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A telegram came in.

‘You have a virus. Do not play games.’

Games? Games! It was the last thing I would want to do; play games on a computer. The machine was driving me mad.

I had been recruited by London-based Ocean Cruise Lines as a relief Chief Purser for their three cruise ships operating in different parts of the world.

Remember the days

before computers

It was in the wonderful days when computerised systems were going to be the answer to make life easy for the Purser’s department. Automated billing and crew payrolls.

My experience with computers was woefully inadequate. I had undertaken an eight-month course at Sunderland Polytechnic in Training Management in which IT was a syllabus subject. But all we got was the theory. We insisted we had practical experience on the college’s suite of VDUs with help of a technical assistant, as our tutors were obviously devoid of experience. We got the gist of keyboard skills and simple forms of communicating with the machines using DOS language and what a spreadsheet looked like.

“Never mind,” said the Personnel Manager, you can spend a few days with our IT guys before you fly out to your first ship. I got acquainted with the sort of things I could do with the computers onboard.

Thankfully, I understood something about DOS so I could get into the systems they had programmed.

Ocean Pearl in Hong Kong

There were two stand-alone computers for the use of the Purser’s department on ‘Ocean Pearl’.

One used by the Ship’s Accountant for passenger billing, the other for printing the ship’s documentation for ship clearance, crew, and passenger lists – as well as running the crew payroll. One problem was that the Crew Purser was even less ‘au fait’ with this technology. I joined in Manila and the Chief Purser I was relieving was due off at the end of the cruise in Singapore, so I had ten days to understand and practice all that this machine was required to do.

It was into the third cruise that something strange started happening. As I was printing off lists, they would look something like this.

M.V. OCEӾN P∞ӾRΩ. Except the symbols displayed were musical notes, tennis rackets, footballs, etc. but they did not correspond to any key struck. I worked around it initially but when it got worse and then when running off the automated payroll after the adjustments that the Crew Purser gave me refused to make any sense, I was in a mild panic. It appeared I was on my own. It was after I had faxed a satellite screen print to show what the machine was printing that I got the telegram. We paid the crew in US dollars twice a month and I needed to screen print every crew account to be issued with their pay. Exhausting.

There was no backup system on board. Head Office couriered discs to restore the system to Singapore. A couple of IT guys that the agents arranged to help with the installation said the system was infected with the ‘Ping Pong Virus’.

They ran checks on the discs that had been sent from London and let me know that they were infected with 13 types of virus and suggested it was not a good idea to install.

I sent a message to HO advising them of this situation and “suggested they did not play games on their systems”.

It appears it was not well received.

The programme was also installed on the Accountant’s computer, but it was not practical for both of us to use the same machine. Thankfully, the ship's financial system was not infected and my check on cash balances was always correct. One of the ship’s engineers proved to be very IT ‘savvy’ and Chief Engineer loaned him when he was off watch to copy the documentation programme from that machine and ‘rebuild’ the infected programme.

Purser’s Team on Ocean Pearl

Romy - Accountant. Receptionists Carol & Cheryl. Ulysses - Crew Purser.

John Martin Chief Purser in middle!

Arriving in Montevideo many weeks later to join ‘Ocean Princess’ I was greeted by the Chief Purser with “Thank God you’ve come, we have a problem with the computer”. They were also suffering from the ‘Ping Pong’. Had they managed to run the half-monthly crew payroll? They hadn’t been able to.

Back to screen printing crew’s accounts having made any necessary adjustments. This time they actually sent out a company IT specialist to Rio with the necessary discs to repair the program.

Purser’s Team Ocean Princess

It started to happen again after I joined ‘Ocean Islander’ on its weekly cruise schedule from Barbados to the Southern Caribbean Islands and the Orinoco River. As it was a smaller ship, it was only me and an Assistant. I got to do all the computer work, billing as well as documentation. Thankfully, a cruise was cancelled as the engineers had a problem "down below" and the machine went ashore to be ‘restored’.

And THAT is why I have NEVER ‘gamed’ on a computer or electronic device.

Read more from John Martin

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