It’s a story which encompasses everything from traumatic childhood to troubled adolescence and finding salvation through faith.
And it has happened at the same time as a Scot’s commitment to helping those in peril on the sea – or marooned in Aberdeen Harbour.
Howard Drysdale’s route to retirement this month has involved all manner of choppy waters and tempestuous currents, ranging from a murder on an illustrious ocean liner to aiding a stranded Indian crew in the Granite City.
But he’s the sort of redoubtable character who has helped thousands of people during his 20 years as port chaplain and Seafarer Centre manager.
There is nothing formal about his approach to his vocation; no standing on ceremony or pedantic insistence on dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.
On the contrary, the Rev has been happy to get his hands dirty while offering succour and encouragement to crews from more than 50 countries during his service.
He was one of the more eloquent and charismatic individuals when the BBC filmed a documentary series about behind-the-scenes life at the busy harbour, which has been a pivotal part of the north-east for centuries.
And he was equally honest and uncompromising when we sat down to discuss some of the myriad strands of his peripatetic story, which included being forced to spend five days below deck on the Queen Mary 2.
This occurred after one of the crew members killed another, and a murder probe was launched: an experience which offered him a totally new perspective on human nature and the tensions which can build up when people are working at close quarters.
The Russians drunk their milk from the bottle
Howard told me: “Aberdeen Harbour has changed a lot since I arrived in 2001. The vessels have changed, both in terms of size and crew make-up.
“In the early years, it was normal to meet with mostly UK seafarers with Norwegians a close second, followed by Filipinos with a mix of other nationalities.
“But that all changed with a greater number of Eastern European and ‘cheap labour’ replacing the expensive British ones.
“Health and safety was spoken about, but the reality was that it was often given lip service. This meant that there was more work for the chaplain and seafarers’ welfare was on a downward trend.
“I met crew on vessels where I sought to provide a mix of general welfare needs. A slightly unusual one was when I provided crates of fresh milk to a Russian-crewed vessel.
“They told me: ‘We never have milk!’ Then they all drank it from the bottles as if it was a pint of beer!
“In these days, life was not great for many seafarers and very early on, I realised that a Seafarers Centre was needed to give these vital workers somewhere safe to go.”
The highs and lows in Howard’s career
“It was a long battle against lots of opposition, even when I was successful in setting up Aberdeen Seafarers Centre Ltd in 2008, because it was a further three years before we found premises and support to open it up.
“The story was featured in the BBC documentary, The Harbour which was filmed in 2011 and went live in 2012.
“But six months after opening the centre, I was made redundant by my employer. So there were highs and lows.
“Thankfully, I was re-employed by the ASC as centre manager and port chaplain and it continued to grow in stature and popularity, to the stage where, in 2017, our 42 volunteers were the recipients of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.
“That was a very proud moment.”
Keeping seafarers from trouble in Aberdeen
Howard has worked with people of all ages, backgrounds, political persuasions and religious backgrounds.
“None of it fazes him, nor is he remotely interested in preaching to the crews who arrive in the north east.”
He added: “The visiting seafarers were always grateful for trips away from the harbour – to see the local sights – mainly castles and distilleries.
“Keeping seafarers from trouble ashore was a key role for the chaplain and the Seafarers Centre. They were also surprised at how rich and varied life was in the city.
“The Filipino community in Aberdeen stepped in to assist seafarers in trouble and my contacts with many faith groups meant I could usually find help for anybody who was down on their luck.”
Stranded crew treated to Spiderman and football
In 2016, Howard found himself involved in another mercy mission when he and his colleagues assisted the 12-strong crew of the offshore supply vessel Malaviya Seven, who were stuck in Aberdeen for more than a year, after a routine inspection discovered they had not been paid in months.
The Indian sailors were separated from their families and had no access to wages while court proceedings dragged on relentlessly and although there was – eventually – a happy ending, their plight sparked international headlines,
Howard said: “I spent many happy times on board the M7, gave the men Diwali gifts, Christmas gifts and access to food and fuel, as well as twice-daily visits to the Seafarers Centre to use our free superfast wi-fi.
“Outings to places of interest were always welcomed, including taking them to see the then new Spiderman movie.
“It was funny when I went to buy popcorn for them and asked for 10 buckets – the people at the cinema said: ‘You’re joking, right?’ No, I wasn’t.
