Sunday, 29 April 2012

Why Engineers are Never Tanned

From Japan we sailed light ship, (without cargo) across the North Pacific 4,500 miles, following a Great Circle route for three weeks, past the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the Aleutian Islands and down the west coast of Canada where we loaded a cargo of lumber for Australia calling at wonderfully named places on Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia.
What contrast there was between these tiny logging communities and the hustle and bustle and the bright lights of the Japanese ports on  the other side of the North Pacific.  This was my first visit to North America and I was captivated by these sociable, resilient Canadians who were more than capable of holding their own when it came to a few drinks in the local saloon.  It was piercingly cold, noticeably more than Japan.  Snow and ice lay thick on the ground and the deck of our ship was a hazardous place to be when negotiating the way to one’s quarters after a skinful of Carling Black Label in the taverns of Tahsis, Chemainus and Port Alberni.  Remarkably, none of our number jumped ship in Canada, perhaps even these guys thought the idea of a long winter in this isolated place not such an exciting prospect.
After leaving Canada, we settled in for the long haul back across the Pacific to Sydney.  Nearly eight thousand miles of watch-keeping – four hours on, eight hours off; four hours on eight hours off, every day, every week for five weeks. 
A typical day would begin for me at midnight when I would start my first four hour watch.  Two hundred and forty minutes of watching gauges, feeling bearings to make sure they don’t overheat, cleaning oil separators, working on fuel injectors and writing up the engine room log.  Every hour I would walk down around the back of the main engine, into the comparative silence of the shaft tunnel following the two foot diameter shaft, slowly and relentlessly rotating at two revolutions every second along through the long passageway through the innards of the ship a hundred metres to the solidly built water-tight gland at the stern.  Here the shaft continued through the half inch steel hull to turn the giant four bladed ten foot diameter propeller driving and churning through the briny to push us forward at a steady 12 or 13 knots. 
I would stop at each bearing block along the way, checking that the oil level in the housing was at the right level and that the white metal bearings were not in danger of overheating. Sometimes, particularly when the sea was rough and it was important to hold on to something as I made my way down the passage, I would pause for a moment or two, and remember where I was: alone at the bottom of ten thousand tonnes of steel, nothing between my feet and the cold deep ocean below but three or four feet of empty coffer dam made from a few fractions of an inch of steel plate, and the nearest landfall probably a thousand miles away, and I would think, “thank God, it’s 1966 and not 1942 and there are no submarines out there looking for us!
Once my reverie was disturbed when I heard a distant alarm.  I hurried back along the checker-plated passageway, bouncing off hand rails and bulkheads as the ship pitched and rolled, back through the water-tight door connecting the shaft tunnel to the main engine room, to see a steady stream of hot black heavy fuel oil shooting out from a ruptured pipe leading to the fuel injectors.  There was Gordon, wrench in hand, standing on a hand rail reaching over his head to the breached pipe, trying hard to undo a union connection.  Catching sight of me he called out, “don’t just fecken stand there staring you useless ba’ heed, awa’ an’ get a valve wrench, so I can turn the fecken thing aff!
I should add, that communications between us, were generally much more civil.
At 4 am, the second engineer and his assistant would take over the watch and Gordon and I would change out of our work clothes, shower and sometimes meet for a quick beer with the second mate who would have just finished his watch up on the bridge.  This didn’t happen too often on Baron Jedburgh because as I mentioned earlier, there were rigorous alcohol restrictions and it was not often that we had beer or spirits to share.   I would get to bed about 5 am.  If I wanted breakfast I had to be back up by 8.30.  Sometimes I would sleep until 11.30 but this was rare as there was usually other maintenance work to be done and the second engineer expected us all to do a couple of hours' overtime between our watches.
After an early lunch, the afternoon watch would start at noon and the same activities as took place in the morning watch would be repeated over the next four hours.  Afterwards, I would change and sit on deck for maybe an hour hoping to get some air before dinner at 5.30. Engineers see little daylight when at sea.  If you spot a merchant seaman with a bronzed sun tan, it’s unlikely he is one of the engine room crowd.
It was important to be in bed and asleep by 8 o’clock if I could because at 15 minutes to midnight, the knock would come on the door, and I would hear the familiar, “Come on wakey, wakey me old sunshine!”, and the cycle would start again. 
Of course, one of the things about all ships’ engine rooms, even today is that they are hot and noisy.  Unlike today’s health and safety conscious working conditions, we almost never wore ear protection, and the consequence of standing next to a high revving gear box for hours at a time only came home to roost many years later in the form of  industrial deafness (although my wife still thinks the word “industrial” can be easily interchanged with “convenient”).
I mentioned earlier the second mate.  Another interesting character, he was an archetypal grumpy old Scottish mariner in the twilight of his career.  He had been twice shipwrecked during the second war, and was undeniably the hardest man I ever had the misfortune of trying to wake.  He was on the same watch as I was, but frequently slept through his wake-up call. It was not unusual for the third mate to call down from the bridge saying his relief was late, and would I mind giving him another shake.  Why they couldn’t send one of the seaman or one of the cadets down, I never understood – they obviously didn’t like the job any more than I did.  So up I would go to his cabin entering it to find him lying fully clothed on his back, making a noise like a bull farting, smelly feet hanging over the end of the bunk, refusing all attempts to wake him.  It was only persistent vigorous shaking, and shouting in his ear which eventually got him to stir, and then I would dive out of the way as this great claw of a hand would come around to swat me away as if I was a fly.  I used to dread this job.
