|Before the SAL
Growing up as maybe a black sheep in my family I was so school tired that I quit classes before the finals of junior high. And therefore I did not get a "Realexamen" diploma [from 1968 an abolished Swedish degree of good standing]. Instead I went to sea and worked on cargo ships for four months, until one day my mind told me “I can’t go on like this for the rest of my life...!”. So I went back to school and completed my realexamen degree in 1961 instead of 1960.
My grandmother owned a small hotel, and she inspired me to go into the field of guest services. Maybe someday in the future I would take over her business…! Thus I started working as a pantry boy at the Borås City Hotel, not far from Gothenburg. The job wasn’t very exciting however. No, I wanted to travel and see the world! And since I had heard rumors about the Swedish luxury transatlantic ships Gripsholm and Kungsholm, my mind was set on getting a job aboard. That was in 1959 or 1960 and I was fifteen years old.
Said and done, I bought a train ticket to Gothenburg and walked into the SAL headquarters. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that the minimum age was 18 for employment with the Swedish American Line. Sigh! Three years seemed an eternity at my young a...
On my way out of the office I saw a door with the sign "Officer Cadets". So, I followed my impulse and knocked on the door. Inside, I received information that changed my life. Soon I enrolled into a five-year Marine engineer education program. Before completing my studies I worked extra on various cargo vessels during the school vacations. All the ships, except my first one, Lovisa Gorthon, were registered for the Swedish Orient Line and other sister lines to the SAL owned by the Tirfing Shipping Group.
Vessels I worked on before the MS Kungsholm:
- MS Lovisa Gorthon, messroom boy, lounge waiter.
- MS Stureholm, officer cadet.
- MS Antarctic Ocean, officer cadet.
- MS Vikingland, officer cadet.
- MS Blankaholm, second engineer, during summer leave from the Maritime Academy.
- MS Krageholm, second engineer, during summer leave from the Maritime Academy.
- MS Sabang, second engineer.
After graduation from the Maritime Academy I worked for some time on the general cargo vessel MS Sabang before I got an offer to join the MS Kungsholm. And that was exactly where I wanted to go!
At last, in 1969 my wish was fulfilled. At the age of 24 I signed on for work in the engine department of the MS Kungsholm.
The role of the engine department is to make sure that all electrical, mechanical and technical functions onboard are kept in good operating order at all times. That was very important on the Kungsholm since the ship was like a small city with all sorts of infrastructure and services. It had everything from lighting, water and sewerage to bakery, barber shop, florist, a Chinese laundry, hospital, printing shop, bank, bars, and restaurants and a cinema, etc.
The Chief Engineer was responsible for all electrical and technical functions onboard, and he reported to the Captain and to the technical office at the company headquarters in Gothenburg.
The officers in the engine department of the Kungsholm were ranked as follows:
- Chief engineer
- First engineer
- Deck engineer senior
- Second engineer senior
- Second engineer inter
- Second engineer junior
- Deck engineer junior
- Third engineer senior
- Third engineer inter
- Third engineer junior
I started out as third engineer senior. After some time I was promoted to second engineer inter and then senior there too. For a period I held the position of deck engineer senior, being a rank between first and second engineer. As a deck engineer one was responsible for all electric power, all machinery and electrical equipment that were located outside of the engine room, including all lighting, stoves in the kitchen, sound equipment, electricity in the barber shop and the beauty parlor, the tender boats, the radio and telegraph station, as well as any leakage that might occur inside the vessel.
All engine officers were on duty in accordance with sea watch shifts. This means working four hours and being off duty the next eight hours, then working another four hours, and so on around the clock seven days a week.
