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The Story of The Lifebuoy Ghost

The Story of The Lifebuoy Ghost


The title does not refer to anything unworldly, but comes from the naval term given to the person who’s job it is to stand at the stern of the ship and raise the alarm if anyone should be unfortunate enough to fall overboard.

During daylight and working hours there would always be someone on the upper deck who would come along for a chat with the Lifebuoy Ghost and help break the monotony of staring astern into the expanse of the ocean. But come nightfall, especially in colder climes, everyone would disappear down below decks to the warmth, and the Lifebuoy Ghost would be left on his own, keeping a lonely vigil from the quarter deck. There might be four of you on duty to cover a four hour watch. So to share the task, it may be that you did two half hour stints or a whole hour. The weather was usually the deciding factor. In bad conditions half an hour at a time was more than enough.

But for however long your turn was for, through the night you tended to be out there on your own and boredom did not take long to kick in. One lad was caught, much to his embarrassment, doing ballet dancing across the quarterdeck which had become, in his head, a dance studio.

Ballet Navy Style

Others would just pace up and down in an effort to keep warm. My spells as Lifebuoy Ghost were spent playing the penny whistle, the concertina, singing folk songs to myself or, more often than not, dreaming.

It was a job that I was always happy to do, but for some, they were afraid of the dark and hated being alone, out there in the middle of the big ocean. Enter the practical jokers!

On the quarterdeck of HMS Abdiel there were two inflatable Gemini boats, stacked on a wooden frame, one on top of the other. One night some of us hatched a plot to scare a particularly nervous young sailor. He was due to take up his post around 3:30am for the last stint of the Middle Watch. At 3:15am I sneaked into the diver’s store after soaking my hair, face and beard with water. In the store there was a large bin full of French Chalk used by divers on their immersion suits. I took a big breath and stuck my head deep into the bin. A co-conspirator made sure that my head was completely doused in the white chalk powder and then, with a bin bag protecting the chalk from the wind, I climbed up into the top Gemini. Beside me I had a large portable spotlight which I was going to use to illuminate my ghostly features as I arose from the boat amid ghoulish moans and groans.

H.M.S. Abdiel, the Royal Navy’s only mine layer, and my last ship before returning to Civvy Street. Image by Brian Fisher

Once in position in the bottom of the Gemini, I lay quietly in my hiding place. 03:30 arrived and I heard the footsteps of the young lad coming down the port waist of the ship to take over as Lifebuoy Ghost. My co-conspirator handed over to him and commented that he was glad to be heading inside because he didn’t like being out all alone in the middle of the night. He went on to say how spooky he had found it. Having planted his seeds of fear, he left the young sailor to it and headed off into the interior of the ship leaving the lad, apparently, all alone.

Meanwhile, I was resisting all urges to move, as my legs were now starting to get sore in my cramped hiding place. I listened intently as my victim moved about the quarterdeck. I was waiting for him to come close to the Gemini for my scary entrance to have maximum effect. He seemed very active and I found it hard to make out what he was doing or exactly where he was on the quarterdeck. With the sound of the waves rushing past in the darkness and the wind whistling over my head I waited for what seemed an eternity, and then at last I felt him lean against the side of the rubber boat.

It was the moment I had been waiting for. In a single, swift movement I flicked the switch of the floodlight and rose into the night air. “Mooooaaawh” I groaned in my most frightening voice. The wind made contact with my head and streams of floodlit white powder flew off into the darkness adding to the horror effects.

It was round about then that a bucket full of ice cold sea water hit me square in the face, quickly followed by the bucket itself. As the water cleared from my eyes and the bucket crash landed onto the quarterdeck, I caught the merest glimpse of the shape of the young lad running for his life around the starboard waist and into the darkness.

My colleagues had been winding him up so much that he had twigged that something was going on. So as soon as he could, after taking over at 03:30, he armed himself with the bucket of water and then came to the conclusion that the most likely attack would come from someone hiding in the boats. When nothing had happened in the first ten minutes he refused to relax and got hold of a long paddle. He then tested his theory that there might be someone hiding in the boats by using the paddle to prod the rubber sides from a safe distance. I took the bait, broke cover and he dropped the paddle launched his weapon and ran.

