In September 1950, I was Third Offi cer of the mv Clan MacLeod on a voyage from the UK to India. When south of Crete, we came across a ships lifeboat and Captain Gough decided to stop and have a closer look at it. Once alongside, we saw that it was full of water, the lifting hooks torn out and the boat stripped of all its gear. The buoyancy tanks had been smashed in on top so hadn’t filled with water. Stencilled on the boats bow was its ships name, City of Sydney.
This was of interest to me as I knew that my friend Joe McKendrick was the Third Officer on that ship. When Captain Gough ordered Full Ahead, to proceed on our voyage, nothing happened. Our Doxford engine, having been stopped at short notice, declined to start. We drifted around, accompanied by the derelict lifeboat, for about two hours before our engineers got the works going again. Captain Gough was not pleased.
When we eventually arrived in Kidderpore Dock at Calcutta, there was the City of Sydney tied up close, so I walked along to visit Joe and ask him what they had been doing leaving their motor lifeboat drifting around the Mediterranean as we had found it. This is Joe’s story...
Autumn 1950 and a quiet Sunday morning in the Eastern Mediterranean some 50 miles south of Crete. It was a beautiful day with a few white clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky, the sea smooth and its deepest Mediterranean blue.
Only nine years earlier fierce battles had been fought in this area but now all was peaceful, the smoke from gunfire and burning aeroplanes dispersed, the oil and debris from sunken ships cleaned away by time and tide. However, the sea was not completely empty, under a pall of black smoke the bow of the elderly, coal burning City of Sydney pushed the blue water into a long, trailing, white wash as it steamed at its full 12 knots from Liverpool towards Port Said and India.
Even this solitary ship was not entirely alone. High up in the sky and many miles away, a pair of keen eyes briefly noted the pall of smoke, then turned their attention to other more important matters. On the bridge of the cargo liner, the Third Officer, Joe McKendrick, paced the deck, keeping lookout and seeing that all was well. As he paced back and forth, Joe thought of how things had changed so much for him in the last year. He had finished his time as an Indentured Apprentice on a tramp steamer, been through three months of intensive study at a Navigation School, sat for and passed his Second Mates Certificate and now had been fortunate enough to be taken on as Third Officer by a good, long established, shipping company.
Pacing there in his nice white shirt, shorts, stockings and expensive white buckskin shoes he thought – no more dirty working clothes, no more cleaning holds, shovelling coal or chipping rust. He had just taken his first step up the long ladder of promotion, which he fully intended would one day take him to the top of his profession as Master of a British merchant ship. He realised that appointment was many years in the future, but at present he was content with life. This was an old ship, a survivor of the war. New ships were being built as quickly as possible and within a few years the old ones would be on their way to the breakers. New promotions always got the older ships and you worked your way up. That was the accepted order of things, and anyway, what had he to complain about? Three good meals a day and supper. He thought this was paradise after his trampings days.
Joe’s pleasant thoughts were rudely interrupted by a US Navy ‘Corsair’ fighter aircraft suddenly passing low overhead from the stern with a strange whistling sound and splashing into the sea a mile ahead of the ship. The pilot quickly climbed out of the cockpit onto the wing, inflated his yellow dinghy and stepped in, more or less dry, seconds before his aircraft raised its tail in the air, like a sounding whale, and disappeared beneath the waves.
Joe, now a highly trained navigating officer, thought this rather strange conduct even for an airman. He concluded that the pilot probably was in need of assistance so pushed the alarm bell button and rang ‘Stop’ on the engine-room telegraph. The quickest known way to get the Captain on to the bridge. He then gave a blast on the whistle to let the pilot know that he had been seen.
When the Captain and Chief Officer had taken over the bridge Joe was instructed to take away the motor lifeboat, with a crew of two sailors and a junior engineer under his command, to rescue the pilot. The heavy wooden lifeboat sat under ancient radial davits with rope falls which had to be ‘sweated up’ tight with tackles before the chocks could be knocked down and the boat swung outboard with half the deck crew pushing and pulling. To his surprise, as the boat was lowered down, the normally temperamental petrol engine started easily and as he stood at the tiller steering the boat away from the ships side, it occurred to him that his First Command had come a bit sooner than he had expected. Here he was in sole command of a vessel with a crew of three in the open sea.