The Engine department
The total number of crew members in the engine department added up to around 40 persons. Each engine officer had specially assigned responsibilities, as follows:
All electrical and technical aboard the ship.
||All human resources management and planning of tasks and duties in the engine room. Reports to the chief engineer.
|Deck engineer senior
|| Supervision of electricians and deck repairmen. Responsible for all electrical equipment onboard and all technical equipment outside the engine room. Reports to the chief engineer.
|Second engineer senior
||Management of engine room personnel when the ship is berthed and coordination of watch shift duties during operation at sea. Reports to the chief engineer or to the first engineer.
|Second engineer inter
|| Responsible for “his” sea watch and for the oil separators during operation. Foreman/supervisor in the engine room when the ship is berthed.
|Second engineer junior
||The same as inter but evaporators instead of separators.
|Deck engineer junior
|| The air conditioning. Reports to the deck engineer senior.
|Third engineer senior
||Responsible for the auxiliary machine room. Watch supervisor for the third engineers. Reports to the first engineer.
|Third engineer inter
|| Responsible for “his” watch in the auxiliary engine room. Reports to the first engineer or the third engineer senior.
|Third engineer junior
||Same as inter.
That was the organization in general. I can’t recall the details exactly but each engineer was assigned specific fields of responsibility such as pumps, inventories, etc.
The so-called daytime repairmen were machine tool operators in the engine room, working under the first engineer or second senior depending on whether or not sea watch duties were set.
In addition to the above, the Kungsholm engine department also had about ten motormen and 5-6 repairmen in the engine room itself, plus electricians and deck repairmen, and the light bulb changer Pepe. Pepe was a fulltime employee with a single important task: to change burned-out light bulbs from prow to stern every day. He could be seen anytime and almost anywhere onboard in his white work overall, always carrying a ladder with him wherever he went. Pepe bulb changer worked under the deck engineer. The fire watchmen, however, belonged to the deck department, i.e. to the captain’s crew. The tender boats too belonged to the deck department, while all their technical items sorted under us in the engine department.
All the white work overalls onboard were deck or engine crew. The able seamen, ordinary seamen, fire watchmen, carpenters and helmsmen belonged to the deck department. The electricians and repairmen belonged to the engine department.
Obviously, a reliable supply of electricity and fresh water is of paramount importance on a cruise ship. The Kungsholm was like a village with nearly 1000 inhabitants. For that reason the Kungsholm had five auxiliary engine units, and if I remember correctly they had a capacity of 1000 kW each. During operation usually only two units were required, at a load of up to 80 percent of their capacity. If the load increased beyond that another engine was started. Air conditioning alone accounted for almost 800 – 900 kW. And at the time of departure and arrival in port an extra engine was always started up as a backup.
To appreciate the sound of the Kungsholm’s main engine in operation, here is a short film clip from her as MS Mona Lisa in 2010 (courtesy of Tommy Stark):
The daily fresh water consumption was around 80 tons, as I remember. We produced our own fresh water onboard with evaporators. There were two fresh water evaporators that were empowered by the cooling water from the main engines. Each evaporator produced nearly 20 tons of water a day. We also had a so-called steam evaporator that produced nearly 40 tons. In reality, we faced a negative balance each day in supply vs. demand. The unbalance was a constant head ache, especially for chief engineer Sture Jonsson who had a frustration about water. In order to solve the equation we filled up with fresh water from ashore whenever it was possible.
People I have worked with on the Kungsholm
Here are names of some colleagues I recall having worked with:
Kenneth Engström worked himself up to chief engineer on the Kungsholm after she had been sold in 1975. He now lives in Miami.
Tommy Carlsson from Ängelholm was third, second and first engineer.
Olof Fällman from Uddevalla was first engineer for some years 1973 onward.
Ain Murs was a golf enthusiast who afterwards moved to Stockholm.
Björn Castegren from Gothenburg was first engineer.
Ulf Rosengren from Gothenburg had various second engineer positions. He went ashore and started working at Nicoverken ship repairs.
Sture Jonsson was chief engineer.
Gustav Åhrman from Gothenburg was legendary as air conditioning engineer.
Christer Runesson from the county of Blekinge had positions as second and third engineer.
Gösta Gårdström from Gothenburg was first engineer and chief engineer.
Nils Höök from Gothenburg was first engineer and subsequently technical inspector. We are almost neighbors today.
