Wing Nin Chan

Reflections by Wing Nin Chan “Charlie Chan” – General Secretary , China Sail Training Association

My first voyage, as a trainee, which was on the Sail Training Ship Malcolm Miller started on 1st April 1979. I was 16 years and 3 months old, the youngest and one of the smallest on board. During the two week voyage,  I appeared to have impressed the Captain, Mark Kemmis-Betty,  enough that I was invited back as the Cook’s Assistant. Maybe he noticed my ability to work hard, despite a raging hangover. Perhaps he thought it would be ironic to have a Chinese lad running around the ship’s galley. Hopefully , it was because I had shown a small spark of leadership potential.

So in March 1980, I joined the Sir Winston Churchill for a week in port, before the 39 new trainees and other crew arrived. The total crew was 55. Captain ( Chris Blake), Chief Officer (Ken Groom), Engineer ( Mike Stephens) ,Bosun ( George Thorpe), Relief Cook (Ron Cheeseman) and 6 other old gentlemen volunteers. There were five “bigger boys”, who had sailed before – 3 Watch Leaders, Bosun’s Mate and me – the Cook’s Arse. And off we went out to sea in a howling wind. Below is the ship’s cook for the voyage, Ron. He taught me how to move large pots of boiling spuds around the galley in adverse weather conditions.


And here is me , next to the kitchen sinks. The large shiney tube on my left is actually the main mast of the ship , which went through the galley.

My role was to be in charge of three different young men , each day. One from each watch , who had the pleasure of my company in the galley and the luxury of not standing watch overnight. They had the epithet : galley rats. They were under my command for the day, to do the work of washing up, scrubbing the deck, peeling potatoes and “womanly” chores.  Here is a picture , showing the average size of galley rats.

Now, most young men really don’t like kitchen work. Especially when they are sea sick. I knew my mission for each day and all the tasks which had to be done. So I would do them, mainly by myself. There are a lot of pots and pans to wash up after dinner( second sitting 18:10 hrs). The kitchen floor (galley deck) is awash with dinner as well. Peas, gravy, teaspoons, broken china, etc. On the ship’s routine, it states 20:00 hrs, “Chief Officer inspects galley”. For the first two days out at sea, I would work like a Chinaman to get the task done. The galley rats would make an appearance in the galley , between being sea sick. Or just not be in the galley at all. Ron, the cook retires at about 18:40 , since his job is done. The galley is handed over up to his Mate. That is why he has one.

The galley looked horrible by the time the Chief came to inspect and I got a right bollicking for grime in places that I never even know  existed. The blades of the big tin opener; the underneath of the brass round thingies on the scuppers on the deck; the bits of roast vegetables at the back of the oven which had become charcoal.

Around 18:45 hours on day 3, the Chief ( also known as the Gloomy One) stormed into galley. These were his words : “Oy you, Charlie Chan… you don’t do the washing up . They (pointing at the galley rats) do the washing up. You don’t do the work…. you tell them to do the work. If I see you using those hands again…. I’ll chain them to this mast. Is that clear.” I nodded. He went away. I was a bit scared.

So I turned to my staff and asked them, very politely, to carry on with the washing up for me. Which they did. I then gave them orders on the other cleaning work to be done. I sent one down below to the stores to get some of the items on the list the cook had given me. When the Gloomy One came back at 20:00 hours, the galley was a lot smarter than the previous two days.

The next day, I said to  the next three men” Take these potatoes to the after deck and peel them.” And they did.

Next day :” Get back in the galley and wash up the bloody coffee cups!”

And then, ” XXXX, $* £^ , those tables are disgusting , !”£$%^&* wipe then down , again”.

I had learnt that I had a title. The Cook’s Arse. I had the delegated authority of the Cook, the Chief Officer and the Captain. And if that was not enough, the galley rats knew that there was always the Bosun somewhere nearby:

My job was not to use my hands. Here is a picture of the Chief Officer , Ken Groom making the ship go faster by merely staring at the Staysail.


Here is a picture of Captain Chris Blake , in full command of the ship.


