Friday, 24 April 2015


Another year, another ANZAC Day.  Another time to remember the lives of the many who went and didn't return.  As an old seadog, I think in particular of the many thousands of merchant seamen who perished in cold and lonely oceans.  This year I came across a poem by David Partridge called Heroes. 

Don't speak to me of heroes, until you've heard the tale
Of allied merchant seaman, who sailed through storm and gale
To keep those lifelines open, in their hour of need
When a tyrant cast a shadow, across the island breed.

Captains, greasers, cabin boys, mates and engineers 
Heard the call to duty, cast aside their fears.
They stoked those hungry boilers and stood behind the wheel
While cooks and stewards manned the guns on coffins made of steel.

They moved in icy convoys from Scapa to Murmansk
And crossed the western ocean, never seeking thanks.
They sailed the South Atlantic where raiders lay in wait
And kept the food lines open from Malta to the Cape.

Tracked by silent U-boats which hunted from below,
Shelled by mighty cannons and fighter's flying low,
They clung to burning lifeboats when the sea had turned to flame
And watched their ship mates disappear to everlasting fame.

I speak not of a handful but thirty thousand plus,
Some whose names we'll never know in whom we placed our trust. 
They never knew the honour of medals on their chests
Or marching bands and victory and glory and the rest.

The ocean is their resting place, their tombstone is the wind,
The sea bird's cry their last goodbye to family and friend. 
Freighters, troopships, liners and tankers by the score,
Fishing boats and coasters, two thousand ships and more.

They flew the old Red Duster as they sank beneath the waves
And took those countless heroes to lonely ocean graves.
Their legacy is freedom to those who hold it dear
To walk with clear horizons and never hide in fear
So when you speak of heroes remember those at sea
From our merchant seamen who died to keep us free.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Rough Crossing

...continued from "A New Shipmate"