“We also took them to two Aberdeen FC games, which they enjoyed and also to Peterhead FC who gave them full hospitality – even doing the menu to cater to their dietary requirements and provide free wine with their meal.
“That was a happy day, the sun shone, the lads met the team manager, Jim McInally, and players and they even got on the pitch and took lots of photographs.
“It was a fantastic highlight of their time in Aberdeen.”
No shortage of problems
Born in Blackburn in West Lothian, Howard had no shortage of problems during his formative years.
“He doesn’t shirk from discussing these issues, nor the tragic death of his beloved wife, Anne, in 2018.
He admits he had a chequered upbringing and “became a DJ, a womaniser and an alcoholic by the time I was 17.”
There was no quick respite from these travails, and his life hasn’t been plain sailing at any stage, but he spoke candidly about his escape route.
He said: “By the time I was 20, my life was a mess. I ran off to sea. That was where I grew up, became a man and found a personal relationship with Jesus.
“I am often greeted by seafarers telling me ‘I hate religion’ or ‘I have no time for religion’ to which I will respond: ‘So do I’ or ‘Me neither!’
“That shocks them. Religion is something that is done out of habit, like playing golf on a Sunday, washing the car every week, even going to church.
“I am a Christian with a personal relationship with a living God in Jesus who loves me. That is a great conversation starter.
“I met my wife in church and we got engaged just six weeks after our first date. We have five kids and, after Jesus, she was the love of my life and my greatest supporter.
“She devoted herself to her family and we have a close-knit family who are all following Jesus in their own way.
Anne loved Byron and he reciprocated
“Our youngest, Byron, was adopted 12 years ago – something which we wanted to do since we were courting, but which was only practically possible when our own kids left home. He was described as a ‘feral child’ by social work, he ate with his hands and he was quite destructive.
“He had been badly neglected as a small kid. But Anne loved him and he responded to love. He is now 19, with a learning age of a toddler, but he is the happiest 6ft 1in toddler that you would ever meet and he loves everyone – and he loves trains.
“Anne had a brain haemorrhage in her early 30s and was in a coma and she was ‘brain dead’ for three months. Then she suddenly woke up one day and asked: ‘Why am I in hospital?’
“It would have been easy for her to feel sorry for herself, but that wasn’t in Anne’s nature.
“Instead, she battled through, learning to walk again and much more – yet never complained or questioned her Jesus.
“She was a spiritual giant who was welcoming to the poor, the downtrodden and the less fortunate in society.
Howard’s wife died in 2018
“She died in 2018 after battling breast cancer twice and even then, she kept sharing her faith and wisdom with all who would listen to her life stories.
“At her Celebration of Life service, the church was packed and it was a fitting tribute to a woman who was a great wife, mother and friend to all. She is certainly missed by all who knew her.
“As for me, my faith is central to my life. I am an evangelical who does not preach by words. That is fine for a Church service.
“I would rather try to demonstrate the reality of God by living a life emulating everything that Jesus taught us to be.
“I try to use humour a lot as well -‘God has a great sense of humour – he made me after all!’ – and I am, despite having had many setbacks in life, a fairly positive person who sees the best in everyone.
“Becoming a Christian in the Royal Navy has defined my adult life and after pastoring four churches, the opportunity to give back something through serving seafarers was my dream ‘job’.
“I remember a Ukrainian seafarer who broke his femur and was in hospital for several weeks whom, after lengthy surgery, asked for a copy of the Koran, which I happily gave to him.
“A week later, he asked me in his broken English if he could have a copy of my holy book.
“I gave him a Bible and, the following week he asked why I had given him a copy of the Koran when he asked me for one.
“I told him: ‘I am here for all, irrespective or race or religion, gender or orientation. I simply gave you what you wanted’.
“Two days later, he called me to come and visit him. And he said to me: ‘I want your Jesus”.
No thoughts of slowing down
One suspects that Howard has no plans to slow down his busy lifestyle or contemplate pulling on his slippers any time soon.
Indeed, he has already become a leading figure in a retired seafarers’ group called Grampian SeaShed, and he will continue in the role of chaplain to the local RNLI, an organisation which he regards as very close to his heart.
This blithe man said there are “big changes ahead for me and I looking forward to new opportunities to serve others and do a bit more relaxing”.
But it was time to take Byron out on another special jaunt – en route to his first train journey in the post-lockdown world.