An unusual Christmas Eve

Summarised from a translation in preparation of “PAMIR 1955/56” by Arnd B. Arnd
(an account of his time as a deck hand on the Pamir in his youth).

It was Christmas Eve when we made it past the Canary Islands. After six weeks of gray skies we had sun and fair trade winds to cheer the mood on board. While scrubbing the deck and changing to summer sails the young crew was nervous about preparation of the promised Christmas light chain to be attached over the masts. On a square rigger seasonal lights are very impressive. There were about 30 petroleum lamps on board for emergency lighting but these had been augmented though striking a bargain with a supplier in our home port of Bremen.

The galley reported all was ready for the great feast planned for 18:00. Lighting the lamps was planned for precisely 19:30 followed by singing on deck for those off watch. The meal was generous quantities of roasted meat and homemade ice cream with strawberry sauce. Then we took the lit oil lamps into the top where we had prepared brackets on the outer tips of the yards including four on the very top Royal yard. The base of each lamp was stuck into a halved tin can and thin wires were drawn through the bottom (two holes) with which the can was attached to the yard at a safe distance from the sails. Pretty soon all poles shone in the glow of 45 lights shining over a height of 50 meters and produced reflections of the shimmering lights in the sails filled by the wind. From the deck down below we admired our creation from all sides and began singing Christmas carols ‘Jingle Bells’, “What shall we do with a drunken sailor” and so on.

Arnd's Pamir lights

Pamir with Christmas lights (Photo: Arnd B. Arnd, with enhancement)

Suddenly a ship on our starboard and later another one on port side disturbed our singing with a powerful horn blast. To the left of us a Russian and on the other side an American warship came steaming up to us sailing along at 3 Knots in the middle. Our second officer
contacted the US-Navy with flashing light signs in Morse code and our radio operator made contact with the Red Fleet. We were praised for our wonderful ‘Christmas Tree’ and were asked by the captains of both warships if they could send a delegation of 25 men on board our ship for two hours. Protocol dictated they should be strictly separated from each other, not allowed alcoholic drinks and with no collaboration. The Cold War did not permit any exceptions even on this special evening.

Permission was granted. There were shouts of  “Welcome” and “Добро пожаловать” as we helped the sailors to come on board to port and starboard via our gangways and wooden ladders with great care to maintain the clean white of their tropical uniforms. After a quick exchange we just sang – one song after another.  One in Russian, one in English and one in German, whatever one group knew while the others sang or hummed along. The mother ships of our sailors came closer and closer. Eventually they sailed only 50 meters to the left and right of us. On deck the crew members of the mighty powers from East and the West were singing along with us. In this peaceful atmosphere dominated by the gentle trade winds Christmas had arrived.

At four bells (22:00) there was a scramble to return to the ships for roll call and the sailors’ curfew at 22:30.  We were asked to leave the lights on till midnight so we checked the lights and trimmed the flames for a further two hours.

Our eyes wandered over the vast Atlantic Ocean and we realized that we were surrounded by a good dozen of ships.  Until midnight we were in the midst of many ships the equivalent of an armada slowly moving south. I guess none of us was below deck and we enjoyed the atmosphere. Probably everyone enjoyed the sight.

At midnight when the bell struck four double chimes our two battleships shared a celebration, blowing their horns. We joined in and so did all the other ships within range. It sounded like New Year’s Eve at the St. Pauli landing in Hamburg.

The next day it was on Sunday and were relieved from chores other than watch keeping and trimming sails. We had time to sit around and chat over a cup of coffee underneath a real Christmas tree.

Coffee beside the tree

Christmas aboard Pamir (Photo Arnd B. Arnd)

Extract from the book “PAMIR 1955/56 – A picture book with reminiscences”, about 200 pages, 250 photos, by Arnd B. Arnd. Currently available in German.

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5 Responses to An unusual Christmas Eve

  1. Thanks for that snippet – it looks like my kind of book. The sea is a great leveller, not only of New Jersey seafront houses, but of our prejudice and mistrust towards our fellow men. Mankind united if only for a few hours, against the sea, the greater enemy.

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