Needless to say, the officers lived a different life compared to the rest of the crew onboard. But in essence it was the same thing anyway since all of us were away from home. The main difference was that we in the engine and deck departments had chosen a life at sea because we were educated precisely for that purpose.
The third engineers always had sea watch schedule, regardless if we were long or short time in port. The second engineers, however, could get some extra time off duty and/or work office hours when we were in port for longer time than just over the day. As deck engineer I always worked normal office hours, plus overtime. Sometimes the overtime was substantial.
All the officers lived in single cabins one deck below the navigation bridge. In the forward end, with windows facing the prow, lived from starboard to portside: the captain, chief officer, first engineer, and the chief engineer. In direction aft from those cabins lived all the other officers. The hierarchy aboard was rather marked, and each category lived more or less in cluster with others from the same group.
Now and then it happened that we invited female employees to parties in our quarters. They were nurses, hair dressers, shop attendants, and cabin stewardesses, among others. Those events were very social and jolly.
The rest of the time, when living in accordance with the sea watch schedule, was rather monotonous and meager - consisting basically of working, sleeping, eating, reading, and getting some fresh air.
Occasionally, in some ports of call, the officers were offered an opportunity to come along on passengers’ excursion tours arranged by the Thomas Cook travel agency. I was lucky to join such excursions in Osaka when we were docked in Kobe, Japan, and also in Bangkok.
All crew members appreciated the visits to New York. And nearly every time we visited a banjo bar that was a sing-along night club in Greenwich Village named Your Father’s Mustache. It was a very nice place for dining and entertainment.
And another place that was almost mandatory to visit each time the Kungsholm docked in New York was I.J. Gonon’s small shop close to the pier on W57th Street, where one could buy almost anything at incredible prices. And the hamburger bar across the street was also a popular stop for many of the crew members.
Some special episodes
An incident or rather a mishap that I want to recapitulate here is when I during my first year onboard the Kungsholm cleared away all the tables in the passenger dining room and in a lot of other places too. There was something going on with the ship’s sea stabilizers, and I was unable to let things alone. All of a sudden the stabilizers gave full rudder and the Kungsholm heeled down significantly to about 30 degrees. This happened shortly before dinnertime and all the tables and everything had to be set all over again. Many people in the purser’s department got desperate of course, and furious. I can assure you that I was very close to losing my neck that evening! Fortunately no one was injured, and that “saved my ass”. The blunder was not intentional, of course, and as it turned out it wasn’t just my fault but a combination of my meddling and a technical defect. Nevertheless, from that day the control unit of the stabilizers was kept behind lock and key...
Another time when my position was at stake was when the gearbox of one of the tenderboats had gone broken. I had a clutch pedal installed to put the gearbox into operation again, and it worked! However, one of the navigation officers (with whom I was not a best friend) turned on me and reported to the captain and inquisition followed. The background was that we did not have a replacement gearbox onboard and I had ordered a new one that was to be delivered by airplane. This took place during the South Seas Cruise 1973 and the replacement part was delivered in Kobe, Japan, on March 17. But I had decided about the clutch repair in order to have four tenders in operation when we were lying far from the landing point at anchor in the roadstead to Bali, Indonesia, already on February 28. Hence, the alternative would have been to only have three tenders running that day. So in the end I got credit for my inventiveness.
A fun episode happened one evening when a masquerade party was arranged for the passengers. Chief engineer Gösta Gårdström had bought a small mini motorbike in Japan for his sons in Sweden, and it was kept onboard in a space near his cabin. On that evening the chief engineer and another high rank officer decided to participate in some way in the passengers’ masquerade party in the Main Lounge. So they put on a disguise, while having a drink or two (of course), and then they took the forward passenger elevator down to the party bringing the small motorbike along.
They kick started the bike, mounted it together, and went for a ride into the Main Lounge, then continuing for a few rounds back and forth across the Verandah Deck, to the delight of the passengers…! The surprise effect was stunning. It was an appreciated prank that was laughed and talked about long after.