After discharging the timber in Sydney and Melbourne, where I had the pleasure of experiencing the six o’clock swill where patrons stood six deep at the bar, fuelling up before the pub closed at six, we were off again for a load of North Queensland sugar.  This time to Townsville where we took on cargo for the UK.  From Townsville, it was Singapore to refuel and then across the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea for the passage through the Suez Canal.
Seamen always get excited when the ship is on its way home.  They have a word for this condition.  It’s called “the Channels”.  Originally meant to refer to how a sailor feels as his ship approaches and sails into the English Channel, it starts long before this, usually as soon as the crew become aware that the next destination will be the last one before paying off for and going home.  By the time we were in the Red Sea, talk of “the Channels” was commonplace.
There were few “Company” men on board apart from the skipper and one or two of the senior officers.  Most of the crew had signed on through the “Pool”.  Their leave having run out from their previous engagement, they simply turned up at the Pool and were allocated their next ship.  At the time, there was wide employment and many sailors, knowing the reputation of Baron boats would turn down the job, opting for something better.  As a result some of our crew but certainly not all, were sailors with less than perfect performance records, or were perhaps less discerning than others.  Obviously this wasn’t the case with everyone on board, and to this day, I still regard Dave Davies as someone who epitomised the good humoured, long-suffering British seaman whose company I enjoyed so much during my years at sea.
The food on the ship was awful.  It was described to me as strict “BOT” which meant no frills and not a penny spent over that needed to meet the Board of Trade regulations.  Something as simple as eggs for breakfast were considered a luxury and most definitely not provided as an everyday item on the menu.  Dinner was often nothing more than ham and chips and if we had beef stew on Monday, you could be sure we’d have beef soup on Tuesday and beef consomm√© on Wednesday.
As we got closer to Greenock, our final destination at the mouth of the Clyde, the Chief Engineer called me into his cabin for one of the few exchanges of words that took place between us in the six months that I had been on the ship.  He told me that he was happy with my performance and asked me if I would like to take some leave in the UK and then return to the ship as a junior watch keeping engineer.  I didn’t think about the job offer for long (about a micro-second).  I told him that I planned to take some leave and then explore other opportunities with some of the other shipping lines.  What I really meant was that wild horses would not have got me back on another Hungry Hogarth ship.
 And so it was that sometime in June of 1966, while the Rolling Stones were belting out Paint it Black and Lennon and McCartney were singing about paperback writing, I paid off Baron Jedburgh in Greenock and walked down the gangway on a misty Scottish morning to start the next stage of my adventure.  The British shipping industry was in the throes of an industrial dispute, the result of which was a major seaman’s strike which was to affect the whole industry and last many weeks.
I had decided the first place I wanted to visit was London, so I caught the overnight train from Glasgow to London Euston.  I travelled with big Dave and Paddy, both of whom were also headed that way and we all had sleeper accommodation.  There was something very special about being able to sit in the bar of the Dining Car, drink as many cans as I wanted of Watneys Red Barrel or Double Diamond and roll back to my bunk in the Sleeping Car without anyone shaking my arm in the middle of the night and talking about my Daddy’s yacht (which by the way, was a 10 foot clinker-built rowing boat, which I went out in once with my Dad in Smith’s Creek and spent the day getting badly sunburned and catching nothing at all).
I spent a few days in London, gawping for the first time in my life at all those great icons I had read and heard so much about – Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Nelson’s Column – and spent several hours riding around on the Underground feeling like a city boy. 
I was flush with funds, having been paid off the ship with six months’ pay, so I probably had about 300 pounds in my pocket.  With all this money, I lashed out, hired a car and headed up the M1 to Nottingham where my Auntie Doreen and Uncle Gordon lived.  I cannot remember a warmer welcome anywhere than that which I received from the moment I arrived at their home in Calverton.  Gordon had previously been a trolleybus conductor with Nottingham City Transport and when the last of the trolleys went off the streets of Nottingham in 1965, he found work as the caretaker of a school in the mining village of Calverton just outside the city.  The job came with a little bungalow within the school grounds and they lived there very happily for many years.   
Doreen was my mother’s sister.  I had two cousins, Geoffrey who was nine months younger than me and Roger, a couple of years younger than Geoff.   Geoffrey had recently left home, having started university in Leicester, so there was a spare room in the bungalow, and Doreen and Gordon could not have made me more welcome.  She was like a second mother to me and to this day I remember her with love and affection.  She was (and is) a beautiful person.  She worked at the hospital, near Nottingham Castle and I would frequently pick her up from work, drive to Calverton and the three of us would share a wonderful meal of egg and chips before Gordon and I would wander up to the Wagon and Horses for a couple of pints.  What a wonderful home from home it was (their bungalow in Calverton – not the Wagon and Horses).  They had a little three-wheeled Reliant and it broke me up, driving around in this tiddler of a car.  Gordon driving, pipe in mouth, me in the passenger seat and Doreen in the back telling us funny little stories about what had happened at work that day.  They didn’t feel comfortable having me call them Auntie Doreen and Uncle Gordon, so I used to call them AD and UG.  We had some great times.
I probably stayed with them about a month, before heading up to Liverpool looking for my next job.  But that will be another story – there is much to tell about the Amazon River, and that wonderful part of the world, the Caribbean.

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