Welcome aboard.
It's time for another swing of the lantern and the next instalment of my days at sea with Pauline.  If you have stumbled across this blog by accident may I suggest you read my previous posting, A New Shipmate - otherwise you will have no idea what I'm talking about.  Of course, there is still a risk of this happening after you have read it, but hopefully the risk is low and you will have been provided with some context.
As I was saying, Hyacinth was identical in almost every way to Amber and Coral and like all of her sister ships in the Lindinger Fleet, she was easy to work on (if a little cramped), very seaworthy and had a lovely B&W Alpha Diesel V18 which was an absolute dream after some of the old slam-bangers I had come across on earlier ships.  
We were about to depart for Newport News, Virginia with a cargo of cement from Antwerp (no, I do not know why we were carrying cement from Belgium to the United States, I too would have thought they were perfectly capable of making their own, but I was not in the loop on this) and a large number of prefabricated tower cranes and container cranes, made in Killarney by the Liebherr company and (presumably) considerably cheaper and/or better than anything available in the United States.  Come to think of it, maybe that's why we were carrying the Belgium cement as well.  Steel cranes take up quite a lot of space, but they have relatively little mass and consequently the ship had been loaded such that the cement was stacked at the bottom of all the holds with the remaining air space and as much available space on deck as possible taken up by the steel girders and sections tied down with heavy duty wire cable.  By the time the ship was ready to leave, the task of getting from the midships accommodation to the forward part of the ship was quite an exercise in manoeuvrability. 
Our trip to Newport News, Virginia was to take about ten days.  A distance of about 3,000 nautical miles (5,300 km) following a great circle route would see our first sight of land in North America somewhere near the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland in about seven days assuming we could keep a steady 12 knots.
Now although I wasn't a deck officer, just a simple engineer, not expected to know the difference between Ursa Major and The Big Dipper, I had nevertheless heard a thing or two about the North Atlantic and with thoughts of big chunks of ice floating down from Greenland and Titanic never far from my mind I casually asked the First Mate whether we get to see any icebergs on this trip.  "I don't hope so," he replied using a classic Danish idiom. "We get a lot of information about icebergs from the US Coast Guard, and we have a good radar system.  If the weather is too risky we just go a little more south."  Well, that all sounded pretty straightforward - no worries there then.  Just hope the weather doesn't get "too risky".
It was still dark when we slipped our moorings, early the following morning.  The weather was cold, wet and very windy as we headed out into a moderately strong westerly wind and Pauline prepared herself for a few days of misery.  For my part, I was quite happy to be down below in the warmth of the ship's engine room.
The ship's complement was quite small, three deck officers (including the skipper) and three engineers including the Chief Engineer).  Neither the Captain nor the Chief Engineer was required to stand a watch, so the day was divided into four watches with the two engineers doing six hours on, six hours off below deck and the two deck officers doing the same on the Bridge.  Erik, the second engineer and I quickly slipped into a routine.  I was on watch from 6 am to noon and from 6 pm to midnight and Erik managed the 12 to 6 shifts. In between those times, there were always more things to do such as dealing with those seals in the steering gear hydraulics, and checking stores and spare parts.  In all my time at sea, I don't believe I ever sailed on a ship which had a well managed and documented spare parts register.  There always seemed to be something more pressing to do than worrying whether there was a sensible amount of spares parts for valves and pumps and so on, and making sure that those spare parts were in serviceable condition and easy to find when needed. No doubt in these days of computer databases and inventory management, the systems are more effective, but that certainly wasn't the case on most of the ships on which I served.  However, Hyacinth was a relatively new ship and was considerably better provided for than most.
Meanwhile, the weather wasn't getting any better.  It was late March and the spring equinox had not yet done much in the way of heralding any changes. During most of the month, a large anticyclone had been centred over northern Europe causing slow moving low-pressure systems on its fringes bringing accompanying weather to the British Isles that could at best be described as miserable.  We had hoped that it might improve as we travelled west and away from it, but instead more active depressions and fronts had begun moving eastward from the Atlantic bringing with it the high winds and rough seas which we had been experiencing ever since we left port. 
The weather didn't seem as if it was going to get any better and after a week at sea we were all becoming heartily sick of hanging desperately on to bulkheads and handrails to negotiate even the simple task of walking from our cabin to the showers, or the dining room.  Dining itself was a disaster. Damp tablecloths and spill boards were of no help at all and those who were able to get to the mess room would sit with one or the other hand clutching the edge of table, trying to maintain balance and consume a meal at the same time. Pauline stayed in her cabin for the first two or three days, until the Mal de Mer settled into a state of queasiness and she was slowly able to come to terms with the ship's movement.  During the two years we were together at sea, rough or calm seas seemed to have the same effect on her - two or three days of seasickness after which she was able to freely move about and enjoy shipboard life as though it were no more than a punt on the Trent.  
We had been at sea for over a week and our ETA had changed from ten days to at least fourteen.  The sea was as nasty as anything I had previously experienced as Hyacinth continued to head directly into the wind and the heavy sea.  Fortunately, that was also the direction we wanted to travel, but in a sea like this, the standard procedure is to turn into the sea and ride it out for as long as necessary. The weather steadily worsened. Soon we were in a full gale - unpleasant, uncomfortable and unnerving for everyone on board. 

One or two big waves break over the bow followed by a larger one which we slowly climb like an ascending roller coaster car.  The ship balances for a second at the apex of the wave and then begins its fall into the trough of the next wave with a thumping jolt as the ship shudders from stem to stern and several tons of foaming water race down the deck and whoosh into the bridge.  Sometimes the ship "surfs" on the crest of the wave and when this happens the rudder and propeller come out of the water. Free from the friction of the ocean the engine tries to race, the governor slows it down and as the ship settles on an even keel, the speed returns to normal and the cycle begins again.

The decks on both sides of the holds were taken up with steel crane sections each about two and a half metres square by about three or four metres long. More crane sections were lashed to the hold covers so that the whole of the deck between the midships accommodation area and the fo'c'sle was taken up with the cargo.  The only means of access to the forward part of the ship was by negotiating a way through the centre of the crane sections, a difficult enough task when the ship was stationary. It seemed suicidal to even consider trying to walk through the items of cargo in such a gale, but there was a need for constant attention to its security - it would be disastrous if any of the retaining cables were to become loose or worse.
Our skipper, Karl spent most of his time on the bridge during this time. No one was getting much sleep and the crew and officers including the first and the second mate were spending a lot of time on the deck with the cargo.  At one point Karl came down to my cabin to check on Pauline saying, "I hope you aren't feeling too bad - I don't feel so good myself.  I hope it gets better soon."  I remember wishing he had been a little more encouraging and optimistic.

