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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.

Ring on the Homeward Bounders

In the song ‘Ring on the Homeward Bounders’, Maggie Ann features for the third time. She had now, for the purpose of this song, come to represent all the women in my life that had meant a lot to me.

The Royal Navy has a language all of its own. Many of the terms used by Jolly Jack have distant and historical origins. The phrase ‘ringing on the homeward bounders‘ originated from the ring of the engine telegraphs. I should stress that things have moved on, modernised and changed since I was a sailor in the 1970’s and what follows is based on my experience and memories of that time.

Ordinary Seaman McNab (with beard) aged 19 years

Back then, the ship’s wheelhouse was often as not, deep inside the ship and not up on the bridge as you might expect. The sailor steering the ship could not see where he was going and relied on orders being passed down from the bridge, where the Officer of the Watch would be in charge.

In the wheelhouse there was a seat for the helmsman in front of the ship’s wheel. On the bulkhead in front of him, there was the compass display, giving the ship’s course. The engine telegraphs were next to the wheel giving the options for both Port and Starboard engines. Each could be set to Full Astern; Half Astern; Slow Astern; Stop; Slow Ahead; Half Ahead; Full Ahead. Another control was mounted on the engine telegraphs to set the engine revolutions. The Officer of the Watch would make his decisions regarding course, speed, etc, and would call up the wheelhouse on an intercom. A typical exchange at the start of a watch on the wheel might go as follows.

Helmsman:    “Bridge – Wheelhouse”

Officer of the Watch:     “Bridge”

Helmsman:    “Bridge – Wheelhouse. Permission for Able Seaman McNab to take the wheel Sir?”

Officer of the Watch:     “Granted”

Me:    “Able Seaman McNab on the wheel Sir. Course to steer 135, both engine telegraphs showing Half Ahead, 120 revolutions set Sir.”

Officer of the Watch:     “Very good. The weather and swell is on our Port Quarter but we should be altering course an about half an hour which will make things easier for you. In the mean time keep her steady.”

Me:    “Aye Aye Sir”

The job then was simply to keep the compass reading as close as you could to the course given by the Officer of the Watch. Whilst you did that, the motion of the waves would do its best to knock you off course. It was a boring job, but in wild weather, you were kept busy, and more importantly, warm and dry with a hot cuppa to hand if required.

Whenever the ship was away from its home base for a prolonged period of time, the day would eventually come when all that remained was for the ship to head for home. When that time came the order would be passed to the wheel house to alter course for home. That process was called ‘ringing on the homeward bounders’. It may be the Officer of the Watch who gave the order, but if the ship had been away from home for several months, invariably the captain would come on the ship’s intercom system, make a few comments about how well we had all done and then give the order to ring on the homeward bounders.

Meanwhile in the wheelhouse the lad on the wheel would wait for the order to come from the Captain on the bridge.

Captain:     “Wheelhouse – this is the Bridge”

Helmsman:     “Wheelhouse”

Captain:     “Yes Wheelhouse, that is us clear of the navigational channel. There are a few vessels around, so we may have to alter course once or twice until we are well clear. But for the time being… Course to steer 340. Engine telegraphs Half Ahead. 220 revolutions… Ring on the Homeward Bounders… We are going home!”

The lad on the wheel would repeat the instructions back to the Captain on the bridge to confirm that he had heard correctly, and as he adjusted the engine telegraphs they would make that classic ring as the stokers down in the engine room confirmed they had received the orders. A smile would then spread across his face and his heart would beat just that little bit faster.

It was always good to be going home.

Many years after my time in the Navy – still on the wheel, escorting HMS invincible home to Rosyth (2003)

Although I never did a round the world trip during my naval service, I felt as if I knew all the big sea ports of the world intimately. Many evenings were passed swapping sailor’s stories of adventures in far flung places that usually involved drink, women, fights and hangovers.

Verse One, deals with the tough issue of separation. The opening line refers to the sailor having been away from family and loved ones for six months. But in years gone by a tour of duty could easily take up to 18 months or more. There is a cauldron of powerful and mixed emotions on departure day. There is great sadness, or in some cases relief, knowing that you will not see you family, sweetheart or wife for a prolonged period of time. In some cases the families are present to wave off the crew and inevitably many tears are shed. But for the sailor, there is also a sense of excitement and adventure as you sail off to foreign parts. There is also the relinquishing of family responsibilities. During your months away at sea you have no need to look after children, go to the supermarket, cut the grass, do the washing, etc,. On board ship your meals are cooked for you, your laundry is done for you and all you have to focus on is doing your job and enjoying some down time with your ship mates.