Indeed there are many good stories popping up from my memory still now after more than 40 years.
On one cruise we were at sea when the Super Bowl was on, i.e. the final annual championship game of the US National Football League. The information officer contacted me asking if I could make it possible for the passengers to hear the radio broadcast. “Of course”, I said, ”I will give it a try”. And then I arranged with the radio station onboard to receive the transmission on the short wave band. We connected the radio station to the ship’s internal radio system for playback in the Aft Bar on Verandah Deck. It was a success! The broadcast was very popular, and afterwards the bartender Kalle Kli told me that they had never before got so much in tips as that day. Officers were not allowed to receive tips, but Kalle gave me a bottle of whisky for gratitude.
After spending years at sea, officers from the engine department had more opportunities to get a job ashore compared to the navigation officers from the deck department. Many of the engineers ended up in technical professions with electric power producers, nuclear power stations, power distributors, or boiler houses. Myself I found a career in sales of ship’s equipment and fixings in various forms.
In 1973 I signed off the Kungsholm having been away from home for a year and a half without seeing my family, wife and two children 5 and 3 years of age. My mind was now set on a long vacation! Four days later I get a phone call from the SAL, asking me to get back on the ship again. They needed my help urgently! But I felt that it was enough now …! I couldn’t go on living like that any longer.
Shortly afterwards I get another phone call. This time it was an ex-officer Ekman from the Kungsholm offering me a job in the company Magnus Maritech Marine Technologies AB in Gothenburg. They were trading with chemicals for cleaning of ship’s decks, as well as dish washer detergents. I started working there as sales engineer and stayed with the company for seven years.
Subsequently I worked another seven years as sales engineer, but this time at Lindholmen Motor AB, Gothenburg, owned by the Johnson Shipping company, dealing with engine repairs and spare parts.
My next and last job was at the Axel H Karlsson & Co, working with diesel engines for fifteen years from 1989 until my retirement in 2004.
Still sailing ...
My interest in sailing dates back to my youth when I sailed together with a friend who had moved to Gothenburg. We learned the basics together.
Nowadays, I and my wife Britta own a 38 feet Scanner sailboat and a 37 feet Buccaneer Houseboat. In fact, boat life turned out to be one of our biggest interests in life. Each year we spend springtime from April to May in our houseboat on rivers in France (where we keep the boat all the year). And during the summer we go with the sailboat from Gothenburg for three months, then returning again to the motorboat in France for another tour in the canals in September – October. And for sure, we enjoy many culinary treats wherever we go.
In the summer my wife and I act as Commanders in Chief of squadron sailings organized by the Swedish Cruising Association, a club founded in 1923 and with approximately 43,000 affiliated members worldwide. The sailings are made in groups of 8-10 boats with duration between one and two weeks. So far, we have been to Helgoland, off the northern coast of Germany, then into the Baltic Sea and back to Gothenburg all across Sweden via Göta Kanal (a great Swedish feat of engineering). The squadron sailings are very social and include educational elements for the purpose of increasing knowledge and safety at sea.
Furthermore, I am engaged in the Gothenburg annual boat fair in February every spring, taking part in the showcase of the Swedish Cruising Association. This year (2016), there was another man in my shift whom I recognized but could not remember. We talked a bit and it came out he had been engine repairman aboard the Kungsholm when I served there as deck engineer. What a coincidence! We had limited time to chat, and he did not recognize or remember me at all. His doubt was dispelled, however, when we started recapitulating various engine breakdowns from that time. Yes indeed, both of us were ex-Kungsholmers!
Hälsningar / Greetings from
This story is the result of a couple of long telephone interviews and email exchange with Lars Helmer during February 2016. The text has been compiled by Tommy Stark and edited and translated by Hasse Gustafsson for publication at www.salship.se. The latter two served as deck waiters onboard in the early 1970’s when Lars Helmer was second Engineer on the MS Kungsholm. Many of the photos have been contributed by Lars himself, who has also checked and approved the entire story for publication in his name.