We had been in this weather for about eight days when one of the cables holding the deck cargo separated and several of the crane pieces began sliding across the deck as the vessel rolled. The crew worked desperately to replace the tie-wire while the skipper ordered more men onto the deck to help hold the sections in place.  In all my time at sea, it was the only occasion I had experienced an "all hands on deck" situation, but if the situation worsened, the ship's balance would dramatically change with possibly catastrophic results.  The situation seemed to be getting under control.  It was mid afternoon, I was off-watch, standing by on the bridge with the skipper and the second mate when suddenly the ship began to lose momentum and we started to turn across the sea.  The second mate who was standing by the wheel cursed "Hvad fanden!  What's wrong with the steering?"  As fast as I could, I slid down the bridge steps, hands on the steel railings, feet in the air, and as quickly as the pitching ship would allow, made my way to the after part of the ship, down the access ladders and into the steering gear room.  The sight which met my eyes was not encouraging.  The constant jolting of the ship had caused one of the pipes carrying hydraulic oil into the rotary valve chamber to fail and oil was streaming out on to the deck and under the bilge plates.  The hydraulic steering system incorporated emergency standby manual operations, but it was not as responsive as the hydraulic system and we needed to get the system back and running as quickly as possible.
The temperature may have been 5 degrees on deck, but it was more like 40 degrees in the steering room and as Yassim, my engineering assistant and I struggled to work, sweat streamed from our bodies mixing with the oil and making everything we touched slip and slide under our grasping fingers. We replaced the fractured pipe and because there were no spare gaskets on board (damn!) we manufactured a temporary gasket seal from neoprene rubber sheeting we found. The skipper was struggling to keep our head into the wind and we kept slipping sideways down the larger waves and wallowing into a beam sea at right angles to our heading. At this point, he made the decision to jettison all the loose cargo.  
It was a difficult repair job and since the steering room was at the very rear of the ship, every pitch and roll was a gut-wrenching heart-in-the-mouth experience.  We had radio communication with the bridge during this time and it seemed like every five minutes the skipper would call to ask me how I was progressing.  After an exhausting hour or so, we were able to recharge the system, purge the air from the lines and return it to duty.  We were soon back on our heading into the wind.  I asked Yassim to stand by in the steering room and keep an eye out for more leaks - I would relieve him in an hour. 
I returned to the bridge and was amazed to see that the area forward of the midships part of the ship now looked more like a scrap metal yard than a ship's deck.  A number of the crane sections had already gone overboard. Another section was hanging precariously over the port side as the crew worked to cut free the cables and send it to join its companions. Much of the cargo which remained had changed shape dramatically and instead of symmetrical square sections had now become misshapen, broken and clearly of no value whatsoever to their owner. 
I went down to our cabin to check how Pauline was coping with the situation.  To my surprise, she was sitting up on the bunk, feet wedged against the bulkhead, a pillow stuffed behind her back and remarkably, a pad and pen in her hand.  I must have looked quite a sight, covered from head to toe in hydraulic oil and grime. "Everything, OK?" she asked.  "Sure," I said.  "No problems.  What're you doing?"  
"Just writing a letter to Mam," she said. "OK, see you in a bit."  And that was that.  A far cry from Lindinger Coral and the Bay of Biscay of what, just four weeks ago?
The weather began to improve and we didn't see or hear of any icebergs.  I also later learned that while we were struggling with deck cargo and steering we overheard a call for assistance from an ocean liner who had lost propulsion in the same storm and was asking for support (it was the QE2).  I also learned that we had to write off more than 50% of the cargo which had been stored on deck - I'm sure they had plenty of insurance.
We arrived in Newport News eighteen days after we had left Ireland - and I don't think I have ever been so pleased to see, and to feel dry land.
We had a new skipper waiting at the docks for us when we arrived. It was time for Karl to take some leave, and probably be faced with a lot of questions about the loss of much of his cargo.  I think he was just glad to be going home.
After Newport News we sailed south to Port of Spain in Trinidad and for the next few months enjoyed nothing but fair sailing as we tramped around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean - but I think I'll leave those stories for another day.