Ah well… Some you win and some you lose.

On another occasion whilst on Lifebuoy Ghost duty in the middle of the night I had taken refuge from the elements in a small store that looked out aft onto the quarterdeck. I reasoned that no officer would come out onto the upper deck in driving rain and wind to catch me, and besides, even if someone was daft enough to to be out on deck and fall over the side, I would never hear them over the noise of the howling gale. I had been down there on my own for the best part of half an hour when I heard my relief coming. At least I thought it was my relief.

Suddenly a werewolf appeared out of the darkness, illuminated brightly by the electric light in the store. In his hand was a revolver which he pointed straight at me and from a distance of less than a metre, fired four shots in rapid succession!

In no particular order, but probably simultaneously, I dropped the penny whistle I had been playing, my heart stopped, I may have passed wind, and I screamed what I thought would be my last ever scream.

The noise of the gun shots in the confined space of the small compartment was deafening as carbide smoke filled the air. Equally deafening were the maniacal laughs that erupted from my ship mate as he pulled off his werewolf mask and holstered his imitation revolver which, I’m delighted to say, fired blanks.

Events like these helped to make an otherwise boring task slightly less predictable. There were however, balmy nights where it was a joy to be out there on your own. Watching for shooting stars, seeing a full moon rise out of the waves, being mesmerised by a vivid electric green trail in the ship’s wake as you sailed through a sea of bio luminescent plankton, all helped to pass the time away contentedly. It was on nights like this that the Lifebuoy Ghost would engage in his favourite pastime…. day dreaming in the dark.

The song is based around the sort of things I would think about whilst standing alone in the middle of the night, somewhere out on the ocean. It is also the fourth song to mention Maggie Ann.

As the chorus says, “the Lifebuoy ghost is a dreamer and he dreams of many things”. My idea was that each verse would be a separate day-dream. Some would be sad, some funny and some sentimental. It also occurred to me that I could write lots of different verses and change the song each time I sang it. The dreams could be in any order and on any subject that took my fancy. I wanted an opening four lines and a closing four lines with the random dreams between. Below are just three of the verses I have written to date. The first deals with missing home. The second addresses matters of the heart. The third and final one is no more than wishful thinking.


Duncan singing The Lifebuoy Ghost


The Lifebuoy Ghost

As the setting sun sinks slowly, and the night comes rolling in

The Lifebuoy ghost takes up his post, and his lonely watch begins

He’ll stand upon the Quarterdeck, as the waves goes rushing by

With just the stars and moon for company, in a cold Atlantic sky


Chorus: But the Lifebuoy ghost is a dreamer and he dreams of many things

And sometimes when he’s all alone, he dances and he sings

He dreams of all the girls he’ll love, and of where he’d rather be

Instead of standing on the quarterdeck, of a ship far out at sea


Oh to be home in Glen Artney, with its wild hazel sides

Where the waters of the Ruchill run, and the mountain buzzard glides

Where the red deer graze the high slopes, and the heather tempts the bee

Where the plover and the peewit call, that’s where I’d rather be


Oh I wonder where she is tonight. Is she with another man

Oh what a fool was I to lose, the bonnie Maggie Ann

I can picture her so clearly now, as she swam across the Linn

Oh those times we spent together, were the best there’s ever been


Oh send me on a banyan, to an island in the sun

With a crescent bay with golden sand and a cask of Pusser’s rum

And beneath some shady palm tree, I’ll lay there for a while

With a long haired dusky maiden wearing nothing but her smile


But I’m getting tired and weary now, my watch is almost done

And there’s time to grab a few hours sleep, before the rising of the sun

And I’ll crawl into my cosy bunk, and sleep right through till dawn

And I’ll dream of a dusky maiden, I met once in a song


Banyan: a naval term used to describe going ashore by small boat and having a beach party in the sun with lots of food and alcohol.