But the pain of separation is always there, lurking in your thoughts. As a serviceman there was no option to say “Actually I’ll sit this trip out if you don’t mind because I’d rather spend the night with my new girlfriend than sleep in a mess-deck with forty drunken, snoring, farting matelots.”

Verse Two, deals with the Biscay Bay and Gibraltar. I crossed the Bay of Biscay many times and have yet to see it calm. The Atlantic swell would come rolling in from the west towards France and northern Spain. We, of course, would be heading south at right angles to the swell. Whilst I fortunately never suffered from sea sickness, that crossing was never a comfortable one. The swell was always mountainous and to this day I refuse to believe anyone who tells me that they have seen it calm.

During my service I visited Gibraltar more times than a can recall. My ship mate Dave and I used to sing in the bars of Gib, including one called the White Heather Club. I also celebrated my 21st birthday in Gib which was memorable for two things. After a 12 hour drinking session I passed out on my bunk. In those days I sported a large bushy beard, which proved too much of a temptation for my so-called pals, who burned half of it off with a Zippo lighter whilst I lay in a drunken stupor. The next day I should have been on duty and failed to muster on the jetty. My mates were sent to get me and the duty NCO decided to sober me up my throwing me into the waters of the harbour. Ah… happy days.

Verse Three is all about crossing the equator and also the draw of Bugis Street in Singapore. Other than in exceptional circumstances the ship would always enjoy a crossing the line ceremony if there were lads on board crossing the Equator for first time. Drink would be drunk and various games and nonsense would take place on the upper deck.

Photo of HMS London Crossing the Line by John Simm

Bugis Street in Singapore was a notorious run ashore for sailors. The street was the place to go for any sailor with shore leave in Singapore. One of the big attractions were the Kai Tais or Beaney Boys. They would parade up and down teasing the drunken sailors with their sexuality and beauty. But literally, underneath it all, the stunning Kai Tais ladies were in fact men.

An old post card from the 60’s showing four of Bugis Street’s Kai Tais lady boys.

But above all I wanted to get across the fact that most sailors, whilst they might be enjoying seeing exotic parts of the world, just wanted to get back home to their loved ones, and the longer you were away, the stronger that emotion became.

The video below was recorded at Glenfarg Folk Club with Stan Ginter on banjo and Hamish Grant on backing vocals.

Ring on the Homeward Bounders

 It’s six months to the day, since first I sailed away

And I bid my love a tearful fond goodbye

And on that wind and rain swept quay, she was smiling up at me

But I could see the tears were welling in her eyes

Now I’m a jolly jack, and there’s no point in looking back

For a sailors life is upon the surging foam

But I’m a sentimental man, and I miss my Maggie Ann

And I wish this ship would turn and head for home


Ch. So ring on the Homeward Bounders, ring them on, (ring them on)

Ring on the Homeward Bounders, ring them on, (ring them on)

Turn the wheel around, and let this ship be homeward bound

Ring on the Homeward Bounders, ring them on


It was a wild and wintry day as we crossed the the Biscay Bay

The Atlantic swell was running long and high

And the waves crashed o’er the bow as through that swell we’d plough

And the rain lashed down from a black and a leadened sky

Then Gibraltar and its rock, that was where the ship did dock

And we had ourselves a mighty run ashore

But my thoughts would always roam to that girl I’d left at home

And to the time when I could hold her close once more


The weather it was fine as we sailed across the line

And Neptune kept the gophers far at bay

And we sang and drank our beer in the Southern Hemisphere

Before we got our ship back underway

Then the storms we did escape as we sailed around the Cape

And set a course for good old Singapore

But a night down Bugis Street, it never can compete

To an evening with the girl that I adore


We drank rum and beer amid all those bars in Honkyphid

Before we set of eastwards once again

And we crossed a typhoon’s path, and how we felt its wrath

As we rode the storm out on the raging main

Then we gave a loud “Hoorah” as we passed through Panama

For now we know that it will not be long

Until the order it rings out and we hear the skipper shout

“Ring on the Homeward Bounders… ring them on”


gophers – waves

Honkiephid – Hongkong

Early Song Writing Memories

I’m not sure when I wrote my first song. I do however recall at the age of thirteen, lying to my French teacher, Mr. Dawson, falsely claiming to have written the lyrics of a song on a Hamish Imlach L.P. He undoubtedly knew that my claim was nothing more than a juvenile flight of fancy, but he smiled and nodded and never challenged me on the matter. Looking back on it now, this incident was simply an early indication that the idea of writing songs was one that appealed to me and that I was comfortable bending the truth. Continue reading