Friday, 9 January 2015

A New Shipmate

It’s over two years since last I wrote about those splendid days in the mid 1970s when I started sharing my life with the lady who has been my wife and best friend for over 40 years now.
Before then, I had been a ship’s engineer for several years, wandering the world under British, Australian, Panamanian and Danish flags on tankers, cargo tramps, passenger liners and livestock carriers and living that vagrant gypsy life so powerfully described by John Masefield over a hundred years ago in his Salt-Water Poems and Ballads.
This all changed forever in February 1974 when Pauline began sharing my berth and we slipped our moorings late in the evening from a wintry Liverpool and headed south on the good ship Lindinger Coral into the Irish Sea with our holds full of refined lubricating oil and filtration sand bound for Oran, Algiers and Annaba.  
I wrote about the lead up to these events in my earlier postings, “The Supernumerary – 1974” and “…so back to England – 1973” which I hope if you haven’t done so already, you will take a moment to read.

Lindinger Coral was identical in almost every way to Lindinger Amber and since she was on an identical charter, there was nothing new for me to learn during this voyage.  Nothing that is, except for the fact that I had a cabin mate - and a very seasick one at that.  What I thought had started as not much more than the self-induced after-effects of too much farewell sociability following a midnight departure from Liverpool was rapidly becoming a serious illness three days into our trip as we approached Cape Finisterre on the south side of the Bay of Biscay.  It had been an awful couple of days.  The Bay can be rough any time of year, but in February it can be particularly cruel, and this trip was no exception.  We had a Greek skipper, Minas whose Danish wife, Inge was sailing with him, thus providing the only other female on board.  Apart from a few terrifying stumbles across the passageway to what had already become the female WC, Pauline had not ventured from our cabin - and the time had come for matters to be brought to a head (pun intended).
We were heading south, the coast of Spain on our port side, the air was brisk and sharp, and we were making fair progress into a no-nonsense southerly. With the help of Inge, I was able to coax Pauline from her bunk, into some fresh clothes and out on deck where I found her a comfortable camp stretcher and a warm blanket and left her with instructions to look at the clouds and the sky and not necessarily at the horizon - which was frequently anything but horizontal.  To my delight and amazement, the strategy worked and for the next few days as we continued our way along the Portuguese coastline before turning left through the Strait of Gibraltar into the calmer waters of the Mediterranean, Pauline could be found from early in the morning until late in the afternoon working her way through Dennis Wheatley's complete Roger Brook series, pausing only for the occasional cucumber and lettuce sandwich (she wasn't quite ready for rollmops or frikkadellar).
If I'm completely honest, (and I say this with all due deference to readers from that part of the world) Algeria would probably not have been my first choice as a destination aimed at introducing a new voyager to the romance of foreign travel. Then again, a Danish coastal freighter was not exactly everyone's idea of an ocean cruise ship either. Still, I had asked Pauline to "Come Fly with Me" and while our first port of call, Oran wasn't Llama Land or Acapulco Bay, it was dry land and we enjoyed an hour ashore on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold and wet beginning to our life together at sea. Our stay was very short and within only a few hours we were back at sea for the short trip along the North African coastline to our main destination of Algiers.
Ah, Algiers.  On my previous visit here on Lindinger Amber, our crew had watched the delightful 1938 film Algiers with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Today, seventy five years after it was made, this extraordinary movie epitomises the mystery and excitement of this part of the world. The film is in the Public Domain and available on The Internet Archive. It is well worth watching.  But finish reading this story first - please!
Algiers was then, and undoubtedly still is, a busy bustling metropolis characterised by its many white buildings and ceaseless crawling traffic.  It was only a little more than a decade since the country had achieved bloody independence from France and in 1974 it was a one-party Arab Socialist country, unaligned and barely tolerant of visitors.  So we didn't visit the Casbah and the haunts of Pepe le Moko with its "drifters and outcasts from all parts of the world", but we did our share of shopping and sight-seeing during our five day stay and we did find a couple of great French restaurants which provided a welcome change from red cabbage and pork.