I thought that I had performed badly as the Cook’s Mate, on that voyage.  No, so my favorite Captain considered. Most Cook’s Mate are exhausted after one week and gibbering wrecks by the end of the standard two week voyage. Back I went in 1981 and then my Captain specially asked for me to do 7 weeks for the 1982 Tall Ships Race. After a further two voyages, I had utterly acquired the ability to delegate and command. A bit like this below:


I have been studying the history, philosophy and economics of sail training for many years. On these two schooners, everyone had a title and a role. New trainees have an understanding of the chain of command, immediately. The point is , us five “bigger boys” or “bigger girls” were placed in charge of the trainees. We had to do our jobs regardless of our previous leadership experience. Just like me, it did not take long to gain the experience and confidence, particularly because we were supported by the senior crew. And we did this regardless of size, race, religion, gender, or education.

I got so good at delegation and leadership in the galley, that I was more often found on the back of the ship, with my guitar, than in the galley. I just needed to make sure things got done. Not do them myself. BUT take the blame for everything which was , or was not done, by my staff.









By 1983, my favorite Captain, Chris Blake,  had noticed my lack of presence in the galley. So he booted me on deck as a Watch Leader for the Tall Ships Race. ( I did manage to get back into the warm galley for the 8 weeks of the 1984 Tall Ships Race ).

For many young volunteers, this was the top of the tree. It was like being  a school prefect, but with real authority. Each Watch had 13 trainees. There was a nice old person , who was the Watch Officer. That job was to man the bridge and then the Watch Leader had of glory of poncing about on deck and up the rigging with five or ten of the watch. For some years, the 39 trainees had blue work smocks or T- Shirts. The 3 Watch Leaders wore red, heroically. Can you spot two watch leaders in the picture below?

The above is a picture from this film below, about a voyage in 1982. It is well worth watching if you have the time.

And, below,  in the middle of the upper yard is my mate , Will Handley. Yes, he is wearing a red T-shirt. The photo is the parade of sail out of Southampton in 1982.

Young ladies can also be equally as heroic as blokes. Here is Lucy Todd and her watch in 1985.









And here is me, in charge of the liberty boat for a day:

By the time I had finally grown up, April 1985, I had done more tours of duty on deck than time in the galley. On my final three trips, I had even got into the routine of making one of my watch the assistant leader for the day, so they could take charge of the more mundane tasks. Coiling the ropes; cleaning the bogs ( heads); stowing one of the smaller sails. So I can categorically state that nearly everyone can lead others , in this structured “society”, on a well-run sail training ship. None of the other trainees would contest the orders of my assistant. Otherwise they would have to face me. I had become that scarry.


The leadership that I performed on the schooners was obviously a transferable skill. In 1986 , I was sent off by the Cambridge University Officer Training Corp to a Territorial Army officers selection course and I passed with flying colours. After all, getting 7 other officer candidates to traverse fictitious chasms ( marked out by red tape) , with planks and bits of rope, carrying oil drums was simple compared with stowing the square topsail on the upper yard with a watch of nervous trainees. With the forward planning and delegation skills that one learns as the Cook’s Arse, one can reach the rank of Royal Navy Commodore. There is one- he is called Paul Bennett and his first command was the galley of the Malcolm Miller in 1984.

In 2003, Chris Blake needed my services and he Shanghaied me to work as the Cook on the Reliplica Endeavour.


In return, in 2013, I pressganged Chris and Ken Groom to help with technical advice for the restoration of the Malcolm Miller. Here they are being interrogated by the new owner of the first ship that I sailed on. I am now able to delegate to Captains.


We, China Sail Training have lots of apprentices, including Chinese, to pass on our knowledge to. This is one of the reasons for this long blog, for them to read. Here are some that my very good friend, Jim Graves, of the Merseyside Adventure Saiing Trust, got on board for the 2015 Apprenticeship Cup. Of course, China STA is not just about Chinese. I am off to the Harwich mayflower project on Monday to help Essex boys and girls raise their own money to go off on an adventure of a lifetime.



There is a point to this story. And here is the conclusion. Nearly everyone has leadership potential. It is genetic. After all parents have to lead their children. However, there are not many opportunities for young adults to learn how to lead these days. Most young men can lead a virtual platoon of Rambos on a big TV screen via an X box. But I am not sure how much of a transferable skill this is for the real world. Sail training is still about. There are ships still doing the teamwork training. Some of them also provide leadership opportunities. The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow and practicing leadership from a young age is so important.

Please contact me if you can help us with anything. Specifically, we need more trainees to go off to sea.

I never progressed onto a career at sea. I was never a ship’s Captain. However, I learnt the leadership skills required for command. That is why I can sit comfortably , at dinner , with Captains, including the man who gave me many leadership challenges in my youth. Here we are, below. The Captain in the middle is Angela Morris of the Training Ship Royalist.