were plenty of ships,” he says. “You could literally pick the area you wanted to visit. The Far East was my favourite.”
He also plied routes to the West Indies and the southern states of the USA, but opportunities began to dry up.
Like Gus, Martin also helped the Royal Navy in the Falklands in 1982.
It was the furthest south he had been before his current role in the Antarctic on board RRS James Ross Clark, where he is the bosun responsible for the operations and deployment of the scientific equipment.
The 72-year-old is, due to his age and the coronavirus, currently back at home in Neath.
He expects to help put the James Ross Clark’s under-construction replacement vessel – RRS Sir David Attenborough – through its paces when it is completed.
“I think my cut-off will be July next year – I’ll be 73 then,” says Martin.
He is no longer a member of the Swansea branch of the Merchant Navy Association, but praises its efforts.
“What they have done with the monument – that was fantastic,” he says. “It’s one of the best I’ve seen.”
Martin, whose two children live in Swansea, says the Antarctic is stunning on a sunny day.
“The icebergs, the whales, the sea life – there’s nowhere like it on earth,” he says.
The British Antarctic Survey has recently helped survey deep undersea channels, which scientists say are almost certainly allowing warm water to infiltrate the Thwaites glacier – a colossus the size of Britain.
The BBC reported this month that the glacier is losing around 80 billion tonnes of ice per year, compared to just over 10 billion tonnes in the 1990s.
Global sea levels would rise by up to 65cms if the whole glacier collapsed, although this is not expected in the short-to-medium term.
Martin says he has noticed ice retreating during his visits to a base on Adelaide Island, on the Antarctic west coast.
“Some scientists spend two-and-a-half years there – they say they despair at what’s going on,” he says.
“And it’s happening all around.”