After a brief visit further down the coast to Annaba, it wasn't long before we were on our way north again - "light ship", on our way home to Liverpool for another cargo of refined oil.  
The round voyage to North Africa and back was little more than a four or five week tour and we were expecting to make another three or four similar trips before my six months' assignment was complete and I would be eligible for leave.  So it came as something of a surprise to me on reaching Liverpool, to be asked to transfer to another ship in the fleet.  It seems that the First Engineer on the Lindinger Hyacinth was due to be relieved after having been with the ship since its fitout and launch the previous year.  His relief had been taken ill and was unable to join and an urgent replacement was needed.  The problem was that the ship was en route from Antwerp to a small port on the west coast of Ireland where it was due to arrive within the next 24 hours and someone was needed immediately.  The ship was on the way to Ireland to load additional cargo for Newport News in Virginia before commencing a 12 month charter travelling between ports of the US and the Caribbean.  The question asked of me was whether I was willing to transfer to the Hyacinth immediately.  So here were my options - three or four more trips travelling between Liverpool and Algeria, or three months in the Caribbean.  Hmm, that was a difficult choice!  A nano-second later, and before anyone could change their mind, our bags were packed and we were down the gangway and on our way to East Midlands Airport (via a brief stop in Nottingham where Pauline collected a few summer clothes) for the flight to Dublin.
Lindinger Hyacinth was due to arrive at the port of Fenit, a small village in County Kerry, about ten kilometres west of Tralee and not far short of the furthest distance it was possible to drive from Dublin Airport and still be on dry land - or at least it seemed that way.  The flight took just over an hour, and it was a chilly but clear spring morning as we wheeled our bags out of the airport terminal in search of a taxicab.  Thinking we were tourists, an obliging driver picked up our bags and began loading them into the back of his cab, saying in a melodic accent, "welcome to Dublin, and where will you be goin' today?
I'm told him we were joining a ship in Fenit, at which point he pushed his hat back, scratched his head and said, "well now, I'm not familiar with that place, is it near Dublin Port?"
"No", I said, "it's on the west coast near Tralee."
He rolled his eyes, tugged at his ear and said, "Well I'll have to charge you extra for that - and I need to go home and get a map and tell the missus I won't be home for lunch."
We agreed a fare of fifty pounds which included his return fee back to Dublin and we were on our way.  Today the trip from Dublin to the that part of the west coast can be done in a little over three hours thanks to the network of motorways, but in 1974 such infrastructure was non-existent.  The journey took over six hours, through lovely green Irish countryside, and across rolling marsh land. Our driver clearly felt he had to drive us along the narrowest roads he could find.   We had a couple of comfort stops along the way, one of which was at an isolated pub for lunch where our driver proved to us that an Irishman's capacity for eating large quantities of potatoes at one sitting was not just a myth.
We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon.  I paid off the driver and as he was preparing to drive away, a large man with a huge red beard came running down the steep gangway, kitbag over his shoulder and red hair flying.  "Hold the taxi," he said, "I need to get to Dublin Airport!"
And that is where we did our official handover.  Standing there at the foot of the gangway, our cabdriver thinking all of his Christmases had come at once as he contemplated the thought of a return fare to Dublin and another fifty pounds, with my predecessor saying to me, "Sorry, I don't have time to show you around. I have to catch a late flight to Copenhagen or I must wait two more days.  The steering gear hydraulics need new seals, number two generator needs fuel injectors cleaning and bunker fuel barge is coming alongside in about two hours.  Have a good trip.  Hello, Mrs Williamson, pleased to meet you.  Goodbye."   And with that he was gone.
Fortunately, Hyacinth was identical in almost every way to Amber and Coral and she had few if any nasty surprises for me, although I had reason a few days later to remember the comment about the steering gear seals.  So we went on board, introduced ourselves to the skipper - another red-bearded Viking named Karl and settled into our quarters.  I left Pauline to look after the unpacking and got on with the job of preparing for departure and taking on board the fuel we would need for our North Atlantic crossing - a journey of ten days - or so we thought.  
To be continued...