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The Irish Sea Mafias

Hand in the Till - "Did you see that" I was asked.

By John Martin

I was in the Holyhead office of SEALINK British Ferries. I was looking at some CCTV footage from a ceiling camera over the Duty-Free tills of one of their ferries. I had seen a transaction between a passenger and one of the staff on the tills, but failed to notice another transaction between the till operators themselves.

On joining SEALINK as a Purser/Catering Officer, initially as a seasonal relief but with the prospect of a permanent position, I was surprised at the level of distrust of the ships cash handlers. But then when the level of ‘shrinkage’ i.e. the difference between stock returns and sales was losing SEALINK Holyhead well over a million pounds annually, I suppose it was felt there had to be a level of control to discourage the causes of this loss of revenue. But it appears to have made it more of a challenge to cheat the system.

There was a requirement to undertake a couple of till ‘spot checks’ on each crossing. Either the bars, restaurant, cafeteria or shops. This involved the Catering Officer or PCO and one of the 2nd. Stewards asking an operator to close their till. A till sales roll for that crossing was run off and the cash and any credit card slips (when credit card imprints were taken on a sliding machine) were totaled to see if they matched the recorded sales. I personally found this rather bazaar as it held up sales, especially in those venues when there was only one till.

It appears what I missed in the CCTV footage was seeing a till check about to be carried out. As the till was approached there was a ‘transaction’ between the till operator and an adjacent operator, a palming of hands. It appears the cash and till roll balanced. But what I missed was when a customer transaction had taken place, money placed in the till drawer and a receipt issued, the drawer was left open for the next customer who was ready to part with their cash. The money went into the drawer and any change given before the till drawer alarm went off and so had to be closed. But no receipt had been issued. Ergo that purchase was not recorded and happily for the cash handlers they were now ‘quids in’. I was amazed that the operators knew exactly how much they had ‘pocketed’ at any one time.

It appeared that my appointment was not well received. M.V.’Horsa’ had been relocated to Holyhead for the summer season to double the number of sailings to Dun Laoghaire, a port 6 miles south of Dublin, to run with the larger M.V. St.Columba. There were to be three watches and I had been recruited to be one of the PCO’s in charge of one of the watches. Each watch involved two return trips over 24 hours. Each trip for the 62 mile crossing took three and a half hours with a three hour turn-round at each port except for the watch-handover turn-round of four hours. 24 hours on / 48 hours off.


Holyhead’s Retail Services Manager who recruited me was to introduce me to the PCO on watch for a familiarisation crossing when we were greeted on the gangway by the PCO demanding to know where I had come from, whether I was a bona-fide seaman and whether I was a member of an appropriate seaman’s union. I had to assure him that I had a Seaman’s Discharge Book, was registered with the British Shipping Federation and was a paid-up member of the Merchant Navy Officers Association before, it seemed, he would let me on board.

It appeared there was a great deal of suspicion as to why SEALINK management were bringing someone in from ‘outside’ to take up such a role. The normal route to promotion to Catering Officer and then PCO was from ‘within’ and when extra watches were required on a seasonal basis these positions were filled by regular NUS members in an acting capacity.

So much so that the Retail Services Manager was called to a meeting on board the St.Columba to explain his intentions and had to provide evidence of my suitability. He argued that he hoped to use my training qualifications and experience with other shipping companies for when SEALINK had to train temporary seasonal staff before we went onto a third watch system. St. Colomba

In the event, he had to agree that I would only take the role of Catering Officer under a PCO while still on a two watch system – until three watches came into effect at the height of the summer sailings.

The Catering Officer and Purser/Catering Officer (PCO) braid

It was in the office that it was whispered to me that there were two mafias that they were dealing with on the ships. The Holyhead Mafia and a Liverpool Mafia who were very protective as to who should have certain jobs and who were considered suitable for promotion – even temporarily.

As many of the crew did not live locally but came from Liverpool – a daily coach would bring the joining crew and take back those for their 48 hours ‘off’. In the case of replacement crew, it appears there was a cosy relationship with the shipping federation – the pool – as to who should be ‘called’.

I was not quite sure how a batch of temporary seasonal staff were recruited for a third watch. They were local and SEALINK must have had some arrangement of dispensation from the normal requirements for seafarers. They were on a six week contract from the end of July through to the beginning of September and most were students. I was to be part of their induction training. Two days ashore and familiarisation trip. As they were likely to be till operators – some time was spent on mastering how the system worked. I was led to believe that these recruits would be split between the three watches.

In the event most were assigned to my watch with a few regulars taking key positions. A Second Steward was acting Catering Officer, another second steward ran the EPOS (Electronic Point of Sales) summary – a head waiter for the restaurant, a supervisor for the cafeteria, a couple of barmen for the two bars and a couple of regulars for the Duty Free shop. A regular ships cooks with other cooks and galley assistants from the Liverpool pool.

A horrific first watch in charge. Most of the ‘newbies’ were seasick and one hyperventilated needing to call for a doctor – who was also suffering from Mal-de-Mer. Serious complaints about the service in the Restaurant. When the Retail Services Manager came on board after this watch to see how it had gone, I gave him a list of passengers to whom he would have to write as a form of apology and offer some form of remedy. I also complained that I seemed to have been assigned the majority of the temporary staff. He did apologize saying it had not been the intention, but with the ‘political situation’ with the unions he felt that they would be better with me. I admired his confidence! It did get better.

After one crossing the Customs ‘Black Gang’ came on board for a ‘rummage’. Ten cartons of Rothman’s were returned to me that they had found hidden at some fire station on board. As I could only assume that they had been removed from the Duty Free shop I had all five shop staff assemble before the next sailing to explain the situation and let them know that I had suspicions as to who the culprits were.

The two regulars who would need accomplices to remove the contraband from the ship – but as this could not be proven, they were ALL put on notice that should I be aware of more stock going missing that they would all be issued with a disciplinary warning.

At the end of each watch a dot-matrix printout was compiled of a breakdown of (recorded!) sales from the EPOS system which was landed with other papers to the Holyhead office. Others wondered why I seemed interested in this administrative routine. When off watch at the weekends I scrutinised the reams of this folded paper to get a feel of our sales to see if I could see a pattern of sales where efficiencies could be made.

I also had the ‘pleasure’ of a lad from Liverpool who was working his first trips as part of the galley team. The Chief Cook was getting frustrated as he kept ‘skiving’ – to where nobody seemed to know.

With the Chief Cook as witness, I gave him a verbal warning and put him on notice that should he continue to neglect his duties it would lead to a formal written warning that would be placed on his employment file. He told us I couldn’t do that. Did I not know that his father was one of the Liverpool NUS Shop Stewards for SEALINK? He was being too presumptuous. He got one anyway.

During the year the Swedish STENA LINE made a hostile bid to acquire SEALINK and was taking over their operations in ports around the UK. When it came to Holyhead I was told that they had stipulated that at all seasonal staff were not to be re-engaged. They could not offer me a regular position.

My response to the tills scam? I used to hover round the various hotel operations, mainly around the Duty Free shop, chatting to passengers who had made purchases in which I would innocently ask if they had been given a receipt. Once caught, I asked which till – and then ‘innocently’ asked the till operator if they still had the till receipt – and then asked for a till check. They got ‘the message’.

At least I got good reference from SEALINK themselves; “applying himself diligently to the job, showing great enthusiasm and commitment to improve the quality of service given to our passengers – and managing his staff in a very fair and professional way, proving himself to be an extremely effective leader.”

Perhaps the regular crews were happy to see the back of me. I wished them good luck with STENA.

Many Thanks to John Martin for his contributions to Salty Seados.


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